Having visited Africa numerous times, I am fortunate to be able to book directly with some operators, or through friends in the industry. For those booking their first safari, I have cobbled together a few questions to ask. It is a quick and simple way to see whether the person you are dealing with is as experienced and knowledgeable as their website claims.
- Have you personally visited the camp you are recommending?
You would hope so, though it is surprising the number of agents who send clients to a safari camp they are yet to visit. Agents have been known to rely on the brand name, internet reviews or just the marketing hype. I would quickly avoid such a ’safari planner’, as they will probably try to sell a a typical safari route without considering your requirements.
Also be aware of agents who cram in 25 camps during their 6 days visit. Looking at only the louge and bedrooms is not the same as experiencing game drives a couple of days in the area.
- If yes, when was your last visit?
The dynamics of a camp and the game drives areas around them can quickly change. For example, the last couple of years in Northern Botswana has seen a dramatic change with an increase in water levels. The dry Savute Channel is now flowing, transforming the Marsh area. In the Okavango Delta, beautiful flood plains are now sitting under a metre of water.
Use the internet to your advantage. A number of agents sell properties on their experience from 2/3 years prior. Therefore, they are not always aware of changes to the game viewing. Balance their advice against photos and trip reports that a number of people share about their experiences.
- Has your agent been to Africa at this time of year?
OK, you maybe thinking I am getting a little too detailed, but Africa is seasonal. The rates are set at levels to reflect this, though the degree of seasonality changes from camp to camp.
The majority of my travel has been to Botswana and I know that even in high season, some camps will be restricted by water levels. Also, agents tend to inform those visiting in rainy season that game viewing will be the same, except the elephant herds have dispersed. Just be cautious when an agent attempts to attach such dry/wet season generalisations.
- Is it possible to talk to some of your former clients?
Would recommend this option, especially if you are heading on an organized tour with a professional photographer. Whilst you may not get the most candid repsonses, many people will post about their experiences on the web as another source of information.
- What do you think about this itinerary……..?
I would recommend having a rough itinerary planned out before contacting an agent. A number of websites will give a rough guide as to rack rates and the often provide reviews from fellow travellers. Check out sites like Flickr to check out what kind of photos people are taking in the area, or Expert Africa for reviews.
Once you have found the safari that delivers what you are looking for, then contact an agent. This should give you a starting point, rather than an agent automatically recommending the most expensive camps, which don’t always offer the best game viewing.
- Is that your best offer?
The safari industry has tried to maintain the myth that you need to book at least a year before departure, popular camps are booking up fast and a whole host of PR spin. The reality, especially since the financial crisis, is that occupancy rates have fallen significantly.
Operators are willing to make a number of concessions, though you have to ask for them, rather than have them offered in some cases.. Negotiate over single supplements, long stay discounts and private vehicles. Remember, agents can take commissions of up to 30%, so there is room from movement on their cut too.
- How many years have they been an agent?
Longevity in the industry is down to one of two factors. They are good at selling pre-packaged itineraries, or, they are able to offer their knowledge and experience to create fully tailored offerings.
- Have they worked in the safari industry?
Those who have worked in lodges, especially former guides, have a true appreciation of your expectations. Photographers are breed of their own in what they require.