From photo safaris to rhino wake-up calls, Africa beckons with gripping wildlife experiences
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Many U.S.-based safari companies are merely booking agents for outfitters in Africa and may have little control over the details. Only a handful, such as Micato, which I chose for my safari, and Abercrombie & Kent, actually own their own vehicles, use their own staff and maintain offices in both the United States and Africa. Micato and A&K operate guide schools, where their personnel are specially trained, and all their guides are multilingual. Our driver, who spotted the leopard, had been leading safaris for Micato for more than 25 years.
Perry Lungmus, the director of tours and specialty operators for API Travel Consultants, a network of travel agents that caters to an exclusive clientele, makes several recommendations for choosing an outfitter. According to Lungmus, a "wholly owned local office in Africa equates to dependable and accessible on-site service. It also means local contacts and current information." And he adds, "There should be a qualified, overall safari guide to keep an eye on quality control. Ironically, although guiding is perhaps the single most important aspect of a successful safari, the quality of guides and drivers varies greatly between companies."
At the start of each game run, our guide would ask what we wanted to see, and when the cheetah was the last major item left on our laundry list, our driver set out to find one. Driving into the rocky hills overlooking the plains, we spotted not just a cheetah but a family--two big cats and four babies--a sight that was rare enough to surprise even our guide. It was a wonderful photo opportunity, one that was made possible because our guide and driver knew where to look.
Group size is also important. The number of passengers per vehicle should be limited, both for comfort and view. For instance, Micato guarantees each passenger a window seat instead of simply cramming as many bodies as possible into the vans. There should also be a limit on overall group size to maintain a feeling of personal service. Some operators require a minimum size, which means that their trips are subject to cancellation, even though you may have bought plane tickets and reserved three weeks for vacation. One reason I chose Micato was its guaranteed departure policy. Once I signed up, I knew the trip was on.
Most outfitters include just about everything, such as lodging, food, park fees, transportation within Africa and incidentals; some throw in international airfare as well. Check the fine print, because items like park admission fees alone can run several hundred dollars. An upscale vehicle safari, excluding airfare from the United States, generally costs between $200 and $400 a day per person. Trip itineraries begin at 10 or 11 days, and 14-, 17- and even 27-day trips are common.
Don't try to cram all of Africa into one trip, Lungmus suggests: "Plan on coming back to Africa. There is an undeniable magic in the wildlife and people there that draws visitors back again and again." *
Larry Olmsted, who frequently writes about travel, golf and outdoor recreation, lives in Vermont.
Entry Requirements: Visas are required before departure for most African countries. While few countries require Americans to be vaccinated, doctors strongly recommend yellow fever and other inoculations, as well as preventive malarial medication. Also consult your tour provider and the Center for Disease Control's International Traveler's Hotline at (404) 332-4559 for specific precautions you must observe for your itinerary.
Operators: Finding a good tour provider is imperative. The family-owned Micato Safaris (212-545-7111) is known for its excellent guides and personal service. The agency offers group and custom private trips, as well as cruise/safari combinations, and top-notch lodges and camps. Another respected name is Abercrombie & Kent (800-323-7308), which offers a wide range of trips throughout the continent, including private and mobile tented safaris. Mountain Travel-Sobek (800-227-2384) and Geographic Expeditions (415-922-0448) concentrate on active trips, including foot safaris and naturalist trips. API Travel Consultants has specialized knowledge of safari outfitters, and can book any of the above suppliers. For the agent nearest you, call (800) 401-4274.
Photography: For a photo opportunity of these proportions, you may want to leave your compact camera home and invest in something with at least a 200mm lens. Use ASA400 film or higher, because you'll be shooting at dusk and dawn. Bring plenty of film; guests typically use two or three 36-exposure rolls a day, and it can cost up to $30 a roll in East Africa. Bring spare video batteries as well. Most safari vehicles are equipped with charging outlets.
What To Bring: Pack warm sweaters, as the temperatures plummet at night. Safari vests may look funny, but they will hold all your film, camera batteries and such valuables as money, credit cards and your passport. For hiking you'll need sturdy shoes; casual footwear is fine for vehicle safaris. Sunscreen and sunglasses are a must, as is very strong insect repellent for protection against malaria. A good pair of binoculars is also recommended. --LO