The word “safari” is originally from Arabic, and was used by the Swahili people to mean a journey. These days a safari means a journey, but with the specific intention of hunting for, or more likely, viewing and photographing, wild animals, especially the big beasts – lions, elephant, giraffe, zebra, hippos, rhinos, wildebeest, leopards and more.
Safaris as a form of education or entertainment began as far back as the early nineteenth century, when explorers such as William Cornwallis Harris established the pattern of safari which is followed to this day. Of course in those days, the safari was on foot and today, it’s much more likely to be by vehicle, but the format of an early rise to take advantage of the cooler temperatures, a light breakfast, a trek out to observe animals, a break for lunch, and a somewhat elegant evening with a good meal, the chance to tell stories, perhaps even some music and of course, the hope of seeing animals by firelight, moonlight or floodlight.
Harris was an inveterate hunter, and the objective was to bring back trophies; tusks, skins, even whole beasts for taxidermy. But he was also a naturalist and an artist, and record with some sensitivity the magnificent sights of Africa before man had trodden to heavily upon its lands.
It is this spirit of adventure and exploration which dominates today’s safari scene, although you can still obtain a license to shoot big game, should that be your wish. There are so called private safari parks where shooting is allowed, but these are coming under pressure as governments realise the value of their national patrimony. Generally, if government issues a licence to shoot, it is under very strict conditions, and only in situations where culling is necessary to maintain ecological balance.
Of course, when Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip honeymooned at Treetops, in Kenya, the fashion for visiting luxury lodges really took off and has never diminished. Much of the pleasure of the safari is associated with the beautiful camps, where the finest cuisine and the most elegant accommodations are available to the discerning traveller. The contrast between the luxury of camp at night and the dust and heat of the animal tracking during the day makes for an exciting and stimulating break away from the workaday world.
There is a move towards a simpler style of safari which might appeal to those with less money to splash around, or perhaps prefer a more realistic experience of Africa. These, whilst safe and comfortable are certainly more adventurous, and are a definite new trend in eco travel. Based on more off the beaten track locations, they offer the chance to get close to the real feel of the wilderness.
The main countries offering safaris in Africa are Kenya, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Botswana, Zambia, Namibia, South Africa and Malawi. All of these countries are English speaking, and language, at least with guides and other staff, is not a problem. They have been hosting safaris for many years, and places such as Kenya and South Africa have a tradition going back over a hundred years.
Each country has its own charm. Malawi offers wonderful lake based safaris, for example, and Namibia boasts the spellbinding Namib desert. Kenya boast the Great Migration, one of the wonders of the world, and Tanzania of course boast the Ngorongoro crater.
For never to be forgotten experiences of animals in the wild, a safari can’t be beaten. If you have only ever seen a wild animal in the zoo, then be prepared for the sight of magnificent animals in peak condition in their natural surroundings, because they are so much more spectacular and beautiful than you can imagine. And of course the birds, the scenery, the people and the wide African skies are heart stoppingly beautiful.
Many travellers couple a safari with a beach vacation, and this is a great idea. There are various views on the best order in which to plan your trip; some people like to use the beach element to acclimatise themselves to new surroundings, a new time zone and of course, warm weather. Others prefer to use the beach element as a wind down. The really smart traveller tops and tails a safari with a few days at the beach, getting the best of both worlds.
Any reasonably fit person can go on safari – most are not really strenuous, though you do have to be able to tolerate heat and bumping over rough ground in a less than luxurious vehicle. The usual precautions apply; get the shots recommended by your doctor well in advance, drink plenty of clean water to keep hydrated, apply sun screen and insect protection, and don’t over indulge in alcohol.
If you are seeking a vacation which is really different, if you have an interest in wildlife, if you are looking for something more than just sitting on a beach or dragging around a lot of meaningless museums, then an African safari may well be for you.