African Safari Etiquette: 8 Tips for How to Behave on Safari

One of the things we love most about going on safari is the chance to spend our days and nights in a different world—a rugged realm free of modern intrusions, each moment threaded with a closer connection to nature. It’s wild out here, but like the jungle has its law and the road its rules, so too does safari have its etiquette.

It’s not as prim and proper as it may sound—we’re decked out in khakis like everyone else in sight. But adhering to a few simple guidelines will help you and your traveling troupe stay safe and sane on the savannah and cool back at camp. In our experience and interactions with the locals, we’ve picked up on a number of tips and rules we feel are worth sharing so you can gauge how to best behave while on African safari (…and trust us, it can get a little wild sometimes!).

A lone Guineafowl bird running
A lone Guineafowl bird running

1. Don’t Wander Far or Go Your Own Way

In the bush, you’ll notice that most animals, excluding perhaps only those geared up with thick hides and stout horns, stick together in small groups and herds – especially on our more intimate private safari adventures. Be like the animals—safety in numbers is one of nature’s most fundamental principles, and you’re out here among a whole lot of nature.

This is a good general rule, but is especially important in some specific spots. On game drives, for instance: unless told otherwise, stay in your safari vehicle at all times. Separating yourself from the jeep and the group by even a small distance can arouse a lot of unanticipated attention and a whole host of problems. 

At camp, prepare to get comfortable with the buddy system. It might just be a quick hop over to the dining tent or a short midnight trip to the loo, but sticks can suddenly become slithery and the bushes sometimes have eyes—it’s best to go tent to tent with a chaperone.

A group gathering at one of the local camps in Kenya
A group gathering at one of the local camps in Kenya

2. Respect Your Hosts and Guides

When you’re at camp, it’s important to remember that you’re staying under someone else’s well-canvassed roof—respect for your hosts and for your shared home is key. Different sites serve up different amenities and accommodations—all of which, due to the fact that you’re camping deep in the wilderness, are subject to some untamable variability.

At home, you might have a wonky showerhead, or your street could be closed for construction. Safari camps have all that jazz, plus randomly flooding rivers and fickle fleets of migrating wildebeests—which can affect anything from your dining time to your sleeping situation. If your guides or hosts need to change plans to keep everybody safe, follow their lead and embrace the wildness of it all.

A close-up of a lion’s eyes
A close-up of a lion’s eyes

3. Be Alert and Keep Your Eyes Open

Whether strolling around camp or venturing about in the field, it’s of the utmost importance to remain aware of your surroundings. We’re not calling for non-stop, tip-top vigilance here—we’re wont to relax poolside or partake in a sundowner or two at camp—but maintaining a bit of common-sense alertness will keep your safari experience top-notch. 

The appeal to safety here is obvious. You’re more likely to overlook a rock in your path or a distant rhino that takes a sudden interest in you if you’re face-locked with your phone. But many of safari’s most incredible moments (what’s that rhino gonna do?!) are fleeting and fast—a fluorescent flutter of birds zipping through the canopy, the flash of a cheetah in the underbrush—and if your peepers aren’t popped, you’re likely to miss out.

Keep Calm and Safari On!
Keep Calm and Safari On!

4. Keep Calm and Safari On

Africa’s wild animals live in a feral and unregulated natural world, and every element of life and survival—the struggle, the beauty, the mundane, the exhilarating—is playing out on a grand stage, day in and day out. It’s part of what makes safari such an incredible and incomparable experience, but it can sometimes call for a certain amount of levelheadedness.

We’re not going to say something boorish like “act like an adult”—after all, we’ll probably be singing and dancing like fools and telling crazy stories once we’re back at camp. But when something organic or visceral or NSFW or gorgeous (or all of that at once) happens out in the realest of worlds, out of respect for the enjoyment and safety of those around you, make sure to keep your cool—and appreciate the experience for what it is.

A lioness and her cubs in the privacy of their den
A lioness and her cubs in the privacy of their den

5. Don’t Harass the Animals

From the mountains to the moorlands and the myriad ecosystems between, everybody’s out here living their best lives, tourists and wildlife alike. When you encounter animals on safari, the best course of action is always to let them do what they do without disturbance—this is about as far from a zoo as you can get. 

We can understand the urge to wave and whistle—those elephants look so friendly!—but the best course of action is to blend in as much as possible and not draw attention to yourself or the group. The less interesting you appear to the wild animals, the less likely they are to take an interest in you—meaning everybody, the animals included, stays safe. 

Hot air balloon firing up before a hot air balloon safari
Hot air balloon firing up before a hot air balloon safari

6. Be Open Minded

Odds are that you’re not from this neck of the woods—a lot of your journey here is going to be with new people, novel places, and exotic rare animals that you’ve never encountered before. With all of that unfamiliarity comes a whole host of unique experiences and cultural encounters that are likely to be outside your daily routine.

This is probably half the reason you came to this far away land in the first place, so it’s important to remember to keep an open mind and embrace these authentic experiences with open arms. Fly in that sky-soaring balloon, sip that potent konyagi, dance with those lively strangers, taste the ubiquitous ugali, sleep under the blazing stars—and rise with the sun tomorrow so we can do it all over again.

Penwell Founder Kathy Harvey having fun with the locals and their customs
Penwell Founder Kathy Harvey having fun with the locals and their customs

7. Engage with Locals

The more you travel the world, the more you’ve probably come to realize that, in the face of all our outward differences, people are, at their core, mostly the same. Though dressed in a multitude of different cultures and circumstances, we all have family and friends, lives and dreams, worries and hopes, stories and jokes—you’ve got more in common with the people you’ll meet in East Africa than you might think at first glance.

So when you’re meeting people from different walks of life—a vendor hawking wares in Arusha, a Maasai warrior, a Samburu child, a field hand from camp—talk the good talk! Be polite, ask questions, and make earnest conversation, and you’ll be making friends in no time. Pictures are a great thing to remember acquaintances by, but nothing compares to the connection you can foster with another human being through something as basic as a little chit-chat.

A happy group of safari-goers enjoying a breakfast with their chefs
A happy group of safari-goers enjoying a breakfast with their chefs

8. Enjoy Every Moment

Breathe deep.

There’s so much to take in at any given moment on safari, whether you’re in the thick of the action or savoring a blissful few moments of complete serenity. At times a cavalcade of sound, smell, and sight, and at others a gentle, immersive panacea for the modern world, your time here is ultimately finite—be sure to let yourself enjoy each and every moment to the fullest. 

This is hardly a rule or a requirement, but instead a friendly mantra. You’re going to have an amazing time here. Go with the flow, and let it carry you away.

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