A safari can be the trip of a lifetime, but some precautions are in order. The key to safari success is knowing what to expect before you go.

Anyone who loves nature and wildlife may dream of going on a safari and sneaking up behind elephants strolling across the Savannah and watching hippos bathe in a river while, nearby, a giraffe nibbles at a treetop.

Such memorable sights and experiences are almost guaranteed on safari, but there are layers of decisions that must be made. Which country to visit—Tanzania, Botswana, South Africa, Kenya? Where might you encounter civil unrest? How do you choose a tour operator? How big a problem is malaria ? What if an elephant charges your jeep or you step on a snake?

Creative Options

The primary question might be, what sort of safari are you interested in? Tour operators have become creative in recent years; here are a few choices:

  • Conventional photo safari—You ride through game preserves in vans or jeeps and photograph animals.
  • Walking safari—You spend the day walking through game parks and other areas, spotting wildlife on foot.
  • Canoe safari
  • Hot-air balloon safari
  • Motorcycle safari (One must wonder what the animals think of these.)
  • Cultural safari—You attend village ceremonies and other events and interact closely with residents.
  • Trophy-hunting safari (Most people think, erroneously, that these have been outlawed. On the contrary and unfortunately, killing lions and zebras and elephants is a thriving business.)
  • "Spiritual quest" safari—You can even take a "spiritual quest" safari, focused more on touring sacred sites of a country than on wildlife.

Health Concerns

Regardless of which variety you choose, your safari will be an adventure. It's important that you pick a trip suited to your abilities. A walking safari, for instance, can take you through low-lying areas or on trails higher than 10,000 feet, which can be an issue for travelers with heart or respiratory ailments.

During the day, you can expect hot weather in almost every destination and a cool down in the evening. Some safari companies even recommend a winter jacket. But when it's hot, it's blazing—hats, sunglasses, and high-SPF sunscreens are essential.

Not every tour company prepares travelers for the conditions they will encounter on their safari. One exception is On Safari, which cautions in one itinerary, "You then proceed down the gorge to the rafts. (Note: This is a steep and slippery climb)." Given such detailed outlooks, travelers know to wear hiking boots.

For travel to many African countries, immunization is recommended against: diphtheria , tetanus , hepatitis A and B , meningitis, measles , rabies , polio , typhoid , and yellow fever . And in Africa, it can't be repeated too often—use insect repellent generously and drink only bottled water. Sleeping under a bed net is not a frivolous act; it can prevent you from contracting malaria, yellow fever, and dengue fever .

In some countries, malaria is on the rise; learn as much as you can about the area you're visiting and take the appropriate malaria prevention medication. Typhoid fever, hepatitis A, and cholera are food- and waterborne diseases, largely preventable with normal precautions—using bottled water and cooking food thoroughly.

Common prescription medicines may not be available in some African destinations, especially in rural areas. In Zimbabwe, a popular safari destination, the health system is said to be on the brink of collapse and hospitals are too poor to stock many medications. Be sure to bring a good supply of any prescription drugs and dietary supplements you take, as well as antidiarrhea medicine, spare eyeglasses, and personal hygiene items.

If you become seriously ill or injured, contact the nearest US embassy or consulate. An officer can give you a list of reliable hospitals in the region and English-speaking doctors. They also will inform your family in the United States that you are ill. Since most doctors and hospitals expect immediate payment for treatment, consider buying travelers' health insurance for your trip.

Safety in the Bush

The level of your safety on safari depends on many factors, including the country you're visiting, your guide's experience, the amount of responsibility your touring company assumes, and the behavior of both the animals and the participants.

It should go without saying that the wildlife are not tame circus animals. They are in their home territory and you are the intruder—and most of the large animals you see on safari will attack if they think you are a threat.

No safari company can absolutely guarantee the safety of its customers. Some are quite open about the risks involved. In a brochure about its "cattle-drive" safari across Botswana, for instance, Kgori Safaris advises, "This—[adventure] is definitely not for the faint-hearted as encounters with lion and leopard are not excluded. At night, team members will sleep out in the open. However, they can rest assured as the organisers will provide armed protection…"

In some countries, civil unrest due to political, religious, or ethnic tensions can threaten visitors' safety.

In all African cities, walking alone is risky, especially in the evening. Snatching jewelry and other objects through open car windows while motorists are stopped in traffic is a common crime. Leave your jewelry at home and place your money, passport, and other documents in a shirt or belt pouch where they cannot be seen. Carry a duplicate wallet with little cash (no more than $20). If you are robbed, hand that over to your assailants. Even Kenya's popular game parks, including the Masai Mara reserve, have seen an increase in crime by armed bandits.

Your best strategy for avoiding such catastrophes is to research every aspect of your trip before you leave. Be sure the safari company is a responsible, established tour operator, and ask that your safari be conducted with at least two vehicles traveling together. Know the country you'll be visiting, and take all personal safety advice you hear seriously.

Time to Plan

If you already know which country you want to visit or which touring company you wish to travel with, contact their website to start planning. Country-specific guidebooks are an excellent, objective source of safari information, especially regarding health and safety issues.