The best African safaris I've been on were unplanned...
In Durban, South Africa one day, I called the chief executive of the Natal Parks Board, the country's second largest, for an interview. I was writing a feature story on South Africa's parks.
"I'm afraid I won't be able to see you," said Dr George Hughes, "I'm off to the north early tomorrow morning for the rest of the week."
"Can I come with you?" I asked immediately. Dead silence.
Twenty minutes later he called back to say he'd pick me up the next morning at the Durban airfield, where his tiny single-engine four-seater swept me up to the Greater St. Lucia Wetland Park, which along with a bunch of smaller parks form one of the biggest protected areas in South Africa.
After a pit stop in St. Lucia itself, we landed in Mkuze, a flat bushveld reserve known best for its birdwatching.
On the short drive back to the airstrip, I saw my first real African sunset, as brilliant as a movie backdrop. A huge orange globe slowly drifted across the sky, with reeds swaying in the breeze, the reflection in the lagoon, ducks swimming nearby, and hippos playing in the water, yawning with their huge silly mouths.
I saw so many animals - duiker, elephant shrew, nyala, baboons, a funny little white monkey, impala, wildebeest, zebra, giraffe. Little did I realize how much more closely I would soon get to see them...
After a night in Mkuze we then drove up to Hluhluwe Umfolozi, a hillier park, with more wildlife than birds. As we drove along the dirt roads, we had to keep to a speed limit of below 40 kph, because wildlife is so abundant it kept jumping out on the road and trotting towards us. Fine when it's impala or nyala, not so fine when it's rhino.
Dr Hughes continued his journey and I stayed behind for a few more days, something I eventually regretted because the storms prevented the plane from landing to pick me up. I had little food and stocked up on candy from the curio shop. One day I found bananas, but had to hide them from the baboons, who can smell them from across the park.
With no lights, one night I tried to find my way to the outhouse, but I tripped over a zebra.
That was one of my best African safaris: away from it all, close - almost too close - to nature, with no end in sight.
I've been to many of Africa's game parks and most safaris have a few things in common. The wildlife and scenery, of course, but often the tourists as well. Plenty of African safari tours compete with one another for the most popular parks, and at times it's hard to see any wildlife at all without seeing crowds of Range Rovers as well. If you want more than a simple safari trek, you can also book thousands of all-inclusive African safari holidays, which is fine if your time is limited.
But the best African safaris in my opinion are those that you organize yourself - a bit like backpacking. Just choose your point of departure, plan as best you can, set yourself on a course, and go! Put plenty of emphasis on the planning, because a safari trek isn't something you can take lightly, not with wild animals all around. There are plenty of rules and regulations, and you'll have to abide by them.
As far as I'm concerned the best African safaris are those that are close to the animals. But that's my own opinion.
If you choose wisely though, African safari tours can be a great way to see wildlife. You'll be comfortable, coddled, perhaps even in the lap of luxury.
When you book your safari tour or reserve your safari lodge (they organize tours too), here are some of the things you should look out for: