To Drive or Be Driven? That Is the Safari Question!

After visiting the N’gorongoro Crater, we packed our bags and headed back to the US.
We had an amazing time in Tanzania—Meru, Kilimanjaro and a private, guided two-week camping safari to top it all off—a true trip of a lifetime that we were sorry to see come to an end.

Truth be told, we don’t want trips like this to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We love Africa, and we want to go back again and again and again. We were in Tanzania for a total of four weeks and would have loved to stay longer, but that was all we could afford. So, before saying good-bye to our Africa posts for this year’s trip, we wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to shed some light on a different, but far more affordable way to explore Africa—the do-it-yourself safari.

If safari is your thing, there are all sorts of ways to do it. From ultra luxury, lodge-based packages to shoestring-budget overland tours, the eager safari-goer is faced with a plethora of options. This was our fourth visit to Africa, and we’ve had the benefit of experiencing many types of safaris over the years. While we have loved every one of our African trips, our favorite was in the summer of 2010 when we planned a self-drive safari through South Africa and Namibia. Here’s a highlights reel of our summer:

What You Talking About, Adam?
As Americans, the only type of safari we knew about was the expensive luxury variety reserved for people living in a much higher tax bracket than we. We had never even heard of the notion of a do-it-yourself safari until Adam, a college friend from South Africa, suggested the idea. We were all ears.

At the time, we were guests at his wedding which included a 3-day luxury safari at CC Africa’s Ngala Lodge. It was our first trip to Africa and our very first safari, and we thought we had died and gone to heaven. Everything about the experience was amazing—the incredible setting, the magnificent meals, the posh accommodation. But it was the wildlife spectacle that impressed us most. Looking for exotic animals to photograph for hours upon end was our kind of trip, and we wanted more.

We thanked our newly-wed friends Adam and Jessica profusely for introducing us to safari and lamented that our modest teaching salaries likely wouldn’t allow us to enjoy the experience again. Never before had we regretted our career choice quite so much. That’s when our friends told us about the self-drive safari. “Fly to South Africa, rent a car, book accommodation in the camps and drive yourself around,” they said. It sounded too good to be true. If it were that simple, how come nobody we knew had ever done it?

The Overland Tour
The next time we went to Africa was in 2006, and we weren’t quite ready to try a safari on our own. We found a budget group trip in our price range—an overland truck trip from Windhoek, Namibia to Nairobi, Kenya—that included some stops at various national parks. It was a participatory camping trip with GAP, now G Adventures. We covered a lot of ground, sampled a ton of cool places and met some great people.

In the end, we were unhappy with the amount of time we spent driving from place to place instead of doing and seeing what we had come to Africa to experience. With hours and hours spent in a big overland truck on dusty roads like this one in Kenya, we were left feeling scattered, smothered and covered and less than satisfied.

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When we returned to Africa in 2010 for the World Cup, we were determined to have a better safari experience. This time, we remembered our friends’ advice and decided to give the self-drive safari a try. It was fantastic and just as easy as our friends had told us way back in 2000. If only we had listened sooner.

Choosing a Destination
While possible to self-drive in many parts of Africa, certain countries make it easier than others. We would put South Africa at the top of that list—the country is practically set up for the independent safari-goer. Studded with national parks, you could probably spend a lifetime trying to visit them all. But Kruger, South Africa’s most famous national park, certainly makes an attractive place to start.

Kruger is home to the Big 5, and cat sightings are practically guaranteed (provided you don’t offend any male lions on your drive in, of course!). In addition to the animals, the services at Kruger are unbeatable. Nearly all of the roads are paved with clear signage to make certain you don’t lose your bearings, and maps are widely available. You can pick one up everywhere in the park. All you have to do is choose your own adventure and go.

The park is roughly the same size as Massachusetts, and we spent twelve days exploring as much of it as we could. With less time than that, it would probably make better sense to concentrate on one area of the park and try to see it well. The southern portion is the most popular and therefore most crowded. It is closest to Johannesburg by car (about six hours). You could save driving time by flying to Nelspruit if desired. This region of the park has the highest density of rest camps and numerous watering holes that attract lots of animals. The central portion of the park is known for its lion sightings, while the northern part is the driest area. It is known for its prolific birdlife and has the fewest crowds. There’s definitely something to suit everyone.

There are a wide variety of rest camps located throughout the park, allowing you to choose which level of accommodation suits your budget and needs. Many of the camps have restaurants, bars, swimming pools, convenience stores, gift shops and petrol. There are also picnic spots throughout Kruger if you want to make a full day’s drive of it.

After Kruger, we drove through Swaziland to visit the province of KwaZulu-Natal and its lesser known parks of Hluhluwe-Imfolozi, the Saint Lucia wetlands and Mkhuze. Located within a few hours of each other, these parks are much smaller but offer similar amenities to Kruger. They are quite popular with South Africans as well, and the locals we met were quite impressed that we had chosen to get off the beaten path and go there. With their diverse ecosystems, these parks offer opportunities for unique and fantastic animal sightings. In fact, we had one of our most exciting safari days ever in Imfolozi. See what we mean in this video:

We hardly even mentioned the elephants there. They were almost the best part of the whole day. Trust us—you have to see this to believe it!

Accommodation
When we were on our self-drive safari, we were hoping to spend most of our nights camping, but we were surprised to discover that most of the sites were already taken. South Africans love to camp, and, if that’s what you want to do, too, you’ll need to reserve a place to pitch your tent well in advance.

All reservations can be made online through the SANParks website, and, if you browse the listings, you will see that the park offers some amazing choices. We camped, slept in permanent tents and rented a few different types of bungalows, some with outdoor kitchenettes and all with the ubiquitous braai, the South African barbecue. Here is a small sampling of some of our lodging.

We were pleasantly surprised at how reasonably priced everything was. The most we ever paid was $100/night for this nice bungalow at Mopani Camp that could sleep up to 4 and had a beautiful outdoor kitchen. We always find self-catering to be an excellent way to keep our expenses down, and so we were thrilled to be able to cook our own meals.

Kruger offers luxury sleeping options, too. While we can take a pass on these, we really wish we had reserved a night in what has to be the park’s coolest choice—an animal hide. One of the main rules of safari is that you are not allowed to alight from your vehicle, but there are usually a few places in the parks, on bridges and at hides for example, where signs indicate you can get out. The hides are usually located near a river or watering hole, allowing you to get a close look at the birdlife and animals that might be coming to the river to drink. Some of Kruger’s hides can be reserved for the night. Before sunset, you check in at the nearest camp to get keys and linens. The keys unlock Murphy beds for sleeping and an enclosed braai area for cooking and eating. I am quite certain that I wouldn’t be able to sleep a wink in such a place, but it would certainly be interesting to try!

Renting a Car
Of course, you will need to rent a car to go on a self-drive safari, and one of the first decisions you will have to make is whether to get a two-wheel drive or a four-wheel drive vehicle. In doing our research, we read that most of South Africa’s roads could be handled by the two-wheel variety. With budget always at the forefront of our decision-making, we opted for the cheapest two-wheel car we could get, but we were pretty dismayed when we picked up a super-tiny Hyundai with minuscule clearance at the rental car office at JRO.

Somehow, we crammed all of our belongings into the back and worried all the way to our first stop that we had made a huge mistake. That night, we stayed in a Bed & Breakfast, and the kind owner assured us up and down that our tiny car would be able to handle Kruger’s roads. He was right.

The roads in South Africa’s parks are very well-maintained. Most are paved or are graded gravel, and there are clear signs on both the roads and the maps indicating where a four-wheel drive car is necessary. Our little car worked out just fine, and we were happy with its more affordable rental fee (about $50/day) and its fuel efficiency since petrol there was over $4/gallon, which seemed expensive at the time. Our car barely fit the two of us, so it would be necessary to splurge for some more elbow room with a larger group. We also were extremely envious of how the SUVs could accommodate the very cool car-top tents we saw everywhere, especially when hyenas and honey badgers frequented our fenced campgrounds at night and we seemed to be the only fools sleeping in our ground tent. We were army green with envy of the set-up below.

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Pros and Cons
We absolutely loved our self-drive safari experience for many reasons. We enjoyed being able to determine our own route. We could set our own schedule, stop whenever and wherever we desired and spend as much or as little time as we wanted to with the animals. With just the two of us, we avoided the crowded commercial safari vehicles of most budget options, and we enjoyed being protected from the elements in a closed vehicle. As photographers, having the ability to maneuver our car whichever way we wanted for optimal shots was fantastic. We also found it very satisfying to find animals on our own, and we really got into identifying what we were seeing, particularly all of the amazing birds.

Having a guide just tell you what the bird is wouldn’t be half as much fun, now would it?

You might be worried about not knowing where the best places are to see the animals, but the South African parks have thought of that, too. There are sightings boards in the restcamps where people mark on a giant map what they have been seeing on their drives. These were great for pointing us in the right direction, and it was fun to check out what others had been spotting in the area over the previous day.

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Of course, our main motivation for doing a self-drive safari was to make it more affordable for us. Driving ourselves allowed us to avoid costly driving fees and guide tips which can quickly add up to a major expense.

We realize that a self-drive safari might not be for everyone. Driving yourself means spending a lot of time behind the wheel, and knowing how to react around dangerous animals can be downright nerve-wracking. Many of Kruger’s larger camps did have commercial game drives available. If you’ve never been on safari before, it might be a good idea to go on a few drives with the pros before heading out on your own. You can use this as an opportunity to learn the best places to go, how to spot the animals, and what to do when you encounter a breeding herd of elephants, for example.

We were thankful that our little car never broke down, but, if it had, we would have had to figure out what to do. Knowing how to change a tire and fix a puncture would certainly come in handy!

Final Thoughts
Ultimately, your budget will probably be the greatest factor in determining what type of safari you choose. No matter what you pick, it is bound to be an awesome experience. Safaris come in all shapes and sizes, but, if money is a concern, a self-organized, self-driving safari is an excellent option. So get out there and drive!

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20 thoughts on “To Drive or Be Driven? That Is the Safari Question!

    1. Thanks, Howard. Taking a self-drive safari in South Africa is as easy as visiting Yellowstone National Park. We hope this post inspires you to plan one of your own.

      We are looking forward to giving our Patagonia presentation to your camera club soon!

  1. Found your posts very interesting, particularly as I have visited many of the same places in Tanzania and South Africa. Have always been driven by a knowledgeable guide. These people know the best places to go and the best times to visit. We stayed at Mala Mala at Kruger and certainly recommend it. But my favourite area was the Serengeti. So vast and full of surprises!

    1. Thank you, Richard. As far as wildlife spectacles go, Africa’s national parks just can’t be beat, and good guides are certainly worth their weight in gold. We loved the freedom of driving ourselves but have also benefitted from the knowledge and expertise of drivers over the years. I am sure we will probably do a combination of both in future years.

  2. I also went with G Adventures on my first safari and felt much like you describe. I think the self-drive option sounds fantastic and I will certainly look into this option for my next safari!! Thanks for the tips!

    1. We called our G Adventures Overland Tour “the campground tour of Africa.” It always felt like we were driving for endless hours only to arrive at our destination, set up camp, eat dinner, go to sleep and do it all over again the next day. We can’t speak highly enough about taking the self-drive safari option. It was wonderful to set our own schedule and spend as much time as we wanted, wherever we desired. We are sure you would love it!

  3. Thank you for this post! I had never heard of a self-drive safari either and assumed that safaris were way out of my budget. You guys took some incredible pictures!

    1. Wonderful! We love to share what we have learned on the road, and we hope it is useful to fellow travelers like you. We were in South Africa and Namibia for almost twice as long as we were in Tanzania, and we probably spent half as much. So you can certainly save money and take an affordable safari if you are willing to do it yourself. We hope you’ll give it a try!

    1. Thanks! We both shoot with a Canon 7D, which is two steps up from Canon’s Rebel series (in quality and price!). For a safari, you will want to have the longest lens possible. For us right now, that’s a Canon 100-400 mm, and we often found ourselves wishing we had something even longer. Unfortunately, long lenses tend to be quite expensive. The next time we decide to buy something new, we are going to seriously consider getting a Sigma lens with a Canon mount, as they are a fraction of the cost of their more popular counterparts. You might also look into renting a lens if buying one of your own isn’t in the cards at the moment. Your safari pictures are excellent, too. What type of system are you using?

      1. I’m surprised you felt that way as your photos give the impression that your sightings were relatively close, though I am the same, always find myself wishing for a longer lens when it comes to wildlife photos, especially with birds! As for our gear we are taking a Nikon D800 with 80-400mm (the same combo used on our previous safari) and a 16-35mm wide angle.

      2. Many of the photos are cropped in pretty tightly. You can get away with that when posting pictures on the Internet, but we would need them to be larger to start with for printing at a decent size. It’s nice to have a blog where we can still put those images to good use!

      1. Thanks again. Have you ever been to Africa? You know it’s like Mecca for the wildlife photographer, and, judging from the gorgeous wildlife photos you have taken on your site, it seems like it would be right up your alley!

  4. Couldn’t agree more! I spent 3 months in southern Africa a couple years ago, my first time, and decided to just do Africa the same the way I always travel, figure it out as I go. I rented a car in South Africa and Namibia, public transport in Malawi, Zambia & Zimbabwe, plus a 4×4 in Zamibia and Botswana. While the latter was pretty expensive and I couldn’t rent for as long, it was an awesome adventure. You can’t rescue 2 village girls at night, frightened by a rampaging elephant, if you’re on any sort of organized safari! Local Africans do self-drive safaris and so do experienced travelers. I met some people doing it that way that were sharing expenses and that’s the way I’d like to do it next time. I was solo and had a little tent. The others I saw camped inside or on top of their vehicles. It does take time to be able to drive and find wildlife, but I was able to get pretty good at it after awhile. You can also hire guides as you go, for walking safaris especially. Wouldn’t consider doing it any other way in the future, except where it’s not allowed (and then I’d have to really want to go there). You probably already know all that, but it’s bringing back great memories! Thanks!

    1. Wow! That sounds like an incredible trip! Next time we do a self-drive safari we would love to rent a 4WD with the tent on top of the car. It looked like a great way to travel. The only drawbacks to that option are the extra expense of a 4WD rental and having to pack up your tent every day. We hope to go to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park between Botswana and South Africa, and a 4WD is necessary there. We better start saving up now. Thanks so much for dropping by our blog and sharing your own self-drive experience. Cheers!

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