So you’re heading off on your first African safari? Or perhaps it’s not your first and you’re thinking about how to make things easier this time.
Generally speaking, when it comes to travel in Africa, you need to work on the principle of ‘less is more’. Everything you take with you needs to have a particular function and if it doesn’t, don’t take it. Whilst space is generally not a problem when you arrive at your lodge or camp, moving a lot of bulk and weight will start to irritate you from day one.
First, avoid anything with wheels. We’ve seen 4x4 caravans and 4x4 cars but so far, no-one’s come up with a 4x4 suitcase. When you’re passing through airports and cities, luggage with wheels is wonderful because the surfaces are smooth. But when you hit a pebble or sand, as you will in the bush, your wheeled bag becomes more of a problem than a help.
The problem of course is that wheeled bag allows you to move a lot more weight than you would normally expect to be able to lift off the ground. Our advice is then to try to keep your main bag below (preferably way below) 20kg. When you’ve packed your (no wheels) bag, pick it up and move around your house carrying it for ten minutes. If it’s giving you aches and pains or you’re struggling, you need to lose some weight.
Your second, smaller bag should preferably be a backpack or at least have a large shoulder strap. This is because whether you are going on driven or walking safaris, you will need a small, light bag for water, camera, sunscreen, binoculars, etc. You can carry a lot more on your back than you can on your shoulders but again, try to keep the bag as light as possible, preferably under 10kg.
If any part of your journey includes a small plane charter flight, you won’t be able to take any more than 20kg for your main bag and it must be soft sided.
Whilst this does largely depend on the time of year and your own metabolism, there are some aspects of clothing you’re going to need.
You won’t be spending much time out in the sun, as direct sun in Africa is normally too hot to stand in for long. You’ll be looking for shade most of the time, but even so, you will need both short sleeved tops and long-sleeved tops. You will get more use out of the long-sleeved tops and trousers than shorts and shirts because during the day, you want the sun protection and thorn protection and during the evening, you want the mosquito protection.
We suggest bringing shirts/blouses with collars. The idea is to expose as little of your skin to the sun as possible and the back of the neck is one of the first places that get burnt. Remember that you can burn just as easily in early morning sun and evening sun as you can in a midday sun in Africa.
Whilst a lot of modern synthetic fibres have amazing properties that surpass cotton, few have the durability of heavyweight cotton against thorns, rubbing on the sides of vehicles and bags. For this reason, we suggest just sticking to decent quality cotton clothing rather than sophisticated clothing.
You will find that evenings and nights can be quite chilly on safari, particularly if you’re travelling between May and September. The way to deal with this is layers of lightweight clothing, so that means loose fitting clothing that you can pile on top of each other. Big coats impractical so consider lightweight fleeces from a camping store. If you feel the cold especially, you would be well advised to consider some thermal leggings and a thermal top. Nights can get as cold as 10C and many lodges have no heating other than a fire. Pack a wind/waterproof top, as sometimes on the game viewer in the early morning the air can be quite chilly on your skin. Rain is rare of course but possible!
Do not bring any clothing that could be mistaken for military clothing (i.e. no camouflage) but do bring neutral colours (beiges, browns) to merge into the background. This will allow you to get closer to some of the shyer animals. Avoid anything white, because it will be beige and brown in a matter of hours and most likely, won’t ever be white again. African dust has an amazing ability to resist detergent!
Bring a swimsuit: even if your lodge doesn’t have a swimming pool, many have outside showers. You may not feel quite comfortable with being completely naked in an outside shower so a swim suit will allow you to cool off whilst preserving your modesty!
A proper hat, no matter what anyone tells you, is essential. Your hair does not totally protect your scalp or the tops of your ears from UV rays, no matter how much of it you have, and your scalp and ears are among the most sensitive skins on your body. However, not just any hat will do.
Choose a hat with a broad brim that goes right around the hat. If it comes with a detachable neck cover, that’s even better. Your hat must allow air out through top and it must also have a big absorbent section at the forehead. A hat that you keep taking off because you need to wipe sweat from your brow or that makes your head too hot is a useless hat. Forget about Panama hats and baseball caps: get a proper bush hat.
You do need to make sure you size your hat properly, particularly if you’re buying online. A hat that is too tight will again make you too hot and a hat that is too loose will obstruct your view as it slips about on your head. If in doubt, go for a looser fit. Many locals use a ‘doek’, like a bandana, which they tie around their heads and then place the hat on top. The big advantage of this is that the bandana helps with sweat absorption and means that the hat is not actually touching your skin, which means it’s a lot easier to keep the hat clean and it smells better for longer!
Many people don’t realise that the number on the side of the bottle, the SPF (Sun Protection Factor) does not refer to the strength of the sunscreen. It refers to the number of minutes you can wait before having to reapply the sunscreen. For this reason, we think that anything under SPF 60 is not worth bothering with: do you really want to be thinking about and applying sunscreen every 15 minutes? Lip balm (yes, even for those big manly men) is a must as the dust has a drying effect on the skin, which, coupled with strong sun, can give you nasty burns on your lips.
You will need at least two pairs of shoes: one is for relaxing in on camp and one is for actually going out into the bush. The first set do not need to be amazing but we suggest getting closed sandals (not flip flops). You’ll use these shoes to go to dinner, to different parts of the camp, getting in and out of boats etc. so they don’t need to be super durable but they should be made of synthetic material (not leather) and should have a firm sole.
The second pair need to be proper lace-up shoes or boots: we’d suggest cross trainers or similar as they have a good amount of grip, are lightweight, can be easily washed, and are fine for sharp stones and prickly vegetation. However, if you’re going to be doing a lot of walking on safari, you should bring some hiking boots to protect your ankles, walk through mud and resist more serious damage from vegetation.
Things You'll Find Really Useful
These days, a phone isn’t a phone any more but a mini computer, so very hard not to bring it with you everywhere you go. You will find in the bush that there is normally very poor cellphone reception (if there is any at all) so in terms of making calls, emailing, etc. you will be mainly reliant on the lodge wi-fi. We advise bringing a smartphone with you (it doesn’t need to be anything amazing) and downloading a flashlight/torch app on to it. Don’t forget your cellphone charger!
Whatever anyone tells you, ‘universal’ travel adapters don’t work in South Africa! You will need a special adaptor just for this country. If you can’t get one overseas, don’t worry: most supermarkets and airport stock them.
Our advice is to take one photo (with your smartphone) of your passport, driver’s licence and the front of your credit cards before you set off. If you can, print out this photo and place it securely in your hold luggage. If for any reason you lose your hand luggage (which is most likely where you’ll place your passport, credit cards and driver’s licence), you have an electronic copy in your phone and a photocopy in your hold luggage.
Print out your travel insurance documents as well as your emergency contact information (someone at home who will pick up the phone or respond to an email quickly)
First Aid Kit
You’ll find that unless you’re travelling very independently through Africa (in your own vehicle) that a first aid kit is something you’re simply not going to use. Lodges and camps are very well equipped, due to their remote locations, with trained staff and a more than basic supply of first aid. Game viewers always have first aid kits on board too and the rangers know how to use them.
That said, bringing some band aids/sticking plasters for minor cuts and grazes (common in the bush) is a good idea, as would be some mild pain killers (as staff won’t be able to dispense medicines)
It’s very hard to advise on this item as of course the range is vast and personal preferences, budget and level of professionalism varies so much.
We would say that unless you are visiting Africa mainly for photographic purposes that you should rather go for the most simple-to-operate camera you can find, with a decent optical zoom. These days, even budget cameras have such amazing picture quality that it’s more important to be able to point and shoot quickly. If you can find a camera with wi-fi (so that your pictures are automatically uploaded to the cloud at the end of each day), this will save some tears if your camera goes missing or is damaged.
This item is actually more important, in our view, than the camera. The idea of a safari is to spend as much time as possible looking at the animals and no camera viewfinder will ever give you as good an image as a decent pair of binoculars. Again, the range is vast so it’s very hard to advise. We would say that you should aim for the most light-weight binoculars you can find, though, and try to find some with filters that will reduce glare (it can get very tiring on the eyes looking at an animal against a bright blue sky).
Notepad and Pen
As old fashioned as it may sound, writing down what you saw on each day of your safari is a really good idea. The whole bush experience is of course geared to getting away from screens and so on but more importantly, you will be surprised at how quickly you forget what you’ve seen and when. Writing down your sightings, particularly birds, helps you to remember what you encountered and makes the whole safari experience that much more magical !
Bring some wet wipes and also dry tissues with you. As we’ve said before, the dust gets into everything and having a way of getting it off your face and hands is very nice! If you’re particularly sensitive to dust, you should consider bringing a nasal spray or disposable face masks for the game viewer.