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What can I expect on a safari tour?

Kieran Meeke / 13 June 2017

Safari has come a long way from its origins in East Africa, where the word “safari” means “journey”. A wildlife safari now might take you anywhere in the world.

India Bengal Tiger head looking direct to camera
Safari holidays are no longer restricted to Africa. You can now enjoy the 'journey' in many countries around the globe.

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Take your pick

From watching polar bears in Canada, through tigers in India to orang-utans in Borneo, there are safaris for every region, many different animals and every budget or level of fitness.

Africa, however, remains the benchmark and you have not really been on safari until you have spotted the “Big Five” of lion, elephant, rhino, leopard and Cape buffalo in one of the great parks there. 

But even in Africa, you have a wide variety of options, from the massive expanses of the Serengeti in Tanzania and South Africa’s Kruger Park, to the wonders of Madagascar or the delights of Botswana’s Okavango Delta.

Botswana's vast wilderness is home to a breathtaking menagerie of Africa's most charismatic wildlife.  Discover more about holidays to Botswana with Saga

Camp life is the good life

The classic safari experience is in tented camps, but there are also many places where permanent accommodation of all standards is available.

You can experience everything from a luxury camp, with hot baths and Wi-Fi, to day tours a few hours away from your downtown hotel.

The open air gives everyone an appetite and meals are an important part of the social experience, given the lack of other entertainment after dark.

Budgets are the great variable – you get what you pay for – but from hearty full English breakfasts to haute cuisine dining, I have often been amazed by what camp cooks can produce.

Southern Africa is famous for its braais (BBQs) which tend to be meat-heavy. It can be a traumatic experience to spend a day admiring wildebeest, zebra or warthogs and then be served them on a plate for dinner.

But vegetarian or other diets can be catered for if you give advance notice. That, of course, is especially true in places like India, Sri Lanka or, perhaps surprisingly, Ethiopia.

Time it right

Weather and wild animals are unpredictable, literally by nature, so the best time to go will vary from season to season, never mind year to year. A good tour company can help you plan, bearing in mind what you want to see and wish to spend.

East Africa is at its best from August to October, while southern Africa peaks in its winter, around June and July, when thirst brings animals to waterholes.

The Galápagos is great from December to June, as the warm southern summer brings calm seas and good underwater visibility. In India, the key time is October to April because the cooler weather makes the whole experience more pleasant.

Walking on the wild side

Wildlife documentaries show incredible things but don’t forget those photographers may have spent weeks or months getting that one amazing shot. 

More often, you’ll see animals at a distance or partly hidden – but you never know. Most people come back from a safari with at least one magical moment and a burning desire to do it again.

That said, you are guaranteed sightings in the big African parks or places like the Galapagos Islands where wildlife are abundant. That is the reason they are so popular. 

If you go looking for tigers in India, or gorillas in Rwanda, you might have a more frustrating time but a spotting is all the more rewarding when it comes.

Luck is critical but learning to keep still and quiet is also part of the skillset. I was on one walking safari in Africa and my group kept chatting to each other as we went out at dawn. 

Tiring of the noise, I held back until they were out of sight and sound. Then I started to see plenty of animals shyly emerge from the thick bush around me.

Back at camp, the rest of the group came in, still talking, tired and complaining they had seen nothing. Sometimes you make your own luck.

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Let the experts guide you

A good guide is essential on almost any safari, pointing out the animals, insects or birds you will often miss. Most seem to have supernatural eyesight, a skill that comes with the job.

Another important role is to keep you safe, by warning you where to tread or where not to go.

They also share their knowledge of the lifecycle of the fauna and flora you see around you. They read the landscape like a book and can fill hours with a story they read in the tracks of what seems like featureless dirt to you.

Sometimes they carry a weapon to be used in emergencies, but more often they rely on their skills to avoid any danger in the first place. Their job is conserving nature, not killing it.

Blending in

The classic safari clothing of khaki shirt and trousers serves a practical purpose of being subdued enough to not scare the animals, while hiding any stains from living in the bush for a few days.

Modern polycotton materials do a good job of resisting thorns and dry quickly after sweating or washing.

Even in hot climates, layering up with a fleece and hat for cold morning game drives or colder nights is a good idea. A sun hat and sunglasses are also essentials, along with good walking shoes or boots.

One for the birds

A newfound love of bird watching is often the unexpected side effect of spending hours waiting for animals to appear, so it’s worth bring a good pair of binoculars and bird ID book.

If you like to a Kindle or iPad for reading, it’s worth knowing that most safari trucks now have charging points. There might be high demand, however, so packing a battery pack is a good idea.

That’s particularly useful if you are using your phone for photos. It’s likely the phone signal will be non-existent in remote areas but Africa is full of surprises and the phone network is expanding rapidly.

Your tour operator will offer a suggested packing list that might include things like a head-torch, sarong, or flip-flops for the shower.

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Don’t get burnt

Wild animals are inherently dangerous and the places they live tend to be equally wild. However, tour operators are well aware of any risks and not in the business of losing customers.

The greatest danger is really from sunburn in open trucks or diseases such as malaria, which you will be warned about if it applies to your safari (it depends on the exact destination and time of year).

It’s not the size that matters

I always wonder how many photos we need of an elephant, lion or tiger? However, I’m as guilty as the next amateur photographer of being obsessed by gear to the point of sometimes forgetting to enjoy the experience. 

Increasingly, I’m turning to my phone when I see an image I can’t resist. That frees me from the need to carry around massive lenses and worry about theft, damage or dust.

A small point-and-shoot that goes in a pocket is a good compromise between quality and size. It also makes it easier to take photos around camp, as people are more relaxed when you take it out. 

Those campfire or breakfast memories are the ones that are actually unique and you might treasure as much as one of a photo of a lion or giraffe.

The early bird gets a lion

Getting up at sunrise is a good idea as many animals move around then after sleeping during darkness and before the heat of the day builds up.

The good news is that sunset also brings good viewing again. But it is easy to fall into the routine of going to bed soon after dark and getting up early.

Socialising is an important part of many safaris. The group of people you find yourself with often have much in common  – a love of animals and exotic locations to start with. 

Conversations start easily and often go on until people remember they are getting up at dawn. You may also spend a lot of time in a truck with your group, so that is another opportunity to get to know some new friends, especially if you are travelling alone.


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.