Small group safaris

It’s the camaraderie that makes a small group safari. After a long day out in the bush spotting wildlife, you’ll return to base with your fellow travelers to drink sundowners and swap stories around the fire, while the night-time sounds of the bush close in. Perhaps you’ll muck in together to make a meal before bedding down in basic tents or relax while food is taken care of, safe in the knowledge that you have a comfortable room to return to.
Small group safaris are fantastic for solo travelers. You can reduce costs and organisational hassles, plus you’ve a ready-made bunch of friends to bond with over leopard sightings and sunset beers
Small group safaris are great if you’re unsure about going solo, but don’t want the expense of a tailor made tour. You have a guide on hand throughout to bring the landscape to life, give safety tips and generally keep things running smoothly. And when time is short, a small group safari can deliver unforgettable experiences in out-of-the-way places in as little as one or two weeks.

What do small group safari involve?

How big is a small group?

Small group safaris typically run with a maximum of 16 people, depending on the tour operator. If you’re joining an overland truck tour, this could be a little more – around 18 to 20 people. You’ll be traveling with a wide range of ages and nationalities, and as you’re all there because of a love of travel, it’s easy to bond.

Who are small group safaris suited to?

If you don’t have three months to spend exploring, small group tours let you cover more ground in less time. They’re more economical than a tailor made safari, and a far easier option than a self-drive safari because you have someone on hand to sort logistics. They’re also brilliant if you’re on vacation alone. There are always a few solo travelers on small group safaris, so it’s easy to make friends. Single supplements are usually available, providing privacy in your own room or tent if you want it.

What about the guides?

A tour guide and a driver will accompany you on your safari, as well as potentially a camp assistant to help set up and clean up. The tour guide is the key to any small group safari. They’ll plan, advise, assist and make sure that everything runs smoothly. They’ll also have intimate knowledge of the local flora and fauna and will act as your safari expert throughout your trip. Guides are sometimes – but not always – local. If they’re not, they’ll usually employ local guides for certain activities on tour. Traveling with a local guide always enhances your trip, as they’ve got the language and the cultural know-how to help you understand the places you’re visiting.

Where will I sleep?

On most small group safaris, you’ll be mobile, rather than staying in the same place for the duration. You’ll either be camping or staying in lodges and permanent tented camps, or a combination of both. Staying in lodges and tented camps allows for more creature comforts. You’ll have your own room, hut or chalet where you can leave your belongings when you head out on game drives, and when you return after a long day out you’ll have a shower and comfy bed waiting for you.
If you prefer fewer barriers between you and the wilderness, then camping is the way to go. On some trips you may pitch tents at established campsites, while on others you might have the thrill of camping in the bush with nothing between you and the wildlife. There will be a long-drop toilet and sometimes the option of a bush shower, with much of the cooking and heating of water done on an open fire.

Will I have to do chores?

On some tours, tents will be set up for you and either a camp cook or the guide will be responsible for rustling up meals. On others, you’ll muck in with putting up tents, cleaning, cooking and loading the vehicle. Far from being a chore, participating in camp life builds camaraderie and is the reason small group camping safaris feel authentic, down to earth and fun. Crucially, it’s also a relatively affordable way to explore Africa. Even in expensive destinations such as Botswana, participatory camping safaris hit price points that a trip using permanent camps can’t.

How will I travel?

You’ll travel in a four-wheel drive (4WD) vehicle – and you’ll usually do game drives in it, too, though if you’re staying at a lodge or tented camp, you might go out for drives in the lodge’s own safari vehicles. Depending on how many people are traveling, there may also be a 4WD support vehicle that carries all the food, camping equipment and water.

Can I take the kids?

Going on safari can be a life-changing experience for children, and the bonus of a small group safari is that you can share the experience with other like-minded families. Tim Winkworth, from our partner Intrepid Travel, strongly recommends this option. “Before I did one of those tours, I always wondered why I would want to travel with other people’s kids, and why I would want a local person telling me what to do,” he says. “But as soon as you go on one, you realise you’re not traveling with other people’s kids – your kids are. They’ve got ready-made playmates, they share, they learn. It’s great to sit and listen to them discussing the lions they’ve just seen. And the local leaders are invaluable… they really ensure you get the best out of it.”
Once you’ve decided to take the plunge, you just have to choose the destination. Make sure you choose your destination wisely. Tanzania and South Africa both have excellent family-friendly lodges, camps and guides, while South Africa and Namibia have the lowest risk of malaria. Generally, though, we’d only recommend small group safaris for children aged eight and over, and bush camping safaris and gorilla trekking for teenagers aged 15 plus.

Visiting more than one country

While some small group safari vacations stick to exploring the highlights of one country, many will take you across borders. You could, for example, explore the parched Namib Desert before heading to Botswana for game watching in the green, wildlife-rich Okavango Delta. Or combine a gorilla trekking trip in Uganda with the highlights of the Masai Mara in Kenya. Or take things even further and get to know Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique. Depending on the number of countries involved, a multi-country safari could take anything from a week to one month.
Travel Team
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Best time to go on a small group safari

If you’re going on a small group safari then avoid the rainy season, which is at its height in East Africa in March, April, May and June and in Southern Africa from mid-February to March. At this time, animals are more difficult to spot, roads are prone to flooding and some campgrounds are inaccessible.
The dry season, which runs from July to October in East Africa and May to September in Southern Africa, offers much better conditions, though the school summer vacations and the Great Migration in Kenya and Tanzania can make late July and August very busy. The shoulder season of November, December, January and February can be a great compromise. There’s a bit of rain, but conditions are still good for wildlife watching, and the landscape is green and lush.
If you want to see gorillas in Uganda, the animals are present and visible year-round, including during the March to June wet season, so when you choose to visit depends on your own personal tolerance for rain.

When (not) to go to South Africa

Will Fox, from our specialists On Track Safaris, says: “There’s a time when I wouldn’t come: Christmas. It’s ridiculously hot – in the 40°Cs in some places – and it’s the South African school vacations because they start their school year in January. So every South African is on vacation; everywhere is full up. But just slightly outside that time period is fine.”
Written by Nana Luckham
Photo credits: [Page banner: Wild Frog Photography] [How big is a small group?: flowcomm] [Where will I sleep?: whatleydude] [Can I take the kids?: Tim Williamson] [Best time to go: Harshil Gudka]