I never thought of myself of being the kind of person to go on a safari. I always imagined a safari as a bunch of elderly people, dressed in camouflage, all cramped into a jeep, racing after lions. I was so wrong!
During my first trip to South Africa I travelled from Cape Town to Johannesburg and did a self-drive safari in three different national parks: Addo Elephant Park, the Isimangaliso Wetland Park and the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi nature reserve. It was a fantastic experience and very different from what I’d imagined!
Are you planning a similar adventure? Then have a look at these first time safari tips to make this truly wonderful experience an even better one!
Let this be your first rule! Yes, going on a safari to spot wild animals sounds like a great adventure, but bear in mind that this is exactly what they are! WILD animals! This is their territory, not yours to play in, so some animals might show territorial behaviour when you’re getting too close.
When spotting an elephant in Addo Elephant Park (South Africa), I was overwhelmed with emotions. When he got closer to our car, I thought “how lucky to see this beautiful animal so close by”. But when he turned around (apparently triggered by the sound of our windscreen wipers!) and started flapping his ears, I can assure you that it was one of the scariest moments of my life! We reversed slowly and he went away but it took me some time before I was ready to see an elephant again!
2. Respect the park rules
There is a reason why you can only get out of your car at designated viewing points and there’s a reason why they don’t want you to hang out of the window! Yes, it can be tempting to lean out of the window to get a better picture (guilty!), but don’t! You never know what that buffalo might be up to!
In Addo Elephant Park, they have a “wall of shame” with pictures of tourists behaving inappropriately. Do you really want your picture up there? Nope, didn’t think so!
There’s nothing more rewarding than driving along the road by yourself and stumbling across a herd of buffalos or a tribe of rhinos. Having the sighting all to yourself is truly hard to beat! You can take as much time as you want to get that perfect shot or to observe the animals and to me, it just feels less like you’re in a zoo.
4. Take breaks
“Wait, stop, I think I saw something! Oh no, never mind, it’s a rock”! Driving around, trying to spot animals in the bushes is great fun! But keeping a constant lookout also requires a lot of concentration and gets tiring after a while. Don’t attempt to drive for a complete day, you will get tired and you will start noticing less. Instead, go out for a couple of hours in the morning, go back to your accommodation to relax and set off again when you’re reinvigorated and ready to spy!
5. Early morning and late afternoon are the best times to spot animals
You don’t like baking in the sun for hours on end, do you? Well, neither do most animals. They tend to escape the midday sun by hiding in the foliage, so that’s probably not the easiest time to spot them. Some animals don’t seem to mind though: we still saw plenty of elephants and zebras grazing peacefully along the road. But the best time is early morning and late afternoon when the temperature is more bearable, for them, but also for you!
Oh and be patient! You might see loads of animals in a very brief time, but there’s also a chance that you might drive for an hour without spotting anything. Animals aren’t on a time schedule, so be patient.
6. Get a car with enough clearance
This will obviously depend on where you are going, but driving a Ford Fiesta in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi wasn’t the best idea. The dirt tracks were really rough in places and at some point we weren’t sure our car was going to make it up the hill. A higher clearance also gives you a few extra inches to see over the thick bushes in search of the wildlife and let’s face it, is a bit more comfy on the bum too 😉
7. Go for an early morning walk
Needless to say, with a ranger! Seeing the sunrise over the African veld, tracking wildlife on foot and coming across the very elegant silhouette of a giraffe is just … priceless! Your ranger will explain you the various footprints you’ll encounter and point out stuff you’d never have noticed yourself. You’re totally immersed in the landscape, a very different feeling from driving around!
8. Look beyond the Big Five
Of course you’d love to see lions, elephants, rhinos, leopards and buffalos. But it won’t always be the case. Don’t just focus on the big creatures, appreciate all wildlife that you will come across. I never thought that I might be charmed by dung beetles, but yet I found myself totally amazed by seeing one of them pushing a big piece of, well, dung…
You’ll probably see more impalas and zebras than you can count. Put your camera away and observe them more closely. How often will you get the chance to do so?
9. Bring a decent pair of binoculars
Some animals will be very close but most of them will be a fair distance away. That’s when binoculars can make or break your journey. Use them to observe the animal’s behaviour more closely or to get more details.
10. Put your camera away
And this advice comes from a travelblogger! Yes, it’s tempting to bring that perfect shot home, but is this really what it’s all about? Wouldn’t you rather just enjoy the experience and observe every single movement of the wildlife you just encountered, rather than fiddling about with the settings of your camera?
Do you have any first time safari tips to add? What is your favourite safari country or nature reserve?