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I went on my first safari back in April… and I’ve been on around 60 more safaris since. Yep, that’s a whole lot of safari. And of those 60-ish safaris I did this year, all but six of them were self drive safaris.
It’s kinda crazy when I think about it.
Years ago, I almost saw going on safari as a ‘rich person’ luxury, a honeymoon option or a once in a lifetime opportunity. I thought it was expensive, I thought it was something I would likely never experience and I certainly didn’t think it was something that someone like me could ever consider.
I was wrong in the best way possible, of course. Even though some safari destinations will set you back a small fortune, it turns out going on safari isn’t as pricey as I thought. In fact, it can be surprisingly affordable – especially if you choose to self drive. And once I learned that, I guess I got a little bit carried away…
My new love of wildlife has taken me from Eswatini to South Africa, and from Namibia to Botswana. And from all the places I’ve visited in Southern Africa, these are the best self drive safaris I’ve been on.
Kruger National Park, South Africa
Best for: The full safari experience.
Kruger National Park is home to all of the big five, as well as thousands of other wildlife and plant species. That means it’s one of the easiest parks in which to spot wildlife, and it’s certainly one of my favourites. Most travellers in South Africa visit Kruger, but don’t let it put you off; unlike some other popular tourist destinations, Kruger is well worth the visit and just as magical even when it’s busy.
Related read: 30 Kruger National Park facts to know before you go.
What you need to know: Kruger is one of the easiest self drive destinations for beginners. Not only are the distances between camps relatively short, but there are plenty of other cars around. That means it’s easy to spot animals you may have otherwise missed while concentrating on the driving.
Karoo National Park, South Africa
Best for: Breath-taking landscapes with a chance of lions.
Karoo National Park is an unusual kind of place, especially if you’ve been to any of the other South African national parks. While you might go there in search of wildlife, it’ll probably be the landscapes that blow you away. To enter the main game driving area, you have a choice between the bottom or the top of a canyon, and both are equally breathtaking.
What you need to know: The trails nearest the entrance gate are easy to access whatever vehicle you have. But if you want to tackle the longer trails and see more of the park, you’ll need a 4×4. Schedule at least one full day in Karoo if you plan to venture out to the further afield roads and be prepared for very few toilet breaks. Karoo also has a fenced picnic area complete with barbecues so you can enjoy your braai safe from lions and rhinos.
Best for: Epic photos to hang on your wall.
Namibia is probably best known for its famous red sand dunes, and those sand dunes are found in Sossusvlei. Even though you’ll most likely head there to see the dunes in all their glory, you’ll also probably spot some wildlife when you’re there. There are plenty of oryx and springbok in the area, as well as blue wildebeest and falcons. If you’re lucky, you may even spot an aardwolf or a cape fox.
What you need to know: If you plan to visit Deadvlei, make sure you leave enough time. It takes about 45 minutes to hike out across the dunes and another 45 back again, so you probably want to be at the start point by 3.30pm at the latest. You’ll also need to hitch a ride on one of the jeeps, and they can stop running at any time.
Namibia is a great destination for a road trip as well as for self drive safaris, but it pays to be prepared. If you want to start your self drive safari as early as possible and get out 30 minutes before everyone else, you’ll need to stay at the lodge inside the Namib-Naukluft park. This is NOT Sossusvlei Lodge – which is a really nice alternative just outside the gate – so make sure you double check.
Chobe National Park, Botswana
Best for: Elephants!
Botswana is famous for having the highest elephant population in the whole of Africa, and it’s not hard to find them. If you want to see elephant, head straight to Chobe, Botswana’s first ever national park. Current estimates put the total number of elephants in Chobe National Park at over 120,000, so you won’t have to look far.
One of the best ways to see elephants is from the Thebe river. You can book on a river safari, but you can also self drive Chobe if you want a more laid back and more affordable safari experience.
What you need to know: This is one self drive safari you’ll need a 4×4 for. The Chobe ground isn’t the easiest to drive on, so be prepared for a bumpy ride. Given the large concentration of elephants, you’ll also want to learn some animal behaviour before you go. Make sure you know how to identify a male elephant in musth so you can make a quick getaway if you need to.
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, South Africa/Botswana/Namibia
Best for: Big cats and cool border crossings.
If you want to see lions, head to Kgalagadi. On our first self drive safari, we came across three lions sleeping on the road and had to drive around them – and apparently that’s not uncommon! It’s also the border between three countries: South Africa, Botswana and Namibia. It’s possible to cross the border inside the park, which could be pretty epic.
What you need to know: Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is HUGE! It doesn’t look massive on the map, but the driving distances can be long. Give yourself at least a few days here if you want to venture beyond the first camp.
Goegap Nature Reserve, South Africa
Best for: Wild camping without predators.
Goegap is a small park just outside the town of Springbok in South Africa. You’re not going to get any of your craziest stories from here, but it’s still well worth a stop. Inside Goegap Nature Reserve, you’ll find wildlife such as Hartman’s zebras, oryx and springbok. There are no predators inside the reserve and the camping area, as well as the many picnic spots, is completely unfenced.
Goegap is a great standalone adventure, especially if you like hiking, but it’s more likely going to be a stopping point on a drive from Cape Town to Namibia.
What you need to know: If you’re not into camping, the park has a number of bush huts you can stay in for around $5 per night. There are beds inside but you’ll need to bring your own sleeping bag and pillow. The main route is accessible with a 2×4 but you’ll need a 4×4 if you want to venture further afield.
The Okavango Delta, Botswana
Best for: A truly wild experience.
The Okavango Delta is a bucket list kind of experience, and the prices of an organised safari certainly reflect that. What many people don’t know is that it’s possible to self drive the area and see it all on a shoestring. You’ll still need to pay a premium (around $40 per hour) if you want to see the area from the water – something I highly recommend! – but it’s possible to self drive most of the area if you have a 4×4.
What you need to know: There’s one catch if you plan on camping in the Okavango Delta: it’s wild. There are three main campsites in the Moremi Nature Reserve and none of them are fenced. Elephants, lions, hyenas, leopards and all the other wildlife are free to roam through the camps as they please – and they do! In fact, there was an elephant taking up our camping spot when we arrived!
You’re also going to need a 4×4 to get anywhere. Unlike other parks, where a 2×4 will get you to the main areas, the entire reserve is off limits if you don’t have a 4-wheel drive. It’s not an easy drive, but it’s certainly a fun one!
Etosha National Park, Namibia
Best for: A quieter safari that has it all.
Just like Kruger National Park, Etosha has pretty much everything. Spend a few days in Etosha and you’re pretty much guaranteed to see rhinos, elephants, lions and more. You may even see an endangered black rhino here if you’re lucky.
Etosha is one of the easiest self drive safari spots, with most areas accessible by all kinds of vehicles. That means it’s easy for first timers but won’t disappoint those who have been before.
What you need to know: The best way to self drive Etosha National Park is to drive from waterhole to waterhole. Most of the activity happens near the waterholes and camps, so there’s no need to spend hours searching. Make sure you take out some cash before entering the park because it’s not uncommon for the power to go out and the cash machines to be out of service.
RELATED READ: If you want to visit many or all of the above, check out this 14-day itinerary for Southern Africa. It covers most of these places, as well as a few extras (including Zimbabwe!).
A self drive safari isn’t just a cheaper way to get close to some of Southern Africa’s incredible wildlife, but it’s also often a more fun way to do so. Many of my favourite photos were taken on a self drive, especially as you’re closer to the animals’ eye level.
Planning a self drive safari? Pin the image below for later: