Tips for Planning the Perfect African Safari

Featured on bucket lists everywhere and featuring in dreams of seasoned travelers the world over, an African safari is widely regarded as a once-in-a-lifetime kind of adventure. And with good cause—few other experiences offer the life-changing encounters and the perspective-shifting moments that define an incredible safari. 

It’s not too surprising, then, that they can be a handful to plan, whether it’s your first time out on the savannah or your fifth tour around the Serengeti. Here are a few tips to give you a head start at planning your perfect African safari.

Know When to Go on Africa Safari & Best time of year for African Safari

Figuring out the best time of year for your safari adventure isn’t so much about searching out “Africa’s Perfect Safari Month” or the “Best Safari Vacation in 2020”—there’s so much going on year-round in different locations that it really comes down to figuring out what it is that you want to experience, and when you want to make that happen. 

Considering a safari in July? Maybe you’d be interested in watching one of the world’s most exhilarating spectacles. This is when the Great Migration—all two million wildebeest and zebra and antelope of it—goes crashing across the crocodile-infested Mara river in northern Tanzania and into the safer grasslands of Kenya’s Maasai Mara.  At the same time of year, you could instead enjoy blissful serenity in the expansive southern reaches of Tanzania, like the Selous Game Reserve—or take advantage of superb gorilla trekking season in Uganda’s verdant Volcanoes National Park. 

Seasonality of East Africa weather and climate
Seasonality of East Africa weather and climate

Halfway across the calendar in January, there’s hardly a better season to hike up and around mighty Kilimanjaro, when the mountain air is dry and warm and the sun plentiful. Meanwhile, near Ndutu in Tanzania, thousands of newborn wildebeest enter the world while cheetahs and lions stalk the scene. Further west, over a thousand species of birds fill Uganda’s skies, and Rwanda’s rolling countryside shines with a natural beauty that is difficult to put words to. 

Around the year and across the land, there’s all of this and everything in between—pick your experiences and away we go. 

Essential packing items for an African Safari trip
Essential packing items for an African Safari trip

Prepare Your Safari Packing List

For a journey that by design includes a lot of outdoor activity and off-the-grid adventure, you want to make sure you’re properly prepared—the long-lived mantra of “know before you go” is crucial for penning a successful safari packing list. And since there’s sure to be lots of rumbling in land rovers and airstrip hopping in light prop planes, your luggage allotment is going to be limited. It’s time to get strategic.

Perhaps this is stating the obvious, but pack for what you’ll be doing—flip-flops don’t hold much value if you’re looking to hike deep into Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Mind the weather, whether it’s going to be raining non-stop or if there won’t be a drop—pack for coverage from water or sun as needed. Oh! Bug spray! And sunblock. And a proper wardrobe and technical gear, plus cameras and gadgets, gifts… it’s certainly a lot to consider. Luckily, there’s plenty of information out there to help you pull your packing list together (like this helpful little article of ours).

Research the Local African Culture

Safaris offer many opportunities to immerse yourself in local cultures, whether it’s spending a day visiting with villagers at a Maasai settlement in Kenya or hitting the urban streets of Uganda’s fast-growing capital city of Kampala. Either way, learning a bit about the residents and your hosts does everyone a world of good, and just goes that much further in improving your cultural and personal connections.

Taking a group picture at a Tanzania safari camp with the locals
Taking a group picture at a Tanzania safari camp with the locals

Knowing the local customs of behavior and dress are essential to being a good guest—but little things like a learned phrase in the local tongue can make quick friends of anyone. Say “sidai kinotote” when introducing yourself to a Maasai villager, and their smile will show that they’re quite pleased to meet you, too.

Pick Your National African Safari Parks

There are 83 national parks in East Africa, and though we’d love to design a trip that takes you through a whirlwind tour of every single one, odds are that you’ll want to narrow that list down a little bit. There’s every sort of place to choose from, whether it’s the tiny wetlands of Saiwa Swamp National Park in Kenya or the vast, untamed wilderness of central Tanzania’s sprawling Ruaha. 

Just dream up your desired experiences—imagine elephants looming larger than life in Amboseli, or picture yourself promoting primal peace with chimpanzees on Rubondo Island. Be sure to factor your timing into your planning, though. If you’re touring the Maasai Mara in August, you may find yourself swamped with tourists; similarly, visiting Katavi in January will find yourself swamped as well… with swamps. It’s a swamp.

Get Familiar with Africa’s Indigenous Wildlife

Africa is where the wild things are; over a thousand species of mammals call the continent home, and two and half times that many species of birds soar across the skies. That’s too many animals (probably by a few thousand) to read up on before you head out into the bush. But if you want to pick a few favorites and get a general idea, that’d do you just fine.

Beautiful lion found resting in the Kenya plains
Beautiful lion found resting in the Kenya plains

You’re likely familiar with the bigger players on the scene—some of them so famous that they’re grouped together in the vaulted “Big Five.” This is the land of elephants mingling among the baobab trees, lions yawning in the sun, cheetahs zipping through the grass, and flamingos staking out lakesides en masse. But rarer sights can delight as well—the antelope-gone-vogue sitatunga is a wonderful critter to come across, and a black rhino encounter is always arresting.

There’s quite the colorful cast of characters waiting for you out here—a little research ahead of time will help you figure out just where you’ll need to go to see just who you want to see.

Find an African Safari Planner to Help Make it a Reality

It’s entirely possible to pull all of these various elements into an amazing safari on your own. The park research, the packing list, the seasonal timing, the beastly checklist, the bookings—doing all of that ourselves year after year is exactly how we got to where we are now. And as incredible, illuminating, and hair-raising as all of that was, we’d just as soon save you the three decades of experience up front. The biggest tip we can give for planning the perfect African safari vacation? Find yourself an experienced safari planner to help turn your dream safari vacation into a reality. Fortunately, the planners here at Penwell Safaris are capable of doing just that!

Penwell Founder Kathy Harvey with African Safari Tour Guides
Penwell Founder Kathy Harvey with African Safari Tour Guides

You’re going to want someone who knows the ins and outs of the countries and national parks, what they have to offer, when to visit each, and when not to make that visit. Someone who’s been to the dozens of safari camps a few times over, visited each newcomer as they opened their canvassed flaps for the first time, knows the operators by name, and counts them as friends. An experienced travel planner who knows how to tie together all the transportation and booking elements into a seamless, expertly curated, personalized safari adventure exclusively and especially for you. Maybe someone who’s been welcomed into the local Maasai community, who has paddled back to camp in the middle of the night by the light of a thunderstorm, who… oh—too specific? Alright, alright, too specific. We do love that story, though. 

This is what we do at Penwell, and we love every bit of it. We have a little chit-chat, get to know you and what your safari dream is, work together on your personalized safari vacation, and then we turn that dream into a reality—without you having to do any of the work yourself. When you’re ready to seek out adventure in East Africa, get in touch with the trip planners at Penwell. Let’s write your safari adventure together.

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