Gearing up for an African Safari
by Tim Leffel
Before I left for my safari in Botswana, I ordered a pair of “everything-proof” shorts: water-resistant, wrinkle-proof, stain-proof, and rip-proof. I was ready for anything Africa could throw at me. In the end, what got thrown at me wasn’t mud, dirt, or river water; it was a gin and tonic.
I was jabbering to the person beside me, sipping on my Sundowner cocktail, when my wild elbow collided with another and the whole glass emptied into my lap. With normal shorts I would have looked like I peed my pants. I would have been more than a little uncomfortable during the Land Rover ride back to camp. Instead, I just stood up, the liquid rolled off, and all was well. Catastrophe averted.
You have to pack carefully for an African safari. Clothes that hold up well are a good start.
Packing Light—Very Light
The key factors that guide your safari packing should be weight, comfort, and real need. Think in terms of what you absolutely have to have, then build on very carefully after that. On nearly any safari, you’ll get a weight or size limit you have to stay under. Anything you pack has to earn its place in that total. Clothes have to be comfortable for the climate and protect you from the two key menaces: intense sunlight and malaria-carrying mosquitos.
At the bottom end, safaris can be uncomfortable and dusty, with long stretches of bumpy riding along rutted roads. It’s tough to avoid most of this if paying a rate less than $100 per day and for that you’ll be camping in a tent. So you’ll be cramming a lot of what you need into a four-wheel-drive vehicle, including your sleeping bag, but will still face restrictions on how much you can carry. (Long overland tours are the exception: they often have a support vehicle that can carry more belongings.)
If you go on an upscale safari, like the one I did with Orient-Express Safaris (www.orient-express-safaris.co.za), you will probably be on at least one puddle-jumper prop plane ride. If you bring too much, they might not let you on. For the plane trips I took, with six of us and a pilot skirting over elephant and giraffe herds, 25 pounds (12 kilograms) was the maximum per person. I watched the pilot literally stuff everything in underneath before we took off.
Whether getting to the bush by land or air, a backpack is the preferable luggage style and the smaller you can get away with the better.
Not a Fashion Show In the luxury camps, they throw in laundry service, so at least you don’t have to worry about running out of clothes after a few days. You can toss your undies and socks in the basket in the morning and in the evening find them folded on your bed. If you’re in a more basic camp, some detergent and one of those stretchy clotheslines can be quite useful. But being a little grubby seems kind of natural on the plains of Africa anyway. One poor guy on my trip had his luggage lost by Air Botswana and was wearing the same outfit for about 48 hours. He survived.
Fortunately, the most essential items are small ones: sunscreen, sun hat, sunglasses, a camera with extra memory cards or film, lip balm, insect repellant, and a flashlight. I didn’t take binoculars, but wish I had. After borrowing someone else’s I learned that it’s a whole different experience when you can see the expression on a giraffe’s face or see the teeth inside a lion’s mouth when it yawns.
One pair of shoes will cut it, or two if you want to slip into something else at night. Even the best safari camps are not very formal unless they can be reached by road—you don’t pack a jacket and dress shoes when you’re limited to 25 pounds! A pair of water-resistant hiking boots would be best, though in reality you’ll probably spend most of your time away from camp inside a vehicle.
Remember to wear neutral clothing: no bright yellows or wild patterns that will make you look like a good meal. No shiny disco clothes and preferably sunglasses that aren’t mirrored: flashes of light can scare away some animals. A light fleece is helpful where the nights get cool.
Keep the Critters Away
Although people worry about getting attacked by a lion or run over by a hippo, mosquitos are really the main menace. I bought a Buzz Off hat before leaving: the Buzz Off clothes have built-in bug repellant that still works after many washings. It didn’t keep away any flies, unfortunately, but I didn’t get any mosquito bites. The pants, shirts, or socks would provide extra protection at dusk.
The usefulness of malaria pills is up for debate. None of the people who work in Africa seem to take them and the side effects from Lariam are especially scary. One of the camp managers I met said he had seen the medicine lead to fistfights, bad hallucinations, and crazed screaming matches. He said whenever they call a doctor about a guest acting strangely or reporting weird illnesses, the first question is, “Are they taking Larium?” Read up and weigh the pros and cons before deciding what’s right for you. Whether you take pills or not, mosquito repellant with a strong percentage of DEET is necessary.
Once you’ve pared down your pack and taken off, relax and get ready for the experience of a lifetime. The two things you’ll use most—your eyes and ears—will be with you all the time.
Tim Leffel’s articles appear in a wide range of travel magazines and newspapers. He is the editor of Perceptive Travel (www.perceptivetravel.com) and author of The World’s Cheapest Destinations. (www.WorldsCheapestDestinations.com)