A November morning ten years ago, give or take a year, I was waiting in the Johannesburg Airport for the Air Botswana flight to Maun, Botswana. Now the Johannesburg Airport is Africa’s busiest airport and nicer than many American airports. It is massive and modern, filled with businessmen and woman… it is not a 3rd world kind of experience. I was people watching when a couple caught my eye. After all the years I remember it as if it were an hour ago… a small smile formed on my face as I stared.
The man, in his 50’s, looked like the son of Kenny Rogers, or perhaps Santa Claus, and wore a full on khaki safari jumpsuit. Atop his head sat a pith helmet with mosquito netting hanging down over his face. Across his ample waist a belt… and on his feet shin high desert boots – the type issued by the US military for desert engagements. His top heavy wife (Imagine an upside down pear set atop 2 toothpicks) wore a khaki vest over a leopard print top. Her hair was styled as large as possible and I am certain many African birds would be jealous of her nest making abilities! Her makeup was heavily applied showing off her like of bright colors. Her legs were covered in skintight leopard leggings and she had a faux leopard skin purse to match. I pondered how I could take a photo without being spotted. It was simply not possible. I thought to myself, “that is quite a couple… I hope none of my clients think to dress like that!”
Fortunately most safari-goers are more practical in their choice of clothes with quick dry, light weight fabrics from REI being common. Pants zip into shorts, shirts have vents to keep you cool, and large brimmed packable hats provide protection from the sun… all good stuff – but necessary?
The reality is the type of clothes that you choose to wear on your safari is not that big of a deal. As you don’t have to spend thousands of dollars on lycra outfits to ride a bike most clothing is fine for a safari. Look at the photo of the Masai warriors above… they are wearing bright red robes with leather sandals – and they live there!
We suggest comfortable clothes that are cool, but that can layer to keep you warm in the evenings or on an early morning wildlife viewing drive. Light weight shirts and fleece pullovers are ideal. Zip off pants that turn into shorts… I have worn them myself… pretty convenient when the day starts to heat up. A good sun hat? Definitely!
Jeans and flannel are not optimal. Denim takes forever to dry as many properties do not have clothes driers. Shirts with vents and sunscreen / insect repellant impregnated clothes are not necessary.
Casual clothes are fine for daywear – button up shirts / polo shirts / T-shirts worn with shorts are fine for men and women. As for shoes I often wear flip flops on game drives although I am not recommending this… Teva sandals work well although closed shoes are a better option. If I am going walking then I wear comfortable walking shoes… the same ones I wear at home when I go for an evening walk. Hiking boots are not necessary on most safaris.
At night long pants with a golf shirt and sweater / fleece jacket is common for men… perhaps a collared, button up shirt at some high end lodges and hotels for the evenings. The same shoes you wore on your safari walk can be worn at hotels and lodges at night.
For women long pants with a blouse or a long dress is common at dinner time. In areas where mosquitoes are present stick with pants to avoid bites. Flat shoes are more practical then heels when walking on wooden boardwalks and sandy paths.
There are a few special circumstances … In tsetse fly areas, such as parts of Tanzania and Zambia, long pants and long sleeved shirts made of heavy material provide protection when you are out on safari during the day. Avoid blue or black clothing in these areas as they attract tsetse flies. Pair these with socks, closed shoes and insect repellant.
Do not bring camouflage clothing as it is not considered a fashion statement in Africa… camo might draw unwanted attention at airports or border crossings.
If traveling on a road based safari in east Africa female travelers should bring a sports bra as the roads can be very bumpy.
As for the color of your safari clothes guide books and safari companies will tell you to wear beige, browns, and greens. Even we say so in our predeparture paperwork… the reality is unless you are seriously tracking wildlife on foot the color of your clothing is really not important. Please note white clothes get dirty very quickly so are not adviseable.
Pack light for your trip as laundry is done on a complimentary basis at most safari lodges and camps. In most cases clothes picked up in the morning will be returned to you by evening time. In city hotels laundry can be done for a fee… this is often outsourced and turn around can be 24 hours.
It is common in Africa for all laundry to be ironed – including jeans. This does serve a purpose as during the rainy season in some parts of Africa the Putsi fly will lay eggs in damp clothing… ironing kills these eggs. Silks and other more delicate fabric can be ruined by the hot coal irons used at some safari camps and lodges. Please let camp staff know if you do not want your clothes ironed – nothing like a crease ironed into the front of your expensive jeans!
Please note that some safari properties may not wash undergarments. You may wish to bring a small supply of liquid laundry soap (a small plastic travel bottle filled with Woolite works well) for hand washing.
One more tip – on long international flights your feet can swell a whole size… we suggest wearing flat, roomy shoes.
Ultimate Africa founder and president