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Let’s Go on Safari! (Part 2)

Giraffes in Chobe National Park.  Botswana.

Bugs the Size of Crackers and Other Stuff I Wish I'd Known BEFORE I Went on a Safari!

Last week’s post covered safari planning basics. This week’s post will talk about helpful things to know before you head out on a safari.

1. Register your trip with the U.S. State Department’s STEP program.

The U.S. State Department website has a ton of useful information for travelers and the STEP program is one of them. According to its website, “The Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) is a free service to allow U.S. citizens and nationals traveling abroad to enroll their trip with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate.” Even if you are on an organized tour, it’s a good idea to register.

2. Load a USB drive with your documents and important info in case you get separated from your stuff.

Your passport, insurance card, drivers license, copies of credit cards, emergency contact, embassy contact, medical info, itinerary, plane tickets, hotel info, even a marriage certificate if you think you’ll need proof. Just don’t lose the USB drive…

3. Try not to bring attention to yourself.

Americans and the American government aren’t always popular, so let’s not tempt fate, shall we?

4. People may ask you for money in some way… alot.

In the airport, people may offer to help you get from point to point who aren’t airport personnel and they'll expect a tip. Also, we stopped in a town driving from camp to camp. When we parked at the local grocery store, a group of kids tried to get us to pay them to watch our car….Simply say no thanks to all of it and keep moving.

5. 45 minutes late is right on time…..

6. Some safaris are passive.

Inside our tent in Botswana

Counterintuitive right? In Botswana, the routine at the camp we stayed was something like this: Breakfast then a morning drive. See tons of wildlife. Stop for morning tea (with silverware and china!). See more wildlife. Return to camp for lunch. Relax. Afternoon drive. See tons of wildlife, maybe catch a “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” moment. Stop for afternoon cocktails (with linens and martini shakers!). See more wildlife. Return to camp. Pre-dinner cocktail. Dinner. After dinner cocktail. Return to “tent”. Repeat next day. Not a lot of physical activity, but I suppose the point is to wind down so you can appreciate all the incredible things you’re seeing.

7. There are critters everywhere, all the time.

One evening, while having dinner under the stars (it’s as amazing as it sounds), we were enjoying our meals and talking when I heard a small tap. I glanced down and there was a beetle the size of a Saltine on my plate! I must have looked like a cartoon character with my eyes bulging out. And while I’m not afraid of bugs, the ones I’m not afraid of are usually smaller than a cracker. I screeched (more of a choked gurgle) then started laughing because, um, you’re in the middle of the Okavango Delta, what did you expect? And the bug just kept going as if to say, “just passin’ through…”

All those critters are all endlessly fascinating. The big stuff (lions, giraffes, buffalo, etc.) is everything you imagine, but the small stuff is equally captivating. Who knew watching a dung beetle roll elephant poop into a ball and up a tiny hill could be so mesmerizing?

8. Tipping:

You’ll need to tip people along the way such as your guide and your camp. Your tour company will likely send you a tipping guideline. Surprisingly, the amount to tip may depend on the country you’re visiting and the preferred currency in which to tip may vary.

9. Leave room in your budget for the unexpected.

A safari is an unforgettable experience, but unanticipated circumstances may arise, so bring extra cash - you forget to tip someone, maybe you see something that you hadn’t anticipated buying, or something more serious. Whatever the expense, bring a bit more. It’s better to have and not need than to need and not have.

10. Driving:

a. You may not necessarily have access to an automatic transmission vehicle, so:

  • Do you know how to drive a manual transmission car?

  • Are you comfortable with a right hand drive vehicle?

  • Can you manage a right hand drive, left hand stick vehicle? That is, driving with the driver’s side steering on the right side of the car with the gear shift of the manual transmission on the left.

b. Spare tires:

Depending on if/where you're driving, when you reserve your car you may want to request two spare tires and get spare tire insurance. Yup, spare tire insurance is a thing in some countries. Confirm that you are getting a second spare. In Namibia, this was a HUGE deal because service stations are scarce, roads are not necessarily paved, and if you get a flat you are literally in the middle of nowhere. It may be hours before you see another car. On our trip driving through the Namib desert, we had requested a second spare. When we arrived, the car rental company said they were “out”, so we winged it with only one spare. We got a flat, but we were fortunate to have been close to a town. We found a repair center, got our tire fixed and it was covered by insurance. A wee bit stressful…

c. Fuel:

Before you start - figure out where gas stations are along your route (it may be noted on information you receive), what type of fuel you need and what your fuel efficiency is (should be in car’s owner’s manual), and what forms of payment are accepted. You don’t want to be (a) low on fuel or run out of gas in the middle of nowhere; (b) put the wrong fuel in your car, or (c) manage to get yourself to a gas station but not have any way to pay for it. Have a backup plan just in case the station you stop at is out of fuel. Just sayin’…

d. You may not always have a GPS... or a map.

We only had directions driving in Namibia. No map. No GPS. Crazy, right? Well, the roads were surprisingly well marked so it really wasn’t a problem.

e. Check points:

While this didn’t happen to us, a couple from Zimbabwe told us that the following occurs frequently in some countries in Africa: If you are traveling from point A to point B, you may be stopped at various check points by uniformed personnel. If you are stopped, the personnel may suggest that you committed some traffic violation that requires you to pay a fine. They may say that you can pay them or they will issue you a ticket which will require you to go to the police station - ask for the ticket and tell them you will go to the police station to pay. If you pay at the checkpoint, it’s possible that the personnel at that checkpoint might radio ahead to the next checkpoint and before you know it, you’re out of money because you’ve committed so many “traffic violations”…….

11. Stuff that people don’t always tell you to bring:

a. Multiple flashlights because it’s really, really dark at night. Since there's no light pollution it's possible to see ALL the stars and the display is spectacular!

b. A whistle or something that can be used as a signaling device in case you’re lost or in trouble. I had a flashlight with a whistle on it and people were oddly fascinated with it.

c. A compass because you might not have a GPS. See #10.

d. First aid kit.

Everything you can think of. Bandages of all sizes, ointments, bug spray, diarrhea medicine, constipation medicine, cold medicine. BUT MAYBE NOT BENADRYL - it may be illegal in some countries. Check on the U.S. State Department website to see what medications can be brought in to a country.

e. Wipes. Safaris are dirty.

f. Packing:

Unless you’re doing a self drive where you have to arrange everything yourself, a tour company will generally send you a packing list. Definitely use it.

g. Hat and scarf.

Bring a hat for shade since the sun can be brutal. You’re not going to freeze, but it may be chilly in the mornings and you’ll be thankful to have a scarf.

h. Put your clothes in big plastic zipper bags to pack in your suitcase.

(1) Depending on when you go, it may be raining when you arrive or your luggage may be sitting on the airport tarmac and you want to keep your clothes dry.

(2) Critters get into stuff. Sealed plastic bags will avid bringing back any hitchhikers.

i. You may only be permitted to have a very small bag.

Flight from Moremi National Game Reserve.  Botswana.

In Botswana, we flew to camps on very small airplanes like Cessnas. Passengers were limited to 20 kg in a softsided duffle bag. There are usually laundry services available at camps so take advantage. Still, leave room for souvenirs because many of the souvenirs are beautiful works of art.

j. You’ll meet some of the most fascinating people EVER.

Two of the most incredible people we met were our guides. In Botswana, Franklin was one of our guides. He and his family were displaced from their tribal land when they were moved to make room for the preserve on which he was now a guide. He was very funny in an understated way and he got me interested in bird identification, which I’m horrible at, but still love.

Toffy was our guide in Namibia. He was a San tribesman. He taught himself English which was impeccable and he taught me a few words in San, which I immediately forgot. We bonded over our love of books. He taught us how to read elephant tracks (because there’s a need for that on the east coast of the U.S.) and that San children learn to track animals by first learning to identify their parents’ footprints.

So there you go! Some tips to help you get ready for your safari! While I may have forgotten something, there can always be another post! And, if you missed part one post click here to read it!

Elephant in Chobe National Park.  Botswana.

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