An African safari has a high priority on many people’s life “to do” lists, but safaris are consistently portrayed as being for able-bodied outdoor enthusiasts. However, safaris and other adventure activities for disabled people and those with limited mobility are a rapidly growing market, and there are more options now than ever. Even so, the decision to go on safari is significantly easier than trying to sort through all the information available and planning your itinerary. If you are a special needs traveler, or a family member or friend of a special needs traveler, there are a number of things to consider before and during the planning process.
Assessing Your Needs
Not all disabled or special needs travelers have the same needs, and it is important to be mindful of your unique situation as you research safari holidays, travel, and accommodation. Travelers with limited mobility will not have the same requirements as people that are vision or hearing impaired. Many tour operators, like Endeavor Safaris, offer a variety of trips to multiple locations and of varying duration for people with a variety of special needs, and your trip can be tailor-made for you, even down to a private departure.
For travelers with limited mobility and similar disabilities, there are an increasing number of safari operators to meet your needs, whether you require the use of a cane, walker, manual wheelchair, or are permanently confined to a power chair. When planning your trip, it is essential that you ensure you can be accommodated every step of the way. The vehicles used to transport you to the site and during the course of the safari should be accessible to you. Many operators offer safari vehicles fitted with hydraulic lifts, which are useful for people with a variety of mobility issues, not just wheelchairs. Additionally, many operators have vehicles with a wheelchair locking system that allows travelers to remain in their chair or transfer out of it. Some operators, even offer a personal caretaker for those travelers that have more specific medical needs, and can even provide power wheelchairs and commodes should the need arise.
For those travelers with extremely limited mobility, it is important to assess your needs concerning hygiene and sitting/sleeping. Most lodging in Africa will not have wheelchair accessible bathrooms, so to make the most of your trip you will have to be somewhat flexible. Bathing is often the biggest adjustment for any Western traveler, and facilities will likely be primitive on safari, if not completely non-existent. Bed or bucket baths may be the only thing available, so you may feel more comfortable traveling with someone that can assist you. Travelers with limited mobility may also have issues with pressure wounds, so you will need to take into consideration the types of accommodations available and plan accordingly if you need cushions or inflatable mattresses.
Since traditional safaris are very much visually oriented, visually impaired travelers have a unique set of needs. Operators that cater to the visually impaired try to use a traveler’s other senses to recreate aspects of the experience that they may otherwise miss, and these safaris are often quite different from a standard safari. Operators attempt to interpret the experience in the most accurate way possible by using descriptive, detailed explanations to paint a picture of the traveler’s surroundings, especially when it comes to wildlife sightings. There are often opportunities on safari to exit the vehicle, and in places where it is safe to do so, travelers can exit the vehicle to touch and smell things to enhance their experience. In fact, visually impaired travelers may get a more holistic experience than those travelers on that rely solely on vision.
It is important to mention the use of guide dogs. Regulations put in place in order to prevent the spread of disease between animals (and people) prohibit bringing outside animals into national parks, including guide dogs. They pose the potential danger of attracting predators, and some people are also opposed to putting an animal through a long international flight. However, if visually impaired travelers listen to the guide and have human assistance, they are at no greater risk on safari than any other time.
Deaf or otherwise hearing impaired travelers also have special needs to consider. While it is possible for tour operators to help you arrange for a sign language interpreter, this can be a costly option since this is a service that may not be readily available. Since many travelers go on safari with family or friends anyway, a family member or friend that is traveling with you that can act as an interpreter may be the most economical option.
Special accommodations can even be made for people with other needs, like those needing the use of an oxygen tank, or even people currently undergoing kidney dialysis. Endeavor Safaris can easily facilitate people requiring the use of oxygen tanks, and they offer a unique safari opportunity for those travelers on dialysis – their tours are centered around dialysis centers throughout South Africa, the quality of which should be approximately comparable to the care you are used to receiving at home.
For many people, disabled or otherwise, having some sort of in-country assistance is absolutely essential, whether you are traveling alone or your disability necessitates traveling with friends or family members. It can be very beneficial to have someone local to help with in-country travel arrangements and other bureaucratic issues and, if you are in a place where English or your primary language is not widely spoken, your local guide can serve as a translator. You will have to coordinate this aspect of your trip in advance, and there can be some drawbacks, namely that you may not know much about your guide. It is important to communicate as much as possible prior to your trip so you know what to expect from your guide. On the other hand, a tour operator may be willing to help coordinate a guide for you – these guides are generally reliable and have worked in this capacity before. Hiring a guide can also be cheap, given the strength of western currencies versus African currencies and the standard of living in the country(s) you will be visiting.
Additionally, you will need to make sure that everyone you will be working with throughout your trip, from airlines to tour operators, is aware of your specific needs. This can be especially true for people with impaired mobility, and is very important on international flights given their duration. You will also want to be sure to bring any equipment that you will need with you, including tools for wheelchairs and the proper supplies for people using catheters, especially since access to hospitals and clinics and the quality of care abroad is often not at the same standard you may be used to at home. Medications should be labeled with your name and relevant information, and it may be a good idea to bring copies of your prescription, just in case. Be sure to pack essentials in your carry on luggage in the event that your checked bag(s) is lost.
As you begin planning your trip, assess your personal health needs, and consider some of the common concerns shared by disabled travelers abroad when you begin investigating the specifics, including lack of wheelchair accessible airport transfers, vehicles, and lodging. Other concerns include a lack of professional staff equipped to deal with the unique needs of disabled people and a lack of information concerning accessibility in certain places of interest.
The Safari Experience
Now that you know what to expect as a disabled traveler on safari, what is a safari actually like? Regardless of the cost of your safari holiday or the type of traveler you are, most safaris follow a similar format to maximize on your experience.
For most travelers, the safari will begin on the first full day since, in many cases, the first day of your travels within a country will be dedicated to getting to the park or reserve. There may also be a briefing on what to expect during the days ahead, and most travelers will appreciate a night to recover from all the traveling. Food and accommodations will depend on what you have arranged for your trip, but travelers staying at a lodge operated by a park or traveling with a safari operator will generally be provided with three meals a day. An important thing to remember is that a lodge or camp may effectively have a “curfew,” or a time by which travelers must be in their respective lodgings. There are a few reasons for this. Many lodges operate off of a generator, which can be expensive and also goes against the “green” experience that many people prefer.
If “lights out” is at 10pm, you will need to be inside and have the majority of your nighttime routine completed – this is especially important for travelers with disabilities that may require a little more time. Additionally, this curfew serves as a safety measure, since animals in the park have free range, and some animals may be more active at night. At Mikumi National Park in Tanzania, visitors are warned about lions that may potentially sleep on the porches of the cabins.
Days on safari can start very early, though your individual itinerary may vary based on your wants and needs. Many safaris will do a morning game drive between 6 and 6:30 am local time – this is a time at which wildlife is very active, and it is a good time to be out before temperatures rise. Game drives can last for a few hours but, again, your experience may vary based on your needs. Breakfast is generally served before the morning game drive, and lunch will be served afterward. A second game drive generally takes place in the afternoon and lasts until sunset – many parks have a rule that requires those out on game drives to return before sundown. By timing the game drives this way, you generally avoid being out during peak temperatures.
The above information assumes that you will be doing your safari in one park; many operators offer safaris that will take you to multiple parks. In this case, you may participate in a morning game drive followed by a meal at one park, then spend the afternoon traveling to another park (or another area, if the park is exceptionally large).
Sometimes, it may be possible to do a game drive on the way to your next destination.
Local and International Support for Disabled Travelers
For any traveler, it is important to know where you stand in any foreign country that you visit. As a visitor, it is expected that you will adhere to culturally accepted standards of behavior – this includes adhering to all laws in a given country. It is important to remember that should you need outside help, your country’s embassy or consulate is generally your only lifeline and, in certain situations, that may not be able (or will not, in some situations) to help you. Before you travel, make sure to find out the information for your country’s embassy or consulate, and record it in several locations. Additionally, keep some copies of your passport on hand in the event that it is lost.
This can be used in a pinch at ForEx bureaus, and it will help you get an emergency passport from your embassy or consulate. It is also a good idea to photocopy any boarding passes prior to your trip.
The above should not discourage you, but it is important to recognize that there is simply very little support for foreign tourists, disabled or otherwise, in developing countries. Support is slightly better in South Africa, but not by much; there is a National Information and Safety Line that can be reached at +27 83 123 2345, but most countries lack even this basic service. One of the best ways you can protect yourself abroad is to do your research – look for operators with good reputations and a strong online presence. Additionally, you can also look for safari companies that operate out of the United States or your home country. These companies can help you communicate with embassies and consulates in country, and often have a link back to your home country in case of emergency. In-country operators may also offer repatriation to your home country.
These are all services that you need to research heavily and find out about for yourself – don’t rely on second-hand information. Other organizations may be available to help travelers abroad, but this may require heavy location-specific research before you depart. Transitions Abroad (http://www.transitionsabroad.com/listings/living/resources/healthandsafety.shtml) is a good place to start – this page lists a variety of travel health and safety tips, including government agencies and other bodies that may be able to assist you in-country or remotely.
Choosing the Safari Lodge
Choosing your safari lodge can be one of the most important aspects of your trip abroad – travelers will obviously have different desires and expectations, and it is important to find something that caters to the type of accommodations you want while still being accessible.
Safari accommodations vary greatly – you can stay in a cabin or bungalow-type building at the safari lodge, or you can stay in a tent at a proper camp. High end safaris offer “fly camping,” where you fly from campsite to campsite between game drives, and the camping facilities are often nicer than you may find in some safari lodges with brick-and-mortar accommodations. While you may prefer a more rustic experience, as a disabled traveler it is important to recognize the limitations that certain forms of accommodation may offer. Accessibility will be most travelers’ number one priority – wheel chair maneuverability and bed height are two things that you will want to inquire about while you plan your trip, especially if there is limited online information about accessibility at a given lodge or camp.
Many camps will run a generator at least part of the time – this is especially important for people using power chairs or other electronic medical equipment. You will be able to use the power from the generator to charge batteries, but remember to bring a plug and/or voltage adapter that is compatible with whatever equipment you will be charging. This is something you will likely be bringing with you anyway if you plan to use a camera, so check compatibility with all electronics. A good guide to adapters specifically for disabled travelers for use in international outlets can be found here: http://www.miusa.org/ncde/tipsheets/powerchairs.
Toilet and bathing facilities may be another issue for disabled travelers. This was briefly addressed in the “Assessing Your Needs” section, and while it may not seem like that big of a deal, for some travelers the bathroom facilities could make or break your experience. If you choose to camp, bathing options will be primitive – most likely a bucket shower and a chemical toilet. While primitive, these facilities should be readily available in your tent, so you won’t have to go outside at night. Safari lodges may have more traditional amenities, including a flush toilet (or composting toilet) and an overhead shower, though the availability of hot water may be questionable. Again, if you are looking for a certain kind of facility, be sure to inquire prior to departure to insure that your needs will be met.
The equipment and supplies required by a disabled traveler will vary from person to person, and the section on assessing your needs can help you identify some items you may require as a traveler that you may not have otherwise considered. While bringing equipment you are familiar and comfortable with is always the best option, if you are going to rely on equipment provided by your lodge or other provider in-country, be sure to personally check what equipment will be available for you to use – don’t just rely on information available online.
Having said that, there are some products that may be helpful to you as a disabled traveler abroad. One good thing for travelers, disabled or otherwise, is a travel pouch. The PUP pouch is designed for disabled travelers and has large, easily accessible zippered compartments for holding your passport, currency, and other documents. The PUP is available at http://www.lovemypup.com. Another item that may be useful in your travels is a portable handle to help you sit and stand. You will want to inquire about your accommodations to see if the wall surfaces will be suitable to affix a handle. Check out a variety of portable handles at http://www.grabitonline.com.
For those that will not have access to a wheelchair at their destination but may require one or want one that is more portable than the chair they use at home, there are portable wheelchairs available. A good choice for many travelers is a “wheelchair in a bag.” While these chairs may have a lower weight capacity (under 250 pounds), they are often much more portable than your every day chair, weighing less than 18 pounds. The chair can be transported in a bag over your shoulder, or the shoulder of someone you’re traveling with. Check out http://www.medicalforyou.com for some portable chair options.
Portable chairs for showering and using the bathroom are also a worthwhile investment. Bathroom facilities are often very primitive, especially on safari, and it may be difficult for you to use the facilities “as is.” Portable chairs designed for use in the shower and the bathroom will make your experience infinitely more comfortable. There are a variety of styles available, so you should shop around to find a chair that will meet your needs. Check out http://www.viennamedical.com to get started.
Below is a list of some of the most prominent Internet resources on African travel and safaris for disabled people.
Able Travel. http://www.able-travel.com/index.php Able travel is a site intended “to make adventure travel…easier for people with disabilities, including seniors and those with temporary limited mobility.” The site offers country-specific resources, including resources for Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, and Zambia. Able Travel also offers a variety of travel tips for disabled travelers, as well as first-hand accounts of safari holidays by disabled travelers – these can be a great resource for finding handicap-accessible locations that it may not be possible to find elsewhere on the web.
Access Africa. http://www.access-africa.co.uk/main.html# Access Africa is a site for people with limited mobility that is run by the same people that put out Bradt travel guides. The site offers endless options in Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Namibia, Botswana, and South Africa – many are safari-related, others are not.
Disabled World – African Safari Travel Tips http://www.disabled-world.com/travel/africa/african-safari-tips.php This feature is part of the Disabled World website, and provides a rundown of basic tips for your trip, from passports and visas to travel insurance and safety. This page also has related links to experiences by other disabled travelers.
Disabled World – Disability Travel. http://www.disabled-world.com/travel/ This is a short feature on the Disabled World website about things for disabled travelers and their family and friends to consider before and during the planning process.
Disabled World – Tour Operators. http://www.disabledtravelers.com/tour_operators.htm#africa This is a list provided by Disabled World of accessible tour operators around the world, including their websites and contact information.
DPTAC – Door to Door. http://www.dptac.gov.uk/door-to-door/13/index.htm This resource provides a variety of information on disabled travel, as well as outside links on all aspects of travel, from choosing accommodations and medical preparation.
East Africa Shuttles – Kenya Wildlife Wheelchair Safari http://www.eastafricashuttles.com/kenyasafaridisabled/handicappedsafaris.htm This page provides information on a seven-day, wheelchair accessible wildlife safari in Kenya. This is a small group safari, staffed by individuals that have experience worked with disabled travelers. This site provides a sample itinerary, as well as a description of accommodations.
Emerging Horizons. http://emerginghorizons.com/ Emerging Horizons is an online resource for disabled travelers. The site provides general travel tips and resources pertaining to accessibility, as well as links to other publications specializing in disabled travel.
Gimp on the Go. http://www.gimponthego.com/index.htm Gimp on the Go bills itself as the Internet’s premier disabilities travel publication. This well-organized site offers travel tips and reviews, as well as a bulletin board for travelers to interact with each other, as well as links to other resource geared towards disabled travelers.
Mobility International USA. http://www.miusa.org/ncde/tipsheets/powerchairs This site provides a guide on electrical adapters, converters and transformers for international travel with power wheelchairs and other electrical devices. Safari Guide Africa also has an article that can help here.
Society for Accessible Travel and Hospitality (SATH). http://www.sath.org/index.php This is the homepage for the Society for Accessible Travel and Hospitality. They provide a variety of information for disabled travel, including accessibility reviews and information on various events that SATH participates in, as well as contact information.
Transitions Abroad – Health, Safety and Insurance for Travelers and Expatriates Abroad http://www.transitionsabroad.com/listings/living/resources/healthandsafety.shtml This site is a good resource for health and safety information, including government agencies and other bodies that may be able to assist you during your travels, either remotely or in-country.
Victoria Safaris – Disability Tours. http://www.victoriasafaris.com/africa/disabilitytours.htm Victoria Safaris offers some disability-friendly safari opportunities, especially for those in wheelchairs. This site offers basic information on traveling with disabilities, as well as links to their accessible programs.
World on Wheelz. http://worldonwheelz.com/ World on Wheelz specializes in travel for “wheelchair users, slow walkers, and seniors with special needs.” They offer both group and independent travel, and their site provides a variety of accessible safari opportunities in multiple countries of varying duration, complete with sample itineraries to find a trip that best suits your wants and needs. They also provide a number of travel opportunities in other places around the world.