Safari Etiquette or Habits while on your Uganda Safari
The excitement that comes with visiting Africa for a safari is like no other and this must be accompanied by good Etiquette or habits, with lots of time is required to plan that dream trip. Your best bet is landing a ground handler who will walk you through the trip details, and explain to you what you need to know, what you need to carry, and most importantly how you need to behave when on an Uganda safari. Etiquette or habits on a safari is all about respecting the environment that you are visiting and your fellow passengers. It seems like common sense but I will break it all down for you as I’m a reformed offender of some of these rules and vowed to enlighten people about them.
Most of our wildlife live within protected areas, national parks, game parks, game reserves, and sanctuaries. Even though confined, they are confined to a very large protected area which allows for a daily routine/life that is as natural as possible as to what they would have enjoyed when human encroachment and hunting did not cause a need for such areas to be gazetted! But hey! no blame games today. Look at visiting Uganda’s parks like visiting a friend’s home. Here’s what you need to know.
It’s their home: Rule number one, remember you are a visitor in the national park and therefore must respect the wildlife and their territory. Our national parks have a wide diversity of animals inhabiting in them, while out in the bush, on a game drive, there is the possibility of beholding amazing sightings; – a lion preparing for a kill, a hyena stealing prey from a satisfied lioness, buffaloes mating just a few minutes away. Allow animals to go on about their day, this way you get more natural pictures. If you disturb their peace, they will wander off. Wildlife is in a default survival mode. They have to feed themselves, raise their young, and be vigilant against predators. Those couple of seconds that you interfere with their meal or naptime when multiplied by the number of guests who come through each day, might add up to the amount of energy they needed to catch their meal or avoid becoming one.
Hire an armed Ranger guide: Uganda Wildlife Authority site Rangers will cost you $20 per car only to escort you on a game drive. 20,000shs if East African. They are highly skilled, armed and follow strict and disciplined safari and vehicle etiquette. Rangers make for an outstanding team while out on safari, while they share their intimate knowledge and incomparable intuition of the African bush. They ensure that guests are in the safest and most suitable position for spectacular wildlife sightings. If you are tracking gorillas, chimps, lions, leopards, or golden monkeys. You will be given trackers, don’t ignore them. Trackers not only read the slight nuances of the bush but also direct rangers when driving off-road or walking off trails. I want to call out tour guides who pocket the ranger guide fee, or locals who hate to hire the rangers, why, because they believe they can navigate the park on their own, the day you are on a game drive and are attacked by a lone buffalo, will be the day you wished you had a gun to fire in the air.
Do not drive or go off track: Bush vegetation is extremely sensitive. Off-road driving causes erosion and encourages the encroachment of unwanted plant species.
Only when with a park ranger will you be allowed to go off track, off-road driving is restricted to high-profile sightings (the Big 5 plus cheetah) where a limited number of vehicles are permitted at a time. And even so, don’t make it a habit.
Some tracks off the main road develop from routine off-road driving in Queen Elizabeth Park.
Mind the spotlight during Night game drives: They say that most animals have better vision at night. Unfortunately, that might not apply to humans, driving with excessive use of spotlights disrupts the activities of nocturnal animals causing temporary blindness and disorientation. Upon noticing certain species, or hearing a certain activity for instance if a lion has just got a kill and they are feasting, switch off your spotlight, use your hearing and scent senses to decipher what’s going on and when it all calms down, you can switch on your lights to see what unfolded.
Do not pick flowers or destroy any vegetation: Guys, you’d be mad if I visited you and picked stuff from your house. With safaris, take away only the pleasant memories, all for sustainable tourism so that many years later your children’s children can also come and visit these same places. Removing any natural material from wildlife reserves disrupts the ecology of the area and promotes the spreading of diseases amongst domestic animals and crops. You don’t want to be that guy who does that.
Never tease or try to attract wild animals: We call them WILD animals for a reason, their wild instincts to survive activate in seconds, this provocation causes an unpredictable response and a potentially dangerous reaction. Once I was on a boat safari in Murchison falls, we got to a place called “crocodile village.” The coxswain stopped at a safe distance to a huge crocodile that lay basking in the sun by the shores, as he was explaining to us what was going on, some scam bag ‘excuse my French, threw an empty mineral water bottle at the crocodile ‘cos he said it seemed dead, immediately the crocodile turned and slapped the water hard with its tail that caused waves that shook our boat. If we were closer to that crocodile, we were going to overturn and bring Christmas early for the crocodiles. It’s also foolish to imitate animal sounds, I have seen guides do it and quite frankly I don’t understand why mimicking their sounds will make them think another of their species is communicating with them, who knows what that sound could mean? So don’t clap your hands or throw objects at the animals.
Never corner wild animals: You don’t know what they might be thinking, and you can’t know how they’ll react. Give them enough room so they can behave naturally, and not feel threatened. Cornering animals might take forms like several cars surrounding a lion while on a game drive, if the lion can not move away in peace then you will be certain to have an uncertain reaction from them.
Do not camp or make campfires except at official sites: The habitats of the wild animals are mainly shrubs, thick bushes, tall trees, and generally flora. So yes, one silly mistake and the game park burns, animals burn, their food source burns, the lodges (mostly built with wood and grass-thatched finishing) could burn down and the result will be a bear field with nothing to see! This applies to throwing the filters of your cigarette, they take ages to decompose.
Do not disturb wildlife by sounding motor horns: Motor horns are also interpreted as disturbances for animals. Don’t dare lest you’ll become dinner or end up in an ambulance on your way to the next hospital.
Especially when you find animals crossing, or standing in the middle of the road or even too close to them, be patient, park at a safe distance, and turn off your engine. You’ll most likely see elephants flapping their ears when you hoot, that’s because they’re pissed and building momentum to attack, you might get in trouble. It is true what they say, you only live once, live well.
Elephant Walking in the middle of the Road
Do not drive in the park between 7:30 pm and 6:30 am unless you are on a Night Game Drive. Uganda Wildlife Authority regulates entry and exit into the Park. Entrance Gates are Open from 7 am and close by 6 pm, entry and exit should be done within the time limits, this is for the safety of the animals. Most of the animals are active at night, hunting. So allowing you in the park disrupts their activities. There are always countless animals run over because drivers can’t see them. And also let’s see, driving in the night is also not good for you should you be attacked by wildlife and there is no one to help you.
Do not litter: This includes throwing used plastic water bottles, toilet paper or napkins, food wraps, etc in the park, animals will pick this and put it in their mouth, guess what happens, they’ll choke and die, keep a trash can in your vehicle where you can collect all waste and dispose off properly at the camp when you return from your game drive. This also applies to disposing of cigarette ends or matches. Uganda still has strict No Smoking rules in public areas, however, being outdoors doesn’t automatically mean that it’s Ok. Try to be considerate of other passengers and request a ‘smoke’ break/stop – perhaps while the others are taking their usual break. When done smoking, put the cigarette end in your pocket and dispose of them when you get back to the lodge. Just like how you’d visit a friend’s home and not leave your rubbish on their couch. Think of leaving only your Tyre tracks/footprints on the dirt roads, nothing else!
Do not exceed the speed limit of 40km per hour (25mph): This should be easy, national park roads are all unsurfaced, so driving fast could; cause accidents, and also lead to loss of animal lives when run over. I have seen cases of speeding cars overturn in Murchison Falls national park while rushing to get the ferry for guys sleeping on the northern bank. Plan your trip and set off early. Don’t spend so much time at the top of the falls only to recall the ferry is about to retire for the day. Drive slowly and maintain appropriate distances from wildlife (if self-driving). Always stop for animals crossing the road, if you notice an animal moving towards you, stop the car, roll your windows up, put the car in reverse, and back up slowly.
Do Not play loud music from your phones while on safari or at the lodge/camp if you must, Prior approval has to be obtained from the Uganda Wildlife Office. This is because animals have very sharp hearing skills, for instance, a lion’s roar can travel up to 8 kilometers letting others know of its presence, and can hear prey up to 1.6 kilometers away). This sound disrupts them and causes them to think they’re under attack as they can’t decipher what sound it is or they get irritated and walk away.
Stay in your vehicles at all times unless at a designated stop place or on a Guided Nature walk: I would like to think that this is common sense given the nature of the environment you will be in, but best to reiterate, you get out of the vehicle and an animal pops out of the bush and snatches you, this is the worst-case scenario, but also, there’s no other case scenario that will define why this rule is in place. There are also designated stop points where you can do picnics or stretch, or use a bathroom, just because they are designated doesn’t mean to relax, watch your back at all times otherwise chances that a relaxed stretch of legs could turn into a run which you won’t win are highly likely. Predators associate their prey as running away from them. So, if you run, you trigger a predator’s instinct to chase. Be alert when out of your car. If you get caught by a ranger outside a car you will probably be expelled from the park. Or charged a fine. If you get caught by a leopard or lion outside your car, you might never be heard from again!
Popping your head out of the car window, sitting on the window, seating on the roof rack while the car is in motion: Big No! The first possibility is slipping and falling, although the car moves slowly, the roads are normally murram and with potholes, so avoid getting hurt, sit in the car like a civilized person. Secondly, the shape of a vehicle has become a very natural sight to an animal in game reserves, it appears as though a moving harmless piece of rock, so when you sit on the window sill, you distort the shape of the vehicle and the animals interprets it as an unusual bizarre monster and quickly activate defense mode. The other issue with sitting on the car window is that no one watches your back as you concentrate on the same sighting that everyone else is watching.
Don’t expect to see all the animals on the list: Unlike the zoo where animals are kept in captivity, the national parks can be very unpredictable, we normally say that “animals don’t make appointments.” Some days you’re lucky and you will spot all the animals you had read about, some days aren’t lucky, your guide will try his best to communicate with other guides who were on the trip the day before on the same day to see where some animals were last seen, and they’ll search to make it possible, but if you search and fail to see for instance lions, don’t be grumpy and angry at the world. I’m sure you’ll at least see other animals. Some days you will drive in the park for hours only to see a pride retiring home when you return to your camp/lodge.
Lions on Game Drive.
Don’t feed the animals: This rule has been abused so many times, in fact, because of this abuse some species like baboons have become so lazy to hunt and search for their food, they become aggressive and result in stealing food from humans and becoming a problem to your safety, why? Because some guys felt the need to hand out bananas to baboons, for their entertainment, this makes them lazy. A fed animal quickly becomes a dead animal. When you habituate wild animals, they’ll lose their instinct to hunt. Also, human food could poison the animals, and when they die, there’ll be no more animals to see on your safari. Also, keep food items closed away safely otherwise the animals will smell it a mile away and come for it, you might lose your arm trying to protect that cluster of bananas. If you see anyone feeding animals on safari. Report them. Seriously report them to the authorities so they can be fined.
Don’t play NatGeo: Ever watched NatGeo filmers & translators being so daring? They get too close to animals for great shots, and to study behaviors, don’t try that while on safari lest you’ll not be heard from again. Although we get great information from Natgeo, best not to try to play them. wildlife is wild and your guide is your parent or teacher, you always need to ask permission to move!
Don’t walk in the late evening without protection: This is obvious for nature walks but when at the lodge or camp, ensure that you are escorted if moving from your camp to the restaurant/dining area. Animals have the best night vision, half the time they see you before you even notice them. Ask to be escorted and the lodge staff will be glad to do that, those with golf carts will make use of them. There was a situation where a young lady left her room in the night to take a walk outside in Murchison Falls National Park, she’s never been found until today, don’t put your family through this kind of trauma.
Be courteous and aware of your surroundings: African societies are normally polite, replicate this behavior, say hello often, smile, you’ll be surprised how fun this might make your trip. If you wish to take a photo of somebody, always ask them first, or always ask your guide to approach the people first. Beware not to sound offensive when asking cultural questions. Public Display of affection is frowned upon, regardless of your sexual orientation, keep the lovey-dovey behavior for your bedrooms. Also, remember there are differences in accents and most African Villages don’t speak English too well, don’t mimic how the locals speak, it’ll offend them, the same way you get offended if someone makes fun of how you speak.
Dress appropriately: It’s a free world, and we’ve seen how liberal dress codes have become, however, when in Africa, be mindful that many communities are conservative and frown upon exposing certain parts of the body (including lower bottom cheeks, chest, lower bellies, and upper thighs.) regardless of the heat, we prefer to cover up, avoid dressing skimpily unless you are at the swimming pool, or the beach, It’s not only the Islamic coastal communities that would be offended by this, many conservative African societies you’ll interact with might give you “the eye” when you walk around with your butt cheeks hanging out. Also, the colors you choose to wear could make or break your safari, pink or red is not advisable as it scares away animals, dressing in black/dark colored clothes will attract tsetse flies and they’ll bite you.
Be mindful of your children: when traveling with kids, please book a private game drive, these normally don’t last hours and we don’t want your children to become grumpy and start disturbing the peace of other guests, children’s attention span is short so when on a private game drive, you can cut it short and head back to the lodge without making it difficult for other guests.
Shared Game drives: when on a shared game drive, or safari, arrive early, after visiting the bathroom, don’t have the whole vehicle waiting for you, as this puts pressure on the driver who has to ensure that you all have a good time, avoid fighting for the best seats, once in a while swap seats so everyone else can also get a good view, it feels good when someone else leaves his good seat for you, return the favor. please don’t own the driver, you’re not the only one in the car, it’s good to ask questions but don’t make it a routine to bombard the guide with questions about every tiny detail, give other passengers also a chance, when other guys request the driver to stop for, let’s say kob that you have seen countless times, be patient and wait for them to also enjoy, don’t make it a habit to stop for every single animal along the route, as most times the guides are trying to beat the time before the animals retire and go in hiding. When the guide is explaining something, and you need to contribute, don’t cut in, he knows more than you, so request to add your opinion but be aware that the other guests don’t give 2 shits about your seasoned safari culture. Share pictures from the game drive, don’t be mean, you’ll be surprised what good shots your colleagues got of the exact animal.
Be self-sufficient: Always try to carry what you need, your camera, binoculars, sunscreen, sweaters, hats, etc. if you don’t have these, ask politely before using other people’s things.
Advice for Photographers and special interest groups: We know the amount of time on safari required for birders to build on their sighting or for photographers to get the best shots
I’d recommend hiring a private game drive car or safari boat instead of littering the vehicle with your so many refined gadgets that makes it uncomfortable for everyone. It’s simply about being mindful of other people.
Private Boat Safari
Keep Your Voice down: very few people hire private cars or shut down lodges for themselves. A safari is a social vacation. Often you’ll share space on the boat cruise, or game drive, or even dine together. Be mindful of when and where to speak, for instance on a game drive or nature walk, try and keep in mind that Loud talking can frighten the animals away. Observe the animals silently and with a minimum of disturbance to their natural activities. Also lowering your voice allows for your colleagues to get good footage when filming, if you have been on safari before, allow the guide to explain to the others what’s going on when sighting, don’t cut in, it’s rude.
Keep your phone off or on silent: If you must carry your cell phone for taking photos, by all means, do, but keep the phone on silent mode. It’s disrespectful to take calls or keep texting while everyone else is immersing themselves in the beauty of the African bush, also phones being small with no strings to support them around your neck can slip and fall in the bush or streams or water bodies, then that’s the end of it.
Never attempt to approach any wild animal on foot: Wild Animals in protected areas have gotten accustomed to vehicles and find them harmless, most of them are familiar with safe distances from guided bush walks and wilderness trails led by armed ranger guides. Each animal species is different and these comfort zones and safe distances should be respected for your safety as well as theirs. Directly approaching an animal will seem like you’re going to attack, this will cause sudden unpredictable reactions from them.
While taking pictures disable Flash and also mute the camera: Especially while gorilla tracking, take the flash off as this is a sign of aggression to the gorillas.
Also editing and deleting pictures on your camera to make room for more pictures sounds irritating when the sound is turned on. If you don’t have extra memory cards, please mute the camera before playing on the functions.
Don’t get too close to the animals: Look at it this way, we all love our space and would be irritated if a stranger attempted to get too close, same as wildlife, although most games have gotten so used to seeing humans wander close to them. They are also particular about safe distance, whereas vehicles can get close to some animals, there should be a limit as to how close you may approach them. In instances like this, let your driver read the animal behavior and decide.
All this while, stay calm, be quiet and avoid sudden movements that could startle the animal away. For instance, lone buffaloes, a lioness with cubs, or an injured animal are so aggressive and will attack when you get too close. Please respect your driver/guide’s judgment about your proximity to certain wild animals. Don’t insist that he take the vehicle closer so you can get a better photograph. A vehicle driven too close can hinder a hunt, or cause animals to abandon a hard-earned meal. Safety is the most important thing, always!
Elephants, Giraffes, and Hyena crossing the road
Don’t Contribute to “Animal Jams”: Ever been on a game drive and seen so many cars surrounding an animal, oftentimes I’m saddened by this look, Lion jam, elephant jam, rhino jam. Firstly, you block the route that is supposed to be used by every other safari-goer on a game drive, you block the view for other people, especially guys with the bigger safari cars. We understand, it’s the first time you’ve ever seen a lion and you’re excited to catch a glimpse, but be mindful of others.
Don’t be mean with information: Often you will find someone parked in the wild staring at something, how would you feel if you wanted to know what they were looking at and they brushed you off. Share information and tips, you will be surprised to learn of what great sightings the other people have also seen which you missed. After all, we have all traveled this far for the same reason. It’s really easy to make friends.
Ok. So now we know… Ask me about your Bucket list item for this year.