Light luggage, light heart
The rule “less is more” definitely applies when packing for an African safari. Unburdening yourself from the usual travel trappings is liberating. On our recent family trip to South Africa we journeyed from city to safari and back again hopping from lodge to lodge by bush plane (click here to read my recent posts). Not worrying about our “stuff” added to the spirit of adventure. Need advice on what (or what NOT) to pack for your safari? Here are my top tips:
Weather can vary based on the country and the time of year (seasons may be opposite of your home country). Wintertime in the southern hemisphere (June through September) means as you travel north (towards the equator) temps go up, with the reverse being true in their summer (December — March). Kenya and Tanzania, located in East Africa, have milder, spring-like weather year-round verses South Africa, which has much greater temperature swings. No matter the destination, early morning and late evening game drives can be cooler than when the sun is high in the sky.
Luggage requirements (weights and measurements) vary by airline carrier, so check these in advance, especially the baggage allowed on small bush planes. For our safari, a medium sized rolling duffle bag with exterior zippered pockets to store non-valuables worked perfectly.
Shoes take up lots of room, so choose carefully. Hiking boots are only necessary if you plan on trekking or mountain climbing. On safari, you are traveling mostly by vehicle, but hard soled, comfortable shoes are a must for bush walks. Over the ankle hiking boots are bulky, so a better option are walking or hiking shoes (preferably with waterproof Gortex, like North Face or Merrells). Flip flops come in handy for the lodge pool or Jacuzzi. And, slip-on style leather sneakers are convenient for airport security and work well for “in between” weather patterns. Touring Johannesburg and Cape Town during their winter? Pack a pair of light weight leather ankle booties with rubber soles for cool or rainy days.
Layers, layers, layers. Simple and neat, casual clothing, whether you are in the city or on safari, always works best. Even in warmer weather, long pants and long sleeve shirts made from quick-dry or dri-FIT material will protect you from strong sun and mosquitoes. Wear a short sleeve shirt or tank top underneath for quick changes en route when the mercury rises. Leggings or jeans are okay, but leave the trendy, ripped ones at home. Ventilated trousers (like REI, prAna, or KUHL) are a great option and will keep you cool and dry.
Pack clothing that can be washed (not dry cleaned) since many lodges provide complimentary same-day laundry service). Pick neutral colors and leave the brights at home. No camouflage patterns – it is simply not acceptable. And, keep away from brash, logo t-shirts – it’s best to blend in.
When temps drop, most lodges will provide warm blankets or hot water bottles in the open-air vehicles, but come prepared with scarf, wool beanie, glove liners, fleece jacket, and light-weight quilted vest, because when the sun sets it gets cold! Heavy winter boots and coats are not necessary — but I definitely appreciated my flannel pajamas during our visit in July! In the cooler evenings in Cape Town and Johannesburg, I made good use of light weight merino wool cardigans that were easily layered (and didn’t take up much room in the luggage).
Outdoor dining at the lodges is very popular, but dressing up for dinner is generally unnecessary; it’s more relaxed than you think, even at the luxury tented camps. Usually, we went right from our evening drive to our al fresco dinner.
Other important items? A brimmed hat and bathing suit for warm, sunny days and rain shell and collapsible umbrella for rainy days. And, if you have read my previous packing article (click here) you will know I never travel without a wrap or Pashmina!
Bring extra batteries, memory cards, and lens cloths for your camera (dust gets everywhere) plus power packs for your phone. Converters and adapters will be required for most electronics, and a mini surge protector always is useful in any hotel room where outlets may be few and hard to reach. During game drives, my boys also made good use of binoculars — great for children who may not be using a camera or spotting wildlife through a zoom lens.
Many lodges provide flashlights, but pack one of those mini mag lights just in case — lodges can be pitch-dark at night (although for safety reasons, you are usually escorted back to your tent by a guide). Most lodges include a hairdryer so skip packing this heavy item (and wear that hat you packed!) Make sure to download books to your e-reader in advance because wifi and cell service can be unpredictable, or better yet, bring an actual book or travel-sized board game – since being “off the grid” is really the point.
Take a tote bag or a light weight backpack to use in the safari vehicle to store your camera and the extra layers of clothing you may shed (it can double as your carry on). Make sure it has a zipper to keep your items dust-free (the bag usually winds up on the floor during all that off-road driving).
MEDICINE & FIRST AID:
Assemble a well-stocked first aid kit in a waterproof bag (check to see if the country you are visiting allows ziploc bags). Include extra prescription medications (an antibiotic script, just in case) plus over-the-counter meds like ibuprofen, allergy and diarrhea tablets, cortisone cream, motion sickness pills, dry-eye drops, hand sanitizer, bug spray, sunscreen, and adhesive bandages.
Before placing items in your bag, lay out your things by item type and then remove one item from each category – you will not miss them! If traveling between several lodges, I recommend those flat, zippered, nylon pouches to arrange your stuff. You can lift them from suitcase to dresser drawer and back again without having to repack each individual item.
Handing out toys, pens, and candies to local children you meet along the way is strongly discouraged because it creates an endless cycle of begging. Instead, search out a “Social Enterprise,” an organization that runs as a business with profits going to support a community project or social need — buy locally made handicrafts or stop at a community-run store or café. Upon your return home, make a donation to a cause that has pulled at your heartstrings be it animal conservation, children’s charity, or land preservation. Your dollars, euros, or pounds will go a long way to helping our planet and all who dwell on it.
Check your travel documents — having the proper paperwork is crucial. LOOK AT YOUR PASSPORT EXPIRATION DATE: it cannot expire prior to six months from the dates of your trip. If you have LESS thank six months left on the expiration you will NOT be allowed to checkin at the airport or board your departure flight! Make sure you secured the appropriate visas to enter a country. South Africa requires all children under the age of 18 to possess a valid birth certificate with a raised seal, in addition to a valid passport (even if traveling with both parents). Many countries may require proof of inoculations so check the cdc.gov website (or visit a doctor that specializes in travel related immunizations) to learn about recommended shots.
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