Once you have chosen the destination or game reserves to visit during your African safari, there is still the matter of selecting a suitable safari camp or game lodge. The choices can be overwhelming. Where do you start? How you do select the right lodge? How important is budget? Are the most expensive lodges that much better? Where will you find the best game viewing? What is the view from the lodge? These and many other questions may affect your choice of safari lodge.
Start with a budget
It is impossible to narrow down the options without having an idea of your overall budget. Prices can vary tremendously, from the most affordable bungalows in the public rest camps of the Kruger National Park which can cost less than ZAR 750 or $50 per person per night, to the most exclusive top-end safari lodges priced above $2000 per person per night. If your budget is tight and you can only look at camps or lodges below a certain price range, that will help you focus your search.
For those on a tight budget, there are essentially three options you can consider for an affordable safari:
1. A self-drive safari. Rent a car and stay in a national park where self-driving is permitted. Accommodation options range from bringing your own tent to luxury chalets, but on average this is the most affordable way to go on safari. The downside is that you will need to do your own game drives, without the benefit of an experienced safari guide and an open safari vehicle. For a first time safari, we don't recommend the self-drive option.
2. A guided safari or tour with a specialist operator. For example, this could be a scheduled open vehicle safari to South Africa's Kruger National Park, or a mobile overland safari through Botswana on a specially designed safari truck. Accommodation could be in the form of basic dome tents or comfortable, air-conditioned chalets. Since you won't get to choose the accommodation, it is important to find out beforehand where the accommodation is. Some operators will advertise a "Kruger Park" safari but base the accommodation outside the park, to save costs.
3. A safari at a budget-friendly safari lodge. There are many excellent lodges that are also well priced, but the general rule of "you get what you pay for" also applies when it comes to safari lodges. For many people, a safari is all about the game viewing and the accommodation may not matter much. A rustic bush camp or basic tented camp without any luxuries will be fine, as long as the game viewing is good. But the game viewing is not the same everywhere, and poor game viewing or a limited traversing area may well be one of the reasons why the lodge is so cheap. Fortunately, there are some exceptions, and it is very possible to find wonderful lodges priced below $300 or ZAR 4500 where you can usually expect fantastic game viewing.
What makes one lodge better than another?
Each lodge or camp is different. The most important qualities that make a great game lodge include the location and view from the lodge, size of the lodge and traversing area, and the quality of staff. Of course, for some people, the quality of food and selection of wines might be considered most important! Other factors to consider are the quality of accommodation, a number of seats per vehicle and the activities offered.
Location and view
The location of the lodge is key. A good location could mean being in the heart of a top game reserve with excellent game viewing, situated on a riverbank, or on a hillside with amazing views over the savanna, or overlooking an active waterhole. A view over a waterhole or riverbank is popular because it means guests will be able to watch animals from the lodge, between game drives. What is better than sitting on the pool deck during the afternoon, watching a herd of elephants in the riverbed below, or a giraffe coming to drink at the waterhole in front of the lodge? By contrast, some lodges are tucked away in thick bush with no view or positioned close to the boundary of the reserve, where the sounds of the national road or a nearby village can sometimes drown out the tranquillity of the bush.
Size of the lodge and traversing area
The size of the lodge and traversing area are two separate things, but both are important. There is a huge difference between staying at a huge, impersonal lodge with 70 rooms, or a small, intimate lodge with six rooms. Generally, the smaller the lodge, the more personalised the safari experience. At a smaller lodge, you can often expect greater attention to detail, better hosting, and more personal touches. A big lodge is less personal and noisier. This may suit some people, but it is not for everyone.
But even more important is the traversing area. A lodge with access to a large traversing area for game drives generally offers better game viewing than a lodge on a tiny reserve or with a very limited traversing area. Related to this is whether the traversing area is private or government-owned. In general, lodges on government concessions are not permitted to go off-road during game drives, while lodges on private concessions are able to go off-road. In some areas like Botswana, this also affects the ability to do bush walks and night drives (not always permitted in government reserves). Also often overlooked is how many vehicles share the traversing area. On the one hand, an exclusive traversing area means no congestion at sightings and the ability to stay for as long as you want at a prime sighting (on shared traversing areas, it is common for prime sightings to become congested, and you sometimes may have to wait before you can enter the sighting, or might have to leave the sighting after 15 minutes just when things get interesting). On the other hand, if there are not many vehicles calling in and sharing sightings on the radio, an exclusive traversing area could make game viewing more difficult. If there are only one or two vehicles out on game drive, they need a lot more luck to find their own sightings. A shared traversing area with many vehicles and many pairs of eyes looking for animals means far more sightings will be called in over the radio.
Quality of staff
The quality of staff will have an enormous influence on the quality of the safari experience. It makes a vast difference if a lodge has excellent rangers and trackers, friendly and warm lodge staff, great hosts and managers who are ever-present and always responsive to the needs of guests. By contrast, a lodge with inexperienced rangers and trackers, cold and unfriendly lodge staff, and absent or aloof managers will have a very different impact on your stay. This is not always easy to know in advance, which is why it is helpful to read online reviews or engage the services of an experienced agent or tour operator who can give advice based on the first-hand experience.
The most important asset is the safari guide or ranger. The quality of your safari guide has a huge impact on the quality and enjoyment of your overall safari experience. In fact, as we pointed out in a previous blog post, a good safari guide is the most important secret for a great safari.
Food and wine!
For some people, the cuisine is extremely important. We have encountered some surprises, but in general, the cheapest lodges have less of a budget to spend on their wine cellar and grande cuisine menu. So don't expect fine dining at a budget lodge. If the chef, cuisine and wine quality matter a lot to you, do some research beforehand and be prepared to pay a bit more. Reading online reviews might help. Or ask your tour operator.
Quality of accommodation
You may not think this is important until you try and enjoy a midday siesta in a tented camp without a fan or air-conditioning in October, with temperatures soaring above 40° C (100° F)! Quality of accommodation differs considerably. Some bush camps are intentionally rustic and basic and offer a wonderful back-to-the-bush experience with no electricity, a bucket shower, and a pit latrine that does not flush. None of the modern trappings. But this is not for everyone. At the other end of the scale, some top-end lodges offer the most opulent 200 m² suites with every luxury and facility you can think of: private plunge pool or jacuzzi, huge bathroom with double vanities, corner tub, inside and outside showers, king-size four-poster beds with highest quality linens and stylish mosquito netting, a crackling fireplace, huge lounge area, private bar and fridge, air-conditioning, private viewing deck with hammock, and more. Needless to say, the standard of accommodation will affect the price. However, a high price does not always mean luxury accommodation. Some of the most expensive tented safari camps in Africa are surprisingly basic in terms of luxuries and facilities.
The number of people on a game drive?
The number of seats on the back of a safari vehicle is a point many tourists are becoming more aware of. It is common for budget lodges to have three rows of three seats on the back of the vehicle, for a maximum capacity of nine people. This means someone has to sit in the middle and, if the vehicle is full, you have to keep all your stuff on your lap or between your feet. Higher-end lodges often limit their game drives to six people on the back, in three rows of two. This means everyone has a "window seat" and it feels less cramped. And there is more space to put your camera or binoculars (although I would not recommend leaving these items loose on a seat during a game drive!). But how much does this matter? It is down to personal preference, and how much extra you are willing to pay for having a maximum of six rather than nine people per vehicle. I have been on many game drives with nine people per vehicle and it has never bothered me that much. For a photographer with a big lens, it might be a much bigger deal.
In some areas, this is often overlooked. In the greater Kruger National Park, for example, some private lodges allow off-road game drives (the vehicles can leave the road to get closer to the animals) but not all safari lodges do. In ecologically-sensitive areas, rocky terrain, or on concessions within national parks, game drives may not go off-road. Likewise, many lodges offer guided bush walks with an armed ranger, but not all do. Some lodges focus on walking safaris and do not conduct many game drives. This will definitely impact on game viewing. Walking safaris are fantastic, but you will see less wildlife than on a typical game drive. Some destinations are renowned for their walking safaris.
In the Okavango Delta, there is a distinction between land-based and water-based safari lodges. Water-based lodges generally offer boat rides, mekoro trips (dugout canoes) and island walks, but no or very limited game drives. Others offer a combination of game drives, bush walks and boat rides, but the seasons may affect what activities are offered at different times of the year.
A safari is about the game viewing
For most people, their number one requirement on a safari is good game viewing. They want to see as many animals as possible. Although wildlife movements are unpredictable and the quality of game viewing can never be guaranteed, sightings patterns over time reveal that some lodges are without doubt better from a game viewing perspective than others. Choosing an obscure, unknown reserve or a cheap lodge in a poor game viewing area may well lead to disappointment. To get an idea of what game viewing you can expect at a specific lodge, you can speak to a knowledgeable operator, read online reviews and trip reports, and pay attention to the season and migration patterns. For a specific season, a recommendation based on personal experience is probably the most valuable information to help you decide, especially when it comes from someone who can compare with other similar lodges. This is perhaps the number one benefit of booking through an experienced tour operator or agent.
For some return safari enthusiasts, the best game viewing may not be top priority. Perhaps a remote wilderness location, the atmosphere at the camp or view from the lodge is more important. If you have a special interest like birding or photography, that will also affect the choice of safari lodge.
Whatever your priorities, there will be a lodge that is right for you. What you want to avoid, is finally selecting the perfect lodge for your safari and then finding it is already fully-booked for the dates you have in mind. So a final tip is to plan and book early to avoid disappointment! The best lodges, in particular those that offer the best game viewing at a reasonable price, are also the most popular and usually get booked up far in advance.
I have deliberately steered clear from mentioning or recommending specific lodges in this article, but we would like to hear specific recommendations from you. Have you stayed at a specific lodge during a specific season that you can absolutely recommend? Let us know in the comments below.
About the author
Onne Vegter is the managing director of Wild Wings Safaris. He has a deep love for Africa's people, wildlife and natural heritage. Onne has travelled to most of Africa's top safari destinations and his writing is based on years of personal experience in the safari industry. Follow him on Twitter at @OnneVegter.