Writing in the first issue of Travel Africa, in 1997, Bill Adams of Safari Consultants asked: “Is the value of travel in Africa determined simply by monetary cost, or by the way it fulfills your soul?” The monetary cost has risen steeply. A well-known tented camp in Kenya’s Masai Mara that cost US$390 per night in 1997 for a double tent in the high season, including full board and game drives, now costs US$1100, not the roughly US$600 one would expect. Commenting 20 years later, Bill Adams remarks: “Maybe ‘safari Africa’ does itself no favours by quoting all-in prices.”
Contributing to such increases, fast-growing economies across Africa have experienced high inflation. While this rise, over the past 20 years, has been around 50 per cent in the USA and around 70 per cent in the UK, in many safari countries it has been 300 per cent or more.
But if prices have zoomed up, there’s also an expanding universe of fulfilling safari options out there ― the soul-enriching experiences Bill Adams was referring to. You can visit mountain gorillas and desert rhinos; you can walk with baboons, track wild dogs and big cats, and follow on the trail of elephants; you can stay in camps staffed by Maasai warriors from the local community, a hotel devoted to giraffe conservation where they come to your room to be fed, or an increasing number of tree lodges and star-bed camps where you’ll sleep on a platform and awake to that life-affirming African dawn chorus.
If you suspect all that is out of your reach, you can still be a backpacker and have a rewarding journey of daily surprises and cool experiences. Perhaps not on US$4 a day as I did in the 1970s but certainly on US$40 a day, travelling on public transport, camping or staying in budget hostels and lodges, and occasionally dipping into a more affordable set-piece activity or attraction. You won’t be unaware, however, of the many experiences passing you by that more monied travellers can afford.
This is a key point about value for money in Africa: travelling on the cheap, or indeed on a more comfortable but restricted budget, is perfectly possible; but the range of expensive options has mushroomed and continues to evolve new degrees of sophistication, even in remote regions. Where once a tent with camp beds and kerosene lamps was considered all that was needed, today’s setups offer beautifully furnished tented pavilions with all the amenities of a hotel, including raised decks and plunge pools, 24-hour solar electricity, UV-filtered drinking water, produce from an organic garden, imported wines and spirits, extensive libraries and Wi-Fi.
Basic campfire food was once the norm; now, experienced chefs prepare gourmet meals from many camp kitchens. Where a standard Land Rover would have been considered de rigueur for game drives, many safari vehicles today are customised, fully open 4WDs with fridges and adjustable camera rests. And driver-guides who once relied on years of accumulated bush knowledge now have formal qualifications and set their benchmarks by the high standards of the Field Guides Association of Southern Africa.
The costs of providing these levels of hospitality and professionalism, from importing vehicles and parts to installing solar panel arrays and competing for the best managers, are all much higher than they were 20 years ago. “People don’t take into consideration the cost of maintaining eight rooms in a luxury camp compared with 150 rooms in a city hotel,” says Debbie Addison of Wild Frontiers. And Ade Coley of Flatdogs Camp asks: “How many city hotels have to supply their own water? Or install electricity?” Operating a remote camp in the wilderness is also highly labour-intensive, as Stefano Cheli of Cheli & Peacock notes: “One guest to two staff is the ratio in any higher-end lodge or camp.”
A large part of the costs of any safari are the park and conservancy fees that pay for rangers and environmental stewardship to safeguard the wildlife and habitat. The daily fee in the local-government-managed Masai Mara National Reserve was US$27 per person in 1997, $70 today ― though accounting for the money paid at the gate is no more transparent than it ever was. Many involved in conservation point to the community-owned wildlife conservancies as offering the best hope for the future. The local population benefits directly from the entry fees paid by visitors, who can often witness conservation work in action and engage directly with rangers and anti-poaching units.
And how do you go about organising one of these life-changing experiences? If you need to keep a close eye on the costs, you can join a group on a set-date road safari, with a driver-guide hosting you in the public parks. Or you can tailor-make a bespoke, private trip, either independently, making individual arrangements with each lodge, or by contacting one of the specialist safari operators who will arrange everything for you and usually get you a better price overall. This will enable you to visit private and community conservancies as well.
So is it all worth it? Absolutely, in the sense that the wildlife areas of East and southern Africa are the world’s richest megafauna reserves. Nowhere else on Earth can match the volume and diversity of large mammal species that you’ll encounter. By visiting, you are helping to ensure their survival. “Travellers increasingly want to know where their money’s going,” says Chris McIntyre of Expert Africa. “When safari businesses show respect for their wildlife, environment and community, they prosper.”
So, when comparing lodges or camps, don’t be shy of asking what you’re paying for. If you’re happy with simple arrangements, ask for them. If you value top guiding and excellent vehicle positioning for photography, then request those attributes. Some camps are better at the exquisite sundowner snacks and sparkling swimming pools, and others have high standards of guiding and make commitments to their wildlife and local community.
Lastly, for the best deal, consider travelling in the low season, which also helps support conservation efforts year-round. Camps that are expensive and full one month can be much cheaper and very quiet the next. “Camp costs are incurred over 12 months, whereas our income is highly seasonal,” says Greg Monson of Kicheche Camps. Jake Grieves-Cook of Gamewatchers Safaris agrees: “We need visitors throughout the year if we are going to keep funding conservation.” You’ll find rainfall in the wet seasons is surprisingly unpredictable and any showers usually brief, while the greenery and clear air make for ideal photographic conditions. Lower rates and multi-day offers can cut your costs by a half. Moreover, you’ll often have the wildlife to yourself and receive excellent standards of service with few other tourists.