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Planning Your Safari

For many, Africa's main draw is its wildlife, notably in eastern and south-central countries: The International Union for Conservation of the Nature and Natural Resources estimates that more than 800 different species of mammals roam the continent. An easy way to watch wildlife is to book a private or group safari, known as an overland journey. Since safaris are often once-in-a-lifetime adventures, it's crucial to get it right the first time. Here's how:

Choosing the Right Safari

Determine what you want out of the experience, recommends Christine Dolan, who's taken more than 50 African safaris. The great wildlife migration of East Africa? The gorillas in Central Africa? Elephants or leopards? Animal watching via horseback, elephant trek, walking tour, or mountain trek? Flying between destinations, or driving? Staying at an enclosed campsite or an unfenced one? The lap of bush luxury or a minimalist bush camp?

Researching Your Options

Get recommendations: "Talk to veteran safari goers," says Jennifer Lawson, who produced a TV series on Africa for National Geographic. If operators are uncomfortable providing contacts for past clients, ask them to pass along your own contact information and request a reference call. If they refuse, move on.

Consult a book: Steve Krenzen, founder of the Association of Professional Safari Guides, recommends the African Safari Journal by Mark Nolting. Another expert recommendation: Lonely Planet's "Africa" series, which offers 34 Africa-related guides, including Watching Wildlife in East Africa and Trekking in East Africa.

Go online: The Web has thousands of pages devoted to Africa travel. In this Africa Travel Planner, we offer dozens of websites to take the guesswork out of planning your journey.

Deciding How Long to Stay

Mike Nesbitt, president of the African Safari Company, recommends taking a safari that lasts at least ten days so you can experience more than one park. "But don't try to do more than two countries during a two-week trip," says Nesbitt. "Otherwise you'll spend too much time at airports and be forced to stay overnight in big cities. Flight schedules between countries are usually only once a day, if that, and frequently don't connect conveniently." Shorter safaris are rewarding if well arranged. You can visit the Maasai Mara in Kenya in three days, for instance, because it's a small park. If exploring a bigger region, such as the Serengeti, "you could easily spend eight to ten days and never be bored," says Nesbitt.

Evaluating an Operator

Here's what to ask a potential tour company. If you hang up the phone unsatisfied, look elsewhere.

Do staff members regularly travel to Africa, especially to parts where their tours are conducted? "It's a surprising—even frightening—fact that many of the agents advising clients on visiting Africa have never been there," says Nolting.

Does the company use a variety of accommodations (camps, lodges, or hotels), or must they use ones they have contracts with? Many travelers to the African bush spend serious cash—safaris can cost $15,000 or more, though prices vary from operator to operator. So pick a flexible company that can grant your wishes.

Are they open to making customized safaris based on your travel needs? Since a safari to Africa is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for most, be sure to get exactly what you want. There are hundreds of itineraries out there, but if they don't meet your criteria, then design your own.

Do they accept credit cards? Some companies don't. "A policy of non-acceptance of credit cards should raise a big red flag," says Nolting.

How long has the company been in business? An indication of a solid track record is a company that's been around for at least ten years, because they've survived the Gulf War, says Nolting. Though fought in the Middle East, the war caused many companies that catered to Africa travel (and other nearby regions) to go out of business, because some travelers were more fearful of terrorist attacks overseas.

Does the International Air Transport Association or the Airlines Reporting Corporation license the company? Companies with in-house air departments can handle your international and inter-Africa flights. That way, if a flight is cancelled or the departure time is changed your operator can immediately "go to Plan B," says Nolting.

Is your operator willing to take you to villages that surround the park preserves? Villages can provide a memorable taste of African culture. Around some game parks (parks created in wildlife eco-systems to earn revenue from tourists), "tourist villages" are set up to imitate village life for tourists. A better bet: the real villages located farther away from the park, where you can interact with locals living their lives—not staging a performance.

Does the operator use your dollars to benefit the local economy and protect the local environment? Conservation efforts in Africa are slowly improving, especially when local people receive the benefits of nature tourism. You can help by choosing safari operators that hire and train local people, support local operations such as schools and conservation programs, give you the chance to buy local crafts and other products, and take care not to harm the environment.

For example, Wilderness Safaris—which runs camps in countries such as South Africa, Botswana, and Namibia—builds walkways from natural materials to prevent trampling of natural wildlife habitats. Luca Safari Limited in Kenya hires only guides from the local Maasai tribe. Robin Pope Safaris in Zambia donates a portion of its proceeds to a local school it built. (To book a safari with any of these operators, contact the Boulder, Colorado-based African Baobab Safaris, +1 303 473 0950.) The high-end Conservation Corporation of Africa is the continent's largest eco-tourism operator (see our Operators Our Experts Recommend section).

Traveling with a Group

Most people book safaris with a private guide, but some opt for a group experience. Keep groups small, warns Nolting. "The people in the first vehicle see game, while those in the vehicle behind eat dust," he says. Go with no more than six or eight people. Booking privately does not necessarily mean greater cost, says Nolting. "A private group of four or more can often travel with us for the same price as a group of 16 or 20."

Deciding How Far in Advance to Plan

If all you want is a standard group lodge safari to Kenya or Tanzania, then planning three to six months in advance will suffice, says Nolting. If, on the other hand, you want top safari camps, notable lodges, or renowned guides, book a year or more in advance. "Many top specialists have most of their time already booked up a year or more in advance," says Nolting. For extra security when booking in advance, purchase trip cancellation insurance. (Check out Travel Insured.)

Operators Our Experts Recommend

Conservation Corporation of Africa (CC Africa)
High-end safaris offered by the continent's largest eco-tourism operator. A variety of land, air, and river packages in six different countries, including Botswana, Kenya, and South Africa, are backed by 30 years of experience. Headquartered in South Africa.

African Baobab Safaris
Customized safaris and cultural trips, with an emphasis on natural history, in nine southern and eastern Africa countries, backed by Brian Cockburn, a wildlife biologist. Also books safaris with environmentally conscious local operators, such as Wilderness Safaris, Luca Safari Limited, and Robin Pope Safaris.

The African Safari Company
A variety of land, air, and river tours in eight countries—including Egypt, South Africa, Kenya, and Tanzania—ranging from 10 days to three weeks. Based in the U.S.

The Africa Adventure Company
Travels to more than eight countries, including Kenya, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Namibia, with specialized itineraries geared toward families and honeymooners. Based in the U.S.

The Association of Professional Safari Guides
A U.S. guide association that arranges 25 different packages with local guides in over ten countries, including Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Uganda, and Egypt. Customized safaris available.

Recommended Reading:

Africa's Top Wildlife Countries, by Mark Nolting (Globe Travel Publishers, 2000)
A definitive guide to safari-planning with information on safari options, game reserves, ideal travel times, the best wildlife-watching countries, and more.

The African Safari Journal, by Mark Nolting (Globe Travel Publishers, 2001)
Information about prime safari destinations in Africa—plus packing lists, itineraries, weather resources, maps, a mammal guide, phrase guide, and more.

Field Guide to the Larger Mammals of Africa, by Chris and Tilde Stuart (Ralph Curtis Publishers, 1998)
Detailed information on primates, hoofed mammals, elephants, and more—plus, details on breeding habits, behavior patterns, and geological area.

The Behavior Guide to African Mammals: Including Hoofed Mammals, Carnivores, Primates, by Richard Despard Estes (University of California Press, 1991)
Information on African animals' behavior patterns based on the author's extensive fieldwork and the research of other scientists.

Africa's Vanishing Wildlife, by Chris and Tilde Stuart (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996)
Detailed information on endangered and already extinct African animals.

African Elephants: A Celebration of Majesty, by Daryl and Sharna Balfour (Abbeville Press, 1998)
Stunning photography that reveals the life patterns of African elephants.

Cats of Africa, by Paul Bosman and Anthony Hall-Martin (Smithsonian Institute Press, 1998)
An illustrated account, featuring the paintings and drawings of Paul Bosman that chronicle the life, history, and future of African cats.

Wildlife of Southern Africa: A Field Guide to the Animals and Plants of the Region, by Vincent Carruthers (New Holland/Struik, 2001)
A detailed reference guide for animals and plants living in southern Africa, including mammals, fish, frogs, reptiles, insects, and arachnids.

Wild Ways: A Field Guide to Mammal Behavior in Southern Africa, by Peter Apps and Stephany Waisler (Southern Book Publishers of South Africa, 1997)
A guide to southern Africa's mammals, their behavioral patterns, and their lifestyles.

Birds of Kenya and Northern Tanzania, by Dale A. Zimmerman, Donald A. Turner, David J. Pearson, and Ian Willis (Princeton University Press, 1999)
A reference to indigenous bird life in a region of Africa that offers some of the greatest bird-watching in the world.

Running Wild: Dispelling the Myths of the African Wild Dogs, by John McNutt, Lesley Boggs, Helene Heldring, and Dave Hamman (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997)
A chronicle of the life of the endangered wild dog, which roams the savannas of sub-Saharan Africa.

Last Chance to See, by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine (Ballantine Books, 1992)
An account of an author's and a zoologist's quest to see Africa's endangered animals.

The End of the Game: The Last Word From Paradise, by Peter Beard (Chronicle Books 2000)
A black-and-white photo history, with over 300 images, of African wildlife that focuses on the widespread destruction of the African elephant population.

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