I emphasize YOU because we all have unique motives in embarking on travel, and safari is no exception. Like most things these days, safaris come in all shapes and sizes. And all safaris are not created equal. These two facts make planning the most important and essential part of process, so let's get down to brass tacks.
Before diving into the sea of information available out there, I suggest you do one activity first that will guide your planning efforts. Sit down with whoever it is you plan to go on safari with and each generate a list of what you hope the excursion will materialize to. If drinking beer in a Land Rover and snapping selfies with lions is your ideal safari, the considerations you take in planning will be far different from someone on an ambitious expedition to capture world-class imagery. There's nothing wrong with either route - to each their own - as long as you remember to respect the wildlife. Your list should include the likes of types of animals, landscapes, foliage you hope to see, what you hope to avoid, priority of photography, tolerance for foul weather, desire for solitude, internal transfers, allowable travel time within camp, amenities you can't go with out, proximity to other camps/tourists, lodge or tented camp...this is only scratching the surface. Make a detailed list of what is it YOU want, and the rest of the planning process will flow much more smoothly. Surely you'll hone in on your vision of an ideal safari experience as you become more educated, but it helps to lay the groundwork up front.
Once you've got your parameters laid out, keep one simple piece of advice in mind as you proceed: utilize all of the resources available to you. It may sound pretty basic, but there's more information out there than you might think. And small pointers can add up to completely transform the experience and determine the success you have on safari. When I say utilize all of you available resources, I mean all of them; ask friends and family who have been, read articles, buy books, research online (forums, databases, weather services, encyclopedias, and blogs...just like this one). No matter how high your hourly rate is, this investment of time and energy will will be fully repaid during your time in the bush.
The most important factors in planning are the first two decisions you'll have to make: where to go and when. There are far too many considerations within this realm to discuss in one post, but let's talk about a few of the fundamentals.
For starters, where you go will largely depend on when you go. A great majority of the wildlife in the ecosystems of East Africa is migratory, so presuming you're taking this trip to see wild game rather than take in the landscapes (which aren't too shabby either) you'll want to plan your travels around their patterns. Wildebeest are the lifeblood of East Africa's migration. The migration begins after hundreds of thousands of fresh calves are birthed in the Southern Serengeti during January/February and culminates in the Northern Serengeti/Masai Mara during August/September. Other hooved plains animals join in and large populations of predators follow along with them in search of a meal. This page breaks down the dynamics and implications of the wildebeest migration quite nicely. Bear in mind that migration patterns are general and can't be predicted to a T, but if you've planned well and made it to the right region at the right time of year a good guide ought to be able to get you to the action.
Landscapes vary greatly, even within the confines of Tanzania's Serengeti ecosystem. If you've always wished to see elephants walking through a starkly flat landscape whose horizon is adorned by none other than Mount Kilimanjaro, Amboseli is the place to be. If baobab-decked hills are more your cup of tea, check out Tarangire. Lions perched atop granite outcroppings (known as kopjes) are a common site in the Northern Serengeti. The list goes on, but the point is that each location - even different areas of the same ecosystem - is unique and will provide different scenery and experiences from the next. The list you generated at the beginning of your planning process will help you to make decisions as you get a better feel for what is available. In my experience, Africa Travel Resource is a comprehensive and reliable place to start the discovery process.
Booking a preset package tour is a convenient means to an end, but it can be tough to satisfy your entire checklist on one of these trips. These preset tours aim to appeal to the masses not to YOU. There may or may not be a good deal of overlap - that's for you to determine. A few factors to note: your guides and fellow travelers will be with you the whole time (this can be a good or bad thing, depending on who is assigned to your group), they are typically all-inclusive deals so you may end up paying for services you don't want or need - read the fine print, and if you're traveling solo this is a great option - just make sure you work through an operator whose mission is in alignment with yours. Two good places to start on this front are the Kenya Association of Tour Operators and the Tanzania Association of Tour Operators.
The alternative to preset package tours is self-planning a custom-tailored itinerary - admittedly more work-intensive but arguably worthwhile. Africa Travel Resource is an excellent resource to get a feel for different camps and what they have to offer. If you opt to plan your safari individually, you'll want to place a priority on camp location and guide quality.
Guides can make or break your safari experience. As a general rule, your success on safari is only as good as your guide. And, as any decent capitalist might suggest, the best guides tend to work at the higher-end properties. The rates charged at the more posh private camps aren't just for amenities; knowledgeable guide teams who exchange real-time information about sightings via walkie-talkie, as well as ideal location, are the real value in making the spring for more expensive camps. Guides often tout training and certification via various organizations, and these are good signs to look out for. But there's only one sure-shot way to take guesswork out of the equation, and this is to hire a private guide. Operators like Everlasting Tanzania Travels will work with you through the planning process to tailor the trip to your needs and desires then dispatch private guides into the field with you to ensure that you have a top notch experience, from planning to execution.
Good guides are even more crucial to photographers. This starts with knowledge of picturesque locations, continues on to properly calculating habits of certain animals to be in the right place at the right time, and gets right down to the small details like turning off the engine while clients use telephoto lenses (yep, the rattle of the engine will greatly effect the sharpness of your images - but we'll talk more on technique in the weeks to come).
Another vital tip for serious photographers: plan your trip with other photographers or cough up the extra cash to secure a private vehicle during your game drives. I've been in a Land Rover with tourists swinging from the railing and snapping selfies with lions while I'm attempting to steady a 10-pound telephoto lens on the same cat. Holding my breath between shots (a measure I generally take to further steady the rig) was a lost cause in this instance, and I was not a happy camper. We both paid for the same trip but had vastly different intentions, and that's why I continue to emphasize the need to plan for YOUR ideal safari.
Getting the great shots comes along with a host of challenges. It generally means leaving camp earlier, driving further, waiting longer, returning back to camp later, and expending much more mental effort than the majority of tourist cruises through the savannah. Many average safari-goers will not be receptive to your suggestions that they bear with you as you chase ideal locations and images, but private guides and other photographers will likely share these desires and acquiesce such wishes. Skipping the afternoon nap and eating a sack-lunch in the Land Rover really isn't such a steep price to pay for amazing imagery of your once-in-a-lifetime experience, now is it?
Going on safari is a large commitment of time, energy, and money. Proper planning is a necessary step to ensure that your commitment is worthwhile. I know we've touched on a lot of bases in a relatively brief write-up, but don't fret; as you begin the planning process the world of possibilities will get less and less daunting, and I'll soon be covering topics that got brief mention in this post in further detail.
Don't be shy now - ask questions and post comments to make sure your questions get answered!
All content © Witt Duncan