We are often asked why you should choose a private safari over a national park safari. There are many factors at play when deciding on the best itinerary for a personal or family Big Five safari. The range of options available can leave even the most experienced traveler feeling out of their depth. Don’t feel discouraged. This advice should help simplify your decision. Basically, safaris can be placed in two categories – National Parks which are open to the general public, and private lodges which are more exclusive. There are pro’s and cons for both experiences depending on the priorities of your trip. In the bush, as with most things in life, you generally get what you pay for.
First things first…
The most important part of any Big Five safari adventure is the wildlife aspect – what you see and how you see it. In this regard there is no comparison between a national park and a private safari experience. As a general rule, private safari field guides are of a higher quality, with a better understanding of what will give you the best game-viewing experience. What you really pay for on private reserves, besides outstanding service and accommodation, is expertise.
Game drives should consist of no more than six guests on a well maintained cruiser and will be a personalised, interactive experience, where guests play a decisive role in what they wish to look for. Although there are no guarantees in the wild, an experienced guide and tracker maximises your chances of success. While the guide keeps you entertained, tending to your every need, the tracker is free to follow up on the species of your choice. His understanding of animal behaviour and knowledge of the land, in many cases passed down through generations, are invaluable.
With a well-trained guide, the experience is further enhanced by the correct following distances and vehicle placement, so as not to cause the animals discomfort while providing the best possible view or photographic opportunity. The guide’s in-depth knowledge and storytelling skills will keep you hanging on his/her every word.
At national parks level, vehicle maintenance is difficult because government funding is minimal and there are only short periods when the machines are not in use. There are many guests, causing this shared experience to lack the intimacy offered by a private safari. Looking for specific species is challenging as there are so many guests with different preferences. If you are self-driving, most people do not have the personal tools required to identify the signs of the bush and, by national park law, leaving the roads to follow animals is not permitted. Having said this, it does add to the excitement when something really exceptional is encountered.
Another area requiring revision for a national park safari is the lack of vehicle limitation in sightings, often leading to congregations around certain species. This can influence animal behaviour, obscure your view or photographic opportunity, and can lead to tension in what should be a calm and soulful interaction.
On private reserves, usually somewhere towards the midpoint of a morning game drive, a carefully thought out spot will be selected and adorned with a neatly setup tea table. On offer will be a variety of teas, plunger coffee and even hot chocolate for those with a sweeter tooth. This will all be personally prepared by the guide, paying close attention to any special requirements. And just to top it off, a freshly-baked pastry or muffin will keep your hunger at bay until your return to the lodge for a full cooked breakfast. A similar but unique experience will also be offered in the evenings.
On the other side of the coin, national parks will generally not stop for drinks but, if they do, this will only happen at designated stop points that are well-trodden by the masses. In my opinion, this does not do the African bush experience justice, but rather detracts from the adventure of going off the beaten track.
Finally, there are subtle tried-and-tested details on private game reserves that can prevent disaster and elevate a day in the bush from good to exceptional. It is the added extras of ponchos for the rain, hot water bottles for the cold or a spare pair of binoculars for a sighting that help produce the ideal bush experience.
In summary, a private safari is a catered experience aimed at producing the best possible outcome from any and every moment in the bush. The expertise offered by a well-trained ranger/tracking team is what lubricates the wheels of success on a safari adventure, making the impossible an everyday occurrence.