A lioness lifts her head to the sun as cubs tumble and play in the windswept grass, a lazy leopard keeps watch from an outstretched branch above, and somewhere in the distance, an open-top Jeep rumbles down a dirt track, kicking up dust on its khaki-clad cargo, who jostle for the perfect snapshot of their safari surrounds. This might sound like a romanticised scene, but when traveler Stacie Flinner ventured to Africa for an epic six-week adventure, she found that it lived up to the hype—and then some.
"It exceeded my very high expectations," says Flinner, who visited Africa as part of a year-long worldwide trip with her husband, David. "Even if you aren't a huge animal lover, you will get caught up in the excitement and romance of it all—there is nothing like locking eyes with a lion or seeing a leopard stalk its prey," she says. For just shy of two months, the pair ventured from South Africa to Zambia to Botswana. They had candlelit meals out in the bush, spotted rare painted wild dogs being chased by an elephant, took a tiny plane to reach a remote resort, and stayed at some of the most incredible lodges in the world.
Back from their incredible adventure, we asked Flinner to impart some wisdom. If you've ever dreamed of taking a safari vacation, this is the exact itinerary she'd recommend. "Since it often takes so long to reach these remote areas, I ideally recommend at least 10 days for a safari trip, broken up between three lodges," she says of the itinerary. Pack your camera: This is one bucket list trip you'll never want to forget.
Going on safari in Africa might be a popular bucket list addition, but Flinner points out that it's best suited to adventurous travelers. "Game drives start early when animals are most active and to avoid the midday sun—so if you're hoping to sleep in and relax on your trip, a safari probably isn't for you," she says.
Flinner and her husband have traveled extensively and love adventurous vacations, so a safari seemed like the perfect fit. "We started with two weeks in Cape Town and Stellenbosch (South Africa's wine country) before traveling by train to Johannesburg with Rovos Rail," she says. The duo stayed at two lodges in each country and were sure to include a mix of both river and safari lodges. "A typical safari schedule includes 5 a.m. wake-up calls for early morning game drives and late nights spent dining under the stars," she says.
"The schedule is exciting but can also be tiring, so I recommend planning a relaxing stay at a riverside lodge in between safari lodges."
Before you mass-order safari hats, khaki shirts, and leather-trim accessories, check your planned mode of transport. According to Flinner, traveling to a remote lodge by bush plane will impose a 20-kilogram (roughly 44 pounds) luggage limit. You'll also be required to carry a soft-sided duffle, so best to leave your hard-case luggage at home. Thankfully, luxury lodges recognize the challenges of packing for a safari and offer amenities to help. "Most lodges include same-day laundry service in the cost of your room so you don't need to pack too many outfits," she says.
If khaki just isn't your color, don't stress. "There's a myth that you need to wear head-to-toe neutrals while on game drives to avoid scaring the animals, but it simply isn't true. The wildlife views each safari vehicle as one large animal, so wearing hot pink isn't a problem," says Flinner. "That said, it's fun to dress the part and you'll be most comfortable in light-colored natural fabrics that breath." Her must-pack essentials are simple: "Pack a hat, sunglasses, and, depending on your level of interest in photography, a great camera and several camera lenses.
They used a 70mm to 200mm and rented a 200mm to 400mm lens for the trip and say it was one of the best decisions they made. "We can't wait to print and frame those images for our next house!"
Destination 1: South Africa
If you're planning a once-in-a-lifetime African adventure, Flinner says it's best to fly into Johannesburg. "I highly recommend starting your safari adventure in South Africa because almost all flights to the region land in Johannesburg," she points out. "South Africa also has the highest standards of professionalism and training for their rangers and trackers," so it's an ideal place to begin your trip. "Everything you learn from your South African guide will create a foundation for the rest of your safari experience, including learning about animal behaviors and ecological and conservation concerns."
The pair stayed at two lodges in South Africa and say both were incredible. Sabi Sabi Selati Camp in Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve was their first stop, and the luxury game lodge certainly didn't disappoint. Named one of National Geographic's Unique Lodges of the World, it is furnished with a historic railway theme to look like an authentic home in the bush. One of our favorite details is the bathroom, which features a cream claw-foot tub and glass pendant light against a dusty beet-colored accent wall.
Royal Malewane in Thornybush Private Game Reserve is the second lodge they recommend in South Africa. Awarded one of the best 50 resorts in the world by Conde Nast Traveler, it's the pinnacle of luxury: Picture huge antique rugs, thatched roofs, plush four-poster beds, and an incredible pool. It was also a spectacular place to spot the wildlife, says Flinner. "We were able to see all of the big five: lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, and water buffalo."
Destination 2: Zambia
After South Africa, the pair traveled to Zambia to spend two days at Royal Chundu River Lodge, a lodge on the banks of the Zambezi just an hour outside of Livingstone, Zambia. "It's utterly remote and utterly flawless on all fronts: from the décor to the food to the staff," says Flinner, who is also an interior designer.
The river lodge offered a welcome break from safari and a chance to spot wildlife from the water, rather than a truck. "We took an afternoon canoe trip along the river, coming incredibly close to hippos, crocodiles, and so many beautiful birds on our way to lunch," she recalls. It gave them an entirely new perspective of the park. "The lush foliage on the banks of the river is gorgeous, and the canoe lets you slow down and take in all the small details around you, like bird calls and dragonflies."
They also recommend touring a local village to learn about rural life in Zambia and support the people. "Economic opportunities are few in this part of the country, and Royal Chudu partners with the villages to buy produce for their restaurants and handicrafts to decorate the lodge, as well as providing residents with job skills training and employment opportunities," says Flinner.
Destination 3: Botswana
Botswana is a must-see during your African adventure, and Stacie and David Flinner recommend it as the third stop. "From Royal Chundu, it's a short 90-minute trip to Kasane, Botswana," she says, noting that most of the Okavango Delta lodges are quite remote, so you'll likely have to reach them by bush plane. It's not simply a means of getting from A to B though—Flinner says this was a highlight of the trip. "The short flight from Kasane to our lodge was one of my favorite experiences in Africa, as you can see for miles and even identify elephants, giraffes, and zebras traversing the delta—it's like a safari in the sky!"
Two luxury lodges stand out: Sanctuary Retreat's Chief's Camp and Baines' Camp. "Chief's Lodge was our favorite camp in Botswana, and aside from the stunning contemporary safari décor, private plunge pools in every room (which elephants would drink from occasionally), and talented chef, I'll plan future visits around our guide Sky's schedule. He's just that good."
The prospect of jumping to so many locations might seem daunting, but rest assured that each destination is unique. "The delta experience is so different from a safari in South Africa due to the terrain, as the area floods in the wet season and gives travelers a totally different perspective on the wildlife," Flinner explains.
That romanticised image of Africa certainly holds true in this region. "When in Botswana, you'll often feel like you're early explorers 'discovering' the delta for the first time," she says. After seeing her breathtaking images of teetering giraffe, lingering leopards, and sleepy lions, it's not hard to see why the pair is itching to go back. We can only hope that we can tick this once-in-a-lifetime adventure off our bucket list too one day.
Next up: Stacie Flinner shares the five countries she can't wait to return to.