How to safari: cheap and wild (Part 2)

This is part 2 of my tips on how to plan and experience your safaris in the most affordable and wildest way. It all comes out from my direct experiences so it is what works for me, but I hope it can also be of help for someone else.

In Part 1, I focused on planning, from the choice of the destination to the selection of the vehicle, talking about park fees and sleeping options. I also shared links to conservancies I deem exceptionally sustainable and to another super useful blog on safaris. I am also thinking about writing about the conservancies/parks I visited so keep an eye for updates if you’re interested. Part 2 will be more centred on the actual safari, talking about guides and rangers, eating, how to look for and act around animals.

However, I am no expert so please let me know if you’d argue with what I’m writing and if you have extra tips to share. I hope I will soon go for safaris again and it will be best if I could be even better prepared.

 

Guides and rangers

If in some parks it is compulsory to be accompanied by (and pay for) rangers, it is not always the case. Most of the times, you can enjoy your safari with your own guide or just by yourself if you’re confident with finding animals and with not getting lost.

Having no guide is of course the cheapest option and, even if not extremely experienced, you will get awesome views anyways. On the other hand, if you want to discover more about the animals you see, to be able to better track wildlife, understand your surroundings, to be guided in the most strategic spots and, most importantly, the be in touch with the network of guides and rangers that communicate animals’ locations in real time through radio –often in tribal languages- you might consider hiring a guide.

Most guides have been doing their job for a lifetime and some are highly qualified so enquire about their background. They might know the parks as the back of their hands and be perfect insiders of the rangers network or be scum so choose carefully. You don’t need an agency to find a good guide, often word of mouth and references are the best way to identify the right one.

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Peter, the most amazing guide, helping us out for lunch in exchange of guacamole

I had an incredible experience with Peter, trained in conservation and deeply involved with local communities and no-profit conservation initiatives. He literally saved our lives multiple times and tough us so much about the ecosystems we visited and their stunning wildlife. Most importantly, he truly respects wilderness and will never do anything that might bother nature and animals, scolding you if necessary. If you’re in Kenya and wish to have his contact, feel free to reach out.

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Peter, again. He’s just too awesome not to publish more about him. Showing us elephant poo while explaining how we will be using it to cook our lunch

Again, when hiring, always negotiate as much as you can.

24/7 guides

They are you baby sitter (like Peter), will stay with you from the moment you leave until you go back, whether you camp or sleep in a hotel. If you don’t have a vehicle or don’t want to drive, they usually have their own safari car and it’s better to be a group to be able to share the renting costs. You will have to pay for the car fee when entering the park of course but usually guides avoid personal fees so you won’t have to provide. Same goes for their food and sometimes bedding, they take care of themselves and are often able to sleep in facilities devoted to guides in each park.

Spot-guides

If you don’t want to afford a guide for the whole of your travel, you can choose to hire a guide directly on site, for the day or half a day, and then take care of your own self. You can directly hire rangers at the gates of the park but they are usually overpriced. Just by wondering around the park in your car you might incur in patrolling rangers and offer them to jump in, offering a lower free. Mind improvised guides though, they storm gates and touristy places and might not be as knowledgeable as they claim. Once we picked up a Maasai guy that hitchhiked us and promised to become our guide. While we got precious insights of Maasai customs, we were not as satisfied with his knowledge of wildlife – indeed, we didn’t get to see or learn much under his guidance.

Rangers for specific activities

You might access some extra activities only if under the supervision of a park ranger. This goes for walking safaris as the ranger will tell you how to behave in case you encounter animals that might turn into threats and to check on you acting respectful. They are often armed, in our experience with a gun with just one bullet, to warn and scare away animals in case they/we get too close. We had one of the greatest experiences hiking from one waterfall to another in the Aberdares rainforest. We learned that, when you’re on foot, 300 meters away from an elephant is not far enough. We were ordered to lay down, be quiet, and slowly crawl away. We were pushed back when a herd of buffaloes suddenly went rampant and emerged in the middle of our trail, out of the forest. We were taught how to recognize, read and interpret tracks. It was incredible and worth the 2000 KES we paid. Even if extremely far away, looking at wildlife sharing their same ground has a whole different flavour that doing so sitting on a car.

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One of those elephant bulls we encountered during our hike and we crawled away from

Eating

There are of course places like bars and restaurants in most parks but, to stay cheap, pack up supplies for the whole trip and bring them with you. Remember to bring thermic containers as there are no fridges in the bush and it can get extremely hot at midday. Meals that are easy to prepare are a must in case, as it happen so often to us, accessing a fireplace can be impossible even when planned. So fruit, bread, cookies, snacks and canned food are great cheap options. If you want to or can cook, remember to bring everything you need, from pots to sponges to clean them up.

Include firewood in your supplies, matches and lighters. Some rangers offer to provide firewood once inside parks but at crazy prices.

Do not underestimate chilly nights and the fact that you will often wake up before dawn. Starting a safari in these conditions, always out of the window of your vehicle to try to spot animals, can chill you to the bones. A good idea is to boil water when you wake up to make tea or whatever you like and store it into thermic bottles to warm you up during your morning ride.

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Peter (yes, again), brewing something warm at dawn to keep us alive during a chilly morning safari

A said before, plan ahead ways to store your trash, especially if you want to recycle.

How to look for wildlife

Here is the fun part. Driving around with your head out of the window, trying to spot wildlife. Most animals are more active before dawn and after sunset so waking up early, when it’s still dark, is necessary. By the time the sun starts to rise, your engine should be rumbling and your cameras ready. Tracking wildlife is not easy and I am no expert but here are some basic tips:

  • When you start in the morning, recap the sounds you heard during the night and try to follow them
  • Look for carcasses, hundreds of species feed on them at different times of the day
  • Follow circling vultures, they usually signal carcasses
  • If you’re not able to interpret tracks and to guess how long ago they were laid, following them is not always the point
  • There is always life around waterholes, especially during the hottest parts of the day
  • Nothing happens at midday, nobody can be seen at midday: it’s just too hot
  • Look EVERYWHERE: below bushes, up in trees, into the water…animals are great at hiding
  • Rain might reduce encounters but provides some surreal settings
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Rain can create some surreal settings indeed
  • Sunsets and sun dawns are just stunning, be sure to be in a good spot by the time they happen
  • Slow down
  • If it’s dark, use red lights/torches to illuminate your surroundings. Animal’s eyes will blink in the dark (orange if they’re carnivores, green if herbivores) helping you to spot them and the red light won’t blind them
  • Don’t go crazy if you don’t find what you were looking for. You will see something awesome anyways and you’d risk of ruining the whole experience
  • Be super patient
  • If you can, trust your guide and connect with rangers (via radio o directly talking to them) for the best tips
  • Ask people you meet on the road if they spotted anything and where, exchanging tips
  • Animals might wonder very far away from the road so keep your binoculars close
  • Some of the best sightings just happen out of the blue, when you’re not looking for them

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How to behave around wildlife

This is controversial as, when you spot something incredible, you are irresistibly drawn to it and have the instinct of just getting closer and closer. And this is what most people does. They show no knowledge about wildlife or respect towards it. In the worst cases, as I witnessed in South Africa or in the park inside the city of Nairobi, animal are so used to this that they don’t bother anymore. You can get inches away from a giraffe and she wouldn’t even lower her gaze at you. The whole experience turns into a zoo-like ride and I assure you, it’s not rewarding and not something you would call “an experience”.

In the wildest parts of Kenya though, animals have been less abused and are less used to humans. They shy away when you pass by and it takes a slow but exciting dance to get them used to your presence and to allow you to get a bit closer. Here is where your skills are tested and where you can really feel that you’re sharing the space with these foreign creatures.

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It only looked like these giraffes were running away from us. Instead, they kept on taking sneak-peeks at us, too curious to let it go. They just needed to feel a bit safer and started getting closer after a while of quiet waiting.

This is not to say that you will see less animals and/only far away. It will just be a bit harder and much more rewarding. There is a higher risk of making the animal run away, so you need to be careful, not invasive and respectful. To do this, it is fundamental to check for and interpret the signals that the animals manifest when they notice you. Stepping away, looking at you without getting closer, the movements of their years and tails, sounds and body language…they all will help you understand if you can afford to get closer, if you’d better stay where you are or even reverse and let them be. You should never reach the point of forcing them to display aggressive warnings.

I’ve seen so many tourists acting with ignorance and heard of so many stories ended up in injuries or even deaths. Just because we’re not able to interpret a signalled “go away” or are just too focused on taking the best picture to bother understanding the animal we’re trying to shoot. I also acted irresponsibly, out of inexperience, without anything bad happening, luckily.

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This young elephant made very clear the fact that our car was too close and should back off

Most of the time, if you’re quiet and still, animals will get more comfortable with you and allow a few more meters. Or it will be them getting closer. No matter what, always keep quiet, don’t do sudden movements and don’t push anything or any part of yourself out of the car. Remember animals don’t know what you are and you kind of bother them. You’re enjoying their presence and this shouldn’t turn into a concern for them. Plus, you don’t know what might trigger their aggressiveness, especially if you’re just a tourist, and can never be sure of your safety. Having said that, everybody in the field knows that, if anything goes wrong or anyone is injured, it always your fault. It is also useful to keep in mind that, even if provoked, if an animal attacks humans, it will be killed. No matter if endangered, no matter whose fault it was.

My favourite encounter

I love hyenas, even if they can be quite common. They are led by incredibly strong matriarchs and compete with lions. They are not felids nor canids but something of their own. Not just scavengers but capable predators, incredibly caring for the litter.

So we were lost and it was dark, our campsite nowhere to be found and our car was literally dying. Predators would start to come out, exploiting shadows. We passed by a large bush and we saw at least 6 dashes crossing the road: hyenas running to hide under the bush itself. We stopped as they were looking at us from under the branches, trying to assess whether we were a threat or not. So we turned the car off, quieting the engine and lowering our lights. We just waited, noticing that, besides the diffident gazes of the adults, there were more curious sets of eyes: their cubs. They didn’t know what we were but they were too young to be fully afraid. After just a couple of minutes, they couldn’t bare staying hidden anymore. They came out, carefully studying us and maintaining a passage open to the safety of their bush and pack. More minutes passed and they grew more and more curious. They couldn’t stop being drawn to the car, sniffing and testing. There we stood, incredibly silent and still. Until the cubs felt so comfortable they could resume their playing in front of us, under the sceptical eyes of their adults, not even three meters away from us.

We didn’t push them or force our presence. When we realized it was getting too late and we’d better find our campsite, we restarted the engine and left, still in awe. By the way, we didn’t manage to find the campsite on time. We slept in the car and an elephant visited in the middle of the night, just to check what we were.

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Awfully, I don’t have any good picture of that night. Here they were still half-hiding.

The end

It was so nice to remember…but, to sum up, I really hope this helped convince you to try a wilder kind of safari and also to save a bit of money. Safaris are not cheap, especially if you’re not a local. A hidden purpose was also to explain a bit of “etiquette” and respect around animals, tourism is indeed becoming a huge problem even in the wildest areas and it would be awful to spoil the marvel that wilderness can offer.

Please share your tips, I will treasure them and hopefully somebody else will do as well. Feel free to include your favourite parks and conservancies, I’m always looking for new places to visit!

 

P.S.

Check out Part 1 if you missed it!

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