First-Time Safari: The Complete Guide
Published on: March 16th, 2020
Last modified: July 27th, 2023
Going on safari in Africa is a truly life-changing travel experience. Your first safari is something you’ll never forget, whether you choose to visit East African countries like Kenya and Tanzania or head further south to Botswana and South Africa. Nothing compares to spotting legendary species like the Big Five in their natural habitats.
But before you check this off your bucket list, there’s a lot to think about. Where exactly should you go? What should you pack? What season is best? Luckily, our travel designers are here to help. We’ve compiled their expert tips and advice to create the ultimate guide for first-time safari-goers. Read on to find out everything you need to know.
What do I need to know before going on safari?
Before you go on safari in Africa, it’s important to carefully plan and prepare for your trip. You have to decide what country and region to visit, where to stay, what clothes to pack and what equipment to bring. You should also know more or less what to expect on a typical day.
It can be tough to figure all this out on your own – especially if you’ve never been on safari before. To help you prepare in every possible way, our travel designers have answered some of the most common questions they get about safaris in Africa.
How do I plan my first safari?
The best way to plan an amazing first safari is to enlist the experts. Our travel designers have first-hand experience, with dozens of safaris under their belts. They know all the details and insider secrets needed to design a seamless trip, so you can forget about the logistics and just enjoy the experience.
What’s the best time to go on safari in Africa?
The best time to go on safari depends entirely on your interests and priorities. The wide variety of destinations in Africa means you can enjoy an excellent safari at any time of year, as long as you consider weather conditions and seasonal events specific to each place.
For example, the dry season (generally from June to October) is often the best time for safaris, since animals tend to concentrate around scarce water sources. And if you want to witness a certain event like the Great Migration or the flooding of the Okavango Delta, you’ll need to time your trip carefully.
How long should your first safari be?
The length of your trip will also depend on your interests. For the safari itself, we generally recommend spending 3–4 nights in one place. But if you also want to enjoy other experiences – like beaches, cultural excursions or wine tastings – you’ll need to build them into your itinerary as well.
What does a typical day on safari look like?
Most African safaris involve game drives in the morning and/or afternoon, with free time in between to relax back at camp. Expect to wake up early for sunrise wildlife sightings, and prepare for the exhilarating – and sometimes dusty – experience of riding through the wilderness in an open-sided vehicle.
The best safari camps and lodges offer just the right combination of luxury and immersion in nature. Some have pools, gyms and exceptional restaurants for you to enjoy when you’re not out exploring. Many first-timers are surprised by how luxurious tented camps can feel; you don’t have to sacrifice comfort to experience an authentic safari.
What should you pack for a safari?
The first rule of preparing for a safari is to pack light. Try to bring only the basics to make travel smoother – especially if your trip includes multiple destinations. We recommend bringing plenty of layers for chilly morning game drives, ideally in neutral colours like beige to blend into the environment and avoid scaring off animals.
As far as equipment goes, you might want to bring a good camera. If so, make sure you also have charging cables and a portable power bank. We also suggest packing a wide-brimmed hat, a waterproof jacket, sunglasses, a swimsuit, binoculars and a torch (flashlight). Most camps will provide the latter two items, but it’s always nice to have your own.
Where should I go on safari for the first time?
It’s hard to go wrong with a safari in Africa, but the destinations below are especially well suited to first-timers. Our favourite destinations for family trips include activities to keep kids of all ages entertained, while our top spots for honeymoons and trips for two offer more privacy.
Some of the best places for first-time safaris are national parks like the Kruger and the Serengeti, which are publicly owned areas protected by the government. Private game reserves like Sabi Sands are also fantastic options, as are wildlife concessions like Mombo. Privately owned or operated areas like these are generally less crowded and more exclusive.
When deciding where to stay on safari, you’ll usually have a choice between tented camps and luxury lodges. Tented camps allow you to get up close to nature without sacrificing comfort, and are sometimes even mobile to follow the wildlife. Luxury lodges tend to have more facilities and activities available, which makes them wonderful for families.
We’ve asked our travel designers to share their top picks for first-time safaris. These are some of their favourite destinations, with insider tips to help you make the most of each.
Kenya is undoubtedly one of the best destinations for your first safari, with a vast array of landscapes and classic activities for you to enjoy. Here you can witness the legendary Great Migration in the Maasai Mara, and see how the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy is helping to save endangered rhinos and zebras from extinction.
This country is ideal for families with older children, with plenty of activities and opportunities to learn about the local Maasai and Samburu cultures. We recommend staying at Lewa House, Kichwa Tembo Tented Camp or Sala’s Camp, each of which promises an unforgettable introduction to the safari experience.
If you want to complement your first safari with endless natural wonders, Tanzania is hard to beat. This country is paradise for adventurous travellers who might want to climb Mount Kilimanjaro or meet chimpanzees in the Mahale Mountains, in addition to seeing spectacular wildlife and witnessing the famous river crossings of the Great Migration.
3. South Africa
South Africa is an all-round destination for every type of traveller, but it’s especially great for first-time safari-goers. Beyond the world-class wildlife viewing in Kruger National Park and Sabi Sands Game Reserve, this country is also bursting with lovely lodges like Chitwa Chitwa and Singita Lebombo – the latter of which is perfect for a romantic getaway.
Families looking to experience their first safari can visit the malaria-free Madikwe Game Reserve and stay in the spacious suites of Molori or Madikwe Safari Lodge. Honeymooners can add a visit to Cape Town, the Winelands or even the Seychelles: an idyllic archipelago known for its pristine beaches.
If getting off the beaten track and seeing as much wildlife as possible sounds like the perfect first safari, then Botswana is for you. It has several private concessions that provide unparalleled privacy and personal service, putting them at the top of our list for an adventurous honeymoon in Africa.
Some of our favourite spots are Moremi Game Reserve and Mombo Concession, that sit within the epic Okavango Delta. First-time safaris here can include not only game drives but also exploring by boat or mokoro (a traditional dug-out canoe). Stay at Wilderness Vumbura Plains, Xigera Camp or Wilderness DumaTau for the optimal introduction to Botswana.
Luxury safari accommodation
Lewa HouseLocated deep within the bio-diverse Lewa Conservancy, the hilltop Lewa House is perfectly placed to experience some of the best safaris in Kenya. The main house is the focal area of the lodge, where you’ll dine family style with your hosts Calum and Sophie on the long wooden table in the evenings and share stories of the day’s adventures. During the heat of the day take a dip in the large swimming pool overlooking a waterhole. Strung out along the hillside around the central lodge are seven separate cottages all with great views from the private verandas. Home to some of the best game viewing in East Africa, the Lewa Conservancy is a great choice for those looking for a comprehensive “Big Five” safari experience. Travel out from the house by foot, car, camel and vintage bi-plane to make the most of this richly rewarding area.
Chitwa ChitwaOriginally a private retreat of the Brink family, Chitwa Chitwa was transformed by Charl into an oasis of conservation and harmony. With an extremely strong approach to conservation and land management, this beautiful lodge offers you a fabulous experience while visiting the Sabi Sands. The Chitwa Trust actively supports the local community through an educare centre as well as adult educational initiative. You’ll also find several environmental programmes in place at the lodge itself. As a family owned and run lodge, you will receive excellent service as well as comfort when staying here. With just eight luxury suites each stylishly decorated and spacious, this lodge is a nice and intimate experience for family and honeymooner alike. The Chitwa House is a private villa with just two beautifully appointed en-suite rooms with private decks and out-door showers. It has a massively spacious common room and benefits from private meals, driver, guides and chef. Magic.
Wilderness Vumbura PlainsBotswana’s mesmerizing Okavango Delta is now brighter than ever with the newly transformed (as of 2022) Vumbura Plains. Nestled in a large private concession of 60,000 hectares in the far north of the Delta, the camp is enveloped in some of the most incredible landscapes, home to some of the best wildlife encounters in the area. Inside, the camp celebrates its sense of place and culture, with design elements that pay homage to its wonderful setting with patterns, textures and colours bringing nature inside. Rooms at the lodge are amongst the biggest in the delta, all open plan, with a sunken seating area, private shaded deck and swimming pool outside as well as indoor and outdoor showers. There is an amazing sense of space here, in keeping with the wide-open plains that the rooms face onto. The rooms are open on three sides (with netting) giving a feeling of being closer to the nature and wildlife whilst still remaining is absolute comfort. The local connections continue throughout the camp experience.The menu celebrates seasonal produce sourced directly from local farmers, suppliers and artisans. Activities here are a mixture of game drives and water activities which will vary according to the level of the water and the time of the year. You will find day and night drives, walks and mekoro (dugout canoes) activities, with hot-air ballooning – from April to September each year – as well as scenic helicopter flights, making Vumbura an exclusive destination for the discerning adventure-seeker.
Kichwa Tembo Maasai Mara Tented Camp&Beyond Kichwa Tembo Maasai Mara Tented Camp is situated on the western border of the Maasai Mara Game Reserve in south western Kenya. Set on a private concession leased from Maasai landlords, the camp lies at the base of the Oloololo escarpment just below the spot where Out of Africa’s most famous scene was shot. The camp overlooks the plains of the Maasai Mara and lies directly in the path of the annual migration of wildebeest and zebra. The lodge has 40 Hemingway-style safari tents (12 Classic Tents, 20 Superior Tents and 8 Superior View Tents) with en-suite bathrooms with proper shower and toilet. This is a fantastic spot to witness the spectacular migration of almost two million wildebeest, zebra and other herbivores – August to October – including the Mara River crossing. You could keep your eyes peels for Mara River crocodiles, huge herds of elephant, black-maned Mara lions and the red-tailed monkey. Homegrown organic vegetables from the camp’s own shamba (vegetable garden) make the food absolutely delightful and the property is just ideal for families.
Singita Faru Faru LodgeAbsolute luxury. Absolutely sublime service. An absolutely unforgettable experience. Faru Faru Lodge is an exceptional place to enjoy some quality time being pampered and with your own concession area of some 350,000 acres of untouched wilderness, your experience will be a special one. It is perfectly placed for you to simply sit back and relax as the migrations come to you and during the months that the wildebeest and zebra have moved on, you will still have a rich variety of game on your doorstep to marvel at. There are 8 pristine and divinely luxurious suites, a Villa Suite that can accommodate two couples travelling together and a dedicated family suite or four. Each of these stunning rooms have their own reading area, picturesque window wall with lovely views and to increase the quality of the game you see, a Swarovki Telescope. The main dining area is unbelievably gorgeous and a great space to share your game experiences. All the modern facilities are available such as a gym and spa, as well a sweet shop stocked full with some perfect souvenirs to take back home. Unusual activities including archery, mountain biking and stargazing are also possible from this unbelievably beautiful lodge.