Safari tips: What to expect on your first South African safari

As a seasoned safari goer, I love returning to the bush. Not only to revel in the sights and sounds of nature at its most raw, but also to be reminded of just why it is I am so lucky to live in South Africa.

Looking at the faces of wide-eyed ‘bush babies’ – as I like to call first time safari travellers – as they discover the kingdom of wild Africa and what makes it so special, is always one of the highlights of my safari.

However, after recently enjoying a fantastic getaway with Garonga Safari Camp, it dawned on me that for many a safari virgin, this is in fact a whole new world… and sometimes one that takes a bit of getting used to!

Here are my tips and tricks for what to expect on your first South African safari…

First Time Safari Tips

Prepare to be pampered

Opt for a self-drive or camping safari and you’ll need to do a lot of the leg work yourself, but stay at a luxury tented camp in South Africa and can you can prepare to be pampered. Kruger National Park, and its surrounds, are home to a variety of private game reserves, upon which you will find a number of game lodges which normally host not more than 20 people at a time. Garonga Safari Camp, where I recently spent my time is such a place.

While they don’t come cheap, booking in at a place like this means you literally will have no added expenses during your safari holiday. Activities, meals and even drinks are all taken care of you don’t have to worry about a thing. Gin and tonic sundowners are the order of the day, the Amarula flows late into the evenings and boma dinners, high tea and lavish lunches are put on between game drives. Certain lodges, Garonga included of course, even include spa treatments and added extras such as bush baths. The only thing you need to worry about on top of the quoted price at such a place is any gratuities – it is normal to tip your guide, tracker and leave a shared tip for the rest of the lodge staff.


Be guided to the Big Five

The all inclusive safari experience means that you’ll be placed in a shared vehicle with your own guide and tracker. You’ll quickly become fast friends with the other travellers in your vehicle and even your guide and tracker can feel like family by the end of your safari holiday. What this means is you don’t have to spend hours aimlessly driving around, peering into the bush, waiting for something to pop out. Your tracker will expertly read animal tracks, listen to the birds and find wildlife as if by magic, while your guide will provide interesting facts on anything you see along the way. Often guides will have a specific speciality or something they’re really passionate about and finding a guide that shares your specific interests, be that butterflies, birds or plant life can make the safari experience.

At Garonga, I was particularly blown away by an Australian born and bred guide with a passion for snakes that showed us some interesting python tracks in the sand and even explained the peculiar movement seen in the tracks (the lazy snake had struggled to lift itself over a ridge – obviously full from just having had a big lunch). Guides in private reserves also have radio contact with other vehicles and are always in contact with each other so you’re more likely to see lions, leopards and elephants this way.


Early mornings and long days

A safari holiday is not a relaxing one! If you plan to combine a beach and bush break, be sure to do the beach part last as you’ll need it after your safari. You can expect to be up before the birds (and even the sun) every morning in time for your game drive. Most animals are active in the early mornings and early evenings so you will enjoy two drives each day at these times to ensure the best sightings.

Brunch is normally served after the morning drive and then you will have the afternoon to relax poolside or catch up on your sleep before heading out. You also need to make sure you leave yourself enough time to reach your required safari destination. Most lodges are reached via long bumpy dirt roads and have gate cut off times in the early evening. You’ll want to aim to be at your lodge by about 3pm if you don’t want to miss the afternoon drive. In South Africa, Airlink flies directly into Hoedspruit, Skukuza, Nelspruit or Phalaborwa, or even has lodge link connections to some top safari lodges, minimising those travel concerns and really taking the hassle out of safari travel.


Step outside of your comfort zone

In order to really appreciate the full safari experience and make the most of your holiday in the bush, it’s important to step outside of your comfort zone. At Garonga Safari Camp we were offered the opportunity to spend one night on an open-air sleep out deck.

With nothing more than a mosquito net and a whistle to protect us from the elements, it was a slightly scary experience but one that will go down as one of the best times of my life. This night in the bush was accompanied by a morning walk back to main camp, learning about the finer details of the fauna and flora found in these parts and honing our own tracking skills. While stepping out of your comfort zone, and away from the finer trimmings that safari lodges offer, can be daunting, it comes highly recommended. There is no better way to enjoy the safari experience, and connect with nature, than on foot or away from it all under the stars!


Use the opportunity to unplug

On that note, my final tip is to use your safari experience as a chance to unplug and remove yourself from the stresses of daily life. It’s important not to go on safari thinking that you’ll have time to catch up on emails or do any important work. First off, WiFi in the bush can be intermediate at best and is normally only available in the main lounge.

Also the schedule of the safari experience leaves little time for work and after a morning game drive and lazy brunch; you’ll want to spend your afternoon relaxing on a hammock before you head out again in the afternoon.

Also be sure to take note of what you do post online, with most places prohibiting any pictures or mentions of rhinos due to poaching problems. The best idea is just to unplug and enjoy the time off! That said that most lodges do have good facilities for charging of batteries for cameras – just be sure to bring extra memory cards or clear yours after each safari as you’ll always want to have enough space for the perfect shot!


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Janine Avery

Janine Avery is the brains behind 5 Star Stories, a digital marketing company offering bespoke content and social media services to the luxury and travel trade. Raised by a menagerie of artists, creatives, scientists, researchers, biologists and botanists she Janine is a lover of all things travel from basic tenting to lazing in luxury lodges. She also loves to dabble in digital marketing, spread messages on social media, and take audiences on a journey through her travel stories.

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