Poe’s Packing Panic: Safari Edition

We leave in a few days for Africa. So, you know what that means.

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Packing panic. It’s a thing. And for me, it’s a repeat thing.

It’s not like this is my first African safari. Or even my second. No, this is the third time we are going on safari. You could say, we really, really, really like it.

I should know the drill by now.

Even still, in the last few months, I’ve vacillated between, “Nope, I have gobs of clothes, I don’t need to buy a single thing for this trip,” to “Oh my damn, I have nothing appropriate to take on safari, I better buy a whole new wardrobe.”

I have a few excuses. First of all, it’s a really long trip. We are going back to Serengeti Bushtops in Tanzania for eight days and Mara Bushtops in Kenya for five days (plus a couple of days in Zanzibar and one day in Nairobi on our way home, and a whole lot of time on very long flights). All told, I have to pack for 18 days, which is a LOT of days.

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(Oh, and I have actually packed for an 18 day trip before).

Secondly, I’ve lost a little weight since our last trip two years ago. Not a lot but enough to go down a size or two.

Third, I’ve purged my closet several times since our last trip and got rid of things I thought I’d probably never wear again, ie: clothes bought specifically for a safari. (Except my safari jacket. I wear that thing all the time).

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Warthog approved: My safari jacket in use in an actual safari in 2016.

And fourth, I also tend to buy really cheap items to take on safari (t-shirts from H&M or Old Navy, linen or cargo pants from Gap Factory or Kohl’s), and well, those don’t generally hold up that well. Which is fine, but obviously necessitated some shopping.

In case anyone is wondering, the reason I buy cheap, fast fashion stuff for safari (besides the cost, obviously) is that these clothes are going to take a bit of a beating. It’s not that safari is extremely physical (it’s not like your climbing a mountain or something) but you are getting in and out of a very tall Land Rover multiple times a day and walking through some dusty brush, primarily, at least in my case, to squat and pee.

You also really only need a couple of outfits since they do daily laundry at the safari camps we stay at. So the cost per wear is actually pretty high. Plus, if anything does happen to my safari clothes during the trip, say a laundry mishap or a tear from getting in and out of the truck, I won’t be bent out of shape about it.

I actually learned this lesson the hard way on our first safari to South Africa, where I bought these really nice $100 hiking pants from Athleta. I was so excited about these pants, I can’t even tell you. I ordered them online and put them right into my suitcase, still encased in plastic and everything. When I went to put them on our first morning in Sabi Sands, I saw (or felt, actually) that there was a big tear in the fabric, right across the right butt cheek. I was crushed. I used my little in-room sewing kit and stitched them right up but they were ruined, in my book. Lesson learned: no expensive, fancy safari clothes.

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These were my fancy pants on safari in South Africa in 2014. 

A few other considerations:

Colors: White and light colors are a bad idea since they show dirt so easily. And dark colors like black and navy attract mosquitoes and even tsetse flies, which hurt like hell.

As for agitating the animals with bright colors? Animals are mostly color blind, so the sight of bright colors doesn’t send them into a tizzy at all. Plus, you’re in a truck most of the time, so they just see you as part of a large, dark mass, and most likely think we’re all just another large animal. But, having said that, I tend to stick with neutral colors like gray, tan, olive. Especially if you go on a walking safari, when you definitely need to blend into the surroundings a bit.

Weather: It’s going to be pretty warm while we are on safari, highs mostly in the mid to upper 80s, lows in the upper 50s, low 60s. Still, I wear long pants and bring long sleeve shirts to help avoid bug bites. And a hat for sun protection. But not a pith helmet, or any other colonialist gear that smacks of racism and oppression.

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Nope. Just. Nope. 

And even though it’s the short rain season in the Masai Mara and Serengeti while we are there, we don’t need to bring waterproof gear. They usually have rain ponchos in the trucks (along with binoculars, which is why we don’t bring our own).

Dinners & downtime: This one is tricky and all over the map. Each camp has its own vibe and the dinner attire varies. Sometimes people wear the same clothes they wear on the game drives, which is fine. At Savanna Lodge in Sabi Sands, people (including the staff) got a bit dressed up for dinner (sundresses or linen pants and camisole tops for the women, pants and button up shirts for the men).

I try to just go with a happy medium and bring something nice, then wear it over and over and over again.

Here’s my safari packing list

Clothing

  • 3-4 t-shirts
  • 2 long sleeve shirts (I’m taking two lightweight button downs to wear over t-shirts in the morning)
  • 1 sweatshirt/fleece (I’m taking my olive cargo jacket)
  • 2 pairs of cotton trousers/pants – a pair and a spare while the other is being washed.
  • 2 light dresses/2 dressy tops/1 pair of jeans – for dinners while on safari and time in Zanzibar & Nairobi.
  • A scarf – good for blocking dust or sun or bundling up on a chilly morning.
  • 4 pairs of socks
  • 6 pairs of underwear (I also bring a net lingerie bag for our socks and underwear to keep them together and it just to make it a bit less embarrassing.)
  • 3 bras (including one sports bra – VERY bumpy roads. I wash this by hand before dinner and let dry overnight.)
  • Sunglasses (for the dust as well as bright sun)
  • Pajamas/linen pants for hanging out in our tent.
  • Hat
  • Swimsuit
  • Lightweight, durable, waterproof shoes (I’m taking this tennis/hiking shoe hybrid pair I already have. Not terribly lightweight, but durable.)
  • Sandals for around camp/wedges for dinner & city

Toiletries/First Aid

  • Anti-malarial medicine
  • Sunscreen
  • Antihistamine (for bug bites/stings and allergic reactions)
  • Aspirin for pain/headaches
  • Mosquito repellant (I especially like the wipes or toilette versions)
  • A couple of large Ziploc bags (to keep things like your camera dry or free of dust)
  • Pepto Bismal plus something stronger (we travel with Cipro after the Great Peruvian Giardia Adventure of 2013)
  • Band aids/antibiotic ointment for blisters, cuts, scrapes
  • Personal toiletries in small travel sizes, including hair and skincare products, or formulas that aren’t liquid, ie: powder or stick sunscreen, solid shampoo/conditioner)
  • Minimal makeup – really, just the basics: tinted bb cream, mascara, tinted lip balm.
  • Prescription medications/spare glasses and contacts, in my case.
  • Tissues — (I found having little packs of these in the pockets of my jacket VERY useful when “checking the tires” — ie: peeing – during those 6-hour game drives.
  • Antiseptic gel or wipes (handy for washing your hands when there’s no water around)

Gadgets and Gizmos

  • Converter plug to fit local sockets (if needed. We did not need one on our last trip to Bushtop. All the plugs were universal.)
  • Camera (with zoom lenses/tripod/whatever. I just use a Canon point-and-shoot)
  • Extra memory card for your camera
  • Binoculars (Again, we found we didn’t really need them and our safari trucks had them)
  • Spare batteries and/or battery charger for electronics (Bushtop’s safari trucks even had USB ports to help keep batteries charged)
  • I-Pad or Kindle for all your entertainment needs
  • Cell phone. I don’t take my computer but I will take my cell phone. But, while the camps do have wifi, but it’s always a bit iffy. I try to just unplug and be in the moment, which is what safari (and any vacation, really) should be all about.

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Hotel Crashing, Bushtops Serengeti, Tanzania

Back when I was a nubile young woman–aka: my broke-as-hell-and-unable-to-afford-any-sort-of-vacation period–my friends and I would often retreat for into the verdant hills of Central Texas and go camping for a couple of days.

And believe me, I do mean camping. Not glamping. There wasn’t anything glamorous about it.

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Not at all like a Real Housewives camping trip. Except the rusty fire barrel. That’s fairly universal.

We’d load up our respective cars and trucks with coolers brimming with cheap beer and wine, various meats and cheeses, and foil packs of veggies to throw on a grill or open fire. We’d scrounge up a few old tents of questionable structural integrity, a couple of sleeping bags (or comforters that could be adapted into sleeping bags), a bottle of Dr. Bonner’s All Purpose Soap, maybe some bug repellant, and off we’d go to the nearest wooded area, riverside or greenbelt we could find—preferably one with a swinging rope already in place for true feats of drunken courage.

It was definitely fun, but far from comfortable.

Bushtops Serengeti may technically have what they call “tents,” but it’s about as far from any traditional camping experience as you can get.

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And it was, hands down, the most romantic place I think we’ve ever stayed.

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There are a total of 15 tents spread out across the property, and a large dining/bar/library-type tent sort of in the middle, near the pool/deck area. And what a pool! It overlooked the Serengeti plains and was just gorgeous.

We were at the far, far end of the property in tent 14 (Oribi). All of the tents are around 120 meters, are made of traditional canvas and sit atop a large wooden deck with a private hot tub and built-in seating area overlooking the Serengeti plains. We definitely made good use of that built-in sofa for reading, taking naps or just soaking in the amazing landscape.

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There was no air conditioning but the tent opened pretty completely on all sides and we found we didn’t need the A.C. In fact, during turndown service, our butler Fahldi left these adorable hot water bottles to heat up the bed and we definitely needed them when we visited in early October (3 days, 2 nights).

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Oh, do you like how I oh-so-casually mentioned the butler? Yeah, I know. We had a butler. Faldhi, who brought us afternoon gin and tonics (on a mile-long walk from the bar to our tent without spilling any of it!), took care of our laundry, ran a hot bubble bath after our evening game drive, and arranged for us to have a super romantic, lantern-lit dinner our first night at the camp. He was so, so, so wonderful.

Bushtops Serengeti is also where I learned an unexpected lesson about myself: I had no idea how food-motivated I am. Apparently, I get very cranky about a place (no matter how nice it is) if the food isn’t good. Lemala Kuria Hills was very, very nice but the food was a bit of a letdown.

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The food at Bushtops, however, was phenomenal, especially the passion fruit soufflé we had for dessert at our tent that first night. I seriously don’t know how it made the journey all the way from the kitchen to our tent while still staying so light and fluffy and intact.

(The main tent with its cool, cowhide bar and outdoor fire area) 

The staff at Bushtops were wonderful. Everybody was so, so professional and accommodating. They really went above and beyond. Juma, our driver/guide and John, our tracker, made sure that we saw plenty of lions (including large pride with 3-4 day old babies and a pregnant female), cheetahs and even black rhino, an animal that had eluded us for most of our time in the Serengeti.

(Clockwise from top left: lions mating, black rhinos, female leopard stalking a Thompson gazelle, mama lion and a baby peeking out just by her foot). 

The game drives in the Serengeti were long (generally 6:30 am to 3 pm then back out for an hour or two right before sunset) but Juma and John did everything to make the drives comfortable and pleasant, even stocking our favorite rose in the cooler and making sure we had hot water bottles and blankets for those morning game drives.

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My excellent photography skills at work again: That’s John cut off on the right and Juma cut off on the left. But look how well I captured the truck!

Some of my favorite Bushtop memories (besides that romantic dinner and the drives):

  • Snuggling up in blankets on our tent deck with a glass of wine and neglecting my book because I was too busy watching the clouds roll in.
  • Sundowners by the outdoor fire near the main tent.
  • Having a delicious lunch under a tree out on the plains with nothing but zebras and wildebeest off in the distance for company.
  • Falling asleep to the sound of some major rain on the tent top and our hot water bottles warming our sides.
  • Waking up that same night to the sound of buffalos, hyenas, and some other animal friends (we saw zebra hoof prints in the morning) scraping or licking the sides of our tent.
  • Lying in bed in the morning and listening to all the little bird feet running up and down the tent roof.
  • Our barman, Dennis, delivering coffee with Amarula (African Bailey’s) to our tent early on our last morning.
  • The outdoor shower. And that outdoor tub!
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Just waiting for a refill.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who was blown away by the tub. Bushtops Serengeti made it onto this list of “10 of the Best Bathtubs on Earth that are Totally Worth Traveling For.”

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Let’s have a better look at that tub.

Pricewise, Bushtops Serengeti was a far cry from my Texas Hill Country camping days. This is definitely not economy lodging–in fact, it was the most expensive of the three lodges we stayed at during this trip (2017 rates are here)—but it was definitely my favorite and well worth the splurge if you can swing it.

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