Go2Africa is essentially a ‘female company’. Yes, we were founded by a man and have male staff but the vast majority of Go2Africans are women. And we spend a lot of time on safari. These are our honest, straight-forward and practical tips for other women going on safari for the first time, whether you’re on honeymoon, part of a group or going solo.
Cope with bucket showers
A ‘bucket shower’ is a drum of water that is heated up on the campfire. The staff then hoist it up over the shower so you can wash as usual. Things to keep in mind:
- Bucket showers are mostly found when you are mobile camping or in very remote places. Most upscale lodges have replaced them with regular plumbed showers.
- Your water is limited so plan your shower carefully. If you want to wash your hair, get the shampoo in the minute your hair is wet so you will have sufficient water to rinse it.
- Rather shave your legs in the basin than under the shower – you may not have enough water if you are also washing your hair (actually, it’s worth waxing just before you come on safari so you don’t have to bother with shaving at all).
- Don’t forget to thank the staff member who brings you the water: it’s hard work to get it hot and its heavy to carry.
- Plan when you will shower – the staff will generally ask you when you want to shower. You can’t just get back to camp and demand a hot shower! Remember that the campfire may also be used for cooking so the staff need to follow a schedule so that everyone has hot water and hot food.
- Africa is a water scarce place. Use fresh water sparingly and make it a habit to switch off taps (faucets) the minute you are finished. Don’t let the water run when you are brushing your teeth, shaving your legs etc – this is wasteful.
How to deal with 'that time of the month' in the bush
Thousands of African women have their periods every day and cope perfectly well without fancy sanitary products or bathrooms. We suggest the following:
- Bring sufficient supplies with you. If you are due to have your period on safari, do NOT assume that you will be able to purchase tampons or pads easily. You may be hours away from the nearest shop and there is no guarantee they will stock what you need. Many camps have only male staff so don’t rely on being able to ‘borrow’ items from female staff.
- If you can, bring brown paper bags to put soiled items in for disposal. Do NOT flush them even if your camp has a ‘flush loo’ – the system won’t be able to cope and you may block it. Rather wrap up everything in toilet paper, put it in a paper bag and put it in the bathroom’s bin. If everything is paper, the staff can burn it later. Most lodges will supply a bag and have a message explaining how the toilet system works.
- Don’t leave used items behind if you have to go to the toilet on a game drive. Animals have a very keen sense of smell and will come to ‘investigate’ once you’ve moved on (they won’t while you’re there as they’re scared of humans). You don’t want a lion eating what you’ve left behind. Rather bag it all up, put it in a Ziploc bag, put it in your daypack and discard of it discreetly when you get back to camp.
- Don’t be embarrassed. Menstruation is completely natural. Some primates menstruate as do some canids. I’ve had fascinating conversations with male guides about this – it is all part of nature and nothing to be ashamed of.
- Do NOT put soiled underwear in the laundry basket for the staff to wash – wash it yourself. Camp staff do NOT wash any women’s underwear (bras or panties) for cultural reasons. There is usually a small pot of washing powder next to the bathroom basin. Some camps even have wash lines for you to hang your undergarments on.
What to do if you need to use the toilet on a game drive
- As always, don’t be embarrassed. Everyone has ‘to go’ at some point and guides will often explain upfront what you need to do. Some even have waterless hand sanitizer on the vehicle.
- Simply tell your guide that you need ‘find a bush’ or ask him or her if it’s ‘OK to use that bush’. They will know what you want to do. In East Africa (Kenya and Tanzania), many guides use the euphemism ‘picking flowers’ – ‘Do you need to pick flowers?’. They don’t mean literally picking flowers – they mean a toilet break!
- Check the ground around the bush for snakes, lizards, frogs, bugs and monitors – most will move on when they feel the vibration of your walking on the ground. Stomp extra heavily as you approach the bush if you want to make sure!
- Don’t leave behind plastic wrappers, sanitary pads, tampons etc – wrap them and bag them to take back to camp.
- We suggest making a small ‘loo bag’ for yourself with a small bottle of hand sanitizer, biodegradable toilet paper or wipes and brown paper bags.
- Always go to the toilet at the lodge just before you leave for your game drive – it’s the last plumbed loo you will see for at least three hours!
- Wash your hands thoroughly – waterless hand sanitizer is the easiest way of doing this.
- Do NOT wear a jumpsuit or romper! You have to take off the whole thing to use the loo, which is very impractical and wastes a lot of time. Bear in mind that no bush is ever completely private and that you may be on the game drive vehicle with strangers, men included.
What to pack – and what to leave behind
Let’s start with the essentials:
- Practical clothes (shorts, trousers, T-shirts) in the following colours: greens, browns, greys and khakis. This is not so you look like an extra from Out of Africa – it’s because you want to blend in as much as possible on safari so the animals don’t see you and run off. The more you look like nature, the more you will see of nature.
- By ‘practical’ we mean cool or warm enough (Africa gets cold!). In many African cultures, the hips and thighs are considered extremely private so think twice about mini-skirts, hot pants or cut-off shorts. Think twice about anything that exposes your mid-riff as this falls into the same category.
- Game drives leave in the very early morning or arrive back at camp after dark when it can be frosty and cold. If you are going at peak safari season, this is during Africa’s winter so pack trousers, closed shoes, socks and a warm jacket. If you really feel the cold, add a beanie or hat, a scarf, another warm top and gloves (ones with cut-off or textured fingers work best so you can still operate your camera without your hands getting cold).
- Essential toiletries only: sanitary products, toothpaste and toothbrush, unscented deodorant and moisturizer, sunblock, prescribed medicines.
- Ear plugs. Some women don’t sleep well because the bush can be very noisy at night: hippos chortle, lions roar, hyenas laugh, owls hoot, nightjars call, bushbabies shriek. Nocturnal animals have to rely on sound to communicate since they can’t see, making night-time sometimes noisier than daytime.
- A headlamp. Tents can be gloomy at night which makes packing your bag or finding items difficult.
- A sports bra. Roads are often rutted and the further you sit back in the game-drive vehicle, the more you will be bumped about. A good supportive sports bra can make the drive a lot more comfortable.
Do not pack:
- Clothes that are blue (they attract tsetse fly), black (also attracts tsetse fly and are very hot in the sun), white (create a high contrast for colour-blind animals, scaring them off, plus it gets dirty easily from the dust), brightly coloured or patterned (again, you are creating high contrast). Trust us when we say: go with greens, browns, greys and khakis.
- Clothes that have animal prints. Not only is this a tremendous fashion faux pas, but monkeys have been known to sound alarm calls when they spot ‘leopard’ print, scaring off other animals.
- Perfume, hairspray or any toiletry with a strong scent. Animals have a very keen sense of smell and will retreat from unfamiliar scents they don’t recognize.
- Clothes that are very revealing. Rural Africans are modest: sexy clothes are out of place in the bush. If it’s your honeymoon, save the lingerie for the privacy of your tent.
- Hairdryers, curling tongs or hair straighteners. Most camps don’t have sufficient electricity suppliers to power these items. Plus, they’re heavy and you have a limited luggage allowance. Camps that run off solar power or generators will not be able to power these items – you could blow the whole camp’s power supply. Plus, you will need special plug adaptors. Some camps have their own hairdryers or permit guests to use them but this is very unusual.
- Lots of jewellery, high heels, handbags and so on. Very few places insist on a dress code for dinner and, even then, it is fairly relaxed and no-one frowns on you wearing trousers and a fleece for dinner.
- You will not need to pack your own towels, pillows and so on.
- Rompers, jumpsuits, onesies and other one-piece items of clothing are very impractical for bush breaks to use the loo. Avoid packing them.
5. What to wear
Game drive: khaki or ‘nature coloured’ trousers or shorts; khaki T-shirt, fleece or shirt; sandals or trainers; sunglasses; sun block; biodegradable insect repellent; hat or beanie; gloves; scarf or buff.
Around camp: the same or, if you feel like a change, a cool, loose dress or skirt. It’s OK to wear bright colours or patterns at camp although your luggage allowance is limited. Jeans are acceptable at camp but avoid very short, very tight or very revealing clothes – Africa is a pretty modest place.
6. How to cope with no hairdryer
No matter the time of year, Africa is generally fairly warm from about mid-morning to-mid afternoon, even during winter at peak safari season. If you can, try to wash your hair after your morning game drive or nature walk as this will give you enough time to settle down in a sunny spot with a book, binoculars or your camera to edit photos while your hair dries in the sun.
Don’t get too hung up on appearances: during the day, your hair will be covered by a hat or beanie. Relaxing your hectic grooming routine is a big part of what makes a holiday in Africa so liberating.
The same goes for make-up. Mascara and lip-gloss are more than enough on safari.
7. African customs around foreign women
Staff at safari lodges work with female guests from across the world every day of their lives and treat everyone with respect. You will not be ‘disrespected’ or considered ‘lesser’ because you are a woman.
- Be gracious when staff offer to carry your bag, refill your water bottle or assist you into the vehicle. In Africa, offering assistance is a sign of respect and that you are liked; accepting it shows that you appreciate and acknowledge the courtesy being afforded you. Yes, we know you can ‘do it yourself’ but the staff want to make your time with them as pleasant as possible.
- Dress modestly. This does not mean you have to be covered from head to toe but do cover everything from your lower thighs to your shoulders when you’re on a game drive or around camp.
- After your swim, put on a wrap or clothes – don’t stroll around in your swimming costume.
- It is considered good manners to greet the person and enquire how they are before you ask for something. Saying, ‘Good morning Thabo, did you sleep well? Please could I have cup of coffee?’ will endear you far more than, ‘Get me a cup of coffee’ or just ‘Coffee!’.
- Staff generally enjoy having a laugh and have a good sense of humour about romance, drinking, having children and so forth but keep it general. Don’t tell them highly personal stories about yourself or your life – this is embarrassing.
- You are welcome to have a drink and no-one will mind if you have a glass of wine with lunch, a G&T on your game drive, a drink at dinner and a nightcap. But being obviously drunk is considered to be very bad form, for men and women. It’s not a good idea to drink heavily on safari anyway – the wake-up calls are very early and having a hangover in the African sun is extremely unpleasant.
- No matter how much fun you are having, go to bed at a reasonable hour. The staff cannot let you stay up in the boma or mess tent alone and they have to do after-dinner prep plus be up earlier than you to load the vehicle, get breakfast ready etc. It is considered extremely rude to go to bed very late and expect everyone else to ‘entertain you’. Yes, you are ‘paying for it’ but a good safari relies on teamwork, and you are an essential part of the team.
8. Safety on safari
Safety on safari is everyone’s duty. At all times listen to your guide or ranger and always obey instructions given by the staff. They have years of training and experience, especially in predicting the behaviour of wild animals. Your safety is their foremost concern so obey their instructions.
- Never, ever take food back to your tent or leave food lying around. Wild animals have a very keen sense of smell and are driven by the need to eat. If you have brought food with you, do not open the packaging or hand it to the kitchen staff for safekeeping.
- Always zip up your tent or close the door to your suite when leaving. Not doing so is a common rookie mistake. Baboons and monkeys love ransacking tents, and will easily slip through an open door or window. Animals seek out shade, warmth or dryness – your tent is a perfect hiding place if you leave it wide open. If you get back to your tent to find an animal in it, do not panic. Walk away quickly and quietly, and alert a member of staff who will remove it safely.
- Not all camps are fenced. Many are unfenced to allow animals to pass through on natural migration routes (anyway, fences don’t keep out inquisitive monkeys that can leap from tree to tree or roof to roof!). If you are in an unfenced camp, you will be allowed to walk around alone during the day but not at night. Watchmen or askaris will escort you to and from the mess tent at night. Some of them may be villagers who don’t speak much English but they are extremely alert to the sounds of the night. Remember that sound travels further at night: it might sound like the lions are roaring or contact calling right outside camp but in reality they are likely to be miles away and are simply adept at projecting their calls to communicate with other members of the pride about going hunting (they hunt at night).
- Almost all camps have some kind of alarm in case you have an emergency in your tent like a whistle, hooter, telephone or walkie-talkie (two-way radio). It is unlikely you will ever need to use it. If all else fails, simply shout as loudly as you can – the staff will hear you.
- Do not going swimming in rivers or lakes unless you have permission from the guide – you could disturb crocodiles, hippos, ecosystems and water birds or pick up bilharzia.
- Don’t demand that you ride on the roof or bonnet (hood) of the vehicle – this is very dangerous. Safari advertising often shows people sitting on the roofs of vehicles: this is actually not really allowed so always check with your guide first
- Don’t try to attract wild animals, feed them or pet them. Superstar Shakira was bitten by a Cape fur seal she tried to pet in Cape Town. Animal bites are very painful and you may be far from medical attention.
9. Diet – food in Africa
It’s very common to pick up a few pounds on safari because delicious food is everywhere and in some camps your options for exercise may be very limited.
- The usual safari mealtimes are as follows:
- A wake-up call with coffee and biscuits (cookies)
- A refreshment stop on the morning game drive with hot drinks and muffins. Sometimes this might be a full cooked breakfast out in the bush. If you are hot-air ballooning, expect a full champagne breakfast with everything from omelettes to pancakes.
- Refreshments or brunch when you get back to camp.
- Depending on breakfast or brunch arrangements, you could have lunch instead.
- Afternoon tea is a safari tradition. Just before your afternoon game drive, tuck into coffee, cakes, biscuits and other treats like pies or tarts.
- A refreshment stop on your afternoon game drive with drinks and snacks (everything from dried fruit and nuts to biltong, chips, samosas and so on).
- A drink when you get back to camp.
- A multi-course dinner.
Some lodges are cutting down on the amount of food they serve – afternoon tea, for example, might be a light cake rather than six different types of pastries. You aren’t obliged to eat everything but it’s hard not to sample everything – you are on vacation, after all, and the fresh air does work up an appetite. All meals may be buffet or a la carte, depending on the lodge – feel free to decline courses like soup or pudding if you aren’t hungry.
Going on game drive vehicles for six hours a day means plenty of sitting, which is how the pounds creep on. Back at camp, use the gym if there is one, swim in the pool or ask to swap a morning game drive for a nature walk (this isn’t always possible as nature walks entail the presence of an armed ranger in national parks, who may not always be available).
If you have strict dietary requirements, let your Safari Expert know during the consultation process. Most camps can cope with vegetarians fairly easily but if you are vegan, have coeliac disease or need kosher or halaal meals, then be sure that the lodge is able to do these before you arrive.
10. Shopping on safari
Yes, you can shop for amazing things on safari – depending, of course, on your taste and the camps you visit. I’ve bought beautiful, simple bronze jewellery in the Masai Mara, stunning silver jewellery in northern Mozambique and plenty of amazing goodies in Nairobi. The beauty of shopping in Africa is that much is handmade or recycled and often benefits local communities, especially women who may have extremely limited education or the chances to earn their own money.
- Carry US dollars. They are almost universally accepted. If you do exchange for the local currency, get low denomination notes so that the lodge can give you change easily.
- Not all lodges have credit-card facilities so US currency is very useful.
- Support local communities or charities as much as you can. In Africa, each employed or income-producing person supports up to seven other people – your shopping can go a long way.
- Things to buy: clothing, traditional cloths, jewellery, books, ornaments, beadwork, tea, coffee, lotions made with traditional ingredients like rooibos, beautiful soaps and so on. Africa is awash with precious stones and metals so look out for gold, diamonds, tanzanite, platinum, Mozambican rubies and so on but ensure that they are ethically mined (choose ‘conflict-free’ diamonds, for example. Mining can damage the environment, use child or slave labour, or be used to fund civil war or wildlife crime).
- Do NOT buy as it is illegal or unethical: rhino horn, ivory, items made from hard woods (deforestation is a massive problem: cutting down trees leads to habitat destruction for birds, leopards, gorillas and thousands of other species), or items made of fur especially leopard. Never buy chameleons, birds, puppies or cubs. Think twice about exotic leathers or anything made of animals’ horns, bones, fur or skin – you are fuelling demand for the wildlife trade.
- Haggling is not a major ‘thing’ in Africa. The items in the shop will be priced, just like a regular store back home.
- If you visit a market, like the ones at Victoria Falls, ‘haggle’ in a good-natured way and don’t try to drive a hard bargain with the sellers. Zimbabweans are impoverished: trying to save USD10 or USD20 isn’t going to mean much to you in the long run, but USD20 is a lot of money in Zimbabwe and makes sure the seller’s family has food and shelter that week.
- The market sellers will sometimes offer an ‘umbrella price’: this means one price for all the different items you are buying.
- When you visit a market, try to buy from the sellers at the back of the site. They get the least footfall and thus make the least sales.
- In Zimbabwe, some market sellers will be willing to swap things like toiletries, stationery, clothes and shoes for their wares. This is a good option if you’ve run out of cash but have spotted something you like. If you are flying from Vic Falls to Cape Town or Johannesburg, you can easily stock up on the razor blades, shampoo, socks, T-shirts or pens that you swapped for something more exciting!
11. Will there be a spa?
If having a massage or manicure is important to you, then tell your Africa Safari Expert that you would like to stay in a lodge with a spa as not all places have them.
- A ‘spa’ can mean a grand building with all the latest gadgets, cosmetics and treatments or a simple banda in camp. Be sure you understand what to expect.
- The treatments are almost always undertaken by young women. Not all of them will have formal training or be able to speak fluent English – some will be quite shy, in fact.
- The most common treatments are massages, manicures and pedicures as these require the least amount of technology. It’s unlikely you will be able to have advanced beauty treatments like waxing, Botox or threading.
- It’s always nice to tip your spa therapist, either directly or in the communal staff tip box on check out.
- The same rules apply in Africa as elsewhere: keep your lower undergarments on if you are having a massage.
12. How to cope with ‘khaki fever’…
It’s not unknown develop a school-girlish crush on your guide or ranger – this is known as ‘khaki fever’ after the generally khaki uniforms that guides wear. After all, they are generally young, fit, brave, knowledgeable and there to show you a good time and take an interest in you. Spending six hours a day on game drives and then sometimes having dinner with them too can mean that you start feeling a little, well, ‘romantic’. Africa is a very romantic place and you’re away from all the stresses and strains of home but...
- Be aware that many guides are married or have partners. Sometimes they are even in relationships with other members of staff: it is not uncommon for managers, for example, to be couples. So don’t assume that your swashbuckling guide is single!
- Being charming, thoughtful and polite is part of their job and training. Yes, they are sincere but they treat all their guests well and aim to make each one feel special.
- Professional ethics remind them that you are a paying client and that they must behave appropriately at all times. Fraternising with guests ‘after hours’ is very frowned upon and could cost them their jobs.
- Of course, if you are both single and it’s love at first sight and you are both certain that this is ‘The One’, then congratulations! Just be aware that a guide’s life is not all romance and fun: the hours are long, they are generally away for weeks at a time, weekends and holidays will be their busy periods, and communications can be very hard as mobile reception and Internet connectivity can be spotty. They have to deal with stressful things like distressed animals, upset clients, washed-away roads, broken down vehicles and a million other ‘behind the scenes’ things that guests shouldn’t even be aware of. I’m not trying to be the safari romance Grinch but you have to realistic about a long-distance relationship with a gorgeous safari guide! Still, if it all works out, please invite us to the wedding!