Are you ready for a self-drive safari in Africa?

When it comes to types of safaris in Africa, there are endless options. However, there is one big question you need to answer before starting your planning. Are you ready for a self-drive safari?

Shot from the inside of a 4WD, the image looks past the female drive to a huge elephant outside the front window.
Road obstacles take on a new meaning when behind the wheel on a self-drive safari © Frans Lemmens / Getty Images

What is a self-drive safari?

As the name suggests, a self-drive safari means that you are very much in the driver's seat. You take the wheel of a vehicle and drive out into the wild on what is typically a no-frills camping safari. For most of South Africa, including Kruger National Park, a 2WD vehicle will be sufficient as most park's thoroughfares are either paved or regularly graded. For just about everywhere else, including Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park which South Africa shares with Botswana, a 4WD vehicle lies somewhere between highly recommended and a necessity. If you do decide to go it alone with a 4WD, a familiarisation course – either as a refresher for those with some experience, or a beginners’ training session for novices, preferably in the vehicle you plan to travel in – should be a part of your plans.

An alternative safari in Southern Africa

A number of rental companies offer 4WD campers. These usually have everything you need to be entirely self-sufficient, including a rooftop and/or ground tent or a pop-top with rooftop sleeping area. They also have fridges, a gas stove, cooking equipment and cutlery, bedding, camp tables and chairs. Up-front costs for such vehicles can be high (starting at around £120 per day, and often going much higher), but the assumption is that you’re paying both for transport and accommodation in one hit. In such cases, the only additional costs are campsite (and national park) fees and food which you can buy at a supermarket – both of these additional outlays are generally cheap in most African countries.

A Land Rover Defender 4WD is stopped on a dusty savannah covered with elephant dung; in front of the vehicle, and towering over it, is an absolutely gargantuan elephant (its legs are taller than the vehicle).
Wildlife does feel larger when you're in charge of navigating your path around it; sometimes reverse is best called for © Josep Pena Llorens / Getty Images

A number of operators offer these kinds of vehicles, among them Avis Safari Rentals, Britz, and Bushlore. Even better is Drive Botswana, which sources vehicles from these and other companies, and can make campsite and other bookings on your behalf. This form of travelling is far easier to arrange in southern Africa than East Africa.

At the upper end of the self-drive market, there are options for those who want the best of both worlds: to experience the thrill of driving off-road, stay in more luxurious lodges and tented camps, and let someone else make all of the arrangements. Safari Drive is the pick of the companies offering this service. 

To help you on your way, SafariBookings is a fabulous resource for comparing self-drive options, as well as organised safari tours from countless tour operators.

A 4WD with tent raised atop it (with two ladders down to the ground) sits on a grassy plain next to a tree and under a star-filled sky; in front of the truck are two folding camping chairs and a roaring campfire.
One of the greatest joys of self-drive safaris is camping in the depths of the wilderness; not for the faint hearted © Philip Lee Harvey / Lonely Planet

What are the benefits of self-drive safaris?

Imagine you’ve spent a lifetime saving for your once-in-a-lifetime safari experience. You’re there, in Africa, and you’ve finally come across a lion pride with young cubs. You don’t mind sharing it with other travellers in the camp’s safari vehicle. But then one of the guests thinks it’s time to move on. You’d like nothing better than to stay for ten minutes, for an hour longer. The guide starts up the engine and you’re forced to leave the lions behind. On a self-drive safari, this won’t happen – you control when and where you go. This freedom extends into every corner of your trip.

Another important advantage is cost. In countries where organised tours and safari camps can be expensive, such as Botswana, staying in campsites brings some of the region’s best wildlife areas into play for visitors on more modest budgets.

The front wheel of a Toyota Land Cruiser spins in deep sand, throwing it everywhere.
If you get stuck in the sand while on a self-drive safari, it's you who will need to dig yourself out © MrLis / Shutterstock

What are the negatives of self-drive safaris?

For starters, you are doing all the navigating. Many companies provide sat navs to help, but having an ability to read paper maps and follow road signs is crucial. If something goes wrong while you’re on a self-drive safari, you’re the one who needs to deal with it. This may involve liaising with the rental office to organise repairs, or having to wait for a back-up rental vehicle to be driven to you. It’s also your responsibility, and your responsibility alone, to ensure that you’re carrying adequate supplies, and a satellite phone, for the unlikely eventuality that you find yourself in trouble. That means a safari of this kind requires more careful thought and preparation than you will ever need for an organised tour.

Unless you’re staying in luxury accommodation, a self-drive camping safari is pretty short on comfort. You’ll be cooking your own meals and sleeping on thin mattresses or camp beds, and generally roughing it in the bush.

A smiling African safari guide sits in the driver's seat of an open-topped 4WD.
Choosing an organised safari ensures that you'll be in the capable hands of people who know the region like the back of their hand © Jonathan Gregson / Lonely Planet

What is the alternative to a self-drive safari?

At the opposite end to self-drive safaris are high-end organised tours, which are high on comfort and low on do-it-yourself adventure.There are, of course, endless variations of organised tours that differ based on your budget and preferences, such as whether you're comfortable with camping or whether you'd rather rest your head each night in an uber-luxurious and utterly exclusive tented camp.These will also vary from where you’d like to travel to how you'd like move from place to place, whether by a high-specification Land Rover,  light aircraft or simple minibus.

Most safari companies require a minimum number of paying guests, and the best run small-group tours. Some will offer a price from your departure airport, although it can work out cheaper to arrange your own flights and meet the other members of the group at the local jumping-off point. Most safari packages are all inclusive of meals, accommodation, activities and transport – one exception is that internal flights on small aircraft may be considered an additional cost.

An open-topped Land Rover, with four camera-toting guests and a guide, sits across a rough track in the bush; walking alongside the vehicle is a beautiful leopard.
On a high-end organised safari you'll likely have some of Africa's top guides, which increases your chances of epic wildlife encounters © bikeriderlondon / Shutterstock

What are the benefits of organised safari tours?

The advantages of an organised safari should be obvious. Foremost among these is that your decision-making responsibility ends when you make the booking. From touchdown to take off, you can typically sit back and enjoy the safari unfold before you without a thought about any logistics. And before dropping your hard earned money, you'll be able to choose from a seemingly endless variety of safari options.

The safari industry has built a reputation for pampering those who go on safari – there is some serious luxury on offer at many tented camps and lodges, although levels of comfort will generally be far greater the more you’re willing and able to pay. Although you’re unlikely to have any control over your fellow travellers on safari, many safari-goers end up making lifelong friends if they’re lucky enough to share the safari trails with like-minded travellers.

A minibus with a pop-up roof sits in the distance, with a large male lion laying in the foreground; the image is on an open savannah.
The guiding is less-skilled on budget organised safari tours, and transport is often in more crowded minibuses with pop-up tops © Michal Hornicky / Shutterstock

What are the downsides to organised safari tours?

Although some operators can arrange custom-designed safaris, once you book your organised safari, you’re locked into an itinerary: while some safari companies will allow you to tweak things as you go along, the overall itinerary is usually set in stone. This lack of freedom extends to your safari companions – you might be lucky and thoroughly enjoy their company, but there are no guarantees, and you may end up sharing safari vehicles and meal tables with people you simply don’t like. Cost can be another downside – safaris can be extremely expensive and will be, for many, a once-in-a-lifetime experience – although remember that most safari packages are all-inclusive and there are rarely any hidden additional costs.

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