Do you want to go to Africa but don't know where to start? It is definitely a trip that needs to be planned far in advance. The first time, I thought it was going to be a once in a lifetime experience. How wrong I was! I was lucky enough to return three more times, and am excited to be planning a trip for next summer. The animals are always the focus for me, but that does not mean there aren't other amazing experiences and activities. Culture, art, spas, and history can be a part of your trip along with the wildlife.
I strongly feel this is a journey to plan with a professional travel planner who is either based in Africa, or has been there A LOT. You need someone who can deal with the ins and outs of the camp transfers and local logistics. They can help you decide which area of Africa to concentrate on and then send you safari camp suggestions based on your budget. (If you want to do gorilla trekking in Uganda or Rwanda, please note that everything else about your trip depends on the days you are given your gorilla permits. Do that first!)
One of the most frequent questions I get is, "Did it take forever to get there?" If you have miles for upgrading to business class, this is the time to use them. Being able to stretch out and sleep on at least one of the legs will help you be ready to hit the ground running on arrival. Depending on how long it takes you to get there, you may want to plan more than one day in Nairobi or Johannesburg to adjust before beginning the safari portion of your trip. When traveling to South Africa, a few days in Cape Town is a great way to start.
Getting There-South Africa
There are several ways to get to South Africa from the United States, and yes, they are all long. On my most recent trip, I used British Airways miles to book the tickets so we flew through London. I actually liked having a break between the two flights, but some people prefer the long South African Airways flights from the US to Johannesburg so they don't have to change planes. Flying the Middle Eastern carriers is getting more popular and they do sometimes offer competitive fares.
There are a few ways to get to Kenya, but there is no direct flight option from the US. You will need to change in Europe or the Middle East.
There are three main types of accommodations in the safari areas-lodges, tented camps, and mobile tented camping. Lodges are generally larger, with the rooms in one building or a few smaller buildings. Tented camps are permanent tents, with real floors and full ensuite bathrooms. Sometimes, the camps have a small chalet rather than a canvas tent, but they are stand alone rather than grouped in a building. Mobile tented camping is just how it sounds-the safari operator may set up the camp for a whole season, but it is not a permanent camp. Each type of lodging has its advantages, and I have liked doing a mix of camps and lodges. While some are quite luxurious and I know there are amazing experiences to be had at the mobile tented camps, that style is just not for me!
Some will be found in or adjoining national parks, some will be in private reserves. Trip Advisor reviews and each place's website will help you determine this. Something else to find out is what type of vehicle is used, and how many people per vehicle.
I will highlight some of my favorite camps and lodges in upcoming posts.
After a few days in Bangkok, we flew to Chiang Mai on a quick Bangkok Airways flight. One of the activities we planned far in advance of arriving was seeing some of Thailand's famous elephants. Unfortunately, the more I researched the different elephant camps and treks found outside of the city, the more disappointed I became. Many of the elephants in the these venues are terribly mistreated and live horrible lives. However, I read about the Elephant Nature Park and was happy to find an elephant experience that was humane. The Elephant Nature Park is a sanctuary for elephants (and cats and dogs!) from Northern Thailand and Burma where the elephants live in a somewhat wild setting. Visitors feed the elephants and go down to the river to bathe them, but there are no elephants rides or tricks performed.
You can schedule a visit online before arriving. They do have a limited number of visitors each day, so plan ahead. Their van will pick you up at your hotel in the morning. I asked our hotel front desk to call and confirm the day before. The ride through the forests and mountains was quite pretty. The driver shows a short video on the way about their work and the need for elephant sanctuaries. After arriving, you help feed the elephants and see them walking around the grounds. You are allowed to get quite close to them, but there is also a platform viewing area for those who are not as comfortable being close. A guide accompanies you throughout the day. Bring a large bottle of water and clothes that you don't mind getting wet (and dirty!) A vegetarian lunch was provided mid-day. After lunch, they show a video showing the traditional training process many of these elephants go through. It was absolutely heartbreaking, and I was not able to stay through much of it. You are welcome to leave and go out to the viewing platform until it is over.