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What Type of Luggage to Choose for Your African Safari
After perfecting the art of packing the right clothes for the right destination, spending years honing my skills to travel as light as possible, and circumventing (ridiculous) fluid restrictions as far as reasonably possible, I’ve come to understand, that the single most important part of African travel is having a suitable bag.
It doesn’t help if you’re a wizard at folding clothes into wrinkle-free, super-flat, and even more super-organized piles if the bag you put everything in is a complete dinosaur and should have been put out to pasture in the Cretaceous.
And all that skillful arrangement of carefully weighed clothes and cosmetics comes to naught if your bag tips the scales toward more than King Kong with the Empire State Building in his left hand and a distressed blonde in his right!
So. Luggage is the key to successful, stress-free bush travel. Right? Well, it certainly has its role to play.
The eternal conundrum I face is whether I should go to the high end luggage store and shell out a lot of money on a super efficient, light as possible, all singing, all dancing designer brand or go for the cheapest and crappiest piece of luggage I can claim at the local supermarket. The reason I ask this question is because when you travel as much as I do, you quickly realize that airline baggage controllers don’t distinguish between designer brands and don’t care about price tags – your bags will be completely stuffed regardless of whether you have paid a small fortune for them or got them in the bargain bin for less than the price.
So the question that really needs to be asked is “will my bag handle the stress of modern air travel?” In my opinion, there are two answers to that: “rarely” and “only on a good day”.
First, let’s assume that your bag arrives at the same destination as you do, on the same flight as you do. These days, many major airlines seem to have trouble routing bags to the right place at the right time. So always be grateful when you see your bag on the carousel, provided of course there is a carousel at your destination airport! And a word to the wise, many international safari destination airports don’t have carousels, but jolly men who literally toss your suitcases through small holes in walls on either the floor or rough-hewn tabletops.
Your bag, when you wave it goodbye when you check in at your usually first-world departure airport, will be treated like a bag of potatoes by the majority of people who handle it from that moment on, whether they are first, second, third world or aliens!
Be warned – fragile stickers will not work. I’ve lost count of the number of times my “fragile” bag has ended up upside down and smashed on a carousel or at the bottom of a huge, dangerously wobbly pile of luggage in the back of a tractor and trailer. Nothing works except pure luck and the possibility that the person handling your bag has some vague idea that its contents are actually of value.
So. It is not wise to spend hundreds or thousands on Louis Vuitton’s finest or the very latest Antler miracle. I tried the cheap and cheerful approach, but found myself buying stock at the local “el cheapo” luggage store, so I decided to go for a good, middle-of-the-road bag – the “iSpot” duffel bag range from Travelite.
The first thing to consider on most safari trips where small planes are involved as connecting flights is that a) they usually have a weight limit of around 15kg and b) require soft, squishy bags that can be squeezed into small rooms, not massive, stainless steel megalodons filled with everything except the kitchen sink!
My iSpots are soft, relatively light and have a built-in wheel handle, which means that I don’t always have to look around for a trolley. Their zippers are hidden and all have locking facilities on them (so many lightweight bags only have locking docks on their main zips and not on side pockets, which annoys me!).
They are robust, durable and roomy enough for two week trips or small enough for a few days here and there.
Fully packed, I rarely exceed 15kg on my main bag and take a backpack with me for cameras, binos, netbook and in-flight necessities. Despite this, my primary iSpot luggage bag, which cost me more than R1500 (about €150 or $200), has been replaced three times in the last two years by three different airlines, thanks to being damaged by baggage handling.
So once you’ve got a light, squishy, durable, sturdy enough and roomy enough bag, it’s really just a matter of time before it gets damaged by an airline or its handlers.
Apart from that, the volume of your bag needs to be taken into account. My large duffel has a capacity of 71 litres, which is about average. There are some excellent duffels out there, especially those designed for diving or adventure, which offer more space, but remember that a tightly packed soft bag is better than a loosely packed one because it prevents your belongings from rolling around and getting damaged, and your cosmetics or bathing bag from having a bang and leaking the contents over your clothes.
A wet bag is a good idea for cosmetics and I always take the extra precaution of placing it in a regular supermarket bag and tying the handles to prevent unwanted spillage.
I decant things like shampoo and moisturizer into small containers or buy them in small bottles to start with (the Body Shop for example has some great little bottles of products that are ideal for travel).
At the end of the day, your choice of bag is peculiar to you and your needs, what you want to put in it, and where you’re going. Whether you spend a lot of money on it or not, just make sure it’s secure with proper locks or, failing that, cable ties. Never put anything of value in it (jewelry, cameras, computers, cell phones, etc.) and if it is damaged by an airline’s baggage handling, make sure you stand up for your rights and have it either repaired or replaced.
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