11 things you need to know before going on your first safari

Two adult and three baby giraffes in a field in the Safari

Before my first trip to Kenya, I’d done a little reading, but nothing could have really prepared me for what I was about to experience. When our tiny 12-seater touched down on the dirt runway in Amboseli National Park, roughly 140 miles south of Nairobi, I was giddy with excitement. Zebra calves were leaping in the air, and two giraffe heads peeked out nervously from behind an acacia tree. In fact, the plane was forced to circle the airstrip three times before landing, due to wandering animals.

I was immediately thrown into the wild. Not that I would’ve had it any other way — on the dusty drive over to Ol Donyo Lodge, I scanned the landscape like I was seeing Earth for the first time: flat, dry, streaked with gold and green, and above it all, hidden behind a cloud, Mount Kilimanjaro, the continent’s tallest peak. Within a few hours of settling in, I watched as monkeys, impala, elephants and giraffe all paraded by, less than 200 feet from my bed.

“Most people here are first-time guests,” said Jackson Lemunge, my guide on the first day, “And those who are repeat guests are back for a reason. They want to see the same thing.”

In Swahili, safari literally means “journey,” and for most of us, a place like Kenya is about as far from home as you can get. The element of surprise is a cornerstone of the whole experience. Still, there are a few items of business you’ll want to get under your belt. Unless otherwise noted, this list references the safari experience in general, so the following guidelines will help you with any trip, whether you’re traveling in Kenya, Botswana or South Africa.

Figure out your visa situation

Tourist visas are required for American travelers entering Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe, but not for Botswana or South Africa. In most cases, they can be purchased online and printed out ahead of time. It’s best to be prepared — I was able to buy my visa in-person at Jomo Kenyaata International Airport when I arrived in Nairobi, but I had to pay the $50 fee in cash. Credit cards weren’t accepted, and the ATM in the arrivals hall wasn’t very reliable.

Don’t leave vaccines until the last minute

It’s a good idea to make an appointment with your doctor at least one month before a trip to Africa, since some vaccines take a few weeks to kick in. Like in other developing parts of the world, typhoid is a risk here, as is hepatitis A and yellow fever, so all of those vaccines are recommended. As for malaria, your doctor will be able to talk you through the different antimalarial pills. Some travelers, myself included, after learning about adverse side effects like nausea and intense dreams, opt not to take any. Instead, I relied on nonpharmaceutical prevention methods: bed nets while sleeping, exposing as little skin as possible during dusk hours (when mosquitoes are most active) and treating my clothes with Permethrin spray before my trip.

If you’re unsure about which vaccines are required, Passport Health is a good resource, whether you’re traveling to Africa or anywhere else.

Pack light

Here’s the quick advice: pack as little as possible. Not only will the small planes refuse bags heavier than 33 pounds, you simply don’t need a lot of stuff. You’re dressing for comfort here, not style.

During the morning and afternoon, when you’re out on game drives, plan on lightweight, light-colored pants and a t-shirt. I’ve heard several theories on why neutral tones are recommended (they won’t show dirt and dust, mosquitoes can’t camouflage easily against them), but that’s the standard. It gets chilly in the evenings, so pack layers. You’ll also need a wide-brim hat (Tilley is a solid brand) and good walking boots (they’re more resilient against the dust, and will be needed if you go on any walking safaris). For women, a pashmina is a good idea, too.

Bring a sweater, a raincoat, some high-factor sunscreen, insect repellent with DEET, a flashlight and some wet wipes. All lodges will provide bottled water, though only the high-end ones tend to supply extras like binoculars and plug adapters.

Know how to amuse yourself

Since animals are most active when the sun’s going up or coming down, game drives typically happen early in the morning and late in the afternoon. That leaves plenty of downtime during midday and after dinner. And since most lodges and camps use generators, which only run in the morning and late evening, you can’t always rely on electricity for entertainment. Instead, plan on board games, a pack of cards, a book or magazine (this is your chance to catch up on all those old New Yorkers you have lying around), or good, old-fashioned conversation to pass the time.

Bring a real camera...

This may sound obvious, but when you’re riding horseback through the plains of southern Kenya and giraffe are casually sauntering by like supermodels at a Victoria’s Secret after-party, you’re going to want a camera. A real one, with a good lens and some spare memory cards. I assumed my puny iPhone 6S would have the bandwidth to capture all the spectacular scenery and wildlife I was seeing, and that was a mistake.

One day in Maasai Mara, after staking out for 15 minutes next to a tree with a leopard in it, the damn thing climbed down and came within two feet of our Jeep. I could’ve reached down and pet him on the head, he was that close. My Instagram video was certainly nothing to laugh at, but compared to the guy next to me snapping away with his Nikon, I felt like an amateur.

...and a notepad, too

Call me a nerd (or a journalist), but I can’t help writing down all the useful bits of information I learn while on the road. In Kenya, I had my mind blown practically every hour. Did you know elands (a kind of antelope) can jump 7 feet high in the air from standstill? Or that cheetahs, the fastest animal in the world, can accelerate to 90 km/hour in just 3 seconds? Or that a single elephant creates 155 kg of dung on the daily? Once I got home, my notes made it easier to annoy friends with a truly random stream of fun — and useless — safari facts. (As it turns out, the hunting habits of lions sound way less interesting when you’re not actually seeing the hunt take place.)

Get to know your guide

Which brings me to an important aspect of any safari: your guide. For three days in Chyulu Hills National Park, my group was led around by Lemunge, a deeply knowledgeable Maasai man who was also an aspiring wildlife photographer. When it got cold, he unpacked blankets for us to wrap ourselves in. When he spotted a lion paw print in the dirt road, he drove out of his way to find it.

Once, at the end of a daunting trek through some lava tubes up in Chyulu Hills, we enjoyed an impromptu cocktail hour, with drinks poured from a makeshift bar on the hood of our Jeep. This is typical. As the only staffer who spends the entire day with you, your guide acts as a driver, storyteller, bartender, chaperone and naturalist, all rolled into one. The better relationship you have, the smoother and more enriching your safari will be. (As for tipping, that’s at your own discretion, though $10 per person per day is what’s recommended, and can be given in USD or Kenyan Shillings on the final day.)

Show some manners

A sign was posted around one of the lodges we visited in Samburu National Reserve, Elephant Bedroom Camp, that read: “Wild Animals Are Dangerous! Guests Are Advised To Keep To the Floodlit Path After Dark.” This was entirely for our benefit: Elephants, which are beautiful but can get aggressive when startled or threatened, roam freely through the property at all hours of the day. Once, on my way to dinner, a staffer scolded me for traveling the short distance between my tent and the dining room unattended. Didn’t I know Mantiga, a 26-year-old bull, was chomping on some leaves nearby? I gave a nervous smile as the guard, armed with a rifle, escorted me the rest of the way.

The same goes for pretty much everything else about being on safari: Be respectful. When the guide tells you not to wander to the edge of the river because crocodiles could be hiding in mud holes along the banks, or not to stick your arms out of the Jeep, you listen. These animals aren’t trained performers and this isn’t a zoo. You’re in their home, you play by their rules.

Drink up

Having said that, your safari guide wants you to relax. That’s why every afternoon, like clockwork, in the space between the second game drive and dinner, there’s something called a “sundowner,” which usually consists of gin and tonic, but other spirits have been known to make an appearance.

The ritual dates back to British colonial rule, but apparently no one’s grown tired of it yet. And why would they? Driving out to a spectacular location in the middle of nowhere for unlimited booze while the sun goes down — that’s an excellent way to close out the day. Plus, after rumbling around for hours in a hot Jeep scouring the bush for black rhinos and leopards, you’re going to have plenty of stories to swap.

Stoke your curiosity

“Village visits,” often a built-in part of the itinerary, are one of the non-animal activities you’ll do on safari. The style and fee (usually around $20 per person) varies from country to country, but typically consists of a coordinated visit to a rural tribe, with some or all of the money going back to the village. You’ll be greeted with a traditional dance, performed by natives in their bright red tunics and beaded jewelry. This is followed by a walk through the dwellings (which, in our case, consisted of a dozen mud-and-stick huts) and a chance to purchase souvenirs like necklaces, wooden statues and tribal masks.

Yes, the whole thing felt a little staged. But rather than stand around gawking uncomfortably, I treated this like cultural immersion 101. I had a million questions about tribal life in rural Kenya, and here were people who could give me direct answers. With our guide acting as translator, I fired away: is it true they drank cow’s blood? (Yes, but only mixed with milk.) How many wives can a man take? (Up to five.) What holds those huts together? (Cow poop.)

Save money with an off-season visit

The July wildebeest migration is a sight to behold. But don’t limit your safari to one month of the year. In Maasai Mara, arguably Kenya’s best and busiest terrain for wildlife spotting, the lions, leopards and elephants are here year-round, and they’re often easier to see when the migration isn’t happening, said Tyler Davis, the director at Angama Mara. In fact, the rainy season (March to May) can actually be a great time to visit. “You’ll have the whole Mara to yourself. The fields are super green, the animals are fat, and the thunderstorms each afternoon are incredible to watch,” he said. Not to mention, there are discounted rates.

Most hotels in the area hover around $400 to $600 a night during peak season (July to October), but in the off season, those prices drop significantly. Which is how you could end up with an all-inclusive stay at one of Kenya’s most exclusive lodges with private balconies, a 24-hour open bar in the lobby and gourmet cuisine, all for half the price.