How to Find a Cheap African Safari
Viewing elephants and lions in the wild is magical, but how do you find a cheap African safari?
Local expert, Erik Brits, tells you everything you know to book your African safari.
From your observers’ seat, warm and padded on the back of the open vehicle, there is nothing more beautiful than the peaceful creatures of the African wilderness, roaming their territory. Regal golden beasts wander among them, leaving little doubt as to whom this land belongs. Yet, just below the surface, there is an inherent drama to their coexistence. A violent drama that stirs the very hairs on the back of our necks … for we are not that far removed a species from this struggle of horn and claw.
A tail swishes. Blink and you’ll miss it. Suddenly, the brown grasses explode; dust scatters. The blur of gold solidifies into a singular lithe shape, like a missile of muscle streaking across the landscape. Steering its tail like a rudder, the cheetah darts with nimble turns that defy the laws of physics. The gazelle, however, was born running and it does not intend on stopping today.
Often these explosions happen so quickly that your camera remains on your lap, with your jaw hovering slightly above it. I usually return home from an African safari with a card full of gorgeous landscape and sunset photos, and wonderful memories of all the action. I suppose this is why I keep going back, in the hope that one day I’ll be ready. Given how addicted I am to the bush, I have had to find more affordable ways to get my fix.
Solo African Safari?
Before I start listing places and ideas, I wanted to briefly look at what to expect at various budgets. After all, there are so many areas in Africa where wildlife still roams free, surely you could just pack a tent and go and find a patch of flat ground somewhere, and hope you don’t get eaten? I jest, but actually there are legions of locals who do precisely that regularly… However, this is not as straightforward as it sounds. In order to get to the campsites you need a 4×4 vehicle, the parks charge entrance fees (which are usually higher for internationals), they’re really far flung, and contrary to what I would have expected when I started out, this is actually not the cheapest way to go on an African safari!
Why is an African Safari So Expensive?
So, budget. Due to the prevalence of livestock farming and the inevitable conflicts between people who own livestock and things that eat livestock, free roaming game generally only exists inside protected areas. For various reasons (mainly land management and anti-poaching), these reserves are costly to run, and thus entry fees are inevitable. In public reserves, there are usually separate rates for locals and foreigners, and these range between USD 20 and USD 100 per day. Private reserves usually build it into the accommodation pricing, but some are required to charge nominal local taxes, usually a few USD per entry.
African Safari Accommodation
The next cost is accommodation. With some reserves it is feasible to stay just outside the park in general accommodation, and enter every morning. With other reserves, their remoteness dictates that in order to remain in business, most camps set up inside the reserve, allowing them to justify a slight cost premium. Accommodation options range from campsites through to luxury lodges with intimate chalets, spas, and service levels that win global awards each year. Once you’ve decided what comfort level you’re happy with, the most important factor differentiating the “all inclusive” accommodation is the quality of the guides. Cheaper accommodation tends to outsource, whereas the top lodges will go so far as to train their own guides to make sure that they are completely competent, pleasant and entertaining… and this pays off, because your guide is probably the biggest influencer in terms of enjoying your trip, as they are the person you will spend the most time with.
Another important cost is transport. Most of the far flung ‘unspoilt, seldom visited’ parks require 4×4 vehicles to access them, but the more popular parks have decent road infrastructure leading up to and into them. You could also walk, but this is almost never allowed without a registered field or trails guide accompanying you. You would be amazed at how many dangerous animal encounters can be safely negated by someone who is trained to read animal body language, and how to react appropriately, but you would be equally amazed by how the untrained person’s instinctive reactions can make an encounter that much worse – there’s definitely something to be said for generations of city dwelling.
Everything that comes after this falls into the “frills” category – like food. Granted, I suppose food is important, but most accommodation venues inside the park will provide full board because the logistics of you supplying your own food are challenging. Activities and extra excursions also fall into the frills category. I would highly, highly recommend them because getting to the bush is difficult – even locals don’t often find the time – and if you’ve come all this way you really should make the most of it. A short tracking course, learning to interpret animal sign and behaviour, a star-gazing expedition, a night drive, or a guided look at the insects of the bush, can all add volumes to your trip and leave you with lasting memories. A little grander would be a scenic flight in a small plane or a balloon safari, and many lodges have their own specialist perks based on their specific geography, such as tiger fishing (think oversized, angry piranhas) or watching turtles hatch on the beach.
African Safari Total Cost
Summing this all together, in the USD 50 – 100/day range, you’re looking at a overland camping safari where an operator organises a group of 10 – 30 travellers, puts them in a truck fitted with seats, and you stay in campsites all the way. The upside is that you get to see cool wild destinations, but the downside is a lot of time in a truck. Around the USD 100/day mark you are looking at going to one of the major parks where there’s lot of competition between service providers, staying outside the park and doing day trips in. Around USD 200/day, you could be staying at a budget-friendly “all inclusive” lodge in a private concession bordering a main reserve. Between USD 200 – 400/day you can look at some of the more special, remote locations (not many in this price though) or staying at a more luxurious lodge in one of the more common destinations.
From USD 400 a day upwards, you can have it all (now the range becomes 400 – 2000/day)… all the destinations, from popular to completely remote and unspoilt, are open to you, and you should expect top quality lodges as well. Some destinations are more expensive than others as a rule, but by and large in this budget you can choose your experience.
Overland Camping Adventure
Now, let’s turn this into some practical advice. If you’re up for an overland camping adventure, I would strongly recommend the Serengeti / Maasai Mara region. This region is remote, wild and beautiful, full of rolling grasslands, small koppies, rivers and woodlands, and it is fertile beyond belief. Few other places in Africa support game in such large numbers, and the Great Migration is the subject of numerous nature documentaries. This region is thus home to some intimate and luxurious camps on the upper end of the price spectrum, but being a public park you can also access it in a suitable vehicle if you pay the gate fees.
Thus, a camping safari is the ideal budget way to experience this area. I’m quite fond of African Budget Safaris’ offerings.
If you want to keep the budget low but have a more intimate experience, I would look at the Kruger National Park region in South Africa. Due to it’s accessibility, the park has a huge number of operators competing for business, which means there’s good value to be had, especially if you want a wilderness experience but don’t mind being in an area that only has 4 of the big 5 (i.e. one of the smaller parks that does not border the main park). Here, you can construct your own ideal holiday, mixing and matching accommodation levels from hostel to lodge, going on game drives, and guided walks, zip lining, quad biking, fishing, horse riding and more.
Note that if you plan on entering the park more than 7 times, it is cheaper to buy a “Wild Card” (offers unlimited national park access to any park in South Africa for 1 year) than paying each time you enter. This is especially good for the wallet if you’re thinking of extending your SA trip to include the Drakensberg (absolutely gorgeous in summer after the rains) or the Cape Town region.
Other Rugged Destinations
Finally, if you have a bit of budget to play with and want a special experience, it is far easier to work with someone who has spent their career researching all the various offerings in Africa than to try and plan it yourself. The good agencies all have commission / marketing agreements with the lodges themselves, so they won’t charge you any extra fees for the service, and they understand the logistics of getting to the more remote lodges. Some of my favourite destinations would be the rugged deserts of Namibia, with its hardy wildlife clinging to the earth, or the lush wetland paradise of the Okavango Delta in Botswana. Victoria Falls is also quite the spectacle, and the tropical islands off the Eastern coastline make for an awesome way to end a trip.
In this arena, I’d recommend Cable & Grain Safaris.