There are many cookie-cutter safari experiences available — ones with a mass-tourism, Disney-esque approach to exploring the continent. But if hordes of vehicles at a wildlife sighting, “staged” cultural experiences, and a safari more focused on consumption than conservation are NOT how you want to spend your time in Africa, read on for some tips for making your safari a more authentic one.

1. Work with the Right Supplier

It might be obvious, but working with a safari operator or travel agent who values conservation and authenticity on safari is half the battle. Make sure you are also clear with your partner about your priorities so that they can recommend the camps and experiences that will be the best fit for your preferences. If you want something unique and adventurous vs. relaxing and traditional, be sure to let your partners know. (And, of course, we’d love to be that partner for you!)

2. Stay at Least Three Nights in a Destination

By staying at least three nights (but preferably 4 or 5 nights) at each destination, you give yourself time to truly experience a location and immerse yourself in what makes it unique. You also open up the door to a variety of experiences and possibilities that you just can’t fit into a shorter stay. Here are a few examples:

Sleep Outs/Star Bed Experiences

At Leroo La Tau in Botswana, if you want to experience the Makgadikgadi Salt Pan Sleep Out, you’ll need to spend at least three nights at the camp. The same goes for spending a night on the Sleep Out Deck at sister camp Camp Okavango. Many other camps have similar minimum stay requirements for sleep out excursions, so be sure you’re staying long enough to take part in these types of activities!

Walking Safaris

Want to experience the multi-night walking safari? Well, some of the most famous walking safaris take place in South Luangwa National Park in Zambia, and you’ll need at least 5 nights (up to 10 nights) to fulfill this dream!

Cape Town Adventures

There’s so much to experience in Cape Town that you can barely do it justice in four nights. Day trips around the Cape Peninsula allow you to encounter stunning vistas and interact with African penguins; a walking food tour of the city gives insights into the varied cultural influences that make Cape Town so special; a day trip to the Cape Winelands allows you to explore the delicious wines and peaceful scenery that area has to offer; and that’s just the beginning! Philanthropic tours to get involved in the communities of Cape Town, and a trip to Robben Island to learn more about Nelson Mandela’s time imprisoned on the island, plus visits to Table Mountain for iconic views, hikes and cable car rides — you could easily fill a week or more exploring Cape Town.

Exploring Action-Packed Lodge Offerings

At Bisate Lodge in Rwanda, activities include gorilla trekking, golden monkey trekking, community visits, visits to Dian Fossey’s grave, a visit to the nursery, and tree planting — definitely more than can fit into just a couple of days!

And at Grootbos Nature Reserve in South Africa, activities abound as well — mountain biking, whale watching, botanical 4×4 tours, shark cage diving, horse riding, river cruise, marine safari, hiking, bike tours, beekeeping, bird watching, behind-the-scenes tour, spa treatments, coastal safari, quad bikes, scenic flights, and more will keep guests busy well beyond two or three nights!

3. Visit Off-the-Beaten-Path Destinations

Kruger National Park is easy to get to and can offer a delightful experience for a certain kind of traveler, but if you want to be the only safari vehicle in sight, seek out less-traveled national parks, private concessions, and even countries with fewer tourists.

Choose to visit countries like Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Botswana, which generally have fewer tourists and more exclusive wildlife viewing opportunities. Below, find some of the lesser-traveled national parks and reserves that can provide a more exclusive experience.

CONSIDER: Manyeleti Game Reserve in South Africa, which is adjacent to Kruger, Sabi Sand, and Timbavati. In addition to excellent game viewing, the reserve is easy to access and offers a variety of nearby luxury accommodations including Tintswalo Safari Lodge and Tintswalo Manor House, which are located within the reserve.

CONSIDER: Nyerere National Park in Tanzania, where only 1% of Tanzania tourists visit despite excellent wildlife densities, including the world’s largest population of wild dogs. Thrilling boat safaris on the Rufiji River are another draw to the reserve, and Sand Rivers Camp is an excellent base from which to explore the region.

CONSIDER: Meru National Park in Kenya, where you’ll find the Big 5, plus the gravesite of the lioness Elsa, made famous in the film Born Free. Home to varied landscapes, plus a wide variety of wildlife including Grevy’s zebras, elephants, Bohor reedbucks, hartebeests, pythons, puff adders, cobras, buffalos and more than 427 recorded species of birds, the uncrowded Meru National Park is an excellent spot to explore the Kenyan wilderness. Stay at Elsa’s Kopje for convenient access to all the area has to offer.

CONSIDER: Samburu National Reserve in Kenya, where you’ll find not only the Big 5 but also the Samburu 5 — reticulated giraffe, Somali ostrich, gerenuk, Beisa oryx and Grevy’s zebra. Home to the Samburu tribe, Samburu National Reserve offers plenty of opportunities for cultural interactions. Excellent lodges in the area include Sasaab, Saruni Samburu, and Elephant Bedroom Camp.

CONSIDER: Ruaha National Park, the largest national park in Tanzania, which is home to 10 percent of the world’s lions, more than 571 species of birds, plus cheetah, leopard, wild dog, spotted hyena, giraffe, hippo, African buffalo, and sable antelope. Excellent lodging in the park includes Jabali Ridge Camp, Kwihala Camp, Kigelia Camp, and Jongomero Camp.

CONSIDER: Liuwa Plain National Park in Zambia, home to the second largest wildebeest migration in Africa and a leading example of how humans and wildlife can coexist. Time + Tide brought 5-star luxury to the park in 2019 with King Lewanika Lodge.

CONSIDER: Mahale Mountains National Park in Tanzania, which is home to one of the largest and most-studied chimpanzee colonies in Africa. The park borders Lake Tanganyika — the world’s longest, second deepest, and least-polluted freshwater lake. Lodging options include Mbali Mbali Mahale and Greystoke Mahale, both located along the shores of Lake Tanganyika.

4. Seek Out Authentic Community Interactions

Sometimes experiences with local communities can feel “staged” or touristy, but there ARE many opportunities to learn about and interact with local community members in a more genuine way. The problem is knowing the difference! At Hills of Africa, we have a variety of well-vetted partners who operate tours, experiences, and shops that help our guests immerse themselves in the communities they’re visiting and leave the destination a bit better than they found it.

The first type of interaction that we recommend is one in which you are participating in or supporting (through your visit) local social initiatives. A prime example is one of our favorite tours in Cape Town — the Philanthropic Educational Excursion with Uthando South Africa. Uthando is a nonprofit organization that helps support local community development projects through tourism. Visitors can learn about the remarkable community activists who are driving change within South Africa and respectfully discover the projects that are truly making a difference.

Secondly, in locations where camps and lodges are nearby local communities, there is often an opportunity to visit and learn from local tribes. The lodges we visit ensure that this is done in a respectful, educational way, and it always helps deepen the experience for our clients. For example, at Finch Hattons Luxury Tented Camp in Kenya, cultural visits to the nearby town of lltilal allow travelers to learn about how the Maasai build their homes (manyattas), as well as practice warrior and survival skills, such as how to throw a spear and how to survive in the African bush’s harsh conditions.

5. Get Involved in Conservation

Conservation plays a huge part in tourism to Africa and getting involved in a conservation project while you are traveling can give you a glimpse into the hard work that is being done to preserve the precious and unique African wildlife for future generations.

For example, at Marataba Conservation Camps in South Africa, visitors can participate in a huge variety of conservation programs including elephant management, area protection through checking for snares, tracking and monitoring predators, rhino registration and identification, setting up camera traps and analyzing footage, plus participating in a variety of ecology surveys. At Phinda Private Game Reserve in South Africa, guests can participate in a pangolin research and monitoring experience, and at Desert Rhino Camp in Namibia, guests can track the desert-adapted black rhino with Save The Rhino.

6. Find Unique Ways to Explore

Traditional safari experiences generally revolve around the game drive vehicle, but there are plenty of different ways to experience wildlife and even get up close and personal!

Offered by many lodges throughout Africa, walking safaris are a great way to explore the environment more closely. If you’d like to ensure you’re able to take a walk in the wilderness during your safari, be sure to let us know, since not all regions or camps are able to offer walking safaris.

Hiking, biking, running, paddleboarding, surfing, climbing, motorcycling, boating and more are all ways to explore with one of our favorite companies — Escape + Explore in Cape Town. If you want to get off the beaten path and, for example, paddleboard with African penguins rather than just watching them from the shore, we can make it happen!

In destinations where water is teeming with wildlife, getting out on the water can be an excellent way to avoid crowds and explore less visited areas. In Zimbabwe, you can reserve the Matusadona Luxury Lake Safari Cruiser to explore Lake Kariba with five of your closest friends and family members. Or, the Chobe Princess in Botswana boasts 6 suites and will get guests up-close-and-personal with the park’s more than 140,000 elephants and other wildlife.

However you choose to explore Africa, we hope you’ll incorporate some of our tips! We believe that authentic interactions and experiences are part of what makes our custom safari experiences so special, memorable, and life-changing. And if you’re ready to plan that once-in-a-lifetime experience, we’d love to help you make the most of it! Reach us today at explore@hillsofafrica.com or 800-940-9344.

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