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Safari Planner: From Package Tours to Do-It-Yourself Adventures

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Planning an African safari is hardly a walk in the zoo, but it shouldn't be as frustrating as spotting, say, a leopard. If you know when and where to go, and what to expect, all of the pieces should easily fall into place. We asked contributing writer Joseph J. Schatz, who lives in Zambia, and Travel staffer Andrea Sachs, who has been on safari in Kenya and South Africa, for tips on how to arrange a wildlife adventure in the bush .

Cost

Reaching sub-Saharan Africa from the United States is expensive. A direct flight from Washington Dulles to Johannesburg on South African Airlines, for instance, generally starts at about $1,300, including taxes. Flying to Nairobi via Europe on Northwest/KLM or any of the other carriers serving sub-Saharan Africa can cost a few hundred dollars more.

From Johannesburg or Nairobi, the continent's two hubs, you can fly to less-trafficked countries. For instance, Zambian Airways ( http://www.zambianairways.com) runs round- trip flights from Johannesburg to Zambia for about $350.

Besides airfare, the other major expense is the safari, which in Swahili means "journey." Your outlay depends on your wish list (animals and amenities), desired level of comfort and length of time in the wild. Upscale camps can exceed $800 per person per night. For instance, Singita Boulders Lodge, in South Africa's Singita Game Reserve in Sabi Sands, costs $2,315 a night per couple through Guided Safaris (415-814-6676, http://www.luxurysafarilodges.com); price includes a suite, meals and beverages; driving and walking safaris; and ground transfer. On the low end are multi-day safaris for less than a grand. Tanzania Adventure ( http://www.tanzania-adventure.com), for one, offers a three-day journey to Ngorongoro Crater and Lake Manyara in Tanzania for $745 per person double; price includes tent accommodations, meals and game drives.

In addition, some safari lodges do not include park fees, so ask beforehand or come with extra money.

When to Go

Deciding when to travel is key, as most countries have a wet and a dry season. Weather varies widely among countries. Kenya, for example, has long, heavy rains, whereas Namibia has fewer big soaks.

In most places, the dry season is generally the best time to view animals, as the roads are in good condition and the animals are drawn out into the open to find water. As a result, the dry season is also the most popular, and expensive, time to go on safari.

June through September is generally dry throughout eastern and southern Africa (at least in safari country), making summer a popular time to visit. Unlike in southern Africa, Kenya and Tanzania each have two rainy seasons and two dry seasons; January and February are typically dry and good for viewing game.

During the rainy season, options are more limited. Hiking is restricted because of the weather, and roads are muddier, limiting your range. But the rainy season offers an entirely different perspective: The landscape is lush, and in many areas there are still plenty of animals to view. Many lodges offer "green season specials" that can be as much as half off the dry-season rates.

The 'Big Five' and Friends

Many safari operators make a big deal over finding the "Big Five": elephant, Cape buffalo, rhinoceros, leopard and lion. The five animals -- and not the likes of the giraffe and the hippo -- were given the moniker by safari hunters, who found them the most dangerous and difficult to kill on foot. But don't overlook the other animals and birds. Along the Zambia-Botswana border, for instance, you'll see hundreds of elephants and hippos alongside the colorful bee-eater birds. Kenya and Tanzania have the wildebeest migration and frequent lion sightings. For what to look for in each country, see the chart above.

Arranging Your Safari

· Booking: The easiest route is to book a package tour through a well-established outfitter, preferably one with a U.S. office and an African outpost. At the very least, the package should include accommodations, game drives, meals and transfers, with the option to add international airfare. Massachusetts-based Thomson Safaris (800-235-0289, http://www.thomsonsafaris.com), for instance, offers a range of packages (active, family, etc.), including its classic safari in Tanzania for $5,640 per person double (land only); the 11-night trip travels to Tarangire National Park, Ngorongoro Highlands, Lake Manyara National Park, Ngorongoro Crater and Serengeti National Park. Other reputable companies include Abercrombie and Kent (800-554-7016, http://www.abercrombiekent.com) and the African Safari Co. (800-414-3090, http://www.africansafarico.com).

Veteran travelers can make their own arrangements, booking the flights and lodges a la carte. It has become increasingly easier to book with individual lodges, even remote ones, through e-mail. But do your research: Read up on the parks and lodges on the country's tourism office Web site or through sources dedicated to safaris, such as South African Lodges.com ( http://www.south-african-lodges.com).

Though it's less popular for non-Africans, truly adventurous types can rent a car and drive through the national parks themselves. In addition, if you have friends or family living in Africa, hit them up: They can often secure local rates that are hundreds of dollars less than tourist rates.

· Accommodations: Before you commit, learn the differences among accommodations. High-end lodges are akin to Four Seasons in the bush. Tarangire Treetops (011-255-2725-00-630, http://www.xoprivate.com), which sits inside (or rather above) Tanzania's Tarangire Conservation Area, often elicits gasps with its luxurious en-suite rooms built in the baobab trees. At more-moderate lodges, such as the Serena chain's lodges in Kenya and Tanzania ( http://www.serenahotels.com), guests will find standard amenities with few over-the-top extras.

Tented camps are permanent structures close to nature and with creative creature comforts. Honeyguide Tented Safari (011-27-11-341-0282, http://www.honeyguidecamp.com) has two tent camps in South Africa; at Mantoben, for example, the structures come with king-size beds, leather couches and attached bathrooms. For rugged travelers, there is camping Boy Scout-style: a fly tent, a bucket of water and lots of mosquito repellent.

In addition, if you have children in tow, look for a family-friendly establishment, such as the Mukambi Safari Lodge ( http://www.mukambi.com), next to Zambia's Kafue National Park. The lodge even has two domesticated warthogs the kids can play with.

· Wildlife-viewing options: Almost every safari lodge, save for some river-based operations, offers game drives, usually a three- to four-hour drive through the national park looking for animals. In Kenya, this may mean a full-day drive with a stop for lunch. In Zambia, this generally means a drive at the crack of dawn for three hours, followed by a three- or four-hour drive again at sunset, with a spotlight after sundown.

Walking safaris are very popular in Zambia's South Luangwa National Park, where they were pioneered, but they are now offered in other countries as well. Mountain Travel Sobek (888-MT-SOBEK, http://www.mtsobek.com), for example, offers walking safaris in Kenya's Maasailand and Tanzania's Serengeti. (Note: In certain national parks, hiking is not allowed.)

The boat-based safari is a refreshing and fascinating way to see wildlife, particularly such places as Chobe National Park in Botswana and Lower Zambezi National Park in Zambia. In Tanzania and Kenya, cycling safaris are also an option. And if you really want to splurge, take a hot-air balloon ride over the Serengeti in Tanzania, followed by a champagne breakfast.

· Safari guides: The safari guide has a huge impact on your bush experience. You want a knowledgeable guide with a solid understanding of the natural surroundings and wildlife behavior. And if you have a driver and a tracker, you are getting two sets of sharp eyes.

There are some general differences between guides who work in specific countries and those who work for individual safari companies. Zambia, for instance, prides itself on rigorously trained, well-informed guides who will explain the wildlife and the interaction between flora and fauna. In other countries, such as Kenya, you're more likely to have a guide who is little more than a glorified driver -- not a naturalist, so to speak.

· Extracurricular tours: Many lodges and tour companies offer guests the opportunity to see more of Africa than just the wildlife. Side trips can be tacked on before or after the safari, or interspersed between game drives. For example, visitors can add on a Mount Kilimanjaro climb or a beach outing to Zanzibar's white strands on the Indian Ocean. Cultural tours also provide an important window into village life. The grass-roots excursions bring visitors into small communities, where they visit markets or schools and interact with residents.

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