Joel S. Hirschhorn
The most amazing thing I learned on my first safari trip is that elephants have the most incredible, very long black eyelashes. Second, lions could not care less about nearby trucks and people, nor lights at night. Third, though giraffes seem to walk slow and gracefully, their legs are so long that they cover long distances very quickly.
Countless people from all over the globe book African safari tours because of the widespread desire to see exotic, beautiful animals in their native habitat. I can attest as someone who has traveled very widely internationally for decades that taking a safari vacation is one of the best, most rewarding things a tourist can do. I want to share some things I have learned from my recent trip that can help others make good decisions, because these safari tours are pretty expensive. The toughest decision is what tour company to select of the great many in the market.
A critically important issue is how many game drives you actually get, usually one in the early morning and one in the evening at safari lodges. These drives in specially designed vehicles usually last for three hours or more and can be very rough rides over dirt roads and sometimes directly into the bush landscape. Each vehicle has a ranger who drives and provides information continuously to usually four to six guests in the vehicle. He also has a rifle that is always at hand, just for that remote possibility of an animal charging people. Check out this reference for general information on safari trips.
Up front on a special seat sits a tracker who, in the daylight, is continuously examining the ground for evidence of specific animals. At night the tracker continuously directs a large flashlight into the bush to spot the eyes of animals. It is truly amazing how the trackers actually locate various animals, including lions, elephants, leopards, rhinos, giraffes and many more so that guests can get up close to magnificent creatures.
On my tour there were blankets for passengers because of the chill in the morning and nighttime hours. In the morning there was also a much appreciated hot water bottle. Midway during the drives drinks and snacks are served. Upon return from drives there is a sumptuous breakfast and dinner.
Everything is done to make it easy for people to take pictures of the wildlife, often getting extremely close to the animals. Most people take many hundreds of photos on these trips.
For months my wife and I researched a great many African safari tours and finally selected the Tauck company and its South Africa: An Elegant Adventure tour; it offered eight animal drives in two different safari areas in Kruger Park; and the itinerary included seeing more than just wildlife in safari regions, including Cape Town and surrounding areas as well as Johannesburg and Victoria Falls. Second, we had the distinct impression that it would be a luxury tour with true first class hotels and other amenities. Other tours at lower cost, perhaps half as much, mean roughing it and this may appeal to many people.
Let me emphasize that we absolutely loved our trip just as everyone else we met while traveling who were on different tours, mostly because of so many wonderful experiences seeing all the animals in glorious settings. Local guides and staff were excellent. Yet there were some disappointments. Of the five hotels the first three were wonderful five star hotels with great food and amenities, including the waterfront Cape Grace hotel in Cape Town and the two safari lodges, Tinga and Sabi Sabi. But all the satisfaction of staying there set us up for disappointment.
The last two hotels did not live up to the Tauck reputation for elegant accommodations and supplying comfort to its clients. The rooms at the DaVinci hotel in Johannesburg were in the two star category, small, poorly designed and dysfunctional in many respects. The tour director upon hearing complaints justified the hotel on the basis of its location, the safe Sandton suburb with interconnected underground malls. But nearby was an Intercontinental hotel and the Saxon Boutique Hotel that would surely offer superior rooms. Whatever safari tour companies you consider, question them not only about what hotels or lodges they use but also what type rooms in them you will get; all too often tour companies like Tauck buy the cheapest rooms.
You definitely want to see Victoria Falls if you travel to Africa; they are truly electrifying. Boat rides along the Zambesi River that feeds the falls are usually included in tours; ours was wonderful, including close up views of an elephant and a hippo. But disappointing was the much acclaimed Victoria Fall Hotel. While the location, grounds, exterior and public rooms define a historic, elegant five star venue, nearly all the guest rooms were quite small with very old and drab furnishings and poor views. There are some very fine rooms which a few people on the tour got (including suites), which raises ethical questions why some people were better treated by Tauck. Our room was so awful with a thick smell of tobacco that we demanded and received a different room, which still was a one star accommodation. There are other hotels and lodges in the Victoria Falls area that merit consideration when researching possible safari tours, including The Kingdom, a modern hotel, and the luxury Royal Livingstone Hotel. If you go to the falls, definitely go to the local market where artisans sell their goods; the variety and prices are just about the best we saw on our entire trip.
Tauck proclaims that it offers personalized service with each guest treated as an individual, with their own needs understood, and most safari tour companies also seem to promise this. However, we did not experience this. Unlike luxury, small ship cruises where the cruise director and other staff go out of their way to make you feel cared for, at no point did the Tauck tour director seek to discover whether or not we were fully satisfied and having all our needs satisfied. In particular, it was very disappointing that the tour director did not facilitate shopping at local artisan venues, especially in Victoria Falls. Lastly, there is a valid view that Tauck tours like other companies are relatively small group ones, but there were 31 people in our group, not exactly small and intimate. Pay close attention to any safari tour company with regard to group size.
Most important, give serious thought to going to Africa for a memorable safari tour.