What to know before a safari
Traveling to Africa for a safari was one of our big dreams. After we had finally booked our trip to Kenya, we stood before the dilemma of many first-time safari-goers. We were wondering what to expect, what to bring, and how to pack.
We checked out numerous posts filled with tips for a safari. The information was partially contradictory. So we decided to sum up the tips we used and found helpful for our preparation.
Travel with friends
Sharing the experience with friends is probably the best way to appreciate a safari. We had a great time.
It also brings some unexpected perks. Being a bigger group on a small bush plane will give you a feeling of a private flight. Also, the cars usually have 6-8 seats. You’ll share the experience with people you like spending time with.
During the game drives
The animals are most active early in the morning and late in the afternoon. Thus, game drives start with the first light. If you’re not a morning person, waking up before 6 am may sound horrible.
But it is worth it. Besides incredible sightings, you’ll get to enjoy spectacular sunrises.
Good to know: It matters where you are staying. In general, lodges and camps located inside the parks offer the best sightings. Check out our tips for booking a safari without a travel agent.
Ask questions during the drives. Kenyan guides must undergo intensive training and know fauna and flora by heart. Use the opportunity to learn about the animals and their behaviour.
Also, ask to stop the car if you see something exciting or just want to take a picture.
If you are interested in a particular species, tell the driver and spotter. They know where to look for it.
Tip: If the drive lasts a whole day, “nature will call” at some point. If you can plan it, tell your driver at least half an hour in advance. Searching for a “friendly bush” can take a while. You probably wouldn’t appreciate a close cheetah encounter there.
Pack lightly. On bush flights, the baggage allowance is restricted to 15 kg (33 lbs), including the hand luggage. If you are in a group, they’ll weigh your bags together. Thus, if one of the group is carrying heavier equipment, you can “share” the weight together.
The small Cessna machines used for the bush flights only have limited cargo space. Therefore, soft-bags (duffel) are preferred. The bags will get dusty and dirty, so opt for weather-protected luggage.
Wear something comfortable but robust. Bring multiple layers as mornings are chilly. We found a light down jacket, which one can fold up into a small sachet extremely practical.
Also, wear solid shoes. You only need one pair. Boots are a good option, but you don’t necessarily need those if you’re not on a walking safari.
Don’t forget to cover your head. The equatorial sun is intense, and the cars are fully open. For us, sunhats worked out superbly. Try your headcover out beforehand and make sure it fits and won’t fly off quickly.
Tip: Girls, a sports bra works miracles on bumpy roads.
As for the colours. Most guidebooks say, only the horrible grey and khaki tones are allowed because of the mosquitos and wild animals. Unless you are on a walking safari, you don’t need to buy bush coloured clothes.
It is a myth that you’ll scare off the animals. They don’t see you in the car. In fact, our spotter wore traditional Maasai clothes that shine in red tones in the green savanna of the Mara. It didn’t affect our sightings in any way. We wore some yellow, blue, red, and green and ended up just fine.
Remember to pack lightly. Many camps offer same-day laundry service, so there is no need for a lot of items.
If you’re into photography, bring the best camera and telephoto lens you can afford. The bigger, the better. But remember the weight restrictions if you are flying. We used Nikon 70-200 mm f2.8 lens along with the 1.7x teleconverter. That gave us a zoom range of up to 340 mm without too much extra weight. Don’t forget a wide lens for landscapes.
It is essential to know your gear. Have it ready for the game drives. The animals won’t wait until you take the camera out of the bag and put the right lens on. Bring an extra battery and at least 50% more storage as you originally planned.
At Maasai Mara, the Enkewa Camp drivers knew how to position the car to get the best lighting. Not all drivers have such photography knowledge. If you need to move the vehicle for better light or composition, just ask. If the terrain allows it, they will be glad to do it.
Above all, don’t look only through the viewfinder. Lay the camera down for a few moments and enjoy.
What else to bring
Binoculars are essential. If you don’t have a pair, buy one.
It is also fun to take iPhone pictures through binoculars. At Amazon, you’ll get converters to attach your phone. You don’t need those. All you need is patience and a little bit of practice.
Useful tip: Don’t forget chargers and power adapters. In some camps, you’ll need to charge in the common areas. Put initials on your chargers to avoid confusion.
In some lodges, electricity is not available all the time. Check the times, when you can charge your gear a bring an extra power bank as a backup.
You’ll need mosquito repellent, preferably with high DEET content, sunscreen, and sunglasses. A scarf or a bandana can be useful as well. Especially on chilly mornings, but also as dust protection.
Bring swimsuit. Many lodges have a swimming pool. Plus, you might get the opportunity to swim in a river “in the middle of Africa”.
A small backpack or purse is handy as well as a flashlight.
Also, bring a hand sanitizer and some wet wipes.
International arrival and departure
Nairobi traffic on weekdays is horrible. For a way, that should take no more than 15 minutes, you’ll need an hour. If at all possible, schedule your international arrival and departure for a weekend. That way, your chance of getting stuck in a traffic jam is much smaller.
There is a little odd security check when departing from the Jomo Kenyatta International. The driver will stop at a checkpoint on the highway a few kilometres away from the terminal. You’ll need to get out of the car, only with your hand luggage, and go through screening in a building at the side of the road. Remember the licence plate number or take a photo of it to find your driver after the security check.
Nairobi is the starting point of the most safari trips. Based on our brief experience, it isn’t the friendliest city. On a drive through Nairobi, you’ll immediately notice the huge fences and high-security level everywhere.
That shouldn’t discourage you from leaving the hotel premises though. We had a good time at David Sheldrick’s Elephant Orphanage, in the Giraffe centre, and at the Fogo Gaucho restaurant one evening.
However, book a reliable driver at the hotel and check if he/she’ll take you back. Also, arrange the price beforehand.
A word of advice: Visiting the elephant orphanage is a highlight in Nairobi. If you’re lucky, you can even pet a baby elephant. The public is only allowed to visit for an hour from 11 am until noon. Be there at least 30 minutes earlier. That way you’ll get close to baby elephants and possibly cuddle with them.
What else to think about
Think of vaccinations and malaria pills. What you need depends on where you are going. Check with your travel clinics a few weeks before travelling.
We love sending postcards from our trips. In Kenya, you’ll get postcards almost everywhere. However, when we visited, it appeared to be a shortage of stamps. We managed to send the postcards at the international terminal. Chapex Travellers Secretary close to gate 9 sells stamps and has a mailbox.
Credit cards are widely supported in Kenya, even for paying park fees. However, check in advance. Some camps don’t have an internet connection and only accept cash. The official currency is Kenyan Shilling, but the USD is accepted. We paid most purchases in USD.
Most importantly, be patient and enjoy your time. The animals are unpredictable. Waiting for wildebeests to cross a river can take an hour. A search for a rhino can last a full morning, and it even might not be successful. Patience will be rewarded with fantastic wildlife encounters.