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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The Basics on Planning an African Safari, aka: Should You Use a Travel Agent?

Let me start by saying: there’s nothing basic about planning a safari trip to Africa. I mean, come on! It’s beyond exciting! It’s the trip of a lifetime! We’re talking bucket list stuff! You gallop headlong into it with visions of the “Lion King” and “Out of Africa” dancing off in the distance. You start buying khaki and olive colored clothes, because, obviously, you’re going to want to fit in and look the part. You envision bush lunches with zebras relaxing nearby and sundowners at watering holes with rhinos and all the glamorous aspects of a safari vacation.

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It’s all sundowners and friendly rhinos in South Africa.

And you should have all those safari expectations because guess what? They’re all going to come true. But first, my little dreamer friend, you’ve got some serious planning to do.

When we first began to plan XFE’s 40th birthday trip to Africa, we knew we wanted to go back to South Africa, and Sabi Sands in particular. There were several reasons: we had a great time when we were last there in 2014, we loved Savanna Lodge, we liked the fact that it was a private reserve and therefore, less busy.

But we also knew we wanted to try somewhere else, which led to tons of research and double guessing ourselves. Should we go to Kenya? Maybe we combine Kenya and Tanzania. What about Namibia? I’ve read/heard good things about Zambia—should we go there?

After we finally narrowed in on wanting to see the Great Migration and spending a few days on the end of our trip on a beach somewhere, we were really torn between two places: Kenya and Tanzania. They both had a lot to offer but I think it ultimately came down to two considerations: price and crowds. Kenya was much more expensive based on our initial research and Kenya was, we’d heard, a lot, LOT more crowded.

(Above: giraffe in South Africa and giraffe in Tanzania. Or do I have that backwards?)

Now that we knew where we wanted to go, the real work began. There is no doubt that planning a safari trip to Africa is totally overwhelming. There are just so many options—hundreds of lodges and camps in every imaginable price range located on dozens of different national parks, which then have different reserves within them. Then there’s all the different visa and inoculation requirements, the limited or convoluted transportation/transfer options, the time of year and weather considerations.

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For example, perhaps you want to know if you will you be sharing your plane with some local fruit?

Honestly, planning a trip to Africa almost requires the use of a travel agent. They’re experts, they can work with your budget (if you have a set budget in mind) and they usually work closely with certain lodges. Plus, they can sometimes get you a discount.

After finding out that Savanna Lodge was already fully booked a year out, the folks at Savanna suggested we reach out to Shereen at Pride Lodges to find another Sabi Sands lodge. Shereen was great. She is hands down an expert on Sabi Sands and South Africa and was even helpful in guiding us a bit on the Tanzania part.

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Notice that live animals and plants (like the fruit we flew with above) are merely restricted while obscene materials and pornography are completely prohibited.

I will say: we don’t typically use a travel agent. We actually like doing research and reading reviews and finding places that we think will suit us. Travel agents, while they tend to work with certain lodges (and that’s great and all) often aren’t up to date on some of the deals the lodges might be offering, such as “stay three nights, get a fourth free” or “book with us and we’ll add in a couple of nights at our partner lodge.”

Plus, agents tend to not be so great at breaking things out and explaining the pricing. They just hand you this very large number, so you don’t really see where your money is going or have the ability to shop around a bit to see if there are other options. For example, when we reached out to a travel agent affiliated with a line of luxury lodges we ended up NOT staying at, she quoted us an exorbitant amount that didn’t include the lodge’s current web deal but did include a crazy price for the regional flights. When XFE asked her about the flight legs then went and priced them out on his own, it became clear that the quote was way off.

(Above: South African white rhinos on the left, Tanzanian black rhinos on the right)

This particular agent had also included an overnight (really, a six-hour stay) at a very nice and expensive coffee plantation (gourmet meal included) when really all we needed was a place to shower and flop until our early morning flight. I’m sure the place was lovely during the day (we would be arriving at around midnight) and the gourmet meal was delicious (the kitchen would not be open when we arrived), but it really wasn’t necessary when all we needed was the African equivalent of the Holiday Inn.

But, I can absolutely see how and why people end up using a travel agent in Africa. Doing all that legwork on something that involves quite a bit of money and logistics is exhausting and stressful. And Shereen at Pride Lodges is great.

I’ll also say: it’s Africa. It’s unpredictable. Things happen. Flights get delayed, or you didn’t leave yourself enough time to transfer between flights (no exaggeration: give yourself 3-4 hours at the airport.) For example, we had a flight on a regional carrier who had upgraded their computer system in June and no longer had any record of the flight we purchased in February. Luckily, we had a printed out copy of our February confirmation and record number. But what followed was at least an hour of standing around while the desk agent tried to sort it all out over the phone. And that was AFTER we’d already waited 45 minutes in the check-in line to begin with (note: there is no premier access or first class line at most of these regional carriers).

(Above: South African elephant mama and baby on left. Tanzanian elephant mama and baby on right)

That’s just one example of an instance where a travel agent might come in handy. Think of them as your insurance policy or personal advocate. If something goes wrong (and, it’s Africa, so it will) they can try to help fix it or figure out another option.

Later this week, I’ll start reviewing some of the lodges we stayed at and I’ll answer the question we get asked the most: which did we like better? Tanzania or South Africa?