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How to Take an African Safari Without Breaking the Bank

Megan Lierley

At a recent dinner party, a friend showed me photos from his African safari. The close ups of a lioness and her cubs! The army green tents opening to the queen bed of my glamping dreams! The giraffes peering curiously right into their open Land Rover! I was completely sold. Until he casually mentioned that the trip came with a price tag to match what I pay in three months’ rent. Feeling deflated, I set out to research whether I could find the magic and nuance of this particular African adventure — without shelling out my life’s savings to make it happen.

Fortunately, I had two great resources with whom to discuss safari on a budget: my sister, Madison, and a close friend, Diane. I knew Madison and her husband, Bjorn, were on a tight budget when they traveled the world for a year in 2017, but I could not have imagined that their day-long safari in Kenya cost less than what I spend on a happy hour cocktail.

Courtesy Unsplash // Wade Lambert

Their day-long safari in Kenya cost less than what I spend on a happy hour cocktail.

Consider Getting Physical

For their safari, Madison and Bjorn rented bikes to explore Hells Gate National Park in Kenya. “We rented mountain bikes for $8 and left our campground to start the ride. We opted to do it on our own, without a guide. After grabbing breakfast for less than $1 (eggs rolled in chapati), we rode along the main road until we got to the park’s entrance,” Bjorn told me. Once there, the park ranger gave them a few different route options, and off they went. “You’re literally just biking dirt roads in the middle of a reserve with animals everywhere! There were no fences or anything. Right away we saw zebras, giraffes, warthogs, and impala,” Bjorn explained.

 

Courtesy Megan Lierley

While they did the majority of this safari alone, they did require a guide at one point. “We had to have a guide for one section as we had to rock climb through the gorge. Since flash floods are known to happen if it starts raining, we needed to know all the emergency exit rope climbs,” Bjorn said.

When I asked them just how intense their bike safari was, they both agreed it’s not for those who won’t look forward to a bit — OK “a lot ”— of dirt and sweat.

In addition to being physical, the self-led safari might mean you won’t get to see the big five  (elephant, rhinoceros, buffalo, lion, leopard), but Madison and Bjorn did get an intimate sense of the landscape and, in Bjorn’s words, “saw all of the animals that wouldn’t eat us,” including African buffalo, gazelle, antelope, and baboons. They also saw hippos, which they watched through a protective fence since hippos are among the most dangerous animals in the world.

“When all was said and done, we’d completed 30 miles and rewarded ourselves with an ice cold beer and 8pm bedtime.”

As they went along, the road turned to more of a sandy trail, which made it feel like we were riding with flat tires. But it was worth it. “When all was said and done, we’d completed 30 miles and rewarded ourselves with an ice cold beer and 8pm bedtime,” Bjorn recalled, “but not before spotting a couple of hippos eating grass on the lakeside.” If biking sounds like a bit much for your group, Madison said they also saw cars and tours in the park.

Where: Hells Gate National Park, Lake Naivasha, Kenya (Two hours from Nairobi’s main airport, Jomo Kenyatta International, using public transportation)

Why here: The gorge within Hell’s Gate is said to have inspired the scene in The Lion King where Mufasa dies.

“You’re Seeing the Same Animals”

My sister isn’t the only person I know with safari intel. After my friend Diane and her husband learned of a last-minute business trip to Cape Town, they wondered if they could take a safari on short notice. “We didn’t even know if we could do a safari in South Africa, let alone with such limited time to plan,” she told me. With a bit of research, they learned they could take a 2.5 hour flight from Cape Town to Mpumalanga, South Africa, home of Kruger National Park. Because they booked last minute, they stayed in the only available accommodation — a hut for $35 per night — though Diane said there seemed to be options of varying degrees of luxury nearby.

 

Courtesy Megan Lierley

The couple rented a car and each day drove into the park, which Diane said was clearly marked and easy to navigate.

“We saw all of the big five, and giraffes were the first animals we saw,” Diane said. Though they had trouble seeing the large cats on their own, they were able to book a dusk tour through their accommodation and take an open bus with other tourists and expert guides who knew where to look for hard-to-find cheetahs. Diane said they paid $50 or $60 for this tour.

They estimated that they paid less than a thousand dollars, including roundtrip airfare from Cape Town (you’d still need to cover the cost of getting to Africa; round-trip flights from New York to Cape Town start at around $780) for their safari. I asked Diane if she felt she had missed anything by not taking a “luxury” safari. She imagined nicer accommodation and the ease of not having to plan much for yourself, but it hardly seemed worth what could add up to an extra $10,000 or more. “You’re seeing the same animals,” she said.

Where? Kruger National Park, Mpumalanga, South Africa

Why here? Just a short flight from Cape Town or Johannesburg, this is a fairly easy tag-on trip for anyone already visiting South Africa.

Courtesy Megan Lierley

Other Tips for Taking a Safari on a Budget

As with any trip you plan, do your research. It’s easier to pay a travel agent, but that convenience will cost you. What if you swapped just 10 minutes per day of Instagram scrolling for skimming a blog post or researching a bus route instead of just signing up — and paying for — an all-inclusive experience?

Madison and Diane both opted for national parks, and there are dozens more across the continent — most with websites boasting information and accommodations for a wide range of budgets. Instead of booking through an agent, see if you can learn all the details and recreate it for yourself, without paying the premium of a package deal. Research peak tourist months and decide whether perfect weather conditions are critical to your adventure. If not, book outside those months and enjoy the upside of off-season prices.

Most importantly, remind yourself why you’re taking this trip: Majestic animals and incredible landscapes look the same regardless of whether you woke up in a tent or a 5-star hotel.