Johnny Prince (right)
It’s hard not to enjoy an African safari. With a trusted guide and a small group of fellow adventurers, you can strike out into the wilderness and see magnificent creatures in their element. Nothing beats the moment when you spot a hippo poking its head above water or a pride of lions lounging on nearby rocks.
That said, there are a lot of decisions to make while planning a safari trip. What country are you going to go to? What animals do you hope to see? How wild do you want your experience? For advice, we talked to Johnny Prince, safari expert and co-founder of Big5 Boutique, an online marketplace for discovering and booking safaris across Africa. We asked him: "How do you avoid the risk of a bad safari?"
1) Don't set expectations without doing your homework
Before you even start planning a safari trip: determine exactly what you’re hoping to experience. "People often try to choose which country to visit first without understanding what is actually possible," Johnny told us. For example, many first-time safari goers aim to see the Big Five - African lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, African leopard, and the rhinoceros - that are the hardest and most dangerous African animals to track on foot. It’s impossible to guarantee that you’ll see the Big Five - "anyone that tells you that is either lying or disturbingly misguided" - but Johnny told us that "you can certainly increase your chances when booking your safari, in terms of the time of year, the location of the camps and whether the area actually has all of the Big Five, which is often overlooked."
Johnny had a few ideas about what makes a great camp experience: "I would recommend choosing camps that are within private game reserves or concessions. This gives you the huge advantage of being able to go ‘off-road’ with your guide, allowing you to follow tracks, get much closer to the action, and increase your chances of seeing the magical sightings. Your experience also tends to be more exclusive and ‘wild,’ away from the crowds. Depending on the local rules of the country it also allows you to go on walking safaris and night drives which are a highlight on any trip. I would also recommend going for smaller camps and lodges with a focus on the wildlife and the overall safari experience as opposed to larger lodges, which often sacrifice the feeling of being in the wild in favor of unnecessary pampering."
There also some major warning signs that the safari you’re getting might not be the safari you want. Johnny warned against any camp with a large number of rooms or tents ("anything above fifteen"), as you "automatically lose part of the magic of being on safari and immersing yourself in the wild." He also warned against camps that have air conditioning and TV - "it is a strong signal that the priority is not on safari but on unnecessary luxury."
2) Don't forget to bring the important stuff
Once you book the safari, you’ll get a list of the standard items that you’re recommended to bring. There are a few more things you'll want to remember when planning a safari trip, however. Johnny suggests that you get comprehensive personal travel insurance before you go, "as some of the camps you will be staying in are extremely remote and you want to make sure that in the case of an extremely unlikely emergency you can be flown to safety." On the fun side of things, Johnny also suggests a "decent pair of binoculars" and "large memory cards and a spare battery for your camera." Instant safari ruiner? "You will be crying when you spot a leopard dragging a fresh kill up a tree and [your camera is] left dead as a dodo."
3) Don't be afraid to immerse yourself
"Keep an open mind. Don’t be afraid to ask your guide anything. Try not to become obsessed with ticking off the Big Five. Simply make the most of wherever you find yourself in the bush and enjoy it. If you are constantly chasing the next on your list you will miss most of the truly special moments which make a safari such a unique experience." In case it isn’t obvious, Johnny Prince loves safaris, and believes that the best moments come when you least expect them. "The more time you spend observing, the more you will learn and appreciate."
That said, stay safe. As we mentioned before, personal travel insurance is a must, as are basic medical precautions such as "vaccinations and malaria tablets where necessary." Johnny also stressed that you should "fully respect all of the safety guidelines that you are given by your guide and safari operator." Nighttime is hunting time for many African animals, such as lions and leopards, and no amount of personal travel insurance is going to save you from becoming a lion’s late night snack.
If you follow Johnny’s simple tips when planning a safari trip, you’ll find that your experience is not only safe, but one of the most fun vacations you’ll have in your life. Say hello to the bush creatures for us. Already been on your safari and have more tips to share? Comment below with advice and personal stories!