Going on safari in Africa can take a big bite out of the budget. Here are five ways to ease the pain.
With its campaign furniture and champagne breakfasts beside the arid neverlands of the Makgadikgadi salt flats, Jack’s Camp in Botswana is one of Africa’s most stylish and romantic safari lodges. But such unbridled luxury doesn’t suit everyone’s bottom line. Luckily Jack’s sister camp, Planet Baobab, shares the same game-spotting position at a fraction of the price. Secondary or sister camps are often cheaper than their five-star siblings but have similar DNA. At Planet Baobab, that means the ecosystem and animal magic are on par with Jack’s Camp. For example, both properties have access to the same population of habituated meerkats.
Planet Baobab welcomes 42 guests across 18 thatched huts (three of them are four-person family affairs) as well as offering camp sites for hardcore budget travellers. The sites start from around $13 a night, for shared ablution and cooking facilities with communal braai. It’s a total bargain considering even $13 campers have access to chic common areas including the largest swimming pool in the Kalahari Desert and a lively shebeen-style bar that lures guests from nearby lodges.
There’s full immersion on the activity front with quad biking, walking with meerkats, absorbing Botswana culture in local villages, game drives into the Ntwetwe Pan in search of desert elephants and lions and eyewitness accounts of the epic zebra and wildebeest migration precipitated by December’s summer rains. All activities cost extra so it's handy you saved on the accommodation.
June to December for wildlife viewing by the Boteti River. The hotter and wetter months of January to May are better for the salt pans. The peak season is July to October.
Planet Baobab has twin-share huts from $130 per person per night, rising to $160 per person, twin-share, during the August peak. Rates include accommodation, dinner and breakfast. Camp sites are from $13 a night.
The wide-open roads of Namibia, with barely any traffic and staggering scenery, are ideal for self-drive holidays. For Australian safari-goers there are also the added bonuses of a shared language (English) and driving style (on the left, thanks). Small wonder that drive-yourself safaris are all the rage in the south-western republic as travellers opt for freedom, affordability and the wind in their hair.
In the Namibian capital of Windhoek, The Cardboard Box is a veteran agency offering dozens of organised self-drive itineraries priced from penny-wise to upscale. All cover the country’s must-see attractions, from giant dunes to wild Atlantic coasts and from the desert elephants of Damaraland to Etosha’s profusion of large mammals.
Most first-timers complete the classic Windhoek circuit, a round trip that takes about 10 days. Several routes are on offer with accommodation and some meals costed in. Car hire is arranged separately to tailor transport to guests’ needs but generally it recommends a larger, SUV-type vehicle for comfort and driving ease. While 80 per cent of the roads travelled are graded, gravelled and passable by sedan, there’s peace of mind and better suspension in an SUV.
Accommodation tends to be comfortable rather than luxurious. Within the national parks, lodges and camps are run by the government agency Namibia Wildlife Resorts. Service and maintenance standards can vary widely but on the plus side, properties usually have prime locations. For example, the three main camps in Etosha National Park – Namutoni, Halali and Okaukuejo – feature floodlit waterholes for thrilling night-time entertainment.
In the dry season, May to October, wildlife clusters by waterholes for easy viewing. Rains during December to March transform Etosha National Park into a birthing ground for big mammals and a twitcher’s paradise.
The Cardboard Box’s Camelthorn 10-day itineraries are priced from $1500 per person twin-share, increasing to $1780 in the peak months of July to October. Its mid-range Rhino tours are from $2725 for the 10-day circuit.
Tanzania’s Serengeti is rightly regarded as one of Africa’s greatest animal reserves. The action never stops here; the Great Migration continues year-round as millions of wildebeests move en masse in search of food and water. But travelling in Tanzania comes with significant costs. Fees for park entrance and vehicle permits are high. The Ngorongoro Crater will set you back around $85 for a day pass, plus around $350 for a half-day vehicle permit. Add almost 20 per cent tax on top of that before you’ve even seen a single gazelle.
So it’s clever to visit out of season and buy shared packages that are inclusive of additional costs. Far fewer tourists come during the two rainy seasons – April to May and November – so lodges and tour operators lower rates to attract custom. April to May is the true low season, when costs can be 35 per cent less than peak pricing. Another way to cut costs is to book a shared safari where the expense of vehicle and permits, as well as the accommodation, salary and food for the driver/guide, is shared within the group. And note that staying in mid-priced lodges is cheaper than taking the tented camp option. Go figure.
Low season does not mean small turnouts by iconic African mammals. Tanzania Wildlife Safaris’ five-day tours focus on the parks of the Serengeti (lions, cheetahs, gazelles!), Ngorongoro (wildebeests, hippopotamuses, flamingos!) and Lake Manyara (elephants, tree-climbing lions!) where the wild action never wanes.
The Great Migration arrives in the Serengeti from late November to early December with wildebeest calving in February. But you can still see it in the low season from April to May.
Five-day itineraries with Tanzania Wildlife Safaris to Lake Manyara National Park, the Serengeti Plains and Ngorongoro Crater will cost $1960 per person group-share, staying in semi-luxury lodges, plus tips for guides from $30 per day.
Safaris in Botswana are famously expensive, which is bad news if you're longing to see the country’s equally famous array of wildlife. But trips can be affordable if you’re prepared to sing for your supper, so to speak. “Participation camping” is as it sounds – helping out with the chores on a mobile safari. Okavango Expeditions runs six-night excursions to see the country’s major creature features, from Chobe National Park – where thousands of elephants mass by the Chobe River during the winter dry – to the Makgadikgadi salt pan.
The Botswana Adventurer safari departs weekly between March and December from Kasane town (the gateway to Chobe) and caters for up to nine people, all of whom must muck in with camp chores. These include erecting and dismantling tents (2.5-metre domed affairs with built-in floors), kitchen and cleaning duties along with firewood collection. A guide and a cook handle everything else. Prices for the week-long journeys start around $1800 per person, which is a fraction of what most people pay to visit the same spectacular destinations.
Early starts are de rigueur to manage the long drives between camps, which include sites beside the river and Savute Channel in Chobe National Park, Moremi Game Reserve in the Okavango Delta and then settling in for a final night under the stars of the Makgadikgadi’s salty desert. None of the camps are fenced for a completely unfiltered African experience.
From February to December. Highlights include the opportunity to view large herds of elephants (up to 50,000 of them) along the Chobe River between May and September.
Okavango Expeditions offers week-long itineraries that are priced from $1800 per person (minimum of two guests and maximum of nine, with no supplement for single travellers).
The Maasai Mara in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley is renowned as one of the best places on earth to view big cats. But why just watch them when you can be actively involved in their conservation?
As a volunteer on African Impact’s Big Cat Wildlife Research Project, budding ecologists (or simply devoted animal-lovers) work alongside researchers and scientists counting lions, cheetahs and leopards in their natural habitat. Collected daily, the data on the animals’ movements and behaviour feeds into the preservation management plans of the Mara Naboisho Conservancy, where the Big Cat camp is located. Volunteers also interact with trainee Maasai safari guides on game drives and in workshops on language and presentation skills at the Koiyaki Guiding School, as well as assist with classes at local schools.
During placements (for a minimum of two weeks), helpers stay at a safari camp in the Naboisho Conservancy, which is alongside the Maasai Mara National Reserve. Accommodation is in dorm rooms or private tents with all the essentials – hot showers, housekeeping and three meals a day – plus surprise elements such as lions roaring at night and wild things wandering through the camp site.
Of course, animal sightings are always subject to the whims of Mother Nature but given that participants stay in the midst of the greatest concentration of mammals in Africa, brushes with big cats, zebra, wildebeest, giraffe and hundreds of bird species are assured.
There are thrills all year round but time your visit for the Great Migration through Kenya from July to September for maximum wow factor.
African Impact has two-week volunteer experiences priced from $3230 or stick around for up to six weeks from $6710.