Travel

How to Take an Epic Safari Vacation You Can Actually Afford

lions
You don't have to battle a crowd to see these guys. | Londolozi Images/Mint Images/Getty Images
You don't have to battle a crowd to see these guys. | Londolozi Images/Mint Images/Getty Images

When it comes to wildlife, the most spectacular and awe-inspiring scenes take place when no one else is around. This is how I once came to see a lion in the process of eating a hippo climb inside the same, very-dead hippo for better purchase, get briefly stuck, and sit up wearing the hippo like a hat.

African safaris, the go-to for tourists who want to see similar awe-inspiring scenes but aren’t always sure how to go about it, occupy a weird space in our public consciousness. Popularized by wealthy colonizers taking pampered hunting expeditions with every comfort money and imperialism could buy, safaris are romanticized as dusty adventures where folks rough it.

Even as photographic safaris have surpassed hunting ones in popularity, the modern safari is more often a luxury-driven experience where you pay $800/night for glamping tents and guided tours, hot stone massages and meals provided by private chef. The more modest ones can still feel out of reach for people who’ve neither the budget nor the temperament for all that. Big groups also make you noisier, more conspicuous -- you might find yourself wishing for alone time so you could (patiently) wait for wary animals to emerge without anyone else around to scare them off. Big Cats wearing a hippo like it's a tauntaun, for instance.

Kruger National Park in South Africa is one of the top safari destinations in the world. Tour pricing varies by company, departure point, time of year, and degree of luxury, but you can expect a basic five-day guided safari package to cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $1,000. This is obviously a lot of money, but on the lower end of safari-pricing.

What’s often less advertised is that you don’t actually have to be on a guided safari tour to enter the park. If you’re someone who wants to go to Kruger to see some wildlife and is figuring out whether you have the coin: There is absolutely nothing stopping you from renting a car and simply taking yourself on a safari instead of paying someone else to. Kruger is flat, crisscrossed with paved and dirt roads, which means you don’t need a 4WD Jeep situation to traverse it. You can do it in any old sedan, and for less than half of what you’d pay on a tour.

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You’re on safari to see shit, not twiddle your thumbs. | BirdImages/E+/Getty Images

Skip the guided tours, save money, live better

Think what guided group safaris actually involve. You’re sitting in a big truck with a lot of strangers, and you’re completely at the mercy of someone else’s itinerary; you’ll have to stay in one place looking at something that doesn’t interest you until the driver decides it’s time to go, and -- much worse -- you’ll be abruptly yanked away from something you could have kept looking at for hours, because the driver has a schedule to keep to. You’ll also return to camp for leisurely lunches before heading back for in the afternoon, which, I dunno about you, but when I went to Kruger I did not go there to eat lunch. You’re not there to sleep in or go to the spa or golf. You’re there to see some shit.

Self-drives are often advertised as packages that include guided tours (and luxury accomodations) so it’s understandable to assume that you’re legally required to go that route. You are not. If you don’t mind taking on a certain level of discomfort -- sleeping on the ground, for instance -- in the interest of saving money, then a self-drive safari is almost certainly one of the best things you’ll ever do in your life. You’re going to save many hundreds of dollars, but you’re also going to have an infinitely better time.

cheetas
You’ll pick up some wildlife intel while on the road. | Richard du Toit/Corbis/Getty Images

Make friends with other safari-goers

Having a driver who’s familiar with the park and the behavior of its inhabitants ups your odds of spotting wildlife, but you can get enough information at camp to know where and when you have the best chance of seeing what you want to see. People who pay for tours have the advantage of guides who radio coordinates to each other when there’s a particularly exciting find, but here’s the thing: You can approximate this network on your own.

By exchanging intel with passing drivers or (basically) ambulance-chasing, you’ll be able to see plenty of wildlife on your own. If you see a tour vehicle suddenly pull a hard U-turn, or see a cluster of five jeeps pulled over in the distance, the implications are pretty obvious.

Anecdotally, most Kruger tour groups were seeing less than half of what my travel buddy and I were seeing, and this is because we were not there to fuck around. We were out of each camp the moment the gates opened each morning (between 4:30am and 6am, depending on the time of year) and timed our returns to just before they closed (between 5:30pm and 6:30pm). We brought all the food and water we’d need for the day so that the only breaks we took were to refuel and use bathrooms.

Being out in the park the whole day does not mean you are driving the entire time. It means you’re eating your lunch by a watering hole full of hippos and warthogs, or watching a leopard drag an antelope up into the lower branches of a tree. You have the luxury of going wherever you want and staying there as long as you want. We once sat on top of the car for more than hour watching for signs of movement from a cheetah that ultimately turned out to be a log, and it did not seem to us a waste of time because it was simply what we felt like doing. (I can’t really advise you to do this though, as park rules stipulate that you have to stay inside whatever vehicle you’re in.)

leopard
If you’re going to take one guided tour, opt for a night drive to spot some nocturnal critters -- like leopards. | Image Source/Getty Images

Maybe just one guided tour, though

Self-driving has only one limitation of any real consequence, which is that lots of critters are nocturnal and you can’t be out in the park unaccompanied at night -- between sunset and sunrise everyone has to return to their respective camps. (While you dig into dinner, hyenas pace on the other side of a very high electric fence.)

Do opt for the one-off guided night drive (you’ll need to make arrangements through whichever individual camp you’ll be in that night) that will last around 3 hours and cost something like $25. This is worth it -- it’s a good chance to see animals that are not just nocturnal, but simply more active at night.

lions
You may just witness The Lion King IRL. | Thomas Retterath/Moment/Getty Images

The best time of the year to book your safari

The dry season in South Africa is around April to September, meaning you’ll witness more animals at watering holes. From October to March, taller grass makes it harder to spot critters, though there’s the advantage of thinner crowds. We went in March, and in my opinion, you can see just about everything you hope to see over five days.

What wildlife can you expect to see?

At 147 species, Kruger has more species of mammals than any other reserve on the continent. There’s The Big Five: buffalo, elephants, lions, rhinos, and leopards, which I’ve listed in the approximate ascending order in which they’ll excite you. These five became The Big Five by virtue of being the most difficult to hunt on foot -- and thus most prized by hunters -- but for non-hunting tourists, it’s kind of a useless classification.

You will see leopards if you’re lucky, rhinos if you’re diligent. You may catch lions maybe once a day or every other day if you’re really putting in the miles -- after sunset, lions like to sleep on the roads because the black tar is nice and warm. As for elephants, you’ll catch sight of them a couple of times a day.

Finally, you’ll see so many buffalo that even though I believe that you -- reading this right now -- are the one person who is too pure of heart to take a single one of these sights for granted, everyone else will quickly acclimate and cease to care. By the second afternoon, most of your group won’t even stop the car for anything less than big cats and other predators unless whatever it is is fighting or is a baby.

giraffes
It's fine, you weren't in a hurry anyway. | Stacey Macqueen/Moment/Getty Images

So how much, exactly, is this gonna cost?

The idea here is to break down how much cheaper self-drives are compared to guided safaris -- all-inclusive five-day packages cost around $1,000; this isn’t taking into consideration the additional cost of flights (though we can help you with that, too).

Entrance fees (around $27) applies to foreign nationals, per person, and probably a one-time expense.

You also don’t need 4-wheel drive. You’re not going off-roading (it’s not allowed) so everything’s paved or gravel. You can get the cheapest compact sedan available, which will probably work out to the equivalent of between $9 and $13 per day. Let’s say you have it six days, which comes out to about $60.

Other visitors won’t have to worry about gas, but if you hit it hard from sunrise to sunset you’ll probably average around 150 miles per day. This means you’ll need to fill up maybe every other day (around $100), but make sure to fill up right before you enter the park -- there can be fuel shortages on the inside especially during the high season, and it’s a little cheaper outside anyway.

campfire
This is the correct number of people. | Westend61/Getty Images

What about food and lodging?

Most people have breakfast and lunch at one of the camps, where they also take advantage of the various extracurriculars like golf. (But did you really go on safari to golf?) Pick up food and snacks at your camp, about $60. If you’re the sort of person who eats meat you should try the many kinds of jerky, some of which you might recognize from the antelope portion of your wildlife-spotting booklet. Obviously a safari isn’t exactly about asceticism, though, and you’ll probably want to enjoy at least once nice meal -- you can visit any number of camp restaurants and enjoy a steak dinner with wine for like $20.

Where you can save a ton if you’re willing to be slightly uncomfortable is with lodging. For the most part, you don’t actually need physical accommodations like a lodge at the camps. Foreigners tend to overlook campsite options because, understandably, you probably didn’t pack a giant tent on your flight. Plus, no one wants to drop a ton of coin on a giant tent they’d have to leave behind when they go home -- even giant rental tents are a pain to haul around. Go to a big box store and get, like, a children’s tent, the kind of thing you could find at a Target near the toys. It’ll be the equivalent of maybe $20. Unless there’s more than two of you, that’s all you need.

The base rate for a campsite at most of the camps is around $20-$25 for two people and one car. However, not all the camps accommodate tent-camping, so at some the cheapest option is a bungalow for around $80 a night. This can be a nice splurge if you’d like to take a night off from sleeping on the ground. Let’s say you do that one night out of the four nights you spend camping -- budget around $175 for your safari digs.

All told, if you opt for a self-guided safari with a friend, you should budget between $340 to $420 per person for food, gas, and lodging -- a relative deal.

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Kastalia Medrano is Thrillist's Travel Writer. You can send her travel tips at kmedrano@thrillist.com, and Venmo tips at @kastaliamedrano.