Africa for First-Timers

By David Cogswell,, April 20, 2014

3D Lioness

PHOTO: A lioness in the brush at Thornybush Private Game Reserve in South Africa blends into her environment in a way that makes her almost invisible to her prey. (photo by David Cogswell)

Every year, Africa comes within the travel horizons of more Americans. Few Americans have ever been entirely oblivious to the exotic attractions of the African continent. From the time we first see pictures or movies of lions, elephants, rhinos, zebras and giraffes, most children harbor a wish to visit Africa for themselves some day. Because of professional tour operators, it is easier than ever to make that trip. For first-time safari takers, here are a few FAQs.

Can mainstream Americans actually go on safari?

Yes. Previous to mid-20th century, it was only a very privileged few who had the money and free time  necessary to experience an African safari. Transportation to the continent itself took weeks. So people could read about the safaris of Ernest Hemingway or Theodore Roosevelt, but few could dream of going themselves.

But in the 1960s, with the rise of transcontinental commercial air travel, some visionary people began setting up safari outfitting services that targeted Americans a little closer to the mainstream. Some of the early operators who first created commercial safari companies that targeted a more mainstream market are still in business today. American tour operators who pioneered African safaris included Mel Dulz, founder of Travcoa; Lars-Eric Lindblad, founder of Lindblad Travel, the father of Sven-Olof Lindblad, the founder of today’s Lindblad Expeditions; and Geoffrey Kent, founder of Abercrombie & Kent.

Indigenous African companies who started operations in the 1960s and are still in operation today taking Americans to Africa include Micato Safaris and Big Five Expeditions. In succeeding decades, this class of businesses has developed systems, best practices and skills of safari operation to very high levels. They have brought the safari within reach of broad mainstream of Americans and safari travel safe and comfortable so that travelers are freed from the hassles and dangers and able to focus on the adventure.

Of course the safari of today is far different from what Teddy Roosevelt or Ernest Hemingwy experienced. While safari takers in those days were often hunting and shooting and bringing back parts of dead animals, today’s safari goers are just looking, photographing and bringing back jpegs.

Where do you go when you go on safari?

Africa is as large enough to fit the U.S. inside its borders three times over. It has within it vast variations of terrain and climate, and a great variety of cultures, including various mixtures of colonial and pre-colonial cultures. All the ethnic groups in the world converge in Africa and have for centuries, perhaps eons.

For anyone who is ready to visit Africa for the first time, there are many possibilities to choose from.

The safaris business for Americans first developed in Kenya, in East Africa where the Great Migration brings a gigantic procession of wildlife through the Masai Mara every year. Every year the wildebeests and zebras follow the rainy season around east Africa in search of fresh grasses. The predators follow along and the spectacle and drama is never ending. It is perhaps the greatest pageantry of wildlife on the planet.

Gradually other African countries have come into the safari business, each one offering its own attractions and styles of safari travel.

Tanzania, Kenya’s next door neighbor was slower come into the safari business, but shares the attractions of Kenya and adds some of its own. Tanzania is the home of Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain and the highest free standing mountain in the world. Tanzania also has the Ngorongoro crater, and the greater part of the Serengeti plains, where the Great Migration takes place. The part of the Serengeti that extends into Kenya is called the Masai Mara.

A number of sub-saharan African countries have gotten into the safari business, each with its own special attractions. Uganda and Rwanda both have part of the mountain rainforest region that is home to the last few hundred surviving mountain gorillas. Zambia has become known for walking safaris. Botswana has the great inland delta, the Okavanga, which is home to a great variety of African wildlife.

Once cordoned off from the world because of its apartheid government, South Africa opened to the world after the fall of apartheid and the establishment of a new democratic government under the leadership of Nelson Mandela. After that change, South Africa became one of the most attractive African countries for Americans who want to go on safari.

South Africa has certain advantages for visitors, especially first-time visitors. Its cities, including Cape Town and Johannesburg, have first-world infrastructures. It makes it possible to mix a city stay in a world favorite city like Cape Town with a safari in Kruger National Park.

South Africa does not have the Great Migration of Kenya and Tanzania, so safaris take on a different character in which you are accompanied by a ranger and a tracker who are experts at finding wildlife from looking at clues in the environment, or through combined efforts of many observers across a wide area.

How much does a safari cost?

A safaris is much more accessible than most Americans probably imagine. There is no limit to how much you can spend. You can take a private jet trip that hops across Africa and gives you the chance to safari in many diverse regions. Abercrombie & Kent’s Africa: Across a Continent by Private Jet is priced from $82,995.

But it is also possible to book an introductory safari in South Africa that includes three nights in Cape Town and three nights in the bush. South African Airways Vacations’ Affordable Africa package comes in under $3,000 ($2,999) including transatlantic air. That includes all meals in the bush and breakfasts at the hotel in Cape Town. Considering also that the currency exchange rate in South Africa is very favorable to Americans, this is a stunning value.

The SAA Vacations package also has the advantage of flying you directly to South Africa. With most airlines, you have to go by way of a stop in Europe. So when you board SAA in New York or Washington, the African experience has already begun and there are no layovers between the U.S. and Africa.

Between $2,999 and $82,995, there are innumerable variations and possibilities.

What are the risks of disease?

Most doctors recommend following a basic program of vaccination when traveling to Africa, including many of the basics that Americans tend to get anyway, such as vaccines to protect against yellow fever, typhus, polio, typhoid, cholera, and tetanus. It’s a good idea to make sure you are up to date on your immunizations. Consult your doctor. You can also get some good background information from the Journal of the National Medical Association.

Most doctors recommend preventive medicine to protect against malaria, which usually means taking an antibiotic. Those who live in Africa of course do not take antibiotics constantly and protect themselves from malaria using a number of strategies, including knowing the malaria risk wherever you are. Many of the most popular safari destinations are malaria free or nearly malaria free. The mosquitoes feed at dusk, so using insect repellent, wearing long sleeves, going inside at dusk and using mosquito netting around your bed is more than sufficient in most cases.

It is also wise to consult a doctor upon any sign of illness when you return. If caught early, malaria can be cured with antibiotics.

Who do I call?

For a serious trip such as a safari, it is wise to get good counseling through a travel agent. If you don’t have one, now is a good time to look for one. Most safari operators welcome the participation of a travel agent in helping to guide a client to the right country and company.