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A self drive safari is one of the most intimate ways to experience Africa’s incredible wildlife. While heading out on a game drive with a guide might make it easier to find animals, nothing compares to having your own vehicle and exploring as you please.
Even if you’re not sure a self drive safari is right for you, I’d urge you to give it a try. The worst case scenario is you don’t enjoy it and can join an organised game drive. The best case scenario is you have the trip of a lifetime – like I did.
A little bit of planning will go along way when it comes to self driving in Africa. Here are the main things to keep in mind when planning your safari.
Preparing for a self drive safari
Your self drive safari experience starts before you even get your wheels. Whether you’re heading to South Africa’s Kruger National Park or the Okavango Delta in Botswana, here’s how to make sure you arrive prepared and ready to go.
Choose a four wheel drive
If you’re planning a self drive safari, you’ll probably be renting a vehicle. A 4×4 will generally set you back around twice as much as a 2×4, but it will be well worth it if you’re planning a self drive safari.
Most national parks in Southern Africa have a number of roads that are only accessible to four wheel drives. Without one, you’ll be restricted in where you can go and may miss out on some great wildlife viewing!
Camping on a self drive safari
If you plan to camp, a camping vehicle with a pop up tent will give you the most flexibility when it comes to pitching for the night. Just remember you’ll have to take it down before you head out in the morning!
If you expect to stay multiple nights in one place, it might be better to buy or rent a separate tent. You’ll be able to get out quicker in the morning and can save your spot for when you get back.
And if you want the easiest option, stay in one of the many lodges!
Learn some animal behaviour
Learning a little bit of basic animal behaviour will help keep both you and the wildlife safe.
Without a guide or ranger to direct you, everything is in your hands on a self drive safari. That means you’ll need to know the signs to look in the more dangerous animals.
The main animals you’ll want to know a little bit about are elephants and black rhinos. These are the two animals that can do the most damage to your vehicle (and you!). Get to know the warning signs – and how to react – before you enter the parks.
Make sure you have insurance
As with any travel, you’ll want to make sure you have insurance on your self drive safari. Avoid getting caught out by making sure you buy your insurance from a reputable insurance company.
I use World Nomads because they offer 24-hour assistance, have policies designed for adventurous travel and the claims process is super simple (as I found out in Peru!).
Things to know before your self drive safari
You’ve got your car. You’re ready for your self drive safari. Here are a few things to keep in mind while driving around.
Obey the speed limits
Most national parks have a speed limit of 50km/h on gravel roads and 40km/h or less on dirt roads. That may feel incredibly slow, but make sure you obey these limits at all times.
Wildlife can be well camouflaged and, even if you can’t see them, there could be animals right near the road. These speed limits exist to keep both you and the wildlife safe, so don’t be tempted to speed up – even (and especially!) if you see something cool ahead in the distance.
Like any safari, you never know what you’ll see (or won’t see!). There could be long stretches where you don’t see much at all, but don’t get disheartened.
I’ve been on safaris where I haven’t spotted anything but antelope for 2-3 hours. I’ve also been on safaris where I’ve spotted the big 5 in just a couple of hours.
Part of the fun is not knowing what’s coming up next, so embrace it and enjoy the scenery when things get quiet.
Talk to other visitors
Most safari camps have a board showing recent sightings, but don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation. In fact, most people would love to talk about what they’ve seen!
Get to know your neighbours in your camp or lodge, or stop and ask other drivers about their own drives. You never know what information they might have!
Similarly, don’t keep a great sighting to yourself. Let passing drivers know so they can enjoy it too.
Use the app
The Latest Sightings app lists sightings in national parks across Southern Africa. Sightings are submitted by guests and updated in real time with GPS coordinates, so you can head to the exact spot where an animal was seen.
It was using this app that I was able to find my first leopard. I went back the following morning to look for it again and was surprised to see a cub jump out of the tree!
What to do when you spot wildlife
Switch off your engine
When you come across an animal and want to hang around to watch, make sure you switch off your engine. You can leave the keys in the ignition – especially if you’re near potentially dangerous animals like elephants – but keep it off while you’re stationary.
A running engine could scare the wildlife away or, at the very least, spook it.
Keep your radio off
You want to be as quiet as possible when driving around on a self drive safari. That means the music should stay off at all times and voices should be kept to a whisper when animals are around.
RELATED READ: A realistic guide to budgeting for an African safari.
Roll your windows down
It’s generally best to keep your windows open when on a self drive safari. That way, it’s one less thing to think about when you do spot wildlife. You won’t get caught out when you switch the engine off and you’ll be able to focus on grabbing your camera quickly instead.
It’s completely safe to do so – after all, safari vehicles are usually open. Animals view you and the vehicle as one. The only time this might change is if you stick a body part (or your entire) body out of the vehicle. As long as you keep yourself, your arms and your head inside the car, you should be fine!
Respect the animals
This one goes without saying, but it also can’t be said enough. ALWAYS respect the animals when you’re on a self drive safari. You are in their natural habitat, so please don’t litter, shout or scare the wildlife in any way.
How to make the most of a self drive safari
There’s a right way and a wrong way to do a self drive safari… and then there’s the best way. These are my top tips for making the most of every drive.
Get up early
The best sightings are nearly always on a night drive or early in the morning, when the predators are still active from the night before. Only the latter of these is possible on a self drive safari – the other will have to be organised with your camp – so don’t hit the snooze button.
Most camps open their gates around half an hour before sunrise. Make sure you’re there and ready to go a little bit before this time if you want to get out as early as possible. You can always sleep in the middle of the day or go to bed early – it’s nice and dark in the parks, after all!
Make sure you have enough fuel
With the exception of Kruger, most national parks don’t have gas stations inside. And if they do, they can be hundreds of kilometres away!
Make sure you have a full tank before heading into the park so you don’t get stranded on a game drive.
Pack a picnic
A two hour game drive can easily turn into a three, four or five hour game drive when you’re having fun. My longest to date is eight hours – a full working day!
While you can usually stop for snacks and food at any of the camps, not all parks have food available. It’s best to always pack your own. You can enjoy it at one of the designated picnic spots – one of the best things about a self drive safari! – or eat in the car as you go. Don’t forget to bring plenty of water too!
Plan your toilet breaks
You can’t leave your car at any time during a self drive safari, except at designated areas. These are clearly signposted and marked on maps, so you can’t miss them.
Sometimes, toilets can be a long drive apart so it’s a good idea to schedule in your toilet breaks ahead of time. When planning your route, make sure you think about any stops you might want to make.
Get a camera bean bag
If you’re bringing a camera on safari (always a good idea!), make sure you invest in a camera bean bag. This will SUCH a difference on a self drive safari!
The bean bag rests over the car door, so you can get a steady shot. Not only will the bean bag help you get sharp images, but it’ll prevent the car from getting scratched too. You can buy an unfilled bean bag (like this one) before you go to add minimal weight to your suitcase and fill it with rice when you arrive.
Have your camera ready
One of the biggest mistakes photographers make on safari is not having their camera ready. Whether it’s from leaving it on last night’s setting or having it packed away, sometimes you only have a few seconds to get a shot.
You don’t want to miss an awesome shot because you’re too busy setting up your camera. Or, worse yet, you don’t want to miss the moment altogether.
Set your camera up the night before by putting it on the right settings, making sure the battery is fully charged and getting it ready to pick up and shoot.
RELATED READ: What to wear for an African safari.
Try wild camping
If you want a really unique safari experience, try wild camping.
Wild camping is when you stay overnight in an unfenced area. You can’t do this anywhere – there are designated areas where you will be told to set up camp – and it’s only available in some parks. It’s an absolutely thrilling experience, a way to get super close to nature and also a very affordable way of going on safari.
While I wouldn’t recommend it for your first self drive safari trip, it’s something to keep in mind.
Explore the 4×4 trails
While it’s handy to stick to the roads where the recent sightings have been, it’s undeniably fun to get off the beaten track.
The 4WD-only roads always tend to be much quieter, meaning your chances of seeing wildlife can be higher. More than anything though, they usually take you through the most stunning scenery of all – and that’s something you’ll only experience on a self drive safari.
If you take a 4×4 on your self drive safari, make sure you make use of it!
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