16 December 2009

7 safari tips for first-timers

My partner and I had a great time on our safari, and if you're going to be in northern Tanzania and want to try one, here's a little background information on safaris, in general, and some tips that may help you get the most out of your future safari experience(s).

For starters, yes, it's safe. We were in a fairly old Land Rover, transformed so that the roof opens and raises up, and you can stand in the vehicle and still be in the shade (which is key, as the sun is intense here near the equator). Standing inside the vehicle, you'll also be quite high up, which is great for spotting animals-- and the wildlife can't reach you. We had lions walking right next to us, and it was totally fine.

It ain't cheap. But it's well worth it, if you can afford it. You can find safaris that are "cheap" (i.e., $100-150 per person per day, if you're lucky/have a large group), but be very careful. Cheaper safaris may compromise safety, guide experience and/or language ability, lodging, food, etc. We found one of the cheapest but still reputable companies, and it was still about $200 per person per day.

The good news is that this includes all transport, camping (they even set up your tent for you), park fees ($50/person/day in the Serengeti, for example), food, water, tea/coffee/hot chocolate, etc. Also, some safari companies (like ours) don't combine different groups, so my partner and I had our own private safari with our own guide/driver and chef. (In case you're wondering, we did our safari with Base Camp, and they were fine.)

In general, it's going to feel very expensive for what you get. And even if you're in the mood to go all out, think twice before plunking your cash down on a luxury safari, as they will cost a LOT more for not that much more.

Here's what we observed: the fancier safaris may have newer vehicles, but they were driving on the same bumpy roads we were on; we'd eat lunch at the same breathtaking places and often even be eating the same food, but they would have tablecloths and wine; and we stayed in a lodge one night (for my partner's birthday), and while it was cool to stay in a hotel with giraffes, hippos, antelopes and rock hyraxes scurrying by, when you're sleeping, you're just sleeping in an enclosed room and could be anywhere in the world.

Camping with zebras munching on grass a foot away from your head, right outside of your tent, is way cooler. Oh, and the luxury safaris will easily cost $500-$1000 per person per day. Ouch.

With that said, luxury tent safaris could be cool (and are often more expensive than the luxury lodge safaris). What we saw in luxury tents in the Serengeti didn't seem to be all that-- they were often bland permanent tents on raised concrete platforms with cot beds. BUT, we saw photos in books of luxury tents that looked absolutely amazing.

So, if you just have too much money to spend, you can inquire as to where you can find such awesomeness. For the rest of us plebeians, I'd recommend tent camping.

Now, on to the tips to help you maximize your safari enjoyment:

1. Know what is included in your safari price and what isn't. Is your safari operator including your drinking water? Do you have any special dietary requirements, and will they charge you more/less for that? What happens if it starts to pour during your only day in Ngorongoro, and you can't go down into the caldera? Do you get your money back?

Most important of all: the tips for the driver/guide, chef, porter, etc. will NOT be included in your price, and it is basically a MANDATORY tip. It sounds pretty sketchy, but it seems the common practice for the safari operators is to pay these guys around $10 per day, and it's expected that the customers will provide the rest of their salary via the tips. When we went, the average tip was $8-10 per day for the chef, $12-15 per day for the guide/driver and $5-10 for porters, if you have a hiking component in your safari. (Many of the safaris offer that option, and if you hike Meru or Kilimanjaro while you're in the area, you'll also have to tip your porters.)

2. What to bring:
- Binoculars, if you have them. They make a huge difference, and we got ours on sale for less than $20. Yes, you'll be just meters away from elephants, lions and zebras and will be able to see them just fine, but with binoculars, you'll be able to see their eyes, their stripes, and the wrinkles in their skin up close.
- Loose, lightweight, comfortable clothes with long sleeves and long pants-- this will protect you from sun and bugs while keeping you cool. And I wouldn't bring anything you care too much about, as you may get dirty.
- If you have long hair, have something to tie it back or keep it out of your face. We loved standing in the car as we drove around, but it could get really windy.
- Sunglasses. The sun is bright and fairly consistent in its 6am sunrise and 6pm sunset.
- Something warm to wear. Ngorongoro is especially chilly at night, and a fleece jacket along with pants and socks should do the trick.
- Your own bedding/sleeping bag, if you're camping. Our safari outfit provided mats and pillows, but we brought sheets and a blanket. If you don't have luggage space, you can always rent a sleeping bag, but it's just another way to save some cash if you bring your own (which will probably be nicer/cleaner, too).

4. Be prepared for dust. Driving between Ngorongoro, Olduvai Gorge and the Serengeti is like hanging out in a dust storm for a few hours. When we got to our Ngorongoro campsite, my normally dark hair looked grey, and my sunglasses were coated in a fine beige dust. My lungs and throat felt dry and itchy, even though I was covering my face with my scarf, and I was chugging water to keep from desiccating. And if you wear contacts, you might want to consider wearing glasses for that segment of the trip. If I were to do it again, I'd actually want a dust mask, even though I'd look totally ridiculous. But hey, it beats inhaling chalk dust for hours on end.

5. Take your time. We saw some people stop before an animal or group of animals, take a photo and then leave. For that, it's a lot easier to go to a zoo. On safari, you really must stop and watch the animals. There's a real thrill in seeing a leopard or lion lazing about and then suddenly sit up, alert, and look around. Especially when they look around and then fix their gaze on you. And beyond challenging predators to a staring contest, seeing animals in their natural habitat just doing their thing is mesmerizing. Rushing through to get more photos is missing the whole point of exploring life in their turf.

6. If you have a good camera, bring it. It's an incredible opportunity to take advantage of all that SLR cameras have to offer (especially the zoom abilities). If you're considering buying a nice camera and think you'll use it after your safari, it might be a good time to buckle down and get one. If, however, you'll be backpacking and want to travel light, like we did, or don't have the cash or desire to get a fancy camera, you can definitely get great photos without one.

7. Tell your guide what you're interested in seeing. Everyone's different, and some people go gaga for lions while others want to see the incredible array of colorful birds, so let your guide know what you're most excited to see. Also, don't be shy about telling them if you'd like more or less time observing animals, etc. Our guide was really nice and let us stop for the 'banal' animals like zebras, impalas and gazelles because we thought they were beautiful-- but if we hadn't said anything, he probably would have continued practically running them over in order to reach the next 'exciting' animal.

And lastly, a note on the hot air balloon rides. The average price starts at $500 per person, you get to be airborne for one hour, you'll usually get some kind of meal or at least a snack, and don't be surprised to find yourself with up to thirty people in that balloon basket. Your experience depends entirely on the wind, which may or may not take you to where you want to go. On the positive, those who have had good experiences say floating right above the animals in the Serengeti is pretty amazing. It could be a neat way to witness some of the the wildebeest migration, for example. We didn't do it because it was too expensive for us, and we don't regret it, but it could be neat under the right circumstances. (As a very generous gift, for example.)

But whatever you do, if you have the chance to go on a safari, do it! Some people are addicted to safaris, since nothing is guaranteed, and you will see different animals each time you go out. For us, it will probably be a once-in-a-lifetime thing, as we don't feel we need to do it again, but we feel so fortunate to have experienced it.

Most importantly, have fun!

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