“It doesn’t matter how much experience you have,” said one of the rangers as we pulled into Pilanesberg park. “Seeing animals comes down to luck.” That’s absolutely true—you may visit the same park on two consecutive days and see wildly different groups of animals. Or you might nab sightings of every member of the Big Five in just half a day. If doesn’t matter whether you self-drive or opt for a guided tour; you’ll see the grab bag that Mother Nature gives you. But there are some self-drive safari tips that might help you get just a bit luckier.
Tips for Your Self-Drive Safari
- Take your time, let the animals come to you. You can spend easily a whole day in a park, there’s no need to rush. If you see an animal far away, have patience. There’s a chance they might wander closer.
- Pack your spyglasses from an up-close view—especially if you aren’t traveling with a telephoto lens.
- Always be quiet: animals can be inquisitive and nosy. Your noise might scare them off, or it might draw them too close for comfort.
- Roll down the windows. Yes, it lets the air conditioning escape, but it also brings you into the world you’re driving through. Smell it, see it, experience it.
- Drive slow (max 30 km/hr) both to see more animals and to watch out for animals who might be spooked into the street.
- Focus on waterholes, especially in the cooler hours of the day: early morning and twilight.
- Look under the trees. We found lots of animals seeking shade beneath leafy branches in the heat and hours of high sun—even bushes that didn’t look tall enough to house their bulk.
- Go prepared. Bring water and snacks to keep your senses alert. It can get very hot in the car; you might also want to apply sunscreen to keep your skin from burning.
- Share tips and sightings with passing vehicles. Use your lights and hand signals to warn other drivers about animals on the road or to alert them about cool things to see.
- Don’t use smelly deodorants or colognes/perfumes/lotions. Animals have more sensitive noses than we do, and can better pick out those alien smells.
- If you smoke, please dispose of your cigarettes responsibly. The day we arrived in Pilanesberg National Park, they were dealing with a massive fire started by a careless action.
- A tall 4×4 with height will help you to see over grass—seeing longer distances and spotting creatures that are lower to the ground.
- Grab an animal guide or have Google at the ready. While the big animals you’re sure to know (not much can be confused with an elephant), it’s nice to be able to name and learn about the lesser-known species of deer, birds, and wildlife.
I personally loved the thrill of discovery on our self-drive safari tours—will we see something down this road? What will we find if we turn left instead of right, here? Is that gray dot on the horizon a rock, or something else?
Even if it takes awhile to spot an animal, the stunning geography of the parks and the rush of excitement when you think you spot something moving in the bush is not to be missed!
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