Just over a week from today I will head back to the African continent and my favorite country in the world of Namibia. I pretty much always get at least a bit excited about upcoming travels, but down right ecstatic when it comes to heading to Africa… This trip will be no exception and will highlight both new regions (Skeleton Coast and The Dunes) as well as re-visit some of my past favorites (Damaraland, Palm Fontein and Etosha NP)
There are some real special nuances of this trip that is sure to make it very special. First I will be traveling with Andy my son and it's shaping up to be one of my favorite family adventure vacations. This will be his first gig as a photographer, shooting the incredible landscapes and ever present wildlife. That’s a good start! Next up is the unique nature of the program itself and our traveling companions. We are traveling as guests of The World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) and our new partner Wilderness Safaris (W.S., The leading safari company in all of southern Africa). WWF and WS are looking to not only educate us, but seek our input and insight on the local village conservancies. Namibia is “ahead of the pack” in how they work with local communities to create truly sustainable tourism opportunities. The majority of the lodges are on community land and staff by locals in a partnership with WS.
I will share a lot more on the conservancies when I return and have an in depth understanding… you can count on that.
Now while this is “work”, no trip to Africa would be complete or even close without the traditional safari tour. We will spend the first few days exploring The Dunes out of Sossusvei, the largest Sand Dunes in the World! (this is a first for me). Next up we will head to the Swakopmund and the Skeleton Coast for a few days of exploring ship wrecks and kayaking with one of the largest sea lion colonies to be found anywhere in the world.
Then its fly north to start our adventure with the good folks from the WWF. We will visit conservancies and camps throughout the north. “Stalking” the elusive desert elephant along the dry river bottoms of Damaraland. (our home for the night Damaraland Camp is the oldest JV Conservancy in Namibia and our host and camp manager is one of the few women in such a high position!)
Then on to tracking black rhino (doesn’t that just sound cool?) out of our camp outside of Palmwag (my favorite camp in all of Africa). Tracking rhino as part of a JV with Wilderness and the “Save the Rhino Trust” and partnership that has clearly resulted in the largest population of the endangered black rhino anywhere on the planet.
Moving on we will be headed to Grootberg Lodge, the first 100% conservancy owned property in the country. A region rich with predators, the conservancy works with the locals to be more tolerant of the cheetahs and lions that also call this home.
Now into the “real” bush and a camping expedition at Otjimumbunde. You really haven’t experienced an African Safari until you sleep in a tent with the only thing separating you and the wilderness is a thin strip of canvas. The night comes alive with all the sounds of Africa and is sure to keep your blood pumping just a bit more than a luxury lodge. The “stories” around the camp fire by the locals will only help to set the stage.
Always a highlight we work our way to Etosha National Park and is 22, 270 sq. KM if saline desert, savanna and woodlands. An amazing 114 different species of mammals are represented in the park… watering holes will set the stage for endless hours of photography literally thousands of animals. It is about as rich of a wildlife experience as you can find. Highlights will be herds of the largest elephants on the continent (measuring 4 meters at the shoulder), one of the few “growing” populations of black rhino, the trio of “Big” cats (lion, leopard and cheetah) more antelope (Kudu, gemsbok, eland and dik dik to name a few) than one can imagine and over 300 species of birds.. (including flamingos), of course then there are the reptiles and just so much more, Etosha should be on any wildlife lovers bucket list.
As we wrap up what might be my favorite adventure vacation packages we will then spend a few days in Windhoek. Here we will introduce the group to our efforts with Wheels of Change. Andy and I will spend some time at one of the BEC’s and just get caught up with the bike crews and work on plans for our next shipment later this summer. Time allowing we will visit with some friends running cycling tours into one of the Windhoek townships.
Then unfortunately it is back up and head home… if all goes well with Andy, we will return with literally thousands of images and video to sort through and relive (and share) our adventure over and over again.
If I wasn’t excited about going before I penned this “blog” I sure am now….. in closing I share an old African Proverb “Return to an old watering hole for more than water, friends and dreams are there to meet you!”
More to come...
Picking the Right Partner (Your Travel Professional)
The best investment you will ever make is picking the right partner. You have two choices here: #1. Go direct to the adventure travel companies specializing in Africa or #2. Go through a licensed travel agent with African tour operator contacts (and insight). I just wouldn’t suggest going in on your own. There are just too many options and too many variables. Work with a travel professional that has firsthand experience (been there done that). Check them out thoroughly (what did we do before the internet and sites like Trip Advisor?) If you don’t know where to start, pick up a few trusted magazines like Travel and Leisure or National Geographic Traveler (or visit their websites). They all have some sort of “trip of the year” or “operator of the year” awards list recognizing the top operators in the world. Conde Nast Magazine has a similar equivalent for the agent community. Pick up a couple magazines and make a few calls. See how you “connect” with the tour operator or travel agent. After all, how often do you really think you will get to go to Africa?
Questions and Answers (You Can Never Ask a Dumb Question)
Before you set out to find a tour operator or travel agent, start by asking yourself a few questions. Think carefully about your answers. Here are a few to get you thinking…
1) How long do you think you can dedicate to the trip?
2) Do you have a total budget in mind?
3) Are there certain animals that are a must-see?
4) Are there any native tribes in particular you are interested in?
5) Are there iconic destinations you want to see (Victoria Falls, Cape Town, Dunes in
6) How many countries do you want to visit? (Did you know there is at least one place
where you can visit four in one day?)
7) How many nights at each place do you prefer?
8) What kind of accommodations are you expecting/ do you prefer? (Luxury tents, small
lodges, large lodges, hotels, etc.)
9) Are you prepared to fly in a small bush plane?
10) What time of year are you hoping to travel?
You get the idea…now armed with this information, set out to find the perfect “travel partner” – either tour/safari operator direct or a travel professional specializing in Africa.
Here is a short list of questions to help get you started – add to the list what is important to you. Keep track of who you talk with and who says what. Search for that “feeling” you get when you just know you are talking to the right person.
In no particular order (and assuming you are talking direct to the tour operator):
1) How long have you been operating tours in Africa?
2) What regions of Africa do you have programs?
3) Have you been and if so where?
4) What is your personal favorite destination within Africa?
5) Where do you feel the best place to see the Big Five is?
6) What is your favorite “camp”?
7) Where should I go to interact with the real people of Africa and why?
8) How do you choose who you work with in Africa?
9) Can I speak with someone that has been to Africa with you?
10) What do I need for shots or medication? (Malaria Pills, Yellow Fever? Etc.)
Now armed with the insight and the tasks listed above, you are ready. Make the planning every bit as fun as the entire process should be. Build the anticipation until you eventually get on that jet to your dream vacation of a lifetime.
And when you get back, give me a call and tell me all about it. I love hearing about travels to Africa almost as much as I do heading out on my own! (By the way, in case you are wondering where I’m heading next on the African front? Kenya and the gorillas of Uganda is my plan!!!)
Don't forget I am always here to help you plan the perfect African Safari
Oe leave a comment below with any questions you have!
The People of Africa (Diverse and Fascinating) “We are not Africans because we are born in Africa, we are Africans because Africa is born in us.”
Chester Higgins Jr.
There is no continent more blessed with the incredible beauty and sweeping diversity than that of Africa. From this diversity Africans “parented” the rest of humanity. However, all this diversity has a tangible and intangible commonality which merges into one family! Who hasn’t looked at a collection of photos or videos and “marveled’ at the stoic Maasai Tribe…tall, handsome and often dressed in red – a semi nomadic people located in Kenya and Tanzania. They are among the best known and recognizable African ethnic groups and are often found working the many game camps and lodges in the region.
Or who hasn’t heard of the Zulu? The reason you have heard of them just might be that they are the largest ethnic group in southern Africa and beyond. They are well known for their beautiful, brightly colored beads and baskets as well as other small carvings. The Zulu are practically divided in half with about 50% living in cities and engaging in domestic work and another 50% working on farms.
My personal favorite might be the Himba. (Picture the tribe that uses the “red” die to color their hair and skin.) This ancient tribe of semi nomadic herders and farmers is made up of extraordinary people who have resisted change and preserved their unique cultural heritage. It’s hard to travel through Namibia without visiting a village of the Himba.
Okay, so that is just three of the over 500 tribes that make up the indigenous people of Southern and East Africa…but when many, if not most of us think about Africa, how can we not think about Nelson Mandela and his struggle and ultimate leadership in ending Apartheid? A trip to Cape Town or a visit to District 6 or Robin Island will take you back and leave you thirsting for more insight about this period in African history.
As I said early on, the people of Africa are diverse: Sheep herders, gold miners, peasants and millionaires. It would be hard to stereotype Africa’s population and be even close.
Safari or Not To Safari (Types of Programs Throughout Africa)
Now back to the task at hand – preparing you to determine the best African Adventure for you and yours. As I see it there are really just a few different types of African vacations. Obviously #1 is the classic African Safari. Option #2 might be more of an “Active” African adventure, and option #3 might be a combination of the two. There is of course a #4, sitting on a beach somewhere drinking tropical drinks with an umbrella but really, why travel all the way to Africa for what you can do in Florida or Hawaii? To this end I will spend a few minutes talking about #1, #2 and #3 (#4 I will leave to your imagination).
The Classic African Safari! First we need to remember, Africa wrote the book on luxury camping and over the top customer service. While it may be possible to locate a large multi-unit hotel style complex, I am just not sure where or why you would want to stay in one when much better options are available. The “average” accommodation, if there is such a thing in Africa, is a small super deluxe permanent camp style setting. Yes, there are permanent lodges and/or mobile camps, but for the most part you will find a permanent tent style camp. Why tent style? Often times the “landlord” can only lease the land, so the idea is there cannot be a permanent structure. That said, these permanent “camps” are about as far from camping as you can get: running hot and cold water, incredibly plush bedding and service beyond your wildest expectations. Guest to staff ratios in excess of four staff to one guest is not uncommon.
These camps are often on nature conservatories or game reserves in the heart of the best game viewing possible. I have had the pleasure of having White Rhinos visit the dinner table and Hippos brush my tent in the middle of the night. This is clearly how you can get up close and personal to the game. In my book African safaris has to be the perfect adventure vacations for couples.
One thing to keep in mind – not all camps have all game. Therefore, one must start considering what it is they really want to see. Similar for each region, you may be able to see the Big Five for example, but it may take a few days at this camp and a few days at that one and so forth. Each camp (and area) has its own “specialty”.
The overall experience can vary as well. A “private” experience in Africa is quite common…this is when you and say, your family of four, has their own vehicle and guide for the duration of your stay. The guide driver will escort you from camp to camp or region to region, always in your own vehicle. Another option is to “fly” into the bigger camps…here you meet a group of likeminded travelers and each day load up into a “safari” vehicle (sometimes seating as many as a dozen plus) and go out for your game drives together. After a few days you may move to another camp and meet another group.
Each camp or lodge for that matter has a different “setting”. Each region has different vegetation and geography. Start asking yourself questions: are you a desert person or do you prefer thick forestation, dunes or river valleys, red rocks or granite peaks, six tent compounds or more expansive forty room lodges with a hot tub?
#2 Active Adventure. Here is the challenge, by the sheer nature of the beast (pun intended): it is difficult at best, but not impossible, to have a very active safari. Why? Simply put, there are things out there that would be delighted to eat you and wandering around is just not a good idea. That doesn’t mean you can’t have a day here or there of biking, rafting or horseback riding (in fact, there are some great safari options that include a little of both). It’s easy to fit in an active day here or there. But for a truly active adventure one has to think along the lines of civilization, at least by African standards.
South Africa vacations are a smorgasbord of possible activities. Biking the Garden Route, kayaking Point of Good Hope, shark diving with Great Whites, hiking Table Mountain, etc. It may be easiest to base in one of the many hotel style properties. There are lots of opportunities to explore the culture (think townships and Robin Island) or fine dining and wine tasting (South Africa is not to be overlooked for its own wine country).
As with any civilized destination, the options for hotel types and quality are endless. Everything is available from five star luxury resorts to the more affordable three start comfort hotels. Don’t overlook Africa’s beaches – some of the best in the world! (Just remember their “season” is opposite of that in the US).
#3 Combination. This option seems to fit the best for most adventurous souls. Simply put, five to seven days of safari can be a lot. As pointed out, most safaris entail a lot of “seat time”. So how about starting with an “active” on-the-go vacation and then graduating to a safari style? This may be easier than you think. You see, the toughest part of an African vacation is just getting there. Depending on where you start, this could be a 15-20 or even 24 hour flight! But once you get to Africa it’s not all that tough to take in-country flights from one country or destination to another. Let’s say your “hub” is Johannesburg (as it often is)…you can fly to Johannesburg and then on to Cape Town and spend the week exploring, biking, hiking, kayaking, you name it. Then, either take a commuter small plane to one of the game reserves like Sabi Sabi near Krueger National Park or fly back to Johannesburg and transfer via one of the in-country carriers like South African Airways to Windhoek to visit a wide range of camps in Namibia. Or via Johannesburg, fly back up to Nairobi and treat yourself to a Kenya or Tanzania safari.
The options are limitless...
Don't forget I am always here to help you plan the perfect African Safari
Or leave a comment with your questions below.
What you need to know not only before you go, but before you even start thinking about going!
To start our journey together I want to share an African proverb: The people sailing in the same boat share the goal.
When one thinks of Africa, the vision is that of beauty, wilderness, wildlife, exotic peoples, romance and so much more. Throughout history Africa’s people, its struggles and above all else its overwhelming beauty have created a romantic vision of a spectacular, yet mysterious continent. Since those first western explorers landed on its shores in the late 1800’s, Americans have been fascinated and drawn with wonder and intrigue to this diverse and complex land. Even today the stories and pictures that come out of Africa paint a picture of an untouched place where its people live as they have for centuries, a place where the wildlife is abundant and untamed and a place of conflict and opportunity…yet there is so much more than superlatives can describe and a ton of adventure vacation packages to discover when looking into a trip to Africa.
There is a saying in Africa…. It applies to planning your first trip as well: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!” Once you have your mind made up that you will visit this great continent, set aside the time to “study up” and educate yourself on at least the basics. The following is just an idea and an outline of things you might want to consider and how to get started eating that elephant called Africa.
The Continent and the Five Regions of Africa (This is One Big Continent)
Of our seven continents on the planet Africa ranks number two in size, second only to Asia. With its 11,677,791 square miles (give or take a few) you can fit all of Europe and South America within its footprint. In fact you could fit the United States something like five times within its coastlines. That is one large land mass. As you start thinking about the “where” keep this in mind…Picture talking to a distant relative in Europe and your response when they suggest they want to come visit for two weeks and they would like to see Maine, New York, Florida, Arizona and the California coast. You would quickly let them know that just isn’t possible! Now magnify that times five and well, you get the idea.
Africa and its 58 countries are broken up into five distinct “regions”:
o North Africa
o West Africa
o East Africa
o Central Africa
o Southern Africa
North Africa is typically considered dry and arid. It is made up of eight countries or territories and not frequently thought of as a “Safari” destination. Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, South Sudan, Sudan, Tunisia, and Western Sahara make up North Africa. North Africa is separated from the rest of Africa by the Sahara Desert to the South. These countries create a stronger connection to the seafaring countries of Europe more so than their southern neighbors.
West Africa is bordered on the west and south by the Atlantic, to the north by the Sahara, and to the east (roughly) by Mount Cameroon to Lake Chad. West Africa makes up roughly one-fifth of Africa and includes Liberia, Senegal, Togo, Niger, Ghana, Guinea and Nigeria, just to name a few of the eighteen countries, commonly considered West Africa. With the vast majority of its land mass as plains at less than 300 meters above sea level, it is considered “semi-arid”.
***East Africa is where we really start talking “safari country”! This region consists of nineteen countries and territories most commonly known for Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia, Mozambique, Madagascar, (although these last two are often referenced as Southern Africa), again just to hit the highlights. When talking “safari” Eastern Africa typically means Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Its stunning and scenic geography, dense vegetation and high peaks (Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya to be a name dropper), as well as Lake Victoria, the second largest fresh water lake in the world should be “must-sees” in anyone’s book. It should be no surprise why the fabled Big Five (elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion and leopard) can be found here.
Central Africa (considered by most to be a “Republic”) is considered the “core” of the continent and includes the countries, regions or states of Burundi, the Central African Republic, Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Rwanda. This is a land rich in African history as well as minerals. Despite its significant mineral resources (gold, uranium, diamonds, etc.) the Central African Republic remains one of the poorest countries in the world and among the ten poorest countries in Africa. It should be no surprise that in no small part to the mineral wealth and the geographic “core” location, Central Africa has been a coveted territory by both African and foreign governments for centuries.
***Southern Africa (not to be confused with the country of South Africa). Southern Africa is the southernmost region of the African continent, variably defined by geography or geopolitics. Within the region are numerous territories, including the Republic of South Africa (a successor country to the Union of South Africa); nowadays, the simpler term South Africa is generally reserved for the country in English. In the UN scheme of things, Southern Africa is made up of five countries: South Africa, Swaziland, Namibia (my favorite), Lesotho and Botswana. When we think or hear Africa, we are often hearing about Southern or even South Africa as it is a region rich with history, development, opportunities and struggles. South Africa stands out as the dominant economic superpower of the region. It can also “rival” East Africa with its wildlife opportunities.
(*** Regions commonly associated with safaris!)
Read Part 2: Visiting Africa 101- Part 2
Don't forget I am always here to help you plan the perfect African Safari
Fact is a week doesn’t go by where someone doesn’t ask me… ”how to I plan the perfect family adventure vacation?” Seems after 20 plus years in the adventure travel business I just take it for granted that everyone just “knows”.
Over the years we have published a lot of good help and planning resources for finding the perfect adventure vacation, well this time I am going to really try and focus on how to plan a family vacation and what it takes to make it all flow so seamlessly.
As I have mentioned in the past, the first thing I always suggest is to involve everyone. This is even more important with family vacations, give the kids a voice and even some responsibilities. Make a game out of it… with challenges and rewards. Maybe consider starting with a pizza party kick off (remember to surf the web and perhaps order some catalogs to have as idea generators)
Early on in the process start with keeping good notes and/or files. Consider a “questionnaire” a document that can be a baseline of Q&A as you march forward. Again, don’t forget the kids in this process…. Ask questions like:
From there start thinking about when you can best schedule your vacation around schools, sports, camp, etc… Try and pick as many dates as possible and don’t overlook early summer! That can often be a great time with fewer crowds and better weather.
Better add in some soul searching in the budget… we all know that traveling with a family of 4 can get expensive. In addition to the trip you also have airfares and more… (more on that in a minute). One way to look at it is on a “per night basis” this can lead you to either a 2-3 star or 4 and 5 star. You can often use 350-450 a night for a good higher-end program. Obviously a 5 Star Luxury Safari in Africa could cost you upwards of a thousand dollars a day…
Don’t overlook another budget option, do you want one or two rooms? Often tour operators are more inclined to offer a bit bigger child discounts if your children are sharing a room. Just remember at some point in life, little Johnny no longer wants to share a bed with his little sister and vice versa…
Once you have a budget and dates, you can start thinking duration. Be sure to allow a few days on either end for delays and/or just getting adjusted back to real life…
Now go back and start looking at all the “wish lists”, look for common themes. If you see that everyone is looking forward to horseback riding, well you better start looking at destinations and trips that include that element. Another big one is often water activities: rafting, snorkeling, etc… We don’t want to send you to the desert if everyone is looking forward to swimming every day.
Same concept applies to the destinations… Are you looking for a National Park like Yellowstone or Yosemite? Or are you looking into a more far off destination like a safari in Africa or a biking tour in Europe? Try your best to narrow it down to 3 options or less….
This is where establishing the rapport with a good tour operator or two now comes into play… Call them up and tell them what you are thinking, here is an example: “We are thinking of a few vacation options… Yellowstone National Park, maybe a camping trip in Montana or an adventure in the Canadian Rockies. We are thinking 5 or 6 nights and we really want at least a day of horseback riding and perhaps some white water rafting. We are looking for the first two weeks of June, we would like 2 rooms and our budget is about XXX a day each.”
Right there is enough to give any good tour operator enough insight to put a few options out in front of you (to take back to the pizza bargaining table with the entire crew)
Now that you have a really good idea of where, start looking at the host city. This is the city that the trip starts, if you’re on the east coast then just know that getting to the west coast can add a day and a bit of a higher price tag for flights. Do not overlook driving, some of my best memories and that of our guests have been on the 1-2 or 3 day road trip to the destination. Just be sure to ask your tour operator if there is a place you can park your car at the beginning of the trip at no charge.
OK with all this behind you, you should be close to picking your dream vacation. Now don’t make that the end of the experience and just wait for departure day. Suggest to all that they challenge themselves to learn a bit about the destination, this just makes it all come together that much more when you arrive (and it keeps your guides on their toes).
One last suggestion (for today anyways) make sure everyone has a camera, the little point and shoot digitals have gotten so cheap its not out of the question to have one for all. There are also the disposables and/or waterproof disposables. Maybe even one of those crazy “flip” video cameras. When you get home, everyone can relive the perfect family adventure vacation as they work together to put together the perfect vacation photo album!
Key is… just get out and enjoy this great big wonderful world we live in!
Our adventure travel experts at Austin-Lehman Adventures recently selected the Top 125 Best Travel Blog Semi-Finalists, and from this list, we've specially picked our favorite Top 10 Best Travel Blog Finalists on the web! These bloggers are truly the best in the blogosphere, providing beautifully written travel posts that highlight their expert knowledge, undeniable passion, cultural insight and unique, personal experiences. Our top 10 bloggers inspire, ignite and encourage our passion for travel. Congratulations to these top bloggers! Here's our list of Top 10 Best Travel Blog Finalists, in no particular order.
Director | Austin-Lehman Adventures