Traveler Interview: Why These Safari-Goers Think WiFi-Free is the Best Way to Safari

When Ben Amis and James Poppell met EJ Co-founder Elizabeth Gordon at a party in Brooklyn several years ago, they knew it was serendipity. They struck up a conversation about wanting to plan their first safari and could tell right away that Elizabeth was the right person for the job.

That first trip several years ago included a Kilimanjaro hike, a safari, and a stay on Zanzibar. In early 2019, they had an opportunity to safari again with Ben’s family. Both trips were amazing, but they noted a key difference between the two: access to WiFi.

Here, Ben and James share their experience of safaris with and without WiFi—and why they feel it’s essential to disconnect.

The First Safari - No WiFi

You didn’t have much access to WiFi on your first safari. What was that like?

Ben:

It was a tent camp, and I think there was a tiny pool of WiFi that you really had to go out of your way to get to. The access wasn't terribly reliable, even in the main tent.

James:

It definitely was not in our sleeping tents.

It might've just been the type of travelers that were surrounding us, but I don't really recall anyone looking for the internet.

Apart from being able to leave the digital world behind, what did you love about that first safari? How did it feel?

Ben:

I think the first thing that you noticed was just how remote it was. I think we took a plane to Arusha and then a smaller plane. Ours was the third or fourth stop on the small plane, on a dirt runway in the middle of nowhere. And then it was another three or four hour drive.

We didn't see another car or human being or structure until we got to the tent camp. It's hard to believe how remote and disconnected things can still be. Driving out there and seeing nature and the animals, you realize there’s an entire different world that is going on without you and apart from you.

a wrinkly mother elephant and her calf cross a grassy plain under a bright blue sky dotted with clouds
The original social network © Ben Amis & James Poppell

James:

In all our travels, it's the place that has felt the most completely different. It's not like being in Sydney or Hong Kong, which just feels like a different version of New York or San Francisco. It's completely different. It takes your breath away and brings a new sense of just how big the world is.

I think one thing that really surprised me about our safari was just how quickly you see the animals. I thought going into it that it would be like, “okay, today we're going on safari, and we’re going to try to find zebras or giraffes…” I didn't realize that immediately out of the bush plane and into the vehicle, you are on safari with beautiful animals surrounding you. It was overwhelming.

a cheetah sits on a mound of dirt in the savannah with its back turned to the camera; its cub peers around the parent curiously
Oh, hello there! © Ben Amis & James Poppell

What was the biggest highlight (or two) of your experience?

James:

We’ve been lucky on both our safaris. On the first trip, it was just me and Ben, the driver, and our spotter. On the second safari, it was similar, but we were just with our family. We loved the intimacy of that—not being in a giant bus or in a big group. And it’s really on your own time and terms.

Even on this last safari, we would sit and watch a certain pack of animals for an hour or 90 minutes. You're just sitting there quiet, peaceful. There’s no internet or cell service. All you can do is enjoy nature—the beautiful birds and animals—and there's nothing else to do.

There’s a peaceful feeling of contentment because you don't have a choice. By doing that, after a day or two, you really can just completely disconnect and push pause on what's happening back at work or whatever it may be.

And then, to be able to come back to these camps! The accommodations are beautiful, and you're greeted with a gin and tonic, and it's comfortable. It’s otherworldly. The charm is indescribable.

two men and an older woman sit together at an outdoor meal, the table spread with a brightly woven cloth, dishes of fresh vegetables, and wine
A delicious meal to end the day’s adventures © Ben Amis & James Poppell

Ben:

On our first safari, summiting Kilimanjaro was absolutely amazing. It's not a very comfortable experience, but it's beautiful. You’re literally walking through glaciers at the highest point in Africa.

There can be a certain repetitiveness to safaris, you know, seeing giraffes for the fifth day in a row. But on both safaris, we saw some animals hunting, which is so exciting. Seeing any of the animals alone is amazing, but when you see a cheetah or a lion chasing down a meal, it’s pretty incredible to watch.

And if you go to Tanzania, the other place we haven’t mentioned is Gibb's Farm, which was one of the most incredible places we've ever been. I would definitely try to do at least a couple of nights there.

James:

Absolutely. That's a good way to finish being out on a game drive, having those outdoor showers. A great place to end a safari.

What about your experience without WiFi surprised you or exceeded your expectations?

Ben:

You do disconnect after a while. Once it's not there, you sort of don’t think about it. It's nice, resting a part of your brain that you kind of forget about when you're not connected to it.

And when we were in the communal tent, we were just interacting with everybody. I specifically remember on our first trip, every single night you’d come back to camp, sit around the fire with everybody, and share your stories of what you did that day. You’d talk about where you're from. It was a very international crowd. There were probably other Americans there, but everybody was from everywhere. That was actually one of the highlights of the trip, the communal dining, just hanging out, seeing people from all over the world, and sharing your experiences.

James:

Technology really has advanced in the four or five years between our trips. On this most recent trip, for Ben’s mom and sister-in-law, their primary mode of taking photos was with their brand new iPhones, which take incredible photos. But that just lacks a certain… it doesn't fit the experience. I didn’t even want to see phones in the vehicle.

Without the internet and without uploading or posting on Twitter or whatever, you're left to either sit and reflect and enjoy what's around you or engage with the people around you. You don't have the choice to be distracted by something in your hand.

The Second Safari - With WiFi

How did access to WiFi affect your second safari?

Ben:

I think we felt it most in the communal experience where you come back at the end of the day.

On our first safari, we remember sitting around the fire and having a gin and tonic and just chatting. And that would be the evening.

On the second safari, you'd come back to the communal tent where they did have the WiFi, and the vast majority of people would be staring at a screen. We’d go sit by the fire, and often, it was just the two of us. To be fair, I’m sure we pulled out our phones at some point, but we really didn't interact with the other guests as much as on the first safari. And it just felt a little harder to disconnect when everybody's uploading photos and sharing things—and not really focusing on meeting the people who are there or being present in the moment.

James:

The only social media Ben and I really use is Instagram, and we really value our time to disconnect wherever we are. I know everyone's different when it comes to that spectrum. But when we’re on safari, and we're the only two sitting around the fire pit, watching the sunset—and you turn behind you and see 20 people all staring at their phones, you're just like, “What?!?” You've traveled around the world to this incredible place. And it's run on solar energy! The fact that it even has WiFi is mind-blowing.

I really wanted people to be more engaged with the surroundings and the other people—and just take a break from the internet.

It's going to be there when you get home. And like I said, if you can go online in your own tent, and we don't have to be a witness to it, I think that's one thing. But it just seemed to be so present in the communal tent.

There were instances where Ben and I and his dad would be on one end of the tent, having drinks before dinner, and down at the other end where all the electrical outlets were, there’d be a mass of people, including some of our family members. I kept thinking, “It’s time to be together. It's not time to be posting.” It was disheartening because we were there, but they weren’t engaging with us.

Is WiFi on Safari the Right Choice for Everyone?

If a property does offer WiFi, where should it be accessible?

Ben:

I'm a physician, and I have patients who might have emergencies. I obviously can't deal with them, but I try to spend 10 minutes a day checking in with my office. Having that ability is really nice. But when you're in the common area, it’s nice to be able to say it's not even an option.

James:

I agree. In the room is ideal. I don't know if it's feasible, but if a camp could say, “Okay, WiFi is only going to be available between these hours,” that would be nice. I would be way more inclined to go to a camp that did have limits on WiFi access—or no access at all. The constant WiFi all the time was just not a great experience.

One morning over breakfast, we realized that during the previous day there wasn't enough sunlight for the solar panels, so there was no electricity in the camp—and, subsequently, no WiFi. You could see the panic on people’s faces, but then you move on, you know? You sit down and read a book!

Ben:

To James's point, there's a certain set of people who think they have to have WiFi, which, as a physician, I can agree with.

But we went on another trip a couple of years ago to the Grand Canyon where we were in the canyon for a week rafting. I was really worried that I was going to miss out and there would be some emergency that I wouldn't be able to address. But I was committed to the trip. So the phone went into a bag that we didn't see for a full week.

Within about 24 hours, I forgot about it. I was a little panicked coming back to my email, but I didn't miss out on anything, and it was a good lesson for me just to realize that the world will go on. It's invaluable for your brain on those trips to get that mental break for even just a week or a few days.

How would you advise fellow travelers who are concerned about the impact of WiFi on their travels?

James:

The question of WiFi should definitely be discussed during safari planning because if you want to be around it all the time with a group of people that also wants to be around it, there should be a box to check for how connected you want to be.

I’d advise travelers that you might be on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Africa. Embrace it as much as you can. Be present and enjoy the engagement with fellow travelers.

On our last safari, it was a very international crowd; everybody was from everywhere. Not only did the conversation have to do with present-day Africa and what we did that day, but where else have you been in the world? Where did you go last year? It was so cool to hear what other people were doing.

I just can't imagine traveling all that distance and not trying to be as fully present as possible.

5 Tips for Planning a Safari Without WiFi

Quality time with Grandpa © Ben Amis & James Poppell
  1. If traveling with a group, discuss WiFi access with your companions to find an arrangement that is agreeable to everyone.
  2. In the initial planning stages, discuss with your Safari Specialist how much access to WiFi you’d like to have.
  3. If you opt for some WiFi, consider how your experience might differ whether you have access in private spaces, communal areas, or both.
  4. Communicate to your travel companions how much it matters to you that they be present and enjoy the moment with you. Leading with vulnerability can make this conversation easier than you’d think!
  5. If cell phones are the primary mode for taking photos in your group, consider bringing along a high-quality camera instead to avoid the temptation to connect and post online in real-time. The photos will be there when you get home!

Suggested Itinerary

If Ben and James’s travels inspired you to choose a WiFi-free (or limited-WiFi) safari, here’s an itinerary to offer you an example of the sort of trip we could plan specifically for you. Remember, we customize every journey for our clients; no two trips are ever the same.

The Hadzabe: Cultural Immersion in the Serengeti

  • 1 Night - Arusha Coffee Lodge - Arusha
  • 2 Nights - Serian Serengeti South - Southern Serengeti
  • 3 Nights - Fly Camping with the Hadzabe - Southern Serengeti
  • 3 Nights - Serian Serengeti South - Southern Serengeti

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