A very handsome lion enjoying a little sun and a little traffic jam in Kruger National Park. Photo by Kate Ota 2011.
Safaris, in their traditional sense, bring to mind a Victorian/Edwardian era gentleman in a khaki outfit with a pith helmet. He’s got a rifle and is out to capture a trophy. He’s usually surrounded by lots of local people who do all the work for him, except pulling the trigger. Then he travels back home with the heads of his prey stuffed and mounted and hangs them on his wall.
This is not what a modern safari experience is, although I’m sure if you’re rich enough, you can do that whole horrible thing. I know many people for whom going on safari is on their bucket list, and it was absolutely on mine. There’s this cheesy Christmas movie on That One Streaming Service that is about a safari, except it’s not at all how safaris work. I figured, as one of the privileged people who has gone on a modern safari, I could clear some things up and help other writers, just in case you’re thinking of including one in your next novel.
My safari experience included Kruger National Park in South Africa, Chobe National Park in Botswana, Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary in Swaziland, and a private reserve where I volunteered in northern South Africa. My trip was in July/August of 2011 and doesn’t apply to everyone’s experience.
1. Traffic can be very bad in the parks, especially the main roads
The roads in the national parks are often paved. While you may think that takes some of the fun out of it, don’t fret. The black pavement warms in the sun, attracting the lion prides for some good old fashioned cat lounging. It’s also a favorite spot for other predators to run a herd, as the herd’s hooves don’t have great traction on pavement and animals will often slip, allowing an easier kill. This means you’ll often have some great animal sightings from a car. However, you have plenty of heads up if animals are near, as traffic will slow to a crawl. This may be logistics—if there are animals blocking part of the road, then only one lane may safely pass at a time. It may also be people taking their time looking at the animals. (This is also true in American and Canadian National Parks: I’ve seen traffic back up for miles for a single big horn sheep.)
2. Guides are a thing, but you can sometimes go in a private car
While Kruger allowed private vehicles, I was always with guides. Not only do they interject with fun facts and spot animals for you, they have radios with which they communicate where to see animals. If one guide in the park sees a leopard, every guide is going to know and take you there. Private vehicles don’t have that advantage. If you’re writing a safari scene, a guide is a great method to inject exposition, while a private car is a great way to highlight one of your characters being knowledgeable.
3. Don't forget the danger
I still think about the advice I was given in Chobe—stay in the car, and never squat outside of a campsite. The parks have wild predators, including those who would potentially hunt you. While many think of lions first, the bigger problem is leopards. Stealthy, solo hunters, they can climb trees, and will even leave dead prey in the branches. If they see you squat (for bathroom purposes or anything else) they’ll see you as a small enough target to attack. Inside the giant vehicle, you’re one giant lumbering creature they’d never try to tackle. Therefore, never have your characters relieve themselves willy nilly, and make sure any guides emphasize the risks of exiting the car. This is great for adding tension and accuracy!
4. Cameras are the hottest accessory
The new goal of safaris is not to shoot the Big 5 with a rifle, but with a camera. The Big 5 are elephants, lions, leopards, rhinos, and water buffalo. Other exciting animals are giraffes, cheetahs, crocodiles, hippos, porcupines, pangolins, mongoose, hornbills, zebras, and impala. Basically, if you saw it in the opening of The Lion King, you’re going to be excited to see it. Some people invest in very expensive cameras, others rely on camera phones, and everything in between. However, digital SLRs are the most common, with zoom lenses as the most frequent feature. (I also recommend a strong zoom lens if you’re going on safari in real life, because that will make a huge difference!) Often, you’ll see professional photographers with giant lenses. I saw one nearly three feet long!
5. Poachers are not likely to be seen by tourists
If you’re writing about safari, the odds are high you’re planning a dramatic run-in with poachers. In the popular parks this is less likely, as there are too many other people around. However, if they were to make an appearance, helicopter was the preferred method of transport. Regular people were told to go in the opposite direction and not to engage. There’s often security that will handle the situation.
6. Include details
Some random details to help you paint the scene: Most trees and bushes have thorns, ranging from tiny pricks to finger-length harpoons. Scat (aka poop) and tracks are easy to find and unique, which helps when tracking specific species. There’s an attitude summed up by the phrase “This is Africa” which is something along the lines of “of course something crazy/weird went wrong.” Kill sites are very noisy between the predator(s) who killed and the various species of scavengers who show up. There’s a lot of KFC restaurants in Botswana for whatever reason. Markets in most places allow and expect haggling. The best way to speed along a border crossing is to offer the border agent snacks.
That’s what I’ve got for now. Have you been on safari and want to share our experiences? Have more questions for a safari scene/novel or an upcoming (post-pandemic) trip? Let’s discuss in the comments!