The majority of private game lodges in Africa work on the basis of twice daily safaris in open 4×4 vehicles (obviously lodges and camps specializing in walking safaris will differ, and those near water will often have at least one water based safari per day). The first safari at dawn and the second mid to late afternoon, continuing after dark with a short night safari. The reasons behind operating this schedule, is that the early mornings and late afternoons are considered the time when the animals are at their most active, and as such the chances of seeing them greatest. This holds particularly true in the summer months, when the midday temperatures are so high, that most animals seek shade under the thickest cover they can find, making spotting much more difficult.
Many of the top safari destinations through southern Africa in particular have distinct summers and winters, and just like the northern hemisphere, the winter temperatures can get cold, sometimes very cold. You can have mornings in the Kruger National Park where temperatures at dawn are below freezing! As such, most lodges offer a summer and a winter schedule. While still operating safaris twice daily in the morning and the afternoon, the timings do change, heading out earlier in the morning and later in the afternoon in summer, and later in the morning and earlier in the afternoon in winter.
All the safaris are guided by qualified rangers. These rangers will have been through rigorous training, both in terms of knowing the bush and the myriad of creatures in it, as well as more practical issues such as how to drive in the rough terrain, gauging animal behavior so as to always keep the passengers out of harm’s way etc. The ranger is the person you will interact with the most and who will explain things as you go along and answer your questions. Most of the time you will also have a tracker. As the name suggests, the main purpose of the tracker is to “track” game. The trackers are usually highly trained in all the little telltale signs in the bush to help you find game that may otherwise remain hidden. These signs can be in the form of spoor on the dirt roads, warning sounds of monkeys or birds or just being able to spot the vaguest of shapes through long grass that the inexperienced eye would miss. The tracker occupies a seat welded to the bonnet of the vehicle to offer completely unobstructed views, see the picture below.
If you really do have an interest in a particular animal, always make sure that the reserve you are visiting is home to this animal to start with! More than anything else, we need to stress, the game reserves of Africa are not zoos, and there is no guarantee that you will see any specific animal. Come with an open mind and you will not be disappointed.
Your day will start with an early morning wake up. Typically in summer at 05:00 (5am), and in winter between 05:30/06:00 (5:30am/6am). The wake up will vary by lodge, though mostly it is by a ranger or tracker knocking on your room door and wishing you a good morning. Normally you will have 30 minutes to get yourself out of bed, hair combed and dressed for your morning game drive – it is helpful to lay out the clothes you want to wear the night before, so that you are all set and not trying to find what you need all bleary eyed and still half asleep.
All guests then congregate at a designated area of the main lodge half an hour after wake up. Tea, coffee and some form of pastry/biscuit will be served. Very often, the pastry/biscuit will be in the form of a rusk, this is a traditional South African favorite!
Now it’s time to set out on safari. The safaris take place in open 4×4 vehicles. Usually Landrover or Landcruisers. The vehicles will either be completely open as the picture to the right, or it may have open sides but covered top.
Normally, about half way through the morning safari you will stop in an open area where you will disembark from the vehicle and your ranger will serve tea and coffee and something small to eat, like a muffin or more rusks. This is also the chance to answer the call of nature (usually behind a bush) and for those in need, a chance to replenish the nicotine levels in their bloodstream.
Feeling refreshed it’s back onto the vehicle to continue your safari. Most of the private lodges in South Africa are in reserves that are home to a very wide variety of animals, including the famed “Big Five” – lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo. All too often though, people get caught up in the hype of having to see the “Big Five”, try not to do this if you can, as tempting as it is to want to check them all off the list. The lower your expectations, the more enjoyable your safari will be.
Typically you will return to the lodge after around 3 hours on safari. Breakfast will be ready on your return, and despite having had early morning tea/coffee and nibbles and again on the safari, you will likely be starving by the time you get back to the lodge. There is definitely something in the savannah air that makes you hungrier than you should be!
This leaves you with 4 – 5 hours in the middle of the day before your afternoon safari game drive.
Some of the lodges offer the chance to go on a walking safari, usually with your ranger or tracker, and these will typically last around an hour. You generally walk from the lodge, and explore the smaller details of the bush. Looking at things like insects, plants, learning how to read animal spoor etc. If the lodge does offer this, we highly recommend you do at least one walk, it gives a totally different perspective on the bush.
Many lodges have spa facilities, and these are very popular between the safaris. However, if spa is not your thing and your lodge doesn’t offer, or you just don’t fancy the bush walk, this is the time to just kick back and relax. 4 – 5 hours of “nothing” in the middle of the day sounds like a lot of time, but you will be amazed how quickly it goes. Take a nap (especially after the early wake up), sit on your deck and watch the wildlife go by, lie by the pool and catch a few rays and don’t forget, at most lodges you will still need to find time to eat lunch, yes more food!
Gather for tea/coffee around 3:00pm. Then it’s time to board your vehicles once again, and head off for the afternoon safari. The first half of the safari follows along very similar lines to the morning safari. It will be conducted in daylight under the guidance of your ranger (and tracker if applicable).
Just as there will be animals that will run from the vehicle, there will be many others that are used to the safari vehicles and will pay little attention to you, thinking you are just some other harmless inhabitant of the bush, and allow you to get incredibly close. Sometimes the animals will even be interested in you, and come up to inspect the vehicle, and really get up close and personal. More often than not, these tend to be elephants, and this can be quite a daunting experience, when 6 tonnes of pachyderm decides to come sniffing around the vehicle. It’s at times like these that you realize why you must listen and follow exactly what your ranger tells you. They understand the animal’s behavior and how best to react in any given situation.
As the sun dips low on the horizon you will stop for a break, this time, instead of tea and coffee, “sundowners” and snacks are on offer. What better way to celebrate the end of the day than with a gin & tonic, watching the sun set over the African savannah?
Darkness descends quickly in Africa, and from now on the safari continues with the aid of a powerful spotlight. Please note that your ranger/tracker will not shine the light on diurnal animals, as they will temporarily blind them or possibly even permanently damage their sight. The spotlight is used to search out the nocturnal game, from lions and leopards to bush-babies and chameleons! This is also the time of day when the lions start to move, having spent most of the day sleeping, which can lead to some amazing action. However, it can also be a time when you see very little happen at all.
It is very important to note that many reserves and lodges around the continent do not permit night drives. In these places the safaris typically end at sunset. If you particularly want to experience a night drive, make sure that you will be staying somewhere that allows it!
In winter you will normally return to the lodge around 19:00 (7pm) and half and hour to an hour later in summer. There is normally time to return to your room to freshen up before returning to the main lodge area for dinner.
Most lodges try and vary the dinner venues to make each evening a little different, though most will try and get guests to have a “boma” at least once during their stay. Although bomas take various forms, the idea remains the same, dining outside, under the stars around a roaring campfire, the quintessential African safari experience.
After dinner, relax around the fire and regale in stories of the day’s sightings before finally heading back to your room for a well earned rest, remember there will be a knock at the door very early to start all over again!