Here’s looking at you chic safari mavens and rugged-luxe chaps! If packing is an art form, then the safari bag is every packer’s masterpiece. But as many safari goers will attest, this is far easier said than done! With varied climates, weight limits, and color codes to take into account, the task can quickly seem daunting. In the name of ensuring you arrive prepared—so that your attention can be focused on spotting the Big Five and enjoying your post-game-drive sundowner, rather than regretting your choice of boots—we’ve asked our resident safari-packing experts, Daniela and Owen, to shed some light on the pastime for both men and women. Follow their advice and you’ll find yourself with an enviably tight edit of safari-perfect pieces that go from the bush to Cape Town, the winelands to the coast, in a snap. Beyond compiling the chicest of adventure-ready separates, we let you in on the secrets of selecting the perfect duffle that will last a lifetime, which camera lenses are worth the weight, and why black is no-go on the savannah. Plus, the most unexpected (but essential) things we always take with us and the souvenirs to save space for. When you’re staying at safari lodges so gorgeous they’d make Meryl Streep a la Out of Africa weep, you’ll thank yourself for being in the know and looking picture perfect!
Chic Safari Must-Knows from Daniela Bonanno
Daniela is Absolute’s Africa Manager. In a past life Daniela, who hails from Italy, worked in fashion (so she knows what she’s talking about when it comes to looking good) before living in the South African bush at Singita Sabi Sands. Now, based in the heart of Cape Town, she stays on the cutting edge of all things Africa—from where to find the tastiest latte or loose-leaf rooibos cup of tea to the perfect spots to view the African sunset across the continent. Who better to ask about compiling the Ultimate Safari Packing List than Daniela? While she was at Absolute’s New York headquarters in September, we sat down with her for a candid conversation on her safari must-haves, what should be left at home, and where to find the most covetable souvenirs.
What’s the safari look all about?
Safari is about embracing the natural, slowing down to observe, and relaxing. What better time is there to let your hair be, untuck your shirt, and wear flats? It’s your chance to look effortlessly stylish in a linen tee, airy scarf, thoughtfully loose trousers or shorts with a pair of hip desert boots or leather sandals. Breathable, easy-to-wear pieces that will be comfortable for longer drives as well as unwinding afterwards are ideal. Work in a little argan oil to protect your tresses from the dry heat (Kahina Beauty’s Argan Oil has saved our tresses many-a-time while on safari), sweep your hair back, add a touch of lip balm and maybe a swipe of mascara and you’re done.
Needless to say, there’s no need for heat styling tools or heels!
What are your must-packs?
Scarf: The most versatile accessory you can pack is a scarf. It’s great for cozying-up on flights, during chilly mornings, and around the camp fire; protecting your head, face, and neck from the wind, sun and dust on game drives; and looking glamorous for dinner or while in the city.
Boots: The classic Clarks’ Desert Boots are always good, as are canvas sided, light-soled boots like Palladiums. People tend to think they need heavy-duty hiking boots, but unless you are on a walking safari, a great deal of your time on safari will be in a vehicle. In this case, you’ll want to choose footwear that is breathable (because it gets hot) but protective enough to shield you from thorns or the like if you leave the vehicle. If you like leather, then low-heeled Chelsea ankle boots are a good choice because they are protective but easy to slide on and off. Even something like high top Converse or Bensimon sneakers are light but protect your feet and ankles.
Hat: Hats are essential. When selecting a safari hat, choose something with a wide brim to shield you face, ears, and neck from the sun, and a chin strap so it doesn’t go flying away when you’re driving through the bush in open-air vehicles or with the windows down.
Outerwear: Without a doubt, pack a nano-puff! You will be so glad you have it for evenings and morning as it can get quite chilly before and after sunrise. They’re cozy, comfortable, and can be squished into tiny spaces in your duffle and daypack. A water-resistant or water-proof and wind-proof shell is also handy as the temperature and climate can change rapidly and unexpectedly. You can zip-up on dewy, cooler, early morning drives and forest treks, then easily remove it as the day heats-up. Look for outerwear that can be layered but doesn’t monopolize a great deal of luggage space.
See all of our inspired picks for safari packing here.
What should we pack for when we’re back at the lodge sipping gin & tonics or enjoying high tea before the next game drive?
Each lodge has its own feeling, but you can’t go wrong with a linen sundress or linen trousers and a silk camisole, a pashmina or cashmere stole, a light knit and chic flats or sandals. Pair with a wedge rather than a flat and this formula will also work when you’re exploring shops or enjoying dinner in Cape Town. (When in doubt, we suggest gaining some inspiration from one of our favorite brands, Maiyet!)
What are some items you pack others may not think of?
I never go on safari without a pack of cucumber and aloe wipes. They are a quick refresher for face and hands when running water is not available on game drives. I also always carry chapstick with me because the sun, wind, and dust is harsh on the lips.
We also suggest a bottle of all-purpose Dr. Bronner’s soap. This all-natural cult favorite does the task of multiple products and won’t harm the fragile ecosystem in the bush. Use it as hand and body soap, shampoo, and clothes detergent.
What are your favorite souvenirs to bring home from safari, and where can we find them?
Winelands: Wine! If you’re traveling through the winelands in South Africa, you’re sure to acquire a collection of world-class bottles. Must-visit vineyards include Waterford, Tokara, Delaire, Spier, Warwick Wine Estate, La Motte, Thelema Mountain Vineyard, L’Ormarins Wine Estate, and Babylonstoren.
Singita: Each of the Singita lodges has a gorgeous boutique stocked with luxe items for the home including bronze wildlife sculptures and prints, hand-woven baskets, the top local wines, and chic accessories like cuffs, scarves, and beaded earrings and necklaces. The premiere boutique is at Singita Sabi Sands. Just going to the boutique here is an experience—it’s set in a colonial farmhouse. You wander from the patio, through the rooms, and out to the courtyard as you admire the goods. Many of the items are collaborations with crafters from regions all over Africa. A favorite item I have gifted on many occasions is the Singita coffee table book.
Great Plains Conservation: The boutiques at Great Plains Conservation are beautiful as well. The handpicked, locally made goods and artifacts reflect the aesthetic of the camp, so you really feel like you are bringing home a piece of your experience. (On a recent trip to Great Plains Conservation Zarafa Camp, Absolute’s Brooke Garnett purchased a luxuriously soft, camel colored cashmere hoodie which everyone in the office wanted when she returned home! She also loved the cuffs crafted in Namibia and Botswana from up-cycled PVC Pipes.)
Chem Chem: The absolute best selection of safari wear has to be at Chem Chem. The camp’s owner Fabia Rausch, carefully selects each item, so it’s a reflection of her own effortless safari aesthetic—perfectly cut linen shorts, weightless linen button downs, and hand woven shawls and locally made accessories. Fabia will go to great lengths to provide the perfect linen safari pieces—she picks up yards of linen during her travels around the world and has them made into one-of-a-kind pieces by her favorite local tailor.
Baraza: The boutique at Baraza reflects the many influences of Zanzibar from island life to Arabic and Swahili design. Pick-up local textiles, brass jewelry, pareo, and homewares that will remind you on the open beaches and deep-blue waters when you return home.
Cape Town: When visitors come to Cape Town, I always love sending them to Woodstock. If you’re on your way through before you go on safari, you have to stop at Dark Horse & Kingdom for any last minute essentials. They stock chic iterations of safari essentials including leather and canvas duffels, brass hip flasks perfect for mid-drive gin and tonics, leather satchels that can be used as durable daypacks, and desert boots. You can also pick up the favorite local Rooibos tea. At The Woodstock Exchange you can find works of art by contemporary Cape Town artists. There are also plenty of wine shops where you can find bottles from all of South Africa’s best vineyards. The Old Biscuit Mill houses delicious farm stalls, decadent restaurants, innovative designers, artists, photographers, and a lot of passion. It’s the perfect place to pick-up one-of-a-kind gifts. Along the waterfront you’ll find the newly opened The Watershed, a historical warehouse that has been re-imagined as an innovative structure and creative space for African artisans and designers. And finally, Patrick Siebel’s brand-new ATELIER curates a selection of high-end African-made luxury goods including jewelry, prints, leather goods, and sculpture.
Nairobi: Found on Kifaru Lane in Nairobi, Matbronze creates gorgeous bronze sculptures that reflect the natural inspirations of Kenya. From large-scale life-like elephants to coasters bearing lion footprints, wandering the studios and gardens of Matbronze will transport you. Outside of Nairobi are the workshops of Maasai Collections, a design initiative making women’s handbags and accessories that merge traditional techniques with contemporary design. The Kazuri bead workshop in Karen (part of the Karen Blixen Estate of Out of Africa fame) is a women’s collective that makes ceramic beads, jewelry, and pottery. Visit the studio of furniture designer Mark Rumpleberg, who created the iconic Karen Blixen safari chair featured throughout Out of Africa. If you find yourself in Nairobi in need of a safari duffel or day pack, stop by Sandstorm to pick-up a safari-ready leather and canvas piece or two.
The Gentleman’s Perspective with Owen Gaddis
Owen has traversed Africa’s coast lines, bushwhacked through the plains, and trekked the cloud forests. With a penchant for capturing experiences outside the normal “comfort zone,” Owen still has a soft spot for the nicer things in life, particularly if they add to the experience. He weighs in on the only lens you need, his favorite trusty duffle, and his tough love approach to packing.
We hear you have one piece of tough, but real, advice you always give.
Ha, yes! “Be selective” and “less is more” is never truer than when packing for safari. If you’re traveling between lodges by bush plane or overland by caravan or Land Rover (or Land Cruiser which is another debate entirely!), know that you’ll have weight and baggage restrictions. My approach is to lay out everything I want to take, then remove half—I’m left with what I can take.
You’re go-to luggage choice?
Many people don’t realize that you can’t have hard sided luggage in the bush planes. This goes for camera equipment too–no beloved Pelican Cases! My hard and fast rule is to always carry on my camera gear in a f-stop gear Loka backpack, by far the best camera bag on the market!
For everything else, I currently use the Patagonia Black Hole Duffel, but my ideal bag is an old, trusty leather or canvas duffle like the large Filson Original Duffle; Something that only gets better with wear—that can be crammed in an overheard, thrown in the back of a truck, and come out looking better for it.
For the ideal, buttery-soft leather duffel, look no further than Ranchlands Mercantile. For a nylon bag, we love the Eagle Creek Rolling Duffel: the inconspicuous wheels make it easy to handle in the airport but don’t hinder the bag from fitting into safari vehicles or planes.
Speaking of camera gear, we know you love getting behind the camera. For many safari-goers, coming away from the experience with choice game and landscape images is a priority. What is your advice for packing camera equipment?
If photography on safari is key, my advice may seem counter intuitive. But you actually only need one excellent camera and one (or two) good lenses. I recommend taking a wide to medium telephoto such as a 24-70mm 2.8, and then something with a little reach like an 80-400mm 4.5. Anything larger is great, and if it’s prime, even better – but not necessary. A more serious photographer may decide to add longer prime lenses such as a 500mm f4 but remember, this adds considerable weight and unless you packed a secondary body, you will find yourself changing lenses a good bit in the dust—never a good idea! With either of these lenses you will be able to zoom-in on wildlife or pan-out for landscapes. Also, definitely pack spare batteries, spare memory cards, a lens cloth/pen, and a blower for dust; you’ll be glad you did on longer game drives and treks.
If you don’t want to purchase the equipment, another great option is to rent from Adorama, B&H, or Aperture. Lenses are expensive and renting is a great way to gain the glass you want at a fraction of the cost! And if you’re staying at Mara Plains Camp, you don’t even need to bring your own equipment. In each tent, there are Canon 7D cameras, lenses, and Swarovski 42×10 HD binoculars for guests to use. (Owned by National Geographic Explorers-in-Residence, Dereck and Beverly Joubert, this is no surprise!)
Give us a rundown of what else goes into your safari duffel.
The key for me is to have stuff I can wear at different times—things that go a long way in the field but also can be worn back at the lodge or for a night in the city. My bag always includes:
Boots: For sturdy leather boots I like Frye, Red Wing, or Blundstone. For lighter-weight boots, I like the Filson PH Boots, Danner’s Forest Heights II Boots, or classic Clarks’ Desert Boots.
Wool Socks: I bring multiple pairs of breathable wool socks when I go out on the plains. SmartWool and Patagonia socks are great.
Camp Shoes: It is so nice to have a pair of casual shoes for when you get back to the safari camp. I always bring a pair of Toms, Campers, or Havaianas.
Hat: A hat to shield from the dust and sun is a necessity. A baseball cap or bucket hat works great.
Daypack: In addition to my larger duffle, I also have a smaller daypack that I can throw snacks, a water bottle, and some Sour Patch Kids (of course!) into for game drives and hikes. I keep the Filson Original Briefcase close by: its simple but sophisticated design works equally well in the bush as it does in the markets of Nairobi. (Another perennial favorite daypack has to be Fjallraven’s stylish and versatile selections.)
Layering Items: Depending on the time year, the temperature fluctuates between morning, afternoon, evening and night so layering items that you can add to or take off, are ideal.
Weigh-in on the necessity to wear khaki: fact or fiction?
Fact! Earth tones, grey, and olive drab are where it’s at: A.) Because you’re on safari and it looks cool. Bright colors feel out of place. B.) Because you don’t want to stand out from your surroundings—the lions may give you a sideways look. But seriously, not only will neutral tones disguise the dust and dirt you’re bound to pick-up, but undesirable bugs in certain regions are attracted to darker tones like black and blue.
What do you wear during your city stopovers like Cape Town or Nairobi?
Usually a field coat, loafers, and whatever clean button down I have left: things that do double duty on safari but can be slightly dressier for a cosmopolitan day or night.
What’s the most unexpected item you pack?
Joshua Tree hand salve because it saves my knuckles from getting dry and cracked in the sun and dust, and it smells gooooood; my lucky bandana, “blue”; and, of course, my GoPro. The best footage I ever caught was 10,000 wildebeest crossing the Mara River. Incredible. Or being charged by a Cape Buffalo—that’s a story for another time!
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Explore all of our safari picks from the best duffels to the perfect scarves on our Safari Packing Pinterest board.