Tips for Planning an African Safari

March 15, 2011
Eric Anderson, MD

A reader searching online for African safari tour operators asks our travel columnist whether there are some types of tour operators to avoid even if their costs are attractive.

Q: Searching online for African safari tour operators is easy, but are there some types of operators to avoid even if their costs are attractive?

A: It’s not so much the types of operators you should avoid as it is getting the best advice from the right source. In the old days, says Jim Holden, chief executive at African Travel Inc., travelers visited a travel agent who, in turn, would contact a tour operator in the U.S. The tour operator would then contact a so-called ground handler in Africa, who would then approach the lodges or safari camps. An experienced tour operator would then “qualify” the customer by asking all kinds of questions to understand the traveler’s interests.

Today, though, there’s a tendency for American customers to skip all the middle people and go direct to the safari camp itself. This has become so common, in fact, the travel industry has a term for it: disintermediate.

Holden is biased, of course, but he makes cogent arguments. An African safari is not like a coach tour of Europe, where you might have alternatives for your day, he says. “Once you’re on safari, you’re on safari,” Holden says. “This is not like the movie: ‘If it’s Tuesday, it must be Belgium.’ You can’t go round Africa like that. It’s all custom.”

And Holden argues that the only way to get customized safari is to ask questions, such as: Have you been to Africa before? Are you locked into a particular time? (An important question as animal feeding patterns and wild life movements vary with the season.) Are you fit and healthy? How do you normally travel? What’s your comfort zone -- especially with people?

In order to better understand what is involved in planning an African safari, Holden makes the following points.

Understanding Value. Customers dealing direct with a camp may discover they can get to, say, Kenya in a land vehicle for half the price of the more expensive transportation of flying in a small plane. Flying takes two hours, driving two days. So travelers who chose to fly may be sitting in camp enjoying activities and sipping their drinks, while those arriving by road roll up tired and covered in dust. Says Holden: “The value created by the more expensive transportation is added time, time to enjoy the safari,” though he adds, “for some, driving in Africa may be exactly what they want. Travel is about experience!”

Underestimating Price. African Travel does not ask about its customers’ budgets until it has learned their expectations. Roundtrip airfare might be as much as $5,000 for two, a considerable investment up front. Customers always underestimate costs, says Holden, but they sense they are going to get the unique experience they’re looking for, so they’re typically OK with the price.

Photography Advice. Asked about the technique of photographing wildlife and whether long lenses are necessary, Holden recommends consulting with a local professional photographer. He adds, however, “let me tell you how we work with photographers so they get their dream shots on safari. Our drivers carry sandbags for window ledges to support cameras; they know to switch off the engine to reduce vibrations and not to move the vehicle during photography -- and how to pursue animals to get that special shot. And we are prepared to handle the extra weight of camera equipment in our small planes and we have facilities to charge digital camera batteries even in the wild.”

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Eric Anderson, a retired MD who lives in San Diego, is one of the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. The one-time president of the New Hampshire Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the American Society of Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.