How to Easily Prepare for a Self-Drive Safari in Southern Africa

First of all: What is a safari? I google the word and the first line I find is: “Safari - an expedition to observe or hunt animals in their natural habitat, especially in East Africa.”

Driving in soft sand in Sossusvlei, Namibia

To make things clear, this is not what I am going to write about. Hunting yes, but only with your camera please. What I am going to write about might also be relevant for East Africa but to be honest I have yet to visit that part of the world. I am going to write about how to best prepare for a Self-Drive trip so that you can observe animals in their natural habitat in Botswana, Namibia and South Africa.

If you plan to observe wildlife, e.g. lions, giraffes, zebras, calculate that you would need to drive a bit out of town to see them. It is not that they are roaming free on Bree Street in Cape Town. If it is already too much of an effort in your opinion please leave the article now, it doesn’t get any easier after this point. Please stay if you are into visiting very remote places.

Going on a self-drive Safari is like going on an expedition, a tiny one. Don’t forget millions have done this before you, so it is not that hard or dangerous or anything, not really. David Livingstone might have had a hard time in his days, I promise you won’t. If you go on a road trip there is not always so much space in your vehicle. I love to keep things simple, for example I don’t travel with a fridge or (hold your breath) a TV. Heavens, imagine you would watch TV in the bush, while you actually could listen to the sound of crickets and all the wildlife.

Refuelling in the Kgalagadi Transontier Park

Self-Drive Safari: Bushveld – Desert – Wetlands

Start with deciding which country or area you would like to visit on your self-drive safari and then plan accordingly.

GPS / Maps for a Self-Drive Safari

Familiarize yourself with the route and the distance, you plan to drive. If you plan ahead, calculate your arrival for one to two hours before sunset, that way you will have enough time to set up camp and prepare food before it gets dark.

Book permits for National Parks months in advance

If you want to go on a Self-Drive Safari in Botswana you will need to book permits for the National Parks beforehand, best to book them months in advance. In South Africa and Namibia you might be lucky to just get into a NP upon arrival but I would not count on this, especially not during peak season. This is a pain; it really takes away the spontaneity of a road trip, but simply remind yourself of how popular and how special these places are. The peak season is linked to public holidays and also depends on the season you travel in.

Botswana: Department of National Parks and Wildlife, email:
Namibia: Namibian Wildlife Resorts and Namibian Ministry of Environment and Tourism, MET.
South Africa: South African National Parks SANParks.

Malaria Prevention and other Vaccinations

Consult a travel clinic before you travel, better be safe than sorry. You might want to visit the website of the South African National Travel Health Network SaNTHNet or find similar pages on the web.

As a rule of thumb, use Malaria prophylaxis when it is necessary. Don’t safe money at the wrong end.

Self-Drive Safari: Mode of transport - 2 WD versus 4 WD

First of all you need a vehicle. A 4WD should do the trick. But I can fill you in on a secret. I once rented a 2WD Golf (Chico) in Cape Town, South Africa and drove all the way up to the Kgalagadi Transfontier Park in the Northern Cape of South Africa. I had the best time ever. When I dropped the car off in Cape Town after my trip, the guy at the garage asked: “Where did you visit with the car?” I answered “Kgalagadi Transfontier Park”. I will never forget the look on that guys face; he actually thought I am one of the most hilarious people he ever met, he had a real laugh, he thought I cracked an awesome joke. His reaction hinted better not to set things straight and leave it at that.

What I am saying is I might have had “dumb silly luck” … but it is a memory I am very fond of. In most National Parks you would need a 4 WD, you might need to manoeuvre a flooded area or drive through deep sand.

Self-Drive Safari and Tires  

Bring two spare tires, and make yourself familiar with how to change these before starting your trip. It is great to have a high lift jack. Help/service might be included in your car rental agreement but I doubt that someone will come out to change your tire.

Self-Drive Safari and Fuel  

Fill Jerry cans with a sufficient amount of fuel. In most towns you will find a petrol station, but be prepared for the worst case (that there is no petrol station in reach). Check fuel availability before you enter a National Park.

Self-Drive Safari and Water 

You have to be self-sufficient in most National Parks. There often won’t be any fresh water for you, so prepare to bring your own. Check with the National Park before you go. I use Micropur Classic to make drinking water durable for 6 months. With filling water, which is safe to drink, into a clean tank together with this product I can be sure that no bacteria will form in the water. Please use products like these as advised in the leaflet.

Self-Drive Safari and First Aid Kid 

I would not over-complicate things, take some band aid, bandage, pain killers, disinfectant, electrolytes powder, tablets against cystitis, biodegradable mosquito repellent. Take what else there is you take on a daily basis. A GP told me not to take Imodium in case of Diarrhoea, since it is better to let the bad things out of your system. This is exact that moment when you take the electrolytes powder. To be on the very safe side you better ask your own GP what is best to do in case of Diarrhoea.

Biodegradable shower gel and shampoo. Please don't toss the grey water into the ocean or a river but bury it.

Camping equipment for your Self-Drive Safari

Pillow and sleeping bag. One folding chair per person, and to also to bring a folding table is a good idea; it very soon gets uncomfortable to eat without one. Walking shoes, long pants, jumper for cooler moments, shorts, a few T-Shirts (you will best know what you like to wear).

Self-Drive Safari - the Food 

When you buy food for your trip, avoid things with excessive packaging. The less you take into a National Park, the less rubbish you will leave behind in the dustbins on the campground.

Self-Drive Safari - the Cooking equipment 

I take plates, cups, cutlery, a cooking spoon, a Swiss army knife, 1 saucepan and 1 wok, a cast-iron form, a folding washing basin, biodegradable dishwashing liquid, and a few kitchen towels with me. You will be surprised what you can achieve with only a few things. If you rent a car I expect this is all going to be part of the rental agreement.

Self-Drive Safari - Cooker, fuel to cook 

I use a Coleman single burner stove, and I love that I can set it up wherever I want. I can prepare myself a cup of tea in the remotest corner of a park. I cook everything on it, pasta, sauce, risotto, tea, coffee.

Self-Drive Safari and Firewood 

Firewood can be bought at most petrol stations. Check with the National Parks before you go. Note: You can't collect wood in the park.

Self-Drive Safari and Lighting 

Don’t forget to take a head torch. I usually also take candles and a few solar powered lamps with me. Use the firewood to set up a campfire.

Tools for your Self-Drive Safari

A tire air compressor comes in handy when you have to change the tire pressure.

Bring a tow rope, in case you need it. Don’t forget that a tow rope is only half of it. There need to be other vehicles around to pull you out of misery, most often this is not going to happen, since there are hardly ever many other vehicles around. Think twice before you catapult yourself into an unknown situation, don't be foolhardy. Do you know how to cross a river or drive in sand?

Gadgets for a Self-Drive Safari

Camera, SD cards, battery chargers for all your gadgets, binoculars, smartphone (you will have reception in many parts and you won’t have any reception in many other parts, if you know what I mean). 

Etosha National Park, Namibia

Xakanaxa, Okavango Delta. Botswana
Okavango Delta, Botswana

Self-Drive Safari - It is all about your attitude

The most important thing is to embrace new situations with open arms, be curious and have fun. Keep your ears and eyes open but don’t worry too much. I bet if you have done this once, you will start to plan the next trip while you are still in the bush.

From Berlin with love