With more people now seeking longer safaris with greater independence, but on ever-tighter budgets, experienced explorer Andrew St. Pierre White makes the case for self-drive, and offers his advice to help you plan your big adventure.
Lying in my sleeping bag inside my tent I listened, scarcely breathing, to the rustle of footsteps approaching across the leaf litter. I guessed it was a spotted hyena. A short while before, I had heard them cackling like a group of restless teenagers.
Adrenaline raced through me. With a sense of acute excitement, I knew that, while I could see nothing, it could no doubt smell me, and we were no further than a couple of feet apart, divided by nothing more than a thin wall of canvas.
And then it appeared.
An ominous shadow, blackening out all the other shadows projected on my tent canopy.
But this was no sloped-backed hyena.
It was a lioness.
Eyes wide, breath heaving, I knew sleep would not be following any time soon.
That dreamless night, spent at Mana Pools in northern Zimbabwe last year, is the best reason I can think of for swapping the lodge excursion for a self-drive camping trip through southern Africa.
In no small way, self-drive turns a holiday into an expedition. For that is exactly what a holiday like this can become – if you choose to take on the added risks.
I’ve been lucky enough to see both sides of the game fence. I have been to some amazing luxury lodges in my time. Hell, I even managed one in the Okavango, but, given the choice, I will always opt for the self-drive adventure.
It’s because a self-drive camping experience is less like visiting the zoo than your typical game lodge, no matter how classy or expensive. In a zoo, one animal watches another, one in a steel cage, and the other free. In Africa’s wildlife reserves we are the ones in the cages – anything from the large bus, minibus, game viewing vehicle, and self-drive station-wagon.
The big difference with self-drive is that you can get out of the cage and be with the animals, not just look at them. And I dare say there are probably few activities on Earth that stimulate the senses quite like being on the same turf as a lion or an elephant.
Every animal on this planet, including us, exists in an environment of stress and threat. We have managed our civilisation to minimise the threat to an acceptable degree. For us, living in the developed world, about the worst thing that can happen is to drop our mobile phone. In the world of the African self-drive traveller, we accept that the risks are higher, but so are the rewards. The idea here is that, with trustworthy information, we can diminish the risks to an acceptable level.
So what do you need to think about when planning a self-drive expedition?
Animal dangers: are they real or perceived?
If you are the type who would get annoyed if dinner was disrupted by three adolescent lions strolling like gangsters into your camp, then perhaps wild camping is not for you. And I agree. It’s not particularly comfortable chopping lettuce with a lioness five feet away. But that’s the point. If you do have a meal interrupted, it’ll be for reasons that will enliven your dinner parties for years to come.
Most 4WD vehicle hire firms offer a roof-fitted tent as part of the package. Roof-top tents are a preference for most travellers because of the perceived threat of animal encounters at night. I say perceived, because they are no safer than a tent on the ground. It matters little where a tent is located. Hippos and elephants are so completely aware of their surroundings, even in the blackest night, that it is extremely rare that a ground tent is trodden on. In my experience, hippos don’t even nudge the guy-ropes. A tent on a vehicle roof can just as easily be torn to shreds by an elephant. But the fact is, this is such a rare occurrence, and so low on the risk scale, it doesn’t deserve a second thought.
If you do need to abandon a tent in a hurry, let it be a ground tent. Roof tents are cramped, awkward to vacate, and it’s easy to slip off the ladder! If I had to weigh up the risks of the two accommodation types, I’d place them at about equal.
Wild camping in a reserve with lions and elephant around does of course need to be treated seriously. Here are few simple things to keep you safe:
• Keep your eyes and ears open and remain aware of your surroundings when getting out of your vehicle.
• If you are able to camp where you choose (outside a designated camp site) be aware of animal footpaths. You really don’t want to get in the way of an elephant herd as it makes its way to a favourite waterhole. Dinner may be more than just interrupted.
• Keep children close by, especially the very little ones. Wild camping with toddlers who can walk is not advised. If children fall asleep around the campfire, either place them in the middle of the group, or tuck them up in bed. Hyenas are opportunistic hunters, and while they will not take on an adult who is awake, they will attack a small child. And they are cunning and fast. This is what I would call an unacceptable risk.
• Near water, crocodiles are a risk, again especially near animal footpaths. But hippos are even more dangerous. Just don’t mess with them. If they are in the water and you’re on land, it’s no protection. As a general rule, always keep the same distance from a hippo as you would from a lion, if not more.
• Kick wood and logs before picking them up, to dislodge snakes, spiders and scorpions. And talking about scorpions, keep your boots in your tent at night to stop the critters climbing in and giving you a nasty shock in the morning.
Most modern camp equipment is designed for comfort, so there is little to worry about. Fridge freezers are now commonplace in hired 4WDs, so a salad and an icy beer on day 10 of the trip are not out of the question. The crispness of the lettuce may not be Waitrose standard because of the bumping over unmade roads, but it should go unnoticed.
Bring your own pillow to go with the thick foam or air mattresses and the nights will be comfortable.
Africa is well covered by excellent maps. Southern and Central Africa have been covered by Tracks4Africa, suppliers of one of the best adventure traveller (paper and GPS) mapping systems for any region on Earth. Infomap make great regional and country maps. Michelin are better for central and northern regions. With a good set of paper maps and a GPS, navigation is not difficult.
But there are a few catches.
If you are travelling along lesser-known routes, it is vital to check with the local police if the roads are passable. This is particularly the case in the wet season. Also, in the unlikely event of people trouble, the police will have local knowledge. In some countries, like Angola, it is required of every visitor to check in with the police at each town.
An important, and possibly odd, fact about navigation is that your GPS should be regarded as a luxury and not a necessity. I say this because in some areas (not many) the GPS will not work, and the data can be old, or misleading. Navigate with your Mk1.0 eyeballs and a paper map first, with the electronics as backup. Not the other way around.
When planning your trip, beware of overestimating time over distance. In South Africa, with its excellent road network, one can safely hope for an average of 60 mph. But as soon as Africa becomes less developed, speeds drop. On the tar, estimating 40mph (70kph) on the fast stretches is advisable. On a rough track through a game reserve, estimate 15 mph (25kph) excluding stops.
Border posts and safety
Of all the threats in Africa, war zones and bandits are the first concern, but only in countries that have the problem. In this case, up-to-the-minute travel info on the Internet remains the best source by far. Words from those on the ground have also to be taken seriously.
Corruption is another big issue, but border officials who see travellers as a target are not as common as thought. While they are fairly common in countries like Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Kenya, they are rarely if ever encountered in South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho and Namibia. In Zambia, Malawi, Rwanda and Uganda they are also uncommon.
When negotiating a border post, have a list of your valuables (cameras, computers, etc.) signed off in the country of departure. This verifies that you own them, and they are not being brought into the country for resale. Any official-looking form with a red or blue stamp will usually suffice, or a police stamp and signature if you want to go all the way. Do not offer to show this form unless asked for it.
When having your passport stamped, check the stamp and verify that the date is correct. This is essential. It is not common, but it can happen that they deliberately stamp the incorrect date, and then hit the unsuspecting traveller for a hefty fine for being in the country illegally. Just check, and if it’s not right, get them to re-stamp it. Don’t let a long line behind you deter you from checking this. This practice is very common in Mozambique.
Vehicle papers must be well organised, but your vehicle rental company will advise on this. You will need a copy of the vehicle registration document, and a letter from the car-hire company with your name and address on it.
What to do if asked for a bribe
There are two options if you are confronted with a possible bribe situation.
First, pretend that the word ‘bribe’ doesn’t even exist. Be ‘a stupid tourist’. If you don’t speak their language, even better. Once in Angola, I was separated from my convoy and was stopped at a roadblock. The official demanded something from me, so I showed him my passport. Then he demanded something else. Speaking no Portuguese, I said, “No comprehendo. Tourisimo”. I had learned these three words early in the trip. He shouted something else, and I repeated my three words. Frustrated at not being able to make any headway he waived me on. From that moment, I was no longer concerned about being separated from our interpreter in the lead vehicle.
If the situation turns bad and the only option is to offer a bribe, then outwardly offering one can get you into trouble. Take the chief official/bastard aside and ask him if he has any children. Ask if they go to school. Ask how old they are. Then offer a gift to them, and make it clear it is for them only, “for their father being away from home for such a long time”, or some other such bull. It works, and nobody is breaking the law.
Carry two wallets. One has your everyday spend in it and a single credit card. The other stays hidden in the vehicle with the rest of your cash. If you have to offer a bribe, show clearly that you a handing over the last two paper notes in your wallet, because if the official sees more, he’ll find a way to get it.
If they ask to search your vehicle, smile, say, “Yes, sir”, and ask how you can help. And then, unflinchingly and even eagerly, give them access to your stuff. Whatever you do, don’t show any signs that this is annoying. Do this right, and this approach can cost you ten minutes. Any sign that this is a pain could add hours to the process. If they ask about dairy products or meat, be honest. Don’t get caught lying or the hours will turn into days. Lying about animal skins and firearms could lead to years. Avoid unwanted attention by hiding your valuables such as two-way radios, professional-looking camera equipment and wallets. Keep everything that is slightly out of the ordinary hidden.
Renting your 4WD
Avis recently undertook a major upgrade of their 4WD fleet in South Africa. They now supply proper aluminium canopies on a fleet of Ford Ranger 4WD two-and four-door pickups. Others are following. For the most part, the smaller hire firms do an excellent job at maintaining their vehicles and equipment. I suggest a thorough search through Internet forums to find a 4WD hire firm with good reports.
When selecting a vehicle, if it is a pick-up or double cab it must have a lockable canopy. Canvas canopies are useless because thieves break in to rob you of your stuff, which will be covered in a thick layer of dust. Aluminium canopies are preferable, as fibreglass canopies with a roof-tent mounted on top are not strong enough, and you might get one that’s already broken.
Insist on a tyre repair kit. Although you may not be up to repairing a tyre yourself, at least you will be carrying the kit needed for someone to do the job.
Driving on a gravel road at speed is new to most people who live in the developed world. Gravel roads, sand tracks, and mud in the summer months are conditions that might be encountered. Again, it’s part of the expedition experience. There are videos on YouTube that’ll teach you how to drive in these conditions.
The trouble is, much advice is provided by people with all the theory but no actual experience. There are places online where you can find sound advice and video 4WD training. Also, your local Land Rover training academy is well worth a visit, although to simulate a long, winding sandy track is impossible in England.
When leaving the tar road, engage four-wheel-drive. Always and at all speeds. It reduces over-steer and increases safety and stability ten-fold. With full-time four-wheel-drive vehicles, this is especially relevant. Drivers may be under the impression that such a transmission means that they are always in four-wheel-drive. But they are not. The driver must lock the centre differential (full-lock-up four-wheel drive). If the vehicle has an axle differential lock, leave it unlocked on gravel road and sand tracks, because locking it and driving a bit too fast can lead to an uncontrollable roll-over.
Reduce your tyre pressures if the vehicle feels unsure on the gravel. Go down about 20 per cent. If you encounter thick sand, drop pressures even more. You’ll need an electric pump and pressure gauge as part of your kit. Return it to two-wheel-drive once on the tarmac.
Choice of vehicle
We all know that hire cars make the best off-roaders. But if that’s true, then hired off-road cars must truly take a beating. Not only are they driven over rough roads by drivers who care nothing for the machine, they are abused even more when they are overloaded with gear. The same applies for the hired camping equipment that is packed into them.
British travellers often have a patriotic desire to hire a Land Rover, because they are under the impression that it’s the most reliable alternative. Well, it isn’t. Not by a long shot.
If you want a Land Rover because of the way it looks and feels, then there is no alternative. But if you are looking for reliability, then go for the most common of these vehicles in Africa: the Toyota Land Cruiser and Hilux.
Because trips like these are so far from civilisation, vehicle reliability is crucial. While the car-hire firm will come to your aid to repair or replace a troublesome vehicle, assistance may be days or even weeks away.
Self-drive guided expeditions
An alternative to heading out alone or in a small homemade group is to attach yourself to one the many self-drive expedition companies that explore Africa’s best spots.
The advantage is security. If something breaks on a vehicle, the tour leader can normally fix it. The navigation worry is over, and you (in most cases) will be taken to the best places.
The disadvantages are that you will be travelling with a group of strangers. Your timing and destination flexibilities are reduced to zero, because when the tour leader says you get up and go, that’s his choice and not yours. That sounds worse than it is, and they are very popular. I’ve been on a few and they have always been great fun. But alone I would always prefer to be.
The other option is to hire a personal guide. These guides, for the most part, are highly qualified and will add both security and local knowledge to your expedition. In many cases, the guide will bring in help to set up your campsite and cook your meals. It’s an excellent alternative to those wanting all the advantages of self-drive but none of the disadvantages of being guided in a group.
Andrew St. Pierre White is a writer and adventure travel filmmaker. He has toured Africa’s most remote spots for 35 years and has written 15 overland guidebooks in his time. You can download a free book on all you need to know about overland expedition travel at his website: www.4xoverland.com
Originally published in Travel Africa edition 68, Autumn 2014