Photo by Juanedc

The first time I went on safari as an adult, I found myself suffocating under a sheet, lying on a wafer-thin air mattress trying to escape the drone of a pulsating swarm of mosquitoes.

I’d not even thought to pack insect repellent, malaria tablets or even a mosquito net. Camping was literally under cotton as it was too hot to sleep in tents. Needless to say, the nights were very long and by the end of the trip, my skin was oozing with red, swollen bites.

That was about 20 years ago on the Kunene River, bordering Angola. Well before the arrival of internet, faxes, and intelligent packing advice.

Savvier these days since that first brush with the wilds, I’m happy to share what I’ve come to experience as the essential items. Hopefully with the aid of this list, you’ll get to spend more time pondering the fact that a giraffe has the same number of neck vertebrae as a human, rather than obsessing over what you forgot to bring.

There’s a broad range of safari experiences on offer these days. Your final checklist will depend on the nature of your safari – is it overland, under canvas, self-drive, a river trip, lodge based, five star luxury or a grassroots eco-tourism experience?

Outlined below is a guideline of essentials that will cover the basics.

Remind yourself as you go through this packing exercise that when you get to your final destination, you’re generally going to be miles away from the nearest anything.

Photo by babasteve

Packing the right gear is essential as you’re not going to be able to just pop out to pick up contact lens solution, for example. Most boutique lodges now have small shops with a limited selection of items.

I personally prefer to pack well and save my money for local artwork than paying three times the price for camera batteries in a lodge or park shop.

Also keep in mind that if your travels involve a small light aircraft, there is a serious weight limitation involved and you may be down to an overnight duffel bag. The same applies if you’re on a horseback or canoe safari.

Read the fine print to understand the various modes of travel your safari may entail and the weight specifications for luggage.

Binoculars

Get your hands on a good pair of quality binoculars. Don’t rely on the lodge, your guide, or fellow travelers to share theirs whilst out on a game drive. Be sure to try out the binoculars if you’re buying a new pair, take them outside and focus on something way off in the distance. Get expert advice and be comfortable with the price tag of your purchase.

Clothing
Camouflage is not a fashion statement in Africa. It’s a painful reminder of a violent reality.

You’ll need to do some research on the season of your visit. Winter and summer temperatures can vary drastically in most safari destinations (this may seem obvious to some, but not all African countries sit on the equator).

The common denominator across all seasons is to have long sleeved shirts and pants for the early mornings and dusk. This is when the mosquitoes are at their most active and your clothing plays a huge part in the defense against those piercing proboscis.

Photo by eelke dekker

A word on color – insects are attracted to dark colors (blacks and dark blues) and bright colors can equally attract, distract or scare off any number of mammals.

There’s a reason people wear khaki or lighter colors: they blend in with the bush which is the idea.

You can’t go wrong with earth tones. Natural fibers (such as cotton) are generally more comfortable and durable than synthetic gear in tropical climes.

One other thing – camouflage clothing is not a good idea either. There are enough poachers, hunters and army types roaming the continent.

Camouflage is not a fashion statement in Africa, it’s a painful reminder of a violent reality.

Sunhat and sunglasses

A good sunhat – not a cap or a peak, but a quality, broad Tilley- type hat with a neck cord so you don’t lose the thing in high winds or when your Land Rover tops 40 miles an hour. They’re also useful for keeping bugs and flies out of your hair.

A good pair of sunglasses are vital – your eyes will take strain without them, not to mention the bugs you’ll have flying into your eye sockets. It’s a good idea to have them attached to a neck cord too as most of your time is spent taking off your sunglasses to raise the binoculars to your eyes and back down.

It’s much easier to drop them around your neck so you won’t lose them, or in my experience have a baboon bounce off with them (they love shiny objects).

Small flashlight or reading light

One real joy during a safari is taking in shiny bright stars on a clear night. Most campsites and lodges have a ‘lights out’ policy relatively early in the evening because generators produce noise pollution. If you’re a nocturnal bookworm, I need say no more.

Photo by quinet

Reading material

Game-viewing takes place in the cooler hours of the day – the early morning and late afternoons. The hours between are perfect for racing through novels or journal reflection.

There’s a lot of ‘downtime’ on safari. Pack magazines and soft-cover books.

Besides the experience of the safari and wildlife, I’m always grateful for the space in the day to nap, read or write without any nagging feeling that I should be doing something else.

Insect repellents

Try to source some ‘natural’ products that are effective. As a rule of thumb, I try steer away from ingredients I can’t spell.

I’ve experimented with various local products, including a basil and lemongrass lotion that did wonders for mosquitoes, but attracted a fair number of curious bees.

Cash

Have sufficient local currency on you to tip local guides and staff. There may also be curios or handicrafts in the area. Assume that credit cards aren’t accepted and settle in cash.

Baggage

Your best bet is to go with a soft duffel bag. Your luggage may need to go in the nose of a small light aircraft or cram into a bin. It needs to be durable and flexible, forget the wheelies, small and compact is needed. A small daypack is indispensable to keep your belongings together.

Other odds & ends

A full supply of any medication you’re on (including malarial prophylactics); sufficient toiletries; small sachet of biodegradable washing detergent; sunscreen (non-scented); extra pair of glasses or contact lenses if you can’t see without them; extra memory sticks, camera batteries, chargers and all things camera related; a good pair of comfortable walking shoes.

Be sure to remove any wrapping (such as plastics) when packing new purchases. Keep in mind that whatever you are taking in your bag should return with you, including used batteries, empty toothpaste tubes et cetera. Waste disposal in remote safari destinations is often done through burning. Don’t leave your plastics or anything that can’t be burnt.

What is generally appreciated though is to leave your used reading material and magazines for local lodge or camp staff. So you can leave a little more than just your footprints. 

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Check out more essential packing lists under Matador’s Focus on Packing Tips resource.

Have you been on a safari? What would you recommend packing?

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