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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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!