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Preparing for an African Safari

When you first get the details of an incredible safari, you will feel lots of excitement. That’s a good thing. However, there is a bit more work to do before traveling to Africa and enjoying game drives. Let’s dive in.

Travel Documents
First, you will need a valid passport, of course, but there’s a caveat—it is highly recommended to have a minimum of six months remaining on your passport’s validity from the date of your safari, and nine months is preferred. Also, having at least two blank pages for stamps and visas are needed, more if you have a multi-country itinerary that requires multiple visas.
Most visas can be purchased upon landing at the airport (please bring pens to fill these out faster instead of waiting for one in the immigration line). In fact, this is the recommended method. But, there are a couple of countries where you should apply online prior to your trip. As these policies change regularly, please refer to visahq.com for the most up-to-date information available.

Your Health
Next, you’ll want to contact your primary care physician or a travel clinic. They are your first and best option for pre-travel medical advice and preparation. They will review recommended or required vaccinations and discuss any other possible health issues of which you should be aware. Two of these are traveler’s diarrhea and malaria.

Many, but not all, safari lodges have filtered water that is safe for tourists to drink. Upon arrival at a new lodge, it is best to inquire to be safe. Be aware: don’t brush your teeth with tap water if the water isn’t safe for drinking; that is the same as drinking unsafe water. As a precaution, some travel clinics like to send a prescription to help with traveler’s diarrhea.

Speaking of precautions, most safari-goers will need to take a malaria prophylactic. There are a number of options, such as Malarone (Atovaquone/Proguanil), Doxycycline, and Mefloquine. Which one is right for you? Listen to your doctor on this one. For some, Doxycycline can cause photosensitivity, which can be unfortunate while on safari in sunny Africa. Ask your medical professional for the best fit for your medical history and the location to which you are heading. 

Note: there are a few areas that are considered malaria-free during certain times of the year and you can go on safari without malaria prevention—again, ask your doctor or travel clinic.
Your travel clinic doctor can also advise you and your family whether you need Yellow Fever vaccines or updates to your tetanus vaccine, or any other inoculations. They are the experts; please listen to them. (Are you sensing a pattern here?)

As always, we at Adventure Life highly recommend travel insurance for your trip. Some safari packages include the benefit of medical evacuation by a service similar to the Flying Doctors. Even so, you still need travel insurance for the whole trip. If you get injured or have a medical issue, you will get flown out of the bush, but then what? You may have a hospital stay in a larger city or need to be flown home. Look at the policies our insurance partner offers at adventurelife.com/insurance and comparison shop for travel policies at squaremouth.com for one that best fits your needs.

Your Finances
Now it is time to talk money. You may not need any local currency for your destination. The U.S. Dollar is pretty much the defacto currency in most safari locations (followed closely by the Euro and the British Pound). Stock up on post-2013 denominations of a variety of bills; most countries with safari locations refuse older US bills as they are more easily counterfeited. It is best to go to your local bank branch and ask for newer bills with the latest anti-counterfeit technologies. Almost every visa sold to tourists in-person (at airports) will require the use of U.S. Dollars.
Smaller bills are handy for the tip box as you check out of each lodge on your way to the next great location. And please consider being generous when tipping your safari guide/driver at the end of your safari (though it is expected, they will not ask). These are highly skilled professionals with years of experience and extensive training. Tips from tourists are a boon to the local economies you visit, as well. I have a general safari tipping guide I am happy to share with you.

Your Luggage
Put your roll-aboard back in the closet. You will need to pack in soft-sided luggage and be conscientious about the weight of your bag. Most safaris involve at least one flight, either a commercial aircraft or a smaller plane going to or from an airstrip in the bush. Either type of flight will have weight restrictions, and the small airplanes will require those bags to be soft-sided for loading in tight spaces.

I recommend travel backpacks instead of duffel bags with only a shoulder strap or carrying handles. Most have a capacity of 35-40 cubic liters, which should be adequate for your safari. (More on what to wear in a bit.) For those who don’t think that will be enough space, know that I’ve traveled the world with just a 40-liter backpack, and that includes a multi-week safari and an expedition to Antarctica, and it is liberating! The best part is you can carry all your luggage onto the plane so it is always with you on your journey—the airline can’t lose it if they aren’t in charge of it.
Topo Designs Travel Backpack 40L
Topo Designs Travel Backpack 40L (Jason Maynard)

For a few recommendations of travel backpacks, I like the Cotopaxi Allpa (either 35 liters or 42), the Patagonia Black Hole Duffel 40L (has backpack straps), Osprey Farpoint 40, Peak Designs Travel Backpack (40L), and the Topo Designs Global Travel Backpack 40L--which is what I travel with. For an economical choice, the eBags TLS Mother Lode Weekender works well (and this is what my wife uses).

If you have a favorite outdoor gear store, it’s time to plan a visit. I would recommend your local independent outdoor adventure sports store to be your first stop. They can be a valuable resource with their knowledgeable staff to answer any questions or get that hard-to-find item for you. In the U.S., REI is another option. In Canada, MEC is the equivalent of REI. Both MEC and REI will have some of the luggage options above as well as great clothing choices (discussed below).

Your Gear
Bring your best camera and pack extra everything: batteries, memory cards, microfiber cleaning cloths, and even a few spare charging cables. Don’t have a good telephoto lens? Time to spring for one—it will make a difference. (At the very least, consider a bridge camera with built-in digital zoom.) A power bank is an excellent option for charging on the go (or a long afternoon game drive). And yes, your cell phone takes fantastic pictures and videos so it should be in your pocket as well. 

In addition, you’ll need a plug adaptor for whichever countries you will be visiting. If you have a large number of items needing power, consider fancier converters with USB ports built-in, or a travel power strip such as this one. If you are unsure of which plug type is used in the countries you are visiting, please refer to this chart.

Don’t forget a good pair of binoculars for spotting game—generally, a pair with 8x or 10x magnification should be good. A flashlight or headlamp is handy around the lodge—there are no lamp posts outside. And a day pack or bag for carrying essential items during the day, putting in the safari vehicle, or taking on game walks is also great to have.

You should also pack sunscreen, sunglasses, a wide-brimmed safari hat (my favorite is a Tilly hat), insect repellent, lip balm, and a basic first aid kit (bandages, antibiotic ointment, itch cream, anti-diarrheal, and pain relievers).

Your Clothing
I don’t want you walking into the lodge looking as if you stepped out of a period piece on the colonization of Africa. No pith helmets, please! But you will need to be cognizant of color choices in your clothing, so let’s start there. Go with neutral colors: khaki, beige, light brown, or olive. (Remember, the lighter the color, the better at keeping you cool under the African sun.) I’ll stretch it a bit and say light or medium gray could work. You must avoid bright and primary colors, as well as white (even if it is before Labor Day). They can scare away wildlife (or worse, agitate them). And please avoid blues and blacks—they attract the tsetse fly, which has a very nasty bite. (Remember, you will either be in an open-sided safari vehicle or one where you have the windows down and the pop-top up.)
You don't need lots of clothes for safari, just the right ones.
You don't need lots of clothes for safari, just the right ones. (Jason Maynard)

Next up, fabric choices—they matter here. First off, avoid jeans. Besides usually being blue (or black), they are heavy. Plus, if they get wet, they take forever to dry. My two choices are merino wool and a combination of man-made technical fabrics like nylon and polyester. These are used in moisture-wicking and breathable garments like long sleeve button-up safari shirts and technical pants. Yes, I said pants. Many of you might want to pack shorts but I would suggest pants (sure, go for the zip-off convertible pants if you want). Pants offer warmth if it gets chilly early or late in the day, protection from insects and the sun, and are highly recommended if you go out on a walking safari.

I like to use a layering method when dressing in the morning for safari. I wear a merino wool T-shirt (my fave) with a long-sleeve safari shirt over it, and a jacket. Sturdy, closed-toed shoes with merino wool socks and my long safari pants. If it is chilly in the morning or if going for an evening drive, I wear or pack a merino wool buff or neck gaiter as well as a quarter-zip merino wool pullover or a fleece. A safari jacket can be advisable if you visit some high-elevation areas in the winter. A lightweight rain jacket (or a safari jacket that is waterproof) is needed if going in the green season or visiting Victoria Falls when the waters are high and the spray coats everything.

And please don’t think you need to pack an outfit for every day you are gone. Safari lodges have laundry services. Merino wool can be worn more than once. And you are not out to impress anyone on safari.

A side note for the ladies: despite excellent suspensions in the Landies (safari slang for Land Cruisers or Land Rover safari vehicles), game drives are not usually very smooth. I have been told (many, many times) sports bras or compression bras are best to wear on these drives for their added support and comfort.

You may want to pack some activities for any downtime you have. I love to bring a journal, some reading material, and I also download some shows and movies on a tablet in case of long flights or layovers (but not at the lodges). WiFi at the lodges will probably not set any speed records; do not plan to stream anything. And posting to social media can be hit or miss, as upload speeds are generally abysmal. This is an excellent time to shut off the wifi and cell services on your phones and be present with the incredible surroundings you find yourself in. The memory of the sunset over the Serengeti will stick with you longer than any post you make about it.

Speaking of reading material, if you like travel guides, let me recommend the Bradt series of books. They are, in my opinion, the best option for travel guides to Africa. I prefer them to any other publisher in the travel guide game for most destinations on the African continent. They are a European publisher, but you can acquire them in the States. Contact your local independent bookstore and they can order a copy for you. And perhaps consider getting a pocket guide to the animals (and birds) you might spot. Once you see these amazing creatures, you’ll immediately want to know more about them. You can see what guides Bradt has here.

I’ll wrap up by suggesting you ask for a simple PDF packing list for safaris. This is not a country-specific safari packing list, but a great starting point for any safari. Feel free to customize it to your needs. And any specialized activities (gorilla trekking or climbing Kilimanjaro, for example) will require more gear, but this is an excellent all-purpose list to get you started. If you'd like me to send you the packing list, just email me.

* Note, any links or recommendations are mine and mine alone. And I don’t get anything from you clicking the link. No referrals or such. It is merely for your convenience.

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