African Safari Travel Tips: 20 Top Things to Know Before Going on Your First Safari

Welcome to the wild and wonderful world of African safaris! If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably dreamed about going on an African safari for as long as you can remember. The thought of being immersed in the breathtaking landscapes, encountering majestic wildlife, and creating unforgettable memories is simply irresistible. Well, guess what? I FINALLY had the opportunity to embark on my first safari, and let me tell you, it was an experience like no other. But here’s the best part: I learned so much along the way, and now I’m here to share my top 20 African safari travel tips with all of you.

From picking the right time to visit to packing the right gear, and from capturing jaw-dropping photographs to avoiding the less pleasant nuisances (dust, malaria), these tips will help ensure that your first safari is nothing short of extraordinary. So, grab your binoculars, pack your khaki, and join me as we delve into the 20 things you need to know before going on your first African safari!

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Overview: African Safari Travel Tips

In case you need it, here are your top African safari travel tips and the best things to know before going on your first safari. I get into loads of detail below, but keep this list as a cheat sheet!

  1. Pick the Best Time to go on Safari
  2. Plan for At Least 1 Week
  3. Incorporate a Rest Day After Your Flight
  4. Pack Light
  5. Plan for Laundry
  6. Dress the Part
  7. Prepare for Cold, Heat, Rain, & Sun
  8. Purchase (or Rent) Quality Camera Gear
  9. Take lots of Photos
  10. Bring Binoculars
  11. Decision Time: Private Guide vs. Group
  12. Wake Up Early
  13. Bathroom on Safari
  14. Prepare for Dust
  15. Be Medically Prepared
  16. Enjoy Sundowners
  17. Snack Time
  18. Patience is Key
  19. Communicate with Your Guide
  20. Bring Cash for Tips

1. Pick the Best Time to go on Safari

Choosing the best time to go on safari is a key factor in ensuring an incredible wildlife experience. I went to Tanzania in the first week of September, precisely when the Great Migration of wildebeest was putting on its grand show across the Mara River. From July to October, millions of wildebeest, zebras, and gazelle journey across the Serengeti in the “Great Migration.” But the real showstopper is the river crossing—wildebeest braving crocodile-infested waters and avoiding rampaging hippos. One word of advice, though: during popular times like the Great Migration, top safari lodges and tour operators can fill up over a year in advance.

Great Migration river crossing
Great Migration

However, it’s important to note that the best time to go on safari may vary depending on the specific wildlife sightings you desire and the region you plan to visit. Each season and month offers unique experiences and opportunities, from calving season to the epic river crossings.

In general, the dry season, which typically occurs in winter months, tends to be high season; vegetation is thinner and wildlife tends to congregate around water sources, making animals easier to spot. However, it’s worth noting that the dry season can also be the busiest and most expensive period, as it attracts a larger number of tourists.

On the other hand, you have wet season, which typically occurs in the summer months. The landscape becomes lush and vibrant, and you have more newborn animals. For example, wildebeest calving season usually occurs in the Southern Serengeti in the January-March timeframe, so if seeing baby wildebeest is your ultimate goal, this is your time to go! Although game viewing can be more challenging due to thicker foliage, the wet season tends to have fewer crowds and lower rates for accommodations.

2. Plan for At Least 1 Week

Stay longer than you think! When it comes to going on an African safari, it’s crucial to allocate enough time for your adventure. While you may be tempted to squeeze it into a few days, trust me, you’ll want to extend your stay. The captivating landscapes and incredible wildlife sightings deserve more than just a fleeting visit – every day is different and catching sight of the animals in their natural habitats almost becomes addicting!

I’d recommend allocating at least a week to your safari adventure. Plus, the flights from the US tend to be ridiculous (I think ours was around 30 hours), so I definitely was not in any hurry to get back on the plane and rush home. You won’t regret it, and your safari experience will be all the more rewarding.

3. Incorporate a Rest Day

After a long journey to Africa, it’s essential to allow yourself some time to rest and adjust to the new time zone before embarking on your safari adventure. Consider scheduling a rest day upon arrival to recharge your energy and acclimate to the surroundings. Use this day to relax, explore the area, and get a sense of the local culture. It will ensure that you start your safari feeling refreshed and ready for the incredible experiences that lie ahead.

I am usually not one to pencil in a rest day, but I cannot stress this enough. I landed at 10pm the night before and in no way would have been ready to go on safari the following day. Instead, I caught up on sleep, enjoyed a fresh breakfast, and then spent some time at Kikuletwa Hot Springs. If you’re going on safari in Tanzania and flying into Arusha, I would highly recommend this as a chill day 1 option. This is one of the key African safari travel tips for first-timers.

Kikuletwa Hot Springs - view from the entry
Kikuletwa Hot Springs

Recommended Tour: Kikuletwa Hot Springs Tour

4. Pack Light

When preparing for your African safari, it’s essential to pack light and efficiently. Keep in mind the baggage allowance on bush planes, as they often have strict weight restrictions. The restrictions also vary by airline. Some allow 15kg (33 lbs), while others allow 20kg (44lbs); some are super strict about hard-sided bags, while others are more lenient. It is definitely worth to investigate in advance.

When packing, choose versatile clothing items that can be easily layered and re-worn. This allows you to maximize your outfit options while minimizing the amount of luggage you need to bring. Plus, some safari camps offer laundry services, so you can refresh your clothes during your stay. I was able to get laundry done mid-trip, so I really only needed a handful of outfits. Plus, you can easily re-wear pants day over day.

5. Plan for Laundry

Speaking of laundry…when it comes to laundry on safari, many hotels offer convenient laundry services to keep your clothes fresh and clean during your adventure. However, it’s important to note that for cultural reasons, the staff do not handle the washing of women’s undergarments, so you’ll need to take care of these items yourselves.

Keep in mind that in more remote or mobile migration camps, laundry facilities might not be readily available, so seize the opportunity to do laundry when it’s offered. I had access to laundry at both of my traditional hotels, but it was not available at the migration camp. Making the most of the available options ensures that you’ll be able to pack minimally and have clean clothing throughout your safari experience.

6. Dress the Part

Dressing the part for a safari is one of the most talked about African safari travel tips. When venturing into the wild, it’s important to dress appropriately to adapt to the environment and weather conditions. Go for lightweight, breathable clothing in neutral colors such as khaki, light grey, light blue, and olive green. These colors help you blend in with the environment. If you’re wondering how in the world to look cute while rocking khaki, don’t worry! I put together a guide on what to wear on safari for women.

Choose long-sleeved shirts and pants to protect yourself from the sun, bugs, and prickly grass. Don’t forget a wide-brimmed hat to shield yourself from the sun’s rays and questionable hair days! Comfortable closed-toe shoes are a must for walking safaris, and I also preferred them even on game drives for whenever I exited the vehicle (bathroom time). Layering is key as temperatures can vary throughout the day, so pack a fleece for chilly mornings or evenings.

7. Prepare for Cold, Heat, Rain, & Sun

Africa’s climate can be unpredictable, so it’s crucial to come prepared for all types of weather conditions. While the days may be warm and sunny, the evenings and early mornings can get quite chilly. Pack a mix of lightweight and warm clothing, including long-sleeved shirts, fleece jackets, and a good pair of comfortable closed-toe shoes. Don’t forget a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen to protect yourself from the African sun. Additionally, pack a raincoat in case of sudden rain showers.

During my time in Tanzania, I can confirm that I experienced 40 degree swings in temps during a single day, sudden downpours, tons of dust, and plenty of African heat. Being prepared for various weather scenarios ensures that you can fully enjoy your safari adventure, rain or shine.

8. Purchase (or Rent) Quality Camera Gear

Photography plays a significant role in capturing the magic of your African safari adventure. Invest in quality camera gear to ensure you can capture those memorable moments of hippos yawning, lion cubs playing, and rhinos charging across the Serengeti at sunrise (yes, we saw all of that!)

lion clubs playing on the Serengeti - purchase or rent quality camera gear. This is one of the key African safari travel tips!

If you don’t have your own equipment, consider renting professional-grade cameras and lenses from reputable providers. Having the right gear will enable you to capture stunning wildlife shots and breathtaking landscapes. You may be tempted to quit your job and become the newest member of the Nat Geo photography team…I know I was! Make sure to familiarize yourself with your equipment before your safari, so you can make the most of every photographic opportunity. Safari photography is very different than my traditional travel photography (people and landscapes), so I’d definitely recommend exploring the best camera settings for safari photography and these African safari photography tips!

9. Take Lots of Photos

Prepare to channel your inner wildlife paparazzi! On the first day of your safari, you might find yourself in a frenzy, snapping away at zebras like a camera-crazed tourist. And that’s perfectly understandable (and definitely what I did)! However, as the days go by and you’ve accumulated numerous wildlife photos, you’ll likely become more selective in snapping pictures. By the last day, the only times a zebra made it onto my camera roll was if it was an adorable baby, all fuzzy and irresistibly cute, and the one time when a zebra walked onto the airport runway in the Serengeti – that was a sight to see!

fuzzy baby zebra on the Serengeti with its mom
Baby zebra with its mom

In any case, let your camera lens capture the extraordinary moments, the mischievous antics of wildlife (we got to see two male giraffes in a ridiculous neck-swinging fight over a female giraffe), and the jaw-dropping sunsets over the Serengeti. Get creative, experiment with different angles, and remember to take the time to appreciate the animals in person and not just through your camera’s viewfinder.

two male giraffes fighting over a female giraffe
Male giraffes fighting

10. Bring Binoculars

Bringing a pair of binoculars on your safari is one of my top African safari travel tips. It allows you to get a closer look at the incredible wildlife that may be far off in the distance. Even with contacts, I have pretty horrendous eyesight, so my binoculars were an absolute lifesaver! We spotted our first lion through the binoculars and caught a good view of a leopard lounging in a tree, as well. Some safaris do provide binoculars for their guests, but it by no means a given, so I would recommend checking in before your safari.

leopard lounging in a tree on the Serengeti in Tanzania
Leopard in a tree

11. Decision Time: Private Guide vs. Group

When planning a safari, one important decision to make is whether to choose a private guide or group safari experience. Group safaris are typically slightly cheaper as the costs are shared among a larger number of participants. However, keep in mind that group safaris typically have fixed departure times and itineraries, which may limit your flexibility. Additionally, you’ll be sharing the safari vehicle with other travelers, all of whom may have different preferences. This can sometimes lead to compromises on the specific sightings or activities you’d like to prioritize. Another aspect to consider is the seating arrangement in the vehicle. With a group safari, you may not always get the best seat for optimal wildlife viewing or photography.

On the other hand, private safaris offer more freedom and flexibility. While they tend to be more expensive, you have the luxury of designing your own itinerary, choosing your preferred departure date and time, and tailoring the experience to your specific interests. You’ll have the vehicle all to your group, ensuring maximum comfort and the freedom to spend as much time as you desire at each sighting. For me, I decided on a private guide so that I could have all of the flexibility in deciding my itinerary. If you are comfortable with the higher budget, I would absolutely recommend this option.

perks of a private guide on the Serengeti

12. Wake Up Early

One of the most thrilling aspects of an African safari is observing wildlife in their natural habitat. Animals are most active during the early morning and evening, making these the prime times for game drives and wildlife viewing. Trust me on this…most times we saw lions during the day, they were stretched out and snoozing.

male lion sleeping on the Serengeti
Lion during the daytime

Set your alarm clock and embrace the early wake-up calls. By venturing out at dawn, you’ll have the chance to witness incredible animal behaviors, catch stunning sunrises over the Serengeti, and enjoy the peacefulness of the wilderness before the heat of the day sets in.

safari camera settings at sunrise
Serengeti at Sunrise

13. Bathroom on Safari

When nature calls on safari, it’s a unique experience that requires a bit of creativity. The bathroom situation in the wilderness is obviously quite different from the comforts of home. To give you an idea…my most common “bathroom” on the Serengeti was behind any number of tall termite mounds.

Remember, your safari guide is there to ensure your safety, and that even extends to bathroom breaks. Before bathroom breaks, they’ll scout the area to make sure it’s clear of any potential danger. Ladies, you might hear your guide suggesting to “pick a flower” as a discreet euphemism, while gentlemen may be asked if they’d like to “check the tires.” It’s all part of the adventure, so embrace the humor and follow their lead. Just remember to respect the environment and leave no trace behind.

14. Prepare for Dust

Dust, the not-so-glamorous companion on your safari adventure. As a contact lens wearer, I quickly learned the art of keeping my eyes protected from the ever-present dust. Carry extra contact lens solution, eye drops, and a spare pair of lenses, just in case. I’d also recommend keeping your sunglasses on – even when it’s not that sunny – they work great as an extra layer of protection for your eyes. A handy bandana is also helpful to pull up over your mouth during particularly dusty patches.

wear a bandana to keep dust out of your face during safari
Wear a bandana when it is really dusty

And don’t forget about your camera lenses! Dust has a sneaky way of finding its way onto them, causing potential smudges. Keep a lens cleaning kit in your day bag for quick lens cleaning, and keep your lens cap on when not using the camera. Remember, dust may be inevitable, but with a bit of preparation, you’ll be ready to conquer the dusty safari trails like a pro!

15. Be Medically Prepared

Being medically prepared is one of the key African safari travel tips for first-timers. Before your trip, make sure you visit a travel clinic or consult with your healthcare provider, and check the CDC’s recommendations to ensure you are up to date on any recommended vaccinations.

In addition, make sure to pack some bug spray to protect you from those pesky bugs and potential diseases they may carry. You won’t find a convenient CVS in the heart of the Serengeti, so it’s crucial to pack a well-stocked first-aid kit that includes essential items like band-aids, Cortaid, Advil, Pepto, and any personal medications you may require. Taking these precautions will provide peace of mind and ensure that you’re ready to handle any minor health concerns that may arise during your safari expedition.

lion cub on the Serengeti

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16. Enjoy Sundowners

Ah, the magical time when the sun begins its descent over the Serengeti. It’s the perfect moment to unwind and indulge in a tradition long cherished by safari-goers – the legendary “sundowners.” Picture this: sipping on your favorite beverage, feeling the gentle breeze on your face, and toasting to the day’s wildlife encounters. This was definitely one tradition I could get behind. Cheers to nature’s happy hour!

17. Snack Time

Snack time on safari is a delightful surprise that adds an extra touch of magic to your wildlife adventure. During my first game drive in Tarangire National Park, our safari guide announced a break for morning tea and snacks. I was totally unsure of what to expect considering that we were surrounded by water buffalo and in the middle of nowhere. Cue my surprise when we get hot tea, delightful biscuits, and more – all served on a checkered tablecloth! And it wasn’t just our first day…every morning and afternoon that we were out on safari, we were treated to a delightful spread for snack time. I was 100% on board with this custom!

tea time on the Serengeti
Tea time on the Serengeti

18. Patience is Key

When it comes to safari adventures, patience truly is key. Animals in the wild operate on their own time, and definitely don’t adhere to any schedule. It’s important to embrace this unpredictability and understand that the best sightings often come to those who wait. If you find yourself waiting at a specific spot during your game drive, trust that your guide has a good reason for it. Safari guides are experts in their field and have an uncanny ability to anticipate animal behavior.

To give you an idea…for the wildebeest river crossing (photo below), we waited on and off for nearly six hours! During that time, we would sometimes go and look at other animals, but we never strayed far from the river. We had seen smaller crossings while we were there, but this crossing was on a completely different scale with thousands of wildebeest all crossing at once. The crossing was a huge bucket list item for me, and I am SOOO glad that I had the patience to wait it out. Even if you impatient like me, remember that patience is one of the most important African safari travel tips.

wildebeest migration in Northern Serengeti, Tanzania
Great Migration Wildebeest Crossing

19. Communicate with Your Guide

When on safari, don’t hesitate to ask your guide plenty of questions. They are a wealth of information and have quite literally studied for years to become a guide. However, it’s important to be mindful of your surroundings and respect the environment. You do not want to be “that person” who disrupts the tranquility by loudly calling out or making unnecessary noise at inopportune times. Instead, observe quietly and engage with your guide at appropriate moments.

Aside from learning from your guide, you also need to respect your guide and follow all safety rules. Respecting the instructions of your guide ensures that you navigate the safari experience in a way that minimizes potential risks. Safari guides are well-versed in reading animal behavior and will maintain a safe distance to ensure that the animals’ natural behavior is not disturbed while still working to provide you the best safari experience possible. Remember that we are guests and need to respect both the animals and their environment.

hippo with birds on its back on the banks of the Mara River in the Serengeti in Tanzania

20. Bring Cash for Tips

The last of your African safari travel tips is to bring plenty of cash to tip! Tipping on safari is an important aspect, as it helps show appreciation for the exceptional service provided by the staff. While tipping practices can vary between countries and lodges, it’s highly recommended to have some cash on hand to tip the guides, drivers, porters, camp staff, etc. Based on your destination and level of stay, I’d look into tipping suggestions to ensure you’re offering an appropriate amount. Remember, tipping is not mandatory, but it’s a gesture of gratitude that can make a positive impact on the hardworking individuals who make your safari experience truly remarkable.

That wraps up my top 20 African safari travel tips for first-timers. With these African safari travel tips in mind, you’ll be well-prepared to make the most of your adventure. From choosing the right time to go, packing the essentials, and embracing the thrill of wildlife encounters, your journey into the wild promises unforgettable moments and treasured memories. Remember, being a first-timer is an opportunity to embrace the unknown and let the wonders of the safari unfold before your eyes. Happy safari-ing!

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