How to Plan an African Safari

The beginner's guide to a bucket list-worthy African adventure.

giraffe in zimbabwe
If you want to plan an African safari but aren’t sure where to start, you’re in the right place. Andrew Howard Photo

Ask most habitual travelers to rattle off their bucket-list adventures, and an African safari will enjoy repeated mentions. You can’t blame these jet-setters for their predictability—when organized properly, the unique formula of majestic wildlife, rugged luxury and far-flung enchantment can easily equal the trip of a lifetime. The challenge is, safaris are anything but predictable. In fact, no two excursions into the bush are even remotely the same, which is actually part of the allure, and why some adventurers come back for more on a regular basis—and I’m one of them. Here’s what I’ve learned from multiple experiences on African safaris, and what you ought to know to make the most out of your first foray.

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interior of Tembo Plains Camp in zimbabwe
Tembo Plains Camp. ANDREW HOWARD

Choose A Trusted Tour Operator

If you’re looking for some semblance of control or consistency, it matters how you plan, and, most crucially, who you plan with. Because there are so many logistics involved in building an itinerary in this part of the world, you’re going to want to enlist the help of professional tour operators. These specialized businesses work with you to organize flights, both to and within Africa, and they liaise with bush camps to reserve accommodations and guides, secure necessary permits and visas—the whole shebang. The operators then package it together into an all-inclusive total, so you won’t have any surprise fees come up. Typically, the only thing you’d have to pay on top of that figure is gratuity for hotel staff and guides on the ground.

For U.S. travelers, it’s best to choose a tour company based in the United States, for ease of communication while you’re in the planning phases. Should there be any hiccups along the way, you’ll want to know they operate a 24-hour phone line to smooth things out around the clock. For a boutique-y experience, go with Mango African Safaris. Based in Denver, it was founded by Teresa Isabelle Sullivan and Casey Gamba Hermansen in 1999, after the two college friends embarked on a seven-month-long adventure through Africa together. Their team takes great pride in working closely with customers to formulate a wholly bespoke adventure.

a lion in africa
It’s important to prioritize what you want to see on safari. Brad Japhe.

Ultimate Africa Safaris is another excellent option, particularly if you’re keen on seeing the southern parts of the continent. Founder Ian Proctor has been exploring this part of the world since the late ‘80s, and has developed lasting relationships with some of the best operators on the ground there. He’s been to Botswana and South Africa dozens of times throughout the years, and provides valuable personal insight when building any itinerary; no matter where you’re thinking of traveling within this region, chances are good Proctor’s already been.

If you’re looking for the most trusted name in ultra-luxury safari, Micato is it. Native Kenyans Felix and Jane Pinto, who live in Africa full-time, have run this outfitter for over 50 years. They work exclusively with high-credentialed guides and high-end camps, and have an impeccable record when it comes to safety. They even guarantee you two guides to lead  game drives, as opposed to the customary solo experience. If your safari starts in Nairobi, they go a step above and beyond and invite you over to personally meet you before heading into the bush.

elephants in Mpala Jena, Zembezi Natrional Park, Zimababwe.
Mpala Jena, Zembezi National Park, Zimbabwe. Andrew Howard Photo

Prioritize What You Want To Experience

Africa comprises an incomprehensibly vast and dynamic landscape. It would take decades of traveling to truly get a taste of it all. Which is to say, you’re not doing everything on one trip. So, what do you want to see most?

If your answer is ‘an abundance of big game,’ it really is tough to beat Kenya. There’s a reason why the country’s famed Masai Mara National Reserve is among the most visited parks on the planet, as you won’t have any trouble spotting the so-called “Big Five”: lions, leopards, rhinoceroses, elephants and buffaloes are seemingly ubiquitous.

three cheetahs in Kenya
Masai Mara National Park Nairobi, Kenya. EyesWideOpen/Getty Images

A lot of other tourists are going to have the same thought process, so consider something outside of the major park, too. Naboisho Conservancy is a fantastic option, and Mara Nyika Camp is the premiere destination for lodging therein. The Relais & Châteaux property is run by Great Plains Conservation, an organization that works with local governments to promote environmentally-conscious tourism, and to economically incentivize the protection of native wildlife.

Great Plains currently operates 18 safari camps across Africa, and this one is a feather in its cap. Tented suites feature multiple rooms fitted with antique furnishings and balconies, pointed directly at a crowded superhighway of giraffes, zebras and wildebeest. After your morning game drive, you’ll return to a delicious daily meal fashioned out of fresh produce from an on-site garden. And the high-speed WiFi is fit for the fiercest of digital nomads.

bed at lewa safari camp in africa
Lewa Safari Camp. Frederic Courbet

If you’re more interested in rhinos than roses on your bedsheets, head to Elewana Lewa Safari Camp, further north in Kenya’s Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. The sanctuary encompasses 62,000 acres of land and is home to 12 percent of Kenya’s entire population of black rhinoceroses, and the largest population of Grevy’s zebra in the world. Individual rooms at the camp aren’t as opulent as Mara Nyika, but you’ll hardly be roughing it. A massive common area includes a well-appointed bar, fireplaces and even a swimming pool.

cheetah cub on safari in botswana
A cheetah cub in Botswana. Brad Japhe

Perhaps it’s a more varied landscape you’re after—in this case, Botswana is where you want to be. During a single trip here, you can migrate from the vast and verdant marshes of the Okavango Delta to the arid salt flats of the Makgadikgadi Basin, the remnants of a prehistoric lake the size of Switzerland.

Natural Selection manages the greatest breadth of camps in this part of the world; that includes everything from the refined luxury of Tuludi in the lush grasslands of Khwai Private Reserve, to the outdoor Skybeds, where you sleep on a remote three-story-tall deck underneath a canopy of stars. At San Camp you’ll overnight at the edge of the Nwetwe Pan, and can take ATVs out into the boundless desert beyond, for a sundowner at a makeshift bar in the sand.

gorillas on safari
A gorilla on safari in Rwanda. Brad Japhe

Aspiring gorilla trekkers can arrange the trip of their dreams with Volcanoes Safaris. This eco-minded outfitter is the undisputed pioneer of primate encounters in both Rwanda and Uganda. While the former destination is pricier ($1,500 for a trekking permit as opposed to $700 in Uganda) it’s also slightly more accessible. Of the five luxury lodges it operates across both countries, Virunga probably affords the most stunning stay. Seated high on a spine between Lake Bulera and Lake Ruhondo, you’ll wake up to views of the distant volcano, stretching out beyond your private veranda, from the comfort of your own king-sized bed. The company sorts out all the logistics of getting you to and from the trek, of which there are many—it involves an hour-long drive to the trailhead, followed by a hike up and into dense forest, which can take an additional two hours. When your guide inevitably finds a family of mountain gorillas, you’ll have one full hour of intimate close-up time with the majestic and playful beasts. It’s a special experience, and even more so since there are only around 1,000 known mountain gorillas left in the wild.

Mpala Jena Camp in Zimbabwe
Mpala Jena Camp in Zimbabwe. Mpala Jena Camp

For those all about that river life, there’s no better destination than Zimbabwe. An unforgettable adventure awaits along the banks of the Zambezi, and Great Plains Conservation runs the best bush camps here. Most recently they opened Mpala Jena, just upriver from Victoria Falls. After landing at the local airstrip, you’ll arrive by riverboat, spying bloats of hippos and basks of crocodiles along the way.

The extraordinarily exclusive property is composed of a total of just three tented villas on-site in a riverside setting, meant to capture “barefoot luxury.” To wit, the thatched roof bar and common areas sit atop a bed of white sand. Staring out over the fast-moving Zambezi at night, you’ll lose track of whether you’re on safari or a tropical retreat.

bedroom at Mpala Jena Camp on safari in Zimbabwe.
Mpala Jena Camp is one of the most luxurious options in Zimbabwe. Mpala Jena Camp

But your sense of adventure will surely return in the morning during game drives through the surrounding terrain, chockablock with elephants, hyenas and hippos. If you want to check off one of the Natural Wonders of the World while you’re here, the guides at Mpala Jena can easily shuttle you over to the brink of Victoria Falls. The largest waterfall in the world by volume, it is a 5,500-foot wide, 355-foot tall cataract slicing diagonally across the river.

Tembo Plains Camp is tucked away into a thick riverine forest on the edge of the Zambezi River, in the private 128,000-hectare Sapi Private Reserve, east of Zimbabwe’s Mana Pools National Park.
Tembo Plains Camp. Andrew Howard

After a few nights at Mpala Jena, try to attach a few more days onto your itinerary at Great Plains’ other outstanding Zimbabwean outpost, Tembo Plains. This is another Relais & Châteaux property, perched along the banks of the Zambezi, and is a prime location for pampering.

All the creature comforts of a cosmopolitan luxury inn have somehow been transported to one of the most remote regions in Africa. Rooms here are equipped with a private plunge pool and exercise bike beside the riverbank, where an endless parade of hippos stare menacingly at you—from a safe distance, of course. There’s a spa, private butlers and your own personal boat, and there’s even an air-conditioned wine “cellar” showcasing South African viticultural. Just don’t oversleep past those pre-dawn game drives; there are plenty of land-based predators to spy here, and they are all early risers.

Wildlife, found in the 128,000-hectare Sapi Private Reserve, east of Zimbabwe’s Mana Pools National Park.
Sapi Private Reserve, east of Zimbabwe’s Mana Pools National Park. Andrew Howard Photo

When To Go

Broadly speaking, the best time to go on safari is sometime between June and October, when you’re less likely to experience rain and more likely to see game. This is especially true in Kenya, as these are the months when you’ll catch the Masai Mara migration. In Botswana, the opportunistic window opens a touch more to include April and May, as well. For gorilla trekkers in Rwanda and Uganda, it’s mid-December to early February, as well as June to September, if you want to avoid getting wet. If you go at other times, however, you’ll be rewarded for braving the mud with far fewer crowds to compete with during your forays into the forest. Along the banks of the Zambezi, Zimbabwean adventurers can enjoy solid sightseeing from the end of April through mid-November.

view of cape town
Cape Town. UCG/Universal Images Group via G

The Layover

One final consideration that can often be overlooked in safari planning is how you bookend the adventure. This is hardly a trifling matter—if you’re heading to Africa directly from the U.S., you’ll be coming off a minimum of 16 hours in the air. You’ll likely be fraught with exhaustion, dehydration and jet lag, and that’s no condition in which to head off into the wilderness.

Try structuring in two days at the front end of your itinerary to acclimate, in whatever your first point of entry may be. This is another arena in which a skilled tour operator is really crucial. If they have a solid network of hotels and concierges on the ground in these respective cities, you’ll begin your safari in a much better state of mind.

If you’re flying through South Africa, endeavor to make Cape Town your first stop as opposed to Johannesburg, because there’s far more to do and see as a tourist in the former. That’s especially true if your operator is working with someone like Ozzy Yerlikaya, founder of a local company called Travel Designer. His team are experts at building the ideal day trip, including foodie tours with celebrity chefs, snorkel sessions with fur seals and kelp foraging excursions. Comparable experts exist in Nairobi, a worthwhile layover destination for those traveling to the Kenyan bush, and gorilla enthusiasts will find no shortage of cultural curiosities in Kigali. The Rwandan capital has enjoyed a contemporary renaissance and owns an expansive food, drinks and arts scene, which you could easily spend multiple days exploring.

How to Plan an African Safari