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.
Consider Experience Over Luxury
General Tour's exclusive Lemala camp on the lip of picturesque Lake Manyara, where tens of thousands of flamingos congregate under the setting sun, rivals the view in loveliness. There are lanterns everywhere, linens are sleek, the porcelain toilets are actually pretty, and the showers are hot. Despite being surrounded by foliage and dirt, the rooms are immaculate. Tightly sealed tarps keep out filth and bugs and mesh windows ventilate the room with the savannah breeze.
"With the intensity of training we provide to our staff, we're able to give that kind of five-star experience even though it is in a tent," Yule says of the General Tours service. "You're looked after properly."
The point is that is that the nice things – which are very nice indeed – are less important than the people who keep them nice. It takes a lot of work and a lot of specific knowledge to bring luxury to the hinterlands. Older companies tend to have it and younger companies tend to make up for that by charging more and trucking in more bodies. Ask about the team that runs the camp. However experienced they are, that’s how luxurious your trip will be.
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