Everything you need to know about going on safari in Africa with renowned expert Marlon du Toit
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Embarking on an African safari is undoubtedly one of the most memorable travel experiences to be had.
I’ve now been on several, and the connection you feel with nature is simply indescribable. Some of my greatest travel experiences ever have come from safaris, and I regularly purchase various pieces of art and other mementos to take home with me after a safari.
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Throughout the last year of border closings and stay-home orders, I realized just how much I love safaris and it made me all the more excited to begin planning one for sooner rather than later, now that borders are opening back up and traveling internationally is becoming less of a hurdle.
I recently had the privilege of sitting down to chat with Marlon du Toit, an expert on all things pertaining to African safaris and a well-known wildlife photographer.
Du Toit grew up in a small town in the middle of Kruger National Park in South Africa and his father owned a small safari company, so animals and living among wildlife are inherent in his DNA. He grew up around wild animals including warthogs, impalas, elephants, hippopotamus, lions and more. In fact, as Marlon explains, it was commonplace for cricket games in his town to be interrupted by lions and elephants, and his neighbors even were woken up at 4 a.m. to a pride of lions congregated right outside their front gate.
We covered a lot in our discussion, from tips for first-time safari-goers to photography tips to the critical impact tourism has on sustainability and animal wellbeing.
If you don’t follow du Toit on Instagram already, I highly suggest you do so — you won’t regret it! You can catch our full Instagram Live conversation here, but I’m also going to highlight some of the most important considerations to be mindful of while planning a safari, whether it’s your first experience or you return regularly, and how safaris are critical to not only local economies and workers who are employed by the many reserves and camps but also to maintaining the wellbeing of the local animal populations.
Here’s what you need to know:
Mythbusting: Safaris are dangerous
For many in the early stages of planning a safari, one of the principal concerns is safety. There’s a perception that being so close to animals in their natural habitat is reckless and could lead to bodily harm or even death.
Yes, you’ll get very close to the animals, looking many of them directly in the eyes. However, as du Toit explains, these animals have grown accustomed to safari vehicles operating in their territory, and they don’t kill or attack humans left and right.
Being up close and personal with the animals is part of the unforgettable experience of a safari, and entering their natural habitat without altering their behavior truly makes it feel like you’re living in a National Geographic documentary.
Advice for planning your first safari
When planning your first safari, you’ll likely want to travel to a destination that not only offers a wide variety of animals to see, but also an established infrastructure of lodges and reserves which make the logistics of this kind of trip so much easier.
Du Toit notes two countries in particular — South Africa and Kenya — that are relatively easy to get to and have well-established national parks and private reserves that offer a first-time safari traveler everything they’d need to have a memorable vacation.
In South Africa, many safari destinations can be reached with one easy flight from Johannesburg, which itself is reachable easily from North America. And the country offers a bit of everything, from Kruger National Park to high-end private reserves like Singita and Sabi Sands that are well-equipped to meet the needs and expectations of someone traveling on a safari for the first time.
Kenya is also relatively easy to reach from most of the world, and its capital of Nairobi is just about an hour away from the world-famous Maasai Mara where you can witness the Great Migration taking place — typically during the months of July and August. And it’s close to other countries like Uganda and Rwanda where you can partake in other unforgettable experiences like trekking with gorillas.
When’s the best time to go on a safari?
Generally, it’s best to plan a safari for the dry season. In South Africa, this typically means from July through October.
When it’s rainy, animals have more land to spread out over, since water’s far easier to come by. However, when water isn’t as plentiful during the dry season, all sorts of animals are forced to converge around the same water holes, allowing travelers to see a far greater variety of animals.
Are there different kinds of safaris?
Yes, there are a wide range of experiences one can have on a safari vacation.
Besides the traditional game drive, there are night drives, walking safaris, water-based safaris and much more.
As du Toit explained during our conversation, night drives (something I have yet to do) are uniquely special because after the evening sundowner (an incredible experience in and of itself), you can observe animals doing things you’d never see during the day. Lions, for example, don’t do a ton during the day. But at night, lions become more active, meaning you can possibly even follow them as they hunt for zebras or giraffes.
Walking safaris, born primarily in Zimbabwe and Zambia and found mostly in private reserves, are a way to connect to nature in a way you never thought was possible before. In some reserves, the entire, multiple-day safari is on foot — allowing one to focus on their place in nature and find their balance with it.
There are also plenty of aerial safari experiences, like hot air balloon rides or even climbing sand dunes on the Skeleton Coast of Namibia to observe animals in the morning as they cast long shadows on the white sand. Or, you can experience a safari from the water in a place like the Okavango Delta in Botswana, where you see wildlife from a canoe-like boat and where the delta’s water lilies are practically at eye-level.
A safari I’m particularly interested in going on is at the Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe. These are four large pools, located on the banks of the Zambezi River near Victoria Falls. Here, according to du Toit, about 99% of the safari is on foot. You begin with a drive in the morning and then leave the vehicle behind and follow an animal — or group of animals — on foot for the rest of the day.
Should I take photos or live in the moment?
I was really curious for du Toit’s take on the question of photography. He’s a wildlife photographer after all, but I was curious if he thought first-time safari travelers should focus on the experience rather than concerning themselves with getting the perfect shot.
Du Toit, though, is in favor of photography, even on your first safari. He points out that today’s technology makes it so easy to take photos, and if you decided to leave your camera at home, there will certainly be moments where you wish you hadn’t.
Even if you’re not an experienced photographer, you can rent cameras in many camera shops or even at some (not many) reserves. And some lodges even have their own photo studios where you can work with a member of staff to edit and even print off your photos, so you can travel home with your memories.
If you’re going to buy a camera before embarking on a safari, du Toit recommends finding a mirrorless one — they’re the future of photography. They’re lightweight and hardly make any noise, and ideal combination for a safari.
No matter what, have your phone with you. The camera technology found in today’s smartphones is so strong and they make it incredibly easy to use. One tip from du Toit, though: Don’t ever zoom.
The impact of safaris on the local economy and sustainability
Perhaps the most important thing I discussed with du Toit was the impact safaris have on the economies of many African nations as well as the positive effect they have on the sustainability and wellbeing of animals.
He explained that a total shutdown of tourism was quite possibly the worst-case scenario for the many areas in which safaris and reserves operate.
The lack of tourists occupying — and spending money at — the numerous safari lodges and reserves creates a situation where the properties are forced to lay off workers, leaving them without a salary and perhaps worse down the line — without food. And then, many of these hungry former workers are desperate and turn to subsistence poaching to survive, which has disastrous effects on the ecosystem and exacerbates the already acute problems of criminal poaching and animal depopulation.
As this cycle continues, it becomes progressively harder for a given locality to break the chain, and groups dedicated to maintaining the wellbeing of animals are strained further.
All this is to say that these countries need tourists to return. Even if you don’t feel it’s right for your family right now, consider booking a trip further in the future. For those concerned about traveling amid COVID-19, du Toit made a great point: Safari vacations are quite possibly the best types of trips to take if you want to remain distant from others. You arrive at the airport, are picked up by staff from the reserve and then driven to your destination where it’s entirely possible you won’t even encounter other guests.
And if it’s the logistics you’re concerned about, plenty of airlines — particularly ones like Qatar Airways — fly into many safari destinations in Africa regularly, so there’s still more than enough opportunities to fly there in comfort and even some style.
Du Toit said it best: “Africa is ready and waiting.”
Featured photo by Londolozi Images/Mint Images/Getty Images
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