Have you ever wondered to yourself – what is an African safari? You probably hear the word safari a lot in connection with holidays in Africa but you might not know exactly what it entails. If you’re inspired to plan a trip to see the amazing wildlife of Africa, check out our guide on explaining what an African safari is.
The history of safaris in Africa
In the 19th century European hunters started travelling to African wilderness areas to kill animals such as elephants and lions, and the word safari (which means “journey” in Swahili) was introduced into English in the 1850s by the explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton to describe these trips. By the early 20th century, European settlers were organising safaris to Africa to travellers, which were mainly hunting trips.
These days, African safaris are a different story. Most safaris to Africa are trips that people take to enjoy wildlife and wilderness areas without any shooting – apart from photos. Safaris are incredibly important for the conservation of wilderness habitats and the survival of many species depends on the money this tourism brings in. It’s a good thing to know that as a safari tourist, large tracts of land in Africa are preserved from development because of the money you spend on your trip.
Safaris also have a wider meaning beyond seeing wildlife – the word can also mean any travel through Africa, such as an overlanding journey through a country or region.
While there are still hunting safaris in Africa today – which are only allowed in certain countries and not in national parks anywhere – they are in a tiny minority. There’s a lot of controversy around legal hunting – on one hand, some people argue that the large amounts of money that come in contribute to conservation, while others argue that there’s something undeniably wrong about hunters being able to kill threatened and endangered species such as lions and rhino, and often the money paid to hunt the animals doesn’t filter down into conservation projects.
What are the different kinds of African safaris?
The most common kind of African safari involves driving yourself or being driven by a guide around a park or reserve – a large wilderness area where animals roam free. Accommodation options for these kind of safaris include staying in campsites and bungalows inside the park, as well as luxury lodges and tented camps.
When you stay at a pricey lodge, game drives are more often than not included in your rate, so you’ll generally do two game drives a day in a game drive vehicle with a guide and tracker. Overlanding companies such as ourselves (see our range of budget overlanding safaris here) offer budget safari trips where you pay for a package of transport, accommodation and meals, and you are driven around the park in an overlanding truck or smaller game drive vehicle. On these kinds of safaris, you generally get up early and drive around just after sunrise, when many nocturnal animals could still be about, and relax back at your accommodation over the hottest midday hours (when animals are at their least active), and then head out again to look for wildlife in the late afternoons, when animals are likely to be on the move or drinking at waterholes.
Then there are mobile safaris, where you stay in semi-permanent camps, and move around a reserve to stay in different places – these are popular options for parks such as the Serengeti in Tanzania, where the wildebeest migration takes place every year, and it’s impossible to predict in advance exactly where the animals will be. On a mobile safari you can follow them wherever they are.
While most people will end up spotting wildlife from a car, there are other ways to go game viewing on safari, from flying in a hot air balloon, small plane or helicopter, paddling on a mokoro (a traditional dug out canoe), cruising on a tender boat or houseboat, on horseback, or even on your own two feet. There are a number of national parks and private wilderness areas where you can do walking safaris (accompanied by a highly trained and experienced armed guide and tracker) and get to experience the thrill of encountering wild animals on foot.
You can also go on focused safaris if you have a special interest. For example, there are birding safaris for the committed twitchers, where the animal spotting will be focused on our feathery friends. Then you have photographic safaris, which are generally led by a professional wildlife photographer who will give you guidance and pointers on how to shoot amazing wildlife photos – and sometimes these safaris include top-notch camera gear for you to use.
What do you see on an African safari?
The reason that African safaris are the best known of all the world’s wildlife safaris is that Africa is home to an incredible number of large mammals.
The most famous animals to see on an African safari belong to a group known as the Big Five. This term was invented by big game hunters to refer to the five most dangerous African animals: leopard, lion, rhino, elephant and buffalo. They’ve become the most famous and sought-after animals to spot on a safari, and there are many parks and reserves where you can see them all.
While a lot of people focus on the Big Five, there are many other wonderful animals and birds to spot on a safari, from zebras and many species of antelope to graceful giraffes. Each area in Africa is home to its own diverse array of species – weird and wonderful creatures that you’ve probably never even heard of. To get the most of your African safari experience – wherever you go – don’t get too hung up on seeing the Big Five. Anything you see on a safari in the African wilderness is magical.
What are the best places to do an African safari?
There are scores of amazing places to do an African safari spread across many different countries. Each park, reserve or wilderness area offers different landscapes and animals so it’s best to do research on what you’d like to experience before deciding where to go.
If you’re after classic rolling savanna landscapes and the famous wildebeest migration, head to the Masai Mara in Kenya or the Serengeti in Tanzania. For one of the best water-based safari experiences, go to the Okavango Delta in Botswana. For easy sightings of animals such as lion and elephant, with easy self-driving options, visit Etosha National Park in Namibia or Kruger National Park in South Africa. To see wild mountain gorillas, go to the forests of Uganda and Rwanda. For the best walking safaris, travel to South Luangwa National Park in Zambia.
Here are our most popular African safaris: