I always imagined a safari was out of my reach. I thought a safari vacation would be expensive, difficult, and that I’d have to invest in a lot of khaki. None of this turned out to be true! South Africa is full of options for safaris, from national game parks to private reserves, and I tried them all. The best experience of them all was conveniently also the most affordable: a self-drive safari.
Benefits of a Self-Drive Safari vs. a Guided Drive
We did one guided drive that I organized through our hotel and then spent the rest of our 4 days driving ourselves. There are obvious benefits to a guided drive: such as letting go of control, relaxing, and having a set of professional eyes searching for game. But what are the pros to a self-drive safari?
You can take your time. If you’re behind the wheel you can stay in one spot as little or as long as you’d like. Sometimes I wanted to spend a while watching a herd of impala to get a great photo, but the guide would just pass them by. Also, a guided drive is on a set timeline. Your guide has to have you home before you turn into a pumpkin, something like that. On our guided drive, we had stayed out longer than he planned (worth it, to find aforementioned leopard), so he was speeding to get us back to the hotel by 2, passing a lot of game along the way. If you’re driving, you can take your time. Easy as that.
Car Rental and Choosing the Right Ride
See our little guy up there? You do not need a range rover or a military grade jeep. You will get a slightly better view if you choose a higher set SUV, but it is not at all necessary. You’d be shocked at how close the animals are to the side of the road, oftentimes crossing right in front of you.
Do focus on comfort. You will likely spend the entire day in this vehicle. Take into account how many people you’ll be with and if you’ll have children with you and really consider how much space you’ll need.
If possible, rent a manual. Rental cars in South Africa are incredibly cheap. We rented a car for an entire month for just under $400 US. But if you require an automatic the price is twice the price or more.
Consider insurance. We have excellent collision insurance with my credit card, but I had read that it’s advisable to purchase the windshield and tire insurance. We survived a month on the road unscathed only to cut a tire on the curb in a parallel parking incident in Cape Town and that was costly. Consider where you’ll be on your road trip, some roads can be very rough and make damage to the tires a very high possibility.
And last but not least, for the love of God, check the air conditioner! We didn’t realize our rental car’s AC didn’t work until we were an hour from the airport. Luckily there is an Avis location inside Kruger that agreed to exchange our car for us. But this exchange cut two of our days short due to their miscommunication and lack of organization. Not having an AC is not feasible. We were there in the heat of summer and after one long day in the park with no cool air, we had to return home early because I felt like I was bordering on a heat stroke. CHECK YOUR AC before you leave the lot!
But how are the roads?
They’re great. You’re welcome! Ha. Driving in Kruger and Addo was very easy. The main roads are paved and very wide. The smaller dirt roads are well maintained and we were able to drive them comfortably in our low to the ground compact car. I had actually learned to drive a stick shift specifically for this trip. I was sick of how expensive it is to rent an automatic anywhere but the US and decided it was time to suck it up and learn. Driving in Kruger was the perfect practice ground with level, wide roads. If I could do it, you can too!
Tips for Sighting Game
- Patience. We always saw just as many animals on our own as we had seen with our guide, but there would be gaps of time where we’d see nothing. It can get frustrating, but be patient. You won’t be disappointed.
- Sightings Boards. At the camps and restaurants, there are sightings boards with color-coded magnets marking recent sightings from that day and the previous day. Always stop and take a look to help you plan your route. Take a photo to have it with you in the car.
- Talk to anyone and everyone! People were excited with their sightings and happy to share directions and locations. See a magnet on the map for a leopard sighting? Ask any guides you see if they’ve seen it! See cars pulled over but can’t see what they’re seeing? Ask! If we hadn’t talked to other drivers or guides we would have missed lions and a leopard.
- There’s an app for that. Download Latest Sightings, available on iOS or Android. People pin recent sightings live to the map, crowdsourcing at its best.
- Divide and conquer. Designate areas for each person in the car to be looking to be sure that all ground is covered. There were only two of us so one was always scanning to the right, and the other to the left.
- Early bird gets the worm. As the day progresses and gets hotter, the animals get lethargic and less active. Start as early as you can: be at the gates when they open. We were even able to see nocturnal hyena at 5:30 before they went to sleep for the day.
- Have fun! The fun was in the (photographic) hunt. It’s incredibly satisfying when you spot something on your own and get that priceless photograph. Relax and enjoy the entire day!
No worries here about not getting a good view.
Self-Drive Safari FTW.
If you’re dying to see the Big 5, then you’re just one car rental away from a safari! Our time in South Africa was the best trip I’ve ever been on (yet) and we will be back one day without a doubt.