After surviving the terrifying (at least for me) charge of the male mountain gorilla, we settled into a peaceful detante with them in a large clearing. Surrounded by dense jungle foliage, it was hard to see the gorillas in the shadows. I was uneasy being so exposed until I saw this mother and her baby about 10 feet away. The baby’s adorable little face captured my heart and I immediately relaxed.
We went on safari several times in Africa. A budding wildlife photographer, Danny kept trying to get a photo that would describe why a zebra has stripes. Everytime we saw them clumped together in a group he would try from various angles, repositioning the car, leaning around me, etc.. to get the perfect picture. Needless to say we have hundreds of zebra photos!
There are two main types of safaris, the do-it-yourself and the guided safari. The plethora of options with guided safaris are simply too numerous to discuss here so we’ll just list a few basic points you’ll want to think about before you put down your deposit. Continue reading though for the do it yourself (DIY) options as these abound as well and can often be far more enjoyable.
A few things are good to remember whichever you choose however. First is that only 2-4 days of a safari is necessary. Anything beyond that and you will likely develop “cabin fever” inside the car and simply not appreciate where you are and what you’re doing. Second is to only go out in the car when the animals are out. Usually this means going out for early morning and late evening drives. Driving around in the middle of the day, when most animals are hiding from the sun in the shade of trees, is generally a waste of gasoline. Remember to think like an animal and drive to where the water is, and enjoy. The time of year is also significant as rains not only bring tall grass (making game viewing difficult) but also bring lots of young animals.
Every game park on the African continent will have some local business running safaris in and out. Some will set up your tents for you while others will introduce you to some of the finest luxuries imaginable. The basic premise though is the same, drive around and look for animals. Some private game reserves will radio collar the animals, guaranteeing game sightings of even the rarest of animals. Most though will drive around, and look and see what they can find. The biggest differences amongst these will be the accommodation and food supplied so be sure to shop around.
If you specifically want to do a guided safari then you should look to either a private game reserve in South Africa, or the parks of Tanzania (Serengeti or Ngorongoro) or Botswana. There are plenty of others to choose from if you are interested in a more “bush” experience but these locations represent the best combination of infrastructure and wildlife. Just about any park outside of South Africa however, will be very difficult to do on your own. Paying for a guided tour of a national park (such as Kruger) in South Africa may be a giant waste of money as you can just as easily, and much more economically, do these parks 100% on your own. Of course, if you are a solo traveler you might enjoy the company of a guided tour, but certainly groups or couples can save a significant amount of money on their own.
Do It Yourself (DIY) Safari
There are a few very simple steps to this one, it is surprisingly easy to do and arrange and you will likely enjoy having control of when you go where.
1.Go to South Africa. With the exception of Etosha National Park in Namibia (in the far north) most places you’ll be able to drive yourself for safari are in South Africa. A good guidebook will usually include a wildlife section that will be sufficient but if this is your big African trip better spring for a book dedicated to African wildlife.
2. Rent a car. If its summertime (remember this is the southern hemisphere) be sure to pay for air conditioning. Also be sure the car is comfortable as you’ll be spending a lot of time inside. A four wheel drive vehicle isn’t really necessary but being higher off the ground is a big plus when the grass is tall.
3.Choose a park, maybe buy a national park pass. The wild card pass program from the South African Parks represents great value if you are going to do a lot of game viewing. If just going for a short trip you’ll probably be fine without it. Check our our guide to South Africa for help in choosing which park is best for you. The pass is also good at all national parks in South Africa as well as several parks in Swaziland.
4.Get up early for morning drives. Spend the middle of the day at the pool with some meat on the grill or braai. Go out for evening drives and pay for the occasional ranger led evening or night drive.
5.Some parks to consider:
Kruger. The largest park of all. Very easy to do on your own with plenty of options. Most of the wildlife is at the southern end of the park so it is generally best to base yourself there. If looking for a change of pace while in the park head up to the Oliphants for stunning views and a mountain bike trip through the bush. With this park you should realize though that this is South Africa’s premier park and for that reason draws crowds in far larger numbers than many of the other, smaller parks. Wildlife spotting here tends to be based on stopping where 5 or 6 other cars have already stopped. Nonetheless, every animal you could want to see is on display here, and in growing numbers as well. Just be sure to mind the elephants!
Hluhluwe—Imfolozi: Not as well traveled as Kruger but still easily reached from both Johannesburg and Durban this park is most known for the white rhino, who owes its survival as a species to the work this park has done over the last 100 years. In addition to the rhino the entire Big 5 is on display here and with far fewer crowds than Kruger. The big bummer here is that there is no camping inside the park but the fact that its located near the St. Lucia wetlands helps to make up for this.
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park: This park is our absolute favorite. A royal pain in the butt to get to but well worth it if your up for some serious game viewing. You can still visit this park in a 2 drive vehicle but a 4×4 is advised as no roads are paved and several are quite bad. This park is specifically known for its cats and we more lions than we could shake a stick at…not to mention the elusive cheetah as well. Its location in the north, wedged between Namibia and Botswana (you can cross into each country from within the park) makes for a small population of professional game viewers and photographers, and not too many other people at all.
Addo Elephant National Park: If you want to see lots of elephants come here. Plenty of other animals on display as well. I’d recommend driving to a good watering hole (ask around when you’re close or in the park) and just park your car and sit and let the animals come to you. Just be sure to give the elephants the right of way!
Namibia: The main game viewing here will be at Etosha National Park in the far north. The park itself can be quite spectacular but the drive to get there can be too much depending upon your tastes. For more information on Namibia consult our adventure guide.
Botswana: This can be done on your own but be prepared for large periods of time without seeing another human being. A 4×4 is a must and you need to be very prepared not only for the long journey but also for very expensive park and camping fees. For these reasons we decided to skip Botswana and to possibly return on a guided trip to the Okavango Delta someday.
The Rest: There are plenty of parks throughout Southern Africa. The best advice is to choose a path to follow and visit the parks along that path. If you’ve seen all of the big 5 in one park it might not make sense to go and search out others. Use your judgment and remember to enjoy the experience.
The decision to purchase the South African wild card park pass was an easy one. We were coming to Africa and we were told that within South Africa we could do our own game drives and safaris and not pay for an expensive tour or guide. With a little more research we realized that this would save us loads of money as compared to paying for these services in South Africa or elsewhere in Africa. With the SANParks Wild Card pass we were able to save even more money.
Before you decide to purchase the card be sure to do a little research on the park fees you’re due to pay without the card. For us, over 5 days in Kruger National Park, we were going to come close to the cost of the Wild Card. We figured, correctly, that if we used it even one more time it would break even and anything beyond that was effectively free. Ultimately it paid for itself more than two times over 6 weeks.
The card was easy to purchase and we did so when we first arrived at the campsite within Kruger National Park. Because we were foreigners the price was about three times as much as the locals paid, but it still made sense to purchase. At that time, the cost in South African Rand was about $250 for our “couple” pass and, considering thats what the fees at the Ngorongoro Crater worked out to be I think we made the right decision. Upon arrival at each park, we showed our card, they scanned it, and we moved on.
The pass was good at every single park in the SANParks system. This wasn’t only game parks but also historical and heritage sites such as Cape Point near Cape Town. The pass was also good at a few parks in Swaziland.
Additionally, the pass does give you 5% back every time you pay for lodging at the park. This is a nice feature but as we only had 6 weeks inside the country we didn’t realize we’d need to register the card in order to use it. Our last day in South Africa we went to use the R50 we’d earned (about $7) but couldn’t because the card hadn’t been registered.
Sitting in Moshi and staring at prices for multi-day Safari tours, our heads began to spin. We’d researched several options on line and walking around town most of what we found seemed much too high in price for our taste. We wanted to go with a local company, but we also wanted to know that we were going to be safe, and not ripped off. Sitting with one safari guide, watching as his “arithmetic” defied the laws of probability, continuing to raise the price higher and higher, I politely excused myself and walked across the street to buy a soda.
As I did, a man named Peter asked me if I would come into his office when I was done where I was. As my body and mind were still quite weak, having only returned from our Mt. Kilimanjaro hike the day prior, I reluctantly agreed. I did not regret that decision.
We found Peter to be a pleasure to work with from the start. He provided us quickly with a variety of options so that we could design our own safari. He willingly confirmed several safari concerns that I’d had, that the Serengeti was too far from the Crater and to pay to do them both would have been a waste as we’d spend most of our 3 days in the car. His price was better than a 25% off discount from most of the quotes we received and he beat the next best price by 10% as well. Then he started to throw in extras and those extras just kept coming. His advice was spot on and everything he told us turned out to be factual and 100% true. That may not sound like much to you, but trust me, in this part of the world, that means a lot.
The Land Cruiser was about par for the course, as was our camping accommodation. The nicest thing about the Land Cruiser was that the roof popped up allowing us to stand inside the vehicle with our heads and bodies sticking out the top. This was particularly nice when the lions decided to rest in the shade of our vehicle and we could sit on the roof with our beers in hand and just look at their beautiful faces. When the rains came the top came down and our tents did not leak either.
Our safari itself went according to plan. We had no problems, no surprises, and most importantly, excellent food. Our three day safari not only included two nights camping accommodation near the parks but Peter also put us up in a nice hotel with air conditioning (a big step up from where we’d put ourselves before the safari began) and kept the food coming, paying for dinner on the 3rd day and breakfast the next day as well. When I left something behind in the safari vehicle, he even arranged for it to be brought back to Moshi for me at no additional charge. Like I said, Peter was a pleasure to do business with and we wish him great success.
Although we only found Peter in Moshi after we’d completed our Mt. Kilimanjaro hike, we did learn that he also arranged treks up the mountain as well for, what we felt to be, an extremely low price. If you are looking to climb Kilimanjaro and then take a rewarding safari after the climb, I think Peter can probably arrange an amazing combination tour for you. He started on Kilimanjaro as a porter, later a guide, and recently started his own touring company.
We received no compensation of any kind for this review.