International Travel

Wed, 6 Mar, 2019Sue Halliwell

How to venture into the African wilds safely

If your dream of an African safari retired when you did, don’t ditch the zip-off pants just yet. A real silver safari is not only doable, but also readily available and won’t break your body or the bank.

By real, I mean hearing lions outside your camp at night, walking the veld with African guides, canoeing past grazing elephants, and scaling vast sand dunes. I’m 60, he’s 70-plus, and we’re still dusting ourselves off from a three-week Sunway Southern Circle safari of Namibia and Botswana featuring all of these. It was a wild ride in every sense, yet we emerged safe, sound and totally satisfied.

Silver adventurers generally have the dream, the time, funds and health to travel. Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) statistics for 2018 state 41% of adventure tourism clients are now in the 50 to 70 age group, increasing numbers of them solo women.

ATTA also reports southern African countries trending as a silver destination, and group safaris their most popular way to explore them. Tour companies are rushing to accommodate this growth market, which doesn’t mean the risks inherent in Africa travel have disappeared. By its very nature, this can be a place unforgiving of mistakes, so I have a few tips to ensure your venture into the African wilds is a ‘safe’-ari of the silver kind.

Flights

Firstly, fly safe. We learned the hard way on a previous Africa trip that flights are often delayed or cancelled, every zip on your in-hold luggage must be locked, and that connecting flights into and throughout Africa are best taken with the same airline.

With its dependability and comfort, we were mighty pleased South African Airways (SAA) was the only airline flying both Africa legs of our journey – Perth to Johannesburg then Jo’burg to Livingstone where our Namibia and Botswana safari started and finished. By using SAA’s Alliance partner, Air New Zealand, for the Auckland/Perth section, we could also check our luggage through from the first airport to the last, be confident of receiving it, and have helpdesk support should problems arise.

Choosing your tour

How to travel Botswana and Namibia once we got there involved greater research. Eventually we figured a group tour was easier, cheaper and safer than going it alone. We opted for Sunway Safaris as an experienced operator with a local agent – again, in case of problems. Its 12-person max Southern Circle safari tour met our list of must-sees, was English-speaking and seemed a comfortable size.

A well established safari company can keep costs down; our 21-day, accommodated safari with most meals provided coming in at a very affordable price. The company had forged strong relationships with communities along the route, which was also important to us, and contributed to them by employing locals as guides and tour support staff.

A small group maximises personal assistance from the tour guide. When two tour companions arrived at Livingstone airport nearly two weeks before their luggage (did I mention using the same airline?), our guide’s superior tracking skills and persistence eventually helped reunite them, catalysing a memorable ‘suitcase party’ in the Namib Desert beneath a full moon.  

That was two weeks into the tour by which time we knew our fellow passengers well. Having shared many hours in a safari truck, convivial meals and intense wildlife experiences, we looked out for each other, which brings a security money can’t buy.

Being safe in the wild

Two thirds of us fell into the silver traveller category, and at no point did age compromise our experience. We coped well with the safari walks, climbing into safari vehicles or mokoro (canoes) and scaling gigantic sand dunes, none of which were compulsory, anyway.

At the Okavango Delta camp we embraced the challenges of a chemical toilet ensuite and open air shower, both proving the most welcome of the trip. However, the lions, hyena and elephants visiting camp at night did stretch some comfort zones, despite our African guides’ assurances we were safe inside our tents.

Turns out we were, and we came to trust the local guides implicitly. They knew the places and animals, so when they told us not to move as elephants approached, we didn’t, or to walk in single file at a steady pace when lions were about, we did. One handy tip I learned for myself was to stay between more courageous souls in these situations, which definitely felt safer although not as exciting.

Eating and sleeping

Exciting did describe some of our accommodation. At my age, the quality of nightly rest is a major factor in tour choice, so my favourite surprised me. Overlooking Namibia’s Okavango River and consisting of roll-up bamboo walls and an outdoor bathroom, I eventually managed to settle to sleep here while a hundred-plus elephants socialised on the opposite river bank. 

Our accommodation exceeded expectations, as did the food. As on many African safaris, our driver and guide cooked most meals, which were healthy and hearty. However, we did assist with the washing up and sanitising of plates and cutlery, one of the hygiene measures I credit with the absence of Africa tummy throughout our tour.

Packing

Many dinners were held around the safari truck at night, and I was glad of the head torch included in the comprehensive packing list offered by the tour company. As usual, I put in more clothes than suggested, which ended up donated to our tour mates with lost suitcases. I didn’t miss them.

I also brought plentiful medical supplies, but learned the hard way to consult a travel doctor about pills, vaccinations and the medical certificate sometimes required for over-70s, at least two months before departing.

We left jewellery at home to deter thieves, and took only the necessary camera and communication equipment, keeping it hidden from view when not in use. These are sensible precautions that gave us the security to have fun and be brave, a safari attitude for which there is no age limit.

So, dig out those zip-offs and check they still fit the wanna-be silver adventurer you. You may have given up the day job, but there’s no need to give up that safari day dream just yet.

Scroll through the gallery above to see what an African safari is like.