Planning your self drive might potentially take a lot of time, but planning is half the fun! In this post I will attempt to give some pointers as to where to start.
You can plan your self drive in 3 ways:
- doing all the planning and booking by yourself
- have all the planning and booking done by a knowledgeable company
- plan as little or as much as you want to by yourself and have a company handle all the bookings.
I always use option 3 – I plan everything myself down to the very last detail and then send my plans off to a reputable company to arrange all the bookings and car rental. I choose this option because it is sometimes notoriously difficult to get all the bookings done by yourself from abroad – especially to remote campsites and accommodation. In some cases the accommodations may not accept credit cards, but still need a deposit or full fee paid with wire transfer so travellers incur extra expenses for these money transfers and they will add up considerably especially if you have to pay in this manner for each accommodation separately. Furthermore tour operators and travel agents sometimes have special deals so you might get car rental and accomodation for cheaper, and most importantly you will also get additional support and advice from them should something go wrong. Of course they might take a commission, but I think it is worth it, especially for the peace of mind that there is someone to support me should something go wrong while I am in some remote place.
Planning by yourself
For starters I always recommend to get a good guidebook to get a good overview about possible places to visit and basic logistics. For Africa self-drives I always use Bradt Guides as they are usually more comprehensive than most and offer specific advice for self-drivers. But things change quickly in Africa so guides are outdated even before they are released. So it is imperative to supplement your information with other resources – mainly the internet.
The most valuable resource that I suggest specifically for self-driving safaris in Africa is the 4×4 Community forum. Here you can find trip reports and up to date information about most places you would want to self-drive in Africa, especially Southern Africa. Most importantly you can ask for advice and there is a network of extremely knowledgeable, unbiased and helpful persons who are only too happy to assist.
Some other helpful resources are personal blogs of similar trips and popular travel forums such as SafariTalk, TripAdvisor, Fodors and Thorn Tree.
Once you have read the guidebook and read a few trip reports and advice online you will be ready to start planning your own adventure! It is quite simple if you take it step by step in an organized manner. Do not expect to put everything together in a couple of hours if you know nothing about the area, so do not get frustrated if in the first few days you feel overwhelmed.
Here are the steps I recommend taking:
- first and foremost identify your time of travel and whether it coincides with wet or dry season. Or vice versa: adapt your travel time to the season. More often than not you might want to avoid the wet season due to inaccessibility of some places – especially if you are a novice.
- identify all the places that you would like to visit and research about them
- prioritize them (must visit, would be nice to visit etc)
- note how much time is ideal to spend in each area (according to activities you would like to do, resting if between very long drives etc)
- Put them in the order they should be visited taking care to minimise travel times and backtracking. I also like to save the best for last.
- Calculate how much travelling time there is between one destination and the next – based on information on forums, guidebooks or map software.
- Choose where best to start and end your trip. A place which minimizes cost and travel time.
Now you have your initial schedule! Does it fit within the timeframe available? If not tweak the schedule till it does by adding or subtracting days in each destination, removing any destinations based on priorities and practicality and possibly improving your routing.
A very common mistake is to try to see too much in too little time. If your main priority is watching animals you cannot be travelling around from place to place constantly and expect to see a lot of wildlife. You need to stop in a particular area for a few days and take slow game drives, wait at waterholes, get a feel of where which animals hang around in what areas etc. Also keep in mind the road conditions. It might look like a 100km stretch but it might take half day to travel if it is a bad road!
Now that you have the route and itinerary it is time to find accommodation along your route. It can be campsites, lodges or a mix of both. You can self drive all the time while exploring the parks or if staying in a lodge take some of their game drives to glean information from the guides and increase your probability to see target species. You can also have other advantages by staying a couple of days in a lodge like guided walks and night drives. Information about accommodation can be found on guide books, forums and blogs.
The final and probably most important aspect is car rental! First you need to decide which car is best suited for your trip: mainly 4×4 or not, camping equipped or not and budget. Then find a reputable company for your rental – and here is where you really need to research. If you are sloppy with accommodation research it is no big deal, you just suffer a couple of nights or swap. But get your car rental company wrong and you might be in for a lot of trouble. Again research as much as you can online and do stick with reputable companies, even if they are more expensive. Ask a lot of questions, especially about insurance.
When all of this is settled you can start booking by contacting all accommodation establishments and rental companies. Nowadays the vast majority have websites and means to contact them online – though sometimes replies might be quite delayed. Deposits will usually be required to secure bookings and some places might need wire transfers instead of credit cards so costs might add up. As I have mentioned I always make the use of a travel agent for this stage so that I pay only them by credit card and also save a lot of time in contacting everyone individually.
Also note that for some areas like Botswana, campsites are in very short supply so you need to book one year in advance.
The next blog post will be about how to plan a self-drive safari by having it taken care of by a travel agent or tour operator, so stay tuned!