How to Find an Authentic Safari

By Beth Norton on June 1st, 2016
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I grew up in Zimbabwe, which is home to the ‘Big Five’ and one of the largest elephant populations on the planet. During my childhood, I went on many trips to national parks where I saw elephants, giraffe, crocodiles, zebras and more. In the local animal orphanages, I had bottle-fed a baby rhino and played with a lion cub before I’d hit my teens. But I’d never heard of the word “safari.” We didn’t use that term in Zimbabwe when I was young – we would say that we were going “to the bush” or to a game park. But now that the tourism industry has exploded, the word “safari” has become more commonplace and unavoidable when talking about wildlife viewing.

“”Safari” is a Swahili word with Arabic origins, and it simply means “a journey” of any kind”

“Safari” is a Swahili word with Arabic origins, and it simply means “a journey” of any kind. The word was adopted by early European explorers during the 19th Century when they went on expeditions into the African interior, which often involved wildlife observation and hunting. “Safari” has now evolved into a term describing any wildlife sight-seeing experience. Today, I’m still not a fan of the word. It’s used in such a wide variety of contexts that its meaning has become fluid. What’s the difference between a “safari” and a “safari park”? And what about a “safari park” versus a “national park?”

“In a world where a “safari park” can be nothing more than a hyped-up theme park with caged beasts, there can be confusion about just how raw and wild a national park in Africa can be.”

There’s nothing like seeing a large lion, mane gleaming, striding powerfully along the ground. But what if that lion is in a cage? What if that lion is in a drive-through, rain-sodden park in England? What if that lion is in Africa, without any fences around (or many other humans for that matter), and you’re on foot, looking at him at eye-level, with just a few meters of sparse ground between you? Are those all lumped together as being “safari” experiences? In a world where a “safari park” can be nothing more than a hyped-up theme park with caged beasts, there can be confusion about just how raw and wild a national park in Africa can be.

Yet even among the safari destinations around Africa there is a spectrum of experiences. A safari in Kruger, South Africa, is completely different to one in South Luangwa, Zambia. If you go to a large lodge in Kenya’s Masai Mara, it’s likely that you’ll share animal sightings with swarms of other tourists. If you go to a national park in Zimbabwe, you’ll forget that other humans even exist. In my mind, there are three broad levels of safaris, each of which have their pros and cons.

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Level 1: Zoos and Safari Parks


safari level 1
We live in a world where we can see a fascinating array of animals without traveling very far. At The Bronx Zoo, for example, visitors can see lions from Africa, bison from North America, snow leopards from Asia, lemurs from Madagascar, and much more. Longleat Safari Park in England allows visitors to drive through an area where two prides of lion roam in a large enclosure. Zoos and Safari Parks are an opportunity to showcase intriguing animals to people who might not have had the chance to see them, such as families with very young children, with accessibility challenges, or those who simply don’t have the budget to travel to Africa. Often, a visit to a local wildlife facility will spark an interest in wildlife that produces far-reaching effects on a person’s future travel or even their career.

“Zoos and Safari Parks are an opportunity to showcase intriguing animals to people who might not have had the chance to see them”

If safari parks are spacious, welfare-focused, and well-run, they can be extremely educational and useful. But they need to be understood for what they are: a mediated place for keeping animals in captivity. I don’t know of any safari parks that allow predators to hunt for food in the way that they would in the wild. Although hunting is unpleasant, it is what many animals were born to do. If we humans only see animals in a zoo, we are missing out on a key understanding of wildlife and their ecosystems.

“If we humans only see animals in a zoo, we are missing out on a key understanding of wildlife and their ecosystems.”

The sad thing is that people can, understandably, build their conceptions of an African safari based on visits to safari parks in their home towns. The truth is that a true safari doesn’t even come close. In the animals’ natural habitat, when you get close to them on their terms, they behave completely differently to captive animals, and you’ll experience a feeling of exhilaration that can’t be described. Game-viewing holidays are often called ‘the theater of the wild’ because the lives of animals are so dramatic and engrossing. Seeing these animals in a caged area is no theater at all – there’s no intrigue; no suspense; no story. Our own world-view becomes caged.

Level 2: Tourist-Trap Safari


safari level2
For our honeymoon, we wanted to see the iconic Masai Mara, a part of Africa that has been portrayed in so many movies and documentaries. When we got there, we saw four of the ‘Big Five’ animals in the first few hours. The scenery was vast and spectacular.

Yet at times it felt like my trip was as mediated as a safari park back in England. I experienced a consumer-driven safari for the first time in my life. We stayed in a large 74-roomed lodge which overlooks the Mara River. In the evenings, Maasai performers would dance and sing for the guests. I felt that this was just a show, and it didn’t really enlighten guests about real-life Maasai culture or history. During game drives, our guide would receive a radio message about a lion sighting, speed along the track, only to be met by twenty other minivans doing the same thing. This surely is a far cry from the expeditions that coined the word “safari” in the East Africa of old.


“We were treated to amazing sightings of cheetahs (which I’d never seen in the wild before), lions, hyenas fighting over a carcass, and the biggest crocodiles I’ve ever seen.”

What were the upsides to this lodge? One factor was price: East African lodges can be very expensive, and mainstream lodges were all we could afford in Kenya. We were treated to amazing sightings of cheetahs (which I’d never seen in the wild before), lions, hyenas fighting over a carcass, and the biggest crocodiles I’ve ever seen. It was an easy holiday logistics-wise, although no easier than in southern Africa. We traveled during the low season, so there weren’t as many other visitors as there could have been.

This category of “tourist-trap” safaris usually apply to lodges in the most popular destinations in Africa, such as the Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater, Kruger National Park and the Masai Mara. I hasten to add that there are also many authentic safari offerings in these locations, so don’t write off the idea of a Tanzanian holiday just yet! In this category, I’m referring to lodges where there are so many holidaymakers and gimmicks that the wildlife viewing isn’t as raw as it could be. Later in this article I’ll give some tips about how to find an authentic safari (whilst keeping costs down).


“Mass-market safaris do have their advantages: Established transport connections, perceived greater efficiency, well-advertised family options and vast quantities of game. “

Mass-market safaris do have their advantages: Established transport connections, perceived greater efficiency, well-advertised family options and vast quantities of game. Africa is often portrayed in the media as being dangerous, so visitors lean towards large tour companies which seemingly run like well-oiled machines. Africa is also thought of as being more distant than other continents, so people are more concerned about transport and logistics. This is why I would recommend this category of safari to an anxious first-time visitor to Africa. In the “walk before you run” approach, go on a safari-lite before plunging into the real thing.

“Experiencing the vastness of the African reserves in real life does add to our appreciation of natural habitats.”

Visitors will still be rewarded with getting closer to the animals than they ever could have imagined. The wildlife in these destinations is usually prolific and easy to find. There’s still something to be said for seeing a wild animal without a fence between you and them. Experiencing the vastness of the African reserves in real life does add to our appreciation of natural habitats. Although I’ve mentioned the traffic jams that occur during game drives, the reserves are enormous, so congestion only usually happens when a big cat is sighted. You probably won’t be stuck in a traffic jam for your whole safari.

Downsides of mass-market safaris:


  • The experience as a whole can feel shallow and cheapened when there are more humans than animals at a sighting.
  • Although the animals aren’t concerned by the vehicles, their behavior is sometimes affected when there are scores of minivans blocking their path.
  • Seeing an animal in the company of so many other people perpetuates the idea that the wildlife is there simply for us to take photos of them – it downplays the fact that they are, in fact, wild.
  • Some visitors complain when they don’t see a lion-kill every day, as if they had paid for a performance rather than real life. In my opinion, people who moan about the animals not “doing” enough are a product of consumer-driven safaris. They have completely missed out on the deeper thrill, which is to lose yourself in the magic of the wilderness.
  • If you’re lucky enough to see a big cat on your “holiday of a lifetime”, you might not get a good photo or an unobstructed view due to the other vehicles in the way. In the Masai Mara, a loitering rule has been implemented so that everyone gets their ‘turn’, but it doesn’t always work out that way. The animal may have moved into the bushes by the time your minivan gets to the spot.
  • Safari guides in large lodges can sometimes be no more than drivers. There are so many tourists asking banal questions that the guides don’t have the time to share their specialist knowledge. A good guide can transform a wildlife experience from marvelous to transcendent, so missing out on their input is a real shame.

Level 3: Authentic Safari


safari- authentic
An authentic safari is being wholly immersed in the wildlife’s territory, looking for them in expansive reserves with hardly any other humans around, not knowing what’s behind the next bush. It’s being rewarded by a magical moment of seeing that animal up close. It’s being reminded of a time when humans and animals lived together without steel enclosures, walkie-talkies or no-loitering rules. It’s when a safari camp places the emphasis on the animals and their habitats, rather than short-term gimmicks.

“An authentic safari is being wholly immersed in the wildlife’s territory, looking for them in expansive reserves with hardly any other humans around, not knowing what’s behind the next bush.”

All you have to do is a Google Image search, using the words “Safari Traffic Jam Tanzania” and then a similar search for “Safari Traffic Jam Zimbabwe” to see the difference. Surely there has to be some special term for this, a term that’s not lumped into the same category as all the other so-called “safaris”?

You may think that the authentic safaris are too expensive, too difficult to get to, or unsuitable for families. This is not always the case. Safari camps in Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe are often cheaper than their East African counterparts, offering better value: A luxury safari in Kenya or Tanzania will cost around $800 a day, but a similar one in Zambia will cost around $650 a day (comparing packages from longstanding safari provider Abercrombie & Kent). Daily national park fees, which all tourists have to pay, are a third of the price in Zambia than in Kenya. Although flights to southern Africa are more expensive if you’re flying from American destinations, this is not the case for European travelers. Regarding logistics, local flights within South Africa can be booked online, and many authentic safari operators offer transport logistics as part of their packages.


“Safari camps in Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe are often cheaper than their East African counterparts, offering better value:”

For families, mass-market safari camps will usually offer family rooms, kiddie menus, and perhaps a hammed up, oversimplified show of generic Africana. Authentic safari operators will go out of their way to help children connect with their environment on a deeper level, whilst keeping safety a priority. For example, at Kwando Safaris in Botswana you can have a private family vehicle and guide who will bring the African bush to life with fascinating stories about the area. Ker & Downey’s Young Explorers safari in Botswana has a hands-on bush survival and tracking programme for families. These are the sort of places that will teach children how to respect the natural habitat, rather than seeing it as a commodity.

The benefits of going on an authentic safari are beyond measure, but here’s a summary:


  • You’ll see animals living as their predecessors have done for generations, making for a much more comprehensive understanding of their behaviour.
  • Your sightings won’t be obstructed by other vehicles.
  • You’ll experience the incomparable adrenalin of being close to a wild animal in its own territory, on its own terms, without the noise of large groups of humans around you.
  • You’ll have quality conversations with your guide, who will teach you more than any documentary or book ever could.
  • You’ll appreciate the animals and habitats on a deeper level, which mysteriously but unfailingly teaches you more about yourself.
  • You’ll get what you came for: a truly life-changing and soul-touching experience in wild Africa, which you’ll never forget.

Africa is all about the out-of-body magic of experiencing something bigger than yourself. It’s hard to do that if your experience is constantly being mediated and dumbed down, or if you’re surrounded by a van full of noisy people.


“Africa is all about the out-of-body magic of experiencing something bigger than yourself.”

So next time you think of the word “safari”, don’t picture a giraffe surrounded by neat bales of hay and orderly railings. Don’t picture a giraffe in Africa surrounded by contingents of minivans and clicking cameras. Picture a giraffe wandering through a forest of Acacia trees, undisturbed by man-made interferences, as you secretly catch a glimpse of a creature living as nature intended. In my opinion, this is the true kind of safari.

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Tips on How to find an Authentic Safari


safari tips

  • Look for alternatives such as mobile safaris, horse safaris, walking safaris or canoe safaris. These often bring you closer to the animals than you could do in a vehicle and make for a more intimate experience. You will be in the safe hands of guides who are trained to keep you out of harm’s way.
    • Natureways Safaris specialize in canoe safaris along Africa’s waterways, bringing you eye-level with hippos and elephants as they drink.
    • Wait a Little in South Africa offers horseback safaris where you can see the ‘Big Five’ from up close, as the wildlife is so much more relaxed around horses than minivans.
    • The best place to go on a walking safari is in Zimbabwe, due to the extremely high quality of guides and the large areas of pristine wilderness. Expert Africa has a number of camps offering walking safaris, and Leon Varley specializes in safaris on foot.
  • Check out training courses or volunteering programs. You’ll often get a more authentic experience because you’ll be learning new things and working alongside locals. There are programmes for all experience levels, and for professionals as well as students. You’ll have the adventure of a lifetime whilst truly expanding your horizons. Ecotraining runs courses in ecology, tracking and photography. African Impact has a range of conservation and wildlife research projects. Wild Eye specializes in African photography workshops that are run with passion and local expertise.
  • Go on night safaris as well as day ones, to add extra dimension of seeing how animals behave at night.
  • Consider going to national parks in Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe, which are still largely unknown to the mainstream safari market. You’re less likely to share your experience with throngs of other tourists. In addition, like-for-like safari lodges in these southern countries are often more affordable than their East African counterparts.
  • Do an online search for travel bloggers (not affiliated with tour companies) who specialize in the region that you are interested in. Sign up to their social media accounts. Often, travel bloggers will give a more rounded impression of an area than the flowery superlatives of a commercial safari companies, and will also have knowledge of local, well-respected operators. e.g. Mzansi Girl (South Africa), Great Zimbabwe Guide (Zimbabwe), Helen in Wonderlust (multiple African locations).
  • When choosing accommodation, avoid large resorts and hotels. Small camps are more personal and flexible, and less gimmicky. You may be pleasantly surprised at the cost difference: small, owner-operated camps can sometimes be cheaper than their corporate competitors due to lower overheads. If your favourite camp does have higher prices, remember that a safari is often a once-in-a-lifetime experience. If you’re going to do it, it’s worth doing it properly.
  • Seek out safari operators/camps that use words such as “remote”, “raw”, “unfenced”, “wild”, “semi-permanent” or “authentic”. Read safari descriptions carefully, looking out for the tone of writing: Are they suggesting an easy holiday, or a soul-touching experience of a lifetime?
  • Look for safari camps located in private concessions or conservancies – they have stricter rules about maximum numbers of vehicles within their boundaries. As animals are migratory in nature and many parks are unfenced, your wildlife sightings will not be affected.
  • Choose lesser-known reserves or national parks, where tourist numbers will be fewer. Examples of wildlife-rich reserves are Mana Pools, Kafue, South Luangwa, Hwange, Addo Elephant National Park, Ruaha, Selous, and Etosha.
  • Consider going on safari during the “green season”, or low-peak season, between January and April. Rainfall is higher during these months, which means that fewer tourists visit during these times. You will see the habitat in a whole new light, and see animals with their young, looking fatter and healthier than they do in the dry months. Accommodation prices are usually lower at this time too. However, you may occasionally get wet, some roads may be closed, and some animals will be more difficult to spot in the thick greenery. Remember, good safaris are about the quality, not quantity of sightings.
  • Be wary of safari camps that offer “entertainment” in the form of traditional dancers, singers and musicians. It’s important to understand local culture, but you’ll get a dumbed-down version at your hotel. Shows such as these are indicative of the hotel’s willingness to put on a spectacle rather than to respect authenticity. Cultural visits to real villages offer a more realistic slice of life.
  • When you have a shortlist of operators/camps, email them to ask the following question: How many people are usually in a game drive vehicle and do the vehicles travel in convoy? If there are more than 5 people in a vehicle, and if they travel in convoy, I would worry about the quality of the safari. For the best viewing opportunities, vehicles should also be open-sided.
  • Also ask the lodges what they do to promote conservation and to support local communities in the area? Lodges that are environmentally and socially conscious go hand-in-hand with authoritative safaris.
  • Don’t assume that group tours with big operators are the only affordable option. If you book directly with a safari camp that you like, chances are that you will have a more bespoke, intimate experience, with guides that offer more detailed information about the wildlife. You may also be surprised at the price, too!
  • If there’s a package you like, do some research about booking the components independently. For example, we booked our internal flights from Nairobi to Masai Mara with Air Kenya. Although our lodge could have included this in their package, it was cheaper for us to do it ourselves. Factors like this could save you money, which could be used on a more exclusive safari lodge.
  • Search for reviews of safaris on independent websites. The companies’ own websites are more likely to only show the positive reviews.
  • Stay at least 3 nights (and ideally 4/5) in each location to have the chance to get to know the area properly and get into the bush lifestyle. Constantly moving between locations defeats the purpose of the laid-back, absorbing nature of a real safari – and it can also save on costs. It’s also usually better to go to a more remote camp as it’s likely to have fewer tourists. Staying longer than 3 nights will make the initial long drive more worthwhile.
  • Go on safari with the right frame of mind: be prepared to learn, not just to check things off a pre-conceived list.

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