How to Select the Best Safari Experience

Polar Bears in Churchill

The chance to go on safari is a fun and exciting opportunity. It tugs at our heart strings, teases us with adventure, and can bring to mind visions of early explorers and naturalists cutting their way through lush jungle in the pursuit of new and exotic animals.  While the realities of modern day safari going have changed significantly, there should be no doubt in your mind that most of the adventure is still there.  After all, you’re essentially taking the concept of a zoo and inverting it.  In place of locking the animals in small enclosures and then parading a procession of wild and savage humans past, you’re tossing a small group of humans into a vehicle while encouraging some of the world’s most powerful and majestic animals to take a closer look.

Lion Cubs Playing at Sunset

With three safaris under my belt I dare not claim to be an expert.  Luckily those three safaris have been diverse, action-packed, and have provided the following insights which I’m eager to share with you. These experiences converted me from a safari skeptic to a safari addict and were quite honestly some of the most magical travel experiences I’ve ever had. The suggestions in this post are based on observations and conversations taken from my six day South Luangwa luxury safari, three day Chobe National Park camping safari, and three day wild polar bear safari in Churchill Manitoba.  For the sake of this post, I’m excluding various day trips that I’ve done which might be considered casual safaris (eg: A penguin excursion in Tierra del Fuego) as I don’t think they qualify as the type of safari relevant to this post.

Chobe Safari - Botswana

Pick Your Destination

While all three safaris were wonderful experiences the South Luangwa Safari and the Churchill Safari offered a much richer and more appealing experience.  Exploring all comes down to one fundamental factor: location.  This seems straight forward enough but it’s actually more complicated than you might initially assume.  It is essential that you pick a safari with the overall location in mind.  When we ultimately chose South Luangwa for our safari, there were a lot of factors that influenced us.  These included time of year, location in the park, the animals that are present in the park; and the size of the park.  What we also learned to look at were the types of regulations in place for the safari operators.  These include things like the hours that are available for safari (we were allowed early evening drives in South Luangwa but in Chobe had to be back in camp by 6:30 sharp), existing facilities, and the number of safari operators/vehicles licensed in the park.

Lilac-breasted Roller - Chobe Safari - Botswana

Go For Immersion

On a more localized level it is important to understand that not all safari operators have equal access.  The operator I used in South Luangwa was Shenton Safaris. The operator I was with in Churchill was Frontiers North/Tundra Buggy.  In both instances these operators had their camp/lodge situated deep within the park.  Shenton’s Kaingo camp is one of the most rural in South Luangwa, while Frontiers North has a special (exclusive) concession that allows them to operate their mobile Tundra Buggy Lodge in Wapusk National Park.

Hyenas Feeding - South Luangwa - Zambia

While not guaranteed this translates to less competition and better access.  It’s important to understand that the typical safari usually only covers a few square miles.  So, while I initially expected that a six day safari would lead to six days of new terrain and new roads, I learned that it meant six days covering the same few square miles.  This makes sense as the parks that safaris are in are only so big, there’s usually only so much “prime” real estate, and because the animals themselves tend to be quite mobile.   This also means that the more safari vehicles you have in a set area the more disruption, competition and…well…traffic you’re going to have.  Nothing kills the feel of a safari like a line of 8 or more land-cruisers jockeying for position around two annoyed lions.  Interestingly, this held true for both my African and my Canadian safaris.  In both cases the best moments occurred within a mile of our central base – something that attests to the value of being situated in the right location.

Polar Bears in Churchill

Location, Location, Location

In the case of my Canadian safari, being based out of the Tundra Buggy Lodge provided incredible opportunities that all of the others missed.  Despite spending the entire day on the tundra for three days in a row, the best viewing typically occurred in the first two hours and within a quarter mile of our starting location.  Which is significant because all of the safari goers using other companies or doing day trips had to spend nearly an hour and a half in commute time each way to get in/out of the park. In short, most of the best action was over by the time they started their day.  It also meant that we got to enjoy the sunrise out on the Tundra every morning which was ideal for photography and made for magical moments.  In the case of our South Laungwa Safari, the structure was slightly different but the same was true with easy access in the early morning hours and the opportunity to enjoy the sunset before engaging in a brief nighttime safari each evening.

Wild Leopard at Night - South Luangwa, Zambia

Less Is More

Remember: Fewer people per vehicle is always better. In a safari experience the animals will likely appear all around the vehicle. This means that you’ll want to be able to see them no matter where they are. If you’re sandwiched into a bus sitting between two people you’re not going to be able to see the animals properly or to get the photos you want. The more people on a vehicle, the more motion and the more noise. Unfortunately the concept of not scaring the animals seems to be overly complex for some people. Fewer people makes for much more valuable and enjoyable experiences when it comes to safaris so look at vehicle size and for safaris with caps on the number of people per group.

Mother and Child - Chobe Safari - Botswana

Do As The Wise Do

My final suggestion is to chase the experts.  A good guide is every bit as important as your location.  Good guides that are photographers and/or have worked with professionals from organizations like National Geographic are worth their weight in gold.  The trips, guides, and safari companies they use tend to cost a little more. Better guides and fewer people are worth it.  Even if you can’t book with one of the companies that National Geographic, professional photographers, and professional cinematographers use or have worked with in the past it’s a great way to figure out where to book your next safari.  In the lead up to my recent trips I never imagined I’d be seeing first-hand, up close and personal, the type of amazing moments that make National Geographic and specials like Planet Earth so staggeringly beautiful.

Safari Vehicle Shots

There Are Great Budget Safaris Out There

If you find yourself on a tight budget, don’t despair.  While I’ve focused on how to select the best safari experience, that doesn’t mean that more backpacker friendly options (like my Chobe safari) won’t be wonderful!  While the immersion and quality of experience of the Chobe safari was not the same as the other two, the price was much more practical. I was able to see a number of amazing animals and was extremely happy with each of my safari experiences.  I’ve been told I have great safari karma, but more importantly it all comes down to doing your research, having a laid-back/flexible approach, and enjoying each moment and each surprise as it comes.  Don’t be afraid of being bored while on your safari. If you’ve got a good guide and are are in a great location you can easily spend days chasing the animals without feeling bored or tired.

As a final thought, make sure you take a powerful camera lens with you on your safari.  While we were able to get extremely close to the animals, having my Canon 55-250mm lens made a significant difference in the quality of the photos I was able to take.  The photos in this post were taken during safari on my Canon T3i (600D).

Have a safari tip of your own?  I’d love to hear it!

**The Safari company I used in Chobe was Kalahari Tours which was booked through Jollyboy’s Hostel.  My trip with Shenton Safaris was a paid family trip.  My trip with Frontiers North was provided as a gift prize through a partnership with the Canadian Tourism Commission and Travel Bloggers Unite.