If you’re planning your first wildlife holiday, you’re no doubt wondering what to expect on safari. For example, what happens on a typical day? When on safari, what are the best first-timer’s tips and advice for having incredible wildlife encounters and more?
As a safari addict, I’ve created this first-timer’s guide to give you everything you need to have an unforgettable safari.
What Happens on A Typical Day on Safari?
Though a typical day will vary between safari lodges and camps, the itinerary below is an example of what happens on safari in a private nature reserve, or conservancy, to give you an idea of what happens each day.
It’s important to remember that timings will also vary depending on the season you’re visiting certain countries. For example, in a South African winter, you’re likely to get up slightly later to catch the sunrise and head out slightly earlier in the evening to watch the sunset.
5:00 am: Wake up call
A typical day on safari starts very early, with a wake-up call around 5 am. Though that may seem outrageous, it’s totally worth it as the animals are most active in the morning, before the high temperatures cause the predators to rest and hide in the bush.
If you’re not woken up by the call of birds close to your tent, you can set your alarm or a member of the camp staff may come by to wake you up.
5:15 am: Coffee and rusks
Some camps bring coffee or tea and biscuits to your room, while others will serve it in the mess tent. It’s a good idea to eat and drink something, as you’ll be out on your game drive for a few hours and you don’t want your rumbling tummy disturbing the wildlife!
6:00 am: Morning drive
Next, it’s the reason you’re here! Your morning game drive. You’ll climb aboard a jeep with a driver and tracker and head out into the bush to see what you can find.
The rangers might have heard animals during the night or while setting up for the morning drive, so they will head out in that direction. Other times, they’ll just drive in search of animals tracks and more often than not will get lucky.
The morning game drive normally takes around 3 hours, so if you’re used to having breakfast early, you might be hungry by the time you get back to camp.
9:30 am: Breakfast
Breakfast is one of the best meals of the day on safari, and will often involve cereal, toast, yoghurt, fresh fruit and a full English too.
Sometimes, the guides will organise breakfast in a local beauty spot during the drive. You may find yourself munching on a piece of pineapple while overlooking a huge family of hippos. You wouldn’t get that at home, so make sure you soak it all up!
10:30 am: Bushwalk
If you’re staying in a private game reserve, your camp might offer an optional bush or nature walk, accompanied by an expert guide. Sometimes camps will run a trip to a local village instead.
If you are given the chance to go on a bushwalk, I highly recommend it. This will not be about trying to find big game but instead is an opportunity to learn about the plants and animal tracks. On one walk in South Africa, we came face to face with a family of white rhino, and it was easily one of the most exhilarating and humbling moments of my life! This is incredibly rare though – most walks are uneventful on the big 5 front, but it still pays to be aware, just in case.
11:30 am: Freetime
You’ll have a bit of time to rest before lunch, so take the opportunity to freshen up, have a shower or take a nap to give yourself enough energy for the day ahead.
1:00 pm: Lunchtime
Depending on your camp, lunch will either be served in the mess tent or outside around the camp. It will often be a buffet style, with salads to start, a main course and pudding.
2:00 pm: Free time
After lunch, you’ll have free time to rest in your tent or explore the camp. Some camps will have small pools you can splash around in, others will have bookshelves full of field guides and stories, but there’s nothing quite like just sitting around and appreciating the nature around you! You might even be lucky enough to spot monkeys or other animals playing nearby.
4:00 pm: Afternoon tea
Before you head out on your afternoon game drive, you’ll be served tea or coffee and a snack in the mess tent. This should keep you going until the sundowner.
4:30 pm: Evening game drive
The evening game drive will last about 3 hours, and will often involve trying to catch up with the animals you spotted in the morning or looking out for something new.
6:30 pm: Sundowner at sunset
As the sun begins to set, your guides may stop at a scenic spot to set up drinks and snacks. There’s something so special about watching the sunset with a gin and tonic and a handful of local snacks. You can share stories with your fellow safari-goers, or simply soak up the atmosphere of the bush as the stars begin to come out.
7:00 pm: Nocturnal safari
After the sun goes down, your guide and tracker will use a powerful spotlight to help them find nocturnal animals through the reflection in their eyes. The atmosphere is totally different from during the day, and it’s really special if you do see something. Bushbabies, hares and chameleons are quite common to spot at night.
7:30 pm: Drinks around the fire before dinner
After arriving back at camp, the staff will light the campfire and set up chairs around it for you to enjoy drinks before dinner. This is a wonderful time to reminisce over the day’s sightings or to get to know your guides and fellow safari-goers.
8:00 pm: Dinner
Dinner is normally a three-course meal, all cooked fresh in the camp by the local chefs. In Kenya, we were given soup and homemade bread to start, a delicious main of something hearty, followed by a yummy dessert. The staff were able to cater to every dietary requirement, which is quite a feat for a small kitchen in the middle of nowhere!
9:30 pm: Nightcaps around the fire
If you haven’t crashed by now, there will be time to enjoy more drinks around the fire after dinner. It can be tempting to stay up chatting for hours, but remember you’ll have an early start in the morning, so it’s best to retire before too long!
First Timer’s Tips on What To Expect On Safari
Needing the toilet in the middle of nowhere
It shouldn’t surprise you to hear there are no toilets on safari! It’s usually a good idea to go at the camp before you head out on a game drive, but don’t worry if you get caught short. It’s still very normal for nature to call while you’re out in the bush, and your guides will know exactly what to do. They may even give you a secret code word or phrase to save your blushes. In Kenya, we were told to say we needed to ‘check the back tyre’!
Once they’re aware, the guides will make sure you’re in a safe enough place to stop (preferably with no other jeeps or prides of lions nearby!) before letting you hop off to relieve yourself behind the car. There will usually be hand sanitiser and toilet roll on board if you need it.
We’ve had our fair share of car troubles while out on safari, and they are surprisingly common thanks to how often the jeeps are used and the bumpy terrain they have to traverse. Issues such as loss of power and flat tyres can happen anywhere, and your guides are well-trained to change tyres in the middle of the bush.
If it’s safe enough to do so, you’ll likely jump off and wait while your guides do what they need to do. Before long, you’ll be continuing on your game drive as if nothing had ever happened.
However, if there is something dangerous lurking nearby, your guides are well-trained to jack the car up and change the tyre while all passengers are still on board. Should the issue be unfixable, spare jeeps and mechanics are only a radio call away.
Being so out in the open on game drives and at the camp, one thing you can definitely come to expect on safari is creepy crawlies. Mosquitoes and other biting insects are very annoying and oftentimes painful, so make sure you take insect repellent clothing and high-strength sprays or wipes with you.
Back at the camp, you’re likely to be given mosquito nets to protect your tent, but they won’t stop everything from getting in. You might find bugs and harmless lizards from time to time, but if you see anything more sinister that frightens you (scorpions or snakes, for example) just let the camp staff know and they’ll be able to safely move them on.
Patience is key
The most important piece of advice for first-time safari-goers to remember is to be patient. Remember the animals are wild, meaning they’re completely free to come and go as they please. That can mean some drives are eventful, some are quiet, some you’ll see nothing at all. But it only takes one incredible sighting to make up for it. Be patient, because you never know what you might see.
Don’t be too worried about ticking particular animals off a list, for example, the big 5. Safari destinations have amazing biodiversity, so try to appreciate it all, including birdlife, plants, insects, antelopes, small mammals and reptiles, plus the plants and the scenery.
If you’re desperate to see a leopard but come across your second awesome sighting of lions for the day, appreciate it. You never know what unique behaviours you might witness. Enjoy watching the unique behaviour of the animals, and ask the guides questions to bring it all to life.
Take spare camera batteries
With so much to see on safari, you should expect your camera batteries to run out a lot faster than you think!
Just imagine… you’ve just come across something incredible and your camera is pointed straight at it. A pride of lions are tucking into their first meal for days, when a group of hyena spot the commotion and come charging over attempting to steal their kill. Just behind them, a pack of jackals eagerly await their turn. All of a sudden, the hyenas overpower the lions and the haunting sound of their laughter fills the air as they drag the kill away from the roaring lions. You think your camera has managed to capture the whole scene on video mode, only to discover the battery ran out halfway through and didn’t save a thing.
Sadly for me, that’s a true story, and it has haunted me ever since! Now, I always make sure I have a spare battery charged and ready to go, whenever I need it.
Lots of food and drink
As you’ll have seen in the daily itinerary above, food plays a major part in most safaris. Camps will serve biscuits with coffee, huge breakfasts, three-course lunches and dinners as well as other snacks throughout the day. Some even have open bars if you pay for the all-inclusive rate, so it’s very easy to overindulge.
Try not to eat more than you need to and stay healthy!
Packing limits (Safarilink 15kg limit)
When planning a packing list for safari, it’s important not to take too much. If you’re travelling via bush plane, you’re likely to have strict weight limits for your luggage. On Safarilink in Kenya, that limit is 15kg and includes your hand luggage and weighty camera equipment.
Most camps will give you laundry detergent to wash your clothes in the sink. You can pack light and still have enough to wear for the entirety of your safari holiday.
Unless you’re travelling in a group large enough to fill a jeep, it’s highly likely you’ll share your game drives with people you don’t know. While this is a wonderful opportunity to meet other like-minded animal-loving tourists from around the world, you may have to get used to their wish to stop for every bird they see, or their inappropriate political discussions around the dinner table.
But don’t worry. Your guides will normally do an excellent job of trying to keep everyone happy by looking out for sightings that will please everyone. And as for the dinnertime chat? You should always be able to steer the conversation back to that incredible wildlife encounter you had earlier in the day. That’s something everyone can get on board with!
So when you’re planning your first safari, remember these tips to make it a holiday you’ll never forget.
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