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A good pair of lightweight walking shoes or boots is an essential. Not to protect against snakes, as you’re unlikely to see any, but because they are the most versatile footwear.
They’ll cope with walking on rough ground, climbing in and out of safari trucks, or just pounding the pavements of Nairobi or Mumbai.
I prefer ankle boots as they are less likely to come off in an emergency – like stumbling into boggy ground or running away from a spider (I mean leopard!) – and give better protection on rocky terrain. A leather pair will polish up well if needed for a posh restaurant.
Pair your boots with long trousers/slacks to protect against thorn brushes and the hot seating of a safari truck. Shorts/skirt and long socks are another option.
Cotton is cool but polycotton will dry faster after washing (or sweating) and rips less easily on thorns.
A long-sleeved shirt with a collar makes the best top. T-shirts do not offer any protection against sunburn or the chill of an African night, although a good compromise is to wear a T-shirt with a long-sleeved shirt over it to act as a protective jacket.
Layers are always a good idea when days start and end cold but warm up considerably in between. Bring a fleece and beanie for nights, and perhaps a woollen if at altitude.
Men might check if they need a jacket and/or tie for any smart hotels. A light raincoat is also a good windbreak.
Colours should be subdued. Khaki is an old favourite but many animals are colour blind, so that’s not a necessity. Lighter colours reflect the sun and are therefore cooler, which is actually the main consideration. White is best but off-white shows less dirt – hence khaki.
Avoid camouflage clothing as it is illegal in many African countries, perhaps because of their unfortunate history with European mercenaries.
A hat is needed to shade the eyes and keep the sun off. The best is a floppy cotton bush hat, as it won’t get in the way of a camera. You can also soak it in water for a nice cooling effect.
They can also jam on your head against the breeze when in the back of an open truck, but a carry a spare in case you lose that battle, or buy one with chinstrap. Who needs sunstroke?
A scarf is useful to protect against the red African dust that gets everywhere when you drive on dirt roads.
A Kenyan kikoy or similar sarong can also be wrapped completely around the head or used as a shawl for that cold evening drive back to camp. It has lots of other uses, too, from towel to sleeping robe.
Sunglasses will help keep the dust out of your eyes, as well as their normal function. Bring a retaining cord or even a pair of sun-goggles instead so they can be quickly slipped out of the way when you grab a camera.
Many expensive sunglasses have gone to meet their maker after a photo stop when someone sits back down. Look for a pair that cuts out as much light as possible, including at the sides.
Your daypack will carry a bottle of water, as well as that spare hat and any personal essentials such as medicines. Carry high-factor sunscreen, and some insect repellent.
Tissues and/or handkerchief will clear away dust from mouth, nose and eyes.
A head-torch or flashlight is good finding your way back to your tent in the dark, or reading at night in camp. Pack spare batteries.
Many safaris camps and hotels have swimming pools, so take your swimsuit. Sandals or flip-flops are good for lounging in camp or using communal showers.
Pack everything in a soft-sided bag if you are flying in any small aircraft. Check weight limits for these legs of your journey.
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Whole articles have been written on the best pair of safari binoculars, which at least proves their importance.
Where to see wildlife in South Africa
After the initial joy of seeing the bigger animals, many people find delight in the variety of bird life they see on safari. That’s when binoculars come into their own.
Many large animals come out only at dawn or sunset, sensibly preferring to rest up during the heat of the day.
That means you need a pair of lenses that will cope with poor light. Look for something around the 8x40 range.
Damage or loss is common, so don’t spend too much on a pair. You also want them to be quick focusing and lightweight, particularly if you are on a long walk on a hot day.
Photography and electronics
If you are an expert, you will need no advice from me. If you are not an expert, you can do worse than rely on your phone camera but do bring a vehicle charger to keep it juiced up.
A battery pack is another good option, and a big one will keep Kindles and other such items going in the absence of mains power.
With a bigger SLR camera, you need a lens of at least 300mm and preferably 500mm for good close-ups of animals.
Swapping lenses is a bad idea given the amount of dust you’ll experience, so many people bring two bodies: one with a wide-angle to show the background and one for a zoom to shoot details.
If you do have to change lenses, consider using a bag or a sarong as a cover. A blower brush will keep lenses clear of dust. A UV filter is also good protection as well as helping with bright sun.
Bring a vehicle mount to help steady the long lens, or a beanbag. Tripods will not make you popular in your safari jeep unless you have it to yourself.
A dry-bag, sold for water sports, is perfect for keeping dust away from electronics and cameras.
Vaccinations vary by country but a normal set might start with Tetanus, Typhoid and Hepatitis A and B, as well as a Polio booster. Consider a flu shot and check the basics have been done, such as MMR.
A Yellow Fever Certificate may be asked for at some border crossings e.g. Zimbabwe/Zambia, where I have seen tourists sent for on-the-spot jabs. Your UK doctor or travel clinic will happily provide both jab and certificate.
It has to be issued at least ten days before travel.
Of course you should check with your safari operator what is needed, particularly in terms of malaria.
It can be an annoyance to spend one day in a malaria zone on a two-week safari, and therefore decide to risk going without, but don’t take malaria lightly.
It’s still the biggest killer in Africa but also not a concern if you take proper precautions.
Remember that malaria courses may need to start some weeks in advance of travel, depending on the drug, and continue for some time afterwards.
As well as any tablets required it’s sensible to wear long-sleeved clothing at night and long trousers, as well as a liberal dose of bug spray.
It will stop that annoying itching from bites ruining your sleep apart from anything else. One trick with a tent or a mosquito net is to not turn on any light until you are safely inside. Lights attract insects.
Your travel agent or safari operator will give details of any visas needed, and whether you need to obtain them in advance or at the border.
If you are visiting several countries that need visas in advance that can involve some time, with your passport in the post back and forth.
With most major destinations, however, it’s simply a matter of paying a fee on arrival and having your passport stamped.
Be aware of rules that require a certain number of blank pages in your passport, and six months’ validity. These are all your responsibility and can’t be sorted out once you are at the airport.
By definition, a safari is taking you into an area where nature rules. That said, accidents such as trips and falls, or burns from hot coffee, are more of a concern than attacks by wild animals.
Tips for travelling to South Africa
However, you will be far away from hospitals and pharmacists, so do have medical insurance and plan properly. A safari is a break from routine, and normally provides memories for a lifetime.
Don’t spoil it by forgetting your reading glasses!
Bring a credit card, perhaps swapping an extra one with a friend or partner in case you lose a wallet or purse. Let your bank know you are travelling abroad so they don’t put a block on any foreign ATM withdrawals.
Copy your passport, along with any relevant visas. Copy your driving license too if you intend to hire a car.
Print out your itinerary, in case your phone battery dies at a critical moment.
You will take plenty of photos on safari but consider bringing a few as well. You’ll meet lots of interesting people – whether fellow guests from around the world or camp staff – and hear about their lives, and they may be equally interested in yours.
Photos of your house, car, or even your supermarket shelves – things you might not normally snap – will allow you to tell your own story to them.
A lot of the fun of a safari is the talking around a table at night.
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