Although this safari guide is written principally as a detailed ‘Safari Companion’ – an invaluable resource to accompany you on your trip – there is much to be thought about and considered before you even start to plan your trip in detail, in addition to such further matters as medical precautions, what to pack, and so on.
A basic rule is that the more you know before you go, the more you will get out of your visit. In addition
To learning what wildlife might be expected, and the different varieties to be found in the particular
Region that you choose to visit, you will enrich your visit by also learning something about the local
Cultures – especially if you then go on to experience this, by means of a visit to a local village.
The contents of this section are:
The word ‘safari’ originates in Swahili, meaning a journey or expedition. It probably first gained currency in the outside world when it was used by the legendary novelist and traveller, Ernest Hemingway, and thence became mostly associated with the concept of the ‘Great White Hunter’. Nowadays the safari experience has become available to all, although the word itself has become devolved in use to merely describing the basic ‘game viewing’ activity. Zagas Explorer, in contrast, firmly believes that the opportunity to visit East Africa enables a journey involving the human soul – from the atavistic pleasure of observing wild animals in a true wilderness habitat, through the opportunity to at least fleetingly experience how a vastly different people live out their near-subsistence existence, to a clearer understanding of our own place in creation.
For many people, one visit is sufficient to hook them on coming back to this complex and wonderful part of continent, time after time. In part we believe that in some way the visitor recognises that he is revisiting his very roots, Africa being generally acknowledged as the cradle of mankind. Then George Monbiot has attributed it to our desire “to seek an antidote to a surfeit ofcivilisation”. He sees Africa as providing a society that is both much simpler – and more complex – than our own; in turn poorer, and much richer.
Enough of such romantic ideals! Let us first list the destinations that you might choose. The principal
Tourist destinations in East Africa are,
Zanzibar. Although not true safari destinations as such, this destinations offer stunning, sparkling turquoise waters and the powdery white sand beaches that can be found nowhere else. They are the perfect ending for your safari, or as a Destination in their own right.
Then you need to decide exactly what it is that you yourself want to do during your visit. And there
Are just so many factors to consider here. Firstly you need to consider exactly why you want to visit East
Africa – is it its wildlife, culture, history, landscapes, activities, beaches, or a combination of some of these? The variety of experiences to be found on the vast East African States is immense. If this is your first such visit then you certainly need to seek specialist advice. However you will save yourself (and them) an
Awful lot of time if you can begin by asking yourself the following series of questions:
Obviously budgetary considerations will influence the answer to this question to a large extent. Outside
These if you only have the time for a short trip then you should focus on a destination that provides a lot
to do within a fairly small area (for example Tanzania’s Ruaha, providing you with the opportunity to visit the Great Ruaha River, do some game viewing, enjoy river-based activities and so on), or one with good transportation links – long road transfers simply eat up time. A longer time can either enable you to choose to combine a number of different destinations (for example game reserves of widely different character) or simply to enjoy your trip at a more leisurely pace.
You may not have a lot of choice as to when you travel (especially if it is on your honeymoon!), but where you go and what you can do will be critically influenced by this – principally due to the prevailing weather conditions. The climate in East Africa is dominated by the transition between extremely hot dry seasons and one or more rainy seasons. It is usually cheaper to travel in the rainy season, and the absence of dust leads to better photography, but the game may be harder to spot due to higher undergrowth and the decreased need for it to congregate around a limited number of water sources. Some areas may be inaccessible at this time, and many camps – especially bush camps – may not be open then. Similarly, activities such as walking may not be possible.
During the dry season the temperatures can become uncomfortably high, although most activities are
geared around this (the afternoon siesta being as popular in East Africa as it is in the Mediterranean countries). The concentrations of game available to be viewed will also be critically dependent on season – the wildebeest migration perennially circling through Tanzania and Kenya being an excellent example of this. Many bird species, too, are highly migratory.
In East Africa, the long rainy season takes place from early April through early June, with the short rains occurring from late November through December. It is often less expensive to travel during the long rainy season. July and August are generally extremely busy in East Africa, offering comfortable temperatures in addition to being a popular time for travel world-wide, so be sure to book well in advance.
For most people game viewing by vehicle will be the most important activity, but this term in itself is
Capable of different interpretations. For many it will mean ‘big game’, especially the big cats, but for others
it may mean bird species. Vehicles differ, however, as does occupancy, and there is a world of difference
between needing to fight for a window seat in a crowded, enclosed minibus, and relaxing two-across
on the back of an open topped 4×4.
Night drives are particularly exciting (especially after just having consumed the odd sun downer or two). With the aid of a powerful searchlight, a good ‘spotter’ and keen eyesight, a whole new world opens up to you. Adrenaline-filled walking safaris probably provide the ultimate safari experience, like night drives. Here it is still possible to get up close to big game, in addition to being able to appreciate the microcosm of experiences that the East African bush provides – plants, trees, birds, insects, spoor and so on. Often your base will be a rustic bush camp or luxury lodge, heightening the feeling of visiting such untamed places.
Other possible activities include horseback safaris, canoe safaris, ballooning. Although not generally termed safari activities, East Africa offers a wide range of other opportunities, including mountain climbing (e.g. Kilimanjaro), Gorilla trekking, Nile exploration (especially, Bungee jumping and white water rafting etc (at Owen Falls), coastal activities, such as Deep sea fishing, Scuba diving & snorkelling and surfing. We have already mentioned the possibility of adding a few days in an idyllic beach location onto the end of your itinerary.
However at Zagas Explorer we firmly believe that the safari visitor who restricts him//herself to the somewhat artificial world of the custom-built ‘safari lodge’, and to specifically designated game reserves, is missing much of what East Africa is all about. In particular he is likely to miss out on actually meeting the people of East Africa – something that actually remains in the minds of most visitors who do accomplish this, long after the wildlife sightings have been forgotten. If asked, most camps can arrange for you to visit a local village, and if you can combine this with time spent in the village school we guarantee that you will have an experience that is quite unforgettable.
Above all, though, don’t try to do too much in any one visit. East Africa moves at its own pace – and it’s a gentle one – and your maximum enjoyment will come from adjusting to this pace, rather than dashing on from lodge to lodge, or from country to country.
Are you travelling alone, with your partner, with children or with friends?
The answer to this question will critically affect the destinations, and types of accommodation that are suitable for you. Children, in particular, can be catered for – but not everywhere, although some lodges do actually offer special activities for children.
Fitness levels will affect what you can do – walking safaris are not for everybody.
Some people are more nervous than others – a walled hut may be preferable to tented accommodation in
such cases. If there are just two of you then you will generally have to share game viewing activities and the like with other people (although it is often possible to hire a private vehicle – at additional cost – if desired).
Is this my first time in East Africa, or am I seeking to ‘push back the envelope’ further?
Our concept of the ideal first time safari is based around the premise that most people will primarily
want to secure good sightings of big game. For this reason we recommend 4-5 nights in one or more
‘base camps’ – lodges offering good facilities and excellent opportunities for game drives, by day and
evening. Once this initial hunger for game viewing is satisfied, then it is time to think about other matters,
such as taking to your feet in the bush for the first time (accompanied by a guide and armed park ranger, of course), staying in a more rustic ‘bush camp’, and so on. The ‘Old Africa Hand’ will already have formed his own opinion as to which aspects he wants to repeat – although few people tire of seeing big game – but may well be looking to experience something new on his next visit, such as learning tracking or advanced bush and survival skills. Thus, under the heading of ‘Safaris with Attitude’, Zagas Explorer has put together a wide variety of advanced itineraries that will take even the experienced traveller into new realms, and provide new encounters.
We’ve put off discussing this particular question to the end, although in some ways it is of course the most
important one of all – and an East African safari is never going to be a particularly cheap option. Firstly we
should warn you that most accommodation, internal flights and so on, is priced in US Dollars, and hence
Radical fluctuations in exchange rate can drastically affect the cost of travel if you are, for example, based
in the Pound Sterling or Euro area of the world. The factors determining cost (outside considerations
Such as international and internal flights, which will vary markedly according to the type of itinerary?
selected), depend mainly on the quality of the accommodation provided, the quality of game viewing in the area selected, whether or not it lies within a National Park or a (more expensive) private game reserve, its remoteness (influencing supply logistics), and of course the season.
Although the style of safari accommodation selected will affect the price that you pay to some extent, it will probably be much less so than it would be, for example, if comparing city centre 1-star to 5-star
hotels. In the main, the luxury, air conditioned safari lodge is characteristic of East Africa, and can be
really quite expensive. More generally available are high-quality permanent tented camps or rustic
lodges, which remain open for the whole of the year. Then there are bush camps, which are normally regarded as seasonal, being dismantled at the start of the rainy season, and rebuilt again once this is over.
Bush camps can range in style from simple tented structures to more elaborate rustic lodge-type accommodation, but in most cases the emphasis is on small groups, living as close to nature as possible (although this doesn’t necessarily exclude flushing toilets and hot showers).
As a very rough guide, in high season, expect to pay a minimum of $500-700, the one giving the best value for money is immediately obvious). These prices generally include all food and drink (drinks are sometimes priced separately), laundry, park fees, ground transfer, guiding and all game viewing activities. But nowhere are they cheap! Indeed at the top end you can easily expect to pay well in excess of $1000 per person per night. Although few safari tour operators either know, or care to divulge, this, there is actually a complete range of prices obtainable, from around $150 per person per night upwards, and we recently extensively researched many of these cheaper places with the intention of being able to offer a much wider range of prices for the East African safari. In the process we discovered some real gems, offering fabulous value for money (together with many that we wouldn’t recommend), and we now believe that we can offer a range of safaris to suit every pocket, thereby opening up the safari market to a vastly larger range of participants.
East Africa will always be Zagas Explorer’s destination of choice – it combines the highest quality of
Accommodation with the highest standard of guiding (probably the most crucial factor of all!), the
Opportunity to undertake walking safaris and night drives – and all of this can, with care, be undertaken
at really affordable prices. Perhaps the ultimate piece of advice is not to err too far on the side of economy. Being on a safari is, for many people, the holiday of a lifetime, and, although it is also expensive, there is no point in wasting all this money on an experience that you will have caused to regret. A cheap package tour may result in your “driving many miles every day, over rough roads in non-game-viewing country, driving in convoy in a crowded minivan, with the companions from hell, accompanied by inferior quality guides, either staying in massively uncomfortable tented accommodation, or in huge barrack-like lodges”.
We hope that you will choose Zagas Explorer to plan your East African adventure for you, but whoever you choose to travel with – and there are many other excellent tour operators – we hope that it is an experience that will live forever in your memory – and that this Safari Guide will have enhanced this experience for you.
One of the most effective uses for the internet has become the booking of holidays on-line. Many people routinely now book a holiday villa, car hire and a cheap flight, putting together a package for themselves that previously they would have gone to a tour operator for to put together as a whole.
Don’t be tempted to do this in East Africa. If you know exactly where you want to stay, you could of course
Book directly with the individual lodges, but this still leaves you with the complex problem of arranging
Internal flights (which, within East Africa is much more of an art than a science!), ground transport connections and so on. Even if you feel that you do not need any advice about choosing where to go and where to stay, you should still pay exactly the same by booking through a reputable tour operator, with the additional – and absolutely invaluable – bonus of being protected by the tour operator’s financial bonding arrangements, something that individual African lodges rarely, if ever, provide. The tour operator should then put together all the connecting parts at no extra cost to ensure a seamless trip.
Flights: the exception to the above advice may be yourinternational return flight out to East Africa itself. Thisis very easily booked on the internet, and currentsecurity arrangements often require that the creditcard used to book belongs to one of the people actually travelling. We generally suggest that gueststake care of this aspect for themselves, once their EastAfrican itinerary is fully confirmed.
One useful tip for your international flight is to bookthe best seat, especially if your outbound flight is an overnight one. By choosing a seat on the left-handside of the aircraft (when facing forwards – i.e. seats A & B) you will most probably be able to view a mostbeautiful East African sunrise on your left hand (easterly) side, an hour or so before landing – an excellent start to your holiday.
Passports and Visas
Before you leave do check when your passport expires. Some countries will allow you to stay there up until
the very last day of your passport’s validity. Others demand that there is still at least 6 month’s remaining
On your date of entry. Most East African countries require incoming visitors to obtain a visa, although the requirements may vary according to your nationality. Your tour operator should, of course, advise you as to the requirement here, but it doesn’t do any harm to confirm this for yourself by visiting the relevant East African country embassy website. This will also inform you as to what immunisations you must have, for example a yellow fever certificate is required by some countries, but not by others.
You can obtain your actual entry visa by applying to the relevant country’s embassy in your own country prior to travel, but most people choose instead to simply pay for a visa on arrival, which is a much simpler process, although you may have to queue for a while to achieve this. The cost should be exactly the same. Again, you should confirm all this with your tour operator first.
Visas may be single entry type, or multiple entry, which you will need if you are, for example, visiting another country in the middle of your trip. A classic example of this – which you might not think of – is if you are visiting Volcanoes Park, in Rwanda, but nip across the border into Uganda for a few days, to view the Bwindi Impenetrable the Ugandan side.
Although the tour operator who you book through should have some form of financial bonding in place,
a further level of protection is provided by paying by means of a credit card. You don’t have to pay the
full amount in this way (there may be a surcharge for payment by credit card), but, for example in the UK,
under Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act 1974, you will be protected for the full amount involved
(up to a limit of £30,000), even if you only pay the deposit required in this way (so long as the total
Amount exceeds £100). If anything goes wrong you can apply to your credit card supplier for redress.
A recent ruling has confirmed that such protection applies even for payments made to an overseas supplier. What is rarely realised is that you may even get a similar level of protection if you use a Visa debit
card instead, although this is not covered in law as above. However most bank staffs are unaware of
this provision (known as the ‘chargeback’ scheme), and indeed it has only just been established, after
stiff resistance, that Section 75 credit card claims themselves do apply to overseas suppliers, and therefore it might be best not to rely on this.
Many people get ‘travel cover insurance’ free along with their credit card or bank account. However this
may only give you very restricted ‘travel accident cover’, which may not, for example cover routine
illness, or an accident that occurs whilst not actually travelling on public transport that was paid for using
the card concerned. You should read your card’s terms and conditions very carefully, and remember
that, as in most things, ‘you get what you pay for’. The benefit of having peace of mind whilst travelling
in somewhere like Africa is well worth the cost of obtaining a proper comprehensive travel cover policy. Your tour operator may (and should) insist on being provided with evidence that you are fully covered by insurance.
Usually all of your accommodation costs will have been prepaid as part of your booking, but you need
to be aware that in some cases certain items – such as park fees, laundry costs and bar bills – are not
covered. Ideally your tour operator will have made this clear to you, in which case it’s a good idea to
make a note of these particular locations. In some cases you won’t have been warned. The cost isn’t a
big deal, in terms of the overall cost of your trip, but it can still cause a lot of grief when people end up
being charged for items that they hadn’t anticipated. At Zagas Explorer, in addition to only ever charging
each supplier’s public rate (which can usually be confirmed by checking the relevant lodge website),
we itemise every single item of cost and hence it is immediately obvious what is included in any particular instance.
In this age of instant litigation if anything goes wrong, the last thing that we are going to do is to
give you detailed advice on medical precautions, immunisations, vaccinations and so on.
What you must do is to visit your own doctor in plenty of time before you travel (some vaccinations need to be applied in several doses over an extended period of time), and ask him what medical precautions you need to take, for the countries that you are intending to visit.
Your doctor will then look up what is required – usually on a constantly updated website – and arrange the
treatment that is required. This said, you might find the following observations to be useful.
Yellow fever is spread by mosquito bites. It is uncommon in tourist areas but can cause serious, often fatal, illness so most people visiting risk areas should be immunised. Indeed, as we saw above, some countries make it an entry requirement to have a valid immunisation certificate, and since this requirement may suddenly be introduced if there is an outbreak elsewhere, it is probably a good idea to have this anyway.
Transmission of Hepatitis A virus can occur through direct person-to-person contact; through exposure
to contaminated water, ice, or shellfish harvested in contaminated water; or from fruits, vegetables, or other foods that are eaten uncooked and that were contaminated during harvesting or subsequent handling.
You can become at risk from Hepatitis B if you are exposed to blood or body fluids, for example if you have sexual contact with the local population, but you can also be at risk as a result of emergency medical or dental treatment if infected blood or instruments are used.
Typhoid fever can be caught through contaminated drinking water or food, or by eating food or drinking
beverages that have been handled by a person who is infected. Large outbreaks are most often related to
faecal contamination of water supplies or foods sold by street vendors.
Since rabies is a potentially deadly disease, found throughout most of the world, you are well advised
to be vaccinated against this – especially if you are prone to making friends with every stray pussy who
crosses your path.
Meningitis is inflammation of the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord, and can have either viral or bacteriological origins. Epidemics do periodically occur in sub-Saharan Africa, and hence protection is advised.
Tetanus is found all over the world, so it’s a good idea to make sure that your tetanus jabs are kept up to date.
A one-time booster used to be recommended for any adult travellers who completed the childhood series but never had polio vaccine as an adult, although you are more likely now to be offered a combined tetanus, polio and diphtheria vaccine.
Cholera is mainly a product of poor sanitation, but can be guarded against by prior vaccination if your
doctor so recommends. However this vaccination is not regarded as all that effective by some medical
Malaria is not strictly a matter of immunisation or vaccination, but rather of prophylaxis, or preventative
measures. Sub-Saharan Africa is a high risk area for Malaria, spread by bites from infected mosquitoes.
All visitors to this region should adopt the following two-stage process. Firstly try to reduce the chances of being bitten, by covering up with clothing such as long sleeves and long trousers especially after sunset, using insect repellents on exposed skin and, when necessary, sleeping under a mosquito net. Mosquito nets and room sprays will be provided, where needed, by your hosts. Insect repellents should ideally contain a minimum of 50% DEET, and should be applied to all exposed skin – always on top of sun screen.
Secondly, take the anti-malarial medication prescribed by your doctor, remembering to start the treatment the appropriate numbers of days before you travel, in addition to continuing it for the correct period of time after you return.
it is claimed that you are more likely to be a target for mosquitoes if you consume bananas! The initial symptoms of malaria can be quite mild, and easy to confuse with flu. If you are in any doubt, contact your medical professional immediately, and tell them that you have recently returned from a malaria-risk zone.
Tsetse Fly Bites
A relation to the horse-fly, but ten times more vicious, the tsetse fly is both a nuisance and a benefit to safari travellers. The bite itself can be extremely painful, and can sometimes result in huge swollen red areas on the legs and arms (the reaction found varies greatly between individuals, and even from occasion
to occasion). However the tsetse fly also gives rise to sleeping sickness in cattle (although not usually
in human beings, at least not the variety found in Zambia) and hence keeps the best game viewing
areas free from human encroachment. However in some areas there may be areas of intense tsetse fly
activity to be traversed into and out of camp. These little nasties can inflict highly painful bites even through clothing, socks etc, and I personally have no hang-ups about looking quite silly swathed
from head to foot in a plastic raincoat, with close fitting hood, during applicable parts of the journey
Some camps proudly exhibit ‘tsetse fly traps’ around their boundaries (shown here). These consist of a jar
containing something sickly sweet that is irresistible to tsetse flies, contained within a blue canvas structure (for some reason, the colour blue attracts tsetse). This is designed to trap all such visitors.
Being of an enquiring mind I once asked to examine one of these traps more closely. Guess how many
tsetse flies were trapped in it? Thousands? Hundreds? The answer is ‘not one’! If you are bitten there are a number of possible treatments.
Applying, for example a hot mug of tea, to the bite can give immediate relief: the increased blood flow will wash the poison away from the site more quickly, in addition to breaking down the anti-clotting agent that such bites often contain. Another treatment is to apply a ‘zapper’ – a piezoelectric device that, when triggered against the skin, produces a short electrical shock to the site, which can also give rapid relief. We were told recently that a mixture of 50% Dettol50% water is an excellent repellent – although only if you want to smell like a hospital ward! However none of these treatments work all the time, or with all people.
We don’t want to delve too deeply into the myriad other tropical diseases that you might encounter, but
bilharzia (or schistosomiasis) is worth mentioning.
Quite nasty, although curable, this disease can be picked up from small infected snails whilst bathing
in fresh water lakes and streams. Unfortunately this includes the otherwise idyllic Lake Victoria – in theory
a strong rival to the Indian Ocean resorts, such as Zanzibar), although it is possible to find resorts here that are claimed to be bilharzia-free.
DVT (Deep Vein Thrombosis)
DVT is the formation of potentially dangerous blood clots, usually in the veins of the legs, caused by
inactivity. This may be accentuated during a longhaul flight, where the combination of low cabin air
pressure, stress, fatty food, caffeine and alcohol can result in a significant increase in blood coagulation,
making DVT that more likely. It is claimed that one in ten to one in thirty long-haul passengers may be
at risk from this condition – which may not make its effects evident until several days, weeks or even
months, following your flight. Advice given for avoiding this condition includes wearing loose-fitting clothes, drinking plenty of fluids, although avoiding alcohol, tea and coffee, which all have a diuretic effect, and – most of all – performing physical stretching exercises, both whilst seated, and on walking around the cabin. For example, whilst seated, you can try repeating the following exercises (5-10 times each):
a) hold the arm-rests, whilst slowly lifting your knees simultaneously, holding for a few seconds b) hold one knee and bring it up towards your chest, holding it there for 15 seconds, repeating with the
other knee c) contract your thighs and perform a sitting ‘march on the spot’ d) lift foot, point toes outward and rotate foot in a circular motion, repeating with the other foot e) with heels on the floor, lift toes upwards as far as possible, holding for 30 seconds g) with the balls of your feet on the floor, lift up
your heels as high as possible, again holding for 30seconds. In the past taking aspirin has been recommended – for its blood-thinning properties – but current medical opinion is that it is of no value in avoiding veinous blood clotting, and it can also cause stomach irritation or even gastric bleeding in
susceptible people. A natural alternative that is recommended is garlic (in the form of odour free
tablets!). Other recently introduced ‘natural’ products include Zinopin, which contains pine bark and ginger, and ‘Flite Tabs’, which are somewhat similar. But do research these yourself first, for example
on the internet, and, as always, get your doctor’s approval. It is also possible to buy specially designed
compression stockings from most pharmacies, which may be particularly recommended for those with
Although the flight from Europe to sub-Saharan Africa can be a very long one, the difference in time zones is normally only an hour or two, and therefore jet lag as such is not a problem.
Medication & First Aid Kits
If you are taking medication of your own, then, given the possibility of luggage going astray, it may
be a good idea to carry it in your hand luggage (provided it meets current anti-terrorist regulations!)
or split it between hand and hold luggage, if its use is important to you. You might also like to take a
small first-aid kit with you as well – obtainable from large pharmacies. Useful contents include plasters,
bandages, tweezers, possibly a sterile needle kit.
Pre-existing Medical Conditions
If you have any pre-existing medical conditions, you should certainly seek advice from your GP to discuss
the suitability of your proposed trip. You must also tell your Travel Insurer about your condition: if you
don’t and you become ill while you are away (even from something quite different), you run the risk of
losing your cover. If necessary carry a copy of a letter from your doctor with you, together with details of any prescriptions. Finally, do ensure that you carry sufficient medication to cover any delays.
What to Take
In the interest of simplicity, we have separated out ‘What To Take’, from ‘What To Wear’, but in relation
to both categories it is important to remember that there is usually a pretty tight weight limit when
flying internally within East Africa. Between two different countries, or between major destinations within a single country, this is often 15 kg, but for flights by light aircraft landing onto bush strips it can be as low
as 12 kgs. Now, this really isn’t very high, especially when it is realised that strictly this includes both hold and carry-on baggage. Hence the only official advice that we can give you is to travel light! Unofficially,
all that we can do is to make the following personal observations. East Africa is a pretty laid back place, and it is rare for baggage weights to cause a problem in practice. Usually there is a, pretty reasonable surcharge per Kg (you aren’t dealing with a UK low-cost airline here!), but the airlines do actually retain the right to refuse to take luggage that exceeds the weight limit. It should be readily understandable how this could actually be a significant safety hazard on small aircraft. At the same time, the smaller the airport that you leave from (and it doesn’t get any smaller than a remote bush strip), the less likely it is that there will be a handsome set of scales facing you.
Zagas Guide’s Tips on Luggage Restrictions
What we do to play it safe is to actually wear, or carry in our pockets, the heaviest items, such as cameras or binoculars, whilst packing other heavy items, such as books or paperwork, into our hand luggage, so that at least the actual hold luggage is likely to meet the weight restriction. Incidentally, this main bag should be made of a soft pliable material (e.g. a ‘grip’ bag, or holdall). This will enable it to be packed easily in the various modes of transport that will be utilised. However, having said all this, we still have to recommend, and repeat, that you should travel as light as possible, bearing in mind that most lodges will do your laundry for you on a 24 hour return basis. The list of items that you should put on your potential ‘To Take’ list can be classified as follows:
Binoculars: These figures represent the power of magnification x the diameter (in mm) of the objective lens, i.e. its light gathering capacity. Too high a magnification can lead to image shake, while too large an objective lens, although increasing image brightness, also cuts down on your field of view (in addition to increasing the weight). Anything up to 10×40 would serve you well out on safari. Don’t plan to share your binoculars with a fellow traveller though – it just doesn’t work.
Camera: don’t forget to include charger and spare batteries, spare memory card or film, lens cleaning
cloth, manual etc. Although most guides would classify a camera as a necessity, I have to admit that for several years I rarely took photos. It seems to me that, especially with fast-moving wildlife, you have the choice between observing, and hence actually experiencing, what is on offer – or of recording it for posterity. In the latter instance you can become so involved in getting the shot that you never actually experience the viewing. Even now I largely use the camera as a sort of diary to remind me of what I saw, rather than as an end in itself in achieving memorable images (maybe I’m just a rotten photographer!).
Sunglasses: obviously the African sun can be quite intense, although, again, I have to confess to rarely
actually using these. For me they get in the way of using the binoculars and camera. Just a tip: I
managed to scratch the lens of one pair once and a dentist friend accompanying me suggested that
I polish out the scratch using toothpaste as a mild abrasive. It worked too!
Torch: you will certainly need at least a small torch for getting around in your tent, or in camp, at night; use a small Maglite will be a better option. Your camp hosts will possess huge torches capable of spotting all those dangerous predators at a huge distance at night, but these are far too heavy to take along with you. Don’t forget to take spare batteries.
Notebook & Pen: I keep a regular diary of everything seen and done, with all game sightings recorded. In
particular this helps in correlating with the pictures that you take (“now what kind of bird did the guide
say that this was?”). It also helps you to relive what will be one of the experiences of a lifetime. Of course
maybe it’s just that my memory is failing me as age encroaches, and you may not need to do this.
Water Bottle: a good item of camping gear this, although on safari you will generally be supplied with bottled water, and hence probably don’t really need to take one with you.
Alarm Clock: you might think that this is an essential, given the fact that your day will usually begin at
around 5.00 a.m., although most lodges will lay on an alarm call as a standard feature (it’s quite bizarre to be staying in tented accommodation, to be awoken by a soft, but insistent “Knock, Knock”). However you
may have an early morning flight back at the end, and it would not be wise to rely entirely on a hotel’s
Books and Maps: these only add to the weight, but keen birders might want to take a specialist birding
book to amplify the information given in this guide. Although you might think that one of the classic
Guides to the country that you are visiting might be useful, again these are usually really heavy, and,
although useful to read through before you go, are a bit superfluous once you are out there.
Sun Screen (minimum rating ‘15’), possibly together with some Aftersun. Discard any sun screen that is
over a year old. Shaving Equipment, Deodorant, Toothbrush and Toothpaste, Shower Gel and Shampoo (in small amounts – these are often provided), Sponge and Blister / Foot Care, spare Toilet Roll.
These will include such as Travel sickness pills, Anti Malaria Medication, Insect Repellent, (containing
a minimum of 50% DEET (diethyltoluamide) e.g. Mosquito Milk) [Mosquito nets and room sprays will
usually be provided, where needed, by your hosts], Bite Relief Cream, Antihistamine Tablets, Eye Drops,
particularly if you wear contact lenses (driving through the bush raises fine clouds of dust), Wet
Wipes (useful if you’ve been out for a while, handling all sorts of things, and then come to a bush dinner
or just a sundowner with nibbles, and need to clean your hands), Moisturiser, Paracetamol tablets.
It’s also a good idea to take some Imodium, in case of diarrhoea. In fact there are two different – and
opposing – views on how to treat this condition, but if you are due to take an unavoidable flight or
road transfer, then the Imodium route is definitely to be recommended. It is also possible to purchase
anti-diarrhoea packs that contain both an Imodium equivalent and an antibiotic agent to help in curing
the problem, but you probably ought to take prior medical advice here. In this context also take some
Re-hydration Mixture Sachets. In particular do ensure that you keep well hydrated at all times.
Air travel, especially by light aircraft, can result in air sickness, especially among susceptible people. Hence it might be useful to take travel sickness medication with you as well.
Spare cash for tips, airport taxes, souvenirs etc – generally US Dollars can be universally used, without
your needing to obtain local currency. You might also like to take a money belt, and think about splitting up your cash between two or more different locations. Leatherman (or Swiss Army Knife): I’ve lost count
as to how many times I’ve found this to be an invaluable tool – with the pliers, scissors, bottle opener, screwdriver, file, saw and, of course, knife, coming to my rescue on many occasions. Essentially the Swiss Army knife is a penknife with a multitude of other instruments that fold out from its handle, including a somewhat poor pair of pliers, while a Leatherman is a good pair of pliers, with these other instruments again folding out from its handles. Do remember, though, not to pack these in your hand luggage during your flight!
Electrical adaptor: most places in East Africa will take the standard UK 240 volt square cross-section three pin plugs (for charging batteries etc), or will supply suitable adaptors if not. However many camps may
only provide charging facilities in one small central location, or via just one socket in your hut, and I’ve
found it very useful to take a lightweight multi-plug adaptor so that I can charge several items at once. IPod, or similar: it’s a long flight out, and the in-flight entertainment may not be to your own personal
taste. Above all – take a sense of humour: things don’t always go exactly to plan in East Africa – there is a saying: AWA (Africa Wins Again), although this also means that they’re pretty good at improvising if a problem does arise.
What to Wear
Most camps and lodges have a daily laundry service, so it is not necessary to bring too much clothing.
Basically you need to aim for casual, comfortable, bush coloured safari outfits (i.e. green/brown/khaki,
not cream/white/coloured). In fact khaki is the best, and most common, colour of all, not least because it is
the same colour as the dust, which gets everywhere. Bright colours should certainly be avoided, especially
blue, which attracts tsetse flies. Camouflage clothing is also not a good idea – what to you is a cool fashion
statement may be seen by the local authorities as a militaristic threat!
Even though this is East Africa, it can actually be quite chilly at night, or early in the morning, especially when driving in an open-topped vehicle, and especially, too, if you are at a relatively high altitude, so do plan for this, by taking some sort of sweater or fleece, and allowing for the need to wear long trousers and long sleeves in the evening (useful also for minimising the danger of mosquito bites). You’ve probably got some pre-conceived notion about adopting the classic ‘big-game-hunter’ safari outfit (Robert Redford in ‘Out of Africa’ for example). Although it’s probably best to try to resist this cliché, the classic safari jacket itself is actually a very useful item to wear, offering, as it does, a wide variety of pockets, both inside and outside, to carry items such as your sunglasses, sun cream, insect ‘zapper’, small water bottle, torch, notebook, camera etc – just try to remember where you put them all!
In particular, starting from the top downwards: You will certainly need some sort of headgear to protect you from the sun. A (neutral coloured) baseball cap is perfectly adequate, or you might prefer to go for a classic wide-brimmed hat. But do make sure that it has a chin-strap, or it will almost certainly get blown off if you are in an open-topped vehicle going at any decent speed. Then three sets of day wear – shorts/shirts (short sleeve or t-shirt), plus two sets of casual evening clothes (long trousers to reduce the risk of insect bites). Add four lots of underwear, a good sports bra (ladies!) and socks, nightwear and swimwear (many camps and lodges have swimming pools,
There is quite a lot to cover in this ‘On Safari’ section. Just explaining the amazing selection of different activities that you will encounter is a huge task in its own right, together with other factors such as photographic and safety tips, what to expect from the most important person who you will encounter – your guide – and, finally, some of the more humorous aspects of being out in the East African bush.
The contents of this section are:
We have already covered matters such as booking flights, obtaining visas (on arrival) and so on in our ‘Getting Booked’ section. It might be useful, however to just add a few more words on how to pay for items,
such as souvenirs, tips and optional excursions, those aren’t included in your pre-booked itinerary. Even where items are priced in the local currency you can usually pay in dollars (or sometimes Pound Sterling
Or Euros). However, outside big city hotels, the system usually just doesn’t support travellers’ cheques, credit cards and the like, and therefore you need to take cash. It is best to take brand-new dollar notes since the currency was changed in about 2000, from notes bearing ‘small’ heads to notes bearing ‘large’ heads, and only the latter are accepted. Although your need for such payments should be small it is better to take too much rather than too little, and at least dollars are readily convertible back into your own currency. On arrival in your destination country you will probably have to fill in an immigration declaration
form (these may be distributed towards the end of your flight out). If asked to state your address in the
Country concerned simply put the name of the first lodge that you are staying at.
On arrival at Immigration you will be able to obtain your entry visa, on payment of the appropriate charge (in US dollars). Caution: you should check that the period of the visa does cover that of your stay, or you could be faced with a hefty fine on your eventual departure from the country (in fact it isn’t unknown for corrupt Arrivals officials (who double up as Departures officials as well) to deliberately make such a mistake in order to trap you). In some cases, and for a modest charge, a ‘meet & greet’ service can be arranged for you. On arrival you will need to collect your baggage and, if flying on further, then take this to the domestic departure area. Before checking in here you may need to obtain a domestic departure tax receipt from the ‘Passenger Service Charge’ window, although these taxes are tending to become incorporated into the overall ticket cost these days. If you do need to pay this tax separately then you will probably need to show your passport and flight booking details. You can then take your baggage through the Domestic
Departures scanner and then check these bags in at the departure desk (which often doubles up as the
check-in), receiving back a boarding card. You are then usually free to leave the departure hall until near to your flight time (although there is often little to do).
This procedure applies at most urban airports, although not of course at bush strips, where everything is much more informal. Just a word of warning regarding internal flights within East Africa. These are often organised by quite small airlines, whose procedures are laid back to say the least. Don’t expect the rigorous formalities and check-in procedures that you are used to in the West. The main thing is to ensure right at the beginning that you are actually listed on their departure schedules (although this can be a somewhat grandiose term for what is only a hand-scribbled list), and then to keep a close watch on what is going on so that you don’t miss your flight. However, although it may all look a bit ‘hit and miss’,East Africa is used to this way of getting things done, and everything eventually goes OK. Often your plane will be anything from a 20-seater down to a 4-seater, which can be quite an experience if you’ve never flown in a light aircraft before. You might even be sited in the co-pilot’s seat. If you’re wondering whether these planes crash often, the answer is ‘No – only once’.
or hippos muttering to themselves. Although this may seem horrendously early, it is essential to head
out early on your game drive, before it gets too hot and the animals retreat into the shade. However
before you leave there is time for tea and toast around the camp fire. Don’t worry about setting your alarm clock – most safari camps and lodges will give you a discreet wake-up call. The day’s activities are normally decided upon over dinner the previous evening. As the sun rises you will head out into the bush with your guide on a game drive or walk. A game drive normally lasts for around 3 to 4 hours. The time depends on what is encountered along the way. Around halfway through, you will usually stop, normally in a scenic
Location, for a cup of tea under the shade of a tree.
Sometimes breakfast will be skipped, in favour of a delicious ‘brunch in the bush’ halfway through your morning activity. Late morning, as the bush begins to heat up, and wildlife activity begins to slow, you will return to camp for lunch.
After lunch, the afternoon is spent resting, simply because, due to the heat, wildlife activity is very
limited. You may enjoy reading, catching up on your notes, taking a nap, or even taking a cooler of drinks
to view the wildlife from a nearby hide (available at many lodges and camps). Incidentally, you should not expect gourmet food whilst out on safari – in fact do take the opportunity some time to visit one of the camp’s kitchens: you will be amazed at what can be produced using an oven that is basically just a hole in the ground. Having said this, after a day out in the bush on foot, you will probably declare that the meal you receive is amongst the best that you have ever tasted. At around 3.30 p.m. the evening’s activities start.
Afternoon tea is served, usually with a light snack to keep you going until the evening meal. The game
drive starts before sunset providing you with another opportunity to see more game in the daylight. As
the sun begins to set, you will stop for most people’s favourite safari activity, ‘The Sun Downer’. This is
when the game drives pause while you get out and have a drink while watching the always spectacular
African sunset. Favourite drinks include a stiff gin and tonic or a locally produced beer.
Once the sun has gone down and the stars have made their appearance, the game drive turns into a
night drive. The scout who looks out for the animals, has an assistant who shines a powerful light from
left to right looking for the reflection of the animal’s eyes in the torch’s light. The night drive brings the
opportunity to see both purely nocturnal species and also those animals which are harder to spot in the daytime, in particular the elusive leopard.
After the night’s game drive, the evening meal, enjoyed under the night sky, is normally a hive of activity, as guests excitedly compare the day’s game sightings. Normally the evening meal is international in type, rather than authentic East African. The local food is invariably based around what we would call ‘polenta’, i.e. a maize-based concoction, variously called Ugali. This is extremely bland, and very much an acquired taste (which I haven’t yet acquired), although the idea is to complement it with various spices. What I do enjoy – to most people’s amazement – is ‘Matookes’. These are actually Bananas, these are plantains and are served with either meat stew or or chicken wrapped in banana leaves commonly known as Luwombo (Uganda).
It is then time for bed at what would seem a ridiculously early hour, were it not for the fact that you
will be up at 5.00 a.m. again the following morning to start another magical day in East Africa. Warning: your sleep may be disturbed by the sound of lions roaring in the far distance (sometimes even in camp!).
Note that some of the above activities – taking to your feet in the bush, indulging in a sundowner,
and taking a night drive – Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania in particular.
Game viewing from a vehicle is the ‘classic’ safari experience, available at all safari destinations. However even here there are wide variations. , for example, this will always take place in an open topped (sometimes there is a canvas sun canopy) 4×4 Toyota or Land rover vehicle. However it is more likely to take place in a windowed hard top ‘minibus’, sometimes with a raised sun roof. But believe us, there is nothing to compare with game viewing from an open vehicle, seeing a lioness walk alongside you, close enough to touch, with nothing but the open air between you. Now, almost by definition, the game can be difficult to spot while out driving or walking (even very large objects such as elephant or giraffe), simply because they are naturally camouflaged. Often the sharpest-eyed member of the group (after the guide, of course, who can almost see around corners) will spot something that others can’t – not because their eyesight isn’t good enough, but simply because they haven’t ‘locked on’ to the animal against its background. Once you do, you will wonder why you couldn’t spot it before. There are two ways in which the person who has spotted the animal can communicate its whereabouts to others. One is to declare with ever increasing exasperation ‘there, there, under that tree’. The other is to use a description such as ‘at three o’clock about 100 metres away to the left of a small green bush, just to the right of the two tall trees’. One of these methods is considerably more helpful than the other. Unfortunately the guides aren’t always skilled in the latter sort of description. You also need to be careful not to take your eyes off the game. You can be looking at an elephant quite close by (and they aren’t exactly tiny), only to find that it has vanished after briefly looking away.
Zagas Guide’s Tips on Photography
Most people will want to photograph what they see, but do be aware that every second spent taking your photograph is actually a second during which you are not really actually observing the animal itself. The bush isn’t like a zoo: too often you can find yourself trying to get the perfect photograph of an elusive animal such as a leopard, and then realise that you never actually saw what it was doing. Ideally one
member of your party will be an enthusiastic and expert (and digital) photographer, leaving you to just drink in the spectacle. In a following section we will discuss matters such as ‘safari etiquette’ (not as off putting as it sounds), but we should just mention here the necessity to keep your voices low during actual game viewing (your driver will normally come to halt and switch off the engine) – and in particular keep your mobile phone switched off! – in order not to scare the game away.
Zagas Guide’s Tips Let East Africa Come To You
It is easy to become obsessed with taking every game drive opportunity available, so as not to miss anything, although quite often it is the vehicle travelling only half a minute behind you that gets the lion sighting – it’s just pot luck as you racket around the landscape at speed. However sometimes the very best game viewing is obtained by simply sitting still in one place – in a hide or just in camp – letting Africa come to you at its own pace. I very well recall being ill one day, and spending the entire day just sitting outside my hut, with a pair of binoculars, watching the African pageant unfold on the other side of the river, opposite to where I sat. Herd after herd of different antelope made their steady way down to the river to drink – led by one or two outriders, followed by the main herd, and then a few anxious stragglers, until, just before the evening, a leopard came down to drink – the entire day being a truly magical
The walking safari is just about the ultimate African experience (or survivable one, at least), although,
again, is only available in a restricted number of destinations. Often a walking safari will be undertaken
from more remote, and rustic, bush camp, or even using mobile fly-tent camping, travelling from
location to location. In principle you don’t get quite as close to big game as you would in a vehicle (although in practice it can turn out to be just the opposite!), but you also get the opportunity to study things – such as insects, trees, droppings and spoor – that you normally never observe from a vehicle. You can’t walk at night, of course, but secure in your rustic camp you will be very much aware that you are in the heart of the African bush and very close to its inhabitants.
While out walking in the bush there are certain rules and procedures that should be obeyed. You will
always be accompanied by an armed Park scout, who leads. Next in line is the guide, followed by the guests, the rear (usually) being brought up by the tea bearer (who also carries spare water). It is important to walk in line, close up, so that any predator only sees a very long animal that he doesn’t recognise. Frequently the guide will halt the walk to point out something of interest, and you can then all gather around. For this reason, it is good – indeed essential – etiquette to alternate the order of walking periodically so that everybody gets the opportunity to be close to the guide, and can bring his attention to anything that they would like explained. In the event of any potentially dangerous encounter it is the armed scout’s responsibility to deal with the situation (in fact his major role is to make sure that the animal itself doesn’t come to harm, rather than to blast away at it!). The guide’s responsibility is to look after you (aided by the tea bearer behind you), so, as before, you need to obey him unquestioningly.
Zagas Guide’s Tips on Body Language
One of the ‘tricks of the trade’ is to keep an eye on the body language of the armed scout who leads the group. If he is sauntering along with his rifle slung carelessly over one shoulder, then all is well. If he swings
his gun into the ready position, then there is potential danger (if he chambers a round then you’re really in for a ‘moment’). There’s quite a lot more to learn by studying the scout. It’s obviously very important to
approach animals from downwind, and you will often see the scout either kicking up a bit of dust, or letting some trickle though his fingers, in order to check on the current wind direction. He will also keep all of his senses open for unusual animal behaviour, such as antelope in an ‘alert’ posture, indicating the
possible presence of a predator, informative sounds, unusual smells that could indicate the existence of, for example, buffalo, or of a kill nearby, and keep his eye on the sky, looking for vultures, for example, that could again indicate the presence of a kill. A word of warning here – once, on spotting a small numbers of vultures circling in this way, we approached to the locus of their interest, to discover over a hundred of these unlovely creatures feeding on a carcass. Then as one they rose into the air, flew in our direction,
and crapped directly over us. Believe me, if you’re going to get crapped all over, then vultures come very low on the desirability list!
More and more people are choosing to take their honeymoon on safari in East Africa. Perhaps the ideal
Combination is to spend a week relaxing on an idyllic Indian Ocean beach, especially on the Spice Island of
Zanzibar, Ssese Islands of Uganda or on Kenya’s coast Region of Mombasa followed by a week out in the bush.
Many camps have special honeymoon suites available, although early booking is advised to be able to be certain about getting one of these, and they will often lay on one or two special treats for you as well. Out of high season they may also be able to arrange for you to take game drives or walks by yourselves (accompanied by the guide etc of course), rather than having to share with other guests. Partly it’s down to how good is the relationship that your tour operator has with the lodge in question. It is even possible to arrange for the actual wedding to take place out in the bush – perhaps the ultimate such experience, if somewhat expensive for your guests!
Safety on Safari
Just a few more notes on how to survive out in the bush! As we have already stated, the most important rule is to do what the guide tells you, immediately and without question. Out of the three activities that
You will undertake: staying in camp, game viewing by vehicle and walking in the bush, paradoxically it is
Probably during the first of these that you are most at risk (although the actual risk is small). While you
Are in a vehicle the game doesn’t normally see you as people (or as prey), but rather just as part of a noisy
Smelly lump that they’re already familiar with. You could be within touching distance of a lion, but would
be perfectly safe if within the confines of the vehicle (but not leaning out or standing up). Out walking you
will always be in the company of both a guide and an armed Park scout and you can be assured that they
know what to do. However in camp you will often be on your own – for example walking from your hut or to the bar or dining area (although at night you will usually be escorted), and there is always the possibility of encountering an animal that has strayed into camp (the same could apply while out, if you have (after asking permission) gone behind a nearby bush for the obvious reasons). The most likely encounter could be with an elephant – they often stroll into camp, oblivious of whoever else might be there. Hippos can enter too, especially at night, and lions have been known to wander through as well – after all, they think they own the bush! All camps keep a careful look out for this happening, but you never know. But do resist the temptation to go out for your normal early morning or evening jog. It’s not unknown by a long way, crazy though it clearly is.
The main point to realise is that animals have a ‘zone of comfort’ and you are at risk if you inadvertently
invade this zone – they could choose either to fight or to flee. Thus you simply need to look around you on
emerging from your hut or wandering around camp. Hippos are actually the most dangerous animal in
Africa, despite being vegetarians. Basically, they only feel secure in water (but forage on land, at night),
and if you get between them and safety they will go right through you. Therefore – get out of their way – they’re not predators, and won’t follow. If you do come across an elephant in camp just go back into your hut (or the nearest hut) and wait until it is safe to emerge. In the unlikely event of meeting a lion, running is not a good idea, since it will trigger the predation impulse (you can’t run faster than most animals anyway). Thus here the rule is ‘don’t run’ and ‘don’t turn your back’. You just have to present as large an object as possible (thus several people would group together), and stare it down, whilst slowly backing off, still facing the lion. Sometimes they will mock charge (stopping well short), to encourage you to get further away. Great fun! Do not gain the impression from the above that your life will be in constant danger. None of these encounters are at all likely to happen, and the above information is given merely as a precaution, and as a matter of interest. Checking around you in the bush is no different to looking before you cross the road in the UK – a sensible precaution. Obviously animals with cubs in tow, or wounded animals, pose an extra threat though. One final point, though – do shake your shoes before putting them on in the morning!
Whilst we are on the subject of safety, you need to be aware of how to behave if out alone in a city, for
example on the evening before your return flight home. African cities are probably no more dangerous
than big cities anywhere in the world – i.e. they can be quite dangerous if you don’t know what you’re
doing. Thus be streetwise – walk briskly, not alone, keeping to well-lit streets. Avoid going out at night
anyway, and stay alert at all times, keeping your bag safe, avoiding speaking to strangers. You already
know all this – as we say, it’s no different to being out in any strange city anywhere in the world. Outside
the cities and towns, though, it’s usually a quite different story. The rural East African is friendliness itself.
The success of your East African safari probably depends much more on the quality of your guide than on
most of the other factors – accommodation, food, environment and so on – all put together. Ideally your
guide will have been appraised of the level of your knowledge before you set off. There is nothing more
boring than being given Level One comments (‘that is a zebra’), when you’re at a stage of knowledge where you’re ready for much more detailed information (e.g. as to why zebra always look so rounded and well-fed – it’s not actually due to their being well-fed after all). Ideally, too, the camp will have tried to group guests of a similar level of experience, and tried, for example, to avoid mixing keen big game viewers with fanatical birders. Sometimes your driver will also function as your guide: alternatively the guide occupies the seat next to the driver. In either situation the guide will display an unbelievable ability to spot wildlife that you, perched on high with binoculars, cannot. But don’t judge your guide on your day’s ‘animal count’ – unlike with a zoo, you’re the one in a cage – your car – and the wildlife doesn’t appear to order.
So far as responsible tourism – or eco-tourism – is concerned, most of the factors concerned have already been taken into account by us for those guests who book their East African safari through Zagas Explorer.
Hence we at Zagas Explorer are careful only to select those destinations, and in particular individual hotels, camps and lodges, that support environmentally-friendly practices, and ensure that the local community – rather than just some foreign located lodge owner – benefits significantly from their presence. In particular it is important that local staffs – camp staff as well as guides and drivers – are employed, as is common throughout.
There are a number of initiatives that you yourself might think of taking: Learn something about the local culture and traditions in the area of East Africa that you are intending to visit. This could greatly enrich your appreciation of what you see. Being in East Africa isn’t just about game viewing – indeed a visit to a local village, and in particular its school, will almost certainly provide you with memories that may last longer than any game sightings. Most camps and lodges support a local village school, and will be delighted to give you details of their project and to accept any donations that you may wish to make – as everywhere, a basic education is one of the most precious things that a child can be given. Some people may be reluctant to make a cash donation, since they lack confidence that it will reach its intended recipients. However if you can find space in your luggage for such basics as pens, pencils, erasers and pencil sharpeners, educational posters or books of any kind (although the latter are heavy) then these will be gladly accepted. Just leave them with your camp manager.
Respect the wildlife code: respect its privacy: it is their habitat, after all; don’t try to feed any animals; keep as quiet as possible in their presence; don’t remove souvenirs of wildlife origin (e.g. antlers from a discovered carcase), which, in any case, is often an illegal act.
Offset the environmental impact of your trip by coming to an arrangement with one of the several
Carbon-offsetting organisations that exist. We do have to point out, however, that, whatever certain sections of society might claim, the case for man-made global warming, due to carbon emissions, is far from proven, and hence you should not feel under any obligation to do this. The predominant language spoken in most tourist areas in East Africa is English. However you might still consider learning a few words of the local language,
However in Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania, Zanzibar and some part of Uganda Swahili is a common tongue used throughout, and being able to understand and use the following few words and phrases could greatly enrich your experience:
Jambo – Hello
Karibu – Welcome
Kwaheri – Goodbye
Asante (Sana) – Thank you (very much)
Hakuna Matata – No problem!
Ndigo – Yes
Hapana – No
Sawa – OK
Don’t be put off by the title of this section. Some of our guests fear that – being an expensive undertaking at the best of times – they will be surrounded by posh rich people who they won’t get on with. The truth
is far removed from this – we’ve rarely encountered anybody on safari who we didn’t get on with – united
as we all are by a common, and down to earth, love of nature and wildlife. No, by etiquette, we are referring to a number of factors, such as smoking, use of mobile phones and so on, that seemed to us to be suitable for grouping together in this way. Most of this is, of course, common-sense and courtesy.
Thus you should refrain from smoking in camp in the presence of other people (even though it may well be in the open air), and especially whilst out on a game drive, confined within a vehicle with other guests. Unfortunately mobile phone coverage is spreading rapidly across East Africa, even in the heart of otherwise remote game parks. Please don’t even have your mobile phone with you, and definitely not switched on. Game viewing often depends on sneaking up on an animal downwind, very quietly, and even the tone of a received text message, never mind a ring would ruin this, and we ourselves impose the rule that offenders will be expelled from the group and left to find their way home alone on foot through lion infested country . . . . Even to hear a mobile phone in camp would be equally intrusive and offensive in
this type of environment: we ourselves restrict their use to communicating back home at no more than
daily intervals and even then only by means of text messaging. It is equally important not to leave litter (including cigarette butts) – although rarely elsewhere, it is common for your guide or driver to stop to pick up even minor litter such as discarded tissues, in order to protect the pristine quality of the bush. There, that wasn’t too bad, was it?
Most people will want to take photographs of what they see on safari, although we have indicated previously how this can cause you to miss out on observing the actual experience. You don’t need
a super-duper camera, though, to get perfectly reasonable pictures. I myself use a Canon Powershot
G9 digital point and shoot camera, costing around £300, and which is small enough to simply slip into
the pocket of my shorts. The resultant quality of picture doesn’t approach that of the professional photographer, with his tripod, interchangeable zoom lenses and so on, but it’s perfectly adequate. An SLR
camera, on the other hand, does allow you to change lenses from wide angle to telephoto. Whatever type
of camera you choose to take on safari, it is essential to have a good working knowledge of it. If you have invested in some new kit to take with you to Africa then try to spend an afternoon or two before you travel experimenting with your camera and familiarising yourself with its controls and settings. You really won’t have time once you get out there.
Travel is tough on photo equipment, so do invest in a good camera bag. You should also get a secure neck or shoulder strap that you keep attached to your camera at all times – even if it is in its case or your pocket, just in case you need to free your hands (or if you drop it!). Keeping a camera clean in a dusty environment is impossible, so bring a good blower and brush, and clean it every night. Batteries are impossible to find in the bush so travel with spares. If you use rechargeable batteries, bring an extra two sets as some camps do not have charging facilities. Bearing in mind the flight weight restrictions, lugging along a decent tripod could pose problems: consider a monopod instead. Many camps will also be able to lend you a beanbag. Polarizing filters can be one of the most useful accessories you can own. They can increase colour contrast saturation, remove reflection and darken blue skies. The down-side is they absorb light by about 1 1/3 stops.
Check which type your camera uses before you buy a polarizing filter: manual focus cameras use a linear polarizer; most auto focus cameras use a Circular polarizer.
Digital or Film?
The answer to this question is usually down to the user’s history with cameras and their enjoyment, or lack thereof, of working with computers. Most photographers have switched to digital photography but some still prefer the traditional methods. Digital photography does offer many benefits over traditional film, but particularly relevant in the safari environment is the ability to take as many shots as possible in order to get
that one perfect image, much as the professional photographer, willing to shoot off hundreds of rolls of film, achieved in the past.
For digital users, the plethora of image-manipulation software available makes creating the perfect
photo that little bit easier, particularly with regard to framing, composition and colour-balance. The
one thing this software cannot rectify is incorrect focussing and/or image blur, so do make sure you are
familiar with the focus settings of your camera (even ‘point and click’ cameras will have varying focussing
techniques). Image blur can be reduced through the use of a camera with ‘image stabilisation’ software or
the use of a ‘vibration reduction’-equipped lens with an SLR camera. In addition, try not to take photos
while on the move, or even from within a stationary, but idling, vehicle (don’t be afraid to ask your guide to fully stop the vehicle if you see something of interest, even if you are sharing the vehicle with other travellers).
But do make sure you have enough film/memory. This is the golden rule – and in general if you think you have enough go back to the shop and order twice as much and you should be OK. Even with a digital camera where you can go back, review and delete unwanted pictures you will probably find yourself using more memory than you expect, and less time for reviewing your photos than you expect (it’s amazing how an afternoon previously scheduled for sorting photos can slip by as genuine siesta-time in the heat of the African sun after a 5.00 a.m. wakeup call that morning!)
Digital users should make sure they know what size and quality photos they are taking, as some cameras have so many pixels that each photo can take up several Mbs of memory. An average snapper could take anywhere between 100 and 500 photos per day, so budget your available memory accordingly. Possibly download onto your laptop (if, like me, you can’t travel without it), but back up onto a memory stick as well. Fortunately the best time to take interesting photos tends to coincide with the typical game-drive times, i.e. early morning and late evening, but do keep the sun behind you to avoid shadows. Low-level sun tends to create more depth and more richness in wildlife and landscape photography, so get as many shots as you can during these times of day.
A final warning though: do ask permission before photographing local people – and do not try to
photograph military installations or personnel
Souvenirs: Many camps will have their own souvenir shops where you can buy carvings, textiles etc. It is also possible to buy these at major international airports. but it would be nice to believe that the profits benefit the local economy in some way (rather than just the shop’s owner). Ideally though you should avoid products made from endangered animals and plants, hard woods or ancient artefacts
(which may be stolen, or fake anyway).
Tips: There is no obligation to tip, although it will be appreciated. As a rough guide, $1 to an airport porter
would be more than adequate. Your individual guide in camp should probably be given $10-20 per day at
the end of your stay (perhaps more, if yours is a large group); your driver (if separate) perhaps half of this,
while the camp staff generally might be given $5-15 per head (your group’s head count, not the camp’s
staff), distributed by the camp host or manager. As an alternative to cash, donating items of clothing
that you don’t particularly wish to cart back with you – t-shirts, shirts, shorts, caps – will be appreciated,
especially way out in the bush where such items are not easy to come by.
Most camps and lodges will have anelectricity supply (hence enabling you to chargecamera batteries and so on), although it may begenerator-supplied, and available only from themorning until bedtime (and therefore you needtorches or oil lanterns at night). More remote bushcamps may not have electricity on tap at all. Henceit is a good idea to keep everything fully chargedwhenever you get the opportunity. Electricity socketsare normal UK 3-pin type, supplied at 220V.
There are some terrible jokes (and one or two good ones) associated with going on safari. Here is a brief
Q: Which side of a cheetah has the most spots?
A: The outside, of course
Q: How do you tell the difference between male and female zebra?
A: In the male the stripes are black, whereas in the female they’re white (or is it the other way around –must check next time I go)
Q: Why can’t you get painkillers in the jungle?
A: Because the parrots eat them all (Paracetamol)
Q: Why do flamingos stand on one leg?
A: Because otherwise they’d fall over.
The Big Five
This collective name is generally held to include the lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhinoceros.
Although some purist guides will turn their noses up at people’s desire to bag these sightings above
all else, they are nevertheless among the most interesting and exciting, each in their very different ways. But do please aim to enjoy all the wildlife that you encounter – from insects, through plants and trees, to small and large reptiles, mammals and birds.
The ‘King of the Beasts’ and only gregarious big cat, the lion is probably at the head of most people’s ‘must see’ list.
A lion pride will be headed up by a dominant male, five to nine years old (sometimes a coalition consisting of a couple of brothers), who will have sole rights over all the females until a stronger male comes along to replace him. The new male will then kill any existing young cubs, not wanting to expend resources on someone else’s genes, a procedure which also serves to bring the deprived females back into heat, enabling the new boss to start his new dynasty as soon as possible. However the lionesses, being female, often have the measure of him here, sometimes delaying conception for several months (‘pseudo-oestrus’) to ensure that he is indeed strong enough to hold on to the pride (or they risk their cubs being killed again).
1) You will often be told that lions cannot spot you within a vehicle, seeing only a noisy, smelly lump of metal. Hence it is quite safe to park up very close, just so long as you don’t lean out. It is also well known
that cat cannot hold your gaze for long.
2) When they mate, lions will couple for less than a minute at a time, but at regular 15 minute or so
Intervals for up to 48 hours, oblivious to all else. It has been explained to us on numerous occasions
that this is due to their very low sperm count, which necessitates such multiple mating. On repeating
this explanation to one guest she replied ‘Isn’t that perhaps why they have such a low sperm count?’
3) A lion’s roar can be heard up to 8 km away, and there is nothing more exciting than trying to sleep
at night listening to such a roar getting louder and louder, until (sometimes) it is taking place within the
camp limits themselves. Don’t go out to take a look, though.
4) Usually the males leave the actual hunting and kill to the females, who will combine together to hunt
Cooperatively, only for the male to then muscle in to take the first choice for himself. Nothing new there then.
5) Their whisker pattern – number, size and position – is unique to each individual, and hence is used for
6) One last point is the issue of man eaters. Once lion have killed and eaten humans, they quickly develop
a taste for us. We are far easier to hunt and catch and are far tenderer, without tough skin or hair. Thus
lions that have eaten humans generally have to be destroyed.
The most elusive, and most beautiful of all the big cats, the leopard leads a primarily solitary existence,
unless with cubs. Although it is traditionally anticipated that most sightings take place at night, when it is out hunting, we have actually seen just as many during the daytime. In fact, due to its broad habitat tolerance it is probably the most widespread of all predators, although at the same time one of the most elusive.
1) The leopard will often try to hoist its kill up into a tree, out of reach of other predators, being able
to manoeuvre remarkable weights in this way, due to its powerful neck muscles. In fact, kilogram for
kilogram, they are about seven times more powerful than humans (with hearing five times better as well).
2) The leopard’s traditional ‘spots’ are actually principally made up of dark rosettes.
3) The leopard’s sound is best described as being like a coarse ripsaw tearing into a piece of softwood.
Once, on a walking safari, our tea-bearer, bringing up the rear, somewhat unnervingly had a bad cough
that replicated this sound exactly.
4) For some reason, leopards hate dogs, and will single them out especially if they visit a native village.
Zagas Guide’s Tips Eye Contact
If you are unlucky enough to come face to face with one of these big cats, without help at hand, then this survival tip could be vital. Lions are basically ‘cowardly-cats’, and therefore you should simply try to stare
them down, until they back off. However this strategy could be fatal with a leopard, since eye contact like this is taken as a challenge, and could provoke an attack.
The largest living land mammals (although, interestingly, the only one that cannot jump!), the African elephant can be distinguished from the Indian elephant by the shape of its ears – roughly that of Africa itself, whereas the Indian elephant’s ears more resemble that of India (God moves in many mysterious ways). Largely recovering from the debilitating effects of ivory poaching, elephants are actually starting to become a nuisance in many parts of Africa, since the damage that they do their environment during feeding is considerable. Males will often try to scare off intruders into their personal space by means of mock charges, ears flapping wide, trunks lifted, and ear-splitting trumpeting taking place. In this
situation the advice given is to clap your hands loudly and back off. A real charge takes place in silence,
with ears pinned back and the trunk lowered. The advice given here is just to pray. In fact the elephant,
if encountered unexpectedly close up in camp, and the hippo, if encountered in water in a canoe or small
boat, are the only African species that I personally really fear.
1) A male elephant’s fully erect penis is between one and two metres long, and weighs in at 27kg, the entire genitals achieving a staggering 50kg. The average ejaculate is around 10 litres. [As an aside the elephant does not qualify for the most well endowed male in proportion to body size. This honour belongs
to a species of fly in the class Insecta, who is endowed with a reproductive organ in excess of two and a half times his body length when extended].
2) During each 24 hour period they will ingest 250 kg of food, defecating around 100 kgs of dung, together
with emitting (and if you’re one of those people who worry about climate change, then this one is for you)
2000 litres of methane gas.
3) An elephant’s trunk has approximately 40,000 muscles in it, whereas the entire human body only has 640.
4) You can tell the shoulder height of an elephant by measuring the circumference of its front footprint,
and then doubling this figure.
5) When feeling romantic, the male (said to be in state of ‘musth’) continually drips a secretion from its
temporal glands. However what is rarely realized is that females can also do the same.
6) Among the indigenous people, elephants are believed to swallow a pebble every year, so as to keep a count of their age.
Nomadic grazers, travelling in large herds, buffalo are notoriously bad-tempered – possibly because
they are regarded by lions as the tastiest meal on the menu. Old males, detached from the herd, living a
solitary existence (and known as ‘kakuli’) are probably the most dangerous, since their failing eyesight and
hearing makes them feel especially vulnerable. You will often come across large open areas, liberally
strewn with buffalo droppings, where they have recently bivouacked overnight. While not closely
related, buffalo look remarkably similar to domestic cattle but are generally black in colour. Nor is the
African, or Cape, buffalo closely related to either the North American bison or the Asian water buffalo.
1) The male buffalo stands around 6 feet tall at the shoulder and his enormous backward-curving,
crescent-shaped horns stretch close to 5 feet long.
2) It can run at up to 40 mph.
3) Buffalo live in herds for protection against predators, often ganging up to attack and chase
off marauding lions. In this way even blind or lame individuals can survive within the protection of the herd.
4) Apart from this, they’re actually not all that interesting. A bit bovine, really.
Possibly the member of the ‘Big Five’ least likely to be encountered – it has been poached to near oblivion
in many game reserves, and indeed countries – it actually comes in two varieties. The smaller of the two, the Black Rhino, is a browser, recognisable by its pointed, prehensile upper lip. The White Rhino, on the other hand, isn’t actually white at all – its name is a corruption of the word ‘wide’ (‘wijd’ in Afrikaans), referring to the shape of its upper lip, more suitable for grazing (browsers feed from trees and bushes; grazers from grass).
1) The ponderous-looking rhino can actually run at up to 40 mph and turn 180 degrees in a distance
equal to its body length. No point in trying to outrun one, but their eyesight isn’t that brilliant, so the
advice given if charged is to zig-zag!
2) The white rhino is calm and quiet, but the black rhino is many times more aggressive, and will charge
with little or no provocation.
3) In the case of the white rhino, the calf always walks in front of the mother. With the black rhino it’s
the other way around. Then there is the ‘walking safari’ equivalent of the ‘Big Five’:
The Little Five
These are the small-species patronymic equivalents of the ‘Big Five’, namely the ant-lion, leopard tortoise,
elephant shrew, buffalo weaver bird and rhinoceros beetle.
So described because of its ferocious attitude to those ants that stray within its reach, this insect is
Actually the larval form of the lacewing insect, in which forms it can remain for up to three years. It
constructs a conical pit in the sand, and then hides in its bottom, just below the surface. If an ant even so much as strays onto the inner surface of this pit, the ant-lion throws up a spray of sand that tumbles the ant down into its grasp.
Zagas Guide’s Tips The Bush Magnifying Glass
If you come across such an ant-lion pit, dig down with your fingers, or a spoon, to extract its owner into the palm of your hand. It is very small, much less than the size of your little finger nail, but there is a useful, although little-known, trick that provides you with a ‘bush magnifying glass’. Simply reverse your
binoculars, holding the eyepiece close to the ant-lion, looking down the end that normally faces outwards. Using this stratagem you can observe the truly fearsome jaws that this diminutive creature possesses.
Just a tortoise really, that you may come across on a walking safari. It gets its name from the black
and yellow colouring of its carapace, somewhat resembling that of the leopard itself, and making it
equally hard to spot
So named because of its very long, trunk-like nose, this diminutive creature, is often to be seen scuttling off to one side of your vehicle at night, following well-marked pathways that enable it to travel more silently. It has been shown to be quite closely related to the group of African mammals that includes elephants themselves (and indeed it has the same number of bones in total, and the same toe configuration, as the elephant – four toes on the front feet, and five on the back).
However, since it isn’t actually a shrew at all, some people are attempting to get its name changed to the ‘Sengi’. However it isn’t actually an elephant either and we think that it would be a great shame
To break up the fun concept of ‘The Little Five’.
Buffalo Weaver Bird
This comes in two varieties – the black, and the white-headed, buffalo weaver. You may not see the
bird itself, but its nests are everywhere, made out of an untidy-looking heap of thorny twigs. Weaver
birds avoid predators in very specific ways when it comes to the construction of their nests: firstly, they
have two entrances allowing the birds to escape through the back door when a predator arrives on
the scene; secondly, by building several nests in the same location, the chance of the predator finding
the correct nest is reduced; finally the dilapidated appearances of the nests often persuades predators
that they are no longer in use and therefore aren’t worth a second glance.
Just a large black beetle really, part of the scarab family, getting its name from the horns that adorn
the male’s head and its shiny, black armour. The Rhinoceros Beetle is also reckoned to be one of the
strongest animals on the planet because it is able to lift 850 times its own body weight. If a human tried
to do the same thing, he would be able to lift 65 tons – the equivalent of 75 average sized family cars!
The Green Five
These are the plant world’s equivalents of the ‘Big Five’.
(Lion’s Tail or Lion’s Ear)
Often you will see a collection ofdried stalks in camp, for decorative purposes, as well as out in the bush. There are a number of varietiesof this overall species, the dried leaves of some of which are sometimes smoked in East Africa as a form ofcannabis, or ‘wild dagga’.
So named due to its characteristic markings, this beautiful and fragrant plant is somewhat difficult to
spot, occupying as it often does, the top branches of trees, especially the mopane tree.
A type of long grass. Needing little fertiliser to produce very high yields when deliberately cultivated, a
recent suggestion is that it could be used to mitigate the effects of global warming by utilising it as a
This plant has curved hooked thorns that give it its alternative name of the ‘Waitabit’, for reasons that
will become obvious if you are ever snagged by one of these!
Just a thistle really, but with no obvious connection to the rhinoceros that we are aware of. ‘Collections’, such as the big, little and green five aside, we now need to consider a selection of other mammals, birds, reptiles and insects, together with trees and other plants. Space prohibits quite as extensive a description as the above, however. Let us start with some of the remaining ‘big game’, that is the hippopotamus, giraffe and zebra.
Other ‘Big Game’
(From the Greek for ‘River Horse’)
Known as the most dangerous animal in Africa (i.e. responsible for the most deaths, although the
malarial mosquito, of course, well outstrips it in this respect), hippopotami live in well-defined territorial
groups led by one dominant bull, although such bulls are continuously fighting for dominance, the
losers being banished from the group. In the dry season, some stretches of river can become vastly
overcrowded. Hippos are purely grazers, coming out at night, sometimes hauling themselves up
extraordinarily high river banks, on well-defined ‘hippo elevators’, to range for miles in search of food,
Consuming up to 40 kg, before returning to the water at dawn.
1) Male hippos may be identified both in the water and on land as they assert their dominance by vigorous ‘muck spreading’, disseminating their dung by means of a rapidly flicking tail.
2) Their loud ‘wheeze-honk-honk-honk’ call, is usually echoed, first within the group, and then by other groups further along the river, in an extremely noisy ‘chorus chain’, possibly as a way of defining the location and strength of their territory.
3) Although strictly herbivores (although there are one or two indications to the contrary), hippos possess a set of fearsome, razor-sharp, canines, which are purely used for fighting, preceded by a ‘yawning’ display designed to intimidate aggressors.
4) They have a ‘T’ shaped pupil, which allows them to see above and below water at the same time, and
can stay under water for up to five minutes at a time.
5) Although they are actually too heavy to swim, they navigate under water by walking on, and pushing off
against, the bottom of the river (rather like ‘punting’).
6) Although hippos were originally classified with pigs and peccaries, recent DNA analysis indicates
that they are more closely related to whales. Gosh – we never realised that hippos were so interesting!
The world’s tallest living mammal, the giraffe comes in several different sub-species. And the current recognised nine (sub) species of giraffe are:
On describing this difference in the horns as the easy way of distinguishing between the sexes, one
(lady) guest remarked that there was a more obvious way to tell. True – hadn’t thought of that: you can
sometimes try to be too clever.
1) Despite their long necks, these only contain seven vertebrae (the same as human beings), which,
combined with their long legs, makes drinking quite an art-form. They also give birth standing up.
The baby falls from a height of six feet and usually without being hurt.
2) Unusually, but in common with the camel, when they walk, both legs on one side of the body move
forward at the same time.
3) They can actually clean inside their ears, using their 18-inch long tongue.
Living in small family groups, with the male keeping a careful eye over his family all the time, zebra usually
give the impression of being really plump and wellfed even at times of drought. This is actually a false
impression, and due to the build-up of methane gas as a product of its digestive system. The true test of
health is whether its mane stands up, or droops. The most common member of the family is the Plains (or
Burchell’s) Zebra, with other sub-species distributed throughout Africa, such as Crawshay’s Zebra, found
in Zambia’s South Luangwa (South Luangwa is almost like ‘the valley that time forgot’, containing
as it does a whole range of sub species of various animals, unique to this location).
1) Each zebra’s stripe pattern is unique, rather like our own fingerprints. In Zambia the pattern of stripes
consists of alternating black and white, although elsewhere in Africa there can be a faint shadow stripe
in the centre of the white areas.
2) Zebras are often found associated with other grazers, such as wildebeest. Partly this is because
this provides more eyes and ears, to keep watch for predators, and partly because zebra can open up
grassland by feeding on old, tough grasses, leaving more selective grazers to get at the young and
tender shoots that then emerge, and which thus follow close behind them.
3) Sometimes, whilst fighting for dominance, a Zebra stallion will lie still on the ground as if he has
surrendered but once the other male lets up the stallion will strike and continue the fight.
Antelope and Gazelles
Probably the largest group of mammals to be encountered is that of the antelope or gazelles.
Please don’t ask us what the difference is between an antelope and a gazelle. Most guides whom we’ve
enquired of actually haven’t known, whilst those who did have provided as many different explanations as
there are such respondents. Incidentally, antelopes only see in black and white, which makes it difficult for them to see predators unless the predator is moving. For this reason they often move around with troops of baboons since baboons have better eye sight and colour vision and are able to spot predators before the antelopes can, and sound the alarm.
Probably the most commonly encountered, notable by their reddish-brown upper body, and white
Underneath. Their most memorable feature is probably the characteristic black Macdonald’s ‘M’
marking on their rumps (remember as ‘m’ for ‘iMpala’). Impala are noted for making prodigious leaps up to 8 feet high – often over bushes and even other impala. This behaviour is known variously as ‘pronking’ or
‘stotting’ and, of the several theories behind it, one is that it visually disrupts a predator’s chase sequence;
another is that it demonstrates how fit the animal is, and hence not worth chasing. In the mating season
males will often go for days without eating as they protect their harem from competitors, emitting loud
grunting sounds, until sheer exhaustion causes them to yield (or be eaten by predators).
Much less well distributed throughout Africa, and almost equally with the impala, and often confused with the latter. Puku are grazers (while impala are also browsers) and lack the two-tone colouring and ‘M’ marking on the rump.
Similarly sized to impala, but have a rich chestnut coloured coat adorned with a characteristic series
of white stripes and spots. Bushbucks are much more shy, solitary and elusive. Unusually, the female
Bushbuck will eat the dung of her young to avoid the scent attracting predators.
The Common Waterbuck is a somewhat larger antelope, grey in colour, and distinguished by its
circle of white on its rump, rather suggesting that it has sat down on a newly-painted toilet seat.
This probably serves as a following mechanism, each animal following the signal of that in front. In
contrast, the Defassa Waterbuck has a solid such white area on the rump. The waterbuck has a gland
at the base of its tail which secretes a thick oily black smelly liquid which acts as its own insect repellent
especially for combating tsetse flies – who will die on contact with the liquid. This is also the reason
why lions are reputed to not particularly like to eat waterbuck: they don’t taste good! However recent
research has cast doubt on this.
One of the largest antelope is the (Greater) Kudu, with its distinctive stripes which develope their full
number of ten over the animal’s first year of life. It was described by the 19th-century hunter, Frederick
Selous, as ‘perhaps the handsomest antelope in the world’ (didn’t stop him shooting it, though). Its horns
possess a very characteristic twist, from which the animal’s age can be deduced (each turn takes two
years to develop). Since the horns are hollow, they can be used as musical instruments, and also to store
honey. In some parts of Africa they are also thought to house evil spirits.
Largest of all is the elusive Eland, with its characteristic neck hump and dewlap. When walking, tendon or
joints in the eland’s foreleg produce a sharp clicking sound, the cause of which has not been widely
investigated. The sound carries some distance and is a good indication of an approaching herd.
Some scientists, though, believe it may be a form of communication – if a male is walking through
his territory, the clicking which can be heard for up to a mile away, may alert another eland about this
territory. Surprisingly, and despite their large size, they are quite capable of jumping over a 6 foot fence. They are extremely shy, however, and it’s rare to get within quarter of a mile of them.
Less commonly encountered antelope are Roan, Sable, Lechwe, Reedbuck, Grysbok, Duiker, Dik-
Dik, Tsessebe and Lichtenstein’s Hartebeest (with its characteristic white rump, strongly resembling
The jodhpurs. Amongst Gazelles, both the Thompson’s and Grant’s varieties are commonly found in Eastern Africa – Kenya and Tanzania.
The Wildebeest perhaps also deserves a paragraph of its own, being the centrepiece of the celebrated
wildebeest migration that endlessly circles around Northern Tanzania and Southern Kenya, following
the rains in search of new grass.
Other Mammals and Reptiles
Other mammals include primates such as the vervet monkey and baboon, carnivores such as
the cheetah, serval, hyena, jackal and wild dog, the warthog, largely nocturnal creatures such as genets,
civets, and porcupine, and water-dwelling creatures (reptiles), such as crocodile and the monitor lizard.
Its alarm call varies greatly depending on the different type of threat to the community. Thus they
will use distinct calls to warn of invading leopards, snakes and eagles. Their constant grooming of each
other is also a way of building bonds and alliances between individuals, and reinforcing hierarchies.
The higher the angle that Yellow Baboons hold their tails the more important they are in the troop. Hence
it is relatively easy to pick out the dominant males. At night they will congregate in the branches of trees
for safety, the boss baboons making their way there last of all, confident that they will be able to turf off
their lesser brethren who made the mistake of trying to bag the best spots early for themselves.
The cheetah is the fastest land mammal, reaching speeds of up to 60 mph, its claws, atypically, being
largely non-retractile, giving the cheetah maximum grip when on a chase. Their extra-long tail acts as a
rudder during high speed chases, enabling them to match the jinks and turns of their prey. Their cry is
quite different from that of the lion or leopard, being more of a bird-like chirp or whistle.
These are medium sized cats with extremely long legs, and huge ears that they use for pinpointing
the location of their prey – small rodents and birds – before leaping high in the air to come down on such
with both front feet together. Usually seen (although with difficulty) in tall grasslands. When once given
the opportunity to stroke (a tame) one, I found to my surprise that they purr just like a domestic cat.
Within a Spotted Hyena clan, all females are dominant over all males, being larger and more aggressive
than the males. Then there is also a definite linear hierarchy within this female society – females remain
in the clan throughout their lives and daughters inherit their mother’s rank. Males, on the other hand, disperse at about 18 months of age and join a new clan. They are both scavengers and predators. Their droppings are white, like chalk (and are sometimes known as ‘missionary chalk’), because of the high calcium content of the bones that they consume – nothing is wasted.
Black-backed or side-striped. Quite elusive to spot. Jackals mate for life and often forage together, or
return to share food if foraging singly.
One of Africa’s most endangered species, with only some 4000 individuals said to remain in the whole of
the continent. Their favourite prey is antelope, which they will run down for hours. Not particularly shy,
there are several accounts of impala being ripped to pieces in camp itself – an event of somewhat mixed
satisfaction to those in camp at the time. They will swallow whole pieces of meat, which, on their return
to their den, will be regurgitated for the pups who have stayed behind. Each animal’s marking are unique.
Its facial warts are actually composed of hard skin and dense underlying tissues, it being thought that
their purpose is to protect the jaw and eyes when fighting. The males have two pairs of such warts;
the females only one pair. Unusually, it kneels down when grubbing about on the ground.
The female warthogs only have four teats, so litter sizes usually are confined to just four young. Each
piglet then has its “own” teat and suckles exclusively from it. A family of young warthog rushing around is
a bizarre sight, their tails held rigidly vertical, looking for all the world like radio-controlled robots.
Again often wrongly referred to as the civet cat, this ground-living close relative to the genet seems to
thrive on unpleasant tasting or even toxic creatures such as millipedes or toads, or even poisonous
snakes. Their diet also includes a variety of fruits and so on, and their droppings, often collected together in a civet ‘midden’ are a very characteristic mixture of these diverse elements of their diet. The perineal gland of the African civet also produces an oily secretion called “civet” that has been used in the perfume industry for many years.
These protect themselves, not by shooting their quills at adversaries, as is sometimes thought, but by
charging backwards to ram them, leaving their 40cm long quills embedded in their enemy. It doesn’t
always save them – we once came across some lion droppings with a porcupine quill embedded therein
– ouch! Incidentally, do you know how porcupines have sex? The answer is ‘very carefully’.
This is the only species of terrestrial predator that considers man to be part of its normal diet. Thus a
crocodile will actively hunt you in order to eat you. Their speciality is to hide under water, close to the
river bank, sometimes waiting days before they pounce, slowing their heart down to as little as one
beat per minute, thereby conserving oxygen and allowing them to stay submerged for much longer.
Hence I always tend to keep a fair distance from the edge of rivers while out walking. In fact I once
saw one launch itself for more than its own length there are several varieties, slender, dwarf, whitetailed,
banded, all of which can readily be spotted on night drives, as well as during the day.
The Honey Badger, or Ratel, almost deserves a section all to itself. Sometimes known as the ‘panzer’
of the bush, it is the toughest and roughest creature around, believed to have even attacked lions. Known
to tear the tyres off vehicles (and, it is rumoured, the groins out of men who it catches out in the open air)
it can hold its own against virtually any other species. It’s only the same size as a domestic badger, and
also tends to habit the area around camp kitchens scavenging for scraps. Watching a group of otherwise fearless young men approaching for a viewing, cupping their hands desperately around their most precious parts is one of Africa’s finest sights.
The rock hyrax, or dassie, isn’t all that prepossessing, being a small dog-sized rodent, but can you guess
which other animal it is most related to? Go on – try! Give up? It’s the elephant!
Forgive us if we don’t spend too much time on the insects, although the most interesting is probably the
ubiquitous termite, whose presence is revealed by its well-known ‘mounds’, reaching up to 6 metres high,
and which may contain up to a million inhabitants. A series of tunnels and shafts threading throughout
the mound create a most effective cooling system. In fact the longest living insects are Queen Termites.
Some have been known to lay eggs for up to 50 years and may live even longer and, bearing in mind she
can lay 30,000 eggs a day and the number of workers and soldiers in her colony can exceed 6 million, this is one helluvan empire. We’ve already waxed eloquently on the tsetse fly and mosquito elsewhere.
The other major category of viewing – in fact the most numerous – is that of birds. Again we have
to ask forgiveness for not giving this category the importance that some people – devout ‘twitchers’
in particular – would feel that it deserves. The author is notorious for his plebeian attitude of only
knowing two species of UK birds (‘one is the sparrow, while the other one isn’t’), but, during many years
spent travelling throughout Africa he has actually developed the ability to identify some couple of
dozen of the hundreds of species – many migratory – that can be seen here. To some extent this is
facilitated by the great variety in size, colour an plumage of the species found. In alphabetical order, for once, some very distinct species of bird that you might expect to see are:
Bats (OK, they’re not birds, but they fly). Often to be seen in the rafters of large structures within camp,
such as your room. However, contrary to popular opinion, they will not get entangled in your hair, or
suck your blood!
Cape Turtle Dove
Cape Turtle Dove (you may not actually see this to recognise it, but you will hear its characteristic call,
which (during the day at least) sounds remarkably like ‘work harder, work harder’ (at night it changes
subtly to ‘drink lager’).
Pictured here is the Southern Carmine Bee-eater, one of Africa’s most brilliantly coloured birds. A migratory
Species it arrives in Africa from September onwards, making its nest in 2-3 metre deep holes drilled into
sandy river banks.
Grey Crowned Crane
The Grey Crowned Crane, shown here, has a notable breeding display involving dancing, bowing, and jumping.
Egret – both the Cattle Egret and the Great White Egret, shown here, are varieties of heron.
Egyptian Goose – related to the shelduck, and largely found in the Nile Valley.
Lesser Flamingo – classically seen, as here, in Kenya’s Lake Nakuru.
A distinctively coloured and large variety of the species.
Grey Heron – much more common, if less distinctive.
Colourful ground-living birds, whose young look distinctly like prehistoric reptile-birds.
Helmeted Guinea Fowl
Usually to be observed scattering along on the ground alongside your game-viewing vehicle as you
Possessing the characteristic curved ibis beak, this bird can drive you crazy with its raucous ‘Hadada’ cry.
Its name means ‘hammer head’ in Afrikaans, for reasons that are immediately obvious.
A honey-loving bird that is unable to break open a bees’ nest on its own. Hence it is reputed to fly ahead
of a human being, making its characteristic call, leading him to such a nest. The deal is that, having been shown where it is located, he breaks it open and helps himself, but leaves some for the honey guide as well. If he is too greedy to share, then local legend has it that next time he will be led into a pride of lions!
Lilac Breasted Roller
One of the more delicately beautiful of Africa’s birds, the final part of its name originating in the peculiar
‘roll’ that it executes in flight.
A scavenger, like the vulture, with which it competes.
Not observed everywhere, but the largest of all Africa’s birds, by far.
Several slightly different species exist, servicing buffalo, hippo, giraffe and antelope. You will undoubtedly be told that they benefit the animal by divesting them of ticks and other insects, but recent research suggests that they instead spend most of their time picking at wounds and reopening scabs.
Seen in huge flocks that erupt as one and wheel dramatically through the air.
Depicted on ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics more than 5000 years ago, the Sacred Ibis again displays
the instantly recognisable ibis beak-shape, combined with a distinctive black and white body.
Very recognisable. The sexes can be distinguished by the fact that the female’s eye has a red centre, while
the male’s is all black (remembered by the story that he commented unfavourably once when she applied
red make-up around her eyes, and she gave him a black eye!)
Represented by half a dozen different species (here the white-backed variety), these are often to be seen
congregating together on a carcass. Their incredible eyesight enables them to spot a carcass from many miles away, flying at a height of over 30,000 feet. The absence of plumage around their head and upper neck enables them more easily to plunge deep into messy carcasses
These hunt by touch, wading slowly in shallow water, stirring up the muddy bottom, snapping up anything that touches their sensitive beak. Finally, we originally had difficulty in identifying this bird, bizarrely photographed in a sitting, or ‘reverse-kneeling’, position, but which has since been identified for us as a juvenile black-winged stilt. bush – not surprisingly perhaps, since their active ingredients are simply the same as those found in proprietary medicines.
Among trees, the mopane tree is very commonly encountered, its wood being famed for its slow burning properties, and hence extensively used for camp fires. Perhaps one of the strangest looking trees is the
sausage tree, with its pendulous marrow-shaped fruit. These weigh a ton, but, for some reason, the
sausage tree is often chosen to park under at teatime. If one of these fruit fell on your head you probably wouldn’t wake up with a headache (you wouldn’t wake up at all). Cut open, these fruit can be used to counteract insect bites, and are used for a number of other skin complaints, and may even be useful in combating some skin cancers. Combine the sausage tree with breadfruit and the ‘scrambled egg’
plant, and you’ve got a full English breakfast. Second only in its bizarre appearance to the sausage
tree is the baobab, or ‘upside down tree’. This tree can grow to an age of many hundreds of years, and
it is said that you can estimate its age by measuring its circumference: one formula states that one metre
equates to one hundred years, although other versions differ. It attains a mythical significance
among many native Africans,
Groups of animals each have their own distinctive collective term, rather than simply the ubiquitous
‘herd’ Sometimes alternative, and more descriptive, terms have been put forward, and, although you
are unlikely in practice to find these in actual usage,
some – for example ‘a dazzle of zebra’ or ‘a crash of rhino’ – are wonderfully evocative.
Antelope: a herd (yes, I know – boring)
Baboon: a troop, tribe, flange
Bats: a colony
Buffalo: a herd, troop, obstinacy
Cheetah: a coalition
Crocodile: a nest, congregation, float, bask
Elephant: a herd
Giraffe: a herd, corps, group, tower, dither
Hippo: a pod, bloat, school, huddle
Hyena: a clan, cackle
Jackal: a skulk
Leopard: these don’t usually group together, but the
term ‘a leap’ is sometimes used
Lion: a pride, sault, sowse
Mongooses: a business, although in the case of the
banded mongoose we prefer ‘a band’ .
Mosquito: a scourge
Porcupine: a prickle
Rhino: a herd, crash, stubbornness
Stork: a mustering
Vervet Monkey: a troop, tribe, shrewdness
Warthog: a clan
Wild Dog: a pack
Wildebeest: a herd, implausibility
Zebra: a herd, dazzle, cohort, crossing (?)
We realise that these aren’t African species, but
couldn’t resist sharing with you:
Tiger: an ambush
Be warned though, although these books provide
either ideal reading before you go, or a fascinating