Africa: Planning a Big Game Safari, Part 3 – Self-drive/Guided & What Vehicle

Cheetah at Ndutu, Tanzania
If you are, this handy 4 part guide is for you!
If you are, this handy 4 part guide is for you!

If like us an African Big Game Safari is on your bucket list then this four part Safari guide is for you. It covers the following points:

So when Grete Howard, a friend through blogging and the most well travelled person I know, got in contact and asked if she could write a series of articles regarding planning an African Safari for our site, we jumped at the chance.

Grete has travelled extensively in Africa over the last 30 years, including a number of safaris taking in most of the well-known parks in East, South and West Africa.

She is passionate about photography and obsessive about travel, with Africa being her favourite continent and animals being her favourite subject.

As you will see throughout this series, Grete’s photographs are phenomenal and if you would like to check out more of them head over to her Flickr account.

Grete the Photographer
Grete the Photographer

Self-drive or guided?

With self-drive, you have the freedom of the road, but have to find your own way. South Africa and Namibia are the two most popular destinations for self-drive. Often, hiring a car and doing your own driving works out cheaper, and is especially useful if you want to do other sightseeing outside the parks.

With car hire, you will usually have the option of carrying camping equipment and erecting your own tents, staying in lodges, or renting a vehicle with a pop-up tent!

Pop-up tent, Namibia. Photo @Ilona Henriquez, used with permission
Pop-up tent, Namibia. Photo @Ilona Henriquez, used with permission

With a driver-guide you get someone to do the hard work for you, as well as the navigating, spotting and identifying. Of course, there are drawbacks with having a driver-guide too, such as personality clashes, cost and no privacy.

You may be able to do a combination of both – driving between lodges in your own (hire) car, and then booking a guided safari with a driver as part of the accommodation package.

Cheetah at Ndutu, Tanzania
Cheetah at Ndutu, Tanzania

Type of safari vehicle

Different operators use different types of vehicles. We’ve tried them all, and found that they each have advantages and disadvantages.

The main types are:

  1. Specially converted Landcruisers with lifting roof-hatches. These are good for photography and have space to move about and for your luggage. The roof can sometimes get in the way of photographs.

    These vehicles come in different sizes to accommodate unto seven passengers
    These vehicles come in different sizes to accommodate unto seven passengers
  2. As above but with the roof completely removed. Great all-round view for photographing, especially birds flying above, but you are at the mercy of the hot African sun.
  3. Open-sided tiered vehicles. They are excellent for photography as the vision is all round, but not so good for keeping bags or camera equipment on the floor inside. Also if it rains you get wet, although most have plastic covers to pull down (not so good for seeing animals through) and some have canvas sides. Most have bench seats, which tend to be low on the comfort stakes.
  4. Mini-buses with lifting roof-hatches. Mostly used for group safaris. Some, but not all offer guaranteed window seats, best to check that out before booking. Not so easy for moving around within the vehicle.

    Mini Bus in Massai Mara, Kenya
    Mini Bus in Masai Mara, Kenya
  5. Large overland trucks. Mostly used by Adventure Touring companies with larger groups, they can be a lot of fun if the group is good, and being so high up you get great view of the surrounding countryside. Downsides are that communication between passengers and the driver can be difficult, and you are stuck with fellow tourists, warts and all. Usually combined with camping.
  6. Flights – some safaris operate by light aircraft, notably in Botswana and the far reaches of Tanzania and the Masai Mara. Including a flight in your itinerary could save you a lot of time, with the added bonus of seeing the parks from the air, but they can be expensive.

    Take a flight in Africa
    Take a flight in Africa
  7. Private car. In most places you are permitted to drive a regular saloon car into the parks, and this is particularly popular in South Africa, where a safari may be a smaller part of a longer trip. Visibility is the obvious downfall with this type of vehicle. Some parks are not suitable for vehicles without 4WD, however, bear that in mind before looking at this option.
    Private Car in Kruger National Park, South Africa
    Private Car in Kruger National Park, South Africa

    Lastly, if you have any sort of mobility issues or health concerns, the choice of vehicles may then be narrowed down somewhat. The large trucks require a fair amount of agility to get in to, and even some of the other safari vehicles have high steps. If this is a concern, a small stool may provide the answer, at least for the smaller safari vehicles.

    Choice of Vehicles
    Choice of Vehicles

    Are you confused yet?
    Are you confused yet?

Summary – my personal choice

Having been lucky enough to have taken numerous safaris over the last thirty years, my choices would be:

Guided Safari

For the following reasons I have never taken a self-drive safari:

  1. One of you has to drive so that person can’t take photos or enjoy the scenery/wildlife as much as everyone else
  2. A guide knows all the routes and the areas where the animals normally hang out.

    At the Moru/Sopa junction in the Serengeti lions apparently often hang out in trees to avoid the tse tse flies that are prevalent in the area
    At the Moru/Sopa junction in the Serengeti lions apparently often hang out in trees to avoid the tse tse flies that are prevalent in the area
  3. He (it is almost always a he) is in contact with the other drivers by radio, and when they spot something, he can get you right there too.
  4. The guide can ‘read’ animals and their tracks, knows when there is dangers (we have made more than one hasty exit from a sighting over the years), which way the animals are going and what they are likely to do next.

    Guide with Binoculars
    Guide with Binoculars
  5. A safari guide is nearly always better at spotting animals, often seeing them (while also driving) with the naked eye long before you are even able to spot them through binoculars.
  6. He can not only identify the animals, but also tell you their habits and give you lots of first-hand information you are unlikely to get from a book or the Internet.
  7. He knows where it is safe to stop for a picnic or a bush-toilet. He also knows where the nearest ‘proper’ toilet is (such as a lodge or visitors centre).

    Picnic in the 'middle of nowhere' in the Serengeti
    Picnic in the ‘middle of nowhere’ in the Serengeti
  8. Vehicle – some companies will rent out proper purpose built safari vehicles, but many places you will only be offered saloon cars. It goes without saying that a saloon car is far inferior for game viewing than a higher vehicle with a roof that lifts. A second consideration is – have you had training on driving a 4WD? Many tracks on the safari circuits are not paved, and can become treacherous after a downpour. Some places – such as the famous UNESCO site of Ngorongoro Crater, will only allow you to enter with a 4WD.
  9. Arguments over navigating – I think most couples have had a tiff over map-reading at some stage in their relationship.
  10. There is no rescue service available in most of the parks. If you break down you are at the mercy of kind passers-by, whereas a professional guide can call for assistance by radio.

    Broken Down Vehicle
    Broken Down Vehicle

Type of Safari vehicle

  1. I would always go for a vehicle that has been specifically adapted for safari use, with rails for attaching photographers’ clamps.
  2. Opening roof hatches are a must, and I prefer the ones where the roof just lifts, rather than removes completely as it offers shade from the unrelenting African sun (as well as rain of course).
  3. I prefer vehicles with one flat level rather than the tiered ones, as they are easier to move about should the animal sighting be at the front or rear of the car.

    Favourite Vehicle
    Favourite Vehicle
  • All photographs provided by Grete Howard

5 comments on “Africa: Planning a Big Game Safari, Part 3 – Self-drive/Guided & What Vehicle

  1. Pingback: Africa: Planning a Big Game Safari, Part 1 – When & Where? – Eat Sleep Love Travel

  2. Pingback: Africa: Planning a Big Game Safari, Part 2 – What Park & What Safari? – Eat Sleep Love Travel

  3. Pingback: Africa: Planning a Big Game Safari, Part 4 – Accommodation, Add-ons & Operator – Eat Sleep Love Travel

  4. Thank you for this article because it’s really informative, I love reading your article and I hope that I will read some more about this stuff, it’s really informative.


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