The Budget Traveler’s Guide to Safaris

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I’ve recently written about traveling cheaply to a few places considered somewhat atypical for most American travelers: Colombia and Jordan (incidentally, I’ve also been to Egypt). It turns out that adventurous travel runs in the family. My sister Holly Van Groll is a Peace Corps volunteer serving in Zambia, and she recently shared some advice with me on traveling cheaply in Africa — specifically the southeastern part of Sub-Saharan Africa, where she resides.

 

My sister Holly with her Zambian pup, Charlie.

Even though she lives in a mud hut without running water, her service in the Peace Corps has allowed her to have some pretty amazing encounters. Her proximity in Zambia to native wildlife means she has a lot of experience with what Americans would typically call safaris, and as a volunteer, she’s on a very tight budget. Holly has a lot of useful and practical advice for travelers who may be considering a safari in that part of the world — particularly if you don’t have a lot of kwacha to spend.

Tip #1: They’re “game drives,” not safaris.
Searching online for “safaris” might limit you in terms of the tours you’ll find and how much they cost. That’s because these experiences are rarely called safaris once you’re in Zambia. What most budget travelers will be interested in are actually called “game drives” or “game viewing trips,” which involve staying in a lodge then entering the wildlife park for 2- to 4-hour tours. The word safari typically connotes an experience that involves setting up camp and staying in the park, which is much more expensive.

Tip #2: For inexpensive, top-quality game drives, South Luangwa National Park is where it’s at.
South Luangwa, home to several lodges, is widely considered the best game drive experience in southeastern Sub-Saharan Africa by Peace Corps volunteers (among others).

Tip #3: You can usually save money by camping.
Lodges set up for the purpose of hosting game drives usually allow you to camp on-site for much less than the price of a room. At Holly’s favorite lodge in South Luangwa, it costs only about 60 kwacha (less than $10 per night) to camp — and they allow you to bring your own food and cook for yourself, which can help you save even more.

Alternatively, you can spend a little more (1,100 kwacha, or $180 per night) for an all-inclusive experience that includes four meals and two game drives per day.

Exactly as terrifying (and awesome) as it looks.

Holly once opted to camp and woke up very early in the morning to a herd of elephants grazing right in her campsite. That’s because…

Tip #4: There are no fences between the wildlife park and the lodge.
The only boundaries are natural ones, like a river and mountain range. How’s that for up close and personal?

Tip #5: They’ll cater the game drives to you.
Not going to be happy unless you see a lion? It’s not unlikely in South Luangwa, but you’ll need to speak up so the drivers can radio others to find out where the type of animal you want to see was last spotted. Generally, South Luangwa offers the chance to see all of the “big five” — lion, Cape buffalo, African elephant, rhinoceros and leopard — along with zebras, giraffes and a variety of beautiful exotic birds.

Tip #6: Go during peak season (July-September).
I’m usually in favor of traveling to places outside of their peak season to save money and experience fewer crowds. And in this case, you can certainly still have a great experience off-peak. You’ll probably get all of the game drives to yourself and save money. But during peak season, the rains have finished and the animals are more active in the middle of the day, so you’re more likely to see what you came for.

Tip #7: Two to three game drives in a trip is plenty.
In Holly’s experience, the fourth game drive is when the boredom starts to creep in and the return in fun on your investment starts to decline.

In an upcoming article, Holly will be sharing her tips for getting from point A to point B and other practical advice for travelers in her part of Africa.

Have you been to a safari in Africa? What was your experience like?

All photos by Holly Van Groll.

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