Sensational safaris: An expert's guide to getting the best from Africa's wilderness
Anyone who has responded to the call of the wild and booked a safari holiday will identify with the raw emotion and euphoria the experience provokes.
The sight of such formidable creatures in their wilderness environment somehow sparks a connection with the primeval recesses of human nature. In short, you feel rather small - and edible.
Occasionally it is sobering to be reminded that you are not always top of the food chain, wandering into the few areas of the planet where animals, not man, are king.
Tusk force: A safari can bring you in contact with some of the largest mammals on the planet
But a once-in-a-lifetime experience such as a safari comes with a king's ransom doesn't it? And where on earth do you start planning such a trip?
Thirty-seven-year-old Toby Fenwick-Wilson has worked as a safari guide in Africa for the last 12 years, hopping between Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia and Sudan. And he says the experience is unbeatable.
'Almost every guest I've ever had has said that
it has been the greatest experience of their lives,' he asserts.
'Africa has a sort of bewitching charm all of its own. It's a very difficult thing to define. Anybody who has experienced it will be able to say that is the truth.'
Of course, safaris are not confined to Africa - India and Nepal can also put on a show when it comes to their own natural charms but, Toby explains, nothing can rival the continent for the scale of its wildlife in terms of size and number.
Getting the hump: Toby Fenwick Wilson (second right) is an expert guide for luxury holiday company Abercrombie and Kent in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda
'For sheer biomass there's nowhere to compare on the planet for large mammals than east Africa,' he says.
But do African safaris, which evoke images of pot-shotting aristocratic hunters in spotless khaki uniforms, always have an equally lofty price tag to match?
'They do not always need to be expensive,' says Toby, who explains that newspapers, like the Daily Mail, often have deals in their back pages.
'Yes it can be extremely expensive and yes, it is one of those experiences that you pay for what you get. A lot of money may give you more exclusivity but there are cheaper alternatives. You will probably see a lot of other tourists as well but that doesn't matter.'
Toby suggests that for value and diversity, east Africa - north Tanzania and Kenya in particular - is the hot ticket for first-time safari holidaymakers.
Big cat: Zambia can offer a more 'traditional' safari experience with more emphasis on seeing the wildlife
Kenya has had a long association with Britain and is well-versed in offering tourists an authentic and safe experience.
'For a first-timer to east Africa, Kenya is absolutely sensational,' enthuses Toby, who lives in Ulu in the south of the country where he acts as a guide for luxury tour company Abercrombie & Kent (www.abercrombiekent.co.uk).
'The people are gentle and hospitable and the wildlife is sensational. It is also very accessible. There are some regions of Africa which have terrific wildlife or cultural experiences but are difficult or expensive to get to because of their remote location.
'With Kenya it's all there on a big fat delicious plate for you.'
Apart from Kenya, Africa's main safari destinations include South Africa, Botswana, Tanzania and Zimbabwe, although the latter's political instability makes it less desirable of late.
South Africa in particular has also served as a popular hotspot for getting a taste of Africa's native animals but for a flush of 'real' wilderness, Toby says there are other options.
In the pink: Kenya, including the Masai Mara, is a good option for first-time safari holidaymakers
'South Africa and Botswana have been very chic for a few years now and have dominated the luxury end of the safari market,' he reasons.
'But potentially, by doing so, they have lost the purity of being out in the bush and on safari.
'It is still very popular but it's a very different safari experience. You are very aware that your environment is being managed whereas in east Africa it still feels, and is, truly
Kenya is also the ideal destination for families, with a good track record and something to offer everyone from game drives to sandy beaches. But how old should a child be to go on safari?
'They can be as young as you like but because it is such a magic thing and if it is [literally] a once-in-a-lifetime experience, I would make sure that the child can remember it, so seven upwards,' advises Toby.
Stripe out: Africa has some of the most diverse wildlife on the planet
So, Kenya might have it all but are there any up-and-coming destinations? Zambia, he says, particularly for those who have already been somewhere like Kenya.
Toby explains that an improvement in the level of accommodation and better access have brought the country into safari fashion.
'You have far more space than people there and the experience feels earthier. It has a rather nice old-fashioned feel. The concentration is on the walking and on the
animals when one might accuse other African countries of focusing on
the accommodation over and above the actual safari itself.'
So you've picked your destination but what should holidaymakers look for when booking an experience that has arguably more hazards than, say, a beach holiday in Spain?
'The most important thing that a guest should look for is safety and security,' Toby stresses.
'Choose a reputable company that has a fantastic track record and most importantly has a big network structure on the ground. And make sure you're with the right guide.'
So, all that remains is to sit back and enjoy the ride. And if you needed any proof that a safari is a truly unforgettable experience, the last word goes to Toby.
'You're up close and personal, there's nothing like it. It's sensational.'
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