Africa safaris, Africa safari - Fish Eagle Safaris

SELECTING AN AFRICAN SAFARI DESTINATION
Nov. 2006
By Bert du Plessis of Fish Eagle Safaris




Frequently asked questions:

  1. 'Which part of Africa do you recommend: Southern or East Africa?'
  2. Are Kenya and Tanzania over-commercialized? They certainly appear to be from some materials, but are they still the best place for game viewing and cultural experiences?
  3. Any advantages in selecting southern Africa?
  4. What are the main advantages of Eastern Africa over Southern Africa?
  5. How do Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe compare with East Africa for game-viewing?
  6. What animals am I likely to see?
  7. Is the bird-watching good?
  8. Is Victoria Falls an absolute must or do the crowds and 18 hole golf course make it too tacky?
  9. How long does game viewing stay interesting? Should we select a tour that mixes cultural experiences and game-viewing or stick with game-viewing only? (We are thinking of a trip of about 14 days)
  10. Is it advisable to go with a tour group or can I do it myself?
  11. Is it worth paying more than $400 per person, per night for a fly-in safari?
  12. What do I look for in selecting an operator?
  13. Who are the best operators? Who are the best guides?
  14. How safe are safari flights? Should we plan on them or avoid them?
  15. What about personal safety? I've heard a lot about crime & car-jackings in South Africa?
  16. Are safaris dangerous?
  17. What are things to watch for as far as price is concerned? Where do you get ripped off?
  18. When is the best time to go?
  19. Any other tips?

1. 'Which part of Africa do you recommend: Southern or East Africa?'

In my opinion three of the five most impressive sights in sub-Saharan Africa are in southern Africa, namely Table Bay & Mountain in South Africa's Cape Town, the dunes at Sossusvlei in Namibia and Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. The fourth and fifth ones? Ngorongoro Crater and Mt. Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania.

Northern Botswana is in a class of its own: In just 10 days there in a late May & June fly-in safari, we saw close on 50 lions - twice seen hunting - once for buffalo and the other time for kudu; leopard on three different occasions including one with the remains of an impala in a tree and another one with a youngster; African wild dog three times, once just seconds after they had taken down an impala; and cheetah twice, the latter sighting of a female knocking down and 'delivering' an impala to her five youngsters. This is not to mention the multiple other fantastic sightings including scores of elephants, magnificent Sable antelope, a martial eagle on a fresh impala kill, a 'Giraffic Park' scene at one of the camps with as many as 23 giraffe in one area, all staring at cheetah and some superb night drives (including my first ever sighting of Aardwolf).

My lasting impression of a September Discoverer Exploration Safari such as the Great Wilderness Journey is the diversity of the trip: a tremendous variety of wildlife, birds, & scenery observed in an ever-changing landscape, and equally diverse activities: game drives, night drives, walking, boating, mokoro outings & an occasional moment or two to relax or to enjoy the superb food. This simply has to be the best full-service overland safari in Botswana! The group was fantastic and we had the best time!

On a different Adventurer Exploration Safari such as the Migration Routes Safari (several trips now available) we saw three different prides of lions (26 in all) in Moremi and Savuti, spending several hours observing and photographing them at a kill, with hardly another vehicle in sight. Other highlights included finding Pel's Fishing Owl at a delightful mokoro trails camp deep in the Okavango Delta - and watching a herd of elephants swim across the swollen Chobe River, just the tips of their trunks protruding from the water. A real 'National Geographic' moment!

On a recent winter (May-June) visit we saw 45 species of mammals just in South Africa, not to mention more than 400 different species of birds. Many private game lodges adjacent to Kruger Park offer consistently excellent game-viewing. At the best lodges, such as Mala Mala, the so-called 'Big Five' mammals can all be seen just about every day. A typical recent October day had the following reported:

  • 16 Lions at the entrance to the camp
  • 60 Elephants in the river in front of the camp
  • 400 Buffalo on the flood plain in front of the camp
  • One leopard in a tree about 1,000 yards from camp
  • Styx pride of Lions on Picadilly opposite the camp
  • Rhino at Campbell Koppies

The game viewing report for that October featured lion, leopard, buffalo, rhino and elephant seen every day. A total of 48 lions were seen on October 6 and a total of 9 different leopards were seen on Oct 22. An average of 26 lions were seen every day during October.

TANZANIA
Our Tanzania associates Tanzania Photographic Safaris offer a variety of trips which represent excellent value for money, such as the 12-day 'Journey into Tanzania' safari. This superbly guided safari – with guaranteed window seating in 4-wheel drive vehicles (not miniibuses…) includes all the highlights of Northern Tanzania namely Tarangire National Park, the Rift Valley, the Ngorongoro highlands and Ngorongoro Crater, as well as several days in a mobile tented camp in the Serengeti. The trip is operated monthly except in April and May.

Compared with the usual 'run of the mill' Tanzania itineraries, I believe the TPS trips - such as the 12-day 'Safari Style' scheduled departure - are more imaginative, and offer more opportunities for walking, a great break from the long game-drives in the Serengeti. The safari also include both Lake Victoria and a 2-night stay at Ndarakwai Camp, in the Western Kilimanjaro area, where guests experience the classic view of Mt. Kilimanjaro. The safari has an ideal mix of accommodation: one night in a hotel in Arusha, 4 nights in permanent tented camps, 4 nights at lodges and 2 nights in a mobile tented camp. All accommodation is 'en suite' so there is no 'roughing it' or participation camping.

This safari is operated twice monthly throughout the year, except in April and May. There are also monthly departures on the superb 'Adventure Tanzania' safari, which includes the fabulous Kirawira Camp and Rubondo Island Camp on Lake Victoria. For a longer stay in East Africa, we would recommend adding a few days in an area such as Kenya's Samburu, in the 'dry north' where both black and white rhino may be see, as well as some very special endemic mammals such as Grevy's Zebra and Reticulated Giraffe.

In April 2000 I undertook an educational trip to Tanzania, and I am very enthusiastic about the country, its tourism attractions and especially its people. They are remarkably friendly and gracious towards visitors. The highlights were undoubtedly the Serengeti, where we ran smack into the annual wildebeest migration (it was amazing), and Ngorongoro Crater, which exceeded all my expectations. I think Tanzania is perfect for people who want to combine wildlife and culture, and we can also offer excellent programs for families with young children.

KENYA
Our clients who have recently traveled to Kenya have all been extremely pleased with the quality of the game-viewing there, and the cultural experience is without rival. Our best advice is to go with a private vehicle and driver. The Classic Rift Valley itinerary offers good value for a private safari with a dedicated driver-guide in a 4-wheel drive Land Rover through-out. The Origins guides are amongst Kenya's few KPSGA SILVER CERTIFIED professional guides. In our opinion, this is the ideal introductory safari for the first time visitor to East Africa. It is perfect – you will see approximately 35 big mammal species, 3500 bird species, 3 distinct tribal groups, and much more.

Comparable group trips are invariably run on a very tight schedule and many of them spend much too much time in transit, with a minimum of time allocated for actual game-viewing. Some of the packaged itineraries you may see, have lots of big names such as Mt. Kenya Safari Lodge, Treetops etc. but preciously little time actually looking at wildlife, which is after all the purpose of a safari.

The wildebeest migration (depending upon local rainfall patterns) usually arrives in the Masai Mara (from the Serengeti) sometime in July every year. However, the Mara is anything but 'empty' outside of the "migration season". All the animals that can be seen during the migration, can be seen all year round. And they can be seen in big numbers. The big prides of lions do not migrate with the wildebeests, only the bachelors without a home range do. Most leopards and cheetahs are territorial too and do not migrate either. Many animals are actually moving out of the Mara during the migration, because the big herds of wildebeests compete with them for food. According to an article by Stelfox (Herbivores in Kenya, Journal of Wildlife Management), this is how the wildebeest migration effects other species:

July (migration) June (before the migration)
Wildebeests 819,500 101,700
Zebra 107,800 65,200
Tommies 90,500 106,500
Grants 18,500 19,900
Topi 25,500 31,500
Buffalo 31,500 30,000
Kongoni 5,000 8,900
Impala 51,800 59,200
Eland 4,600 8,500

As can be seen, for almost all species the numbers are actually higher in June (or for that matter any other month before July). Only wildebeests and zebras migrate in really big numbers. The migration is unpredictable; this year (2005) the wildebeest have actually moved back across the border into Tanzania, after some local veld fires in Tanzania.

So even if you travel to Kenya outside of the 'migration' time (July through October) you will still see a lot of wildlife.

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2. Are Kenya and Tanzania over-commercialized? They certainly appear to be from some materials, but are they still the best place for game viewing and cultural experiences?

Too many mini-buses chasing predator sightings is not a very common occurrence in east Africa, although it can happen in some parts of the Masai Mara and in Ngorongoro Crater, especially in the high season. However, it can largely be avoided by selecting a good operator and staying away from the crowds, in smaller camps. The Serengeti, for example, is so vast that crowding is hardly a problem, even in high season.

There is no doubt that areas such as Kenya's Masai Mara National Reserve and Tanzania's Serengeti Plains and Ngorongoro Crater offer a spectacular wildlife-viewing experience, especially if a visit can be timed to witness the annual wildebeest migration. As I saw for myself in March/April 2000, Ngorongoro Crater harbors a wonderful concentration of wildlife species on the continent, including herds of wildebeest, antelope and zebras which attract the large predators in considerable numbers. The Serengeti is unrivaled for sheer number of migratory animals and big game. With over 35 species of large game and 350 species of birds, the Serengeti is a must for any Tanzanian safari. Here you'll find antelope of all varieties, huge herds of gazelle, zebra and wildebeest; plentiful lions, as well as cheetah and other predators.

Compared with the great southern African game parks, the Mara has a greater abundance of animals, including large predators, and the wide open plains make game-viewing very rewarding. If you visit during the August wildebeest migration, you can see as many as 150,000 animals in one area. The Mara is good at any time of the year, however - there is always something to see.

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3. Any advantages in selecting southern Africa?
 

  • The use of open safari vehicles for game drives in many areas (much better for photography than enclosed mini-vans).

  • Walking safaris with experienced guides (less commonly undertaken in east Africa).

  • Night drives with spotlights, a wonderful way to see nocturnal animals such as leopard, genet, civet and African wild cat. This is also not a common practice in east Africa.

  • Game drives by boat and mokoro (dug-out 'canoe') afford a different avenue to see some of the rarer animals and big game drinking or crossing rivers.

  • In general the overall quality of the guides in southern Africa is higher due to better training standards.


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4. What are the main advantages of Eastern Africa over Southern Africa?
 

If you are intent on combining culture and wildlife, East Africa has no equal. Nowhere else can you see Masai herdsmen with their cattle side by side with wild animals such as buffalo. In Tanzania's northern circuit, for example, there are many opportunities to visit Masai homesteads or cultural bomas, experience market days in the towns and villages, and to generally experience how wildlife and people co-exist. Another reason to specifically visit East Africa is to view the annual wildebeest migration. This spectacle of seeing hundreds of thousands of animals congregated in one area has no equal in southern Africa, except for the zebra migration in the Kalahari in March/April.

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5. How do Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, South Africa and Zimbabwe compare (with east Africa) for game viewing?

You could go on safari to any of these countries and see enough game to last you a life-time. The trick is in selecting the right venues, time & operator.

BOTSWANA is the place to go for excellent game-viewing and remarkably diverse scenery, especially if you really want to 'get away from it all'; most of the lodges there are on private concessions where there are few other visitors.

Conventional wisdom has it that the best time to visit Botswana is in the dry season (June through October) and while that generally holds true, there is much to be said for the 'Green Season' between December and March, and for the shoulder season from April to June. From April through May, the annual flood moves into Botswana's Okavango Delta. It is an amazing sight to see the ribbons of water from the air, and to observe the changes on the ground, where a particular spot may be dry one day, only to be covered by a thin sheet of water the next.

The Okavango Delta rates very high in my personal "Travel Hall of Fame". It is not inexpensive when done the right way, which, in my opinion, is to fly in and stay at two or three first-class lodges. A couple of days at a 'mixed-activity' camp (offering both game drives and mokoro outings) and three more at a good game-viewing camp, as well as a visit to the Chobe-Linyanti area should suffice.

Savvy travelers will know that the way to enjoy the best of Botswana but avoid paying top dollar, is to travel in the 'Green Season' from early December through the end of March. The Green Season rates are quite a bit lower, and this is a great time to be in Botswana, especially if you are keen on birding and photography. We have had rave reviews from every single client of ours who have traveled to Botswana in the Green Season, over the last few years (please see Testimonial pages).

The Moremi Wildlife Reserve is rated as one of the top two eco-destinations in the world by the editors of the authoritative Weissmann Travel Reports. Here's what they say: "What makes this park so spectacular is that it features an 'ark'-full of big game -- lions, leopards, hyenas, giraffes, elephants -- as well as a dramatic array of bird-life. The reserve encompasses the ecologically unique Okavango Delta, so visitors can go on a game drive in the morning, then, in the afternoon, glide along narrow, papyrus-lined streams to watch eagles, herons, storks, egrets and cranes soar overhead."

A lucky few guests at Wilderness Safaris' Mombo Camp on Chief's Island in the Moremi experienced the 'game drive of the year' in September last year:

"This must rate as one of the best game drives of the year. One vehicle in one day had this experience. During the morning drive they saw five different leopards before 07h30. They then saw a lion kill a buffalo and continued on to see wild dog hunting. During the afternoon game drive they saw a huge breeding herd of elephant & then saw a cheetah kill an impala. They also viewed buffalo and all the plains game. After their game drive while sitting at the bar in camp they saw two wild dog packs fighting in camp and then both packs fighting hyena. The guests had an unbelievable time!"

Mombo has to be the predator capital of Africa. On one occasion, Wilderness Safaris' Mike Myers spent only one night there with a journalist. They did a morning and afternoon game drive and this is part of what they saw: Lion on wildebeest kill; nine different cheetah in four different sightings; four different leopard - including a group of three which were close up with all sorts of incredible interactions between the three leopard; African wild cat; a herd of 30 plus elephant; lots of buffalo everywhere; a hyena den with five pups... the list goes on and on. They were never out of sight of general game in large numbers too.

Here is what world-famous photographer Paul Augustinus had to say after a summer (February) visit to Mombo: 'The game viewing from the camp was obscenely good. One day a group of guests arrived at midday. Linda was giving them their orientation chat in the lounge as they sipped their frosty drinks. They could hardly concentrate as in front of the lodge two elephants walked by, a group of buffalo were sitting in the shade of one of the trees and in the distance two male lions walked down and drank from the marsh lagoon. One of the buffalo then rushed the lions and chased them off. The guests hadn't been in Mombo for more than ten minutes and they had seen lion elephant and buffalo plus interaction! They were impressed no end!

The views from the tents at Mombo are better than Treetops in Kenya - when it was at its very best. From our own sala in Tent 7 we saw lions and lionesses at midday on six of the fourteen days we were there - it was hard to lie back and rest, there was so much going on. Who knows what happened on that floodplain when we were out on drives in the mornings and evenings? Frankly I did not want to know as on several occasions we came back to find buffalo, elephant, lion, lechwe and bushbuck in front of the camp right next to the main deck - but the good light for photography was gone. It was tricky deciding whether to go out for game drives or stay in camp!"

Ideally one should combine Victoria Falls, Chobe-Linyanti Game Reserve and the Okavango Delta/Moremi. If you're on a budget, consider an overland 'Adventure' type safari from Maun, Botswana to the Victoria Falls. These trips, such as the Migration Routes and Pans, Sands and Deserts and their Discoverer equivalent, the Great Wilderness Journey and 'Great Botswana Journey' have received rave reviews from practically every single guest we have booked since 1990. Overland camping trips will be enjoyed by people who are sociable and who love to have other people around to share the experience. The overland trips in Botswana as well as in Namibia are definitely the most 'educational' trips available, as one has the same professional guide for the duration of the trip, who pays attention to every aspect of the natural history.

NAMIBIA should be added to any Africa travel list. The magnificent dunes at Sossusvlei, the stunning geology of the Skeleton Coast, driving across the Namib Desert, the vast expanse of the salt pan in Etosha, the fort at Namutoni and many other places are delightful and easy to get to. Namibia is definitely my personal favorite because it has the unique combination of excellent game-viewing in Etosha and the true desert experience of the Namib. Namibia has vast areas of true wilderness and it also offers some of the best opportunities in Africa for cultural experiences such as meeting the Himba people, one of the continent's least disturbed and most traditional tribes. Swakopmund - which is a little bit like a slice of Germany in the desert - is a delightful holiday destination with many activities. Wilderness Safaris now offer 4 and 5-day trips inside the Skeleton Coast Park, one of Namibia's most intriguing areas. Another very popular trip is their 6-night 'Best of Namibia' wing safari, which includes the massive dunes at Sossusvlei, the fascinating Damaraland Camp and Ongava. Wilderness Safaris' latest additions in Namibia, namely Palmwag Rhino Camp (rhino tracking & lots of other wildlife) and Serra Cafema (a desert oasis on the Cunene River) offer yet more interesting facets of this truly unique country.

Wilderness Safaris' new range of Discovery and Adventurer safaris in Namibia highlight several exciting facets of this country. Please call or write for itineraries & further details of the 12-night Great Namibian Journey, 10-night Spirit of the Namib, 5-night Namibian Mountain Bike Safari, and 7-night Desert Rhino and Elephant Walking Expedition.

Wilderness Safaris' 'Spirit of the Namib' trip is a great introduction to Namibia, as it traverses the central and northern-western areas, where the unique hyper-arid Namib desert is encountered at its best. This trip will get you close to nature in the broader sense: nature and wildlife and particularly the desert & dune experience. At a cost of $3,495.00 p.p. sharing (low season mid Nov. through June 2007) or $3,570.00 p.p. (high season July through mid-Nov 2007) this 10-day guided safari offers exceptionally good value for money. While it is billed as a more basic 'Adventurer' style safari, guests only spend two nights in a domed tent camp, at the Kulala Adventurer Camp in Sossusvlei. All the other nights are spent either in comfortable lodges or in 'Discoverer' category camps. The price includes a charter flight from Windhoek to Etosha, which is unusual for any safari in this price category.

SOUTH AFRICA delivers good value for money as an African safari destination due to the relative weakness of the South African currency (although it has strengthened considerably lately). South Africa is also the best place for rhino - both black and white. At the rate these animals are disappearing elsewhere on the continent, my advice would be to go and see them first! In terms of value for money I don't think you can beat Kwazulu-Natal's Hluhluwe-Umfolozi or Itala Game Reserves. Combine this with a few days at Rocktail Bay Lodge on the Indian Ocean & Ndumo Wilderness Lodge and you've got yourself much more than 'just another safari'. There are several private game reserves adjacent to Kruger Park - such as Tanda Tula, Honeyguide and Notten's , which offers superior game-viewing, comfortable accommodations and great all-round hospitality at very affordable prices.

Game-viewing in South Africa offers more in the line of variety than in quantity. On a recent trip to South Africa we saw no less than 45 mammals, including some rarely seen species such as Cape Clawless Otter, Bat-eared Fox, Aardvark and Striped Polecat. But we never did see huge herds of game so don't bargain on the latter. South Africa has a lot more going for it than just wild-life, though: you simply have to spend a few days in the south-western Cape with its rich historical and cultural heritage, magnificent scenery and tons of things to do and see, including the Cape wine route, Table mountain, Robben Island, and the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve.

The Garden Route is somewhat over-rated in my opinion. I much prefer going up the West Coast to the Cedarberg, and stay at Bushmanskloof Lodge which is really great - it feels like Africa. The Southern San (Bushman) rock art walks there are superb, and so are the game drives. Terrific accommodation too. Closer to Cape Town there are fabulous places like Bartholomeus Klip (near Paarl) which has superb accommodation and cuisine in a working farm setting, with game drives on their heritage site. Then there's the Overberg, with penguins and whales in spring; Cape Agulhas and De Hoop National Park are also interesting places to visit, with the emphasis on unique Cape flora and fauna. There are two ostrich farms in the south-western Cape, one on the West Coast and one near Cape Point, as an alternative to Oudtshoorn. One of the positives about all these areas is that they are no more than a 3 hour drive from Cape Town.

Wilderness Safaris are now operating several new camps – as well as a scheduled Discoverer Safaris (6-night Great Zambia Journey) in Zambia's Kafue National Park. The northern sector of Kafue is what Wilderness Safaris searches for when locating its camps. It is remote, wild and diverse with vast tracts of pristine 'pure wilderness'. The Wilderness team who initially visited the area came back raving about the wilderness aspect ('The wildest area I've ever seen' according to Keith Vincent) and also the diversity of the region.

The Lunga River in the east is a permanent tributary of the Kafue River and beyond its narrow strip of riverine forest the landscape is patterned with broad-leafed woodland, open plains, floodplains and island thickets. In the north west of Kafue the Busanga Plains is a vast savannah of seasonally inundated grasslands dotted with riverine islands and areas of broad-leafed woodland.

Mammals are very diverse and aside from the high profile species, such as Lion, Leopard, Elephant, Buffalo and Cheetah, commonly seen in countries like Botswana and Zimbabwe, a number of other species, not readily encountered further south are often seen. Chief among these are Puku, Defassa Waterbuck and Lichtenstein's Hartebeest with rarer species such as Oribi and Roan regularly encountered. A further unusual species is the Tree Hyrax – a small population of which is resident in the camp at Lunga, their calls echoing through the camp at night.

This notwithstanding it is the high profile species that most guests are after and in this regard Kafue certainly delivers the goods! Good Lion and fantastic Cheetah (some of the best in Africa) sightings are common, Leopard viewing is a regular highlight, Wild Dogs are occasionally seen, Elephant and Buffalo sightings are excellent, and there are abundant Hippo and good numbers of plains game such as Zebra and Wildebeest.

Birdlife is abundant and includes many species that do not occur elsewhere in southern Africa. Zambia's single endemic species, Chaplin's Barbet, does occur, but the thrill is to be found in the diversity and abundance with nearly 500 species recorded and good concentrations of species such as Wattled Crane (Zambia contains more than half the world's population) and various pelicans, storks and herons. Other specials of the plains are Locust Finch, Rosy-throated and Fulleborn's Longclaws, Kori and Denham's Bustards, while birds of the woodland and riverine areas include Ross's Turaco, Blue-breasted Bee-eater, Pale-billed Hornbill, Miombo Pied Barbet and Red-capped Crombec.

ZIMBABWE: The Wilderness Safaris camps in Zimbabwe are being filled by savvy Africa travelers who know that it is during these times that one enjoys the finest wildlife encounters, at attractive prices. Safari prices in Zimbabwe are very reasonable and the quality is exceptional, as the staff in the camps go out of their way to ensure that each and every visitor has a great stay. There have been no problems at all in Victoria Falls, Hwange, Kariba and Mana Pools, the areas which our clients visit. We do not encourage visits to Harare or self-drive trips to Zimbabwe.

Game-viewing in Hwange - and other Zimbabwe parks - is generally excellent in late winter to early spring (July through October), and you should see between 25 and 35 different species of mammals, not counting bats & small rodents. You simply can't beat Hwange for elephant, at the right time of the year. Zimbabwe has many small safari camps which offer a high quality, personalized service. And it has Victoria Falls which offers not only the spectacle of the famous falls, but also lots of adventure activities such as white-water rafting, canoeing, bungee jumping & flights by helicopter and micro-light aircraft.

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6. What animals am I likely to see?

The animals you are likely to see during a week's stay in Botswana, for instance, will include elephant, giraffe, lion, zebra, buffalo, black-backed jackal, hyena, warthog, hippopotamus, wildebeest, impala, puku, tsessebe, kudu, reedbuck, waterbuck, lechwe, steenbok, duiker, baboon, vervet monkey, tree squirrel, mongoose and crocodile. Animals that you may see with a bit of luck and some night or water drives include leopard, cheetah, sable antelope, sitatunga, bush baby, African wild cat, bat-eared fox, side-striped jackal, wild dog, honey badger, genet, aardwolf, and more. A lot depends on which ecological areas are visited and on luck, but all these animals inhabit the regions we visit.

In a week in Northern Tanzania your list should be very similar, but with subtle differences: elephant, giraffe, lion, wildebeest, zebra, buffalo, black-backed & golden jackal, hyena, warthog, hippopotamus, impala, eland, topi, Thomson's Gazelle, Grant's Gazelle, Kirk's Dikdik, waterbuck, steenbok, duiker, baboon, vervet monkey, Sykes monkey, mongoose and crocodile. Animals that you may see with a bit of luck include leopard, cheetah, lesser kudu, gerenuk, black rhino (Ngorongoro Crater), wild dog, klipspringer, honey badger, bat-eared fox, and more.

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7. Is the bird-watching good?

The birding is wonderful in southern Africa with about 600 species being present. Southern Africa offers some of the most diverse habitat - especially in northern Botswana and Zimbabwe - while Namibia has a wealth of endemic bird species. The area is covered by a selection of excellent field guides (detailed information provided upon booking). Wilderness Safaris is renowned for emphasizing more than just the 'big mammals' on safari, and their guides are all familiar with the birds of their particular areas, while some are bird experts in their own right. The bird-watching in East Africa is every bit as good; on a recent trip we saw just on 300 species over less than 10 days of hard driving between camps. The best months for birding are from about November through March, when many intra-African and European migrants are present, and when many birds are in breeding plumage.

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8. Is Victoria Falls an absolute must or do the crowds and 18 hole golf course make it too tacky?

Victoria Falls is to Zimbabwe what the Grand Canyon is to Arizona: a definitive travel destination, but one night is probably sufficient, unless you're interested in some of the adventure-type activities. Some people in the business actually go as far as saying that if you haven't see the Falls, you haven't really seen southern Africa... The area immediately surrounding the Falls has so far been spared from development. For sheer spectacle, nothing can touch the Falls at peak flood in April or May. Nice weather at that time of the year, too. The white-water rafting experience in the Zambezi down from Victoria Falls is awesome especially when conditions are ideal (September/October). Not for the faint at heart!

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9. How long does game viewing stay interesting? Should we select a tour that mixes cultural experiences and game-viewing or stick with game-viewing only? (We are thinking of a trip of about 14 days)

Game-viewing can get repetitive if you stay in the same habitat too long, which translates into seeing pretty much the same vegetation, animals, birds, etc. The key is habitat diversity: look for an itinerary which has a mix of three or four major habitat types such as wetlands, highveld savannah (open grassland dotted with trees), acacia or thornveld savannah (aka bushveld) and riverine bush. By all means select a tour which will look at all aspects of the natural history of an area, not just game. Try not to get too caught up 'Big Five' fever, i.e. sightings of lion, leopard, rhino, Cape buffalo & elephant. There's much more to be discovered about the African wilderness, particularly its incredible bird-life, smaller mammals, reptiles & amphibians, even insects and butterflies. Not to mention the trees and other plants... If you are receptive to learning about all aspects of the natural history, your trip will be much more meaningful and enjoyable. Please don't set yourself up for disappointment by focusing on just one or two of the big cats: especially leopard and cheetah. They are not always seen.

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10. Is it advisable to go with a tour group or can I do it myself?

It all depends. For a first visit to Africa - unless you're young, adventurous & traveling as a backpacker - my advice would be to go on a small group safari. You really have three main options (and may opt to combine two or more of these):

a) Join a small-group safari (scheduled departure).

These safaris, which range from luxury fly-in trips to more basic, 'Adventurer' safaris, are for people who enjoy the camaraderie of traveling with a few other like-minded people and who appreciate the many advantages of having a professional guide on hand at all times. I highly recommend them for first-time visitors to Southern and East Africa. Sharing the experience often makes it much more rewarding & having a guide to identify birds, trees & mammals can make all the difference. The cross-country safaris are also ideal for single travelers of either sex. Overland guided safaris can be tailor-made for private family groups or friends who'd like to travel together. The ideal group size is eight.

If you will enjoy the group experience, if you do not mind an occasional long drive to get from one area to the next, and are looking for a broadly educational trip (not just big game!), you will enjoy the overland safaris. Standards of accommodation varies: even on the more expensive trips such as the Discoverer series in Botswana, there is some mobile tented camping involved. However you get close to nature, you are invariably the only people in the camp, and you have a guide who can answer just about any question you may have.

b) Fully independent fly-in safari

For the independently-minded, savvy traveler, this is the way to go. You decide - in consultation with your African travel specialist - how long you want to stay in particular areas & lodges and choose the activities you like, whether it's game-viewing, walking, bird-watching, fishing or all of these. A single guide does not accompany you all the way, as you go on game-drives and other activities (such as mokoro rides or foot safaris) with knowledgeable local guides. The fly-in safaris are quite sociable too: even though you are not part of a group as such, you meet up with interesting people at the various lodges, where meals are taken together and there is ample opportunity for socializing.

This is the best choice for someone who does not mind paying a bit more for quality accommodations (all with en-suite facilities) throughout. It has been my experience that game-viewing (especially for big game and cats) is best on a fly-in safari, or at least it is more consistent. The guides at the camps pretty much know where game is concentrated at any particular time, and the various vehicles out on game drives are in radio contact, so everyone is alerted to sightings of special interest.

c) Self-drive safari

The more cost-conscious traveler may consider a self-drive safari in South Africa, or Namibia. These two countries (and especially South Africa) have an excellent road & air network, which makes it easy to get around quickly and relatively safely, without having to resort to 4-wheel drive vehicles. Just plan your trip carefully & book well in advance, especially for the July & December holidays. Please note: South Africa in particular has a bad road safety record and road deaths there are amongst the highest (per vehicle-miles traveled) of any country in the world. Keep in mind that you are most likely to be injured in a road accident, than through any other activity, in Africa or practically anywhere else. We do not recommend extended driving around the major cities in South Africa, or long-distance travel cross-country. Night-driving should be avoided.

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11. Is it worth paying more than $400 per person, per night for a fly-in safari?

Why would anybody pay $500 to $850 per person per day for a safari? There are the obvious reasons such as staying in an elegant, romantic 'out of Africa' style tent, enjoying all the comforts of a hotel, including excellent food and personalized service. In my opinion the two most important factors, however, are privacy and the quality of the guiding.

The most expensive lodges are almost always located in private concession areas where access is limited to the guests staying at the lodge(s) on the property. Ask anybody who has spent some time on a fly-in safari in Northern Botswana, and they will invariably mention seeing few other vehicles. The privacy and exclusivity of these camps create a wilderness experience that cannot be compared with a stay at a public reserve. I've had some wonderful (inexpensive) experiences in places like Etosha, Kalahari Gemsbok Park, and Kruger Park - which I have visited dozens of times - yet I have also had visits there marred by foolish behavior on the part of other visitors, such as illegal off-road driving, hooliganism and overcrowding, with sometimes dozens of cars converging on a 'kill' scene. Every visit is different and you can have the most sublime wildlife experience in a public reserve (I sure have), but by spending the dollars to stay in a private concession, you do not run the risk of having your vacation spoiled by some idiot throwing a beer bottle at sleeping lions. Most people do not return to Africa year after year, so for them it is a wise investment to spend a bit more in order to enjoy the proverbial trip of a life-time.

At private game lodges such as MalaMala in South Africa and Mombo in Botswana, the quality of the guiding is superb. Let me give you an example: a couple of years ago at Mombo, we were fortunate to have Hayden Oake as our guide. A game drive with Hayden, a charming fellow with a keen sense of humor, is a veritable education. Like all the best guides in the business, he not only finds the animals and birds and other wildlife, but he interprets their behavior, explains their interaction with each other, and even predicts what will happen next. Being with someone like Hayden Oake in Botswana is like being 'in' one of those National Geographic films.

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12. What do I look for in selecting an operator?
 

I'd suggest that if you get a 'NO' answer on any of the following three questions, you should think twice before dealing with a particular operator or his/her local agent:

  • Is the departure guaranteed? There is nothing as frustrating as booking for a trip, spending months in keen anticipation only to be given back your deposit with a lame excuse that the tour was not fully supported or whatever. It happens, so make sure.
  • Does the company legally operate an office within the country where the tour is going to take place and does it own the vehicles & equipment and employ the guides? It is essential to go with a group which has in-country back-up, IN CASE THINGS GO WRONG. I cannot adequately stress this point: having a broken down vehicle replaced or an ill guide substituted by someone equally capable - or not - can make either of these a minor inconvenience or a major disaster.
  • Will there be 10 or less persons in the group? As an avid bird-watcher, I am perhaps over-sensitive about this, but believe me, "nature tour" with more than 10 or so people becomes an oxymoron. More like "survival of the fittest" in terms of space in the vehicle, positioning for photographs, enjoying nature peacefully and quietly and so on.

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13. Who are the best operators? Who are the best guides?

I have been an agent for Wilderness Safaris (head office in Johannesburg where they operate a full-service travel agency, with affiliates in Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Malawi) since 1990 and recommend them highly. In Tanzania, we work with Tanzania Photographic Safaris, and our Kenya associates are Origins Safaris, based in Nairobi.

On an African safari, the quality of the guide is a make-or-break factor, so don't compromise on this: a good guide will make a safari interesting - even excellent - no matter the weather or how much game you see. Wilderness Safaris' guides on the overland safaris are all top-notch, going through rigorous interviews before even being hired. Most of their guides have been with them for many years and their evaluation sheets are proof of the excellent service and standard of safari they run. Tanzania Photographic Safaris (Tanzania) and Origins Safaris (Kenya) employ equally top-notch guides, which I know from first-hand experience.

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14. How safe are safari flights? Should we plan on them or avoid them?

Safari flights in the Okavango Delta are probably as safe as similar light aircraft operations most anywhere in the world: much safer than ground transportation but not as safe as commercial jet aircraft. The aircraft are well-maintained and - just like in the USA - completely overhauled after a pre-determined number of hours. You'll find that the so-called "bush pilots" are, like the vast majority of their colleagues all over the world, very concerned about safety, that they follow correct procedures and that they will not operate an unserviceable aircraft, or overload it (so watch that luggage limit!) After all, their lives are at stake, too.

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15. What about personal safety? I've heard a lot about crime & car-jackings in South Africa?

Urban crime is a problem in South Africa, but the country's major cities such as Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban are no more dangerous to travelers than other large African cities such as Nairobi, Kenya or Harare, Zimbabwe. As long as you take good precautions, you should be fine, although the downtown area of Johannesburg is best avoided. Outside of the cities, traveling is safe and relaxed. Botswana and Namibia are for the most part politically stable and peaceful, and traveling in those countries is not as stressful as visiting South Africa. Zimbabwe has been experienced political unrest, but it is largely confined to Harare and tourist areas such as Victoria Falls, Hwange, Mana Pools and Kariba have not been affected. Personal safety is dealt with in detail in our pre-trip information material.

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16. Are safaris dangerous?

Obviously, there is a certain degree of danger when you are in the bush with wild animals. However, you will always be accompanied by an experienced guide. Accidents are very rare and the camps have excellent safety records. Provided you use common sense you should be perfectly safe.

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17. What are things to watch for as far as price is concerned? Where do you get ripped off?

The most important thing is to make sure that all the essential things associated with the trip are included in the quoted price: ground transportation, accommodation, meals, excursions, guide/driver service and transfers. Some operators tend to confuse the issue with a very low up-front quote for a bare-bones trip which is not what you want and not what you end up paying for, once all the 'extras' are added in.

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18. When is the best time to go?

It depends. Generally speaking, game-viewing peaks from July through September, but it is good year-round. October through February can get very hot in northern Botswana and Zimbabwe, especially in the Zambezi Valley. For bird-watching, the summer months are better, i.e. October through February/March. Victoria Falls is at its best in April/May, while Cape Town's nicest weather is February, March & April. Namibia and other arid areas (such as the Kalahari) are at their best in March, April & May, just after the 'rainy' season (what there is of it). Low or shoulder season safari prices are available from November through June. The lowest prices (in Botswana & Zimbabwe) are for the 'Green Season' from December through March.

In East Africa, it rarely gets unbearably hot, although some people prefer to avoid the 'long rains' which fall in April & May. The dry season from July to September is considered the optimum time for the western & northern Serengeti & Kenya's Masai Mara, while December, January and February are arguably the best three months for the southern shortgrass plains of the Serengeti. The months of March through May and June are low season in East Africa, and offer good value for money.

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19. Any other tips?

Look for quality and value for money. Don't end up spending $2,000.00 or more on airfares only to be disappointed by a poorly run, inferior safari. Ask for references from previous clients and make sure that the trip has been operated before (don't be a guinea pig!). Repetition equals knowledgeable guides, no unpleasant surprises and finely tuned itineraries.

Try to try to avoid too 'busy' an itinerary. We always urge prospective visitors to spend more time in fewer locations. Slowing down a safari has many benefits, not the least of which is that it reduces the 'per diem' cost due to relatively fewer charter flights. Spending several days in any one area enables you to enjoy all the activities in the area, to re-visit favorite spots, and to take the time to look for specific animals and to enjoy their behavior and interaction, as opposed to just finding them. The animals move around in real time, and it never hurts to have an extra day here or there. You will also become better acquainted with your guides and camp managers, and give them a chance to exhibit their particular strengths, for your benefit. Spending less time traveling between locations is the real luxury and will allow you an opportunity to connect with an area and discover the true meaning of 'safari' – Swahili for journey.

Above all, take the best pair of binoculars you can afford, and have fun!

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For further information contact -
Fish Eagle Safaris
11152 Westheimer #150
Houston, TX 77042
Toll-free: 1-800-513-5222
Tel: (713) 467-5222
Fax: (713) 467-3208
E-mail: exafrica@aol.com
E-mail: jduplessis@houston.rr.com
Website: www.fisheaglesafaris.com

   
  About the author: Bert Duplessis is a native of South Africa, since 1990 a resident of Houston, Texas. Bert is an avid birder with an Africa life-list of over 700 species. Bert and his partner Kathleen are the co-owners of Fish Eagle Safaris, marketing nature tours (both overland and fly-in safaris) to Botswana, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Since 1990, Bert has been an agent for Wilderness Safaris, southern Africa's foremost nature tour travel group. He and Kathleen travel to Africa regularly on inspection visits.



To order a brochure, newsletter or 'Frequently Asked Questions' about selecting an African safari destination, send an e-mail message to info@fisheaglesafaris.com with your name, address and telephone number, or call 1-800-513-5222 (713-467-5222 if you're calling from outside North America)

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Fish Eagle Safaris
11152 Westheimer #150
Houston, TX 77042
Tel 1-800-513-5222 (USA and Canada)
Tel 713-467-5222 (from outside North America)
Fax 713/467-3208
E-mail: info@fisheaglesafaris.com