Types of African Safaris and Activities

African Safaris

  • Introduction
  • Guided Game Drives
  • Nighttime Game Drives
  • Walking Safari
  • Boat Safaris
  • Horse Riding and Mountain Bike Safaris
  • Aerial Safaris
  • Self-Driving Safari
  • Primate Safaris

Emerging from the trees come a pair of white rhinos, a mother chaperoning her calf towards the river. They're barely ten meters away. You stop. Instinctively you hold your breath. It's a special safari memory, yet the feeling of this experience depends on the type of safari activity. Are you admiring them from a safari vehicle on a game drive? Or sharing the same landscape on foot? Perhaps you're waiting for them to come closer from a boat in the river? Or maybe it's nighttime, and there's a mystical atmosphere all around? 

While a game drive is the classic way to explore, a range of distinct activities elevates the African safari experience. They range from the resonant intimacy of a nighttime drive to the indelible charm of a boat safari, or the thrill of walking through elephant country with Samburu warrior guides, to the splendor of aerially cruising above herd dappled plains. Some itineraries focus on one particular angle, like a horse riding safari in Botswana or a gorilla trekking safari in Uganda or Rwanda. Others combine the activities; create an encompassing picture of the wilderness by merging idiosyncratic experiences. Each safari activity has its own appeal, creating a unique feeling and set of impressions. Furthermore, individual parks and reserves have their distinct specialties, tailoring the safari experience to activities that best showcase the landscape and its wildlife. 

 

Guided Game Drives

Game drives are the timeless way to explore, a vehicle able to cover large distances and also provide close-ups with an eclectic range of wildlife. It's surprisingly comfortable, with a pop-up roof or open sides providing an elevated view over the landscape. Game drives undoubtedly enable you to see more large mammals that any other safari activity and are great for idolized moments with the big cats. There's also an astonishing impression of abundance as you drive, wildlife filling the landscape at every turn. This is the most common safari activity and a mainstay on most safari itineraries. 

 

Nighttime Game Drives

Under the cover of darkness, the wilderness is a different place. Evocative cries pierce the still air, a rising moon creates redolent mammal silhouettes, and there's a spooky intimacy to exploring the landscape. Nighttime game drives are more than just guided game drives taken after dark. They reveal a different cast of wildlife and animal activity, one that's harder to see but easier to hear and smell. Excitement reigns and the unpredictability is intensified, the encounters coming at thrilling proximity as you slowly journey into the wilderness. It looks different, and it feels different, making a nighttime game drive an exceptional way of seeing the same place from a new angle. 

 

Walking Safari

Step, step, step, you slowly walk out into the big game country, the evidence of mammoth mammals all around. Fresh elephant dung festers on the trail; an upturned stone suggests kudu whereabouts and a giraffe tower peers down from the branches up high. Rhinos, antelope, primates, elephants can all be encountered on a walking safari. And it's only when you're on foot that an animal's true size can be appreciated. It sounds scary. But tribal communities have lived alongside these wild animals for thousands of years; following their ancient practices and techniques helps ensure you're safe.

 

Boat Safaris

All life revolves around water. Wildlife clusters around permanent water sources, tentatively drinking as predators eye up the potential dinner menu. Hippos and crocodiles spend their days below the water's surface, little but two eyes and a snout poking out from the often murky abyss. A boat safari explores the landscape's most important feature. It's predominantly calm as you gently cruise along the water and admire both the wildlife that inhabits, and the wildlife that visits. Everything must come to drink, and the safari is liberally sprinkled with an eclectic range of animals. While the slow pace brings an unruffled immersion, the serenity can be sporadically interrupted by scenes of drama.  

 

Horse Riding and Mountain Bike Safaris

Out on the plains a zebra herd canters, pounding the earth as they cross lush green landscapes. You're not watching them. You're riding with them, becoming part of the herd. Or head off-road on a mountain bike and keep peddling, approaching the hartebeest herd and then following them across the bush. With a horse riding or mountain bike safari, you become part of the environment, another mammal amongst thousands of others. These safaris are rapidly increasing in popularity, emanating a thrill and intimacy that's perpetually memorable. It's safe and can be enjoyed by anyone, regardless of their experience. However, the really close encounters necessitate confident riding skills. 

 

Aerial Safaris

Gaze down and iconic Africa seems to rolls on forever, colorful landscapes merging into each other and not a sense of human settlement in sight. Aerial safaris provide a staggering showcase of Africa's wild magnitude, mammal-dappled plains extending far beyond the horizon. The panoramas defy the imagination, some of the world's most untamed stretches of wilderness unfurling beneath your feet. Soar in a hot air balloon, cruise by micro flight, ascend in a helicopter or admire it all from a hopper flight between destinations. There are different options for getting in the air, yet the experience is consistently one of supreme scale and surreal wonder. 

 

Self-Driving Safari

You're in the heart of elephant country, and you're behind the wheel, the experience of self-driving adding a new blanket of excitement. A handful of African parks and reserves allow visitors to self-drive, a cheap option that's often reserved for shorter safaris. Exploring without a guide dampens the quality of the experience, and most rental vehicles aren't best suited to safari, but there is a certain freedom and ease that helps include a self-driving safari within a longer self-drive vacation.

 

Primate Safaris

In a lavish jungle clearing you're surrounded by a gorilla troop, over a dozen individuals barely meters away from your quivering camera. In another forest, a chimpanzee smiles through the trees, his evocative face spookily similar to your own. Africa's renowned primates mostly inhabited different habitats to the other famed mammals you see on safari, their antics hidden away in impenetrable forests and remote mountain enclaves. Dedicated primate safaris provide intimate encounters, the most famous being gorilla trekking in Rwanda or Uganda. These safaris must be planned well in advance and are only available in a handful of destinations.

Game drives are the timeless way to explore, a vehicle able to cover large distances and also provide close-ups with an eclectic range of wildlife. It's surprisingly comfortable, with a pop-up roof or open sides providing an elevated view over the landscape. Game drives undoubtedly enable you to see more large mammals that any other safari activity and are great for idolized moments with the big cats. There's also an astonishing impression of abundance as you drive, wildlife filling the landscape at every turn. This is the most common safari activity and a mainstay on most safari itineraries.

 

Why is a Guided Game Drive So Unique?

  • Game drives can cover large distances, allowing you to explore vast areas of wilderness in a single drive.
  • Covering greater distances inevitably means spotting a very diverse range of wildlife; game drives are particularly good for spotting the largest and most sought after mammals.
  • Traveling large distances also helps in finding the rare and elusive animals, like leopards and cheetah.
  • The safety of the safari truck makes game drives and nighttime drives the only safe way to encounter the big cats, particularly lion prides.
  • For a first-time safari, it's difficult to beat the eclectic range of wildlife that's encountered and the disparate ecosystems that can be explored.
  • Game drives are well suited to almost all habitats, the raised vantage point offering majestic views over the landscape and easy spotting of thousands of mammals.
  • In some national parks and reserves, guided game drives are the only permitted safari activity.
  • Modern safari vehicles make game drives a very comfortable way to spend the majority of the day exploring.

 

What is a guided game drive?

Game drives are fairly easy to picture. You get in a vehicle, get driven around, and see lots of wildlife. Which is essentially what you can expect, although there are many subtle points that enhance the experience. Game drives really allow you to explore the wilderness, crossing revered landscapes as they seek out the staggering array of wildlife that inhabits the wild.

 

The Daily Program

Africa's landscapes are alive in the early morning, the predators out on the prowl and the ungulates doused in soft sunrise tones. Like all safari activities, guided game drives are tailored to maximize your encounters with wildlife. And it's in the early morning that the animals are most active, everything from primates to lions taking advantage of the cool morning air. Late afternoon is also an excellent time for a game drive, the mammals returning from a languid slumber to graze in the dusk hours.

A popular daily program is to enjoy morning and afternoon game drives, with a relaxed rest at your accommodation during the hottest part of the day. In larger parks, another option will be to take a packed lunch and stay out on a game drive for most of the day. The daily program will always be flexible, the guide combining knowledge of the environment with your energy levels and interests. For predator sightings, early starts are almost always recommended.

Your guide and driver are likely to have preplanned a route, even if it seems you're just driving aimlessly. This could easily change if there's evidence of an elusive mammal elsewhere, or a trail is blocked for whatever reason – perhaps an elephant herd tore down a tree that now covers the road. These routes are based on experience. Certain animals are known to roam in particular parts of a park. So while you get a shock when the white rhinos emerge from the forest, pointing their horns in a show of grace and power, the driver was already expecting them to be here.

 

The Vehicle

Most guided game drives are in four-wheel drive vehicles with either a pop-up roof or open sides. Customized Toyota Landcruisers seem to dominate the market, and safari companies are good at keeping their fleet up to date. The raised chassis is essential, helping enhance your field of vision and spot the wildlife that hides in high grass. On multi-day safaris that tour a range of parks, you're likely to game drive in a seven to nine-seat vehicle. These tend to be long rather than wide, ensuring everyone has a window seat and can easily stand up to admire from the pop-up roof. The emphasis is on space so don't be surprised to have seven seats to share between two people. Smaller parks and reserves sometimes provide guided game drives in open-sided vehicles that can seat six up to 16. Again, the vehicle is designed to maximize your field of vision and ensure nothing is missed. So if the elephant appears on the left, you'll still get good shots if you're sat on the right. And while the vehicles are big, they're not the biggest thing in the environment. Turn around and there could be another elephant to your right, towering high above the Landcruiser and flapping its ears with imposing awe.

These vehicles are surprisingly comfortable, particularly considering that you may be spending ten hours a day in them. Most importantly, they're able to negate the bumpy roads relatively smoothly. Most now come with power sockets (great for when the camera battery dies without warning), a set of binoculars to share, and a fridge for cold drinks. On longer safaris most game drives are private, so it will only be your group in the vehicle.

 

The Journey

Weaving and winding you bump a journey across the savannah, nothing straight or smooth as you explore a national park. The vast majority of a guided game drive is spent on unsealed roads and marked tracks. While a couple of parks and reserves have asphalt roads, this is extremely rare and doesn't quite fit with the natural environment. It feels far more authentic when the elephants are crossing a dirt road rather than tarmac. While in name it's called a trail or track, the route is likely to be rutted, rugged, and extremely bumpy. Trails become flooded during the wet season, dusty in the dry season, and occasionally impassable. There is no semblance of being on a tarred road and the feeling of being in the wilderness isn't interrupted. It's rare that you'll drive at faster than 20 – 30 mph, something that suits the quality of the road and the chance to spot wildlife. Driving any faster would mean missing the clues of wildlife hiding nearby, especially those animals that hide in the trees.

Most national parks forbid driving off the road. Drivers must stick to the marked trails, although these may be little more than two sandy indents in the savannah, or a meandering gap through a forest of overhanging branches and creeping roots. Sticking to marked trails can sometimes be a frustration. For example, a leopard may be resting on a tree branch 30 meters from the track. It's too far away to admire without binoculars, and you can't get closer. But the strict rules are essential in conserving the natural habitat. Imagine if ten vehicles charged towards the leopard. Not only is the leopard interrupted, but the landscape is scarred by tire tracks, and part of the habitat could be irrevocably damaged. Some national parks have name and shame boards and will ban drivers for repeated off-road driving.

In comparison, private game reserves and private concessions often allow off-road driving as they can restrict the number of vehicles in the environment. A lion feasts on a zebra carcass, and you immediately drive over to the fresh kill. Teeth crunch and black and white limbs are ripped from bodies, barely two meters from the safari vehicle. While you can get closer in these reserves and concessions, the overall area to explore is likely to be on a smaller scale to the national parks.

 

The Encounters

Game drives are all about scale, and you may cover anywhere between 30 – 200 km in a single game drive. This allows you to explore a large area of the park and subsequently seek out a diverse collection of wildlife. Spot the giraffe peeking out above the trees then search for permanent waterholes where kudu gather, continue to hippo filled swamps then ascend to a viewpoint for charming wide-angle panoramas. Return to the valley floor and skirt a riverbank, eying the trees for a stealthy leopard. All this and you've only been driving for an hour.

In general, you drive slowly and stop beside every interesting sight. The driver will cut the engine and give you time to enjoy the moment. So there's no need for snatched photos of the buffalo herd. Stop, take your time, admire the view, and the driver will move on when you're ready. Covering large distances is highly advantageous in finding the rarer and more elusive mammals. The security of being in a vehicle is also essential in safely encountering the big cats. Spotting a lion pride without a vehicle would probably be deadly.

Most wildlife won't see you. They'll see a large and noisy safari vehicle. This is something that most animals are fearful of, even if they've grown gradually habituated to their presence. The boisterous size and rumbling engine are the main disadvantages of a guided game drive. You're big and loud. So the mammals may move away when they see or hear you coming. Return from a game drive and you could have a hundred shots of zebra and warthog backsides as the mammals have quickly skipped away from your path. Most animals will stop and stare at the vehicle, but only when they feel they're at a safe distance. When the driver cuts the engine, and the mammals start to relax. Slowly they get closer and the intimacy returns, a young herd daring to graze closer as you watch on astonished.

 

Quick Tips for a Guided Game Drive

  • Game drives often traverse landscapes that aren't safe for you to be on foot. So don't get out of the vehicle unless your guide says it’s safe.
  • Follow the guide's instructions when encountering big cats. These often include ensuring the windows are closed, and the door is locked.
  • If your safari itinerary only features game drives, there's no need to pack the bulky walking boots. Just wear loose-fitting, comfortable clothes.
  • With the roof up and windows down it can get very dusty in the vehicle. This can potentially pose problems for sensitive camera equipment. Having a good camera case and spare plastic cover helps keep it all safe.
  • Communicate your interests with your safari guide. In large national parks and reserves, the game drive could head off in many different directions. Your guide will be keen to tailor the drive to your wishes, so don't be shy to admit your love or fascination for a particular animal.
  • Also, don't be afraid to communicate your energy levels. If it's been a long day and you've rather head back to camp, then say so.

 

Iconic Game Drives in Africa

  • Tour the scorched desert plains of Botswana's Central Kalahari Game Reserve, a vast and sometimes desolate landscape that hides predators and drama. You can travel miles without seeing anything. But then you drive over a ridge, and black-maned lions are chasing springbok beneath the shadow of elephants. On these dusty plains, game drives ensure you can cover large distances and follow the wildlife migration to permanent waterholes.
  • The Southern Serengeti plains provide a rare opportunity to drive off-road in a national park. From mid-December to mid-March, millions of wildebeest and zebra give birth and raise their young on the nutrient rich grass, dotting the plains for as far as the eye can see. The abundance of easy meals attracts a great collection of predators and game drives can provide an astonishing intimacy with raw hunting scenes.

  • The immense mass of Kenya's Tsavo West and Tsavo East form one of Africa's largest national parks and most unpredictable safari experiences. As the months roll by the wildlife migrates, making unpredictable journeys to fresh pastures. You could spend an hour seeing nothing. Then you could stumble on a private utopia of a dozen grazing species, all hidden within a dusty bush.
  • The big mammal encounters come with astonishing frequency in the Sabi Sands, a private concession that borders South Africa's Kruger National Park. White rhinos roam through the savannah while lion prides seek shade beside a safari vehicle's wheels. Elephants block the trail in one direction, yet turn around and a small bachelor herd of buffalo are waiting. This is an iconic destination for early morning and late afternoon game drives, with the languid hours in between watching it all roam past your terrace.
  • For a first-time safari, it's difficult to beat the abundance and diversity of Tanzania's Ngorongoro Crater, a compact volcanic caldera that's home to six different habitats and the full big five, including critically endangered black rhino. Few other game drives can offer such a varied list of big mammals in just a few hours. 

Under the cover of darkness, the wilderness is a different place. Evocative cries pierce the still air, a rising moon creates redolent mammal silhouettes, and there's a spooky intimacy to exploring the landscape. Nighttime game drives are more than just guided game drives taken after dark. They reveal a different cast of wildlife and animal activity, one that's harder to see but easier to hear and smell. Excitement reigns and the unpredictability is intensified, the encounters coming at thrilling proximity as you slowly journey into the wilderness. It looks different and it feels different, making a nighttime game drive an exceptional way of seeing the same place from a new angle.

 

Why is a Nighttime Game Drive So Unique?

  • While your vistas are restricted by darkness, wildlife is less likely to see you coming, often meaning closer proximity and intimacy than a game drive during the day.
  • The balance of power shifts when nighttime arrives and the wilderness becomes a very different place. A nighttime game drive offers a fresh angle on the animal world, especially the interaction between predator and prey.
  • Nighttime drives are safari at their most unpredictable, full of inherent thrill and a sense of adventure.
  • Cut the engine and there's a mystical feeling to being alone in the wild, with the sounds and smells becoming especially vivid and impressive. Focusing on new senses helps to provide a more complete understanding of the environment.
  • Nighttime drives are good in most environments and habitats, but are standout experiences in savannah and bushland.
  • An entirely different cast is active at night, and a nighttime drive helps you spot elusive animals missing from your safari experience; in particular, the smaller predators and those who spend their days in the water.
  • Nighttime game drives are not permitted or conducted in every safari destination, giving them a certain rarity and uniqueness.

 

What is a Nighttime Game Drive?

Nighttime game drives are always a safari treat, a chance to indulge in a fresh perspective and a new collection of scenes. Illuminated by moonlight and a roving spotlight, the savannah is a very different place. Your senses become attuned, picking up on peculiar sounds and discovering the subtleties that went unnoticed during the day. And when you find a scene of drama, you're far closer than you could imagine.

 

Is it Just a Game Drive in the Dark?

If you focused on the bare facts then a nighttime game drive is like a daytime drive but after dark. They're conducted in the same vehicles as a daytime game drive, usually with the same driver and guide. You will journey along the same collection of trails and tracks, although drivers tend to have particular routes which are known to be the best at night. Like during the day, you're bound by rules about where you can go. See this section on game drives for a complete overview of the vehicle and the roads that are used.

Nighttime drives won't cover the same distance as daytime drives, the driver usually sticking to a short loop that's close to your accommodation. This isn't a time for exploring the outer reaches of a park. You'll probably be taking the same tracks as in the day, although that's often difficult to realize when most of the landscape is in darkness. You'll also be going slower, rarely above 20kph. Stopping and cutting the engine is an integral part of the experience, even if it doesn't appear that anything is around. There's a strange mysticism as you sit and wait in the dark. While a daytime game drive provides a sense of scale and abundance, a nighttime game drive is a means of transporting you into a unique wilderness scene. Nighttime drives are usually shorter than those in the day, although there's no hard and fast rule about their duration. The guide will look to provide an encompassing and immersive experience, something that slowly builds as the drive continues.

 

The Impression of Darkness

Of course, the key difference is light. There's none of it, other than the glow of the moon and the vehicle's spotlights. Large mammals loom larger when they're in silhouette, the twinkle of a cat's eyes appears in the darkness, and the spotlight briefly illuminates a passing herd. Cut the engine and all is still. Your ears tune in. Something is grazing nearby, but it's impossible to see what. A rumbling roar slices through the night, and you try to decipher which direction the lion is calling from. The guide turns on a torch and buffalo are just meters away.

Darkness brings excitement and thrill. Who knows if a leopard is stalking its prey in the grassland behind you? What will suddenly appear around the next corner? The vehicle's headlights will illuminate what's in front, while your guide will have a high-powered spotlight to scan the surroundings. But in general, the landscape is dark, and the wilderness feels far more imposing. There can be an inherent sense of danger, but a nighttime drive is very safe. Drivers are likely to be more cautious, especially when coming across dangerous mammals like hippos and elephants. They'll be quick to respond to any signs of fear or aggression from the mammals.

 

Greater Intimacy

The lack of visibility works to your advantage. Most wildlife can't see you coming, meaning it's less likely to beat a quick retreat from the trail. The safari vehicle becomes less imposing and less of a threat, minimizing their disruption on animals' movements. This brings a greater sense of intimacy. Not only are you closer, you feel disproportionally closer. When the spotlight roams the wildlife stops in its tracks, offering an idolized snapshot of an animal emanating emotion.

Intimacy also comes from opening different senses. Sounds have greater resonance and subtle impressions become a key part of the experience. At night you take greater interest in cacophonous bird song, the boisterous racket warning impala of a lurking cheetah. Through the silence come softer tones, like antelope conversing or a baby elephant calling for its mother. You're guided by these sounds, from a hippo's animated grunt to the unmistakable thundering growl of lions imposing their power. Without the power of sight the landscape also takes on a peculiar mystique. You begin to imagine what's around you, taking the audio clues to build an idyllic impression of the landscape. Then the lights come on and there's an eerie reality to it all.

 

New Scenes at Night

Most African landscapes are more alive at night than they are during the day. After conserving their energy during the heat of the day, nighttime is when the majority of wildlife is at their most active. Hippos chomp through immense areas of grass, antelopes congregate in huge herds, and predators are out on a hunt. Not just lions and leopards, but smaller cats like mongoose, jackal, or bat-eared foxes. While your vision is obviously limited, nighttime is when most wildlife is out in the open. This is not only a time to spot a collection of previously unseen mammals, but a chance to admire them at their most energetic. For example, a leopard is the most difficult of the big five to see and it's often spotted resting on a distance branch. Nighttime could bring a shot of the spotted cat out prowling.

Yet the overarching experience is less about individual spots and more about absorbing the feeling of the wilderness. Gradually it builds, from an eerie exhilaration to a calm embracing of the surroundings. As senses are elevated and dramatic spots are illuminated, there's a new awareness of the landscape's scale and a greater perception of how it works. You don't need to spend long on a nighttime game drive to garner this fresh angle.

 

Quick Tips for a Nighttime Drive

  • Nighttime game drives are very safe although the usual rules are made more important by the cloak of darkness. This definitely isn't a time to get out of the vehicle.
  • It can get very cold when you're driving at night, so wrap up warm and cover the extremities.
  • Taking good photos on a nighttime drive is extremely challenging, especially because using the flash is usually prohibited. Unless you're a dedicated photographer, the nighttime drive offers a chance to forget about the camera and focus exclusively on the experience.

 

Iconic Nighttime Drives from around Africa

  • Few parks can rival the Kruger for size and few can showcase such an imposing sense of scale and wilderness. Journey at night and you'll need the stars to act as a compass, because little else breaks the darkness.
  • Moremi Game Reserve comes alive at night, a staggering abundance of leopard patrolling a landscape of eclectic abundance. While nighttime drives aren't allowed in Botswana's national parks and reserves, the private concessions adjacent to Moremi offer sublime moments with these great predators.
  • Nighttime game drive across the epic plains of Etosha National Park and tour the floodlit waterholes of various camps. The ungulates must come to drink as the predators silently lie in wait, with the soft illuminating lights offering a chance to witness the action.
  • Night driving is largely prohibited in Tanzania. Even buses aren't permitted on the main national highways at night. However, Lake Manyara National Park has recently introduced nighttime safari drives, offering the rare sight of hippos out of the water and a forest of treats. The infancy of the activity provides further enchantment; you'll be amongst a small set of people to have experienced wild Tanzania at night.
  • Zambia struggles to attract the safari fame of its East African neighbors, despite the resplendent quality of parks like South Luangwa. Nighttime drives are possible in the country's national parks, making Zambia an excellent choice for anyone keen on an itinerary with multiple nighttime game drives. Civet, mongoose, bushbaby, porcupine... it's a surreal world inside these idiosyncratic parks.

Step, step, step, you slowly walk out into the big game country, the evidence of mammoth mammals all around. Fresh elephant dung festers on the trail; an upturned stone suggests kudu whereabouts and a giraffe tower peers down from the branches up high. Rhinos, antelope, primates, elephants can all be encountered on a walking safari. And it's only when you're on foot that an animal's true size can be appreciated. It sounds scary. But tribal communities have lived alongside these wild animals for thousands of years; following their ancient practices and techniques helps ensure you're safe.

 

Why is a Walking Safari So Unique?

  • Moving on foot allows you to blend silently into the environment, enabling an astonishing and inspiring proximity to wildlife.
  • Walking trails head deep into thick forests and entangled bush, allowing you to explore areas that are inaccessible to vehicles.
  • There is arguably no greater immersion in the wild than a multi-day walking safari in Africa.
  • Wildlife becomes more majestic and imposing, the animals' true size revealed when you're both standing at ground level.
  • Safely encountering large mammals like elephants and rhinos provide eternally memorable safari moments.
  • Ancient tribal knowledge is utilized to track wildlife on foot, imbuing a deep sense of understanding of the environment and an evocative appreciation for the subtle rhythm of the landscape.
  • Many walking safaris are led by indigenous tribal guides, adding an intriguing cultural resonance to the experience.

 

What is a Walking Safari?

In a landscape of diaphanous beauty, you start to walk, tentatively at first, then with more confidence. But a buffalo herd blocks the trail ahead. There's no vehicle window to hide behind and no wheels to take you away from danger. You're silent and small, just another creature in a vast landscape. Wildlife doesn't consider you a threat, their actions now dictated by curiosity. The buffalo watch you as much as you watch them. Then they walk on, and you continue your journey. By slipping into the environment's cadence you get breathtakingly close, everything from tiny antelope to huge rhinos viewable on foot.

 

 

Safety on a Walking Safari

It sounds dangerous, walking through big game country. But many different African tribes have coexisted in this environment since long before foreigners started arriving on safaris. From the Samburu of Northern Kenya to the Himba people of Namibia, the continent is filled with an exhaustive knowledge of how to live alongside big game, including all the predatory cats. Some of these tribes are hunter-gatherers, like the Hadzabe of Tanzania or the San Bushmen of Southern Africa. Their understanding of the landscape is almost absolute, eyes immediately analyzing the infinitesimal clues an animal has left behind; an upturned stone, a minute indentation in a tree, the freshness of footprints in the mud, the flexibility of trampled grass. This knowledge has allowed tribes to flourish by both tracking animals and repelling the advances of danger.

These ancient practices are an essential part of ensuring the safety of a walking safari. Guides can immediately ascertain if a leopard has passed nearby and will change the route accordingly. The movement of an antelope herd is understood, and you can follow their path. The night's camping spot is changed at the last moment because boisterous hippo males have been fighting and rampaging nearby. For many millennia, their knowledge has been based on an understanding of how man can peacefully fit into the environment. These practices continue with modern walking safaris.

At the same time, many walking safaris in Southern Africa are also accompanied by armed rangers. This is most common on dedicated big game walks, like tracking rhinos or elephants. The gun provides a certain reassurance and a warning shot into the air can be used to ward off potential danger. Instances of it being used are extremely rare. Likewise, armed warriors accompany you in East Africa, although they choose to use traditional weapons rather than ammunition. For tribes like the Maasai and Samburu, part of becoming a man involves surviving alone in potentially dangerous bushland. So scaring a lion with a spear isn't as unusual as it sounds.

Safety ultimately relies on respecting the environment. Most wildlife isn't looking to pick a fight. But it expects you to keep a respectful distance and not invade their space. This is especially true when encountering mothers with calves or bachelor herds of young males. By understanding the environment, skilled walking safari guides avoid potential confrontation and maintain your harmonious role within the landscape.

 

Different Walking Safari Options

It's day five, and you rise from the tent, lacing up the boots to continue a trail that's completely inaccessible to vehicles. Alternatively, you could put the shoes on for a 30-minute walk with the Maasai guards from your lodge. Walking safaris vary in length, from short excursions into the nearby surroundings to long dedicated journeys through the bush.

Many camps and lodges offer optional walking safaris, in particular, those located in their own private concession or reserve (note that walking safaris are prohibited in many of the larger national parks). They offer short game tracking walks in the nearby area, usually following a set route with predictable animal encounters (predictable for the guides to manage, but still very unpredictable for you to experience). These walking safaris could be anything from 30 minutes to a half or full day. For many multi-day African safari tours, this is a great opportunity for a new game viewing experience. In some concessions, they provide truly unique encounters, like tracking white rhino or large elephant herds.

Dedicated walking safaris provide a complete immersion in the wild, allowing you explore a vast area of otherwise inaccessible wilderness. They can range from one to ten-day hikes, with camping en route. These isolated bush camps are an integral part of the experience and continue the feeling of being alone with nature. It's a real adventure, hundreds of miles from the nearby road. Gradually you settle into the landscape's rhythm, appreciating the subtle clues and experiencing every nuance. You won't always be surrounded by wildlife, but intimate encounters come at regular intervals and different days are likely to feature a new cast of animals.

 

The Walking Route and Wildlife Encounters

Crunch, crunch, crunch, nothing but the sound of footsteps through the bush as you undertake a walking safari. Almost invariably, walking routes traverse areas that are inaccessible to vehicles. This could be a narrow track through the forest, a steep route across a valley, or a thickly overgrown part of bushland. The emphasis is on providing a fresh experience and exploring a unique area, whether it's a two-hour or two-day walk. Walking safaris aren't about scaling a mountain peak or setting records. The pace is leisurely, and it's rare that you'll walk for more than four to five hours in a day. On multi-day walks, you usually walk through the cooler morning hours and rest in the afternoon.

Don't be expecting lions. That wouldn't be safe. Nor would be tracking any large predator. Walking safaris predominantly provide encounters with the ungulates, from tiny unusual antelopes to zebra and giraffe. The thrill comes with the proximity. Not only can you get closer, the animals feel much bigger when you're also at ground level. For example, only a walking safari can truly showcase the 2000 pounds of the bulk of a male eland. Wild elephants and buffalo can be experienced from a safe distance (remember the importance of respecting space), as can rhino in some destinations. Varied bird life is very impressive, and you can often get close to eagles and vultures.

Quick Tips for a Walking Safari

  • Break in your walking shoes before arriving in Africa. The heart of the bush isn't the place to find replacements.
  • Sunhat and sunscreen are always important for any African safari but especially for a walking safari. Staying hydrated is also essential.
  • It's not a race. You're not climbing Kilimanjaro. Go slow and soak up the splendor of the environment.
  • Animal behavior can change rapidly, and some species may test their boundaries by testing yours. For example, certain monkeys may mock charge and snarl. Showing fear increases their confidence. Listen to your guides and follow their actions, whether that's retreating from the scene or standing your ground.

 

Iconic Walking Safaris from across Africa

  • Explore wild Kenya with Samburu warrior guides and walk along the remote Ewaso Nyiro River, home to a stunning cast of large antelopes and a sublime landscape of valleys and forest.
  • Track wild white rhinos on foot, an experience that's safe and available in a range of Southern African reserves, like Namibia's pristine Okonjima Reserve. At ground level, their 5,000lbs weight becomes far more real and impressive.
  • Spend a day or two with San bushmen in Northern Namibia, getting fully involved with one of Africa's few remaining hunter-gatherer tribes. Learn about tracking techniques, spend time with indigenous hunters, and discover the subtle ways to forage for food with a digging stick.
  • Stay silent and explore Botswana's Linyanti Swamps by a combination of walking and mokoro (wooden canoe) safari, following the footsteps of hippos as they roam through prime bushland.
  • The landscape of Tarangire National Park is dominated by elephant herds and baobab trees, their bulk gazing down on large ungulate herds. It's one of Africa's most iconic settings and half day walking safaris can really explore it, the elephants wandering barely 20 meters away.

All life revolves around water. Wildlife clusters around permanent water sources, tentatively drinking as predators eye up the potential dinner menu. Hippos and crocodiles spend their days below the water's surface, little but two eyes and a snout poking out from the often murky abyss. A boat safari explores the landscape's most important feature. It's predominantly calm as you gently cruise along the water and admire both the wildlife that inhabits, and the wildlife that visits. Everything must come to drink, and the safari is liberally sprinkled with an eclectic range of animals. While the slow pace brings an unruffled immersion, the serenity can be sporadically interrupted by scenes of drama.

 

Why is a Boat Safari so Unique?

  • Water is the source of all animal life, and everything must find a regular place to drink. So the river or lake is never quiet, and the riverbanks always bring unique animal encounters.
  • Away from the vehicle trails, traveling along the water is one of the safari's most tranquil experiences.
  • Bird life flourishes around rivers, and gentle paddle strokes don't interrupt the vibrant choruses or vivacious colors.
  • There are rarely any restrictions with where a craft can go, meaning very close encounters with specialist water dwellers like large pods of hippos.
  • Rivers are often flanked by dense forests and in some reserves they become the only means of exploring, the waterways providing a channel for both wildlife and safari experiences.
  • The sheer range of craft make water based safari different in every destination, from traditional wooden canoes and white water kayaks to sunset dinner cruises and luxury overnight boats.

 

What is a Boat Safari?

Out on the water, there's an enduring calm, bird song fluttering from the trees and the odd antelope cautiously sipping away at the water's edge. You move slowly, not attempting to seek out wildlife. With a water safari, you allow the wildlife to come to you. By cruising on the water, you explore the landscape's most important feature, quietly awaiting both those that come to drink and those that wallow in the wet.

 

Wildlife Encounters

Permanent water sources like lakes and rivers are where wildlife encounters are intensified, especially during the dry season. There's no telling when an animal will come to drink. But it must, whether it's a tiny dik-dik, a rampaging elephant herd, or a pride of lions. Such animals rarely gather in the same place.

There can be tense scenes at the water, and everyone keeps a respectful distance, including herds that wait for each other to finish drinking. For 20 minutes you can see nothing but the odd kingfisher or fluttering flock. Then turn a corner and a hartebeest herd finishes their drink. On the opposite riverbank, giraffe spread their legs wide and bend their necks towards the water. Buffalo splash and frolic, causing a brief commotion. Slowly you cruise past, onto the next encounter, perhaps a cheetah taking a drink or some slurping warthogs. Regardless of the choice of craft, the journey is leisurely and encompassing, a delightful blanket of tranquility settling over the river.

It's no surprise that safaris on water are the prime means of spotting water specialists. Hippos spend their days submerged, wallowing and grunting with just their snouts above water. From a distance, they resemble huge gray rocks in the water. As you approach, the interaction and detail come into sharp focus; two males pushing for wading rights, a youngster seeking its mother, 20 snouts peeking out. Nile crocodiles prefer the sun, often sunbathing along sandy banks throughout the day. Bird life is also abundant and a highlight of a boat safari, from specialist divers to those that weave nests along the banks.

 

Incorporating a Boat Safari Into an Itinerary

A water based safari is predominantly a half day or two-hour inclusion in a wider safari itinerary, especially in parks that are dominated by major rivers. Combining game drives with water safari helps complete a picture of the environment and offers a change of pace. As always, early morning and late afternoon are the best times to explore, with many reserves specializing in sunset boat safaris. Boat safaris obviously rely on a long stretch of uninterrupted water, something that's missing from the majority of parks and reserves. While almost everywhere has some water, it's often of the shriveled and evaporating variety. This gives boat safaris a certain rarity and helps makes them a must-experience highlight wherever they're available.

 

Different Boats

So what's the boat like? That entirely depends on where you are. In Botswana alone, boats range from tiny traditional wooden canoes (mokoros) to luxury boats with wide upper decks that seat over 50. In some countries, it's possible to kayak or canoe yourself – just make sure to circumnavigate the hippos. This diversity is another aspect of the boat safari's appeal. Regardless of the type of craft, the emphasis is on going slowly and minimizing the noise. That's easy with paddle power, but those with engines are surprisingly good and maintaining the peaceful equanimity.

 

Quick Tips for a Boat Safari

  • Forget the tick list. Boat safaris bring unpredictable treats and are best enjoyed when the mind isn't wishing for a particular spot.
  • The rarity of boat safaris mean they're distinctive opportunities to enjoy the landscape from a new angle.
  • Water and delicate camera equipment don't usually mix. Make sure everything's securely packed, especially when traveling by smaller boats and canoes.

 

Iconic Boat Safaris from around Africa

  • Nature's greatest oasis is a wonderful haven for desert dwellers, the Okavango Delta home to thirsty mammals who've migrated for thousands of miles. In certain areas, traveling by boat is the only means of exploring Botswana's Okavango, the traditional method being a mokoro, a wooden canoe. A boat safari here is one of Africa's finest safari experiences.
  • Hippo grunts and monkey shouts flicker across the World Heritage iSimangaliso Wetland Park, a breathtaking expanse of lagoons and channels that are predominantly accessed by boat. Huge hippo pods mark the journey as does a rapturous sense of freedom. Continue the boat safari out of the delta to South Africa's Indian Ocean coast and deserted white sand beaches await.
  • The great Zambezi River tumbles east, creating a natural boundary between Botswana and Namibia, then Zambia and Zimbabwe. Boat safaris offer elegant views into all four countries and their dramatic geological differences. The options range from fine-dining sunset cruises to whitewater kayak adventures, all encountering wading hippos, and sunbathing crocodiles.
  • Selous – Tanzania's and Africa's largest game reserve – is dissected by the mighty Rufiji River, a water source that attracts a stunning array of big game. Cruise along the river and you slowly marvel at everything that comes to drink, from hyenas and wild dogs to impala and hartebeest.
  • Botswana is the king of African river safaris, and its waterways can be explored on a variety of vessels. Spend a day on the Chobe River, starting the tour on the luxury Zambezi Queen before switching to smaller boats that drift towards pod of hippos and endemic fish-diving birds. 

Out on the plains a zebra herd canters, pounding the earth as they cross lush green landscapes. You're not watching them. You're riding with them, becoming part of the herd. Or head off-road on a mountain bike and keep peddling, approaching the hartebeest herd and then following them across the bush. With a horse riding or mountain bike safari, you become part of the environment, another mammal amongst thousands of others. These safaris are rapidly increasing in popularity, emanating a thrill and intimacy that's perpetually memorable. It's safe and can be enjoyed by anyone, regardless of their experience. However, the close encounters necessitate confident riding skills. 

 

Why are Horse Riding and Mountain Bike Safaris so Unique?

  • Rather than merely watching and admiring, experienced riders can become part of the herds, cantering along zebra or riding with great numbers of wildebeest.
  • It's rare that there is a set trail; horse rides and bike journeys usually cut across the landscape and follow the footsteps of wildlife.
  • The thrill of the activity is supremely elevated when you encounter the big game like elephants, giraffes, and even rhinos.
  • This is the best opportunity to get close with ungulate herds, from the often bashful eland to the skipping antics of a gazelle.
  • The pace finds an indelible balance, slow enough to absorb everything yet quick enough to cover significant distances, particularly on a multi-day safari.
  • Rides are tailored to differing experience levels, with many places offering short horseback or mountain bike safaris to those with no experience. Experienced riders can enjoy week-long journeys across the prime wilderness.

 

What is a Horse Riding or Mountain Bike Safari?

A horse and a bike are ideal ways to traverse rugged and rutted landscapes. They're nimble, flexible, quick enough to keep pace with wildlife, while slow enough to absorb the nuances of the surroundings. Most importantly, they're virtually silent and don't appear as a threat. While ungulate herds will still treat you with an inkling of suspicion, they allow horse riders and cyclists within remarkable proximity. And it's this which makes the experience so special. You join the herds, rather than watching them from a distance.

 

Wildlife Encounters

While the mode of transport differs, horse riding and cycling offer a similar experience in similar destinations. These safaris are only possible in places where the risk from predators is minimal. This may be in smaller private reserves with limited predators or in wide open landscapes where any potential threat is easily spotted. Horse riding and mountain bike safaris are all about joining the ungulate herds; zebra, wildebeest, kudu, hartebeest, and other larger antelopes. But such herds are rarely alone. They share the landscape with elephants, giraffe, buffalo, and rhino; these large mammals raise adrenalin levels and require careful handling of the horse or bike.

 

The Range of Horse Riding and Mountain Bike Experiences

Saddle up and start riding, creating new tracks as you spend a week crossing untrammeled bush. Or jump on a horse and gently loop around a compact private reserve. Horse riding and mountain biking fall into two categories. The most accessible are two to three-hour rides in small reserves and private concession. Considering the experience on offer, these are often very affordable excursions. Horse riding is always guided although some parks offer unguided mountain bike safaris.

Multi-day itineraries are increasing across Africa, and many countries now offer a long horse ride or mountain bike safari. These head deep into the heart of the wilderness, using mobile camps for overnight accommodation en route. Ranging from two to ten days they epitomize the exhilaration and natural charm of an African safari. Expect to cover 20 – 40 km a day, mostly at a gentle pace but with a few bursts of acceleration and excitement.

 

Required Riding Experience

Basic rides are open to everyone, regardless of experience. The guide will pace the group accordingly and avoid any potentially dangerous situations. However, a degree of riding skill and experience is required for multi-day itineraries, and any encounters with larger mammals. Horses can be unpredictable and easily spooked, especially when an elephant trumpets and flaps its ears. Likewise, a large herd of buffalo isn't the most enticing sight for a mare. Traversing landscapes with these types of encounters necessitate a good riding ability. The same applies with a mountain bike. Turn an uphill corner and a startled giraffe pair slip into defensive mode. If you can't change down a gear and continue to ascend, there could be danger.

So how good do you need to be? Tour companies are usually very open and honest about the riding ability level required. Some offer different itineraries dependent on experience, and many provide clear guidelines on what's required.

 

Quick Tips for Horse Riding and Mountain Bike Safaris

  • Forget about the camera. Focus on riding safely.
  • Be honest about your experience when booking a safari. Operators need to carefully match horses to clients and ultimately ensure the safari is safe for everyone.
  • While you obviously want to get close, don't invade an animal's private space. Most ungulates are easily spooked, and their erratic actions can quickly upset a whole herd and your own horse.

 

Iconic Horse Riding and Mountain Bike Safaris from around Africa

  • Gallop across the open salt pans of Botswana on a multi-day horse riding safari, following migrating zebra as they journey between the Makgadikgadi and Naxi pans, hooves kicking up dust as you traverse a shimmering whiteness. One of Southern Africa's hidden gems, these pans provide an effortless excursion into a vehicle-less wilderness. Botswana's Okavango, Central Kalahari, and Northern Tuli Reserve are also iconic destinations for multi-day horse riding and mountain bike safaris
  • Swaziland isn't especially known for its big game, yet it excels in offering rare safari activities. Spend two days at the compact Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary, combining horse-riding safari, mountain bike safari, and walking safari. While the big cats are absent, you can go off-road and mingle into the ungulate herds.
  • Many of South Africa's private game reserves excel in giving inexperienced horse riders the chance to ride on game filled plains. The pace is slow, and the horses are tamed for beginners, but the thrill is injected through close-quarter zebra and giraffe encounters.
  • During the great wildebeest migration, huge herds migrate to the Serengeti's Western Corridor and the Grumeti Game Reserve. Around June and July, experienced riders at the reserve's luxury camps can canter with huge numbers of zebra and wildebeest. It's an inimitable way of being part of nature's greatest show.
  • Horseback safaris originated in Kenya, and the country continues to offer gallops into the wild, including luxury hacks across the Maasai Mara and panoramic journeys through Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. These multi-day journeys put you center stage in a world of wildebeest herds, elephants, and giraffe towers.

Gaze down and iconic Africa seems to rolls on forever, colorful landscapes merging into each other and not a sense of human settlement in sight. Aerial safaris provide a staggering showcase of Africa's wild magnitude, mammal-dappled plains extending far beyond the horizon. The panoramas defy the imagination, some of the world's most untamed stretches of wilderness unfurling beneath your feet. Soar in a hot air balloon, cruise by micro flight, ascend in a helicopter or admire it all from a hopper flight between destinations. There are different options for getting in the air, yet the experience is consistently one of supreme scale and surreal wonder.

 

Why is an Aerial Safari So Unique?

  • Some of Africa's national parks dwarf the U.S. States or European countries in size; exploring by air offers the best opportunity to do justice to this scale.
  • Planes and balloons can touchdown in the most remote and seemingly desolate places, far from any road or walking route. It's in these places that wildlife roams at its most uninhibited and untamed.
  • Ethereal panoramas are the highlight of every aerial journey; the landscapes dappled with kaleidoscopic tones and the movement of herds.
  • Admiring national parks from the air provides a new understanding of animal behavior, the elevated vantage point revealing migratory patterns and even hunting methods.
  • African animal numbers defy the imagination: 100,000 elephants in the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, 2 million wildebeest and zebra in the Serengeti, white rhino abundance in Kruger National Park. It's only from the air that these figures can start to make sense.
  • While aerial journeys are part of the experience, they also serve as quick and exciting ways to connect remote destinations that are often inaccessible by road.

 

What is an Aerial Safari?

It's from the air that the sheer extent of Africa's wilderness is revealed. Rise above the landscape and the vistas stretch beyond each horizon, hardly a manmade element to find in thousands of square miles. The scale can be breathtaking, some of the world's finest natural wonders extending below. Yet there's also an intimacy to an aerial safari. Swoop lower to the ground and herds can be easily seen. Then touch down on land, and you're in the heart of the wilderness, landing on airstrips that have to be cleared of wildlife, or open clearing far from any off road track. While the panoramas are the obvious highlight, an aerial safari is also a journey to rarely seen parts of a park or reserve.

 

Hot Air Balloon Safaris

Increasingly available in Africa, hot air balloon safaris often provide the final piece in a landscape's jigsaw of experiences. They're best suited to wide open habitats, places where the landscape stretches seemingly for eternity; the most impressive example being the endless grass plains of the Serengeti and Maasai Mara. Most rides ascend around sunrise when the landscape is bathed in a resplendent and photogenic hue. You get around one hour in the air, before touching down to a luxury breakfast in a remote place in the park (sometimes with champagne). The great memory often centers around the seductive enormity of the landscape and the astonishing mammal numbers.

 

Helicopter Rides

Helicopter rides also provide indulgent aesthetics on how nature irrevocably constructs the environment. These are noisier and are found soaring above unique natural wonders rather than wildlife covered environments, for example, Victoria Falls.

 

Micro Flights

Light aircraft have always been an essential part of the safari experience. Early conservationists painted their single engine planes black and white to estimate zebra numbers from the air while tiny passenger planes opened up remote destinations well before roads touched them. These micro flights are a regular part of how to get around on an African safari. Soar above the landscape, watching how desert gives way to forest and bushland, then touchdown at a dusty private airstrip that's regularly crossed by grazing antelope. Such journeys can save whole days of traveling by road, as well as provide unrivaled vistas. Taking micro flights between national parks also offers a superlative look at how the landscape changes.

Dedicated micro flights also provide half day or full day safaris to some of Africa's largest national parks and reserves. These cruise low above the landscape and loop around vast sections of a park, or collection of parks. In some cases they land in a remote and usually inaccessible area, allowing you to explore on foot and breath in the desolate charm.

Planes vary in size but seat somewhere between four and 12 passengers. On private charters, the co-pilot seat is made available, and it's got the best views. They're usually single engine planes that are well-versed in landing in remote places. Note that luggage space is a major consideration in such small planes. For scheduled services, flight companies limit baggage to 15kgs (32lbs). If there's a spare seat, then they're not strict in enforcing this rule. But if the plane is full, it could be that there is genuinely no room to put excess baggage. Whether chartered of scheduled, micro flights run to a very flexible daily itinerary. They will leave early if possible but could be delayed for a multitude of reasons, including elephants on the runway. It's all part of the experience.

 

Multi-day Aerial Safaris

Southern Africa's uninhabited deserts stretch over impossible scales. Thousands of square miles lie empty, save for the telltale footprints of a melancholy giraffe in search of water. The Kalahari would be the 30th largest country in the world. It's not a country; it's a desert. Namibia's Fish River Canyon is the world's second largest, but nobody knows about it. You'll find the world's highest sand dunes in the Namib-Naukluft, a national park that covers almost 50,000km². These enormous scales can be explored on a multi-day aerial safari. It's unlikely you'll see another person. The plane swoops across the deserts, landing in extremely remote and inaccessible landscapes where you spend the night admiring the stars. These safaris are a mix of escapism, wildlife encounters, and unique natural utopia. They also provide a journey into landscapes that have rarely ever seen human eyes.

 

Quick Tips for an Aerial Safari

  • Limit your baggage to 15kgs (32lbs) when taking micro flights.
  • Be flexible about the schedule. Operating tiny planes in the wilderness is not the same as flying international jumbo jets. Some planes leave ahead of schedule; some may be delayed.

 

Iconic Aerial Safaris from around Africa

  • Soar above the deserts of Namibia, crossing from the burning red dunes of Namib-Naukluft to the iconic rocks of Damaraland. Keep flying and you cruise above the Skeleton Coast, an expanse of shipwrecks that poke out of the dunes. Single day micro flights offer a glimpse at Namibia's beauty, but multi-day aerial safaris showcase the landscape's evocative scale.
  • Rise above the great wildebeest migration on a hot air balloon safari, the enormity of the herds revealed as you float across the Serengeti or Maasai Mara. You ascend at sunrise and touch down an hour later, where a champagne breakfast completes the experience. After a day or two on the ground, hot air ballooning provides an indication of what two million mammals looks like.
  • Botswana's scale often necessitates flying between national parks and this mode of transport offers a sublime look at how nature's spell has unfolded. In particular, a flight into Chief's Island in the Okavango Delta takes you from dusty desert to channels of lavish blue and clear panoramas of elephant herds.
  • Take a helicopter above Victoria Falls, marveling at how the Zambezi River tumbles into a mile-wide abyss and sends cascades of spray over the landscape. Viewing the falls on land gives the greatest sense of the waterfall's power, but the aerial journey is one of the world's finest visuals.
  • Vast desert landscapes are best understood from the air. South Africa's Tswalu Kalahari Game Reserve and Namibia's Sossusvlei come alive when sunset tones flicker across the jagged landscapes. Hot air balloon or micro flight above them, reveling in the diaphanous beauty of an uninhabited landscape that's never been tamed.

You're in the heart of elephant country, and you're behind the wheel, the experience of self-driving adding a new blanket of excitement. A handful of African parks and reserves allow visitors to self-drive, a cheap option that's often reserved for shorter safaris. Exploring without a guide dampens the quality of the experience, and most rental vehicles aren't best suited to safari, but there is a certain freedom and ease that helps include a self-driving safari within a longer self-drive vacation.

Why is a Self-Driving Safari Unique?

  • On longer self-drive vacations, spending a day in a park or reserve is a very affordable way to briefly experience a safari.
  • Self-driving is best suited to destinations that have excellent tarred roads and clearly identified routes.
  • Exploring without a guide's knowledge means missing out on a lot of wildlife and understanding of the environment; however, guides can often be hired from the park headquarters.
  • There is an incumbent freedom and wonder when adding a self-drive safari to a longer vacation.

 

What is a Self-Driving Safari?

In some ways, self-driving is the easiest and quickest safari you could ever take. Enter through the park gate, drive around and spot some animals. There's no guide to provide detailed information, no local driver who understands where the wildlife hides, and no dedicated safari vehicle to offer elevated views. The experience isn't as immersive or as encompassing; African national parks are huge places and maps don't help to elucidate where you'll find the most wildlife. But simplicity and affordability make this an increasingly popular option, particularly for people on self-drive Southern Africa vacations.

 

Why Go On a Self Drive Safari?

Southern Africa can be a hypnotic self-drive destination. Majestic deserts and bucolic beauty extend in every direction and the long open roads give an idyllic sense of freedom.  Huge distances are also a factor in tourists choosing a self-drive vacation over a more expensive fully guided trip. Arrive at a national park and the easiest option is to keep driving in the rental vehicle. National parks advise against self-driving although it's permitted in the majority of parks and game reserves. Some specify four-wheel drive vehicles only.

Guides can usually be hired at the park gate, and this is highly recommended, both to ensure safety and maximize the experience. In comparison to park entry fees, the cost of a guide is excellent value. While some visitors prefer to exclusively self-drive, a more balanced itinerary is to combine guided game drives with self-driving; explore in the morning with a guide, start to understand the environment, then enjoy the freedom of self-driving in the afternoon. Note that rental vehicles are not necessarily suited to safari, both in their performance on dirt roads and the views they provide.

 

Important Safety Considerations

Dangerous wildlife encounters are disproportionally weighted towards self-drive safaris. There has been a series of incidents involving large mammals and tourists in recent years. These consistently stem from drivers failing to recognize and understand animal behavior. For example, an elephant will provide two warnings, flapping its ears to show power and stomping its feet to indicate temper. Young bachelor males are particularly dangerous. An experienced driver will retreat on the first warning. A tourist driver doesn't recognize the signs and half a minute later the vehicle has been flipped over by the elephant, as happened to a group of self-drive tourists overusing the camera flash in Kruger National Park. Maintaining a safe distance is obviously recommended, but without the instruction of a guide, what is a safe distance? That's another conundrum when exploring without a guide. Caution and vigilance are important, as is keeping the windows closed and doors locked when encountering any big cats.

 

Quick Tips for a Self-Drive Safari

  • Hire a park guide. Their knowledge of the environment is hugely advantageous. They also help ensure you're safe.
  • Mix self-drive safaris with guided game drives to experience more of a destination's beauty and abundance.
  • Some parks only permit four-wheel drive vehicles, and almost all parks will recommend them.
  • Plan a route in advance and take a park map.

 

Iconic Self-Drive Safari in Africa

  • South Africa's Kruger National Park is the largest of Africa's safari destinations that allow self-driving. A paved road runs across the heart of the park, but you'll need four-wheel drive to journey off the asphalt.
  • Dust swirls and lions prowl in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, a safari destination that covers most of Central Botswana. On a longer Southern Africa self-drive vacation, crossing the bewitching Central Kalahari may be both safari and the most direct route.
  • Africa's oldest game reserve, Hluhluwe-iMfolozi, is a haven for white rhinos and an ode to early conservation efforts. Situated in South Africa's Zululand, it's an easy addition to a longer Zululand itinerary.

In a lavish jungle clearing, you're surrounded by a gorilla troop, over a dozen individuals barely meters away from your quivering camera. In another forest, a chimpanzee smiles through the trees, his evocative face spookily similar to your own. Africa's renowned primates mostly inhabited different habitats to the other famed mammals you see on safari, their antics hidden away in impenetrable forests and remote mountain enclaves. Dedicated primate safaris provide intimate encounters, the most famous being gorilla trekking in Rwanda or Uganda. These safaris must be planned well in advance and are only available in a handful of destinations.

 

Why is a Primate Safari Unique?

  • These are the only opportunities in the world to see certain endangered primates in the wild, in particular, gorillas and chimpanzees.
  • Gorilla and chimpanzee troops have been carefully habituated and are accepting of your presence.
  • Trekking success rates are exceptionally high, the chances of spotting the rare primates ranging from 90% to 99.9%, dependent on the destination.
  • Primate safaris provide up to an hour of contact with a troop (officially from a distance of seven meters or more).
  • Trekking through the forest to visit a troop takes you deep into untangled and untouched jungle, the path often created by a ranger with his machete. There's a real sense of being visitors in their habitat.

 

What is a Primate Safari?

Gorilla or Chimpanzee trekking is one of Africa's most iconic travel experiences, a small handful of national parks providing astonishing access to some of the world's most endangered species. Less than 1000 mountain gorillas remain. The number of wild chimpanzees is only slightly less precarious. Primate safaris are very different to other safari experiences. They predominantly focus on physically trekking through the forest to spend time with a pre-identified gorilla or chimpanzee troop. Some African national parks also excel in less famous primate encounters, their trees rocking to the sound of endemic monkey calls.

 

The Gorilla and Chimpanzee Trekking Experience

Slowly you ascend through the trees, pushing a path through thick bush and tangled creepers. A furry glimpse, an exciting shock of black, and you're getting close. After almost two hours of trekking deeper into the forest, the gorillas are in sight. The pace slows. Cameras come out. A few more meters and the first gorilla appears, languidly stopping its feeding to give you an extended stare. Walk a little closer and more of the troop appears. A youngster comically explores the trees, jumping and falling between branches. The silverback sits with imposing grace, two meters of solid bulk and hands that dwarf your own. The guide ushers you to a new vantage point, and the rest of the troop is visible, eight, nine, ten, with maybe even more gorillas in the trees. They watch you, accepting your presence. Some are more inquisitive, sending their eyes between different trekkers. Officially you may view the gorillas at a distance of seven meters although this rule tends to be flexed by trekking guides.

 

Other Primate Experiences in Africa

Gorillas and chimpanzees are not the only primates to inhabited Africa's forests. Many traditional game drives and safaris will encounter groups of primates. Great troops of baboons are common, especially around park gates and picnic sites. Vervet and colobus monkeys are also regularly encountered on safaris that explore a forest. There's a high degree of specialization with many primate species endemic to particular reserves. Some national parks are tailored towards primate encounters and these offer walking trails that are surrounded by up to a dozen different species.

 

Quick Tips for Primate Safaris

  • Such breathtaking proximity inevitably leads people to spend the whole hour taking photos. Which can detract from what's actually happening. Take your photos and then put the camera away to savor the experience.
  • Good hiking shoes are essential, as are lightweight long-sleeved shirts and comfortable trousers. It's muddy, prickly, spiky, and everything else you might expect from the thick virgin forest.
  • Walking sticks are provided at park headquarters. They're essential for trekking.
  • Take at least two liters of water per person, as well as some energizing snacks. It can be a tiring day although the adrenalin and exhilaration also help to minimize fatigue.

 

Iconic Primate Safaris

  • Stand before a huge silverback in Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park, watching the great mountain gorilla beat his chest and then tear down a tree.
  • Track chimpanzees in Uganda's Kibale Forest National Park, marveling at the similarities between you and them while also checking out a dozen other distinct primate species on the trek.
  • Security concerns have kept the Democratic Republic of Congo off bounds in recent years. However, should the situation improve, Virunga National Park offers intimate encounters with large troops of habituated mountain gorillas and chimpanzees.
  • Discover some of the world's rarest primates in Tanzania's Udzungwa Mountains, a recently gazetted national park with over ten unusual primate species. Endemic Sanje crested mangabeys and Iringa red colobus monkeys have only been known to scientists for the last 40 years, and a series of hiking trails weave through their native forest.
  • Recent habituation efforts have opened up a number of new gorilla troops to visitors in Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. The experience can be a little more rugged and unpredictable compared to Rwanda's gorillas, which can lead to fascinating scenes as babies swing above your head, and a whole troop surrounds your camera.

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