Beginner tips for 4×4 rental self-drive safaris

Are you an independent and adventurous traveller that wants
to explore Africa at your own pace? A self-drive safari is one of the best ways
for you to experience Southern Africa’s splendour first hand and a great alternative
to the traditional safari.

Although road conditions throughout much of Africa are the
stuff of nightmares, most of Namibia, South Africa and to a degree Botswana are
very accessible. Renting a fully equipped 4×4 vehicle though greatly opens up
your options as a number of must-see parks and bush camps are not accessible
with a normal car. As your 4×4 camper becomes both your accommodation and
transport this is also quite economical and flexible.

Having the freedom to go from one game reserve to the next
as well as being able to stop off at wine estates, beaches and amazing
landmarks en route is actually a lot easier than you might think. Self-drive
safaris let you take in South Africa, Namibia or Botswana at your own pace with
many highlights making for some incredible moments along the way.

Unlike the traditional safari, this experience is not given
to you, you have to get out there and grab it. The reward however, is unmatched.

Here are a few practical beginner do’s and don’ts and some common
questions about self-drive safaris;

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Do’s

  • Research and plan your trip well in advance.
    Most 4×4 vehicle rentals, reserves and campsites require advance booking.
  • Do not skimp on the vehicle, stick with
    reputable rental companies.
  • Understand your vehicle and equipment. Have the
    rental company consultant take you through the vehicle and equipment
    thoroughly. There are no stupid questions, don’t be embarrassed to ask
    anything.
  • Adhere to traffic rules, road signs and stick to
    the speed limit, especially in national parks and game reserves – it is for
    your own safety and allows you to see so much more.
  • Watch out for animals – many of the roads are
    unfenced and animals such as donkeys and cattle (even hippo) often wander
    across the road, in parks and reserves it could be anything from a tortoise to
    an elephant!
  • Take a GPS and maps. The roads are often not
    sign-posted so these are a definite necessity. I would also highly recommend
    renting a satellite phone when venturing into remote areas alone (also see
    FAQs).
  • You should always have a first aid kit. Apart
    from special medication needs like chronic medicines there are a few basic
    things that should be in every first aid kit to cater for cuts, bruises and
    burns. Consult your rental company for options.
  • Arrange your own medical and emergency
    evacuation insurance.
  • Ditch the tick-in-the-box mentality. An
    essential element of your trip is patience; enjoy what Southern Africa has to
    offer. Don’t rush from place to place, but rather take your time and enjoy the
    spectacular wilderness.

Don’ts

  • Do not travel after dark as animals are harder
    to see on the road at night. Many accidents happen because of this.
  • On safari, don’t get too close to wildlife no
    matter how amazing the sighting is. Wildlife is just that; wild. They are not
    pets, they behave unpredictably and can be very dangerous. Do not corner
    animals with your vehicle or honk or shout at them. See post on what to do when
    you encounter dangerous animals here.
  • Don’t Contribute to safari traffic jams. Many
    people pull over at sightings however they see fit, without taking into account
    that they might be blocking other people or cornering animals. At busy
    sightings wait your turn then move forward, watch for a few minutes, take your
    snapshots and move on. Alternatively park away from the sighting and wait for
    the traffic jam to subside. You’ll be amazed what you see sometimes once everyone
    else has left…
  • Inside national parks / game reserves, stay inside
    your vehicle at all times unless otherwise indicated.
  • Don’t feed wild animals.
  •  Don’t litter! Always take out what you brought
    in, only dispose of your garbage at designated points.
  • Only make fires in braai (BBQ) areas or fire
    pits / rings. Be extra careful in windy conditions and put out your fire before
    going to bed.
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FAQs

Q: What vehicle should I rent?

A: Vehicle reliability is probably the most important factor
here. While the rental company will come to your aid to repair or replace a
vehicle, aid may be hours, or even days away. My personal preference is the
Toyota Land Cruiser or Hilux, two of the most common (and most reliable)
vehicles in Africa. Be sure to discuss your camping equipment needs with your
rental company.

Q: Do I need off-road experience to self-drive through
Southern Africa?

A: Depending on where you want to go, not necessarily. You
do however need good, general driving experience and a valid drivers license
obviously. If you do want to venture off the beaten track a little more but
you’re an inexperienced off-road driver, another option could be joining a
guided self-drive tour. There are many great tours available (with varying
degrees of difficulty) guided by reliable tour-operators like Bejhane
Adventures
(or sometimes provided by some of the rental companies as well).

Q: Where can I go off-road?

A: First of all, let’s define “off-road”. Off-roading is a
very loose term that’s often used to describe anything from travelling on gravel
roads and jeep tracks to literally driving off the road. Generally, always
stick to roads and tracks, driving off the road can be dangerous if you’re
inexperienced and also not permitted in a number of areas like National parks.

Q. Is it safe to go on safari by myself?

A: Yes, but again, it greatly depends on where you want to
go. Many remote destinations have no mobile reception, no recovery or emergency
services on hand and are so desolate that you might not see any other traffic
for days. I would advise always renting a satellite phone and GPS when
travelling alone to these remote areas and recommend rather going with an
experienced guide / tour if it’s your first “off-road” self-drive safari. Be
aware of crime elements in cities, towns and more populated areas in general.
Only camp in designated campsites.

Q: Is it safe to drive at night?

A: No, do not drive at night if you can avoid it.

Q. What do I do if my rental vehicle breaks down?

A. Ensure that your rental company has 24h emergency /
road-side assistance (the reputable ones do). After a call to their helpline,
assistance / replacement vehicle will be dispatched. The time it takes to get
to you will greatly depend on your location obviously. Always make sure to have
enough provisions (especially water) when travelling in remote areas.

Q: Can I drive through water in my 4×4?

A: Yes, if necessary, but be sure to gauge the depth and
flow of the water first. You should be able to comfortably walk through the
water no deeper than your knees and with no obstacles. Never attempt to cross
rapids! When in doubt, rather find an alternate route.

Q: Do I need to carry extra fuel (i.e. jerry cans)?

A: It depends entirely on the vehicle you’re renting and where
you’ll be travelling to. Some vehicles will have long-range fuel tanks and/or
jerry cans can usually be provided as well. Check with your rental company and
research your routes prior to departure.

Q: Is it safe to cross borders?

A: Yes, it is safe to cross borders between Southern African
countries however, ensure that you have the relevant visa’s and paperwork for
yourself and your vehicle. If your rental company caters for cross-border
trips, they should supply you with all the relevant info and paperwork. Always
be patient, courteous and respectful when dealing with customs and immigration
(or any other officials for that matter).

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A few additional references;

4×4 Rental Companies;

Bushlore

Britz

Avis Safari Rental

Forums, Guides and tools;

iOverlander Maps

Tracks4Africa Navigation

Self-drive 4×4 Forum

SA 4×4 Forum

Lonely Planet’s Southern Africa Guide

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