How to plan an African safari

A safari to where the wild things are

Mingle with elephants, lions and gorillas for as little as $300 a day

(Robert Ginn/Getty)

(Robert Ginn/Getty)

An African safari is one of life’s grandest adventures. To our grandparents’ generation such a trip was as likely as a trip to the moon, but today this journey is within reach of most travellers.

Where you go depends on what you want to see. With a dozen countries to choose from, start by deciding whether you’d like to go to east Africa, (which includes Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda), or southern Africa, (Zimbabwe, South Africa, Zambia, Botswana and Namibia). Narrow it down further based on the wildlife you’d like to see. Africa’s Big Five—elephants, lions, leopards, rhinos and Cape buffalo—are found in many parts of southern Africa, Kenya and Tanzania. But if your dream is to see mountain gorillas, Uganda is your destination. Southern Africa is where you’ll find lions, leopards and cheetahs while Kenya’s Amboseli has impressive herds of up to 100 elephants.

You’ll find a wealth of accommodation options. Start by budgeting $300 a day per person, without air. For that, you’ll get an authentic tented camp experience in a park or a wildlife reserve. Still, if money is no object, remote luxury camps will set you back about $750 a day.

Plan for a week to see at least two different regions to maximize your wildlife viewing possibilities. But if you want to visit two or more countries, plan for two weeks, or longer.

You can organize your adventure through an Africa travel specialist, who will create a trip that matches both your expectations and your pocketbook. “I start by asking the ages of all the travellers in the group, the budget and their expectations,” says Cheryl Collins of My Escapades Travel in Mississauga. “Then I’ll prepare an itinerary, often in modules, with different sections of the trip devoted to different things, like wildlife, wine tasting or Mandela history tours—because a lot of people get animalled-out.”

When travel writer Loren Christie visited Kenya on assignment for CTV’s Canada AM, he stayed in luxurious Fairmont hotels and hopped around Africa in a chartered plane. A year later, he returned with his partner and their nephew on a tighter budget—$3,500 per person for an eight-day safari. His budget was low as you can go. “I finally found a safari that was discounted by 25% and a seat sale on KLM that was $1,600 round trip, from Toronto to Nairobi. But you’ve got to be flexible.”

The accommodations were basic—platform tents and shared bathrooms—and the food no-nonsense. But the wildlife was every bit as plentiful and diverse as it was on Christie’s first trip. And his nephew was gobsmacked: “Eighteen was the perfect age to go,” says Christie. “The whole time, his eyes were out of his head, his mind blown. That was priceless.”

Because of their cost, many travellers leave safari vacations to later in life. While age doesn’t preclude a safari, “you have to be healthy,” says Collins. Peter and Leslie Barton are well-travelled seniors who often plan their trips, but when it came to Africa, they were happy to leave it to G Adventures. “They offer very well-organized trips,” says Peter. “And if no one else books the trip you’re on, it still goes ahead.”

Consider booking three to six months ahead for most trips. But if you want to do something specialized in Uganda or Botswana, where there are fewer camps, book a year in advance. Follow your favourite countries on Twitter and Facebook, and keep an eye out for special offers by signing up for email newsletters from tourism boards.

You can save a lot by travelling off-season, and be sure to avoid Kenya and Tanzania during the Great Migration, when two million wildebeest and zebra journey from the Serengeti plains in Tanzania to the grasslands of the Maasai Mara in Kenya. Thousands of tourists time their trips to see this sight, but crowds are a given and the costs are double.

Finally, if you’re an experienced traveller on a budget, you can opt for a self-drive holiday. When Rashida Jeeva returned to her native South Africa recently with her kids, she opted to stay in a time-share just outside Kruger National Park. “We drove into the park each morning and went back to the suite whenever we wanted to. You could return to the park for night safaris and candlelight dinners, or stay back for sundowner cocktails around the campfire.” The money you’ll save can be spent on outdoor activities, like hot air balloon rides or dune boarding in the Namib desert.

Safaris—though expensive—are also the most egalitarian. The animals don’t care how much you’ve spent; they show up regardless. And you can have the same mind-blowing experience whether you’re spending $300—or $1,500—a day. The memories will always be priceless.