When I went to Africa for the first time I would not have expected that it would become my favourite destination by a long stretch. Quite simply I could not conceive going anywhere else for many years. We travelled to one destination after another and could not get enough of it. The beauty of nature and the peace that surrounds you in the bush are an experience that you can never forget. Organizing the perfect safari takes a bit of planning but a few tips may help along the way.
Which country? You have many options here. If you have never been to Africa, Tanzania may be your best choice. The country has many wonderful national parks all within easy reach from Arusha and its airport. Serengeti, Ngorongoro, Tarangire all will give you everything you dream of in a safari and more. If you have time the somewhat more remote park of the Selous is a worthy addition, with a much wilder experience with a lot less people around.
South Africa and Kenya also offer very easily reachable safari parks so they also represent good options.
Botswana is an amazing alternative, although significantly more expensive and somewhat harder to reach. If you have the time and can afford it this is an amazing destination. In the Okavango Delta you do safari on foot and you get closer to nature (think elephants!) that you could never dream of.
Finally Namibia is also a fantastic destination with many wonderful sights and places to see besides wonderful safari. In our trip we combined it with Botswana in a 2-week stretch.
Which tour operator? A safari requires organization one way or another. The easy option is to walk into a tour operator in your city and have them plan everything for you. We quickly realized that, while convenient, this option usually results in a more expensive and somewhat less authentic trip. They simply will call a local tour operator in the country you want to visit and have them do the work, so you end up being charged twice!
We tend to do a bit of research to locate the most reputed local tour operators and email them directly asking them to prepare and quote an itinerary. It is very fast and you will be surprised how easy it is to narrow down who is giving you the best option. Uganda (more about the incredible experiences in Uganda here!) also offers a strong safari experience with the added benefit of mountain gorilla trekking.
How to move around. Africa is hardly a do it yourself destination so you will probably need a driver with you at all times. Most tour operators work on this basis: someone picks you up at the airport and drives you around for the length of your stay. Naturally he will also become your guide in most safari parks so having a good driver is essential. take the time to read reviews on the company and the quality of their guides! Depending on your budget you can do this on a private basis or share with other travelers.
Beware of distances in Africa! Sometimes what on the map seems like a short ride can take an entire day. Sometimes it is possible to fly between destinations on very small planes which do not add too much to the cost so you may want to consider that on longer transfers.
Safari Camps. One of the highlights of any safari is staying in one of the many camps you can find in or around any national park. In some camps you will sleep in large tents but do not let that fool you, these tents are some of the most luxurious accommodations you will ever see and as a matter of fact most people prefer them to hotels! Make sure to follow camp regulations, remember in most cases you will be sharing your habitat with other jungle residents!
When the tour operator emails you the itinerary make sure you check reviews for the camps, most of them are great but you want to make sure you love where you stay. Most camps will take care of your laundry and of course feed you as many times as you like! As a matter of fact one of the best moments in any safari is dinner time around a fire with other travelers. Guides will often entertain you with talks about the nature around you.
Pictures. If like me you are a photography fanatic you will be in heaven in Africa! As a matter of fact, be careful that you do not spend the whole trip looking through the view finder! Naturally you will need a camera with a proper optical zoom, this is absolutely essential in Africa. The zoom of your camera phone will not be able to frame the more distant scenes and give you back a good image — I know because I was punished in that way in one of my trips! You will also need a good pair of binoculars. I prefer light ones as they will have to go with you everywhere.
Clothing. As always wear layers as it tends to be hot during the day and can get very cold in the evening. I usually wear trekking pants with lots of pockets and good shoes. It also helps to bring a good hat and a swimming suit for those camps who have pools. The best way to get close to the wildlife is to blend in with your surroundings as much as possible by going neutral. Wear greens, browns, and khakis so as to not attract unnecessary attention and pick soft fabrics that do not make noise while moving. Sunglasses are also important so do not forget a pair.
Finally, make sure you read as much as possible about the countries you visit. Africa has a fascinating history and it often offers a lot more that meets the eye if you know where to look. I usually bring a long a guide as well as a few works of fiction from the Amazon country recommended list.