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How to pack clever for your African safari

It’s the eternal battle for safari-goers the world over – what to pack, what to leave behind and whether to unpack once you get where you’re going or just live out of your bag…

Open concrete wardrobes like this one at Tuli Safari Lodge in Botswana allow the rare privilege of hanging space.

There is no easy solution, and the term “emotional baggage” is very apt because it’s a thorny subject, especially when your safari operator tells you that small connecting flights of the Cessna variety only allow 15kg in a soft, flexible bag!

The restrictions and vicissitudes of luggage are enough to get even the most experienced traveler frothing at the mouth, so for first-timers it can prove a nightmare. Especially when you don’t know what to expect.

Firstly, packing light doesn’t always mean packing clever. It’s incredibly important that you get accurate information from someone who knows where you’re going, has been there before or works there full-time so that you know before you leave what the weather is like, what you are likely to need in terms of clothing and what is provided in the way of cosmetics and amenities (shampoo, body lotion, insect repellent etc).

Most safari lodges and camps provide shampoo, conditioner, soap, washing powder for underwear (many African countries have strict taboos about washing knickers in particular and provide washing powder so that you can do your own!) and insect repellent. This means you can lighten your load somewhat when it comes to your bath and cosmetics bags.

In addition, most destinations also offer laundry service, which means you can pack knowing that your favourite pair of shorts will be clean and crisp at regular intervals.

A word of warning on that score, though, is that the majority of bush camps wash by hand and iron using old-fashioned coal-heated contraptions, so don’t take your delicate designer gear away and expect it to weather well!

There is no real rule of thumb when it comes to taking the “right” clothes, but I usually abide by old Boy Scout motto – “Be Prepared!” That means always take something warm and waterproof in case of freak weather, especially in winter.

There’s a misconception that Africa is perpetually hot and sticky. It isn’t, and in the winter months (June to August inclusive) while the days are usually temperate and warm, the mercury at night can plummet to freezing point. Early morning drives and night drives require lots of layers topped off with a beanie, scarf and gloves. During the day you’ll get away with three-quarter pants, shorts and even a swimsuit – many’s the time I have made use of a camp’s pool on a sunny winter’s day, especially in places like Kenya and Tanzania which have an equatorial climate!

It’s always wise to avoid taking clothes which crease badly as hanging space in the majority of camps is quite limited. The standard safari tent is comfortable and cosy, but not geared up to having half a ton of luggage packed out in it! “Wardrobe” space can vary from the sublime at the very high-end lodges to the absolute ridiculous in smaller, more rustic bush camps. It is also often open to the elements (ie: the wardrobe is an open shelf unit without doors) and requires you to fold things carefully and neatly in order to maximize what space you have.

The standard safari tent, like this one at Kwando Kwara in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, provides minimum wardrobe and luggage space.

Because the average stay in a safari camp or lodge is two or three nights only, many people opt not to unpack and live out of their bags. This may work for some, but take it from me that unless you have OCD it requires unpacking and repacking your bag several times just to keep things in order and under control!

The ultimate safari wardrobe – Hemingway’s Cottage at Singita Grumeti Reserves’ Sasakwa Lodge in Tanzania.

A lot is said about avoiding bright colours in the bush, and whilst it’s true that on safari activities neutral colours are best, there’s nothing wrong with a splash of colour during meals, at dinner or while you are relaxing in camp. A word to the wise, though. If you are going to an area where there are tsetse flies, avoid black and blue as these are magnets for the pesky little biters!

The most important items you are going to need are a hat, sunblock and sunglasses. Polarized glasses are a good thing when it comes to sunglasses, especially if you are near water or plan to do some fishing, as they cut out the glare.

For your feet, pack comfortable closed walking shoes with good quality soles to prevent thorns penetrating them while on bush walks, and take a couple of pairs of good quality slip slops/flip flops/thongs or sandals along too.

Long sleeves and long trousers are good for keeping mosquitoes at bay, but they do nothing to prevent tsetse bites. I always take a long-sleeved lightweight cotton shirt on game activities to keep the sun at bay.

And last, but not least, your camera and binoculars complete this packing lesson. They are absolute necessities but keep an eye on them and always carry them as hand-luggage if you want to retain ownership of them.

I’ll be looking at travel bags in my next column… so watch this space! 😉

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