How to Rock Any Nature Trip, According to Nat Geo Safari Guides

It looked as if a football coach had drawn his team’s next play, wild and scribbled in red marker, on the white sheet of paper in my hand. Huge circles lined the top of the page, with arrows going down and across to smaller and smaller circles on the bottom. This wasn’t a football diagram, and the sheet wasn’t given to me by a coach -- but rather by a doctor in Midtown Manhattan, who, I was shocked to learn, was making a diagram for what to do if I got diarrhea on my trip to Kenya’s Maasai Mara game reserve… what to do if I got explosive diarrhea… and most importantly, how to tell if that diarrhea meant I had malaria.

My first lesson about going on safari, thus, was that you’re absolutely a part of nature, whether you want to be or not.

Luckily for me, I didn’t get diarrhea (or malaria!), but I did get to experience the overwhelming power of nature -- seriously, a termite mound made me cry -- while being taught the ins and outs of Kenya’s animal kingdom by the experts from Nat Geo WILD’s Safari Live. Streaming twice daily and with occasional full TV episodes, Safari Live brings African safaris into living rooms and classrooms around the world thanks to several of the most knowledgeable safari guides on the planet. Over the course of my own trip, I picked their brains on how to have the best safari ever, whether you’re in Africa or just heading out to your nearest woods.

Masai Mara National Park
Masai Mara National Park, Kenya | Byelikova Oksana/Shutterstock

Research, research, research...

“People often show up with an idea of what they think their safari experience should be like, which hurts their experience because then they are constantly comparing it to this idea, rather than living in the moment and enjoying the safari that they have in front of them,” said Stefan Winterboer, who has been a field guide since 1999. “Make sure that the destination you choose can deliver the exact safari that you want.” Want to see the wildebeest migration? Then the Maasai Mara, a big park in Kenya, is for you. Hoping to see elephants? Check out Botswana.

For me, sticking to the Maasai Mara for my first safari was a solid choice. After a few days of driving, I began noticing patterns of the different creatures, and got familiar enough with the land that I found myself longing to stay. “Africa is a big place, so don’t try to do too much on a single trip,” said Brent Leo-Smith, a South Africa native and longtime guide. “Spend more time at one location and really get the full experience in that area, rather than bouncing around to different countries and trying to cram it all into one trip.”

I’ll admit though, even after thorough research, how do you decide where to go when it all sounds so good? “It depends on what I want out of the experience,” Hendry told me. “If I want stunning scenery, the space and landscapes of Namibia are unbeatable. If I want an abundance of wildlife, it is impossible to beat the Maasai Mara.” And the guides’ lists go on and on: the “hidden treasures” of Botswana, the “profound sense of peace” that can be found in the Kalahari Desert and South Africa’s Kruger National Park.

There is no right answer. There is no best place to go. But there are a lot of places, so spend some quality time with National Geographic back issues or with David Attenborough documentaries and decide what you most want to get out of your trip.

Safari doesn't mean sauna

“It’s sometimes colder than you would expect,” Jamie Paterson, a guide with an expertise in elephants and rhinos told me. “Always bring a good windproof jacket with you.” I learned this lesson the hard way when a torrent of rain and freezing wind overtook our car while we searched Mara for the so-called big five animals: elephants, leopards, black rhinos, cape buffalo, and lions.

Protected against the storm, we had a moment to reflect. “The greatest joy in a guide's life is to share our passion with other people and nothing is more gratifying than someone who is clearly appreciating that amazing place that they are in,” Paterson said as we bundled up in our vehicle to wait out the storm. Once the squall passed and we could open the flaps, we beheld a burning, expansive sunset colliding dreamily with hues of grey and indigo from the storm that had passed. Manu, Paterson’s native Kenyan cameraman said it perfectly as he took his post at the camera: “I guess this is the biggest film set there is.”

Lilac breasted roller
A Lilac breasted roller | ArCaLu/Shutterstock

Binoculars are serious business

Before visiting Kenya, I always thought that Swarovski was the company that made overpriced crystal figurines my mom repeatedly told us to never get her for Mother’s Day. Turns out, Swarovski also makes luxury binoculars that, unbeknownst to me, allow you to see much further and clearer than regular binoculars. Though I don’t think South African guide James Hendry necessarily meant Swarovski when he told me to “bring a pair of binoculars,” a nice set that can hang around your neck or can be easily tossed in a jacket pocket will make a huge difference.

“Africa is packed full of fascinating and abundant wildlife, like gorgeous birds and other interesting invertebrates, mammals and plants,” Hendry said. “There is more to discover here than there is time for discovery.” And trust me, you’ll be pissed, when your walking safari spots a tiny lilac-breasted roller, a beautiful multicolored bird, perched on a distant branch, and all you’ve got to see it with are two non-zooming eyeballs.

Leave the wildlife photography and filming to NatGeo

In the world of iPhone portrait mode, we’re all “photographers,” but it’s easy to let the screen ruin the moment. “I always tell first time guests that taking photographs is wonderful, but they should always take a moment to actually take in what they are seeing, rather than viewing it through a screen,” Paterson said. “Put the camera down for a few seconds and absorb your experience. It will make the photos that you do take home that much more memorable.”

This advice might sound obvious, but it’s even more crucial on a safari, where the time it takes to open up Snapchat -- as if you even have cell service, ha -- can be the amount of time it takes for an elephant calf to emerge and be rushed away by his mama, or for a cheetah to strike her unexpecting prey. Trust me, you’ll be much happier seeing that cheetah run with your own two eyes than hearing everyone describe it to you after you were stumbling around trying to take a photo you wouldn’t get in the first place. (If you do want to attempt some good travel photos with just your phone, though, we have you covered.)

A hot air balloon soars above the African plains
A hot air balloon soars above the African plain | Chrissy Todd/Shutterstock

Get out of the car, stretch those legs, and take to the sky

While most safaris happen in the back of some sort of Jeep-like vehicle, there are more ways to see the vast and rugged landscapes of Africa’s various regions and parks than on four wheels. For me, it began with a safari on foot, otherwise known -- wait for it -- as a walking safari. Led by an expert guide (who was armed with a rifle, just in case) we explored the Maasai on foot: examining droppings, sitting on the ground hoping a tower of giraffes would pass casually over us, and exercising our legs after a few days of sitting in the truck.

In dramatic contrast, a hot air balloon safari took me up and out, where elephants and wildebeests looked like ants dotting the bright yellow savannah, growing bigger and more defined as the pilot dropped the balloon nearly down to earth. Whatever type of safari, “remember to fully immerse yourself in the experience being crafted for you,” Winterboer reminded me. “Just let go and enjoy the moment.”

Don't be afraid

Lastly, and most importantly, all of the guides reiterated how crucial it is to ask questions. Nature is brutal and weird and gorgeous and ferocious, and it never, ever takes a break. Going on safari is immersing yourself in a fascinating world full of as much mystery as beauty -- just ask your guide about the life an adorable dik-dik to understand. Ask questions, let yourself feel awe, and leave changed by what a safari will show you about this planet we all share.

“Tell the world about Africa when you go home,” Hendry told me. “The more people that fall in love with Africa, the greater the chance its wilderness will be preserved.”

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Tanner Saunders is a New York-based writer who couldn’t fit a giraffe in his carry-on. Follow him on Instagram.