To anyone who has never been to Africa, putting together a sightseeing safari can be daunting. Much as you'd like to see a lioness trailed by her three cubs as the morning sun rises over the veld or watch a herd of elephants cross a vast savanna, you don't know where to start to make that happen.
There are so many countries (more than 50) to choose from, not to mention countless parks (both public and private) and an ever-growing list of lodges and camps to overnight in.
This much is clear: A safari is not the kind of trip you should book blindly online. You need a travel agent who specializes in Africa -- one who visits parks often, has vetted the lodges you'll be choosing from and can tailor this once-in-a-lifetime trip to suit your interests.
Here's a rundown of major considerations to think about as you begin planning:
WHEN TO GO
The truth is -- there's no "bad" time of year to take a safari, since there's always a part of Africa that will suit your needs. The famous wildebeest migration in East Africa is best June to September, but it goes on for longer and moves from Tanzania to Kenya and back. In Southern Africa, the best months are May to November.
The North American summers are high season in most of Africa, which means that if you go at any other time, the prices might be more reasonable while the game-viewing can be just as good. Start planning about a year ahead to lock into the high-end lodges.
WHERE TO GO
In East Africa, there are two main contenders, Tanzania and Kenya, which have the Serengeti and the Masai Mara regions. In southern Africa, there are South Africa, Botswana, Zambia -- and Zimbabwe, which is essentially Africa's Cuba (Robert Mugabe, like Fidel Castro, refuses to give up power, despite an economy in tatters). Although it is a gem in the region, politics have kept many tourists away until very recently. Hwange and Mana Pools are game parks that more people are trying to get to -- before everyone else does.
If your trip is 10 days or two weeks, most agents will recommend splitting that time between three or so camps to give you some variety. But remember -- the more you travel, the less time there is for safari. Stick to one or two countries and ask your agent how many actual, nontraveling days and nights you have on land.
WHAT TO EXPECT
Most African safaris booked by foreigners follow, quite broadly, this format: Fly to Nairobi/Lusaka/Johannesburg. Catch a small charter plane or vehicle to the first lodge. Daily activities: Take game drives in the early morning and late afternoon/dusk; relax by the pool or lake -- or take guided walks; eat and drink well (many lodges excel in the food they serve, despite being far from civilization) and generally feel exhilarated. Then fly/drive to the next lodge, and so on.
Little known to Americans is the self-drive safari (imagine a trip to Yellowstone, except there are wild animals outside your car). Self-drive is mostly limited to South Africa, which has 19 national parks, and many visitors arrive in their own cars. There are well-paved roads -- so you don't need a four-wheel drive -- and the designated camps are not only good but inexpensive (see sanparks.org for a rundown).
"Après safari" activities -- namely, adding a few days at the beach to the end of your safari getaway -- has become a popular option. Several agents recommend heading somewhere close to your safari, such as Kaya Mawa on Lake Malawi, Lamu in Kenya or Ibo Island Lodge in Mozambique.
There isn't one "best" game park -- there are plenty. You might associate safari with the Serengeti region -- and you also might be adamant that if you do only one safari in your life, it must be in the Serengeti. Still, there are many other destinations that have just as good scenery and even better wildlife. Some are quite famous -- like Kruger Park in South Africa or the Okavango Delta in Botswana -- but some are not (Lewa Conservancy in Kenya, Kafue in Zambia, Selous in Tanzania).
Start researching safaris and you're bound to stumble on "The Big 5" (as in rhino, elephant, leopard, lion and buffalo). They're great, but don't measure the success of your safari on whether you saw the famous quintet. Some of the most fascinating species and (not easy to spot) animals aren't included in the Big 5 -- namely the hyena, African wild dog and cheetah. Many guides and trackers -- the khaki-clad men and women who lead you on the safari -- might have an interest in a particular species, insect life, birds or astronomy, so between seeing animals, you will learn a lot.
WHAT IT COSTS
Safaris start at about $350 a person a night (excluding airfare) for middle-of-the-range lodges, $400 to $800 for the more classic ones, and $1,000 and up for the top end.
Much depends on the country you choose and the lodges you stay in. Botswana is not always cheap, because there are a limited number of places to stay. Zimbabwe is cheaper, at least for the moment, because fewer people are going there. Zambia, meanwhile, is somewhere in between because it's never been a typical safari destination.
Remember: You don't have to take a set itinerary. An agent who shops around can find you something suitable for your needs and budget. A few reputed travel agencies: Rothschild Safaris, The Africa Adventure Co., Discover Africa, African Portfolio, Natural Migrations.
A sampling of packages:
LOW A 15-day group safari from The Africa Adventure Co. to seven locations in Kenya and Tanzania, staying in hotels and larger lodges such as the Sopa or Serena chain, ranges from $3,850 to $4,975 a person, depending on the season (international flights extra, 800-882-9453, africa-adventure.com).
MIDDLE The higher-end 10nights in Cape Town and Kruger Park, where you stay at Ngala Safari Lodge and Mala Mala (starting from $4,280), is offered by Discover Africa (888-330-4880, discoverafrica.net).
For those who want to see the mountain gorillas in Rwanda, a four-day extension to your normal safari, including two permits to see the gorillas, costs upward of $2,750. The price is high because each gorilla permit is $750.
ABOUT THE LODGES
Safari accommodations vary from big hotels to small camps and lodges, which themselves can be budget basic to five-star luxury.
Sabora Tented Camp, for example, is an exclusive lodge with Persian carpets under canvas in the midst of the Eden-like Grumeti, Tanzania. Its air-conditioned tents have bathrooms and wireless Internet, among other amenities ($850-$1,150 a person a night includes meals and twice a day game drives, singita.com).
In the malaria-free Waterberg, South Africa, Marataba is the newest creation of the Hunter family, hoteliers with oodles of good taste (from about $460 a person a night, includes meals and two daily game drives, hunterhotels.com).
Botswana's Makgadikgadi Salt Pans aren't the Serengeti, but everyone who visits them is blown away, especially if they see them from the new souk-like San Camp (from $1,000 a person a night, including meals and activities, unchartedafrica.com).
Some less-than-five-star lodges -- such as Flatdogs in Zambia (from $210, flatdogscamp.com) and Planet Baobab in Botswana (from $65 for accommodations only, activities and meals a la carte; unchartedafrica.com) -- are fantastic, too.
We traveled to Southern Africa for two weeks on our honeymoon in August. We booked our trip through Lion World Tours and could not have been happier with the excellent customer service. Everything was planned out perfectly. We visited Johannesburg, Cape Town, Zambia and Kruger National Park. Our favorite places were Zambia and Kruger. We stayed at the Royal Livingstone Hotel in Zambia (absolutely gorgeous) and went to Victoria Falls (cannot be missed). In Kruger, we stayed at Tinga Narina Private Game Reserve and went on two safaris per day. The game reserve was beautiful and the service was outstanding. Only five other couples stayed at the reserve with us, so the setting was very intimate.
We took an African Adventure Co. tour to Tanzania and spent about 10 days touring the Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater, Tarangire National Park and Lake Manyara. We rode in a converted Land Rover -- the roof raises up about a foot, so you can stand and see out without any glass in your face.
We traded a few days in a tourist resort in Madagascar for a visit to the Lake Selous Game Area in southern Tanzania. Seeing animals come to drink at the lake and riding in a boat among the hippos was priceless.
You get pretty close to the animals and the guide helps you see where they are; you are safe as long as you stay in the vehicle.
--SUBMITTED BY Len Feld, Jericho