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Self Drive Safari South Africa (or Anywhere)

DSC_4197Why are safaris so freaking expensive?

I’m passionate about wildlife but I’m pretty darn cheap. I’d pay money to go on a safari, like in South Africa or Sri Lanka, but it seems that many of the tours offered are incredibly expensive.

So a long time ago I decided self-drive safaris are the way to go. But when I tell people that they look at me like I want to be mauled by a lion. But it’s totally easy!

When we were in the park and I saw these Mercedes sedans driving around the park, I had to laugh. Why do people think you need to pay tons of money to see wildlife? My guess is one of the following reasons:

  • The driver can navigate the park.
  • The driver knows where the wildlife normally is.
  • The drivers communicate and tell each other where the rarest animals currently are.
  • You need a special car.
  • Otherwise, you get lost.

There is a little bit of truth to all this, but it’s all nullified.

  • Navigating the park is extremely simple. It’s often a few roads in a circle and they give you a map.
  • The map has the wildlife hot spots and waterholes listed.
  • The drivers are so busy trying to get in an out, it seems that any inside tips are rarely helpful.
  • You can rent a 4×4 car.
  • Again, navigating the park was super super simple.

And with regards to a special car… there were Mercedes in the park! Of course, there are some roads they couldn’t go on, but the main road of the park was paved. Many parks have main roads that are well decently maintained.

I rented a 4×4 truck from thrifty and when I got there I thought, “man, we could have gotten the $10 a day car.” Although, we did hit some back roads.

And with regards to the guides seeing more animals. The only times I saw the tour groups were for the peak times (morning and evening) but it was brief. And they were always staring at a group of zebras or something. We’d go around, like, “I’m so over zebras”.

We saw it all. We did. Well not leopards or chetahs, those are quite rare at Pilanesberg, but we saw everything else. We have pictures to prove it.

DSC_4337

(Check out our post on Pilanesberg National Park in South Africa for a ton more photos).

Prices

The first cheap thing we found as far as tours was $200 a person to be in an open-air kind of shuttle bus.

Another thing is that they lie to you. At least our hotel (the InterContinental) told us that the park would be 40 minutes away. What a joke. It takes 2.5 hours each way. That’s 5 hours of your day right there. Now if you’re doing a 7 or 8 hour tour, that’s 2 or 3 hours of wildlife. Max.

Call it jetlag, but I was up at 3:30 am. and we left at like 4:30 not realizing how long it takes. We did have a GPS for my first time ever. It was efficient (and somehow I thought there would be a toll road) and we didn’t hit traffic, so it was more like two hours.

This way we got to see both prime times, the morning and evening. And we spotted the same lions upon entering and leaving.

What we spent:

$16.30 -park entry + map
$67.34 -1 day 4×4 vehicle rental
$4.89 -GPS rental for 1 day
$76.70 -fuel for truck

total: $165.23

There’s no way you could possibly convince me that our truck with GPS wasn’t 100 times better than being in that shuttle bus tour. We saw everything the tour busses did. I know this because they were all telling us about this Kotu, which we saw all over.

“You saw a Kotu huh…neat.  Yea, I see. Alrighty, see ya later.”

Rules & Safety

  1. Never get out of the car, except in designated areas.
  2. Do not be a jerk and leave your car running when you’ve stopped to see an animal. Period. It scares the animals off, so as much as the AC is nice, have some respect for the animals and other people paying to be in the park and turn off the car when you stop. This and humanizing by sticking your body out the window will scare off most animals.
  3. The first person to see the animal seems to have the right to sit there as long as they want.
  4. Don’t piss off the elephants. Really, don’t get too close.
  5. The booklet they give when you enter the park, yea, read it.

Tips

  1. Get there early or stay late. And when I say early, I mean sunrise.
  2. You see more in wide open places, and obviously bodies of water can not only serve as a wide open place but as a watering hole.
  3. Go slowly. Where there’s a group of animals, there’s often more.

Picking the car:

I would get a 4×4. The only reason not to is to save money. But I imagine not all parks have such easy roads. However, just google or youtube the park. When I looked up Kruger national park, I saw a video of a ton of paved roads. You could go in your lowrider and be fine. There may be roads you wouldn’t go on, but I imagine the paved road goes to all the main places.

So for Kruger and other big parks, check Dr. Google or youtube. If you want to save the cash, get a cheap rental car if the majority of the footage you see is paved. But even in Sri Lanka the dirt roads were completely flat and well maintained. However, I could see a big rain making a mess. So we opted for the 4×4.

Conclusion

Get the idea out of your mind that there are some special qualifications or skills required to be a safari driver. It’s easy, simple and a heck of a lot of fun.

Reasons not to do a self-drive safari:

  • You enjoy other people telling you when/what to do.
  • You prefer paying more money when possible.
  • You don’t know how to or can’t drive a car.
  • You prefer having a driver.
  • You want a limited amount of time in the park.
  • You want other people’s heads in your photographs of animals.

If those don’t appeal to you, rent a freaking car. There are even a number of companies that rent camping gear with the truck. Many times the tent goes on top of the truck. When you get into overnight safari prices, then you’re really getting ripped off. Even the hotels near Pilanesberg were very expensive.

All there for you, if you’re ready to save money and see wildlife.

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23 Comments

  1. Nice post – I might consider self-driving during my next safari, especially after recently self-driving (and seeing lots of North American Wildlife) at the National Bison Range in Montana – http://www.fws.gov/bisonrange/

    Reply
    • Haven’t been there, but loved driving around Yellowstone and seeing the herds of Bison. Tis great.

      Reply
  2. I think you are coming across a little harsh. Let me play the flipside advocate:

    * A driver is not just a driver, he is a guide, explaining to you what you are seeing. Would you spend $5000 on a cruise to the Galapagos and just sail your own boat? (Maybe you would, but don’t knock those people that want a guide.)
    * Some people say that Kruger is just a big fenced zoo with well-marked roads. You might do even cheaper at Wildlife park near San Diego.
    * Who likes driving in the heat, when jetlagged?
    * Not everyone is in your situation, with no kids in tow and trying to extend their bucks to the max. For most people, this is a trip of a lifetime and they have spent a lot of money to get there, so why get all cheap once you are there?

    You are lucky that you are young, healthy and have more time than most to travel

    Reply
    • “You might do even cheaper at Wildlife park near San Diego.”

      Bwahahaha. Or even cheaper, rent some Discovery and Nat Geo videos while sleeping in a tent in the driveway. It’s “almost like being there”. Who needs to pay to go all that way to Africa?

      Reply
    • Awesome. You had an even better than my idea of the wildlife park.

      To cap it off the “budget safari”, you would have to get to the driveway in a first-class stretch limo (how else you gonna get lie-flat sleeping?).

      Reply
    • Lol

      Well, I think you may have a point with the guide. They also have radios. But it seems to me like they’re always chasing the last call/sighting.

      Plus the time is 4 hours instead of all day. But regardless, it is a preference thing. But for a budget travel site, this seems the way to go. Especially with kids. Sure, people could just pay tons of money… But I don’t think it would be a better experience.

      Reply
  3. Good post. I’ve only been in Africa seeing wildlife once. It was in Kenya visiting friends who lived there, and in their own vehicle, so it was independent, yet with people experienced and knowledgeable in the parks we saw. Perhaps the best of all worlds. I do hope to get to other parts of the continent, though, and the self-drive option is certainly one to investigate depending on the situation. The post is one couple’s experience, holding it out as an idea, not a claim that their way of doing it is normative for all visitors or all parks.

    Reply
    • Sounds awesome. Would love to get to Kenya and Tanzania in the next year. It’s on my short list.

      Reply
  4. Thanks for the post. I haven’t done a safari, but I’ve had great luck spotting wildlife on self-drives in US national parks and imagine the basic premise is the same. Not sure why it would be different internationally.

    I know Kruger and some other parks also offer walking safaris, which hold massive appeal to me but I’d imagine that may be a good time for a guide.

    Reply
    • Ditto on the walking safaris. I didn’t get a chance to do this, but that sounds amazing and definitely you need a guide! I think it was 3-4000 ZAR depending on which one in Kruger (there are some that you stay in decent tents and such, and others that you self-cater the whole thing, BYOT and such)

      You have to weigh it out between each park, but a lot of the ones in SA are really well-maintained. The locals are doing self-drives, why shouldn’t you? And anyway, this is a budget travel blog after all….

      Reply
    • It’s true. I think people assume that their national parks are… uh, some how different. People assume you need guides. But no one assumes that with Yellowstone.

      Now a walking Safari? What? You’re not even allowed out of your car?

      Reply
  5. I found your post a bit harsh and a very American-centric point of view. Safari-ing in groups, when possible, cuts down on pollution and the number of cars in the park. If everyone drove in their own rented cars all the time, the parks would need more road maintenance, the animals would have to deal with more vehicle noise, and traffic jams around animal sightings would increase. Do you really need the slight increase in independence and flexibility by driving yourselves? When we visited Kruger a few years ago (my husband grew up in S Africa and we were back to visit), we found a lodge to stay in near the park and then could take day trips easily. We joined groups in open-air vehicles for v. reasonable prices (less than $50 per time at least, can’t remember).

    I love being thrifty and it is nice to have your own AC and convenience sometimes, but it’s a bit extreme to make people who choose to go in groups sound like idiots.

    Reply
    • I agree…there definitely is a additional burden on the wildlife caused by increased traffic.

      I recall too that there is a serious problem with people abusing the rules of wildlife viewing (no feeding, no driving off road, etc.). The guide we had was incredibly diligent in making sure we (and others) did not encroach too much on the wildlife. On their own, with no one looking, some people act crazy.

      Reply
    • Sorry if this is too American (although I am American). But in my defense, we didn’t run the AC, and it wasn’t just about convenience. It’s about budget, wanting to spend more time in the park than the safaris offered and all. And in terms of pollution – I haven’t owned a car in years, but did rent one this day.

      But I don’t think this is unusual. There are campgrounds for locals.

      I think the point is that Yellowstone isn’t a place where people feel you have to pay for a giant group safari, and it’s the same in other countries. The locals don’t pay for group tours.

      Reply
    • Great thoughts. If your original post had only described this position, rather than making people who chose to go in groups sound so silly (see “Reasons not to do a self-drive safari”), I wouldn’t have felt the need to comment.

      Reply
  6. LOL at You want other people’s heads in your photographs of animals

    Needless to say, the more people in your family / group, the even MORE economical a self-driving safari would be. For my family, the cost of the self-drive would be the same, but if we were to do a paid safari, tickets for 8 would be 4 times as much as you’d pay.

    Reply
    • Right. That would be steep. And if the hotel convinces you to do their tour, even big ouch. lol

      Reply
  7. Great article that applies to nearly all package tours. While they may be worthwhile for some, we find that the best moments involve getting lost and going where no guide would ever take you.

    Side note from a comment months ago – I highly recommend Roatan as a reasonably priced, laid back, thoroughly awesome Caribbean island.

    Reply
    • I guess that’s true. You can always try to do it yourself, no matter what the tour is… because the locals would.

      Haven’t done Honduras yet, but this looks great. But so many islands in Honduras and Belize coast are looking attractive. I really like Isla Mujeres off of Mexico.

      Reply
  8. Thanks for the follow up post. Where did you rent the 4 by 4? In J burg? How was insurance handled? I can’t believe that the vehicle would be covered if it were damaged by the animals. How did you arrive in SA? With flamethrowers being installed on locals cars for protection, how safe did you guys feel driving there and being in J burg period?

    Reply
    • Your welcome.
      1) I think it was Thrifty. A regular 4×4 pick up from a major chain.
      Although I know there are companies that just do Safari trucks with tents built in.
      2) I denied insurance. Then payed with a world mastercard, because they have a car insurance plan.

      Reply
  9. Are there any point-accepting hotels closer to the park than the InterContinental Hotel you stayed at?

    Reply
    • I don’t think so. Honestly, Sandton, where the IC is, is on the northwest side anyways. So it’s as close as you can get, but still far.

      Reply

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We have spent the majority of our marriage traveling full time, living out of hotels.   All the while, we list our expenses publicly, budgeting $25,000 a year for our nomadic life while still staying in mostly 4 or 5 star hotels across ~20 countries a year.
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