I’ve been organising my safaris according to two principles: making them the cheapest and wildest possible. Here are my tips on how to enjoy true wilderness avoiding over-tourism and its disruptive consequences on wildlife, all keeping costs in check. In Part 1 I’ll talk about basics and preventative matters such as the choice of the park and of the vehicle, park fees and where to sleep. Part 2 is going to tackle actually living the safari: guides and rangers, eating, how to look for and how to behave around animals.
I developed my “expertise” during my travels in South Africa and my six months in Kenya. I will often refer to Nairobi and Kenya but I’m pretty sure these tips will do for any other kind safari and location, be it across Africa or not.
Where to go: choosing the park/conservancy
It all depends on the kind of experience you want to have. Are you there just for the animals? Are you the active type and enjoy trekking into the wild? Rock climbing? Do you want to include a cultural experience while you go for your safari and interact with local communities? Would you dare plunging into thermal waters while keeping an eye on wildlife? Do your research and check which activities are allowed in each park (often walking is rightfully forbidden but hikes with rangers or walking safaris escorted by park staff are offered in many places).
It’s full of conservancies and national parks out there, those places where everyone goes that are super advertised. Packed with animals, you’ll surely go for at least two or three of the big five (lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino) and won’t stop shooting with your camera. BUT they have everything that is needed to spoil your experience.
Animals are so used to be surrounded by people that it often feels like a mere zoo and you really do not experience their wilderness. I’ve seen so many times lions surrounded by dozens (literally, dozenS) of cars, not even able to run away from them or carry on with whatever they were doing. Being it hunting, nursing their cubs or even resting in the shade. So many guides and lodges just ignore the minimum distance required from animals and spend their days chasing after their trophies to please their tourists. This and their infrastructures severely disrupt both animals and ecosystems and there is little –if anything- left of conservation in their activity. These are the venues I run away from and, sadly, the stunning Mara is an awful example.
There are then often smaller, more isolated and less renowned conservancies. For these reasons, they get less tourists and are often tangled with local communities that significantly contribute to their management. Animals are less used to humans so, yes, they are more fearing, but you will get them anyway and truly enjoy tracking them, finding them and studying their natural behaviour in a less spoiled environment. Sure, these places usually are more spartan (but not necessarily) and less comfy, hard to reach and isolated …but weren’t you looking for a wild experience and true wilderness? I assure you, this has nothing to do with waiting in line to shoot the next lion. And, most of the times, it is also way more affordable.
- Local communities
Another point is the relation with local communities. To give space to conservation, nature and tourism, communities are often banned or even deported from the land they used to sustain themselves, more often than not in a sustainable way. This causes serious socio, economic and environmental problems plus the loss of the local culture. There are conservancies though that closely work with communities, valuing their contribution and knowledge of the land and sharing their profit with them. These exercises often offer cultural visits and local guides, employ members of the tribes and closely cooperate with them. A must in my opinion, please go for them!
- To sum up
- Go for the small, community-based conservancies that are often less comfy infrastructure-wise but wilder, less touristy, more sustainable and cheaper.
- Check the value the conservancy gives to local communities. You’ll see part of the money you spend going to their sustainable living and get a unique cultural experience.
I plan to post about parks and conservancies I appreciated according to these two features so keep an eye for future posts if you’re interested! One is already out here.
Another awesome resource I fully exploited to choose my destinations is The Kenyan Camper. This blogger truly enjoys the wild and share unique and super useful tips and reviews about his incredible travels.
The vehicle you choose is vital and will define your itinerary and experience. Obvious consideration: always go with a 4×4. Even if they assure you that roads inside the park are chilled and well tended, you shouldn’t forget about roads outside the park. You need to get to the park first and, most likely, it is going to be a bumpy ride. Plus, if you’re an experienced off-roader, you might want to enjoy the secondary roads within the park, less cared for but truly rewarding in terms of both animals and fun rides.
So, speaking money:
- If you have your own 4×4 or share a friend’s car, that’s for sure the cheapest way.
- If you’re not an experienced off-roader and/or you cannot spend much, go for a basic 4×4 and don’t dare much. The cheapest option I got in Kenya was a Rav4 (3000 to 5000 KES per day). This will prevent you from going into the wildest and most isolated places but most parks offer roads that are compatible with this choice. Just always contact the park in advance to check on roads’ conditions.
- If you want to enjoy crazy rides and are willing to spend more, just go and get an old Land Cruiser or Defender/Land Rover. These old cars are high and rough enough to take you to the muddiest and impenetrable places – if only you are able to drive them properly. They also are very old so will probably let you down multiple times – be prepared.
- If you’re a group, you might get incredibly good deals by renting a 4×4 van or safari car with a driver-guide attached that will take you anywhere, track animals for you like a pro and connect with rangers to get the most juicy news about local animals and locations.
Do not underestimate 4×4 vans, they can handle their roads and sometimes can go roofless to allow you to enjoy a 360° view of the bush.
Please, remember that most parks do not sell fuel within their borders so check in advance where the last petrol station available is and fuel up, including filling extra tanks to carry with you if needed. You consume a lot in these difficult roads and driving all day long. The closest stations to parks often price up so consider filling tanks in previous ones or wherever fuel is cheaper. Some parks have fuelling stations but, of course, they are incredibly pricey. Oil will be one of your greater expenses so saving on it will mean a great deal.
- Renting a car
If you’re comfortable enough with networking, avoid car renting agencies that target foreigners and go with the local ones. A taxi driver or a friend of a friend might know someone that knows someone … or just be willing to rent you their cars for a competitive price. But ALWAYS negotiate, it is normal in these setting and most people just try to set high prices if you’re a foreigner.
Last, always check the car you rent. Most of the times they are over-used and literally falling apart, no matter the price. It’s best if some of you is able to perform basic fixes or is an experienced driver anyways. Especially if you try to keep your costs down, you will 100% get tricky vehicles. I will never forget when our super rusty Range Rover just died in front of a pod full of hippos. I had to keep an eye on their movements while my companion would try to sort the engine out. Or when the “protective belly” below the car (sorry for the highly technical term) fell down and we discovered it was attached to the vehicle just through wire. But don’t get frustrated and have fun, it’s just part of the experience.
Uh, you also want to prepare yourself to barter with policemen that might stop you on your way to the conservancy to squeeze a bit too much money from you naïve tourist pockets.
This, with fuel, is the greatest expense of your safari. At least in Kenya, park fees can go up to 100 USD per person per day. Plus the vehicle fee, the sleeping inside the park fee and extra lodging fees.
Tariffs are often different for citizens, residents and non-residents. Being an intern (so working in Kenya with a contract), I could access resident fees while my visiting friends had to come to terms with extremely high non-resident fees. The gap is huge so carefully study the tariff plans of the places you’d like to visit and compare different options to get the greatest savings.
So, how to save? It is true that park fees, especially of the most popular locations, are a huge turn-off but there are alternatives that might go as low as 15/20 USD per day or even eliminate the differentiated tariff between locals and foreigners. Another way to look at it, if you really want to go to that expensive place, is considering cutting on all other costs to make up for the considerable expense by following these tips and the ones contained in Part 2.
So, summing up the fees (mainly referred to Kenya):
-Daily park fee per person, 15 to 100 USD
-Daily vehicle fee, usually no more than 10 USD for each vehicle with 5/6 seats max, a bit higher for larger vehicles/vans
-Camping fee, a few extra dollars if you want to camp, camp gear excluded. Some conservancies set higher fees that include (you have no choice) the renting of the whole camping place –even if it’s just you- for a bunch of days –even if you just stay one night.
-Guide fee if you don’t have your own guide and you don’t want to be without a guide
-Fees for extra activities: horse riding safaris, walking safaris, tracking lessons, cultural tours, night safaris, happy hour in the bush, sun dawners and so on
-If you camp, some parks might force you to hire one or two 24/7 rangers to guard you at night or guide you on your rides. This usually costs 2000 KES per ranger per day.
Do you remember when I mentioned those more affordable conservancies that are often much more sustainable, wilder, less touristy and managed by local communities? Those are the ones with the lowest fees so a perfect win-win if you’re willing to enjoy their roughness. I recommend again checking out The Kenyan Camper (that also includes all the fees in his reviews) and the Northern Rangeland Trust if it’s Kenya you’re thinking about.
If you can’t afford lodges, just camp or consider bandas
One awesome thing I discovered in Kenya is the banda. Bandas are huts, fitting two or more people, with incredibly basic equipment. Usually simple beds, a shared toilet, a fireplace and no electricity. While there are more advanced bandas, they more often than not provide just a roof to sleep under in the middle of the bush. Some of them even have guardians to refer to in case of need. They are way more affordable than lodges and hotels (even though still differentiate between residents and non-residents in establishing tariffs) but offer more protection than camping.
- Hostels and couch surfing
If you’re willing to sleep outside the park and drive in everyday, you could even couch surf or find some cheap hostels in the villages around the area.
But would you really give up the opportunity to enjoy the stunning night sky of the bush while hearing lions roars, hyenas whooping, the sounds of nocturnal hunts and all other sorts of creature activating at night? Some might even come and visit you while you sleep in your banda, or better, in your tent. Night is all but quiet in the bush and the most exciting things happen.
To get the most –and the greatest saving- out of it, I’d camp. Most of the times you need to carry your own camping gear, whether you rent it, own it or borrow it (always remember you can borrow), but some camps might offer their own. I’ve noticed a huge divide between camp sites in South Africa and in Kenya. In South Africa, they are fenced, have basic structures and often have rangers around. In Kenya, it’s just you and the animals. No fences, no rangers (even if some times they are there or you can hire them), no toilets – I want to highlight this, most of the times, no water, no electricity, no toilets. Or, if the park is well organized, it sends a couple of rangers to dig a hole and set a cabin over it where you can do your things. So be prepared and include toilet paper in your backpacks.
Remember that the thermal excursion in the bush is incredible and, while it can be unbearably hot during the day, it can reach 0°C at night. So plan a very good sleeping bag and plenty of warm clothes.
Bandas usually have running non-drinkable water. This is not granted in camps but some of them might offer tanks with non-drinkable water in case you need to wash dishes and so. I’d suggest to always bring water tanks and/or bottles with you, including extra water to clean up and wash stuff.
Most advanced campsites and bandas have fireplaces, otherwise you will have to build your own. Bring firewood with you or whatever you need to cook, as you can’t collect wood in parks. Pro tip: elephant dung is perfect to make ember – if you’re not fussy.
Needless to say, whether you camp or sleep in a banda, you will have to take care of your rubbish so bring containers or bags where you will store it as you won’t likely find trash bins before exiting the park.
End of Part 1
I will end it here, it always gets too long. Hope this helped and might at least give someone ideas on how to plan safaris more affordably. And, why not, choosing the most sustainable option while doing so. I’d love a feedback about it and, of course, extra tips!
The post continues on Part 2, about guides, eating, getting the best spots and how to behave around the wildlife you encounter. Here I write about how tourism -even when believed sustainable- can be twisted and undermine conservation. Of course, more to come on the wildlife series!