So, you’re planning your epic adventure somewhere in Africa. Obviously, you want to incorporate a safari of some sort—the question is, do you want to splurge for a guided tour? Or do you want to drive yourselves? There are pros and cons to each, it just depends on your travel style.
Should I do a Self-Drive or Guided Tour Safari?
Pros of the Self-Drive Safari
- Do you love elephants and want to spend an hour watching them? Not interested in zebras and want to move on? When you’re in your car, you can spend as much time as you want watching whatever you want.
- The experience is your own. You can enjoy solitude or silence, take the time to get the best pictures, eat some snacks (but make sure to throw trash and especially cigarettes into the appropriate bins and not out the window).
Share sightings with fellow self-drivers, and collect their tips as well. Thanks to one such driver, we knew to take a rougher dirt road and caught a sighting of the rare African Wild Dogs.
Pros of the Guided Tour Safari:
- Guides typically have to pass tests on animals and environments—plus have the richness of experience to pad the tours with facts, figures, and interesting anecdotes.
- Guides are intimately familiar with the park and its inhabitants, making it easier for them to navigate through and possibly predict (or at least, better estimate) where animals might be based on their previous behaviors.
Oftentimes parks close before sundown, for both guest and animal safety. But check to see if you can do a guided evening game drive—you’ll get later access to the park and likely have higher chances of animal sightings, especially in summer due to the cooler evening temperatures.
Cons of the Self-Drive Safari:
- You’re driving through a wild area, most likely in a car that isn’t yours and over terrain you’ve not seen before. Chances are therefore higher of a) getting lost, or b) running into some car trouble—especially if you don’t have a 4×4 vehicle.
- Bush Knowledge. While most of the parks we visited included some animals on the park map, and certainly books exist with common Africa fauna, there were several times where we spotted a beautiful animal but had literally no idea what it was (mostly different types of deer). So if you plan to do a self-drive, familiarize yourself with African animals in advance, or prepare for a lot of Googling once you’re back on the grid.
Cons of the Guided Safari:
- Unless you’ve booked out the entire tour, you’ll be sharing this experience with a group of other people. These people might be totally lovely, or they might be really obnoxious. I got really frustrated by people leaving loud cell phones on, and people making lots of noise, which scares the animals away.
- Our guided tour in Pilanesberg operated on a little network of guides: all of the guides would radio together and share animal sightings. This made it feel a little hectic—if we were watching one herd of animals but a call came in about something else, the guide just revved the engine and off we went.
- Guides play to people’s interest. We spent over half an hour watching a large grassy meadow where you could barely see the tip of a lion’s tail, because everyone was crazy about trying to get a lion photo. But when we passed elephants, rhinos, and a curious giraffe, we barely spent a minute before moving on. Of course, this depends on the guide and the size of the park—we had a memorably great experience at a smaller, private reserve.
On the whole, our experience with guided tours felt less like living an incredible moment and more like playing a game of “How many animals can we take photos of fastest?”
In general, my thinking is that the guided safaris might be better for families or groups, but self-drive better for independent-minded or adventure travelers. Or, if it’s your first time to Africa, you might copy our strategy: start your trip with a good guided tour for the experience, and then take over on self-drives for the remainder of your time. Just please remember to be smart around the animals, be respectful of the land you’re in, and stay in the moment, whether you’re in the back of a Land Rover, or the driver’s seat of a Polo.
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