Many people preparing for a trip to Africa, particularly for the first time, will feel a little anxious when it comes to packing. Any time you venture into the unknown, you’re bound to worry you haven’t thought of everything, but clearly the conditions and experiences you’ll face on safari will call for more considered planning.
Before we give you our suggestions on what to pack, there’s a few things you need to keep in mind before you head out to buy yourself a new everything:
Keep it simple. Some people approach packing for a holiday as a major engineering project, overthinking it and doubling up on items to be sure they have it covered. If you feel this urge, stop, and purge! Like most travel, the general rule of thumb is less-is-more.
Luggage restrictions. Although your international carrier might tempt you with loads of excess weight, most safari airlines have very strict baggage restrictions, keeping you to a maximum of 15kg (sometimes 20kg). On top of that, they require soft bags, not hard suitcases. So, before you even start packing, put away the Samsonite and dust off or treat yourself to a nice leather or canvas duffel bag (some suitcases are fine, as long as they aren’t hard-edged). Immediately that will focus your mind on having to carry less with you! And you’ll look the part.
Lodge supplies. Many camps now will stock a supply of everyday essentials, toiletries and even clothing. So don’t worry about every detail: pack the basics and if you discover you really need something, you’ll probably find you’ll be able to pick it up at the lodge.
And now to think about your packing list…
We’re not going to dwell on specific items of clothing you should pack, but there are some principles to consider:
Laundry: Most lodges and camps offer a daily laundry service, so you really don’t need to carry more than a few days’ change of clothes. Having said that, primarily for cultural reasons most camps won’t wash underwear, so do pack a small detergent or soap you can use to wash your own.
Comfort: Choose clothing that is lightweight and cool, and think about changeable lengths: you’ll want shorts or skirts during the heat of the day, but long trousers at night to keep off the chill and the mosquitos. Even at the swankiest of lodges you’re fine wearing your safari gear to evening meals.
Colours: When in the bush, do try and stick to neutral colours such as khaki, beige and olive, rather than whites and brights. But don’t feel the need to go overboard on this: in most cases, if you’re primarily in a safari vehicle and camp, jeans/shorts and t-shirts/blouses in almost any colour are fine. Curiously, biting insects are apparently attracted to striped patterns of roya blue/black. For evenings, if you want to add some elegance, light scarves or a Kenyan kikoi or kanga can work wonders!
Layers: There can be a surprising range in temperature on safari. Early mornings and evenings can be chilly — even cold! — particularly in winter. But as the sun rises, you’ll find the temperature warms up quite quickly. And in the evenings, temperatures can drop quite quickly as night settles in. So the trick is to pack clothes that work in layers and can easily be peeled on or off. For example:
- Lightweight windbreaker or waterproof jacket (if you’re going somewhere you are likely to encounter rain, such as gorilla trekking)
- Pashmina or light fleece jumper
- Bandanna/buff or cotton scarf (ie kanga, kikoi)
Footwear: you’ll want a sturdy pair of (closed) shoes that can cope with the dirt, dust and mud/rain; but keep in mind it is likely to also be hot and humid. Proper hiking boots are a good idea for longer walking safaris, but not necessary for everyday use on game drives and around camps, where light trail shoes or hybrid shoe/sandals will suffice.
Sports bra: Given that bush terrain can be quite rough and rutted, some women strongly advocate wearing a sports bra.
Hat: it is surprising how many people are quite flippant about this, while others over-engineer it. Most safari vehicles are open, so you’ll be in the sun a lot. A cap may do it; a wide-brimmed hat is better.
Travel documents: Keep a photocopy of your passport and spare copy of your travel documents just in case you lose the originals.
Glasses / lenses: It’s an idea to ensure you have cleaning equipment and protective storage for your glasses. If you wear contact lenses, be conscious that there can be a lot of dust on safari; take a pair of glasses as a back-up.
Sunglasses: If you can get polarised glasses, that’ll help further dampen the glare.
Sealable (Ziploc) bags: Surprisingly helpful for keeping your medication in or anything you want to protect from dust. Also for keeping damp clothing separate from dry in your bag (ie swimming costumes)
Medication/First Aid: Most camps and lodges will have good first aid kits and supplies, so we reckon you need think only about your personal prescription medication. Of course, bunging a few plasters, suncream, headache pills and antiseptic cream into your toiletry bag won’t do any harm.
Lip balm: Yup. You’ll thank us for that one while you’re on a sunny game drive.
Torch/flashlight: Not essential, as most camps provide torches, but when you need light (ie getting up in the night for the loo), you really need light! If you can find a small, basic lightweight torch or headlamp, it could be useful.
Adaptors: Voltage is 220-240 AC. South Africa uses a round three-prong plug, while the rest of Africa has square three-prong plugs, so packing an international adaptor could be useful.
Spare batteries/battery pack: Most lodges and camps do now offer charging facilities, and many vehicles have a cigarette lighter socket operation on a 12-volt system, but it is worth taking a spare battery for your camera, or battery charging pack for your mobile devices.
OK, so this is a personal one depending on how committed you are to your photography. Remember that specialist kit such as fixed lenses, can be bulky and heavy, so you have to factor that into your weight allocation. Many keen photographers take a beanbag instead of a tripod.
For casual photographers, a basic camera or even smartphone is fine for everyday use in camp and even in some situations in the bush. But if you want good wildlife photographs, you’ll need to think about a lens with a focal length of up to 200mm or 300mm. Converters will help extend that.
Batteries, batteries, batteries. Take spares for your spares.
And a whopping big storage card or two: you will take a lot more pictures than you imagine!
Most safari goers will tell you that binoculars are absolutely essential, and yet many people don’t pack a pair, and end up borrowing their guide’s pair. They make a huge difference to the safari experience. Take a pair with magnification of at least 8x or 10x, and the better the quality the more you’ll appreciate them. There’s lots of different makes out there, so you have plenty of choice; but here’s a shameless plug for Swarovski, which we think are the ‘bees’ knees’ of the binocular world.
Yes, most camps and guides will have a few field guides kicking around for you to use, and they will be well-thumbed for a reason. You might not think you’re a birder, but you’ll see so many birds you’ll want to know what they are. And there are so many mammals, insects and other creatures that will capture your imagination. Guides are wonderful at identifying and explaining what you are looking at, and that may be sufficient for many, but it’s quite handy to have your own field guide to hand to trawl through.
Finally, the most important thing to take with you is an open mind and a curiosity. More than anything, it is what you take out of a safari that will be more precious to you than what you take into it.