Essential East Africa
|Open up and say "Africa": Two hippos frolicking in Kenya's national parkland. (Corbis)|
In globetrotter ways, East Africa isn't do-it-yourself friendly. Road travel, required park permits, paid guides, remote camp lodging, and flight scheduling can be nightmares (I sat stranded on a hellishly hot, dusty runway for an entire day, swatting tsetse flies while the pilot scrounged a replacement part for our grounded Twin Otter). What's more, naiveté about the African bush, obviously, is seriously risky business. Lions, crocs, cobras... you get the picture.
But the good news is East Africa can be the biggest no-brainer trip you can ever take. Reputable safari outfitters, agents, and seasoned regional experts can prearrange everything and make your safari circuit run like a clock. If there's a catch to the magic it's this: good, well-rounded safaris don't come cheap. Average out all the variables and a decent entry-level, 12-day safari package tallies about $3,500 per person, including air fare from North America.
"To an extent you get what you pay for with African safaris," says Africa expert Sandy Cunningham of Uncharted Outposts (888.995.0909; www.unchartedoutposts.com), who specializes in traditional "bush hut" safaris. "You can go inexpensive and get the essentials for $275 a day," she says. "But if you end up splurging for extras it can make the safari more expensive than a mid-priced trip offering a better experience."
Job one is to match budget with expectations. Custom fly-in safaris where you're handed off to skillful guides at your choice of big-name national parks hover at $650 person per day for such amenities as luxe lodging, grilled gazelle steaks, and the best booze. Nice? Yes. Necessary? No. Shallower pockets can find solace in a Blue Light Special group safari that can run around $150 person per day. These no-frills, full-participation mobile tented safaris involve camp-to-camp drivingnot bush planesand you pitch in with gritty chores, forgo cushy amenities (daily showers? Ha!), and make due with beer instead of Bombay gin. Home is an austere eight-by-ten-foot tent pitched in surrounding conservation areas, not in the parks themselves. The downside? The best game drives aren't right out the tent door. But your agile entourage can follow your guide's lead and easily veer off the beaten path to scout prime wildlife opps. Big Five Tours & Expeditions (800.244.3483; africa.bigfive.com offers such a prototype trip in their 11-day "Living Free Safari" which runs about $1,795 per person, excluding international air fare.
You can also save cash by flirting with East Africa's less expensive wet season from April to mid-June, which admittedly is something of a gamble. "Wet-season travel saves money but can dilute your experience," explains Simon Gluckman with Africa Adventure Company. "Weather can hold, but if you do encounter drenching rains you could become stranded in mud or can't get off road. It becomes a four-wheeling expedition instead of game viewing." If you've carved at least a month out of your schedule (and God bless ya), then you may have the flexibility to endure the shifting storms. But if you've got only two weeks, you may be better off dodging the rainy season.
International air travel brings two options. One is letting your Africa agent handle flight purchases as part of the safari package, typically the best way to go. Agents' wholesaler rates can shave off $500 from what you'd pay off-the-rack. But the web savvy can stumble onto occasional screaming deals via such sites as airfare roundups like www.kenya.com. Or you can go to the source by contacting primary carriers servicing East Africa, including KLM (www.klm.com), British Airways (www.britishairways.com), Swiss (www.swiss.com), and Emirates (www.emirates.com). This year, round-trip low- and high-season airfare from New York ranged between $859 and $1,475; from Los Angeles, $999 to $1,675.
Some final advice on planning: There are scores of safari agents offering a combo of similar safari destinations. Dont rely solely on Internet come-ons. Online research can suck you into a black hole of inaccurate, dated information, with missed ground connections, flaky guides and insufficient provisions coming back to bite you in the butt. Once again, it comes down the "you get what you pay for" principle, so try not to base your decision purely on price. After narrowing your options on outfitters, contact them directly and ask for a list of previous clients. If they're not willing to give you testimonials from previous safari-goers, chances are theres something wrong.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication