Lions, leopards, and elephants, oh my! The allure of a safari is enticing — but so is falling prey to these amateur moves. So, we talked to experts to ensure the antics are left up to the animals.

By Rachel Chang
September 13, 2020
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Credit: Rudi Hulshof via The Royal Portfolio

The night before my first safari drive in Nepal’s Chitwan National Park in 2017, my tour guide pointed at me. Thinking he was about to make an example of me for my white ExOfficio BugsAway Damselfly jacket, I was shocked when he said my outfit was too bright for the game drive.

In my head, white was the ultimate neutral color, which I knew we were supposed to wear. But what I didn’t realize was that, in the context of safaris, neutral meant shades that blend into the surroundings, like greens and browns.

On top of that, a few of my fellow travelers were taking malaria pills — something I hadn’t even thought of. Needless to say, I was beyond unprepared.

Then, last year, when I saw a single spot left on my dream itinerary, G Adventures’ National Geographic Journeys’ Explore Southern Africa, I went for it, even though departure was only a few weeks away. Of course, I immediately went to my doctor for the right medication and pulled every camouflage item out of my closet. However, I still found myself covered in dirt and fumbling with binoculars and cameras when I should have been focused on searching for the Big Five.

To ensure your safari experiences go smoother than my trip-ups, I talked to experts about the biggest mistakes people make when they head into the wild. Here are the 10 biggest mistakes pros say you should avoid on a safari vacation.

1. Not Doing Proper Research

Not all game reserves and safari lodges are created equal — and if checking the Big Five off your list is a priority, then you should understand exactly what you’re booking. “It’s important to do your homework on the quality of the game viewing, qualifications of the guiding team, and the standard of the accommodations,” says Royal Malewane director Juan Pinto, who has more than 20 years of industry experience, including as a field guide and master tracker. “The general rule is that you get what you pay for, from the number of guests in a game drive vehicle to the personalization of the experience.” He also says to consider the access you’ll get at a private lodge with guides who can go off-road any time versus at a national park, where there are set hours and restrictions on the number of vehicles. “Sightings can be very congested,” he adds.

2. Wearing the Wrong Colors

“Every time you see photos of people on a safari, they are decked out in khaki, cargo ‘safari’ outfits, but it’s really not necessary,” says Carrie Maldovan, cofounder of Above Safaris. But the right colors can help you blend into the setting, so that you don’t distract the animals. “It’s a good idea to pack neutral colors, like olive green and beige,” says Pinto, adding that if your itinerary includes a bush walk, it’s essential to avoid black or white, which are considered “danger” colors. Maldovan also says to avoid blue and black on game drives since tsetse flies and other insects tend to gravitate toward those shades.

3. Packing the Wrong Types of Clothes

While the impression is that safaris usually take place in warm weather climates, the temperatures do drop from day to night, so layers are key. “It's easy to forget about the crisp evenings and those really crisp early mornings when packing for a safari,” says Samantha Couture, G Adventures’ director of product for Africa. “Nothing too formal is required. In general, even upscale lodges have a relaxed, casual dress code, so no need for anything fancier than pants and a clean shirt.” Maldovan also reminds travelers of the conditions. “Most roads are dirt roads, so there is a lot of dust flying around — it’s better to rewear your game drive gear and save your clean clothes for back at the lodge.”

4. Not Listening to the Guides

“The expertise and knowledge of the guides make a critical difference to the safari experience and the safety of guests,” says Pinto, advising people to inquire about the FGASA (Field Guides Association of Southern Africa) qualifications of the guiding team before your trip, if you’re headed to that region. Once you pick a company you trust, it’s essential to listen to the guides. “From cultural misunderstandings to dangerous animal encounters, the biggest mistake that people can make on a safari is assuming they know best instead of listening to their professional safari guides and staff,” says Maldovan. “These guides have extensive training that enables them to be the experts in all situations that can come up in the wild. Their job is to keep clients safe and give them an amazing experience. All the clients need to do is sit back, relax, and follow the directions of their guides.”

5. Expecting to See Animals at Every Turn

Keep in mind that this is the animals’ home turf — and not a theme park attraction. The animals’ jobs are far from trying to entertain guests. Most of the game drives will take place in the (very) early morning and late afternoon to catch the animals at their most active. “Remember that you are in the wild and the animals are not tame,” says Pinto. “Most guests are extremely respectful of their surroundings, but they often forget to put their phones on silent mode. Some even try to make noises to get the attention of animals for a photo. It’s not a space to be brave or reckless.”

6. Not Respecting the Locals

A major aspect of traveling to a safari destination is learning about the local culture. “The people I meet along the way are the reason I fall in love with a place,” says Couture. “With this in mind, when taking photos of anyone, it’s so important to ask for permission first… It’s an instant way to convey respect and show your appreciation for the people around you sharing their story.”

7. Fussing With New Equipment

As exciting as the idea of being a wildlife photographer is, a safari probably isn’t the best place to try out brand-new equipment. “If you’re not an experienced photographer, don’t waste your money on a fancy DSLR camera,” says Maldovan. “You’ll end up wasting tons of time trying to figure out the camera and will probably not end up with very nice photos.” She suggests sticking with a point-and-shoot camera and making sure you’re familiar and comfortable with the device before the trip. Couture adds, “The quality of the camera on our phones these days is incredible, but it’s important to remember that you will be in a vehicle most of the time on safari and may not have access to a charger, so battery life will come into play as well.”

8. Forgetting Sunscreen and Bug Repellent

Even when it doesn’t necessarily feel hot outside, you’ll still be exposed to the elements, so remember to bring sunscreen — and reapply it throughout the day. Also, these locations are often home to insects. “Mosquito-borne illnesses are possible to contract in many safari destinations, but even more likely is the discomfort of having a ton of itchy mosquito bites,” says Maldovan. Check with your doctor a few weeks before departure to see what is recommended for the particular area. That will give you plenty of time to get prescriptions, like malaria pills, some of which require a first dose 48 hours before travel.

9. Expecting the Comforts of Home

The hotels and lodges in safari destinations can be luxurious and stunning in terms of design and quality, but it’s important to realize that you’re also likely in a remote area without the strongest infrastructure. “Be open to the unique charm of a lodge,” says Maldovan. “But you might need to wait for solar water to heat up your shower.” That also means leaving some of your normal essentials, like a blow dryer or hair styler, at home, she adds, since lodges are often on solar power all around. Also, Wi-Fi and connectivity will often be patchy and limited to certain hours, so use it as an opportunity to truly disconnect. “A safari is an adventure, and if you embrace it, you’ll get amazing hospitality and a truly wild experience, which will be much more memorable,” she says.

10. Staying Behind the Camera

While it’s so thrilling to snap photos of the incredible wildlife, Couture reminds travelers why they came so far. “Don’t forget to get out from behind your camera,” she says. “Making memories is what travel is all about — and photos are a huge part of that. But it’s equally as important to smell, see, and feel the trip in real time. A safari can be a once-in-a-lifetime experience and walking away with both photos and impactful moments is the best of both worlds.”