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Insider tips on making the most of your African adventure

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Kwandwe Private Game Reserve

At the 54,000-acre Kwandwe Private Game Reserve in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, a “Guest Safety” sign just outside the restaurant at Ecca Lodge seems fairly innocuous at first glance, sort of like the rules posted at the neighborhood pool.

But take a closer look, and various warnings quickly capture your attention: The lodge isn’t fenced off, and lions, leopards, elephants, buffalo and other large mammals can wander around the area; guests are strictly prohibited from walking unaccompanied by a staff member at night; guests enter the reserve “at their own risk.”

Indeed, the thrill of seeing exotic wildlife up close is a large part of the draw of an African safari, an extraordinary adventure for any traveler. But for first-timers, the prospect can feel intimidating and even downright scary, from deciding which country to visit and finding a reputable tour operator, guide and accommodations, to imagining yourself as lunch for a hungry lion.

With all that in mind, here’s a primer, from the planning process to making the most of your trip once you arrive.

Do your homework. For many travelers, a safari is a bucket-list trip that requires significant saving – and planning. As with other types of travel, you can tailor a safari to fit your tastes and budget, but selecting a country and the time of year you want to visit is a good first step. “You want to check climate, safety, malaria, political stability, etc.,” notes Graeme Mann, Kwandwe’s general manager, who also has extensive experience as a safari guide. “This will narrow your list initially, and then decide on what animals you want to see.”

For most travelers, that’s the Big 5 – lions, elephants, leopards, rhinoceroses and buffalo, which can be found in several countries. Wildlife migrations (Serengeti National Park’s wildebeest and zebra, for example) are seasonal and dependent on weather. Ideally, it’s best, though more expensive, to travel in the dry season, which corresponds with the region’s winter, generally from June to September.

For recommendations on accommodations and tour operators, consult friends who have been on safari before, as well as sites like TripAdvisor. And read up on prospective guides and specific safari destinations at www.rangerdiaries.com, where guides post photos and write about their experiences.

Self-guided or all-inclusive? Budget-minded travelers can opt for self-guided safari tours or overland trips, which generally refer to a moving safari at various campsites where travelers may be required to help with chores and tasks (Intrepid Travel and Acacia Africa are two reputable providers of these kinds of trips). For a smart splurge, private game reserves like Kwandwe are pricier but offer the appeal of fewer tourists and vehicles vying for viewing positions, highly knowledgeable guides and a more intimate, upscale experience. It’s not uncommon to have a drink with guides after a game drive and listen to their harrowing tales from the bush.

Allow enough time to enjoy your experience. Wherever your destination in Africa, it takes a while to get there. If you’re doing a self-guided tour or staying at an all-inclusive property, factor in at least a half-day of downtime to get accustomed to the time change and recharge for game drives. This also offers a buffer in case your luggage gets lost or there’s a flight delay. Plan to stay at least two nights at each destination.

It’s OK to bring the kids. But they should be well behaved and able to follow directions (i.e., no shrieking upon seeing an elephant or lion). According to Mann, kids should be at least 7-years-old so they can fully appreciate the experience. It can have a life-changing effect on a young mind to experience the beauty and complexity of the natural world,” he says. Some travel outfitters also offer game drives, nature walks and other excursions and activities tailored for children.

Don’t forget your binoculars and zoom lens. If there’s one time you’ll really want both of these, it’s on safari. There are times when you’ll be able to see wildlife only from a distance, and you’ll enjoy learning to hone your wildlife-spotting skills, so bring the binoculars (even a cheap pair is better than none at all). And the weight and bulk of a long lens is a small price to pay for the photos you’ll take home. (If you’re traveling super-light, some operators that specialize in photography, such as Cape Fox Tours & Safari, offer equipment rentals, notes Cape Fox owner and guide Jaco Powell.) 

Play nice with your fellow safari-goers. Just like at a dinner party, stay away from divisive topics like religion and politics, especially while on game drives. Keep the area around your seat in the vehicle tidy and make sure your belongings don’t spill over into others’ space. Powell also suggests rotating seats every day.

Watching Animal Planet is nothing like seeing the action live. It’s impossible to prepare a first-time safari-goer for what it’s like to witness a lion or cheetah stalk and take down its prey. “The sights, sounds and smells, combined with the fact that sometimes the animal being killed [doesn’t die] for almost an hour, make a real-life kill a seriously memorable experience,” Mann says. “Some people love it, some can’t watch.” He recommends that guests communicate with their guide ahead of time about comfort levels so that everyone has the most fulfilling experience possible.

Remember who’s in charge. That would be the guides, who have extensive knowledge of the bush and animal behavior and whose main responsibility is to keep guests safe. Some general rules include staying seated while in the vehicle and exiting only when you have the guide’s permission (such as when you need a bathroom break), talking in low voices and wearing neutral or khaki-colored clothing while on game drives. As Mann notes, “A safe safari is very simple to achieve if a few basic rules are followed, but there a million ways to get into trouble if you ignore the basics.”

One of his cautionary tales is about a guest who decided to leave the vehicle while the guide and tracker went to look for a lioness, then found himself in serious trouble. “Were it not for quick reaction and fair bit of luck, that guest would have been mauled by an angry lioness with cubs,” Mann says. “Fortunately, the guide managed to get himself between the charging lioness and the guest. He stood down the charge, backed out and then returned the guest to the lodge for the remainder of his three-day stay. No more game drives for people who can’t follow the safety rules!”