Dori Kaufman started planning what she hoped would be a trip of a lifetime -- an African safari -- nine months in advance. She worked with a travel agent well versed in safaris to craft the perfect itinerary.
"I was really excited, until about one month prior to leaving," says Kaufman, of San Diego. "Then I looked at a map and saw that one place we were staying in Zambia was right across the river from Zimbabwe."
Zimbabwe's acute economic unrest was just the first item on what became a laundry list of concerns. "I began to worry about cleanliness, whether I'd find scorpions in my shoes or be trampled by wild elephants, what we would eat and drink."
She and her husband also became apprehensive for their 14-year-old daughter's safety, leading to a last-minute rush to draft wills. "I felt we were headed for something worse than a third-world experience. I arrived at the airport with a suitcase filled entirely with medication."
Kaufman is not alone in assuming an African safari is a dodgy venture. But that perspective is in stark contrast with another: Tourism to Africa is booming, even by wary Americans.
With three decades of instability behind it, Uganda's tourism numbers swelled from 193,000 (in 2000) to 512,000 (2004). De spite a travel warning from the US State Department, in two years visitors to Kenya went from 1.1 million (in 2003) to 1.5 million (2005). Americans traveling to South Africa have increased by an average 11 percent annually for the last three years, and returning visitors to that country exceed 30 percent of total arrivals.
Many of us have or had apprehensions about our first African safari. Here are some of the perceptions that African tour operators, government representatives, and safari camp managers say they face selling safaris to Americans.
Americans have long had difficulty recognizing the world's second largest continent as comprising 53 highly individual countries. Although a number of them have their problems, the issues of one country typically aren't closely related to those of another. Zimbabwe and South Africa may share a border, but what's happening in troubled Harare has little bearing on what's going on in Cape Town, 1,400 miles away.
"When the news shows problems in Darfur, Sudan, some people drop their plans to visit South Africa," says Kent Redding, president of Denver-based Africa Adventure Consultants (adventuresinafrica.com). "South Africa is thousands of miles away and a world apart in terms of safety."
Alan Moore, the Los Angeles-based deputy consul general for South Africa, recognizes there are civil wars in Somalia and Sudan. "But the trend in Africa is very definitely for democratic elections and toward political stability," says Moore. "The southern part of Africa is stable with the exception of the economic instability in Zimbabwe."
Prospective visitors have a responsibility to stay abreast of their destinations. Work with established operators who travel regularly to the countries and read State Department travel warnings.
"Parts of Africa are very safe, parts of it certainly are not," says Pieters. "Zimbabwe is the only part of southern Africa that isn't. Even Angola is stable now and will open up for tourism in a few years."
Solution: The mile-wide spill is shared by two countries and the problems in Zimbabwe have spurred considerable development on the Zambia side. In Livingstone, a Zambian provincial capital, the 173-room, five-star Royal Livingstone is one of several large resorts and dozens of smaller properties that bask in the mist upstream from the falls (no hotels on either side have a view of the falls).
"The only downside is that most people believe the view of the falls from the Zimbabwe side is better," says Redding.
In South Africa and Kenya most lodges are brick and mortar with all the amenities of a US national park lodge, and sometimes many more. In Uganda, several old government lodges have been privatized and recently upgraded. But even tented accommodations in "the bush" are often beautifully designed and feature all the basic creature comforts, including flush toilets and showers.
For example, located deep in Botswana's Okavango Delta and accessible only by air, the handsome tents at Vumbura Plains are bigger than many hotel suites and have two showers (one outdoors), and a completely private plunge pool for afternoon dips. Operated by Wilderness Safaris (wilderness safaris.com), nightly rates start at $940 per person.
Fully supported group camping trips are an option and make pricey Botswana accessible to moderate budgets. Wilderness Safaris handles seven-night trips through Botswana for $2,630. Conservation Corporation Africa does a 10-day trip priced from $2,900 to $3,440.
A big part of what one pays for is access: Per-person fees for national parks can add up, ranging from $10 for Namibia's Etosha National Park to $500 for a one-hour gorilla-tracking permit in Rwanda and Uganda.
The nonprofit Earthwatch Institute (earthwatch.org) offers a surprising variety of African trips, all focused on research of one animal or region. The 12- to 16-day itineraries average $175 to $250 a day and involve some volunteer work. The Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre (wildlife centre.co.za), located on the edge of Kruger, has a three-week program working with cheetahs and other animals, priced at $1,761 including meals and shared accommodations. Lonely Planet in June published "Volunteer: A Traveller's Guide to Making a Difference Around the World," with suggestions for working vacations in the African bush.
Allen Erenbaum, a Los Angeles-based lawyer, and his wife resisted a package trip and instead constructed an independent tour through southern Africa. "It did take a little more work but I don't think it's unlike travel in Europe, because the infrastructure is there," Erenbaum said.
They rented a vehicle in Johannesburg and headed to Namibia, staying at Etosha's Okaukuejo Rest Camp. Here, "luxury" bungalows cost $125 a night, meals are served in a moderately priced restaurant, and a waterhole in front is illuminated for night viewing of elephants, rhinos, and giraffes.
One important caveat about independent travel: The services of a naturalist guide, to safely track elusive animals, are an invaluable component of the higher-end safari lodges. At Kruger and most other parks, visitors are not allowed to explore off paved roads, while the park's safari lodges are permitted to drive off road.
South Africa is a strong candidate for travelers seeking something beyond a safari. Highlights include a favorable year-round climate, excellent scenery, quaint coastal villages, and dynamic, cosmopolitan cities such as Cape Town and Johannesburg.
"Swaziland has wonderful crafts and a unique culture," says Francis Mfune, acting executive director of Regional Tourism Organization of Southern Africa (re tosa.org). "Malawi has a great lake, ideal for fishermen, and Mozambique has deep sea fishing. Tanzania offers the experience of climbing 19,340-foot Mount Kilimanjaro -- the tallest mountain in Africa."
Before departure, obtain a list of recommended doctors for the countries you are visiting from the State Department or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (state.gov/travelandbusiness, cdc.gov/travel).
The disease to be most concerned with is malaria, communicated through the bite of an infected mosquito. Although malaria is potentially fatal, the threat of contracting it is almost eliminated by using prophylactics such as Lariam or Malarone. Mosquito repellents containing DEET, sleeping under a mosquito net (which nearly all safari lodges provide), and wearing long pants and long-sleeved shirts provide additional protection.
You also can limit your travel to areas where malaria is not present. Most of South Africa is malaria-free, though not Kruger.
A travel health specialist should be consulted at least a month before you go. They will probably recommend a hepatitis A vaccination; also verify that typhoid, tetanus, and polio vaccines are up-to-date. Otherwise, far and away the worst health issue most travelers to Africa confront is a bout of diarrhea, a hazard largely averted by sticking with bottled water (most safari lodges use treated water for cooking).
Minimum ages -- ranging from 5 to 12 -- are established not just for the child's safety but also for the comfort of fellow guests. Some children are not suited for game viewing, an activity that unfolds on its own schedule.
Governors' Camp in Kenya (governorscamp.com) caters to families with hot air balloon safaris and visits to a local Maasai village. Meals are planned around children's needs, be it early dinner or an out of the ordinary menu, and baby sitters are available.
Robin Pope Safaris in Zambia's South Luangwa National Park (robinpopesafaris.net) designs learning programs for children 7 and older. On guided nature walks, they are taught how to identify various animal paw prints and droppings and they learn to use spotlights at night to track game. On a visit to a village school they meet Zambian children, collect eggs from the hen house, and bake cookies in the camp kitchen.
The RETOSA website provides in-depth background on its 14 member countries, including hard-to-research places like Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Find a qualified travel agent who is familiar with multiple options. Grant Cummings, owner of Chiawa Camp in Zambia, says that although he earns a higher profit margin from direct bookings, it's usually not in the interest of his clients to do so.
"You can't just shop for a safari on the web," says Cummings. "It's a big commitment of time and money to go on safari, so you're better off talking with a knowledgeable tour operator."
"I want to go back as soon as I can," says Kaufman, who reeled off a list of stimulating animal encounters and called the people she encountered throughout "fabulous."
"We were totally clueless geographically, but we learned you don't paint Africa with one brushstroke," she adds.
David Swanson, a freelance writer based in San Diego, can be reached at email@example.com.