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.
Look for Specific Amenities
Part of the fun of a safari is feeling transported back in time. The savannah is timeless and, even in 2014, you can camp in a canvas tent just like Hemingway. That said, you might not want to, and that's fine. Certain niceties can significantly improve your experience. Here's what to look for:
Airport Pick-Up: A truly plush adventure begins the moment you land in Arusha, Dar es Salaam, or Nairobi. When you see the chaos waiting on the other side of the baggage claim, you’ll be glad you paid a bit extra. Realistically, you’ll want a guide for the whole process.
Daily Briefings: You want to know what's happening. Make sure that your outfitter puts a major emphasis on keeping clients informed. You do not want to be treated like a passenger and you'll want to have a say in changing your itinerary mid-day.
Safety Measures: Fly-in doctor service is offered by every serious outfitter. There aren't going to be hospitals nearby so this is absolutely critical, especially if you suffer from medical conditions. Serious companies will offer to help with travel insurance.
Personal Stewards: Sure, this is a bit much, but if you’re going to splurge you should expect some handholding. Stewards actually provide greater flexibility by being your wingman, escorting you back to your tent when you’re drunk, and helping you communicate with locals and guards who often have great stories.
Electrical Outlets: You might want to escape the modern world while you're in it, but you won't when you’re not.
Flexibility: If you're paying a lot (and you should be), the tour company should be willing to work with you to make a trip perfect. If the company ever says, "No, this is how we do things," look elsewhere. They are likely understaffed or lacking in infrastructure.
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