One of the greatest feats of driving skill I’ve ever witnessed was during a torrential rainstorm just outside Kenya’s famous Maasai Mara National Park. Our guides woke us around five in the morning, warning that we needed to pack up immediately. In a few hours, the bridges would be washed out.

Over the next few hours, I watched as the nerdy guide who had enthusiastically showed us lilac-breasted rollers, flawlessly negotiated a succession of bridges flooded by the rushing Mara River. At times the water sloshed up to the windows of our minivan, and I couldn’t see the tarmac below. It was exciting, but never once did I feel in danger.

That experience sums up the contemporary safari: exciting but rarely life threatening. The meaning of the term safari has changed with the times, and so have safaris themselves.

Two giraffes fightingTwo giraffes fighting  (Ecopoint/Shutterstock)

The word safari comes from the Arabic word safar, or journey, and dates back hundreds of years to the Arab occupation of the East African coast. During the early safaris, Arab traders hired guides from the Swahili coast to help them follow game trails inland. Their goal was transporting “commodities” — ivory, spices, and the humans they kidnapped and enslaved — back to their sailing ships.

In the early twentieth century, safaris became the pastime of colonialists like the legendary Lord Delamere (Kenya’s largest landowner), Isak Dinesen and hunters like Theodore Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway. Hunters used the knowledge of native trackers and gun-bearers to bag their prey before repairing to their damask tablecloths, Victrolas and champagne.

Today most safaris are expeditions for tourists to marvel at wildlife and take pictures of animals rather than shoot them. They run the gamut, from backpacker-style treks to luxury expeditions, and they’re offered in many African countries, from Kenya and Tanzania to Zimbabwe and Namibia.

While many safari companies are still run by white Africans, the outfit that brought me to the Mara was one of an increasing number owned and operated by native Africans reclaiming their heritage as outdoorspeople. And whether they are white or black, most safari operators consider it an essential part of their business strategy to work with local communities, using revenues from travelers to build schools and clinics and preserve nature on the continent.

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Africa remains an exciting place to travel. While the dangers are often exaggerated, there are realistic precautions that every newcomer should think about when preparing for a safari.

8 Tips for a safari njema (cool safari)

Always hire a guide or take an organized safari. The American idea of adventure is to wander off by yourself, but this isn’t a good idea in Africa. You’ll learn more, save money and avoid waking up at three a.m. in a wet sleeping bag if you take a safari or employ a local guide. Many countries, including Kenya and Tanzania, require that tour guides be licensed. Find out how it works in the country you’re visiting and choose a licensed guide or well-established tour company.

Rhino seen from a safari truck in KenyaRhino near a safari truck (Photo: Lorimer Images/Shutterstock)

Don’t get up close and personal to the animals. In many African countries, it is illegal to get out of your vehicle in national parks. . This isn’t just to keep you safe, but to prevent the animals from getting accustomed to human beings. When a wild animal is “habituated” it is more likely to frequent populated areas, and perhaps attack someone. The result? A park ranger will be ordered to kill the animal because it poses a danger. Keep the windows rolled up, too: An enterprising monkey or baboon can find its way in.

It should go without saying, but never tease or otherwise provoke an animal, even from the “safety” of the safari vehicle. Don’t clap to get its attention or mimic the sounds it’s making. Just be quiet and revel in the chance to observe.

Some tourists prefer a safari in Botswana, which allows off-road driving and the chance to sleep out in the open with only a tent between you and the lions and other wildlife . If you are bringing children, they’ll be safer on a safari with more protections. Although it’s rare, safari campers and visitors in Botswana are much more likely to be killed by wild animals than safari-goers in other African countries.

Resist the urge to take a swim. There’s a reason the locals aren’t there: Many lakes and rivers are teeming with crocodiles. In addition, the peaceful-looking hippos onshore are dangerous. They charge when they feel threatened or frightened, and they could crush you in their hurry to get back in the water.

Read up on safari etiquette. Good safari etiquette includes everything from not yakking on your cell phone during a safari or using devices that “ping” and annoy other passengers to not waving at the animals (it could incite them to charge).

Prevent malaria. This potentially life-threatening disease is widespread in Africa, so consult with your doctor about preventive medications before you go. None are 100 percent effective, though, so also use physical barriers: lightweight, long-sleeved shirts and trousers in the early mornings and evenings when the Anopheles mosquitoes that carry malaria are active.

Your other mantra: repellent, repellent, repellent. Many veteran travelers spray their clothing with a fairly benign insect repellent/insecticide containing permethrin available from pest control stores or travel websites. (It’s only for use on fabrics.) For use on the skin, DEET remains the most effective chemical protection against mosquitos, so stock up on a repellent that contains it.

Elephant seen from a tour busElephant seen from a tour bus (Photo: Andrei Kubik/Shutterstock) 

Don’t walk around camp barefoot. Wear socks and shoes whenever you’re strolling around. Africa has a lot of snakes and scorpions who will strike if they feel threatened.

Avoid food poisoning. Worried about Ebola, Lassa, river blindness, sleeping sickness or the other myriad scary-sounding illnesses we’ve seen in Hollywood thrillers or in the headlines? You’re far more likely to come down with food poisoning. Travel doctors recommend a daily dose of acidophilus or Pepto-Bismol in tablet form as a preventative.

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If you fall ill upon your return to an African city, be sure to find an infectious disease specialist. Early diagnosis of malaria or other tropical sicknesses is key, and Africa is full of well-trained doctors who see tropical diseases every day.

On those days before and after your safari, you may want to tour Africa’s vibrant cities, which are well worth visiting. Street crime in many African cities is no worse than in their American counterparts, but do remain in safe neighborhoods. If you are in a dodgy area, stay alert. And use your judgment, just as you would do in the U.S.

People you meet are likely to be friendly and welcoming. Time is not at a premium, and if you ask directions, someone will probably lead you to where you are going rather than draw you a map. Sometimes your guides might want a tip, but based on my experience, this is only if they need it. Otherwise they are likely to smile, wave off your proffered cash — and tell you they were happy to help.

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Susan Suleman is a freelance writer who divides her time between the United States and Africa.