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.
Find Experienced Guides
Despite the comforts of a five-star quality safari, the most memorable moments are likely to take place on the plains and finding wildlife is typically your driver-guides responsibility.
"The driver-guide will make or break this experience for clients," Yule explains. "If you have an inexperienced driver-guide who doesn't know how to converse and make sure that you're having a good time and that safety and comfort is all part of the thing, it can be a terrible experience."
Spotting a leopard – considered one of the most elusive animals on Earth – tracking lion prides or speeding over bumpy terrain in time to catch glimpse of a kill requires honed instincts. Veteran drivers also generally have a network of other guides that keep them in the loop in regards to sightings and herd movements.
Regardless of whether or not you’re on a luxury trip or down in the dirt, you’ll be relying on your guide to teach you how to interact with the world around you. A few tricks we learned from our guide: If you encounter a lion, look it in the eyes to stop it, backpedal a good distance, then turn and then run like hell as far as you can (lions are sprinters); if you anger a rhinos, climb a tree; if a buffalo charges, try to find a ditch to hide in; and if an elephant decides to chase you, throw it off your track by getting naked. These are valuable lessons.
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