Last updated: 01:29 AM ET, Wed May 13 2015

5 Tips for First-Time Safari Goers

Features & Advice | David Cogswell | May 12, 2015

5 Tips for First-Time Safari Goers

Photo by David Cogswell

Everyone at some point has imagined himself on safari in Africa, and today many people are realizing the dream. But like practically everything else that you haven’t done before, when you actually find yourself there it turns out to be different from what you imagined. When traveling, nothing is ever quite like you imagined it to be. That’s one of the best things about travel. It always surprises.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when preparing for your first African safari.

Bring warm clothes! This is so counterintuitive that at first glance it may look like a misprint. (Are you talking about Africa? Are you sure you didn’t mean Antarctica?) But indeed, if you don’t have warm clothes for your safari you may find yourself unnecessarily uncomfortable.

Most photographs or movies of Africa present images of a hot environment, and often it’s true that Africa can be very hot. But morning game drives usually start before dawn and the variation in temperature throughout a single day can be quite dramatic in the African bush.

When you are riding around in the wilderness in a four-wheel-drive vehicle with no windshield in place and no windows, it can be very very cold. That wind hitting you in the face as you ride around in the bush can feel icy.

You need layers that you can peel off one by one after the sun comes up and starts to heat up the atmosphere. Light and warm is what you need, fleeces, down jackets. A scarf and a stocking cap are priceless on a morning game drive.

In the evening when the sun goes down, it cools down surprisingly fast as well, though it is not likely to be as cold as in the morning. You’ll want to bring a couple of layers of clothing on the evening drive as well.

Bring binoculars. This is something that may not occur to you. But when you’ve invested a few thousand dollars in your first safari, you might as well invest a couple of hundred in a moderately priced pair of binoculars. In fact, a pair of binoculars can greatly magnify your experience. It’s a thrill to see a lion or zebra or elephant at a few meters distance. But a pair of binoculars will bring you so close you’ll feel like you can kiss them.

It’s probably not the first thing you’ll think about in preparing for a safari, but once you are there, if you have binoculars you will really be glad you do.

Don’t buy hiking boots. Some people assume that if they are heading out on safari they’d better get a new pair of heavy duty hiking boots. But unless you are specifically going hiking, a good pair of comfortable shoes will serve you fine. If you are not specifically on a walking safari, there isn’t really much walking involved. Most of the time you are riding around in a jeep looking for wildlife. A pair of hiking boots is an unnecessary expense and takes up precious space in your luggage. Which brings us to the next point.

Pay attention to baggage requirements. Read closely the instructions about packing from your safari operator. Often when you are traveling into the bush you will be riding to your camp in small aircraft and the luggage requirements are quite strict because there is not a great deal of space for luggage. There will be a weight limitation, but that’s not all. It is also important not to bring hard suitcases with frames because soft bags pack better in the undercarriage of the plane.

Enlist competent professional support. There is no such thing as independent travel in the bush, and when you are 10 feet from a lion you will be very grateful you’re not there on your own. You need a good travel agent who will lead you to a reliable safari operator. Don’t mess around. Nature can be extremely tough.

The safari business has more than its share of shysters waiting around to scalp naïve consumers. If you find a deal on the Internet and send a $2,000 down payment you could find that your safari operator has disappeared, or in fact was never a safari operator in the first place but was just a scammer.

The range of possibilities for traveling in the bush is enormous, and you need competent, experienced and caring guidance. If you don’t have a travel agent, it’s a good time to find one and develop a relationship. The travel agent can lead you to the right safari operator, the right lodge, in the right country and a suitable environment for the kind of experience that suits your personality.

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