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An East African safari was an adventure I had dreamed of my entire life. I imagine many adventurers do. For years, though, I had avoided even exploring it as an option because I thought it was out of my budget. I mean, is there such a thing as a budget camping safari?
The short answer is yes. Here’s what you need to know, before booking your budget camping safari in East Africa.
What to Expect on a Budget Camping Safari
If you are picturing yourself sleeping in a comfy bed in a fully outfitted tent with a personal bathroom, you may be in for a disappointment. Let me reset some expectations for what is included with a budget camping safari.
Let’s just say, you get what you pay for. Sure, for $3000 (or more) you can get what you imagined. But, if you’re on a budget, here’s what you can expect. This is what was included on my 5-day 4-night safari in Tanzania for $825.
- Pickup at my accomodation in Arusha
- Transport between Arusha, Tarangire, Serengeti, Ngorogoro Crater and back to Arusha in a 4×4 Land Cruiser with pop-up roof
- All National Park entry fees
- All meals
- Basic camping tent shared with one person
- Optional use of comfortable sleeping bag, sleeping mat and pillow
- Professional guide fluent in English
- Personal cook
- 1.5L of water per day
Our guide also stopped at a grocery store on our way out of Arusha where we could buy anything else that we wanted to bring along. For me, that included a boatload of wine.
Pro Tip: If you have more time to spend in Arusha, why not hike Mount Kilimanjaro?
7 Things to Know About a Budget Camping Safari
Ok, you’re probably wondering what else you have to give up if you opt for a budget camping safari. Honestly, not a whole lot in my opinion.
#1 // Luxury & Budget Camping Safaris See the Same Wildlife
If you strip down the African safari experience, it’s really all about seeing the amazing animals in their natural environment. The “circle of life” in real life.
Whether you pay a little or a lot, you see the same animals. My budget tour’s Land Rover was literally parked next to the one from the Four Seasons as we watched the lions lounging in the sun.
#2 // The Guide Makes All the Difference
Prior to my safari, I wasn’t aware of the amount of training and education it takes to become a professional safari guide. My guide had spent weeks living in the Serengeti learning about the wildlife and terrain. He knew every corner of the park and was able to navigate us to exactly where the wildlife would be active throughout the day.
Aside from being talented at spotting wildlife, my guide also was skilled at maintaining the Land Rover. The sandy, bumpy terrain is incredibly harsh on the vehicles. Breakdowns can (and do) happen, but a great guide will be doing proactive maintenance and tire pressure checks so you don’t breakdown when you’re out and about in the park.
Pro Tip: Expensive safaris do not guarantee that you will have a good guide and a no breakdowns.
#3 // You’re Barely at the Campsite
The animals are most active around sunrise and sunset. So, a typical safari day involves heading out into the park before sunrise and returning to the campsite just in time for dinner. Shortly after dinner, it’s already time to get ready for bed so you can wake up early and do it again the next day.
While the idea of the luxury tents with infinity pools is lovely, the truth is that you have very little time to actually enjoy them except after dark.
If you don’t mind roughing it for a few days, you can cut your camping safari costs by more than 70%.
#4 // There’s No Fence Keeping Wildlife Out of the Campsite
I don’t know why, but I assumed there would be some sort of barrier preventing lions, baboons and other animals from walking right up to my tent. There’s not.
Ok, take a deep breath. First, not all parks and campsites are the same. So, if you’re concerned, it’s worth asking if there will be fences where you’re staying. Second, the guides were all very diligent in ensuring all food scraps and scented toiletries were kept in the vehicles so the animals wouldn’t be tempted to visit the tents.
Fortunately, the only animal that came into my tent was the snake from my very vivid Malarone-induced dream.
#5 // Don’t Use the Bathroom At Night
On the first night, our group of four was drinking all of the wine after dinner. As our guide announced he was heading to bed, I casually asked him what the bathroom situation was during the night. He responded, “oh yeah, I wouldn’t leave your tent at night. The animals can wander into the bathroom stalls.” He then proceeded to tell us how he keeps an empty water bottle in his tent to pee in if things get desperate.
So there we were, having just drank a load of wine realizing all of us were going to have to pee in the middle of the night. That was when we instituted the “3 pee” rule where we all had to go pee three times after our last drink of anything.
#6 // Showers Are Available, Hot Water Not so Much
Private bathrooms aren’t a thing on a budget camping safari. That being said, the bathrooms were not bad and pretty consistent with National Park bathrooms in most places I’ve visited. There are showers, but the access to hot water was inconsistent. If cold showers aren’t your thing, be sure to bring baby wipes!
#7 // Expect To Wait At the Park Entrances
While your National Park entrance fees may be included in the tour cost, that doesn’t mean these fees are paid in advance. At each park entrance, there were dozens of Land Rovers parked waiting to pay their fees. Take advantage of this time to stretch your legs, use the restrooms and maybe even see some wildlife wandering around. The waits lasted anywhere from 30 minutes to over an hour.
I guess I imagined that this would be a more seamless process so I found myself getting frustrated at times. It’s possible that some companies have ways to work around this but the long wait seemed to be common practice.
Practical Tips About Safaris in General
No matter your budget, a safari is an adventure of a lifetime! These practical tips will help you make the most of your adventure.
Dust Will Get in Places You Didn’t Know Existed
Conceptually, I understood that there would be dusty conditions on a safari. In reality, it was so much more dust than I imagined. It gets in your shoes, hair, eyes, camera, and just everywhere. Thankfully, I only brought clothes and gear that I didn’t mind getting dusty.
Here are a few items that will make the dust more manageable:
- Bandana – Use it to wipe dust off of your face and camera display. On dusty stretches of road, tie it around your head to keep dust out of your mouth.
- Sunglasses – To protect your eyes.
- Camera lens cleaning kit – So you don’t have dust specks on your epic wildlife photos.
- UV Camera lens filter – Keep dust away from your lens altogether and reduce UV light in your images. Check the diameter of your camera lens before purchasing.
Here are some more helpful tips to keep dust out of your camera gear.
There is Limited Access to Bathrooms During the Day
As if not peeing at night wasn’t challenging enough already, there is also limited access to toilets during the day. Guides will typically stop somewhere with a bathroom at least once per day. If you have to use the restroom any other time during the day, the only option may be to go outside the vehicle in the park. This is not ideal for several reasons (aka lions), but if it’s an emergency be prepared to follow Leave No Trace. In other words, be sure you have toilet paper and a trash bag with you in the vehicle.
It’s Possible to Charge Electronics
Prior to my camping safari, I had purchased several extra camera batteries. There was no way I was going to run out of batteries on this adventure! I was pleasantly surprised to discover that our Land Rover had an outlet (plug, not USB) at every seat. Each day, I was able to top up the charge on all of my electronics!
Group and Vehicle Size Vary Significantly
My group of four had a vehicle and guide to ourselves. If group size is important to you, ask about this before booking with a tour company. I saw several safari vehicles that had eight or more people, some were large buses with more than twenty.
Is a Budget Camping Safari for You?
When I booked my budget camping safari, I had a tinge of FOMO. Would I regret not splurging on the luxury safari experience?
In the end, no. I don’t regret it one bit. For less than one third of the price of a low-end luxury experience, my safari dream became a reality.
In five days, I saw all of the Big 5, over 25 lions, baby hippos and elephants practically an arms length from where I was standing. There really aren’t words to describe what it’s like to see these animals roaming in their natural habitat, without fences or gates.
If you think that a safari is outside of your budget, I encourage you to think again.