When people hear about my self-drives in Africa the first things they ask are “Isn’t it dangerous?”, “How did you plan it?”, “How did you know what to do?”. So I have decided to create a series of blog posts intended to help anyone thinking of going for a self-drive in Africa, and perhaps enticing those who haven’t even thought of it to just do it!
Self driving throughout the wilderness in Africa is one of the most exciting, adventurous and rewarding things you can do – the freedom, the connection you feel with the wild and the feeling a million miles away from our frantic world of traffic, internet, cell phones, work and plain old boring routine is indescribable. I like the fact that we can abandon civilisation for a while and survive by ourselves – and have tons on fun!
However such an undertaking should not be taken lightly, especially if taking one of the more challenging routes. There is a lot of planning involved, and depending upon which areas you choose to visit there is an element of risk associated with this, although certainly not as much as many people would imagine – but more so if you are unprepared and inexperienced. These are wild, unpredictable and isolated areas so planning and knowledge is paramount. Whether you are experienced or not you can always end up in a pickle – but having knowledge how to best deal with it, and having preplanned for these eventualities goes a long way to not let your pickle end up a total disaster.
But other than that you just have to have a sense of adventure, plenty of common sense, be prepared to have some busy days of not relaxing too much (due camp chores, long drives, change of plans) and have confidence that you can deal with the kind of situations that might arise. Obviously basic skills of navigation and camping are helpful. The risks, even though present, are not even close to being as bad as one would imagine – self-drive safaris are relatively safe, and you will find that the vast majority of problems are always invariably caused by stupidity, recklessness, lack of preparation and sometimes just bad luck which can happen anywhere anyway.
My recommendation is that your first safari should always be a guided one. The excellent guides in Africa will ensure you get to see as much wildlife as possible and they will explain about the animals, their environment and ecology. You can lay back and just enjoy this experience without worries. When you are self driving you must accept that your level of experience cannot compare to the professional guides or trackers so you will see less animals, unless you have a lot of luck at your side. So remove all the pressure of seeing all your wish list animals before undertaking your first self-drive. If you are not placing high importance animal watching, and you are more focused on the journey itself then of course you can ignore this recommendation.
Some countries are more easy to travel in on a self drive than others due to good roads and infrastructure, fenced campsites, facilities available and ease of booking from abroad: Such examples are Namibia and South Africa. In some of these places you would not actually need to set up a tent or cook at all as you can just drive from lodge to lodge if you wish to do so. Other countries and areas are more difficult to travel in, requiring fully equipped 4×4 cars, off-roading skills (sand, mud, water), more refined navigation skills as well as the nerve to sleep in unfenced campsites where predators and other dangerous animals may roam at will. You might be required to be totally self sufficient on water, food, fuel, sleeping arrangements and any mishaps for days, if not weeks on end. Such examples are Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Whilst this might sound like a hassle it usually gives the best and most unspoilt experience – and it is more rewarding. Provided you plan and prepare well it is not difficult. So as you can see you can have as much or as little adventure and luxury as you want to provided you choose your route according to what you would like to experience.
It is a myth that self drives are just a way to save money on safari – unless you have your own car to travel with in Africa, this is not usually the case! So don’t get into it for the wrong reasons, especially if you are not too keen on the idea! While self drives can be done relatively cheaply in South Africa and Namibia, especially in low season, the same does not apply for Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Kenya or Tanzania. For some of these destinations even a flying safari (flying from one camp to another) might be a cheaper option, especially if travelling alone or as a couple. For all safaris, a budget camping tour with a group is always cheaper than a self-drive. So make sure you get into the self-drive experience for the right reason, as they can be deceptively expensive with many hidden costs to consider that add up very quickly.
Self drive safaris can be done even with just two people and one normal (non 4×4) car without leaving the tar and enjoying all the creature comforts. You can even have a specialized company organizing everything for you. On the other hand, you can also have a self drive more resembling an expedition which might require planning more than a year in advance. There is also everything else in between including guided self-drives where you just join a group of self drivers with a leader – perfect for nervous people or off the beaten track places. It is just a matter of making the right choices that suit your wishes.
So hopefully now you know whether a self-drive is for you or not. If you think it would be a fun way to go on safari then watch this space as in future blog posts I will go into more detail regarding how to organise your own self drive safari. You are also free to leave me a comment with questions and topic suggestions, or drop me an email.