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17 Realities of going on Safari in Africa

Updated: Mar 24, 2021

"Safari" is an excellent word. If I were to reflect on it personally, I'd have remembered a time when it held an almost cartoon-like meaning replete with a pith helmet wearing Dr Livingstone-like character. Those days might be gone, but the word itself remains a favorite with all the great memories it helps me recall.

Having enjoyed various iterations of a "safari" on a number of continents, the most spectacular remain among those I enjoyed during my time in Kenya.

A giraffe in the plains and foothills of Mount Kenya
A giraffe in the plains and foothills of Mount Kenya

During my final year of military duties, I spent nearly 4 months in Kenya during a construction deployment to Laikipia Airfield. A well-selected site under the shadow and grace of Mount Kenya. Anyone on that particular exercise can tell you how little down time we had, but if there was a night to be had at the safari lodges you can bet I'd be down to the Ol Pejeta Conservancy and on as many game drives as I could possibly cram in. There is something so very unique about a safari in Africa, not simply owing to the amazing wildlife you're bound to encounter.

Safari reality 1 | The word "Safari" itself holds interesting context

Safari is a Swahili word, it's one of the most widely spoken languages in Kenya and throughout East Africa, although you may hear the locals refer to it as "Kiswahili". People smile more when you try to speak like a local. Add a little "Jambo Kenya" to your vocabulary and reap the reward paid in smiles!

zebras drinking at a watering hole in Kenya
Zebras at the local watering hole

But there is more depth to the word in the unique history of the region. At various times in past there has been enormous influence along the Eastern Coasts of Africa from the Arab World. That exchange of economy and culture meant a bit of word swapping and for those of you with any Arabic fluency, you'll understand maybe as many as 1 in 30 words if you let your ears do the listening. They tend to just add an "i" to the Arabic word. Instant Kiswahili!

Although I'm really, really oversimplifying it, a term for friend, rafik (رفيق) might take an "i" and become rafiki - friend. If you've ever seen Disney's The Lion King, you'll recognize the colorfully-rumped friend, Rafiki!

Back to safari, the word stems from "safar" (سفر) the Arabic noun for "travel" or "journey". Safari is the Kiswahili word loaned from Arabic and which literally means "trip"!

It might seem so obvious now, but I've blown the minds of a few native Arabic speakers. Always makes us both laugh when we see the look of astonishment wash over their face.

Safari reality 2 | Some animals aren't afraid of you and don't care about your vehicle

Most reserves revere their inhabitants and the guides and trackers employed at these parks tend to have incredible respect for the creatures living there. It isn't just their livelihood, they understand the need to preserve such wilderness.

a large lion stalks prey in Kenya within a metre of a parked vehicle
When there's an injured water buffalo nearby, these lions are indifferent to your presence. You might as well not exist they care so little. Sit quietly and enjoy the show!

But the animals are large and wild, especially the large wild ones. Do you think a 3-ton elephant really cares about your tiny jeep? I flew around in a helicopter for a day looking for elephants and they weren't really even bothered by the noise of this flying dragon-creature hovering above. They're huge! They just want to carry on doing elephant things which is an amazing sight to behold.

Safari reality 3 | You will have your mind blown every day

I caught the below shot while reclined in a comfy chair, sipping a latte from the tented camp beside this watering hole. If you didn't know, giraffes have the same number of vertebrae in their neck as we humans do, 7. That makes them a little awkward when getting a drink.

a giraffe bends down to drink water
Long legs, cool clothes... I feel giraffes just ooze grace, except when it comes to drinking

At risk of promoting anthropomorphism, the giraffe was cautious to lower its head here and kept startling the antelope, which then startled the giraffe. A vicious circle, certainly. But it provided me the opportunity to just relax and reflect, I still look at this photo and think about how incredibly fortunate I was to experience even a handful of days among these amazing creatures in their natural habitat.

Safari reality 4 | Not all safaris are by jeep

You might have plenty of opportunity to try another mode of transportation during your safari and to experience yet another new perspective. Here, I was out on a bicycle safari, just casually cycling among zebras and antelope and whatever else was going to wander by on the day. I do not regret taking so few photos from closer proximity to the herd, I was just enjoying myself too much to bother with the camera, but it doesn't do my point any justice to show you just how close you can get to the wildest of wild creatures.

bicycle safari in Kenya, animals and mount kenya in the background
It's a longstanding military tradition to grow a moustache while deployed. Don't let the ginger caterpillar on my face distract from the view of zebras and Mount Kenya

During another ride we would perform the sort of "lookout" duties in checking the river for hippos in preparation for an afternoon's white water rafting. I also enjoyed the rafting, kayaking, and even a few strolls through the bush to a nearby chimpanzee sanctuary.

Safari reality 5 | Nature can be cruel, but it's an incredible sight to behold

water buffalo faces off with a lion
A face off between predator and, in this case, the helpful companion of injured prey

Part of why I love safari so much is that each game drive is nearly always a completely different experience and the animals aren't a guaranteed to show up at any particular time or place. It's thrilling to just get lost (with a guide) and see what wanders out of the bushes.

In this instance, an injured water buffalo had a friend come to save the day. At least for a while. The uninjured creature swept through the lions allowing the injured companion time to recover a bit, but ultimately prolonging the demise of the broken-legged water buffalo.

If you ask nicely, I might share the video of the lions trying to take down the injured beast, but it is a bit harrowing as it charges with a very visibly broken leg. The adrenaline which must have been coursing through its veins at that time to keep it standing and running around with a floppy limb is just unreal.

There was no happy ending for the injured water buffalo. The lions were unsuccessful in taking it down but it remained critically injured, with a full diameter fracture of the front limb. Wardens would intervene later in the day as the broken-legged water buffalo would not recover, while remaining a very large adrenaline-fueled threat to any other creatures as it would become disoriented and distressed.

Safari reality 6 | Sometimes the animals are really lazy

Carrying on from the earlier ordeal, the lions were unsuccessful as they just ran out of steam (or interest). As the sun continued to bear down on the plains, the lions became more and more lethargic, eventually turning to grooming and later slinking into the shadows .

The sun tends to win.

lions laying in the sun by a water buffalo
The heat of the sun takes its toll, lions start to lose interest in the water buffalo

That means your safari game drives will be very early in the day or perhaps during the night or evening hours when things are a bit cooler. It is easier to spot movement, even for expert trackers. Because of the heat during daylight hours, our four-legged friends will be hiding under a bush or somewhere else in the shade, doing pretty much zero moving.

Safari reality 7 | Elephants are huge, not all of them have tusks

Although African elephants are far more likely to have visible tusks than their smaller Asian counterparts, not every animal will have large tusks or even visible tusks at all.

wild elephant with tusks emerges from the bushes in Kenya
A "Tusker" elephant emerges from the bushes, mere metres from our vehicle

Those individuals which bear large ivories are referred to as "tuskers" by locals. Another helpful hint, Tusker is also a delightful variable-by-volume (party time!) beer from the East Africa Brewing Company. While I enjoyed plenty of Amarula coffees, the Tusker beer experience is perhaps similar to Russian-roulette in that some bottles must be close to 0% alcohol content while others are decidedly stronger!

Safari reality 8 | Wildlife may be both a part of everyday life in Africa, but it may be absent

In some instances, the preserves are just as much about keeping the local people safe from the animals as it might be from keeping the animals safe from people. Any of the Big Five could easily kill a person, life is hard enough in some communities...

warthogs grazing on a soccer field in Kenya
Sometimes animals feature as part of the everday. Here, warthogs graze a recreational space which has begun its return to the wild having not been maintained

On the opposite extreme, although the parks have preferred rates for local residents, realities of everyday life keeps many local people from ever experiencing or encountering the creatures you've traveled to see. People may live within a few kilometres of a park but have never seen a lion or antelope in their entire life, they just can't afford to go.

Safari reality 9 | "Tent" and "luxury" do not have to be mutually exclusive

It's true that many modern luxuries we take for granted at home may not be available. You will suffer for WiFi, but you won't care when you're staying in a tent which has been decorated like that of a Victorian-era explorer!

luxury tent on safari in Kenya
You know I felt like a Victorian explorer the whole time I stayed here!

It gets cool at night and it feels even cooler given how warm the day can be. I retired to my quarters on my first evening to find something warm and furry beneath the covers! At first, a bit of shock, only to quickly recover upon the realization that life's simple luxuries are absolutely not overlooked - my room attendant had slipped a hot water bottle into the sheets as part of the turn-down service. Delightful.

Safari reality 10 | There's a lot more to do than just safari

If you're like me, you'll gladly drive around for days looking for wildlife. But it's not everyone's cup of tea and you might want to mix things up a little.

Rock climbing equipment set up for a riverside climb in Kenya
Rigging for rock climbing on a riverside crag in the middle of the bush

There's an entire continent to explore, including its wildlife, sure, but also its people and all the exciting things people like to do there. That might include rock climbing, but any number of activities can be scheduled alongside game drives and safari experiences.

Try your hand at kayaking, rock climbing, rafting, off-road driving, and more.

Safari reality 11 | Poaching is the worst

It goes without saying, poaching is bad. But it's an altogether different experience when you see what extreme actions must be employed to reduce its terrible reach.

wild rhino with horns removed to deter poachers
This rhino has had its horns removed to help protect it from poachers

I spent most of my African safari time around the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, you may recall the name from various media reports during the last few years which concern the plight of the Northern White Rhino. The last individuals reside in semi-captive care at the conservancy, though now pretty much hopeless as the last male passed in March of 2018.

You can do your part by not buying products which contain such animal products as ivory, rhino horn, bear bile, or pangolin, and to apply strong social pressure in your community against their consumption or advocacy as ill-conceived treatment for human afflictions. I'd love to hear from you if you have any worthwhile resources on the subject.

Many parks around the continent are doing the best with their perhaps limited resources; employing guards, deploying cutting edge technology, enforcing trafficking laws, and recognizing that their wildlife is an incredible resource. Counter-intuitively, that may include sanctioned hunting. I'm not personally a fan, I'd rather see people shoot with a camera, however you might understand the desperate plight of local economies which make it exceedingly difficult to invest in the parks as resources. Want to help? Go on safari!

Safari reality 12 | You probably won't be separated from the animals

Behind me in the above photo is a small ditch. You can see the disturbed earth at the foreground. In this metre-deep ditch is a tiny fence comprised of two to three single strands of electrified wire. It may act as a deterrent to some animals, but in reality even I would have been able to jump or even step over the barrier.

man with closed eyes poses with a wild giraffe in the background
Despite the advent of digital technology, I can't keep my eyes open for an incredible photo

That means even when you have elected to stay at a safari lodge, you may find wild animals walking around the entry to your room in the morning or evening. You may find them grazing or being curious. Do not attempt to feed them or interact with them in any way beyond quietly enjoying them or maybe taking a photo.

Perhaps the barrier was really there to keep me in or to bring peace of mind!

Safari reality 13 | Even if for a short time, you will become a bird watching nerd

I've joked about it before, I'll write an article about it soon - every time I review my travel photos I'm amazed by how many images of birds I end up capturing. Hi, my name is Shy and I guess... well... I guess I'm a closet bird watcher (twitcher?).

African hornbill grooms a twig for a nest
One of the great African hornbill species, presumably preparing materials for a nest

The variety of colors, shapes, sizes, and behaviors of all these unique creatures just blows my mind and I'll gladly come to rest in a position where I might snap away at anything that moves. I end up catching a lot of birds and not knowing how to properly identify them, it's part of the fun and allows me the opportunity to enjoy those memories long after I've returned home.

Safari reality 14 | Some of the coolest predators aren't lions, sighting one is amazing

Everyone wants to see lions, and with good reason - they're amazing! But I'll be honest, I had no idea how rare these dogs were and although I had seen plenty of amazing footage in past, watching various Attenborough-esque documentaries, it wasn't until I saw them with my own eyes that I really understood just how special these creatures and others like them might be.

An African Wild Dog close up
An endangered African wild dog at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya

As alluded in other realities here, the wild animals are really wild and the parks are huge. The already rare African wild dogs, for example, have incredibly large territories, making them harder to find when you're on a game drive. Everyone wants to see lions, but you may have never even seen one of these in a zoo. Imagine capturing an image like this one to take home with you.

Like many of the animals seen that day, they were unafraid of our vehicle and just hung out in the shade pretty much on the track. This one obliged me with a great angle for a photo, making me feel like an absolute champion for having seen them at all. I'll never forget it.

Safari reality 15 | Baby animals are cute, wild animals play

Again, bordering anthropomorphism here, but I couldn't help but feel these three were making the most of their parents' absence. The hole to their den close at hand but no adults to keep them from frolicking, they ran circles and gave chase to one another for a good while. Oblivious or indifferent to our presence. A real treat and something delightfully familiar even this far from home.

3 young striped hyenas playing at Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Kenya
Juvenile striped hyenas running in circles outside their den, obviously misbehaving while their parents are out!

Safari reality 16 | When selecting your lodges, invest in luxury services

When selecting your lodges or accommodation, you need to think comfort and safety. If you can't be guaranteed a mosquito net and a place to safely lay your head, perhaps look somewhere else.

permanent accommodation at a riverside camp in Kenya
It might not be so obvious at first why one tented camp itinerary is $2K+ per person more in cost, but the value will be immediately obvious when you set out on your safari

You may find a tented camp to be surprisingly well presented, while a more permanent dwelling could easily obscure a rather basic infrastructure. It can be confusing, you're planning the trip of a lifetime from 10,000 miles away and you may only do this once...

A luxury price tag doesn't necessarily denote a luxury experience. But you might want to ask a few key questions to better understand the value of your overall experience. Think, how many people do the safari vehicles seat? Do the safari vehicles travel in convoy or individually? Where in your itinerary does your private experience become a shared one?

A safari holiday doesn't have to break the bank, but if the price tag is low there's a reason.

Your safety shouldn't be compromised, obviously, however you also don't want to be herded along like wildebeest or hurried through your game drives because the supplier's revenues are based on volume. Would you rather a single 6-seater jeep for you and your companions to quietly and comfortably enjoy the skills of an expert tracker or to be ferried around on one of 3 12-seater buses deploying your entire group onto every animal sighting?

Safari reality 17 | You have to take any opportunity

These jackals were seen just prior to seeing the African wild dogs mentioned back in number 14. My guide had suggested the kill was pretty fresh and that the wild dogs were likely responsible. These two jackals may be following the pack or simply in the right place at the right time, sneaking in quickly to scavenge a few mouthfuls before a larger predator or more aggressive scavenger comes along.

Two jackals sneaking a quick mouthful of carrion before lions or hyenas arrive
Two jackals take advantage of an unattended carcass

Even death returns to life when experiencing everything that a safari trip has to offer. But even if you've been before and especially if you're contemplating your first such trip; what are you waiting for?

Like these jackals, sometimes opportunity is fleeting and we must make the most of what time we have. Sometimes that means taking a risk, sometimes that means committing yourself to your intent - I'm not suggesting you need to dig in on some carrion, but if you've ever thought you might enjoy a trip to Africa, we should talk.

I can promise the experience will change your life forever.


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