When I was young, it was a dream of mine to go on safari in Africa, but I thought it would be such a special trip that I saved it for my honeymoon - which never arrived! In the end, I received an email from a friend inviting me to climb Mount Kenya and go on safari. I jumped at the chance, and that was how my career as a wildlife photographer got started.
If you've never been on safari but are thinking about booking something, here's the bluffer's guide. You'll obviously need to do a bit of research online yourself, just to find out where the best places are and how much you're likely to have to spend, but this is my advice.
The website Safari Bookings thinks the top four safari destinations are Tanzania, Botswana, Zambia and Kenya, so here's my quick summary:
- Tanzania offers the classic destinations of the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater, plus others such as Lake Manyara and Tarangire (all of which I visited). It's unusual in that you can go pretty much all year round as long as you avoid the short and long rains. The Serengeti and Ngorongoro have endless plains where you can easily see the game, and the amount of wildlife is generally good, particularly during the Great Migration, which takes thousands of wildebeest and zebra in an enormous clockwise circle through Tanzania and Kenya and continues throughout the year. Lake Manyara and Tarangire are more picturesque, but the added trees and hills make the game less easy to spot. There's just one small caveat, which is that you won't see any giraffe in the Ngorongoro Crater - their legs are too long to climb down into it!
- Botswana is expensive, but I had a great trip there in 2016. It's good for the amount of wildlife and the almost constant presence of water, which makes a great backdrop, offers the chance of boat trips and means the animals are always interacting with it, either drinking or taking mud baths or play-fighting or just crossing the Chobe River. However, you need to go to the right parts, and that means the Okavango Delta, Moremi Game Reserve and Chobe National Park (which includes Savuti).
- Zambia is apparently a good place to visit for the South Luangwa, which is where I'm planning to lead a trip in summer 2018, but I haven't been yet...
- Kenya was the first African country I ever visited, so I'm very fond of it. The Masai Mara is the place to go, and that's where you get the shots of the wildebeest crossing the Mara or Grumeti river, hesitant at first and then all tumbling over themselves to jump down the cliffs and into the water. I'm going there in summer 2018, so fingers crossed!
The cost of your trip will depend mostly on the time of year, type of accommodation, number of people and duration. To give you an idea of the range of prices, I spent two weeks in Botswana on a private mobile safari that cost me over £6,000, but I also stayed in Tanzania for 10 days on an Exodus group safari for £3,499.
- Time of year
Peak season is generally July to October, although it gets very hot in September and October (over 40°C), so you can get a cheaper option in the 'shoulder season', but the downside is that you see less wildlife, as water is more plentiful, which means they don't gather in numbers around the water sources.
- Type of accommodation
If you want to travel in style, you can stay at lodges, usually outside the gates of the national parks. However, if you're happy to put up with tents, that will save you a lot of money. There are two kinds of tent: the first is the one you'll find in what they call 'permanent tented camps', and it's more like a cabin, with a tent at the front, but with a proper bed and a bathroom with toilet and shower built at the back. (That's what I had in Tanzania recently.) The other kind is just a two-man tent that the staff will usually put up for you, although you may have to do it yourself. If you pay a 'single supplement', you don't have to share with anyone, but it'll normally cost you an extra £300-400.
- Number of people
I went on a private mobile safari to Botswana in 2016. It was great for my purposes as a photographer, but most people would probably enjoy a group trip more, and it would be a lot cheaper! My Tanzania trip with Exodus was around £3,500, but I was lucky in that I booked it late, so I didn't have to share with anyone even though I hadn't paid the single supplement! You obviously take a risk by going with people you don't know, and there are usually one or two that you end up trying to avoid (!), but you shouldn't go too far wrong with operators like Exodus, and all the guests will obviously share an interest in Nature, wildlife and usually photography.
There are safaris available from just a long weekend to a couple of months, but I'd suggest around a week or 10 days to begin with. That gives you the chance to go to different destinations within a country and maximise your chances of good wildlife sightings. Obviously, the longer the trip, the more expensive it is, but there are still a few bargains to be had if you're not fussy about the accommodation.
Once you've decided exactly what type of safari you're looking for, you're ready to go ahead and book, A useful place to start is Safari Bookings, which is a website where you can filter all the available tours by country, region, price and duration, so it's incredibly useful. On the other hand, some of the tours turn out to be unavailable once you contact the operator, so it's not perfect!
I've been on photographic trips with Exodus, Audley Travel, Naturetrek, WorldwideXplorer and G Adventures, and I hear that Explore is another good option. They're all pretty similar, although G Adventures has a younger age profile than Exodus, and Audley Travel offers (much!) more expensive bespoke trips.
I should mention here that I also lead tour parties to Africa myself. In the summer of 2018, I'm planning to visit Botswana, Zambia and Kenya, and you can find full details on the Events page. My trips are geared towards wildlife photographers, but that doesn't mean you need to be a budding professional to enjoy the trip! If you'd like to have a chat about my photographic trips or just safaris in general, please feel free to drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or call me on +44 7942 800921.