Somewhere around the sixth – or seventh or eighth – glass of wine, things get a bit hazy. You look down the dinner table at the other guests chatting like lifelong friends, their faces illuminated by candles and the moon. The smell of the gourmet meal mixes with the smell of red dirt and the din of oversized insects drowns out the conversation. The safari camp feels like it ought to be reserved for Hemingway, or, at the very least, European nobility, but there you are.
Thanks to the growing number of outfitters – an estimated 500 at last count– and the increased accessibility of Africa's wildlife areas provided by Turkish Airlines flights from Istanbul to Nairobi, Kigali, and the base of Kilimanjaro, it has never been easier to actually go on safari. But the choices that make this ultimate travel experience more feasible also present a new obstacle. Booking a trip to the Serengeti, Masai Mara, or southern African reserves requires either the willingness to pay an established, reputable company like General Tours, which runs luxury trips all over the world and can provide access to amazing lodges and camps, or a great deal of research and savvy. As Tom Yule, a seasoned expedition leader, explains, cut-rate companies are bringing cut-throat business to the plains. Choose the wrong outfitter and you may find yourself stranded on the savannah. "Your dream holiday can become an absolute nightmare," says Yule.
The risk is largely a function of price. After paying around $7,500 for a 9-day vacation, you're not going to be comfortable roughing it. And you shouldn't be, especially when it's fairly simple to differentiate between potential trips. The best way to separate the serious outfitters from the opportunists? Look at amenities. If a group is willing to shell out on hot showers, wi-fi, top-end linens, and professional chefs, you can conclude that they will also willingly pay for local guiding talent. And make no mistake, guides matter. Without someone experienced, your chances of seeing the Big Five (lion, elephant, buffalo, rhino, leopard) decline sharply and you may even find yourself in danger. The bush is, after all, hard country.
Here is how to book that safari you've always dreamt about while avoiding flyer's remorse, frustration, and death by mauling.
Ask About Local Connections
The best tour operators have locals on their staffs. Yule estimates that his ground operation is "99 percent" Tanzanian. It matters both because boosting the local economy helps everyone – most of all the wildlife that doesn’t end up on empty plates – and because locals are quite simply more knowledgeable than all but the most experienced naturalists. Fortunately, East Africans are generally friendly and eager to speak with Americans even if it means answering some silly questions.
Africa is not just a landscape. It’s the people as well and any tour group that only offers access to animals and lookouts is bilking their customers. Check with your tour operator to make sure most of its staff is local. If it isn’t, assume you’re dealing with a load of hospitality industry mercenaries and move on.
Most serious outfitters will also offer trips into the Maasai villages that dot the plains. It's hard to miss the Maasai, who are generally tall and employed as guards, and missing a visit to their village would be a mistake. Their way of life – deeply foreign to westerners – provides a look at what an intimate relationship with this landscape actually requires.
Dennis Ngedenye Lukumai, a senior warrior who works with General Tours, talked us through some of the tenants of his culture: Mothers shave the heads of their sons; boys train for two years to become warriors and are circumcised at 18; the eldest wife chooses the other wives; the number of wives a warrior has depends on the number of cows he owns; men wear sandals made from discarded tires. Don't expect to walk away with a profound ethnographic understanding, but say, "yes," if you’re offered a sip of cow's blood. It’s not bad.
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