Going to Africa and on a safari is on the bucket list & dream list of many people. Even though I have been on safari in South Africa too many times to count, a safari experience in the Serengeti and the Masai Mara is my number one bucket list item. I get a lot of questions from fellow travelers as to whether it’s best to book a safari tour company or to hire your own car and do it yourself (hence the name “DIY Safari!”). Both safaris have their pros and cons, but as I have done the DIY Safari all my life, I'm going to advocate for it here and help you get the most out of your safari!
Pros of a DIY safari
Doing your own self-guided safari can be intimidating if you have never done it before. But it is one of the best ways to see wildlife in South Africa. This is how 90% of the locals do it. Guided safaris can be incredibly expensive, especially for the average South African; so most people use their cars and drive through the parks themselves. The great thing about a DIY safari is that you are completely in charge. You set the trail, you decide where to go, how long you’ll be there, whether you do want to stop and look at impala number 342, and what pace you go at. Guided safari tours do not always have that luxury. You have the thrill, excitement, and control of mapping out your own adventure!
Every game reserve or national park has rules that must be followed when in the area. They exist to protect the wildlife and to promote conservation efforts. They are pretty self-explanatory and easy to follow. For the most part, the rules are:
1. Do not speed.
2. Do not get out your car or interact with wildlife.
3. Do not litter.
Pretty simple, right? Most roads in the parks have speed limits of 40-50km/h. Let me tell you, you will not see much driving at this speed. It’s also dangerous to get out of your car. You never know when a leopard is lurking. Keep the parks clean – you are usually given a paper bag upon entry to hold your rubbish or trash in your car.
What about the driving part? Do I need a 4x4?
No! You do not need a 4x4 to go on safari. You can make do with your average 2x2 car. The roads in parks are either tarred or gravel/dirt. Unless it is the rainy season, and there is a lot of rain and mud, most cars will manage. The only advantage of a 4x4 is that the height helps when it comes to game drives. You can see much better over long grass. Considering you will likely be hiring a car, a 4x4 will be ridiculously expensive and in this way I don’t think it would be of much advantage. Just remember that in South Africa, one drives on the left hand side of the road, and that all cars, rental included, are right-hand vehicles. Stick shift and manual transmission vehicles are more common in South Africa. If you don't feel comfortable driving a shift, I would ask for an automatic from your rental company. Otherwise, if you think you can manage the other side of the road, you're all set (Helpful hint: you as the driver are closest to the middle of the road, not the outside - this is how I remembered when I switched to driving in America). A word on filling up your tank with gas/petrol: make sure your petrol attendant puts in the correct fuel/gas. In South Africa, attendants fuel up for you. We had the unfortunate experience of an attendant putting diesel in our unleaded 4x4. This meant we broke down in the park (eek!), and we missed a whole day of game viewing.
You can also purchase a park map upon entry. Park maps are great because they often have a list of animals in the park (which you can check off as you see them). Some maps may provide information about the wildlife, various aspects of the landscape, history and unique lookout points or spots.
Another thing when you are driving: don't drive through animal dung. Try go around it! Some animals (giraffes, elephants etc) eat leaves off branches that have very thick and strong thorns, which inevitably end up in their poop. You do not want a flat tire, so go round the poop! (#sorryforsayingpoop!)
What should I take with me when I am going on safari?
Your camera is a pretty obvious piece of equipment you will want! Have your camera located in an easy to reach spot. Animals can disappear quickly, so if you want to get a shot, it’s best to have it on hand and quickly available. Binoculars are also handy. You will want to take some drinks and snacks with you too. Depending on how far you travel and your route, it can be a long day in the car. A South African favorite is biltong. Get some of this to snack on.
In some parts of the park you can also get out at Picnic Spots. This is where there are toilets available. Some picnic spots may even have a small shop or “café” where you can purchase food or souvenirs. Some have skottel/braai/grill facilities to cook food. My family always enjoyed a bacon sandwich at a picnic spot. We would get up early, do a drive, stop at a picnic spot for breakfast and then head back to our camp for a rest before doing a late afternoon drive. You will want to bring what you need to cook if you plan on doing this at a picnic spot. Each picnic spot has different facilities. It’s a good idea to check with the officials at the gates or at your camp to find out if any of the facilities are closed or if they are operating to full capacity.
Now for the fun part! How do you maximize your game viewing?
How do you see the Big Five?
It is important to recognize that game viewing is all about luck and timing. Countless times we have rejoiced at this lesson (leopard crossing over a river by jumping onto rocks) and despaired at it (no carnivores in a week long trip). But there are some things you can do to help yourself optimize your game viewing opportunities.
Drive slowly and use your eyes and your ears
Driving around 20-30km/h gives you enough time to look everywhere - up trees, under bushes, through little pathways in the bush etc. Your eyes need time to adjust to scenery and to the process of game spotting. Watch out for movement and look for shapes and colors. The slower the speed, the easier this will be. Look in trees too; this is where you will possibly spot a leopard. My mother swears by her "leopard spotting position": she sits behind the driver's seat with her body facing the window, in order to look up trees, and fully view left and right. So far, she is the number one leopard spotter in our family.
What to do when you spot an animal:
Animals can and will scatter very quickly. Vehicles and people can be noisy and frightening for them. Try to make as little movement or sound as possible, and this will keep them around for longer.
Observe animal behavior
Another thing that my family and I have learnt in our many adventures in the bush is to watch for animal behavior. We were once watching some antelope in the Northern parts of the Kruger. My mother noticed that the antelope were a bit skittish, and kept looking in the direction behind us. Eventually, we turned around to look and there were two lions! Another time, we were crossing a bridge, and saw baboons. All of a sudden there was a lot of barking from the baboons (the alarm signals they make). As a child, I had wanted to be a game ranger and had read lots of books about animals, so I knowledgeably told my parents that a predator must be around. But alas, we could not see it. We continued driving and as we turned off the bridge, my mother spotted a leopard in the bush. It crossed in front of us, climbed over some logs, and we then watched it gracefully leap over a rushing river using rocks as stepping stone. One of my favorite sightings! Animal cues and behaviors can help you see more. Just sitting back and watching them in their natural habitat also adds to your experience.
Optimal Game Drive Times
First of all, you want to maximize your game drive times. The best time to go on safari is in the winter in South Africa (May-August is good). It is cooler and drier, so animals are up and about for longer periods of the day, and frequent water sources more often. To see the large cats, hyenas, wild dogs, etc, you will want to be in the game reserve early in the morning and late in the afternoon. Each park has posted times in which they will allow people into the park, and when you must be out (or risk a hefty fine). Try to be the first ones waiting at the gate every morning. We have had at least 4 sightings of large lion prides where we had prime viewing positions. Getting up early pays off. Trust me. Late afternoon to dusk is also a good time because it has started to cool down. You can still see animals throughout the day though, and we’ve seen leopard in the middle of the day. Generally speaking though, your more exciting spots will be early in the morning or late afternoon. Midday, and those lions are lying around in the shade under a bush where you cannot see them!
Water holes and Hides
Water holes and hides are also great locations to scout out some creatures. I have family friends who have camped out in their car all day at a waterhole and have been rewarded handsomely for their patience. Hanging around at a water hole is a great way to relax and have a snack while you are in your car on a longer drive. You are guaranteed to see something, even if it is just antelope.
There are other ways to help your viewing. Many parks use sighting boards in their camps or at their gates. They post a map of the park and people can pin animals that they have seen. We religiously looked at these boards to help us plan our drives. Sometimes it pays off. We noticed a leopard kept being pinned along one road, every single day. The following day that’s the road we took, and we drove up and down it for 2 hours at 20km/h until we finally spotted that leopard! Lions with a kill will often be at the same location for a few days too.
Chat to fellow adventurers, tour guides and park officials
You should also speak to park officials, game rangers, and other people in the park. More often than not, people want to share the excitement of their spots. My friend will never let me live down this moment. We were in the Pilanesberg for two days and decided that each of us would get a day to dictate the route (and I was very tired of us always going on his favorite road – Dithabeneng). On my day, I changed the route to stop at my favorite hide. We spoke to a ranger there and he told us that he had seen a lion kill…. on the Dithabeneng road. My friend never lets me forget this, but at least by speaking to the ranger, we have some amazing memories of this pride of lions, with cubs, snacking on a giraffe and wandering around the area.
There are now also social media apps that communicate spottings. I have never used them before, so I am not sure what they are like. You can look into: Latest Sightings Kruger. You don't always have great cell phone reception (or wi-fi) in these areas, so I'm not sure how helpful they are. If you check them out, let me know!
A note on Elephants and other large animals
You need to be respectful of all animals when on safari, and this is no truer than with big animals such as elephants, buffalo, and rhino. These animals can do serious damage to your vehicle and yourself, so you want to be super careful around them. The best advice I can give is maintain a large distance from them when they are in or next to the road. Keep quiet and move slowly. Always make sure that you have an escape route in mind, even if it is hightailing it into reverse.
Elephants are most dangerous when they are in must (musk/musth) or when they are part of a breeding herd. Elephants in must tend to be more aggressive and temperamental. Best to stay away and give them lots of space, as they can be dangerous. Elephants in must have large secretion marks on the sides of their head, which are very noticeable. Elephants with babies will also be a bit more dangerous. Do not drive into a herd crossing a road, even if they are taking their time and there is a lag between elephants.
When an elephant is in the road: wait for them to walk off the road. Keep a good distance, at least 20m if possible.
When an elephant is on the roadside: approach very slowly. Do not hover around for too long, especially if they are close. I always check to see if they are eating. Generally, if they are having a good munch and continue to do so as you slowly approach, you can pass – slowly. I think it is best to wait until they have moved into the bush completely before doing this, to be frank. Be very careful. Accidents are rare in the parks, but they do happen. It's better to be over-cautious than reckless. If they are walking up the road towards you, it is better to stop where you are, or get into a reverse position so you can move out the way. Elephants will usually warn you when they are unhappy with you by mock charging. This means that they flap their ears a lot and shake their heads. Their ears will stand out around their heads to make them appear even larger. They might also make quicker movements. This is the animal telling you to back off, and you should listen.
It is truly African time in the bush. Let the animals do what they must, don’t disturb them, and pass them when you can, in a safe and respectful manner. We once had a situation where a male elephant was blocking the road. We needed to get back to camp and the quickest way was on this road. This elephant did not move. It would walk up to us and look all threatening as we reversed away, and then turn around and do the same to the vehicle on the other side of it. It would just not move off into the bush. After 30 minutes, we decided to turn around and go the other way. We were late for closing time, but at least everyone, elephant included, was safe!
Baboons and monkeys
So the general rule here is: KEEP YOUR WINDOWS UP! Baboons can jump through your window, make off with your food, and turn the troop into a circus. I’ve seen it happen. It seriously disrupts the animals. Baboons in general are curious creatures and they do not fear vehicles. If they fancy having a wander through your back seat and scrounging around in your cooler box, picking up a snack, they will do. Keep the windows up. Keeping an eye on your belongings while at a picnic spot also applies. One baboon made off with our bread while we weren't looking once. With all that being said, they are highly entertaining animals to watch and enjoy!
Your DIY safari will be a truly magnificent opportunity to adventure through the bush. The great thing is that if you get tired of the driving, you can book one of the many game-viewing trips that the parks or camps offer. Here you get the benefit of a knowledgeable game ranger driving you. Going on safari is my favorite thing to do in South Africa. There is something healing about being in nature and the wilderness. You never know what excitement a day will bring. You never know what you will see or learn. You never know what is around the corner! I love to stick my head near the window while we are driving and just breath in the air and feel the sunshine on my face, knowing I’m closer to Africa in its most natural state - just don’t breathe in the air around animal dung, that’s not as pleasant.
If you have any questions about doing your own safari, or my experiences let me know. I love to talk about South Africa and help people experience all it has to offer. I have several other posts related to this one, one on the pros and cons of a DIY safari or a guided safari, my favorite routes in the Pilanesberg and Kruger, and a picture gallery. I hope you found this helpful and enjoyable, and if you ever are in any of the national parks, that you have a wonderful time too! Please share your stories with me and how my advice helped you!