Christopher Clark
United Kingdom UK
Nov 3, 2015 November 3, 2015

Christopher is a British travel writer and has contributed to various Fodor's guidebooks and a range of travel magazines.

Categories: Safe on Safari, Travel Tips

A Field Guide to Safe Self-Drive Camping Safari

I’ll never forget my first big self-drive camping safari trip through southern Africa. I was certainly jumping in at the deep end: a seven-week, 12,000 km odyssey through Botswana and Zambia with a small team of travel experts that had been assembled by

First self-drive camping safari experience

We were to travel in two Toyota Fortuners, one with a trailer. Some of us would be sleeping in canvas ground tents; others in a roof tent. For the most part, we’d be taking the road less traveled and bedding down in unfenced campsites in the middle of big and very wild national parks.

It was an exciting prospect, but also a rather terrifying one. While I was already a relatively experienced safari-goer, prior to that trip I’d always enjoyed the African bush and its wildlife from the comfort of a guided safari vehicle, fenced lodges, and sturdy permanent suites. I’d never had to seriously consider what I’d do if, say, a lion or hippo just happened to wander into the middle of our camp.

Guide for Selfdrive Safari

But for any hairy moments (and there certainly were a few), two years on from the adventure I can safely look back and say that the trip was one of the greatest experiences of my life. I would highly recommend it to anyone who has already done a lodge safari or two and is looking for something a little wilder. But before you go, here are a few tips to bear in mind:

Be Prepared

A big African camping safari is not something to do on a whim. You need a 4x4. And you need to be prepared.

Take a first aid kit and make sure that, along with the usual suspects, it contains malaria testing kits, anti-histamines, antibiotics, nausea medicine and Imodium.

Make sure your camping equipment, whether it’s your own or hired, is in good condition before you set off, and that you’re not missing any poles or tent pegs.

In addition, get your hands on a good GPS and equip it with Tracks4Africa.

Ideally, you should have at least two spare tires for every vehicle and for any trailers.

Other essentials include a good head torch with spare batteries, a lighter or two, lots of water and a few jerry cans with emergency fuel supplies.

For a comprehensive list of what we took with us on our Botswana/Zambia trip, click here.

Selfdrive Safari

Keep your wits about you

Remember, you’re in Africa. There are wild animals everywhere, and they are the boss around here, not you. Be aware of this at all times, and do everything you can to be discreet and to minimize your chances of an unwanted altercation.

Make sure that you securely pack and seal all food stuffs and rubbish before you go to sleep. Never keep food in your tent. Be aware that elephants have a particular penchant for citrus fruit and can smell it from quite a distance. So if you want to be extra safe you might have to sacrifice the lemon in your gin and tonics.

If wandering away from your camp at night for any reason, be sure to use a torch and scan your surroundings carefully. Ideally, don’t walk off anywhere alone, and even in a group don’t stray far.

It’s not a good idea to set up your tents under a tree, as an elephant might decide to knock that tree down in the night.

If you do encounter a potentially dangerous wild animal in or around your campsite, and there’s a good chance you will at some point, stay calm. In many camps in places like Zambia and Botswana, elephants and hippos are regular visitors and can come very close. For the most part, if you keep noise and movement to a minimum you can calmly observe them until they move on.

Learn to read the animals’ body language. If they look relaxed, you should be too.

If you don’t feel safe, slowly make your way to your tent or vehicle. Don’t run, and don’t panic.

As they always say, the animals are often just as wary of you as you are of them. Respect them and don’t make them feel threatened and you should be fine.

Patience, a sense of humor and an open mind are essential

As the old adage says, Africa is not for sissies.

Guide for Selfdrive Safaris

The heat can be oppressive. The roads and infrastructure can be very bad, or sometimes non-existent. The distance between one destination and another can be vast, so it often takes longer than you think to get anywhere. Creature comforts can be few and far-between. Delays and difficult officials at border posts or at traffic checkpoints are not uncommon.R

Remember that all of the hold ups and hassles you’ll experience on your trip will likely make for the best and funniest stories when you get back home again.

So take a leaf out of the locals’ books and smile and laugh through it all. Embrace the fact that time generally works differently in Africa. I can assure you that once you get used to this, it’s a refreshing feeling.

Take time to get to know the locals. Try local food, drink local beer, hang out in local markets and bars. For me, the people should always be as much a part of any adventure as the places. Allow them to take you out of your comfort zone and it will make for a much fuller experience.

Are you ready for your first self-drive camping safari?

If so, contact the SafariBookings team and we will help you sort out your self-drive camping safari plans. And make sure to follow these tips. Most importantly, stay safe!

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Read all about preparation, patience, and safety tips for your self-drive safari in Africa!

Read all about preparation, patience, and safety tips for your self-drive safari in Africa!