We spotted him during an early morning game drive through South Africa’s Madikwe Reserve: a male lion resting within the grasslands, his thick mane touching the ground where he rested his front paws. This was the same large cat who’d been roaring throughout the night, and he was magnificent—my first lion sighting on what had to have already been a handful of safaris between here and Kenya. My only wish is that I had brought along a pair of binoculars.
No matter how often you travel, packing for an African safari requires some planning. Especially because your packing list for Nat Hab’s Southern African Odyssey, navigating the waters of Botswana, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, is going to be slightly different from our Ultimate Gorilla Safari, which includes trekking to see the gorillas, chimpanzees, and golden monkeys of Uganda and Rwanda.
Safaris are generally casual, low-key affairs that only require the basics—some comfortable clothes, sun protection, and sturdy shoes—but knowing how much to pack and what gear to bring will go a long way toward making your experience top-notch and worry-free.
Small charter planes are the norm while navigating between parks and reserves on safari, and they typically only allow travelers to bring luggage that’s soft-shelled (like a frameless backpack or a duffel bag) and weighs 40 to 44 lbs at most, depending on the country. This means it’s important to pack lightly. Leave the straightening irons and hairdryers at home. Not only do most camps not have the energy required to power them, but the wildlife truly doesn’t care how you look.
This said, there are practical purposes for much of the clothing and accessories that are traditionally associated with safari. While a leopard or rhino isn’t going to judge you for wearing jeans or a sweater, lightweight attire makes much more sense in the sometimes sweltering African heat. Bring a few long- and short-sleeve button-downs or tees, comfy cargo pants and/or shorts, or even a skort, all of which you can mix and max and wash when needed (many lodges have onsite laundry facilities). When choosing your clothes, consider earth-toned colors like khaki, olive, tan, and brown that blend easily into the local environment. Bright and white colors often scare animals away.
A wide-brimmed hat does wonders for protecting against the sun, and pack a beanie for night game drives when it can get quite cold. A bandana can shield your neck and face against wind and dust, and you can also soak it in water before tying it around your neck—a trick that’ll help you stay cool on the hottest days. A lightweight neck gaiter is another way to safeguard yourself from the elements.
Bring along a pair of closed-toe shoes, like sneakers or hiking boots, for bushwalking, as well as thick-soled sandals for evenings. Flip flops can also work for game drives and within camp. Footwear should be water-resistant, and make sure to break in any new pairs prior to your big adventure.
A water-resistant daypack/backpack is essential for keeping your goods (e.g., sunscreen, insect repellent, portable charger) together on safari.
Some trips, such as Nat Hab’s 13-day Madagascar Wildlife Adventure, include an option for swimming, and there are several lodges with their own plunge pools. Consider packing a swimsuit to take full advantage of these offerings.
Packing for Different Seasons
Rather than winter, spring, summer, and fall, Africa generally has two seasons. The first is the dry season, which typically runs from June to October in East Africa and mid-April through early September in Southern Africa. During these months, expect warm days and cooler mornings and nights. Layers like a fleece pullover and/or lightweight long underwear are perfect for adding and removing throughout the day as the weather changes. Along with a beanie and neck gaiter, warm gloves also come in handy.
The other season is known as the wet season. March to June are the heaviest rains in Kenya, though there’s also a shorter rainy season that’s made up of November and December. Things dry out again between mid-December and March. However, greenery remains prevalent, and the birthing of baby wildlife is in full swing. In Southern Africa, the wet or “green” season lasts from November through April, with October being somewhat of a transition month. Breathable, quick-drying clothing, including a waterproof rain jacket, is a must when packing for this season. A light rain poncho and/or rain pants are good options, too.
Despite these general guidelines, there are no hard and fast rules for Africa’s weather. For instance, when you’re trekking through a tropical rain forest on Nat Hab’s Great Uganda Gorilla Safari, rain can come at any time of year. It can also get quite dusty, with hot daytime temps in the region’s lower-lying areas and cooler at higher altitudes where the mountain gorillas reside. Along with waterproof layers, additional packing essentials include sturdy, high-top, waterproof hiking boots with good tread and ankle support, leg gaiters to help keep your boots and calves clean and moisture-free, and gardening.
Nat Hab’s photography adventures, such as the Wild Namibia Photo Safari and Botswana: Kalahari, the Delta & Beyond—Photo Tour, a green season picture-taking bonanza, have their own packing considerations.
Along with a good and reliable camera, consider bringing along a wide-angle zoom lens to capture photos of local landscapes and an ultra-telephoto zoom lens for wildlife close-ups. Whatever Natural Habitat Adventures trip you book, chances are you’ll be taking loads of pictures. Having a backup, such as a smartphone or compact camera, is a great idea (especially on those days that you don’t want to carry around anything heavy), along with an extra battery for your main camera and ample photo memory.
One final thing to think about: When reading over Natural Habitat Adventures’ provided packing lists, pay attention to any “adventure-specific guidelines.” For instance, if you are traveling to Kafue National Park in Zambia and/or to areas of Zimbabwe other than Victoria Falls—including Hwange National Park—a stop on Nat Hab’s 11-day Southern Africa Odyssey—it’s important to avoid wearing dark blue and black since these colors are known to attract tsetse flies (and their bites can be quite painful!). Diphenhydramine, the active ingredient in Benadryl, is on Zambia’s list of controlled substances, so steer clear of packing it when traveling on Nat Hab’s 12-day Secluded Botswana Safari, which begins in Livingstone, Zambia’s base for Victoria Falls.
Reading the “fine print” beforehand can help avoid any road bumps along the journey and allow you to focus on what’s truly important: the experience.