Wondering what you need to do before your first safari? Bookmark this helpful list filled with tips on what to pack and more.
When my husband and I decided somewhat last-minute (about a month out) to travel to South Africa for our first safari at Singita Boulders Lodge, I spent a few days in a frantic state scouring the internet and emailing as many trusted sources as possible to get myself to a place where I felt sufficiently prepared. There were medical records to track down, vaccines to schedule, pills to pick up at the drugstore, and a number of pre-trip purchases to make. It was very apparent why safaris are traditionally planned a few months to a year out – there is a ton of prep work needed. As always, it all happened and with time to spare, but I wish I had found a few more helpful resources online rather than roundups of beautiful (but very heavy and impractical) leather safari bags. Here’s my stab at paying it forward — a list of the items I settled on and found most useful, along with a couple of tips to help you prepare for what will surely be one of your most memorable trips.
Far and away the best thing I did before leaving was take myself to Warby Parker to buy a pair of inexpensive prescription sunglasses. Knowing that my nearsightedness might get in the way of seeing everything there was to see on the game drives, it felt like one of the more important purchases that paid off big time on extra sunny days and on a bush walk that had me crawling on the ground after a close encounter with an angry hippo. Also recommended for those who wear contacts, as the drives can be dusty, which may irritate your eyes. (From $95)
There’s nothing I dislike more than buying something that will only be used once and then sit in my NYC-tiny closet never to be seen again, which is why I searched long and hard for a lightweight bag that fit the dimensions required by the bush plane we’d be taking from Johannesburg to Sabi Sand. They had strict weight and size limits and required soft luggage with no wheels or hard sides. I eventually settled on this simple duffel, which was pleasantly affordable and nice to look at. It folds up into a small case, which means I can easily stow it away between uses. ($70)
As mentioned, bush planes often have strict weight limits for luggage, so I invested in a lo-fi manual scale after reading one too many stories about digital luggage scales running out of battery mid-trip. This was another key purchase for us, as we were traveling for three weeks and with more luggage than usual. It allowed us to keep tabs on the weight of our safari bags and to shift items around to ensure our other luggage met airline standards. ($10)
I don’t always lock my luggage when I fly, but I knew my duffel bag would be out of sight at certain points during my journey and that I would leave my main suitcase with the airline in Johannesburg while on safari. Since this trip was too major to tempt fate, I ordered a four-pack of these TSA-compatible luggage locks to be safe. I know they’ll come in handy in the future. ($20)
I checked with our lodge before we left to confirm that they had individual binoculars for guests, which they did. Had they not, I would have ordered a pair of these, which came recommended by a couple of reputable online sources. Binoculars are a must on game drives, so I highly recommend speaking with your lodge before you travel and, if in doubt, bring your own pair because you’ll want to see every minute of those elephants bathing in the distance. ($224)
It’s a good idea to pack a simple tote in a lightweight material, like cotton or nylon, that you don’t mind getting dirty. The lodge we stayed at ended up supplying a beautiful canvas day bag, which I used to carry drive essentials like sunscreen, hand cream, chapstick, my camera, and water, but if they hadn’t I would have needed an alternative. ($52)
This creamy, easy to rub in sunscreen is my forever favorite and picking up a fresh bottle was at the top of my to-do list before departing. Most sunscreens will do the job, but I like the thin consistency for humid weather, high SPF, and compact size, which made it easy to tote around on drives. ($26)
A baseball cap is the one thing I neglected to bring, but wish I had and ended up borrowing from my husband often. The lodge I stayed at had a couple of safari-style options that I was able to use, but something simple and cotton would have been preferable. This brings me to another important tip: Don’t bring anything you’d mind losing. While it’s unlikely that you will, the general rule of safari packing is that most everything you wear on a game drive should be easy to replace. ($38)
If there is ever a time to invest in a good camera, this is it, which is why I upgraded the lens of my Canon DSLR before leaving. I ended up toggling between my iPhone (for instant gratification and Instagrams) and my camera, and am so happy to have video footage and photographs to remember the trip. Also worth bringing: a fresh lens cloth. The air is filled with dust, so I found myself wiping down both my iPhone and camera lens several times a day. (From $600)
Since our lodge was in a malaria zone and I tend to get a lot of mosquito bites, I packed an extra-strong repellent that came in both a pump and wipe option. This is one of the items that we ended up not using at all – we didn’t have any issues with mosquitoes and the lodge supplied a nicely scented repellent that we spritzed on before each drive – but it didn’t take up much room, so I’m glad we had the option.
Have I mentioned that it gets dusty? Also, there are no bathrooms in the bush. You’ll want to have a pack of tissues and/or wet wipes on hand. ($7)
I had been told that most safari lodges are pretty casual, and that most guests don't dress like characters from Out of Africa, which was the case with ours. You’ll be spending most of your time in a car on game drives, so you’ll want to have clothing that is comfortable. Loose or stretchy pants, cotton or linen shirts, and sneakers were the norm. It’s also important to pack layers, as the temperature can range from chilly to extra hot depending on what time of year you are traveling. We experienced the full range, and I ended up wearing my warmer clothing a lot more than I anticipated, so I was glad I packed it. You should also prepare for rain if your lodge doesn't provided ponchos. For the most part, people stuck to clothing in earthy colors, but your lodge can advise on any specific color suggestions for the region. Laundry service is usually available, but you should confirm this beforehand so you can pack accordingly.
Check in with your hotel or travel agent to determine the norm for the lodge you are staying at. At our lodge, which was quite small, it was recommended that we leave a cash tip with the check-out desk to be dispersed among all the staff who helped throughout our stay. We did this, but since we had an especially great experience with our guide and tracker, we tipped them directly.
Vaccinations and Medicine
First, check out the website for the Center for Disease Control and Prevention to find recommended vaccinations and medications for every country. Next, call your general practitioner to make sure you are up to date on standard vaccines and to request a copy of your vaccination records. (Some countries will want to see documentation at border entries, though South Africa didn't.) If you aren’t able to track down your records, a blood test can tell your doctor which standard vaccines you are missing. They will most likely refer you to a travel doctor for further consultation on vaccinations and medication needed for your trip, as most GPs don’t specialize in this area. I visited Passport Health, which has locations around the US. In most cases, unless it’s a standard vaccine or medication, neither these nor the travel doctor appointment will be covered by your insurance.
The travel doctor I saw recommended an oral typhoid vaccine and a course of malaria medicine called Malarone. I didn’t love the way the malaria pills made me feel when I was taking them, but I appreciated not having to worry too much about mosquitos while on safari. Worth noting: You aren’t supposed to take malaria medication if you are pregnant or trying to get pregnant and should speak with your doctor for more information. The travel doctor also prescribed an antibiotic to have onhand in case of an upset stomach or other basic illness.
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