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What to Do in Africa on Safari
Baobabs and elephants dot the panorama. Zebra stand before you, a mass of black and white stripes separating. It’s one of Africa’s most common scenes and it feels absolutely different dependent on what you do in Africa on safari.
If you’ve never experienced Africa’s wildlife before it’s easy to think of a safari as what you see. But a safari is more about what you feel. Each activity creates a new impression of the same wildlife scene, enlivening it with a nuance and detail that makes every moment distinct.
What to do in Africa on Safari
With every day on safari the wildlife changes. The theater evolves and the surprise excites. Animal behavior can often be predicted yet it can never be scripted. What you witness is raw, unspoiled Africa. You don’t have control over how large the zebra herd will be or where they will be headed. But with the best safari programs you have control over how you experience and encounter the zebra and all of Africa’s other wildlife.
The best safari programs are customized to your interests and ideas. For most visitors we recommend a rounded safari program, multiple activities creating the most complete impression of the wilderness. However, some activities are not suitable for all as they require a certain level of patience or fitness. In addition, some visitors prefer a more niche adventure, an extended safari activity that’s only possible at a handful of Africa’s destinations.
The reality is that you don’t know what you will like best, until you experience an African safari for the first time. What to do in Tanzania is different to what to do in Kenya. We specialize in combining the best safari destinations, creating programs that mix private concessions and the best places in national parks. We find that concessions have the necessary flexibility for both a highly individualized pre-planned safari program, and a daily itinerary that can be adapted to your changing mood and interests. Private concessions also offer the widest variety of activities. Then the national parks really showcase scale and the unfiltered movement of wildlife.
Different Safari Activities
Safaris have a distinctive cadence. Your senses tune in to nature, your mind connects with a surreal realm. Animals are more active during the cooler hours, making these the best hours for spectacular sightings. Wake with the sun and explore on an early-morning safari activity; rest and indulge through the hot, middle part of the day; then another safari activity from mid-afternoon until sundown.
But we don’t want to generalize too much. Every wilderness has its own rhythm and so does every lodge and camp. Additional safari activities may come at night or during the day. Inimitable extras continue a relaxed exploration, such as picnics and sundowner cruises. It’s very possible there will be three dedicated activities from morning to evening, or one extended activity could fill the entire day. What to do in South Africa is different from what to do in Botswana. And there is no best safari activity. Just different ways to explore the landscape.
Vultures circle. Hyenas yelp. There’s a commotion going on and the driver takes you off the trail. Around the bush, through a dip, tension rising and vultures swooping. It’s a buffalo carcass and the scavengers are savage. Spotted hyenas rip bone from bone, splashes of congealed blood vivifying the scene. The jackals appear shy and sheepish yet time their scampered approaches, snatching more than scraps. Vultures flay their wings then fly off, entrails dangling down for meters. It’s brutal and it’s brilliantly chaotic. Keep watching. Smaller hyena take their chance. A vulture and hyena square up for battle but both think better of it and return to different ends of the feast. In the distance a buffalo herd, mourning what appears to be last night’s loss.
Such a bloody carnivore-dominated scene can only be witnessed on a game drive. Animals don’t see you; they see a large vehicle and hear an idling engine. You are not considered a threat, nor potential prey. From an elevated vantage point you safely admire the dangerous and colossal figures of the animal world, from prowling cats to rowdy giants and the great tuskers. With a game drive you see the big stuff and witness the perpetual battle for life and death.
WHAT TO DO IN AFRICA - 5 ICONIC GAME DRIVES
Unless it is private a game drive will mean sharing the vehicle, from four to eight guests dependent on the lodge. Having an engine enables you to cover significant distances and explore large parts of the concession or park. It’s surprisingly comfortable, although always a little bumpy and dusty, especially as you can drive off the main trails in a private concession. The further you travel the more animals you can see. However, a large grumbling vehicle frightens many species so it’s difficult to get very close to smaller animals, particularly the grazers. In contrast, animals like lions and elephants will come up close and inspect the visiting giant.
Game drives will showcase a diversity and abundance of wildlife. They are the mainstay on most safari programs; just sit back, relax, look out across Africa and be driven between the iconic sightings.
Nighttime Game Drives
It’s all so different after dark. A spooky world emerges, one of strange new characters and stealthy movers. It’s a world that is harder to see but easier to feel. Evocative sounds pierce the nighttime stillness, heard when the driver cuts the engine. Your eyes adjust to the gloom, the guide’s roving spotlight illuminating the herds. Excitement reigns and the surprise is intense. You traverse the same landscapes as a daytime drive but at a very slow pace. Wildlife is less likely to see you coming which means heightened proximity and intimacy. When the engine turns off there’s a mystical feeling of being alone with the wild, all five senses tuned into a usually unseen theater.
Darkness brings change in the wild. The balance of power shifts, nighttime always a good time for cats to hunt. Many species are at their most active in these cooler hours; some become threatened, others emerge and thrive. The vehicle stops. You listen. Rustling and hissing. Hissing and rustling. Through the gloom you make out the buffalo silhouettes. And soon they surround you. A high-pitched squawk. Now another, a warning call from birds in the treetops. The buffalo stop and stare before marching onwards. And it’s only now that you realize how close the lions have been.
WHAT TO DO IN AFRICA - 5 CLASSIC NIGHTTIME GAME DRIVES
Game Walks and Walking Safaris
The kudu stir. Twisted horns point skyward as the herd stares straight at you. A warthog scampers from behind and now the zebra are on the move, walking slowly across the grasslands. These animals aren’t fearful of you. On a walking safari you’re just another mammal. And you’re one of the smallest mammals. By minimizing noise and sudden movements it’s amazing how you blend into the landscape. The animals don’t run from you. They inspect their visitors, images of curiosity playing out on their faces. With enough patience it can seem like you’re close enough to touch, although a walking safari is quick to impress why you should never touch: it’s only on ground level that you can appreciate the true size and beauty of Africa’s mammals.
Your footsteps are tentative at first. They grow in confidence with a good guide. Vehicles are a modern invention and guides use generations-old knowledge to plot a safe route through big-game territory. Encountering large predators and four-legged giants is dangerous, so walks mostly stick to open landscapes or specific areas within a concession. You travel slowly, learning about spoor and idiosyncratic behaviors. As you explore you gain entirely new impressions on the animals you considered small from the safari vehicle. And as you slip into the landscape’s rhythm you find deep connection with the wildlife world.
Walks vary enormously and can be tailored to fitness levels and interests. A 30-minute stroll around gives a glimpse of the experience. Two or three hours really immerses you in the wild. Walking routes also cover areas inaccessible to vehicles, creating single or multi-day adventures through offbeat lands. You’re not always surrounded by wildlife, but there’s an unparalleled intimacy of encounter, along with a real affinity with the land.
5 FAVORITE WALKING SAFARIS ON AN AFRICAN SAFARI
Your choices for us of people, places, and experiences, as well as the priceless extras…was outstanding
White Water Rafting and Other Water-Based Safari Activities
Waterbuck splash through the shallows. A hippo barrels down the bank. Young elephants playfully push each other under, trunks appearing like periscopes. A colorful bird grab a lift across the river on the back of a buffalo. With a boat safari you explore wild Africa’s most important feature: a waterway. Life revolves around water and you travel serenely between the sights, paddling or cruising between a wonderfully eclectic cast of animals. Everything must come and drink, from lion prides and large herds to the smallest of Africa’s species. So with water as a layer of safety you can get very close to large and dangerous mammals. And they appear especially majestic when you’re looking up from water level.
Gondoliers paddle you in traditional wooden canoes (mokoros), part of what to do in Botswana. Motorboats search the banks for the dramatic and charming. In some places you can canoe and kayak on your own; houseboats provide immersive multi-day journeys in others. With all water-based safari activities the rhythm is serene. Just stop, relax, and wait for the wildlife world to emerge along the shore. On one bank a giraffe, legs spread comically wide in order to drink. Up close a tiny dik dik, slurping quickly. Around the corner and hippos fill the panorama. Keep cruising and a leopard drinks; or perhaps she is preparing the ground for an ambush?
Activities on water are not common. However, in some destinations they are the ultimate way to connect with the wilderness. And in some places they are the ultimate surge of adrenaline. The white water rafting on the Zambezi River near Victoria Falls is among the very best in the world, rushing through grade IV and V rapids in parts of the river too fast for hippos to live. It’s a pure connection with nature, and you may even raft alongside giraffe and zebra. Africa’s best white water rafting is on the Zambezi, a day activity for a stay in and around Victoria Falls. White water rafting is also possible on the River Nile in Uganda, but half the big rapids were lost when the Bujagali Dam was constructed in 2011.
WHAT TO DO IN AFRICA - 5 OF OUR FAVORITE WATER SAFARIS
What to do in Africa – Riding Safaris
The drumbeat echoes and rolls onward. Zebra are on the move and you follow. From the saddle you become part of the landscape, picking up speed, galloping with the herds. Horseback safaris are best for experienced riders. You must be confident and proficient before traversing wild and unpredictable plains. After all, encountering an elephant herd isn’t for the faint of heart, nor is riding alongside Africa’s large herds. But if that sounds like your kind of adventure then we know where to take you.
Saddles also come above two wheels, mountain bikes a vessel for exploring some of Africa’s most rugged lands. Like walking safaris you cover areas without carnivorous threat, bikes are a good way to get back to nature and all those small animals that thrive across the land. You don’t need experience but you’ll need to be specific about wanting a mountain bike safari as it’s only possible in a handful of destinations. Likewise, a quad bike (ATV) is another way to gain perspective on grand landscapes, possible in a couple of destinations.
5 ALTERNATIVE RIDING SAFARIS
Balloon Safari and Other Aerial Safaris
From the air it starts to make sense. At ground level it’s all swinging trunks, warring horns, swirling dust and charging herds. But from the air you understand the pattern. All those four-legged nomads, all those families on the move, all those animals seeking to survive and thrive. The landscape extends for hundreds of miles beneath you and you piece together the dots, the dots of wildlife that move to fresh pastures and drinking water. And as you soar you enjoy a striking appreciation of scale; all those animals and scenes you’ve witnessed so far on safari are merely a small fraction of what lives in the wilderness.
Africa is beautiful from the air and there’s no doubt that an aerial safari delivers incredible panoramic views. Most safari activities focus in on micro details. From the air you marvel at the macro. You understand where the water flows and where the nomads are likely to go. You feel humbled by the power and scope of nature. And you wonder as to how long this untouched realm will continue to occupy our planet.
Cruising in a hot air balloon is the famous aerial experience, especially in Africa’s most celebrated destinations. Take off with the sunrise and touch down an hour or two later, usually to a champagne brunch. Every local flight is also an aerial safari, chance to appreciate the landscape and spot the herds from above. Sightseeing flights also roam above Africa’s inaccessible wildernesses, sometimes the only way to glimpse what survives on our planet’s final frontiers.
5 BALLOON AND AERIAL SAFARIS FROM AN AFRICAN DREAM
Gorillas in the mist. It’s very real. Black eyes stare at you through the trees. The guide pushes you a little closer. Another pair emerges, unflinching in their gaze. Time seems suspended, two wild mountain gorillas inspecting their visitors. Now the whole troop comes into view and you spend an hour with the largest primates on the planet. Raw and redolent it’s probably the most intimate wildlife experience on the planet. And if it sounds like it is for you, check out our definitive guide to gorilla trekking in Uganda and Rwanda.
What to do in Africa on a Private Safari
On a game drive you travel past the zebra, towards a swinging elephant trunk on the horizon, then in search of Africa’s other large and iconic animals. Bur emotive zebra eyes stare straight back at you on a walking safari, chance to appreciate their true size and beauty. From the water you watch the zebra play; from the air you admire how the herd moves. On horseback or mountain bike you almost become one with the herd, riding alongside the cantering hoofs. With every different activity you experience every animal differently.
With a luxury safari you tailor the experience with a choice of activities. On a private safari you can customize every single moment. Stay longer with the hippos, patience rewarded with a prime photo of them yawning in unison. Walk or ride your way to a picnic overlooking a popular waterhole. Stay on a game drive after dark, track lionesses for two hours, or curtail the activity because you feel like it. With a private guide and private activities the safari is always exactly how you want it to be.
Safari Activities Are Different on a Private Safari
Mist lingers on the savannah at dawn. Through the trees there’s movement. A flick, a swish, something you can’t quite pinpoint. Slowly your eyes adjust. The mist dissolves and you stare at lucid eyes; the leopard has been watching you the whole time, and it’s far closer than you perceived. The driver takes you even closer; the spotted cat doesn’t move, just keeps on flicking that tail soporifically. Photos are taken. Then you drive off, the guide seeking to satisfy everyone in the vehicle by bringing intimacy with a wide variety of animals.
That’s the experience on a luxury safari and it’s magical. But on a private safari there can be something more. Staying with the leopard, you perfect the photos. Engrossed by its beauty you decide this is a good place to open the flask of coffee. Finding a place of solitude and stillness you feel the harmony of nature’s world. This single leopard sighting could take up five minutes or the entire game drive.
It may seem a rather first-world consideration – how long to spend with a leopard – but remember that every safari activity incorporates hundreds of sightings and potential places to stop. Every concession has hundreds of paths to take. Each day can showcase an infinite variety of life. By staying with the leopard you naturally have less time with other animals. But that’s a choice you get to make on a private safari.
Tailored Activities for a Family Safari
Stories are shared around the campfire at dusk. There was a lion, a big lion, growling from his rocky perch. We saw a cheetah with her cub, hiding in the grass by that waterhole with the hippos. I was right next to the elephant – your daughter chimes in – did you know its trunk has 40,000 muscles?
Safari is a shared family adventure, multiple generations feeling their own piece of Africa. There is freedom and space to come together. Yet with safari activities there’s also opportunity to go your own way. Everyone can follow their own program of interests. Then the stories are shared around the campfire after dinner.
What to Do in Africa as a Family
Nobody in your family has the same energy as you. Nor do they have identical interests. A family vacation is often about compromise, mixing experiences and activities to suit all the personalities that make your family unique. It’s relatively easy to keep everyone happy on an African safari. Everyone can enjoy personal experiences at the same destination, customizing their safari program with different activities before you all meet up to share the tales.
We love the diversity of private concessions and their ability to offer a rounded safari program. This diversity creates family opportunity. Older teenagers and younger couples may be rambling through the bush on a walking safari; grandparents could be on a relaxed game drive. You might be sharing two private hours with your son, alone alongside the four-legged giants. One uncle may have the patience to search for a rare cuckoo hawk; the rest of you decide to lounge around the pool. Some members of your family may be restricted in what they can do, but that doesn’t need to impact what’s available to others. Some people want to try everything. Others prefer short activities and the tranquility of the lodge.
Children’s Activities and Restrictions
Keeping children entertained on vacation…it’s another challenge that necessitates compromise. The savannah is a different world when you’re the size of a nine year old. Some of the traditional activities aren’t safe for children so strict age restrictions are imposed. In general, activities within a confined vehicle are okay – game drives, boat safaris, hot air balloons – those where you move independently are not (like walking safaris). Many lodges and camps also impose age restrictions, either no under 12s or 16s. However, some have specifically tailored children’s programs, allowing young ones to explore as wide as their imagination. This article has more information on choosing where to stay for a family safari.
It’s an educational experience, learning about the wild and all those that live there. Building shelters, making fires, tracking animals, crumbling dung between fingers. Discovering animal behaviors, learning to be a safari ranger, or simply being entertained while you stop and relax. Activities may run at all times of the day but most programs seek to keep children occupied and educated when you’re not out on a safari activity.
As you spend more days on safari you find that everyone creates and celebrates their own experience. They create their own connection with wild Africa and all the wildlife within. There’s time to spend with those you rarely see. And opportunity to get away from those you see too often. Even if you are just a family of three or four the safari itinerary can be both shared and individual. Larger multi-generational families benefit from a space where everyone can do their own thing.
Your Safari in Africa
This is your safari. And while you can’t predict the wildlife theater, we think you should always have control over what you do. Which is why we’ve spent 25 years customizing safaris to fulfill your individual dreams.