Seeing African wildlife in their natural habitats in Southern Africa is awe-inspiring, unforgettable! How you go about planning such a trip can range in expense from a lot to a little. As an old African hand experienced in trips to the African bush pointed out to me over twenty years ago, you will see the same animals regardless of the style of travel. The only question, he said, is whether you need silk sheets, silver candelabras, and Champagne at night while being waited on hand and foot or will be satisfied with basic creature comforts, everyday food and drink, and doing things yourself.
I began going on camping safaris to Botswana through a South African-based company called Afro Ventures (now Journey Beyond) in 1991. I lost count of the number of those tented safaris I made over the ensuing twenty years, but every one was an astonishingly rich experience into the wilderness. On various trips we had hyenas sit with us at dinner by the campfire (it’s an unnerving realization to see a full-grown hyena three feet from your plate staring at you); two angry male lions raided the camp one night and sent us scampering up onto the top of a truck; a herd of elephants daintily walked around our tents during the night more than once, never trampling anything; baboons several times unzipped our tents and went through our belongings looking for food; large families of mongoose many times overwhelmed us and stole breakfast off our plates (they especially like eggs); large scorpions ran between our feet while we were enjoying a beer after dinner; red-billed hornbills swooped down and expertly grabbed sandwiches out of our hands at lunch; once we ran over a pit viper by accident while loading up the tents; warthogs at some places liked to browse through our camp sites; we often had hyenas nosing at the sides of our tents in the middle of the night looking for snacks; not to mention the occasional hippo at midnight en route back to the river. Believe me, they were memorable trips!
In the 1990s and early 2000s Botswana used to be a modest $100 per day per person. Camping safaris were more rustic than now. It wasn’t TOO rustic, or I wouldn’t have enjoyed it, but by comparison to today’s trips, it was more hands-on for the traveler. We put up and took down our own tents; we collected firewood for the cooking and camp fires; we used primitive toilets that barely functioned; we took cold showers with mere trickles of water; we helped cook the food and cleaned up the dishes; we hauled our own trailers full of tents and food and supplies of all sorts behind our game-viewing vehicles.
These days on Botswana “camping” adventures staff does all that for you. They go ahead in separate trucks and trailers and set everything up while guests take leisurely game drives in open vehicles en route to the next camp. They cook and clean and break down the camps. They say that guests have few duties now. The tents are larger and have small toilets attached (we used to have to brave hyenas and lions to go pee in the middle of the night to a toilet distant from the tents; I have never been so scared in my life—but I lived; we all did).
The Botswanan government tourist licenses for the world-class game parks in Botswana (Chobe, Moremi, Xakanaxa, Savuti, Okavango) are hard to get, and expensive. They have to be paid for whether guests are roughing it on cheap camping safaris or staying in luxurious lodges; the license fees are the same, regardless. Tour operators of long standing like Journey Beyond figured out that they could make more profit per guest by raising the bar on luxury, and that’s when prices skyrocketed. We will never see $100 per day per person again. Everyone pays the market price of about $500 per person per day. For that money, operators provide uniformly excellent service.
Some operators charge much more. The super deluxe camps in the Okavango (Botswana) and in the Sabi Sands Game Reserve in South Africa (e.g., Mala Mala, Londololozi) charge as much as several thousand dollars per person per day. Yet, as I said above, you will see the same animals in the same places without respect to what you are paying to be there.
Oh, I forgot to mention that even on deluxe camping safaris, alcohol, juices, and soft drinks are usually extra. It seems ridiculous after paying so much, but it’s true even if you pay $3000 per day that drinks are extra.
Gratuities, too, are extra. At the end of a really good 10-day camping safari in Botswana, I used to tip the two staff who accompanied us about $50 each ($10 total per day for tips). I don’t know what is appropriate today. On ocean cruises (which I never take), I am told that a single daily tip fee is collected and pooled for all staff. Perhaps that approach is the right one. Seems to me that if you are already paying quite a lot of money that is going to the staff, tipping should be based on one’s sense of whether you received high value services.
Just last week I helped some friends arrange a weeklong camping trip to Botswana on an itinerary similar to the ones I used to take. The costs were about what I expected: $509 per person per day.
And not even deeply into the Okavango, just on the periphery at Xakanaxa (which is very lovely, but not very far into the Okavango). Then Moremi (Khwai, on the Khwai River), Savuti (Savute), and Serondella (which they call Chobe; actually the Chobe National Park encompasses both Serondella and Savuti).
My friends are flying into Botswana from South Africa to Maun and flying out of Kasane. From Serondella (Chobe), it is a short drive to Kasane. I’ve done that drive innumerable times (but not recently). The airfare to and from Botswana is also extra and not included in the $509 per person per day.
I am not criticizing their itinerary or its costs, but merely pointing out that though the itinerary is over 7 days that it is actually 5.5 days of actual game viewing/camping. The first morning is given over to flying into Maun and then driving to camp at Xakanaxa, and the seventh day is finished after breakfast before driving to Kasane: Therefore, just 5.5 days for $2800 per person, or $509 per person per day.
Sadly, that is why my family and I cannot afford to go any longer to those fabulous places. For 5.5 days of game viewing it would cost $11,200 for my family of four—and, as mentioned, that does not include airfares (USA to/from JNB and then JNB to/from Botswana), tips, or alcohol. On top of which after just a little over five days we’d be leaving and largely not satiated.
Yet we (my family of four) can spend 12 nights in the Kruger National Park in South Africa, including the rental car, food/drinks, and petrol (but excluding airfares for an apples-to-apples comparison) for about $3,840, or $80 per person per day. That’s 84% cheaper than Botswana. Not as exclusive or fancy, no, but we see the same animal species and spend 13 days and 12 nights doing it versus 5.5 days in Botswana.
Just saying that I can afford to go back much more often and to stay longer when I do go back by going to the Kruger. One major difference is that it is a DIY safari in the Kurger National Park. All the South Africans do it, and I’ve been going regularly for 24 years. My family of four is going again in December for 12 nights in the Kruger.
Recently the New York Times sent a reporter to cover the Kruger. He was amazed at how easy it was. Here’s a short video posted on the NYT website about it:
His “rustic” tent accommodation was by choice. Most accommodation there is quite comfortable, with electricity, hot and cold running water, heating and air-conditioning, private toilets and showers, big porches, refrigerators, and good beds. I will be writing more about the Kruger in future posts.