The African Safari

Published: 09 03 22

Safari /səˈfɑːri/ from the Swahili word safari meaning journey, originally stems from the Arabic word ‘safara’, meaning to journey or travel. The word ‘safari’ was not part of the English language until the late 1850s, when explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton recorded in the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London:

“These Safari are neither starved like the trading parties of Wanyamwezi nor pampered like those directed by the Arabs.”

Burton’s observations may have been a fair assessment of travel in the 1850s when journeys of adventure and exploration by foreigners, especially into the wilderness of Africa or Arabia, were few and far between, however, by the 1920s, things had begun to change, and writers, film stars and royalty were making safaris fashionable, returning with prized trophies from hunting big game. Indeed, Ernest Hemingway’s most acclaimed works were inspired by his three-month African safari after which he famously wrote, I never knew of a morning in Africa when I woke up that I was not happy.

We are now almost 100 years on from Hemingway’s first safari and the sentiment undoubtedly felt and shared by many a safari traveller, remains. With a greater awareness of conservation and a huge shift towards ecotourism and sustainability, the safari experience of the 21st century is more creative and luxurious than ever before, with innovative tented properties such as The Highlands on the forested slopes of the Olmoti crater, Ngorongoro, Tanzania, and the longstanding Singita brand with their design-forward Lebombo Lodge property in the Kruger National Park. 

The journey from Hemingway’s visit in 1935, and similar hunting safaris of the privileged few, to where we are now, saw safari holidays rapidly increasing in the 1950s due to air travel instead of boat, and the availability and affordability of 4x4s and SUVs. This meant a typical safari went from months to weeks. Over time, with the gift of greater awareness and our conservation-consciousness of the land, animals and natural resources, the traditional hunting safari had evolved into a photographic safari, with holidays aimed at preserving wildlife and promoting ethical travel. Rifles, Big Five hunting stories and ‘earned’ trophies, were swapped for cameras and tales of close-up encounters with these incredible, majestic animals. 

A little while later, in the 70s and 80s, luxury safari holidays in South Africa were born when private reserves on the boundaries of the Kruger National Park began offering the big game experience with the added draw of luxury accommodation. Very quickly, this became the benchmark of the ‘true African safari’ not just in South Africa, but across the continent. East Africa’s safari destinations had their own jewels in Kenya’s Masai Mara and Tanzania’s Serengeti with the Great Migration between the two, as well as mountain gorillas in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, and in more recent years, tourism has flooded into Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, also for gorilla trekking.

Many of the safari lodges and camps are now flourishing as eco-friendly as well as luxury properties and are increasingly popular as discerning travellers think carefully about their tourism footprint and legacy. Walking safaris and nature walks are already offered at most lodges, besides the game drives, and conservation activities and cultural visits are also on the rise. Our appetite to give back and help conserve and sustain the places we are visiting is increasing, as is our desire to understand the roots of these exotic destinations we yearn to explore. One property on Zanzibar, Baraza Resort – ideal for a post-safari wind down, offers a Swahili Experience including classes “under the palm trees” on Swahili and the history of Zanzibar. They also have a very educational and well-stocked library in case you want to skip class and catch up on your reading instead.

Perhaps safari itself will take a journey of its own and the ‘African safari experience’ will move even closer to nature and the wilderness we are here to see. Martin Fletcher at The Times once wrote “tourism taints the wonders that it feeds off”, which sadly, is often very true. Africa, however, when it comes to safari, seems to have recognised the importance of sustainability for everyone involved, especially the animals. The ‘Out of Africa’ luxury safari may not be disappearing anytime soon, but we will likely see increasing innovation in how and where we safari.


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