What to Wear on Safari
During a recent trip to Cape Town, South Africa, I was surprised at how many other tourists I encountered who had gone on safari. Most traveled in by plane from Kruger National Park, but others traveled from much further away. Every safari location has its own unique story to tell, and yet all have an underlying similarity: to witness big game in their natural habitat. Nowhere in the world but Africa can you have this experience.
While lunching in a café along Cape Town’s waterfront, we met a couple from Australia who had just flown in from their safari at Kruger National Park. The woman looked flush with a tired happiness, and the gentleman had a melancholy look in his eyes.
“Going on safari was my dream. And now my dream is a reality,” he said joyfully. They gushed about the expansive bush terrain, the wildlife, and the conservation efforts made by the organizations who run the various safaris. They relayed stories about how a seemingly friendly elephant walked slowly within five meters of their vehicle, before suddenly turning around and charging away. They also spotted a lion and her cubs off in the distance. The mother was treading casually, stopping now and then to sniff the surrounding bushes, with her small brood of two cubs frolicking behind.
Everyone who goes on safari hopes to catch sight of ‘The Big Five.’ It’s rare when one is able to spot lion, African elephant, leopard, rhinoceros and Cape buffalo all in one safari trip. When I asked our newfound friends whether they’d checked all five off their list, their eyes widened in excitement. “We saw four of the five! Only the leopard eluded us. But we were fortunate that we saw all that we did!” They went on to tell us that a lady in their group insisted on wearing her leopard-print dress, despite the discouragement from their guides to not wear any kind of prints out in the bush. They were convinced this was why they did not see any actual leopards. Now, whether or not this was true is a topic of debate!
Nevertheless, this intrigued me; the fact that you were well advised to wear clothing only of a certain hue, or risk scaring away the native wildlife. It made me wonder how I would dress for such an adventure. And it made me realize how much travel can open your eyes. You wouldn’t think that a chance conversation with fellow travelers would dictate what you would wear to such an epic journey as going on safari.
A Brief History of Safari Wear
Safari wear has its roots in British military uniforms made of lightweight, poplin material. The British troops wore poplin during the India occupation, as the climate was hot and sticky. When the elite went on safari 100 years ago, this translated into smart-looking, lightweight shirts and trousers for the lads. For the ladies, a stylish safari dress with large military pockets and cinch belt was the sensible and fashionable thing to wear. Wide-brimmed hats were worn by both sexes.
In the early to mid-1900’s, Hollywood was a big influence on what people wore on safari with movies such as ‘King Solomon’s Mines.’ Bush jackets and oversized coats and capes dominated the safari wardrobe.
Safari clothing today consists of lightweight, breathable fabrics in neutral colors. Cotton is king! Colors to wear include khakis, light greens, browns, and blues. It’s what the rangers call ‘bush colors.’ Wear NOTHING bright or glaring. Other breathable fabrics include hemp, synthetic material, and poplin. These also minimize noise while walking. Wearing white is not advised as it is also a glaring color for the wildlife to spot. While out on the prairie, you want to blend into the scenery and not be noticed. You are, after all, there to observe them, not for them to observe you!
Wearing prints is highly discouraged. Camouflage may be fashionable in other parts of the world (and many camo prints have neutral colors), but here in Africa, camouflage is reserved only for military personnel. It will deter the wildlife, and you don’t want that! Wearing dark blues or blacks is another no-no; it will attract tsetse flies in certain areas.
For the hot, sticky days there are sure to be mosquitos. Malaria is an issue at Kruger and KwaZulu Natal in the north. Wearing long sleeve shirts with collar and trousers (and mosquito repellent) will solve this problem. The best style of trousers are the ones with the big pockets, to store small items such as compact binoculars, and sunscreen. Those parachute pants will NEVER be out of style in the bush!
Early mornings and after dusk will bring chilly temperatures, so a lightweight jacket with a hood is ideal. The temperatures in the bush can vary greatly from early morning to mid-day, so dress in layers. It does rain occasionally in most areas, especially in the Cape, so a water-resistant jacket is needed. Safaris held in June and July will be colder, prompting heavier jackets, hats, gloves, and scarves.
A wide-brimmed hat is essential for those mid-afternoon when the sun seems to single you out and its rays hit you square on. The wide brim will not only shield your eyes but protect the back of your neck, which tends to be the most sunburnt area on the entire body. Polarized sunglasses will ward off the glare.
A good pair of walking shoes or hiking boots is essential. Depending on the type of safari, you will either be in the vehicle most of the time or do a fair bit of hiking. Again, these should be of neutral colors. Don’t wear those neon walking shoes that seem to be the going trend nowadays!
Back at the lodge after your safari, you will not need to dress up for dinner. Stick with the neutral color theme, but switch to clean, crisp linens and other smart fabrics. Most lodges and resorts are very casual.
Have fun and enjoy your trip!