Africa's unique wildlife and the landscapes it inhabits make for a magical safari experience. But making the most of this dream journey into the African wilds requires careful planning – here's where we show you how.

Planning Your Trip

Planning your safari can be an enjoyable experience, but there are some important considerations to guide your preparations. These include choosing the best season, deciding what type of safari you'd like to undertake and where, and selecting an operator to get you travelling.

Regional Highlights

Africa is home to the last great populations of charismatic megafauna on the planet, but there are differences from one region to the next. East and Southern Africa offer particularly rich wildlife experiences, while looking for wildlife in West Africa has the quality of a treasure hunt. North Africa is the only part of Africa without significant wildlife populations.

Central Africa

Habituated gorillas live in the national parks of the Democratic Republic of Congo's far east, but these areas will be off the travel agendas of all but the most intrepid. Bonobos in the DRC's Lola Ya Bonobo Sanctuary are another highlight.

East Africa

From the spectacular wildebeest migrations across the Masai Mara to the elephants of Amboseli, from the millions of flamingos in the Rift Valley Lakes to the gorillas of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, East Africa offers an amazing range of safari opportunities. However, don’t be tempted to fit too much into your itinerary. Distances between parks in East Africa are great, and moving too quickly from park to park is likely to leave you tired and unsatisfied. Instead, try to stay at just one or two parks, exploring them in depth and taking advantage of nearby cultural and walking opportunities.

North Africa

This is the one part of the continent where you won't be planning a traditional safari as most of the large animals are long gone.

Southern Africa

If you thought that East Africa was safari wonderland, prepare yourself for an equally enticing sweetie shop in Southern Africa. South Africa alone has close to 600 national parks and reserves, many featuring wildlife, although others are primarily wilderness sanctuaries or hiking areas. Elsewhere both Botswana's Chobe National Park and Namibia's Etosha National Park have good populations of iconic species plus excellent birdwatching. If you make it across to Madagascar, look for the endangered lemur, the Indri, in Parc National d’Andasibe.

West Africa

West Africa is an underrated wildlife destination and its little-known national parks host more African megafauna than they do tourists.

Benin's Parc National de la Pendjari is one of the region's best parks with lions, leopards, elephants and hippos. The same can be said for the Benin–Niger cross-border Parc Regional du W. Ghana's Mole National Park, with 94 mammal species, including elephants, baboons and antelopes, is that country's conservation showpiece.

The Gambia offers the compact Abuko Nature Reserve, home to crocodiles and hundreds of bird species. Senegal's Parc National des Oiseaux du Djoudj and Mauritania's Parc National du Banc D'Arguin are among the best birding sites in the world for migratory species.

But it's down in the southwest where things really get exciting. Gabon is the region's star ecotourism destination with 10% of its territory locked away in national parks. You'll find habituated lowland gorillas in Gabon and the Republic of Congo. Equatorial Guinea is a largely uncharted paradise, while Gabon and São Tomé & Príncipe are brilliant for whales and sea turtles.

Feature: Sangha Trinational Park

National Geographic magazine once described it as ‘the World’s Last Eden’, but maybe that was selling it short. Listed as a Unesco World Heritage site in 2012, Sangha Trinational Park (http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1380) is a giant slab of the Congo rainforest. Divided between the national parks of Dzanga-Sangha (CAR), Nouabalé-Ndoki (Congo) and Lobéké (Cameroon), this is a place where elephants gather in forest clearings by their hundred, chimpanzees swing through the trees, chest thumping gorillas crash through the undergrowth, pygmies ‘fish’ for antelope with nets and the occasional lucky tourist stares in amazement at Africa at her raw and wild best.

When to Go

Much of East and Southern Africa offer exceptional wildlife viewing year-round. That said, wildlife is generally easier to spot during the dry season when waterholes become a focus for activity. In Southern Africa, the rainy season (November to March) is good for birds but getting around the Okavango Delta is more difficult. This is also when visitor numbers and prices will be highest – something to bear in mind when weighing up costs and scheduling. West Africa's best time for wildlife is generally from November to March, while Central Africa is similar.

Wildlife usually disperses during the wet season and denser vegetation can make observation more difficult, but you may be rewarded with viewings of behaviour such as breeding activity without the tourist crowds.

Choosing an Operator

Travellers are faced with a boggling array of organised tour options in Africa, and the only problem will be making your selection.

A good operator is the single most important variable for your safari, and it's worth spending time thoroughly researching those you're considering. At the budget level in particular, you may find operators who cut corners, so be careful to go with a reputable outfit. There are many high-quality companies that have excellent track records.

Do some legwork (the internet is a good start) before coming to Africa. Get personal recommendations (this can be done on Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree forum at lonelyplanet.com/thorntree) and, once in the region, talk with as many travellers as you can who have recently returned from a safari or trek with the company you're considering.

Some questions to consider when deciding on which company to choose:

  • Is the itinerary exactly what you want?
  • Do you understand the planning and what is expected for each stage of the tour?
  • Will you be staying in, or near, the park you want to visit?
  • Is accommodation in a large lodge or an intimate, private camp?
  • Does the operator have a commitment to responsible tourism?
  • Does the operator give back to local communities and respect cultures?
  • What are the numbers like on the tour – how many people will be in your group?
  • Does the operator have a good reputation?

Be sceptical of price quotes that sound too good to be true, and don't rush into any deals, no matter how good they sound.

Take the time to go through the itinerary in detail, confirming what is expected and planned for each stage of the trip. Be sure that the number of wildlife drives per day and all other specifics appear in the written contract, as well as the starting and ending dates and approximate times.

Safari Operators

Typically most visitors to Africa will book a safari with a specialist tour operator and many local operators do the bulk of their business this way. Operators recommended here enjoyed a good reputation at the time of research, as do many others. However, we can't emphasise enough the need to check on the current situation with all of the listed companies and any others you may hear about.

The following are just a few of the best operators in East and/or Southern Africa.

&Beyond Stunning lodges and fine safaris in remote locations in East and Southern Africa, mixed with impressive conservation programs.

Africa Adventure Company This top safari specialist can organise any sort of Southern or East Africa itinerary.

African Wildlife Safaris Australia-based company offering trips to East and Southern African countries.

Great Plains Conservation Among the elite of safari operators, combining a growing portfolio of stunning lodges with cutting-edge conservation work.

Wilderness Safaris Excellent operator with a range of tours across East and Southern Africa.

Self-Drive Safari Operators

Drive Botswana This excellent operator arranges 4WDs and complete-package self-drive itineraries, including maps, trip notes and bookings for campsites covering Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Safari Drive Expensive but professional and upmarket company with its own fleet of recent-model vehicles. Prices include all equipment, emergency back-up, detailed route preparation and bookings, satellite phone and free tank of fuel. Covers Southern Africa, plus Tanzania.

Wildlife Specialists

All international companies offering safaris to Southern Africa – and there are many of them – will most likely make wildlife watching the centrepiece of the safari experiences they offer. But there are two UK companies in particular for whom wildlife is their raison d'être, with all of the benefits that brings:

Naturetrek This company’s aim is to get you to where the animals are. It offers specialised wildlife-viewing itineraries.

Wildfoot Travel High-end wildlife-focused tours to some of the region's best lodges and wildlife areas.

Safari Style

While price can be a major determining factor in safari planning, there are other considerations that are just as important:

Ambience Will you be staying in or near the park? If you stay well outside the park, you'll miss the good early-morning and evening wildlife-viewing hours. Are the surroundings atmospheric? Will you be in a large lodge or an intimate private camp?

Equipment Mediocre vehicles and equipment can significantly detract from the overall experience. In remote areas, lack of quality equipment or vehicles and appropriate back-up arrangements can be a safety risk.

Access and activities If you don't relish the idea of spending hours on bumpy roads, consider parks and lodges where you can fly in. To get out of the vehicle and into the bush, target areas offering walking and boat safaris.

Guides A good driver-guide can make or break your safari.

Community commitment Look for operators that do more than just give lip-service to ecotourism principles, and that have a genuine, long-standing commitment to the communities where they work. In addition to being more culturally responsible, they'll also be able to give you a more authentic and enjoyable experience.

Setting the agenda Some drivers feel that they have to whisk you from one good 'sighting' to the next. If you prefer to stay in one strategic place for a while to experience the environment and see what comes by, discuss this with your driver. Going off in wild pursuit of the Big Five (elephant, lion, rhino, leopard, buffalo) means you'll miss the more subtle aspects of your surroundings.

Less is more If you'll be teaming up with others to make a group, find out how many people will be in your vehicle, and try to meet your travelling companions before setting off.

Special interests If birdwatching or other special interests are important, arrange a private safari with a specialised operator.

Types of Safari

DIY Safaris

When it comes to safaris, doing things yourself (taking the bus, renting your own 4WD, using your own tent, carrying your own food) is rarely cheaper, and is a lot more complicated. Public transport rarely goes into parks, and even if it does, you still need to rent a vehicle or arrange lifts to tour the park itself. And the main expense – park entry fees – has to be paid however you get there.

However, in some countries there's less of an organised safari set-up, and the usual way of doing things is to get to the park under your own steam, stay at a lodge or campsite (either inside the park, or just outside to save on park fees), then arrange activities on the spot to suit your budget and interest.

You can join walking safaris, wildlife-viewing drives, boat trips or visits to nearby villages – all normally for a half or full day, although longer options may also be available. National parks where this is possible include Liwonde (Malawi), Kruger (South Africa), Gorongosa (Mozambique) and South Luangwa (Zambia). Doing things this way can cost more than fully organised trips, but generally you're paying for a more exclusive experience.

Many parks in Southern Africa, especially in Botswana and Namibia, cater to both luxury lodges (usually fly-in safaris) and self-drive 4WD safaris.

Organised Safaris

Vast distances – some parks are bigger than small nations – and the unpredictable nature of large animals usually mean you need a vehicle to visit the national parks, often a 4WD, and a knowledgable guide. The obvious solution is to join an organised safari. There are options to suit all budgets, starting from around US$150 per day for a basic all-inclusive experience.

If you want to team up and share the costs of a safari, companies in Nairobi (Kenya), Arusha (Tanzania) and Kampala (Uganda) will help you find other travellers. Some have regular departures where you can just rock up, pay and head for the wilds the next day. Many safari companies also take (and most prefer) bookings in advance, especially at the top end of the market.

One factor that can make or break a safari is the driver. A good driver is a guide too, and can turn even the most mundane trip into a fascinating one; a driver's experience in spotting animals and understanding their behaviour is paramount. A bad driver does just that – drive. Always try to meet your driver-guide before booking a safari, to gauge their level of knowledge and enthusiasm.

If you're offered a ridiculously cheap deal by a safari company, think again. Anything less than the norm may compromise in quality – vehicles break down, food is substandard, park fees are dodged or fuel is skimped on, meaning your driver won't take detours in search of animals. At the higher end of the price spectrum, ambience, safari style and the operator’s overall focus are important considerations.

The best way to avoid the sharks and find good guides is to get advice from other travellers who've recently returned from a safari, so do your research online beforehand and ask around once you arrive in Africa. Also check to see if an operator is a member of a professional association or regulatory body such as the Kenyan Association of Tour Operators (KATO; www.katokenya.org) or the Tanzanian Association of Tour Operators (TATO; www.tatotz.org).

Mobile Safaris

Many visitors to Southern Africa will experience some sort of organised mobile safari – ranging from an all-hands-on-deck ‘participation safari’, where you might be expected to chip in with camp chores and supply your own sleeping bag and drinks, all the way up to top-class, privately guided trips.

As trips at the lower end of the budget scale can vary enormously in quality, it pays to canvass opinion for good local operators. This can be done on Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree forum (lonelyplanet.com/thorntree) or by chatting to other travellers on the ground. Failing this, don’t hesitate to ask lots of questions of your tour operator and make your priorities and budget clear from the start.

For those booking through overseas tour operators, try to give as much notice as possible, especially if you want to travel in the high season. This will give you a better chance of booking the camps and lodges of your choice.

Fly-In Safari

Taking off in a little six-seater aircraft to nip across to the next remote safari camp or designer lodge means you'll be able to maximise your time and cover a selection of parks and reserves to give yourself an idea of the fantastic variety of landscapes on offer.

The biggest temptation will be to cram too much into your itinerary, leaving you rushing from place to place. It's always better to give yourself at least three days in each camp or lodge in order to really avail yourself of the various activities on offer.

While a fly-in safari is never cheap, they are all-inclusive and what you pay should cover the cost of your flight transfers as well as meals, drinks and activities in each camp. Obviously, this all takes some planning and the earlier you can book a fly-in safari the better – many operators advise on at least six to eight months' notice if you want to pick and choose where you stay.

Fly-in safaris are particularly popular and sometimes a necessity in the Okavango Delta region of Botswana. Given the country's profile as a top-end safari destination, many tour operators specialise in fly-in safaris or include a fly-in element in their itineraries.

Resources

Safari Bookings (www.safaribookings.com) Fantastic resource for booking your safari with expert and traveller reviews.

Good Safari Guide (www.goodsafariguide) An independent online resource with a focus on luxury lodges and tented camps.