A safari trip is considered by many travelers to be the ultimate ‘bucket list’ trip, the experience of a lifetime, and with a little research it can be.
The centerpiece of most safari trips is viewing and photographing wild animals in their natural habitats, and many tour operators are happy to oblige, driving their guests into the national reserves and locating watering holes where animals can be viewed from open trucks.
Accommodations on an African safari can range from simple tents to more luxurious tented camps with en-suite bathrooms.
If you’re considering an African safari for your next trip, you’ll want to think carefully about the risks posed by this particular trip, just as you would any trip.
1. Choose the Region and Season for your African Safari
First-time safari-goers often choose the popular game parks located in Kenya and Tanzania, the two largest regions of Africa. The most famous game park in Kenya is the Masai Mara National Reserve, which is also the northern extension of the most popular in Tanzania is the Serengeti. Together, these parks are home to some of the grandest and most complete collections of large wild animals that make Africa famous.
Many safari-goers are steered plan their trips in the winter months because they are drier and water holes where they are more like to spot game are smaller and farther between. The end result is that more animals come to the same watering holes to drink, but on the flipside, the landscape is also dry and less colorful. The best time of year is the one that coincides with your personal goals for your safari trip.
2. Look up and Understand the Health Risks
Just like any trip, the health and safety risks a traveler is likely to face while on safari are mostly predictable and manageable as long as you are aware of them. For example, malaria may be a minor problem in South Africa, but it could be a primary issue in some parks depending on the season.
Common health risks include:
- Malaria – often occurs in major game parks while on safari because safari activities often include sleeping in tents and observing animals at dusk near watering holes – all of which puts the traveler nearer to potentially malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Take appropriate preventative medication and use all your personal protection techniques, including wearing loose, long clothing, using insect repellent, and sleeping under permethrin-treated mosquito netting.
- Yellow Fever – a vaccination is recommended for nearly all parts of sub-Saharan africa and some countries require a yellow fever vaccination certification as a condition of entry. Your safari tour group will be able to tell you if you need a vaccination, but you can also see CDC’s recommendations for yellow fever and malaria by country for details. Some safari trips involve more than one country, so be sure to check the requirements for each on your itinerary.
Less common, but still problematic, health risks include:
- African Tickborne Fever – which occurs primarily in rural areas of southern Africa and are caused by a tick bite. Many of your malaria prevention techniques help with preventing this illness, which is typically rare among travelers. Regularly check your body for ticks on your safari and watch for the symptoms which include fever, enlarged lymph nodes, and rash.
- African Sleeping Sickness – also called trypanosomiasis, is transmitted by tsetse fly bites, which occur in the daytime. Again, malaria prevention techniques are useful for preventing these bites, especially wearing loose, light-colored clothing. Watch for symptoms of fever, headaches, and nervous system involvement as well as swelling at the site of the bite.
- Myiasis – a rare skin disease caused by fly larvae that penetrates the skin causing a swollen area to appear on the skin with a central opening. The eggs are often laid on clothing that is left out to dry overnight and then burrows into the skin when worn. Clothing should be thoroughly dried indoors using conventional methods and/or ironed well before wearing.
- Tungiasis – another rare skin disease caused by the direct penetration into the skin by sand fleas which causes painful nodules under the skin often on the foot near the toenails. Preventing this disease is done by wearing closed-toe shoes and avoiding walking outdoors with bare feet.
- Schistosomiasis – an infection that is widespread throughout Africa and caused by freshwater snails that live in ponds, lakes, and rivers. All fresh water sources should be considered contaminated by travelers; however, ocean and well-chlorinated pool water is safe.
It’s important that travelers understand they may be asymptomatic for weeks after their trip. When symptoms do appear it’s important to inform your doctor of your recent trip to aid a more accurate and prompt diagnosis.
3. Don’t Ignore the Risks to your Personal Safety
The best way to understand the safety and security risks of a particular region is by going to the U.S. State Department’s site and reviewing the country-specific safety and security information for your destination. In addition, see the current travel warnings and travel alerts posted on the State Department’s website.
Here are some basic rules that should be followed no matter where your trip takes you:
- Sign your passport and fill in the emergency information
- Check your medical coverage to know whether you’re protected overseas
- Learn about the local laws and don’t accept packages from others to carry home
- Avoid wearing expensive clothing or jewelry, or carrying expensive bags
4. Leave the Driving to Others
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes the rate of motor vehicle accidents in sub-Saharan Africa are some of the highest in the world. Poor roads within the game parks, however, discourages speeding and accidents within the parks are far less common.
Travel in rural areas between parks is a higher risk, especially after dark, so nighttime driving in sub-Saharan Africa should be avoided. According to the State Department, poor road conditions and lack of street lights combined with the threat of kidnapping and banditry also make inter-city nighttime driving highly hazardous.
5. Buy Adequate Travel Insurance
Most safari tour operators require their guests to have travel insurance, but even if they don’t, we do. In many regions of Africa, doctors and hospitals require payment in cash at the time of service, so it’s important to know what you’re facing and have a travel insurance plan you can trust – even if it has to evacuate you or a traveling companion out of Africa and back to the U.S. for medical treatment.
We also recommend that you carefully research and compare quotes for travel plans appropriate to your trip. This tool can even help you determine how much evacuation coverage you’ll likely need if that becomes necessary.
A few more tips
- Research African Safari travel tips – look for the best travel tips for your African safari using the Internet and your guidebooks.
- Pack a travel medical kit – see our latest recommendations for what goes in your travel medical kit.
- Be careful with the water you consume – see our recommendations for safe drinking water tips for travelers.
- See your doctor before you travel – and get your vaccinations updated for your destination as well as getting prescriptions for medications you may need on your trip.