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Tina Liddle  /  Special to msnbc.com
A baby elephant forages near the Chobe River in Chobe National Park, Botswana.
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updated 9/30/2008 2:15:27 PM ET 2008-09-30T18:15:27

An African safari is a true adventure — a journey crafted in the tradition of wealthy 13th-century traders who first hunted the plains of Africa for wild game trophies to hang on their walls. Today, travelers hunt for photo opportunities instead of occasions to kill, but they encounter the same scenes that have fascinated explorers throughout history: thousands of zebras migrating across emerald grasslands, flocks of florescent flamingos creating a field of color across a shining soda lake, lions feasting on a hard-earned kill.

Many travelers trek to Africa in search of the "big five": buffalo, lions, leopards, elephants and rhinoceroses. The chance to get close to these animals in their natural habitats is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but your trip to the Africa is anything but a trip to the zoo. Safaris can be physically taxing and strenuous, and you may not see all the animals you expected. Since most safari destinations are in developing sub-Saharan nations, travelers must take certain safety and health precautions. If you're planning a safari (or just dreaming about it), be as prepared as possible. Get some good guidebooks, talk to friends who've been to Africa and research, research, research. We've outlined some important safari basics, from choosing a destination to getting vaccinated, to help you start planning a successful African adventure.

Types of safaris
For the most part, safaris are a costly kind of vacation. But as with any other type of travel, you can tailor your safari to suit your personal budget. The length of your safari will affect its cost — although you may want to cut your trip short to save cash, the longer you stay, the less you will probably pay on a per-night basis. If you're looking for luxury digs on your safari (or even just hot water and a comfy bed), prepare to pay more. Budget-minded adventurers should seek self-drive or overland safaris (see below) as opposed to all-inclusive package tours — but be prepared to camp in tents or navigate a 4x4 through the African bush. If you're traveling alone, you will probably have to pay a single supplement, as most package pricing is based on double occupancy.

Luxury safaris

A luxury safari offered by a well-known tour operator typically costs thousands of dollars per person, per week, with all-inclusive prices covering tours, food, drinks and excursions. Fully catered luxury packages offer travelers the comforts of home in wild Africa. Accommodations range from air-conditioned suites to stylish tents (you'll feel almost like you're camping — aside from the hot running water, rich linens and first-rate service). Ultra-luxurious safari lodges can cost over $1,000 a night.

Sample tour operators:

  • Orient Express offers luxury safaris packages in Botswana, starting at $970 per person, per night in the high season.
  • Book a tour with Abercrombie and Kent if you're looking for luxuries like tents with flushable toilets. This company has been operating upscale African safari tours for 45 years.

Overland or mobile safaris
Overland (also known as mobile) safaris are generally the cheapest type of organized tour safari. An overland safari will involve campsite accommodations, and you will most likely travel in a group with other travelers. Overland safaris are usually participatory — you may be expected to pitch in with chores such as cooking meals or setting up camp.

Sample tour operators:

  • Intrepid Travel sells a number of participatory camping safaris, including the Kenya Wildlife Safari, which starts at $795 per person.
  • Acacia Africa is a reputable overland safari provider, which offers a variety of affordable packages for different budgets and travel styles.

Self-drive
Pick a public game park, rent a car and tour the African bush on your own! Since self-drive safaris are only possible in public parks that usually have paved roads and signs, you need not worry about getting lost in the plains of Africa or becoming food for a hungry lion. For the cheapest possible safari, self-drive is your best bet. You can pay for a la carte for meals, tours and accommodations, enabling you to opt for the most inexpensive lodging you can find or tour the bush on your own instead of hiring a guide.

One potential drawback of a self-drive safari is that without a knowledgeable local guide, you may miss some wildlife. To remedy this problem, read guidebooks on spotting wildlife in your destination, bring a field guide or stop and ask other travelers where they've seen the best game (this is easier to do in the popular public parks).

Where to go

Each country in Africa is different. We acknowledge that it is impossible to capture the spirit and culture of an entire country in one paragraph, but below is a brief overview of some popular African safari destinations to get you started. The best and most popular areas in Africa for safaris are East and Southern Africa, which offer vast plains and roaming packs of extraordinary beasts.

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East Africa
Kenya:
Kenya's most abundant wildlife can be found in the Masai Mara reserve (a part of the vast Greater Serengeti), where massive herds of animals make an annual migration across the plains. But beyond Masai Mara and the Serengeti lie plenty of other quality parks with abundances of wildlife, including the soda lakes of the Great Rift Valley and Lake Bogoria, where thousands of colorful flamingos reside. Though Kenya is one of the more popular safari destinations, the country has recently experienced major political unrest. Be sure to check State Department advisoriesbefore planning a trip to Kenya or any other developing country.

Tanzania: Like Kenya, Tanzania houses part of the Serengeti National Park — the best park in which to see great herds of wildlife in Africa. Other noteworthy sites include Mount Kilimanjaro, marine parks off the coast and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, site of the Ngorongoro Crater and Oldupai Gorge (also known as the Cradle of Mankind). The Ngorongoro Crater is one of the largest volcanic craters on earth. Over 30,000 animals live in the crater; it has the densest lion population in the world.

Uganda: The most famous safari destinations in Uganda are the country's many primate reserves. Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and Ngamba Island offer visitors the unforgettable opportunity to get a close look at primates in their natural habitats. Travelers can also see crocodiles, hippos and exotic birds, and witness the thundering water of Murchison Falls at Murchison Falls National Park on the Nile River.

Southern Africa
Botswana: Probably the most expensive destination in Africa due to the government's push for high-end tourism, Botswana has smaller crowds than most other safari destinations, and is a common locale for luxury packages. See wildlife in game reserves such as Chobe National Park, famous for an abundance of elephants, or Moremi Wildlife Reserve, which offers plenty of the famous "big five." You can also visit the Okavango Delta in Botswana — look for crocodiles, buffalo, zebras, hippos and many other animals in the delta's tangled waterways and islands.

Namibia: Namibia is under the radar for many safari travelers — expect less upscale game parks — and is dotted with incredible natural wonders from the Fish River Canyon to the Namib Desert. You'll find over 100 species of mammals in Etosha National Park, including endangered animals like the black rhinoceros. Desert elephants and zebra roam the arid landscapes of Skeleton Coast National Park in Nambia — the driest place in Africa.

South Africa: This is a particularly popular destination for safari travelers, so you can expect a well-organized and modern tourist infrastructure — as well as plenty of other travelers in the high season. The best-known park is Kruger National Park, which is home to an impressive variety of African animals and is situated in the largest conservation area in the world. Go to a private game lodge if you want a less-traveled safari, but prepare to pay — these pricey digs can run well over $500 per night.

When to go

Africa is an immense continent with safari opportunities available across thousands of miles, so the best time to travel to Africa depends on your specific destination. Overall, it's best (but most expensive) to travel in the dry season, which corresponds with the region's winter. Since safari destinations are in the Southern Hemisphere, their seasons run opposite of North America. Winter is from June to September, and summer is from December to March.

Visas and vaccines
Of course, you'll need a passport to travel to Africa. But for some other countries, like Kenya or Tanzania, you will need a visa too. Visit the State Department Web site for more information on visa requirements. Apply for a visa at least two months before your departure date.

Find a doctor who specializes in travel health care and tell him or her about your African travel plans, or visit a travel clinic. You'll need to get certain immunizations before heading to Africa. Malaria is common there, but there is no vaccine for the disease. You can protect yourself from malaria by taking an anti-malaria treatment or avoiding mosquitoes; use a mosquito-repellent spray and mosquito nets. You will need a yellow fever vaccination for travel to East and Southern Africa. Other vaccinations you may need include Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B and Typhoid. Visit the Centers for Disease Control's Web site for destination-specific health information.

Staying safe
You may imagine that hungry crocodiles or packs of ravenous lions are the biggest dangers on safari. The truth is that humans rarely get attacked by wild animals, but they routinely fall victim to safari scams, dehydration and illness, or crime while traveling to Africa.

Scams
When selecting a package, beware of safari scams. Research your prospective safari package provider; ask them for references and if they belong to professional organizations such as the American Society of Travel Agents. Also, look for user reviews on sites like TripAdvisor before you book. And keep in mind that if something is too good to be true (like a $50-per-night safari in luxury bungalows), it's likely a scam. Finally, always be aware of your package provider's cancellation policy (or lack thereof)!

Staying healthy
Safaris can be physically strenuous and mentally taxing. Travelers to Africa are at risk for dehydration while on safari; your body may not be accustomed to the hot sun and dry air of the bush and you may not even realize that you're becoming dehydrated. Drink lots of water! For more on staying fit and healthy on your travels, read our guide to health care abroad.

Politics and crime
Political unrest is an unfortunate fact of life for many African nations. Crime and violence plague many African cities, so even if you're safe on a remote safari in the bush, you may run into problems on either end of your safari. When traveling to populated areas, familiarize yourself with local customs and take measures to keep your money and valuables safe. And always check State Department advisories before planning a trip to another country.

Insurance
Since you will be in a remote location and will probably be spending a significant amount of money on a safari, travel insurance is virtually a necessity on an African safari. (Many safari tour operators actually require customers to purchase travel insurance in order to reserve a package.) Be sure to look for emergency care coverage and financial protection when booking your policy. For more information, read our guide to travel insurance.

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