The changing face of safari: Why community-led experiences are infinitely better

A trip to the deltas, grasslands and savannahs of Africa is unforgettable at the best of times, but learning about local people and their culture only enriches your experience...

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Early morning game drives wrapped up in blankets with a coffee in hand, trundling along dusty roads in search of wildlife. The air is usually heavy with dew, until the warmth of the sun envelopes you like a warm hug, minutes after it pops above the horizon.

Unexpectedly, you stumble upon a scene that many of us only ever witness in documentaries. Perhaps it's a herd of elephants bathing in a muddy pool, spraying water across their dusty backs from their long trunks, or a family of meerkats perched on mounds of dirt, wide-eyed and peering. Maybe it's a pride of lion cubs hungrily devouring last night’s kill  their mother, exhausted from a night of hunting, stretching across the grass.

Going on safari can be a truly extraordinary experience. And if you're drawn towards wildlife and nature-based travels, the chances are you also care about preserving and protecting the environments that act as a habitat for these animals. In many places across Africa, communities stand at the frontline of such wilderness  living side-by-side with animals such as leopards, cheetahs and elephants. Getting to know the people at the heart of these communities, and hearing their unrivalled storytelling, can only make your experience richer. So, when you book your next safari, seek out the operators and companies who bring you closer to local people. Here are a few ideas on where to start.

Learn about bush life in the Okavango

Learn the art of bush survival from Indigenous San guides, who are members of one of the oldest surviving cultures of the region (Alamy)

Learn the art of bush survival from Indigenous San guides, who are members of one of the oldest surviving cultures of the region (Alamy)

Living in wilderness areas such as Botswana’s floodplains, the Okavango Delta, means learning life skills like no other – which is why the African Guide Academy offers nature-enthusiasts’ short courses in basic bush skills, animal tracking and wilderness survival at its Kwapa Camp. Programmes range from one day to seven days, alongside the more complex guide school courses, and are taught by locals who understand the Okavango's complex eco-systems.

The San Survival and Tracking course, a favourite among visitors, teaches you about San culture and how communities have lived alongside birds and wildlife for thousands of years. Lessons in ethnobotany, the study of the region's plants and their uses through the traditional knowledge, are shared, as well as tips on how to recognise an animal by their footprints and droppings. Ever wondered how to react when you come across a wild animal on foot? You'll find out here. Put that knowledge to use when exploring the plains each day and you’ll have an even more fulfilling safari experience. 

Read next: The world's greatest wetlands and the creatures you'll meet there

Visit community projects in Kibale

The Bicowa Community Project includes basket weaving experiences (Alamy)

The Bicowa Community Project includes basket weaving experiences (Alamy)

Uganda's incredible jungle landscapes are home to a variety of wildlife, including chimpanzees and the endangered mountain gorilla. A carefully curated programme allows small groups of people to visit habituated chimps and gorillas in their natural habitats in Kibale National Park and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. An undoubtedly unforgettable experience, yes, but it's what you do after that really counts.

Surrounding the nation's major tourist draws, are wonderful community-run initiatives  from souvenir shops and traditional life classes, to village tours and farming experiences. This is where local people come into their own, securing an income from travellers visiting their region, while visitors are given the opportunity to interact, understand and immerse in a new culture. On the outskirts of Kibale National Park, for example, the Bicowa Community Project, offers nature walks, cycle tours and a tour that encompasses basket weaving, coffee grinding and believe it or not – banana gin distillation – in the small Bigodi village. The small fee goes back into the village, and has so far helped to dig new boreholes for clean water, grade the only road coming into the town and send children, who can't afford to go, to primary school. Additionally, the project provides training for young guides who dream of one day leading chimpanzee tracking experiences in Kibale. Local operators and guides encourage travellers to engage with communities by stopping off at such initiatives, which not only expands your experience but also brings much-valued income to those who need it most. 

Camping with rural Himba and Herero communities

For many years, the Himba people of Namibia have been plagued by voyeuristic tourism model, that never benefitted them. Finally, things are changing (Alamy)

For many years, the Himba people of Namibia have been plagued by voyeuristic tourism model, that never benefitted them. Finally, things are changing (Alamy)

A powerful alternative to the luxury tented camps seen on classic trips, Conservancy Safaris is a community-owned experience that introduces you to the rural Himba and Herero way of life. Both communities have lived and thrived off north-western Namibian lands since ancient times and have a wealth of knowledge of the environment and its wildlife. However, decades of being exoticised, engulfed by gawping safari-goers and treated as an attraction, typically by foreign-owned operators, have left communities feeling exploited. To protect themselves, their traditional way of life and their land, the Himba and Herero people have tried even harder to avoid western gaze.

Conservancy Safaris Namibia launched, with the help of philanthropist donations and conservationist support, to provide low-impact camping experiences with Himba and Herero people as hosts. Taking place across five conservancies in the northwest Kunene region, profits support the 3,000 people who live within these conservancies. The focus, they say is, changing how travellers interact with the communities. “Many principled travelers are uneasy about the way exotic and diverse African culture is used as a marketing tool. They give the half-naked children sweets and get back into their luxury safari vehicle, hoping the money this community receives from such canned cultural visits helps. CSN turns this situation around.”

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