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Your First Safari Holiday

January 13th 2016  |   Botswana, Kenya, Countries, Namibia, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Zanzibar and islands  |  by   Richard Smith
Elephants by the pool at Phinda Lodge South Africa

You’ve seen Big Cat Diary, watched Out Of Africa, and sat breathlessly through numerous wildlife documentaries narrated by David Attenborough. Now you want to go on your first safari holiday.

  • Where should you go?
  • What can you see?
Giraffe in front of the lodge by river, Chitwa Chitwa, Kruger, South Africa

Giraffe in front of the lodge, Chitwa Chitwa, Kruger, South Africa

Which Country For Your First Safari Holiday?

Africa is huge, with the USA, China and Europe easily fitting within its landmass. Even the wildlife areas are massive, with South Africa’s Kruger National Park roughly equal to the size of Wales.

Yellow biplane on a runway

Biplane, Lewa Conservancy, Kenya – Lewa Wilderness

To some degree asking which country for your first safari is approaching the question from the wrong direction.

Better to ask:

  • What time of year do I want to go on holiday?
  • What animals do I want to see?
  • What activities, including time on the beach, would I like?
  • How much do I want to spend?

The answers to these then narrow down your choice.

What time of year to travel?

Year-round there’s somewhere in safari Africa with good weather and great wildlife viewing. Typically you’d avoid much of southern African in January and February, while you would probably not holiday in Kenya or Tanzania at Easter.


That said you shouldn’t always discount a region during the rains. It’s when many animals give birth, the light is fabulous for photography and lower temperatures mean animals are active for longer during the day.

“It does not stop to amaze me how some people are set in their opinions based on hearsay. I live in Zambia and Malawi and what we call rainy season here, Europeans would call a pleasant cooling shower. Granted a very heavy shower but normally very brief. This part of the year though is absolutely mind blowing; Africa comes back to live, the scenery is lush and the skies dramatic. Most people living in our part of the world would say that April and May are their favourite time of the year, but it is still our low season. Go figure.” (Ton de Rooy – Managing Director at Robin Pope Safaris)

What animals do I want to see?

With regards to wildlife, most of the famous African safari countries have lions, elephants, giraffe, zebra, and hippos, but if there’s something specific you want to see on holiday, you need to add that into the planning. Zambia, for example is renowned for great leopard sightings, while if you want to see the wildebeest migration then head to Kenya’s Masai Mara or the rolling plains of the Serengeti in Tanzania. If you want to track mountain gorillas you need to go to Rwanda or Uganda.

Left field quad Sossusvlei_desert_lodge_Quadbiking14

Quad biking thrills at Sossusvlei Desert Lodge, Namibia

What safari activities do I want to do?

A safari and beach combination is one of the most popular holiday types and this is where countries like Kenya and Tanzania, with their Indian Ocean coast lines, and easy access to Zanzibar come to the fore. Of course other countries work too but you might have to transit through Johannesburg.

If you want a riding safari then Botswana, Namibia, Tanzania, South Africa and Kenya will be your first-choice destinations. If it’s Mount Kilimanjaro you want to climb then it is Tanzania you should visit.

There are certain countries where you can do great walking safaris or canoe safaris and others were you can’t – an expert will point you to the right destination.

If you are taking children on their first safari with the family make sure that you choose a good variety of activities as even the most enthusiastic wildlife addict will get bored spending hours on a 4×4.

“Lots of people know of Botswana and South Africa, but are surprised by what Zambia and Namibia can offer – trust your tour operator; they’ve travelled a lot and do this for a living!” (Roberto Viviani – Business Manager at Wilderness Safaris)


Okavango Delta boat game viewing, image credit &Beyond, Botswana

What about the cost?

Running a small smart safari camp in a private wildlife area in a remote region is expensive so the cost of a safari can be an unpleasant shock to those on their first African holiday. The good news is that most things are included, so there is little more to pay, and there are ways to bring down the cost such as joining a small group, taking internal road, rather than air, transfers, or visiting outside high season.

How does a day on safari work?

While it depends slightly on which country and national parks you choose, your days on an African holiday are set up to ensure you see as much wildlife as possible.

A pleasant surprise for those on their first safari comes at dawn as tea or coffee is brought to your room or tent and a soft ‘Jambo’ is called out to wake you. Although it’s early you’re being encouraged out of bed as first light is prime wildlife viewing time.

Tea at Klein's Camp, Serengeti, Tanzania

Early morning tea and coffee at Klein’s Camp, Serengeti, Tanzania

As the sun edges over the horizon, predators such as lions and leopards are returning from their nocturnal activities, while scavengers like hyenas and jackals are hoping to get some scraps from any successful hunts. In a vehicle you can cover a fair amount of ground and while you’re looking for these ‘big ticks’ you’ll also see numerous antelope, zebra, buffalo, and giraffes as well. Typically morning wildlife drives are up to four hours, with a coffee break mid-way through or perhaps even a second breakfast in the bush.

Ol Donyo Riding Tea Break Kenya Great Plains Conservation

Tea break at Ol Donyo Riding Kenya image credit Great Plains Conservation

Sometimes you’ll just sit in one place and watch what comes to you.

“The best game drive I’ve ever had was one of the first: an epic 16 hour effort on the Masai Mara‘s Paradise Plains in 1998. We’d met a hunting cheetah – hungry and hollow-bellied – shortly after sunrise. We followed her as she locked onto a herd of Thomson’s gazelles, expecting the hunt to be over in minutes. But she wanted to be certain, and she made us wait. All day. Other vehicles whizzed by but we stayed put. The temperature rose. We sweated. wildebeest wandered past. A hyena sniffed us. Zebras fought and rollers hunted. I watched an agama lizard for way too long while the Thomson’s grazed and the cheetah bided her sweet time. In the late afternoon a lion wandered through, oblivious of the cheetah. Later still, a young bataleur lost a battle over a dead puff adder with a band of mongoose / mongeese/ mongi. At last, just before sunset, the cheetah made her move. And totally stuffed it up. Sunburned and dehydrated, we drove back to camp having learned our lesson. That lesson? Stay put, become part of the landscape, and Africa will come to you.” (Chris Haslam – Award winning travel journalist at the Sunday Times)

Lunchtime gives you the chance for a siesta or the opportunity to go through the hundreds of photos you’ve taken and decide which are worth keeping. Mid-afternoon tea and cakes fortify you prior to your afternoon wildlife activity.

As the day cools your wildlife drive might stop for a ‘sundowner’ at a waterhole or riverbank where you’ll see animals come to drink. Hippos and crocodiles are ever-present, as are water-birds. Elephants need a lot of water and in the dry season they are wonderful to watch as they rush the final metres with youngsters rushing ahead of parents like children on a beach.

phinda homestead elephants

Elephants having a drink Phinda Homestead, South Africa

Whatever you do, you’ll end your holiday with plenty of photos and even more incredible memories.

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What Next?

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