No-one forgets their first African safari; the dawn game drives and bush sundowners, Big Five sightings and star-filled evenings around the campfire. It’s an adventure like no other. Planning your dream safari, however, can be an overwhelming task. From choosing which country to visit and wardrobe to pack there’s a lot to consider, so start with these expert tips for bringing your first ever African safari to life.
The roots of the modern safari date back centuries, to the days when Arabic and African traders travelled from city-to-city, covering huge distances over rugged terrain. So, it’s no surprise that the term safari comes from a Swahili word that loosely translates to ‘journey’. In the late 19th and early 20th century, when Europeans arrived on the continent, they redefined this ancient tradition, setting up a model of multi-day exploration across African landscapes in search of wild animals.
Many of these pioneers incorporated hunting into their expeditions, like Denys Finch Hatton of Out of Africa fame, who laid the blueprint for the Kenyan safari in the 1920s. Fortunately, as wildlife protection moved to the forefront in the 1970s, many African countries banned hunting and set up national parks to preserve their natural treasures instead. Today, most safaris have a conservation-based ethos that combines eco-friendly luxury with ethical wildlife and cultural experiences.
Every safari is unique to its location but your daily routine will follow a similar pattern. Days usually start before dawn with a steaming cup of coffee in your tent before a game drive or hot air balloon ride, where you’ll see animals at their most active. Afterwards, you’ll return to camp to dine and rest during the hottest part of the day; many lodges have pools, spas or viewing terraces where you can relax. In the cool of mid-afternoon, you’ll head out for a second game drive complete with sundowners in the bush, finished off with dinner and drinks around the campfire.
So, what animals can you expect to see on your first safari? No doubt you’ll want to tick the Big Five off your bucket list: the lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard and rhino, but there’s plenty more to discover. Your driver-guide will know the top places to spot other African icons, from giraffes, zebras and crocodiles to hyenas, meerkats and a plethora of colourful birds. If you have a yearning to see a particular animal, let your guide know so they can tailor your game drives accordingly and bring binoculars for the best wildlife viewing.
Most camps also provide a host of special activities besides game drives. In some private reserves and conservancies, you can take a walking safari with a naturalist who’ll point out fascinating small details, from dung beetles to animal tracks and dens. Join ethical tours to local villages or community projects, spot nocturnal animals on a night drive or enjoy a stargazing session. Remember to simply soak up the sights and sounds of Africa too.
Africa is a colossal continent with a mix of landscapes and wildlife that vary by region, from the gorilla-inhabited rainforests of Rwanda to the endless East-African savannahs and marine-rich South African coast. When it comes to first-time safaris though, there are three countries guaranteed to fulfil your safari fantasies: South Africa, Kenya and Tanzania.
With its blend of cities, coastline and wildlife reserves, South Africa is the perfect place to experience your first taste of safari. On a trip to the Rainbow Nation, you could be hiking Table Mountain or wine tasting in Constantia one day and the next, whale watching in Hermanus or observing animals in Kruger National Park. Our Safari and the City itinerary will take you from Cape Town to the Eastern Cape Game Reserves, incorporating both urban sightseeing and safari splendour.
South Africa’s diverse regions also mean that there’s always a suitable safari destination weather-wise, regardless of when you visit. The most popular places to safari are Greater Kruger National Park and the Eastern Cape, both are home to the Big Five and high-end accommodation with lodges where you can even sleep under the stars in a treehouse. Don’t forget the Marine Big Five too; Garden Route destinations like Hermanus and Plettenberg Bay are ideal for spotting whales, dolphins, sharks, seals and penguins.
For safari-seeking families, South Africa also excels thanks to its many malaria-free areas and varied itineraries with self-drive options. Our Family Adventure Self-Drive includes an exciting mix of whale watching in Hermanus, beach days in Plettenberg Bay and a stay at an Eastern Cape Game Reserve with bespoke, child-friendly facilities and safari activities that little ones will love.
Kenya was the safari pioneer, epitomised in novels like Out of Africa and Born Free. This is where the iconic African images emerged of vast, sun-scorched savannahs dotted with termite mounds and acacias. It’s one of the best places in the world to witness the Big Five and home to the Maasai Mara, a big cat hotspot that hosts the annual Great Migration. This natural phenomenon sees millions of wildebeest, zebra and gazelle thunder across the plains of between July and October in search of water and lush grasslands.
While visiting the Maasai Mara is a must, Kenya has a lot more to offer first-time safari goers. From the vibrant capital Nairobi, there’s the bird-encrusted Great Rift Valley lakes and the arid Samburu plains where the Special Five live: the Somali ostrich, Grevy’s zebra, reticulated giraffe, Beisa oryx and gerenuk. Our Taste of Kenya itinerary allows you to sample Kenya’s key destinations, with the ability to add a beach break on the white sands of Diani and Watamu for some post-safari R&R.
As the original safari heavyweight, Kenya has an impressive range of camps and lodges that are well connected by road or bush airstrips. The Governors’ Safari includes stays at some of Africa’s oldest and most prestigious camps in wildlife meccas, with luxury experiences like hot air balloon rides. No trip to Kenya is complete without taking an ethical cultural excursion to meet the famous Maasai who’ve roamed this land for millenia.
Tanzania’s northern circuit is ideal for a compact first safari like our Classic Tanzania itinerary. Fly into Arusha before heading west for kaleidoscopic birdlife in Lake Manyara. Just a short drive north you’ll reach the UNESCO-listed Ngorongoro Crater, a natural amphitheatre created by a volcanic collapse millions of years ago. The crater offers guaranteed wildlife sightings, home to 30,000 animals including the Big Five.
The final stop on the circuit is the Serengeti with its endless plains. If catching a glimpse of the Great Migration is top of your safari wishlist, you can track the herds here throughout much of the year. In the winter months you’ll see mass wildebeest calvings in the grasslands and by summer the animals will be flowing across the Grumeti River towards the Maasai Mara. Aside from the migration, there’s superb wildlife viewing here year-round and a rhino conservation project run by the national park.
Tanzania also provides the option of combining a safari with a slice of beach relaxation in Zanzibar. This collection of spice islands is a jewel in the Indian Ocean that boasts secluded honeymoon-worthy resorts, protected marine parks for exquisite diving and tours of historic Stone Town. The perfect end to your first ever safari.
Ready to experience your dream African safari? Get prepared with our in-depth Safari Essentials Guide; here are some first-time safari tips to get you started:
When to travel – this largely depends on weather and migration patterns, which vary by country. In the dry season animals are easier to spot as they’re gathered around water sources, while rainy season can make parks difficult to navigate.
Safari length – this will likely depend on your budget but between three days and a week is a good guide for a first-time safari. All the early starts and bumpy 4×4 rides can be exhausting, so consider factoring in a beach break and incorporating some city sightseeing or cultural tours to balance out the game drives.
Getting around – you’ll get around on safari using 4x4s and light aircrafts. Taking a private vehicle means you can set your own pace and your guide will tailor the safari to your interests. However, small group tours allow you to meet other travellers and cost less because you can share guides and transport.
What to pack – neutral-coloured clothing works best for safaris, with long sleeves and trousers to protect from bugs and sun. Layer up for early mornings and cool evenings around the campfire. You’ll also need sunglasses, a hat, suncream and repellent – plus a swimsuit for pool lodges. Binoculars and a quality camera will make all the difference to your game drives. Remember though, if you’re travelling by light aircraft, most have a soft-shell luggage limit of 15kg, so pack light.
Your journey will start with one of our UK team – someone like Gemma, who's travelled extensively in Tanzania. They’ll shape your ideas into the trip of a lifetime. But they won't do it on their own. They'll draw on the expertise of our contacts on the ground, connecting you to the people who'll make your holiday one you'll always remember - the rangers who'll ensure you'll spot the best wildlife, the village chiefs who'll give you a genuine insight into local life and the camp managers who can recommend the very best spot to enjoy your sundowner.
Freephone an expert 01306 744 656