Viewing wildlife up close on a Kenya safari is a thrilling experience, for sure. In fact, many people name a safari as number one on their bucket list. Concerns about safari safety should not deter you from undertaking such an amazing and memorable experience.
Derived from the Arabic word safar, safaris date back hundreds of years to the Arab occupation of the Swahili coast when traders hired guides to help them find routes for transporting spices, ivory, and slaves back to their ships. Safaris became a leisurely pastime during the colonial times of the early twentieth century.
Millions of people visit Africa each year and enjoy a memorable safari without incident. Having said that, if you’re planning a trip, below are some realistic precautions to ensure safari safety.
Please note that these tips do not include a self-drive safari. Because those pose greater risks as well as other reasons, that was not something we ever considered.
And of course, before we get into the tips, please don’t go to Africa (or any other country) without travel insurance. Anything can happen. I was involved in a horrendous car crash in South Africa in 2014. Use the table below to get a FREE, no-obligation quote.
We stayed at three different luxury safari camps with the Elewana Collection in different parts of Kenya. The safari safety benefits of doing game drives with a guide are numerous.
- Each guide is knowledgeable about the flora and fauna of Africa.
- They understand the behavior of wildlife.
- They can identify individual animals. For example, on one game drive, we could see a young bull elephant not too far off. While we had been close to other elephants, our guide identified this one by the shape of his tusks and told us he was aggressive and would probably charge us for no reason. Sure enough, he started coming toward us so we left that area.
- Countries like Kenya and Tanzania require that guides be licensed by the government, ensuring that they are well-informed.
- They are experienced in how to navigate should an area become flooded or other hazardous driving conditions.
- They can get immediate help if the vehicle breaks down.
- They have interesting, personal stories.
- They will find a place for a traditional sundowner every evening (the equivalent of an African happy hour) where they will make you a cocktail and toast the sunset with your group.
Be sure to tip your guide! In our experience, they 100% enhanced our experience. Our lodge advised $10 per person per day, but we sometimes went over that when we felt it was deserved.
2 How Close Is Close?
Never chase after a wild animal! They will perceive this as a threat and may charge the vehicle. Let the animal decide how close it wants to come. If the vehicle is stopped and quiet, the animal may come closer on its own.
This happened to us with a white rhino in Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. We saw a rhino grazing up on a nearby hill. Our guide stopped the jeep so we could watch. The rhino proceeded to come down the hill on its own, grazing the entire time. We were dumbstruck at how close it came – a mere few feet from our jeep! Then it turned and continued to graze in a different direction.
Additionally, on our very first game drive in Meru National Park, our jeep was stopped near a pride of lions that had no interest in us. “Why don’t they attack us?” I asked our guide. “Because they don’t perceive that we’re a threat,” he said. “They process the shape and smell of a vehicle filled with humans as a single unit, and they don’t associate it as food.” I also learned that lions hunt primarily at night and only when they are hungry, so that would also contribute to their lack of interest.
Some animals to watch carefully and keep your distance are buffalos, hippos, elephants, lions, and crocodiles
Here’s our comprehensive guide (and awesome pictures!) of animals to see on a safari.
3 In Your Vehicle
It seems like it would be obvious, but don’t get out of your jeep to approach an animal. Not only would this put you at risk, but it also “habituates” the animals. If a wild animal gets too used to humans, it is more likely to venture into populated areas which could result in harm to humans and/or the animal being killed.
Stay within the vehicle – don’t dangle arms or legs outside, which could provoke animals. They see the jeep as a single unit, and if you create movement outside the shape of the jeep, they may perceive it as a threat.
Don’t startle or move fast. This can agitate wildlife. I experienced this first-hand and thankfully it was uneventful:
One of the first animals we encountered in Meru National Park was a couple of lionesses just lazing around on the ground. I could not believe how close they were to the jeep! They seemed unaware that we were there, but I soon realized that wasn’t the case… I half-stood up and reached over the seat to get my other camera, which I wasn’t supposed to do – no quick movements, but I was caught up in the moment. One of the lions did not like that movement and rose up onto her two front legs and starred at the jeep. Our guide softly reprimanded me to stay seated. Fortunately, the lions stayed for a few minutes then slowly sauntered off.
Stay quiet. While the animals have become accustomed to the jeep motor sounds, human voices are not familiar. If you’re too loud, you can agitate them, anger them, or make them run away. If you have to talk, do so in a soft whisper. Trust me on this, silence will come easy…the awe and beauty of seeing in person the wild things that you’ve only seen on TV will take your breath away.
Watch for branches. On some of the narrow dirt paths that your open-air vehicle will take, it will squeeze through or brush up against wayward bushes and trees on one or both sides. In particular, the acacia tree leaves are chock-full of long thorns. Be sure to duck down during those times.
Toilets in the bush don’t exist. If you really have to go, tell your guide so he can find a secluded place for you to do your business. Always carry wipes in your daypack in case of emergencies. Also, if you’re modest, there are blankets in the jeep that someone can hold up to protect you against prying eyes. Be sure to check the ground for ants, snakes, or other things to avoid stepping on.
It gets windy in the vehicle! The temperature drops when the sun goes down and the sky could open with a downpour at any time. Your jeep will probably have blankets and maybe rain ponchos, but it’s also a good idea to bring along a foldable rain poncho, fleece hoodie, and buffs to keep your ears warm and hair under control. (See our complete packing list here)
4 What to Wear/Pack
Most travelers tend to overpack, but this isn’t required for a safari. For one thing, if you are flying in a commuter plane to get to your safari camp(s), they have very stringent restrictions on the weight and type of luggage you allowed onboard.
In general, pack loose, lightweight clothing in earth tone colors that won’t provoke or repel the wildlife, a hat to protect from the sun, and layers that can be put on or taken off. Shorts are fine during the middle of the day if it’s hot, but for morning and evening, long pants will protect from both cold and mosquitos.
For the ultimate safari safety on a bushwalk, always go with a guide. Guides in Kenya are licensed and trained and understand animal behavior and what not to do in the bush. They will also find things that you never knew were there, greatly enhancing your experience.
On one bushwalk in Loisaba Wildlife Conservancy, our guide took us on a walk to show us the site where ancient hand axes were scattered. Because it’s in the protected reserve, no one steals these historic artifacts, which is mind-blowing, to say the least.
Walk in single file about an arm’s length away from each other with your guide in the lead. By making this chain, animals perceive you as a unit rather than a group that can be split up.
Never, ever run. When you run, animals perceive you as either prey or threatening and will instinctively chase you.
Stay downwind from animals so they don’t catch your scent. If you do encounter one unintentionally, usually the best thing to do is don’t run, walk very slowly away. Do not turn your back, and make sure you are not blocking its path or getting in between a mother and her babies. Your guide will direct you on exactly what to do.
Don’t carry food. Animals have a heightened sense of smell and can even smell food that is wrapped and may attack you to get it. And of course (do I really need to say this?) never attempt to feed or give them food which is prohibited. Plus, any contact, even a small scratch from that cute, cuddly-looking money or hyrax can infect you with rabies a painful disease with a protracted treatment and even death.
Don’t pick flowers or plants.
Wear clothing that blends in with the environment, same as mentioned in #4.
Wear hiking boots and socks. They will protect you from stepping on venomous snakes and stinging insects that could bite you. The ankle support will also reduce the chances of turning an ankle on the uneven earth.
Do not undertake a bushwalk at night. Many predators are nocturnal and if you disturb their habitat you could become their next meal. However, our guide took us on a short hike just before sunrise (which already had a bit of light) so we could witness the sun coming up over the savanna – a stunning and memorable sight!
Be quiet, same as mentioned in #3.
Smoking is a definite no-no! Not only will the smoke pollute the air and spook the animals but a cigarette butt liters and if not put out properly can cause a deadly fire in the dry African bush, destroying the pristine environment and wildlife.
Safari safety at the lodges and camps is high, especially the boutique luxury lodges of the Elewana Collection. That said, here are a few common sense things you can do to prevent mishaps.
Don’t stroll around the camps alone at night. This was a steadfast rule at all our safari camps. After dinner, when it was dark, an armed ranger would escort us back to our tent or hut. Lots of wildlife comes alive at night and some venture close, especially in camps that are unfenced. A safe way to see nocturnal creatures would be to go out on a guided nighttime game drive.
Don’t store food in your hut or tent. Animals can smell food even through a wrapper inside a Ziploc stored inside your luggage and will go to great lengths to procure it.
Shiny objects like jewelry attract mischievous monkeys. Always make sure to lock your jewelry in the camp-provided safe or stow in zipped luggage. Also, if you are staying in a tent – even the high-end glamping kind – keep the screens zipped which will still permit the breezes and gorgeous views of the savanna but keep uninvited visitors out.
Respect the culture of the locals who work in the camps. For example, if you have laundry service, it is against their customs to wash ladies’ undies, so don’t put them in the laundry basket.
Don’t touch anything alive. Call for help if necessary. We returned to our hut in Elsa’s Kopje one night after dinner to discover a large scorpion on the wall. Alison watched it to make sure it didn’t move while I summoned help on the camp-provided walkie-talkie. Within seconds, one of the staff arrived to remedy the matter whereas we could have risked getting stung if we had tried to remove or kill it ourselves.
Don’t walk barefoot in the camps. Aside from cutting your feet on sharp stones, there are also insects, snakes, and scorpions in the wild that can inflict painful stings.
Swimming in rivers and lakes is a bad idea for a variety of reasons. First, there’s the risk of parasites which manifest in many different ways. Illnesses that result from parasites are hard to diagnose and eliminate once you’re back home and can lead to extreme sickness and even death.
Also, you can’t see what’s lurking beneath the surface. Crocodiles are prevalent in every freshwater river and are one of the most aggressive creatures alive. Also, hippos can stay beneath the water for up to seven minutes and when they come up for air, they can catch a breath simply by raising the very top of their head. So in spite of their size, you may not even see them. Hippos are known to be very ill-tempered, and especially dangerous if their babies are around.
Stick to the pools at the lodges.
Many of the health concerns of traveling to Africa can be mitigated by awareness and preventative planning.
Before you leave home, check and see what immunizations you need. Every country has different requirements. Yellow fever immunization is the most common. It is also advised to be up-to-date on hepatitis and meningitis vaccines.
Do you want to know what the deadliest “animal” in Africa is? You may be surprised, but it’s the mosquito. This pest is responsible for killing more people than any other, by spreading diseases like malaria and dengue. To mitigate contracting malaria, (1) use repellent with DEET especially at dawn and dusk when mosquitos are most active, and (2) get a prophylactic prescription for a malaria drug. There are several anti-malaria drugs, so be sure to look at the list of side effects, some of which can be pretty severe. Malarone® has always worked well for me. Contact your doctor to ascertain which drug would be best for you.
Clothing is also an important preventive factor where mosquitos and the dreaded tsetse flies are concerned. Wear long sleeves and pants during morning and evening, as well as avoiding colors like blue and black which attracts them. Also, sleeping under a mosquito net is almost mandatory.
I don’t like the strong smell of DEET, so I use the 30% wipes on my skin and spray my clothes with 100% DEET.
Travelers’ diarrhea is no joke. It can be painful and last for days. While over-the-counter medications like Imodium can help with the symptoms, I always carry a prescription of Cipro, a powerful antibiotic that alleviates the root cause.
As a preventative for food poisoning, some travelers take a daily dosage of acidophilus or tablets of Tums or Pepto-Bismol.
AIDS is rampant in some parts of Africa. Promiscuity is dangerous and should be avoided but if you must indulge, bring your own condoms.
9 Travel Insurance
I highly recommend purchasing travel insurance before traveling to Africa – in fact, most safari camps will require it. I know first-hand that anything can happen from my horrendous car crash in Cape Town, South Africa in 2014 and subsequent 7-week hospital stay. The facilities in Africa are far below the standards of the United States. I got through my near-death ordeal because of my Pollyanna attitude (although I did have my meltdowns) and because I was unwilling to let go of my fabulous life of travel. I didn’t have travel insurance; luckily I had a Cadillac health insurance plan that paid for my hospital expenses but I still had a $3000 deductible. Travel insurance would have paid that, as well as being a liaison between me and my health insurance which caused me a ton of stress.
Definition of Pollyanna: a person characterized by irrepressible optimism and a tendency to find good in everything. (Merriam Webster Dictionary)
You can read the gory details of my accident here.
Some traveler insurance plans also have an evacuation benefit, although I would caution you to read the fine print. Most will say they will transport you to the nearest “excellent” facility, which I assure you, mine was not, even though it was categorized as such.
The bottom line is that now I never travel without special travel insurance. Please do the same.
Political turmoil is a problem in many parts of Africa such as the Al Shabaab terrorist group in Somalia. But such unrest is usually not found in popular tourist destinations like Kenya and Tanzania safari reserves. Be sure to stay on top of travel advisories. You can register with the US Department of State to get updated advisories emailed to you when changes in status occur that could impact your vacation.
Notwithstanding the ten tips above, it’s important to manage your expectations. A safari experience is so much more than ticking off the Big Five. Remember, these are wild animals and are unpredictable. Big cats like leopards and cheetahs are shy and elusive; most animals seek shelter during the hottest daylight hours; seasons and weather conditions impact when you may see certain animals.
Be prepared for weather extremes. The African climate is known for its fickleness. When going on a game drive in an open vehicle, take a hat, rain poncho, sunscreen and dress in layers, to ensure your comfort. Weather changes are not just negative – sometimes the weather takes a turn for the better. Early morning fog can give way to bright afternoon sunshine. In our case, we checked the forecast before we left and rain was predicted every day. However, during our ten-day safari, we had only an occasional shower during the night.
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Disclosure: The author was honored to be the guest of the Elewana Collection during her stay in Kenya and Tanzania, but as always, the opinions, reviews, and experiences are her own.
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About the Author
Patti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning international blog Luggage and Lipstick and southern travel blog Gone to Carolinas. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials.” Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal. She has traveled six continents looking for fabulous places and adventure activities for her Baby Boomer (and Gen X!) tribe.