Safari holidays are inevitably pricey, and the choice of where, when and how best to get close to Africa's wildlife can be as perplexing as the savanna. So, how to avoid an expensive mistake?
First be aware that safaris are not everyone's gin and tonic. Not keen on heat, dust, close encounters with insects and rising before dawn? Want plenty of freedom to do what you want, when you want? Then spend your holiday budget on a tropical beach hotel and explore your inner Attenborough at Whipsnade.
In Swahili, safari means journey, and typically you travel by road or air (more expensive) to different lodges or camps, spending one to three nights in each place. Days start before dawn with a game drive - guide and driver supplied - and end early. Wandering alone from base is strictly forbidden. Transfers between lodges and camps are long, dusty and rough, with few opportunities to leave the vehicle to stretch your legs.
Top-end, bespoke holidays offer small lodges and tented camps where food and service are faultless and guides are personable and knowledgeable and can identify and enthuse about everything - birds, plants, mammals and reptiles.
Permanent tented camps are not necessarily make-do, boy-scout experiences. Many offer pampering luxury with en-suite bathrooms and gourmet menus. Less expensive, but still anything from £2,000 per person, are off-the-peg tours, where you join a small group of 12 or so, travelling together on a set route.
Kenya is classic safari country where I, like many safari-returnees, first fell in love with Africa. Like its neighbour, Tanzania, it offers excellent wildlife viewing and gorgeous scenery. In the past, Kenya suffered from its popularity. Herds of minibuses virtually outnumbered species in areas such as the Masai Mara. That can still be the case and some lodges are so big that they provide less of a "me alone with nature" atmosphere than a "gimme an elephant and then we can play cards" coach party scene. That old trouper Treetops, for example, has 50 bedrooms.
Specialist safari operators I talked to say Kenya's popularity is on the rise again. Security against muggers has been tightened and there haven't been any recent terrorist incidents. Kenyan prices are reasonable (although probably set to rise in 2006) and there's accommodation for all budgets. Kenya is becoming more child-friendly, although Rob Haynes of Somak, a specialist adventure tour operator, cautions against spending longer than four nights on safari with children. Never underestimate their boredom potential.
In East Africa, it's logistically easy to end a holiday with a stay on a beach. The mass-market operators offer safaris here. First Choice, for example, is flying its own long-haul planes into Mombasa from 11 August and offering a week's safari in Tanzania followed by a week on a Kenyan beach from around £1,535, depending on the season.
In the Southern African countries of Botswana and Zambia you won't find mass-market prices because the masses aren't there and you will also find some of the best guides in the business.
The Okavango Delta, a vast wetland in the heart of the arid northwest, is undoubtedly Botswana's outstanding natural wonder. It is teeming with birds and mammals (and fewer tourists, because the country has a deliberate policy of keeping down numbers by keeping up prices). Lodges and camps are small and personal, usually with open viewing vehicles rather than minibuses. Zambia, too, is short on human crowds but high on top wilderness experiences with small lodges and camps.
Chris McIntyre, the author of the Bradt guides to Namibia, Botswana and Zambia, recommends Namibia to visitors who want to travel under their own steam. Namibia and South Africa are the two countries where it's possible to buy fly-drive packages. In the game parks and more inaccessible areas, the lodges provide wildlife-viewing transport, guides and drivers. Driving in Namibia is easier than in France, says McIntyre, because there's less traffic and you drive on the left. Prices are currently good, with 12-night fly-drive holidays starting at around £1,500 and although the landscape is often desert, the country has some classic sights, such as lions and cheetah.
The strengthening rand means rising prices in South Africa, but the country offers a great choice of add-on activities, with its garden route drive, vineyards, golf and coast. Game lodges can be especially comfortable, although they may be too sanitized for wilderness seekers. Experienced Africa hands keen to try undeveloped territory with a pioneering feel can consider countries such as Malawi and now Mozambique.
Safaris are among the few holidays where it still pays to consult and book through a specialist tour operator in the UK. Their knowledge is indispensable and they often negotiate better prices with the lodges and camps - unlike most standard holiday packages - than an individual can. A specialist will mix and match the many options to suit your interests, timetable and budget. Horse riding, camel or elephant safaris, walking trips, canoeing, fishing and hot-air ballooning are all possible variations.
Use the web to check the options but beware of trying to put together your own package. When flights are cancelled or roads become impassable, you'll be glad to have knowledgeable African hands to call on. A good operator will ask enough questions to discover what sort of experience best suits your expectations, wallet and calendar. Rainy seasons vary, and weather patterns are becoming less predictable. Dry seasons are best for observing wildlife. A specialist will also explain exactly what your holiday price covers - often all meals, game park fees and sometimes drinks and laundry.
You'll also need to budget for the necessary health precautions - malaria being the biggest worry - and suitable clothes. In my opinion, it's better to spend your money staying a few nights in a small lodge or camp with personal service and excellent guides than staying longer in lower-priced, older, larger and usually mediocre hotels and lodges.
One last warning about this holiday of a lifetime: a raw adventure up close with elephants, lions and dung beetles is unforgettable. Get it right and Africa will have the power to hook you back at every opportunity for the rest of your life.
J & C Voyageurs (01373 832111);
Abercrombie & Kent (0845-0700 611; www.abercrombiekent.co.uk);
The Ultimate Travel Company (020-7386 4646; www.theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk);
Aardvark Safaris (01980 849160; www.aardvarksafaris.co.uk);
Rainbow Tours and Safaris (020-7226 1004; www.rainbowtours.co.uk);
Wildlife Worldwide (020-8667 9158; www.wildlifeworldwide.com);
Cazenove & Lloyd (020-7384 2332; www.cazloyd.com);
Far Side Africa (0131-315 2464; www.farsideafrica.com).
Tourism Concern (020-7133 3330; www.tourismconcern.org.uk).
For an overview of the industry and latest migration news contact the African Travel and Tourism Association (1983 872 216; www.atta.co.uk).
For Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice on security issues see www.fco.gov.uk.
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