A day on safari: what to expect

18 May 2017

Jillian Worrall has been visiting Africa for decades and has experienced safaris throughout the continent, including Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana and Tanzania. Here she explains what a typical day on safari is like – and why it's an experience like nothing else on earth.

Life on safari in Africa has a rhythm all of its own: an intoxicating, addictive blend of high adrenaline moments and pure relaxation.

Let me take you through a typical day in Africa. With subtle variations, this could be your experience on safari in Tanzania, Botswana, Zambia or Zimbabwe.

A Zimbabwean guide getting ready to lead us on a walking safari. Photo: Jillian Worrall

We will start just before dawn. That first early morning wake-up call is a bit of a challenge – this is supposed to be a holiday! But even the most reluctant early-riser (and I’m definitely one of them) soon gets into the swing of things, especially as every day there’s that wonderful feeling of expectation – what will we see this morning?

I’ve stayed in permanent material cottages, hotels and tents in Africa and my absolute favourite are the camps. But we’re not talking about roughing it here – I’m thinking of luxury tents with innersprung beds, fluffy duvets and en-suite bathrooms.

The interior of a luxury safari tent in the Okavango Delta, Botswana. Photo: Jillian Worrall

The joy of sleeping under canvas is that Africa comes alive around you. There is nothing, absolutely nothing more amazing than lying in bed and hearing the roar of a lion or the soft pad of a hippo passing by just centimetres from your pillow.

And, as long as you follow instructions, such as never leaving your cottage or tent at night (camps provide means of contacting staff at night such as horns and torches) you’re totally safe.

Your morning wake-up call might be accompanied by tea, coffee and biscuits delivered to your tent along with – in the case of camps with solar-heated water – a large thermos of hot water for a wash.

Some camps then offer a full cooked breakfast, others something lighter with a full-on brunch served on return from your morning safari. The quality of the food, even in the most remote of locations, always astounds me, as does the genuine warmth and friendliness of the camp staff.

Staying in a safari camp in Africa does not mean you have to rough it! Photo: Jillian Worrall

So, washed and fed, it’s off in your 4WD you go. Sometimes there will be a driver and guide, or in smaller camps your expert guide will also drive. African safari guides are amazing: they know their territory like the back of their hand, can spot wildlife that visitors could never detect and are a wealth of knowledge about everything from the family life of lions to the lifecycle of a dung beetle.

Morning in Africa, especially in the cooler season, can be fresh but always beautiful. Dawn will break accompanied by a cacophony of bird calls, as gorgeously plumed birds such as lilac-breasted rollers and the ugly but fascinating maribou stalks start their day.

Depending on what park you are visiting, you may have the chance to step down from your vehicle for morning tea (often accompanied by homemade biscuits or cake). Most recently I sipped my coffee in the company of a large male baboon who sat on a tree branch nearby and surveyed me just as closely as I was watching him.

Zebras crossing a road, South Africa. Photo: Getty Images

Sometimes a guide might have heard of a pride of lions nearby, for example, and the hunt is on. It doesn’t take travellers very long to develop their wildlife-spotting abilities, looking for tell-tale signs such as vultures circling above a kill. I enjoyed learning how to identify spoor (footprints and dung) – the flat almost circular print of an elephant, the distinctive pads of a big cat, the delicate hoof marks of an impala.

After three or four hours out on safari it’s usually time to come home to camp where lunch or brunch will be waiting. Then when the heat of the day is at its height it’s time for a siesta, a swim or simply a chance to lounge on a deck chair in front of one’s tent or chalet and watch animals passing by in a shimmer of mirages.

This permanent camp beside Lake Kariba, Zimbabwe had its own small plunge pool. Photo: Jillian Worrall

By later afternoon, afternoon tea will be ready and then it’s out for the second game drive (usually with the 4WD packed with your choice of sundowner and snacks). Guides always know the best vantage points to stop so you can enjoy your drink and survey surely the most spectacular sunsets on the planet.

No matter how many times you venture out on a game drive there will always be something new to see. The animal species might be the same but the behaviour never. One afternoon we watched warthogs and baboons co-operating to dig up edible roots, another time it was a heaving, snapping mass of crocodiles fighting over the last scraps of a dead hippo.

Dining al fresco, African safari style. Photo: Jillian Worrall

As darkness descends (unless you are in a park that allows night drives) it’s back to camp for a shower and then dinner. Somehow or other, often using the most rudimentary cooking equipment, your team will probably have conjured up a three-course dinner and wine.

And before you head to bed to listen to the sounds of the night, there’s a chance to sit around a campfire, share stories of the day's finds and anticipate what astounding sights might be waiting for you tomorrow morning. 

Jill Worrall

Jill Worrall is one of New Zealand's most experienced and successful travel writers. A former New Zealand Travel Writer of the Year, she is the author of the travel books A Blonde in the Bazaar, Two Wings of a Nightingale and Tales from the Petra Hills.