11 things you need to know before going on your first safari

Before my first trip to Kenya, I’d done a little reading, but nothing could have really prepared me for what I was about to experience. When our tiny 12-seater touched down on the dirt runway in Amboseli National Park, roughly 140 miles south of Nairobi, I was giddy with excitement. Zebra calves were leaping in the air, and two giraffe heads peeked out nervously from behind an acacia tree. In fact, the plane was forced to circle the airstrip three times before landing, due to wandering animals.

I was immediately thrown into the wild. Not that I would’ve had it any other way — on the dusty drive over to Ol Donyo Lodge, I scanned the landscape like I was seeing Earth for the first time: flat, dry, streaked with gold and green, and above it all, hidden behind a cloud, Mount Kilimanjaro, the continent’s tallest peak. Within a few hours of settling in, I watched as monkeys, impala, elephants and giraffe all paraded by, less than 200 feet from my bed.

“Most people here are first-time guests,” said Jackson Lemunge, my guide on the first day, “And those who are repeat guests are back for a reason. They want to see the same thing.”

In Swahili, safari literally means “journey,” and for most of us, a place like Kenya is about as far from home as you can get. The element of surprise is a cornerstone of the whole experience. Still, there are a few items of business you’ll want to get under your belt. Unless otherwise noted, this list references the safari experience in general, so the following guidelines will help you with any trip, whether you’re traveling in Kenya, Botswana or South Africa.

Figure out your visa situation

Tourist visas are required for American travelers entering Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe, but not for Botswana or South Africa. In most cases, they can be purchased online and printed out ahead of time. It’s best to be prepared — I was able to buy my visa in-person at Jomo Kenyaata International Airport when I arrived in Nairobi, but I had to pay the $50 fee in cash. Credit cards weren’t accepted, and the ATM in the arrivals hall wasn’t very reliable.

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