If you’ve always dreamed of visiting the endless African savanna to watch lions, elephants, cheetah and wildebeest go about their business, then here is how to make your safari dream a reality.
The Masai Mara in Kenya is arguably the most famous safari destination in Africa, and the annual migration of the wildebeest across its grassy plains is possibly the most famous wildlife spectacle in the world. This has been on our list for a long time now, and in a few months, we’re finally going to do it! Here’s how we planned it from Hyderabad, India; and even if you’re somewhere else, you’ll still find a few useful tips here. Unless you live in Antarctica, maybe.
Booking your safari
Your first step would obviously be to book your safari tour, because everything else revolves around that. There are lots of tour operators in India who can take care of that for you, and toehold comes very highly recommended. We contacted them and found them very open, knowledgeable and responsive, but ultimately a little beyond our budget.
Finding the right safari for you
Our relatives in Uganda—who’ve helped a lot of their friends figure out their safaris—recommended that we use www.safaribookings.com instead of using a tour operator in India. This is a great website that helps you find exactly the kind of tour you’re looking for. It lets you filter tours by budget, destination, group size and other preferences. Once you find the right tour for you, you can then ask for a quote directly from the tour operator. You can also ask them to include various add-ons like hotel stays in other places and airport transfers.
We’ve booked with Tekko Tours and Travel, and we’ve had a great experience with them so far. Their representative has been very friendly, informative, professional and responsive, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating. If all goes well, I won’t have to update this post with a different opinion when we get back!
(Update: We’re back, and it was great, but it could’ve been better. We spent too much time driving, and our driver/guide could have been more responsive. I’m working on a detailed post, but meanwhile, take a look at this quick highlight video.)
Impala, gazelle and topi on the plains of Masai Mara
Deciding where and when to visit
The peak season for safaris in Kenya and the Masai Mara is from the middle of June until October. This is the best time to see wildlife—including the legendary wildebeest migration—but tour prices and visitor numbers are also highest during these times. Booking just before or just after peak season might be a good idea if you’re on a tight budget. But make no mistake, a safari in Kenya will put a dent in your wallet, one way or another.
Besides the Masai Mara, Kenya has lots of other reserves to visit, each with its own speciality. Lake Nakuru is famous for its hordes of flamingos (though the numbers have apparently reduced over the last few years). If elephants and hippos are your thing, then you might want to visit Amboseli too—especially if you’re looking for a photograph of the moon rising over Mount Kilimanjaro for your Instagram account! And the best part is that they’re all a few hours’ drive from each other and can be combined. Of course, Kenya has lots of other national parks and nature reserves that you can visit. It all depends on what you want to do. And Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, is where most tours start and end.
An elephant and her baby in Amboseli National Park
Paying for your safari
Interestingly enough, payments need to be made in US dollars only. Our operator ended up quoting just over USD 1,000 per head for a five-day tour and two nights in Nairobi. If you’re looking for a mid-range private tour, this is probably the cost you should budget for. If this is too high for you, you can reduce costs by joining a larger group, choosing lower-end accommodation, and asking for a safari van to travel around instead of the more expensive four-wheel drive SUV.
A bank transfer might not be as fast as this cheetah, but its cheaper than paying by card!
Once you finalize your tour costs, and depending on the terms quoted by your tour operator, you’ll have to make your payment. Our operator asked for 30% advance, and the remaining payable two months before the tour. They gave us the option to pay either by credit card or international bank transfer. We did some research and found out that, with transaction costs and exchange rates included, it would cost us Rs. 15,000 more to pay by credit card than bank transfer! So even though paying by bank transfer is a bit tedious, it saves a lot of money.
To transfer the funds to your tour operator, you’ll need to visit your bank branch with a copy of your passport, a printout of your operator’s quotation, and your chequebook. Make sure the quotation mentions the operator’s address, their bank and branch, and the bank’s SWIFT code. You’ll need to fill out a form and answer a few questions, and with luck, you’ll be done in half an hour.
Also read: In the shadow of elephants in Valparai
Planning your flights
From what we could make out, Mumbai is the only city in India from which there’s a direct flight to Nairobi. This is on Kenya Airways, currently costing about Rs. 35,000 for a return ticket. Of course, it all depends on when you book. The more in advance you book, the more likely you are to get a good rate.
If you’re booking from another city in India, you’ll probably have to layover for a few hours in Mumbai. Some other international airlines like Ethiopian Airlines, Etihad, Emirates, Qatar Airways and Air Arabia might also fly from your city, with a stop at their home cities. We decided to fly Emirates from Hyderabad, with a stopover in Dubai. If you’ve read my post on responsible travel, you might have noticed that this goes against the very first point I mentioned—travelling in as straight a line as possible. But in our defence, we’ll be meeting up with another member of our group in Dubai, and then flying on to Kampala in Uganda. Because, relatives.
Only Mumbai has direct flights to Nairobi (image courtesy Shutterstock/Faiz Zaki)
How to book your flights
The easiest way to book your flights would be through an online booking platform like MakeMyTrip or Yatra. To our surprise, we found that MakeMyTrip—our go-to booking platform—didn’t offer the kind of connections we wanted, so we ended up booking through the Emirates site itself, and even got a slightly cheaper rate. So whenever you’re booking, it might make sense to compare offerings between booking sites and the airline’s site. You never know where you’ll get the best deal.
Applying for your visa for Kenya
Applying for a visa is quite simple and can be done online at the Kenyan government’s eVisa site. While applying, you’ll need to upload soft copies of your passport, tickets, hotel bookings and your travel schedule. The visa fees need to be paid in US dollars via credit card, and the cost of a single-entry visa is approximately USD 52. The application takes two or three days to process.
In case you’re visiting Uganda and/or Rwanda as well, it would be worthwhile to apply for an East Africa Tourist Visa. This one allows you to visit all three countries, and costs approximately USD 103. Strangely enough, the Kenyan eVisa site doesn’t allow you to apply for this visa online, but only on arrival or at Kenyan consulates and embassies abroad. We booked through the Ugandan e-immigration site instead, since that’ll be our first stop. A word to the wise: if you’re using this site, you might run into a roadblock while filling the ‘duration of stay requested’ section. Enter ‘3 months’, regardless of your period of stay; the site doesn’t accept anything else, for some reason.
Getting your mandatory vaccinations
Kenya is one of the African countries in which you can get yellow fever, and travellers to these countries need to be vaccinated. You’ll be asked to show an internationally recognized vaccination certificate when you come back to India. If you don’t have one, you might be put under quarantine for up to six days. The Indian government also requires that all travellers to Kenya take an oral polio vaccination (OPV), even if they’ve been vaccinated earlier. Funnily, the Ugandan e-immigration site asks you for a vaccination certificate while applying, but the Kenyan eVisa site doesn’t. Don’t ask me why.
The vaccination certificates issued by the Institute of Preventive Medicine in Hyderabad
The yellow fever vaccination needs to be taken at least 10 days before returning to India, and is valid for life. To be on the safe side, plan to take the vaccine at least 10 days before LEAVING India. We’ve heard stories about travellers being hassled at the airport in Kenya for not having the certificate. The oral polio vaccination needs to be taken at least three weeks before returning to India. Your vaccinations must be administered at any one of the authorized vaccination centers (PDF) across India, and they’ll also give you the necessary certificate.
Getting your vaccinations in Hyderabad
It looks like the only authorized center to issue these vaccination certificates is the government-run Institute of Preventive Medicine in Himayatnagar. Here’s the location. Before visiting, take a look at their clunky website (the website that shows up on Google is out of date, it seems; the URL still has the ‘AP’ for Andhra Pradesh instead of the ‘TG’ for Telangana). Specifically, take a look at the ‘guidelines for travellers’ link for some useful dos and don’ts. If you have trouble viewing the site, try using Internet Explorer to access it.
The entrance to the government complex housing the Institute of Preventive Medicine (image courtesy Aakash Singh via Google Maps)
To get your vaccinations, you first need to take an appointment at the ‘Registration for Appointment’ link. WARNING: The appointment form is very user-unfriendly! For example, some fields not marked as mandatory turn out to be mandatory after you click the ‘submit’ button. Also, clicking directly on the radio buttons on the date and time selector screen sometimes doesn’t work. You’ll need to hunt around the area with your pointer for the right place to click (watch for the radio button circle to turn blue!). Lastly, the appointment link doesn’t always work. Be patient and keep trying.
When choosing a date and time, remember that you can only get yellow fever vaccinations on Tuesdays and Fridays. You don’t need to take a separate appointment for the OPV; take one for the yellow fever vaccine, and you can get the OPV done at the same time. We found that both the yellow fever and OPV vaccines can be bought at the institute. Total cost: yellow fever vaccine, Rs. 250 + OPV, Rs. 50 + admin charges, Rs. 50 = Rs. 300 in total. Remember to take your passport and a printout of your appointment along when you go.
Also read: 21 simple tips to be a responsible traveller
Our vaccination experience
The institute itself is part of a slightly spooky-looking old government setup that includes other dilapidated buildings. The institute is right at the back and has prominent lettering over the entrance. Actually, the word ‘institute’ is probably too grand. It’s just one hall with two desks, some waiting chairs, one table where the vaccines are administered, and sundry paraphernalia.
This is where the vaccines are administered (image courtesy Ashok Babu Kandula via Google Maps)
Even though we were a little late for our appointment, it didn’t really matter because there was hardly anyone else there. A gentleman at a desk asked for our passports and appointment prints, and spent about twenty minutes reading through them and filling forms. We then had to go out and pay at the cash counter (hidden away in the diagnostics building behind some barred windows). That done, another gentleman at another table put two drops of OPV in each of our mouths and shot a dose of yellow fever vaccine into our left arms. Each syringe was destroyed immediately after, in case you’re wondering.
They then stamped our vaccine certificates, and told us to sit around for half an hour, just in case any of us showed any major side effects. Nothing severe, but we did feel slightly dizzy, a little headache-y and mildly nauseous. Overall, we spent just over an hour there, including the sitting around after. We were told more side effects like fever, body ache and nausea might show up between three and nine days later. Luckily, besides a little fatigue and sore throat, we didn’t feel anything much.
Overall, once we got past the shoddy exterior, the experience wasn’t bad: the people were friendly and helpful, and the vaccination process efficient and professional. Definitely better than I expected.
Packing for your safari
Now that your safari is paid for, your tickets are booked, your visa done and your vaccinations taken, all that’s left is to pack and sally forth! But before you start throwing things into your suitcase, there are a few things you might want to think about.
Packing well might make all the difference to your safari
Even if you’re not the kind who hauls around a zoom lens for your camera that’s half the size of your suitcase, remember that you’re visiting the wide expanses of Africa and not your local zoo. Take a pair of binoculars or a telescope along so you don’t miss any action that happens more than a few hundred meters away.
Whatever research we’ve done on the weather in Kenya has led to an unexpected conclusion: Kenya is surprisingly cool, with average maximum temperatures in the high 20s, Celsius! It seems it’s warmer on the coast and cooler inland, but wherever you’re going, it’s probably worthwhile to carry something warm. Just in case. Of course, that doesn’t mean the sun isn’t going to be hot at midday. So you should probably carry a hat, sunglasses and sunscreen too.
Lastly, even though you’ve got your yellow fever vaccination, why take the risk of getting something else, like malaria? Take a good insect repellent along, and use it regularly. And try and stay covered at all times. Even if you don’t contract something nasty, scratching itchy welts the whole day is probably not your idea of fun. I could be wrong, of course.
So reserve your safari, book your flights, get your visa and vaccinations, and pack for the safari of a lifetime!