The complete guide to Safaris

Safari is the Swahili word for journey; and since colonial times, visitors have made special journeys simply to see, and be close to, Africa's extraordinary wildlife. But just how wealthy do you need to be to join their ranks? By Lucy Gillmore

ALWAYS FANCIED yourself in long socks and a safari suit, striding across an Out of Africa landscape, binoculars straining for a glimpse of the "big five"? Or is apres-bush more your scene - sundowners around a crackling campfire, ears tuned to the sounds of the wild? Maybe you just have a passion for khaki? Safari is Swahili for "journey" and, whatever your inspiration may be, with a bit of planning you will enjoy the ride.

AREN'T SAFARIS REALLY EXPENSIVE?

Try and find a safari for the same kind of money as a week's self-catering in Kos and you're likely to be just a little bit disappointed.

But a safari doesn't have to be out of your reach. It really depends on what type of trip you take and who you take it with; whether you opt for an all-inclusive package or tailor-make your own itinerary with one of the many specialist operators.

The sheer number of companies offering safari tours means that choosing something to suit can be a bit daunting. Make sure you check what's included in the price: national park fees, optional excursions and so on can quickly add to the expense.

One way to keep the price down is to buy a cheap package to a city such as Mombasa in Kenya and then book a two or three-day safari when you get there. As perhaps the original safari destination, Kenya is well set- up for tourists and, hence, a good place to find a budget deal.

SO HOW DO I CHOOSE A SAFARI?

You could start at your local travel agents. Thomson's (0990 502555) "Best of Kenya", for example, is a 14-night combined safari and beach holiday that includes one night in "Treetops", the famous tree hotel perched above a floodlit watering-hole (from pounds 1,505).

Alternatively, adventure holiday specialist Explore Worldwide (brochure line 01252 760000) offers small group safaris such as the Botswana Classic Safari: 17 days by "safari vehicle" through the salt pans of the Kalahari Desert to the Okavango Delta, with game viewing in Chobe National Park, for from pounds 1,885 plus an additional local payment of US$310 (around pounds 210).

If you want to ensure that you get the safari to suit, however, have one that is tailor-made for your needs. Numerous companies offer this service and many will send you sample itineraries to point you in the right direction. These include Africa Archipelago (0181-780 5838), Gane & Marshall International (0181-441 9592), Safari Consultants (01787 228494) and the Africa Travel Centre (0171-387 1211).

I WANT THE ULTIMATE `OUT OF AFRICA' EXPERIENCE

If you want to play Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, Abercrombie & Kent (0171-559 8666) and Art of Travel (0171-738 2038) both offer luxury Out of Africa safaris. Abercrombie & Kent highlights the comfort factor of its six-night safari: guests stay in Loldia House - country residence of one of Kenya's first white settlers - and the colonial-style Governor's Camps, where candlelit dinners, large walk-in tents and courteous service ensures a decadent bush experience (from pounds 1,440) while Art of Travel's two-week safari starts at Deloraine on the edge of the Great Rift Valley, an elegant house that is home to Tristan and Lucinda Voorspuy's riding safaris. Croquet and tennis in the garden help to recreate the Out of Africa ambience (prices from pounds 3,580 per person).

And, if you're visiting Kenya and fancy a romantic splurge, book a stay at Finch Hatton's Tented Camp (booked through Abercrombie & Kent), which is named after Denys Finch Hatton, the hunter who inspired the film. Set in Tsavo West National Park, a break (pounds 226 per person per night full board, game drive and game walk) in one of the Camp's 35 luxury en-suite tents includes dinner eaten from silver cutlery with crystal glasses and Mozart.

DO I HAVE TO SLEEP IN A TENT?

No. But you might actually want to. We're not talking your average two- man variety here. Mobile luxury tented safaris began in Kenya at the start of the century and still aim to maintain the original high standards of comfort and service. Tents are often big enough to walk right into and lit by the soft glow of old-fashioned hurricane lamps. You sleep in a real bed, perched above floors that are scattered with expensive rugs, and many tents even have en suite bathrooms.

For the ultimate in luxury, however, permanent camps have tents pitched on wooden or concrete floors and thatch above the canvas roof to give shade. Kenya's Tortilis Camp (booked through Africa Archipelago 0181-780 5838), among spreading acacia trees on the edge of Amboseli National Park, is owned by an Italian, Stefano Cheli, and consists of 15 luxurious en- suite tents and a swimming pool. Similarly, in the Kalahari Desert in Botswana, Jack's Camp is a throwback to the classic safaris of the 1940s - eight tents with crisp cotton sheets and dinner served on damask tablecloths with silver cutlery (contact Safari Consultants, 01787 228494).

WHAT IF I WANT SOMETHING A BIT MORE DOWN-TO-EARTH?

Aside from tented camps, you could book in at safari lodges (which can be anything from a simple hotel in the bush to a luxurious building in local stone and wood), homestays (often the homes of British settlers that are now run as farms), tree hotels or eco-camps. Finally, for the hardy - or just plain hard-up - there are still basic camping safaris with simple bedrolls and communal showers (try Safari Consultants 01787 228494).

WHAT ARE THE `BIG FIVE' AND WHERE CAN I SEE THEM?

The consensus is that the "big five" are: lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and buffalo. However, seeing them all in one trip is not as simple as it sounds, especially because of the amount of rhino-poaching.

Etosha National Park in Namibia is the place to head for to see rhino but reserves such as the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya, the Kruger National Park in South Africa and Tanzania's Ngorongoro Conservation Area have been called "one-stop" safari destinations. Another good bet is Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park, or plan an itinerary around several reserves.

WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO GO?

You can go on safari at any time of year but game-viewing is generally agreed to be best during the dry season since there is less vegetation to block your view and the animals tend to congregate around known waterholes. During the rainy season (which runs from March to May and again in November in Kenya and Tanzania, and from December to April in Southern Africa), the animals spread out across all the available habitat and are much more elusive. For botanists and ornithologists, however, the wet season is the best time of year to go.

The peak safari season traditionally runs from December to March (East Africa) and from July to September (East and Southern Africa), when the spectacular annual wildebeest migration takes place. During July and August, more than one million wildebeest (along with some other game) assemble in huge herds to follow the rains from the Serengeti in Tanzania to Kenya's Masai Mara.

HOW `GREEN' ARE SAFARIS?

Eco-tourism is big business in Africa. Several camps are owned by local communities who now work actively to safeguard the wildlife. Kawaza Village, for example, was developed by a community of local villagers and teachers. You sleep in a traditional hut on a raised mattress and eat dishes cooked on an open fire (contact Outposts, 01647 281665).

Other trips incorporate game viewing with a taste of traditional village life. Tribes (01728 685971) runs safaris that combine two days with the Bara-baig nomads, sleeping in mud huts, and walking safaris in Lake Manyara National Park (prices from pounds 1,598 for "Tanzania Insight"). The company also guarantees that a proportion of profits from each trip goes back to local communities.

And, if you want to take the idea further, Art of Travel (0171-738 2038) has linked up with Discovery Initiatives, a conservation-based operator, offering trips where you spend part of your safari working on a conservation project.

WHAT IF I WANT A BIT MORE ECO-FRIENDLY LUXURY?

For the cushier side to eco-tourism, contact Conservation Corporation Africa (general enquiries 01883 349889), founded by Charles Boyd Varty and Frank Unger in 1926, and continuing today in exclusive lodges and camps throughout South Africa, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Kenya.

One such place is Phinda Private Game Reserve, in South Africa, winner of the British Airways "Tourism for Tomorrow" award in 1998: 15,000 hectares of farmland has been restored to its natural environment, and the original wildlife (including elephant, leopard, giraffe and rhino) re-introduced.

Within the reserve, there are various (equally glamorous) places to stay. Forest Lodge was built by the Zulu community to minimise impact on the rare Sand Forest: 16 stilted glass chalets are suspended between the forest floor and towering torchwood trees. Vlei Lodge consists of luxurious stilted thatched suites on the edge of the forests. Mountain Lodge has panoramic views over the Ubombo Mountains and, finally, Rock Lodge in the south of the reserve has six-stone and adobe-built suites and is set into the rock face overlooking Leopard Rock. Prices start from pounds 275 per person per night full board and are inclusive of all game activities. To book contact the Africa Travel Centre (0171-387 1211) or Central Reservations in South Africa (00 27 11 775 0000). Or call Wildlife Worldwide (0181- 667 9138) for luxurious safaris.

HOW BUSY WILL IT BE?

Stories of drivers radioing ahead and a flock of landrovers converging on one lion and her cubs do have some truth. The chances of having Kenya's Masai Mara to yourself in high season are slim and with a number of lodges on the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania you have to get up early to avoid the crowds on the crater floor.

But this number-crunching is largely restricted to the larger parks in East Africa; in Southern Africa, even in well known parks such as Hwange in Zimbabwe, it is rare to experience overcrowding. If you really don't want to share the experience, there are ways of avoiding the "crowds".

On the edges of many national parks, there are private game reserves which are more expensive, and therefore less busy, than the national parks. Klein's Camp (book through Africa Travel Centre 0171-387 1211), one of Conservation Corporation Africa's properties, encompasses 10,000 hectares of private land just south of the Masai Mara, and with only eight cottages, you are almost guaranteed a private view.

For those who can't afford such exclusivity, steer clear of the high season or try one of the lesser-known parks such as South Luangwa National Park in Zambia (safaris from pounds 1165, through Dragoman, 01728 861133).

WHAT ABOUT SELF-DRIVE?

Self-drive might be the answer to being truly independent. The roads in Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe are good and parks well-equipped. Botswana and Zambia have a poorer infrastructure and require 4WD vehicles but that needn't preclude an independent visit.

Companies that specialise in self-drive safaris include Africa Explorer (0181-987 8742). Its 4WD vehicles have been converted into luxury self- contained camping and safari vehicles, with air-conditioning, a fridge -freezer, a kitchen with gas stove, hot and cold water and even a garlic press thrown in. Tents have self-inflating matresses, sheets, duvets and pillows. Five-seater vehicles cost pounds 1,800 for seven days and three- or four-seaters cost pounds 1,400.

WHAT IF I DO WANT SOME COMPANY?

For a longer trip, or a more cost-effective option, an overland safari might be your best bet. On trips from a couple of weeks to a couple of months you will get to see some of the more remote areas with 15 to 20 other people and a five-ton truck as company. Overland companies that can offer safari options include Dragoman (01728 861133), Bukima (0181- 451 2446) and Acacia Expeditions (0171-706 4700). The latter offers a 20-day Desert Tracker trip from Cape Town to Harare for pounds 595 (plus an additional local payment of around pounds 100).

IS THERE AN ALTERNATIVE TO THE TRADITIONAL JEEP SAFARI?

Absolutely. Most of the lodges and camps will offer jeep, walking, canoe- ing. Or even balloon, camel, elephant or horseriding safaris. A safari on foot really brings the noises and smells of the bush alive while canoe safaris are excellent for game viewing when the animals come to the water's edge to drink.

If you want to go with a company, Abercrombie & Kent (0171-559 8666) organises six-day camel safaris in Kenya from pounds 1,422, and dawn balloon safaris over the grazing herds on the Masai Mara plains (from pounds 285 per person).

Africa Archipelago (0181-780 5838) offers elephant-back safaris, from pounds 4,000 for a week or, if you'd rather take a horseriding safari, Ride World Wide (0171-735 1144) offers horseback safaris in Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Malawi from around pounds 1,264 per person.

If you're more hands-off, where animals are concerned, CycleActive (017684 86660) has a "Zimbabwe - Wildlife and Waterfalls" trip (17-days mountain biking from Harare to Victoria Falls) that costs from pounds 1,385.

IT SOUNDS LIKE I'M GOING TO NEED A BEACH HOLIDAY JUST TO RECOVER FROM ALL THAT

If this all sounds just a bit too strenuous, find a beach to flake out on for a few days afterwards. Safari/beach combination holidays are becoming increasingly popular and most companies can arrange something to suit, from high-street agents to the specialist tour operators.

A Tanzanian safari can be easily linked to a stay on Zanzibar, while a trip to Mauritius or the islands off Mozambique can follow a safari in Zimbabwe.

One such trip is Best of Kenya: Luxury Air Safari, from Tropical Places (0800 0185256). The 13-night package includes three of Kenya's best wildlife areas, staying in luxury lodges from the dusty plains of Amboseli to the bush country of Samburu and the grassy savannahs of the Masai Mara, and then spending six nights on the coast at Mombasa.

Prices cost from pounds 1,599, including flights, full board at the safari lodges and half board at the four-star Southern Palms Hotel in Mombasa, all park entry fees, game drives and internal transfers.

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