Self-drives are a great way to enjoy the African bush, if you know what you are doing. It gives you a sense of control and of adventure like you can never experience back home. However the African wilderness is dangerous, and there are still rules to respect. Here are some tips to help you make the most of your time in the bush.
Check your car and pack carefully
You want to avoid any sort of mechanical dysfunction when you are on your own in the bush. Check the oil and water in your car and take some extra water with you just in case. Most people underestimate how much a car can heat up. Although you will be driving slowly, you will have to manoeuvre through various obstacles which can take a toll on your vehicle.
Pack enough food and water to last the entire day even if you think of getting out earlier. You may get sidetracked, or see something extraordinary and not want to leave just yet. Dehydration is also very common, in the dry as well in the wet season because you may not feel thirsty and so will only pack a small bottle of water when in fact you should have drank a whole litre. The problem with dehydration is that it won't necessarily affect you right away but may hit you a day or two later. Avoid this by making sure to drink small amount of water throughout the day.
Whoever is driving should not be dinking alcohol. While drinking and driving is obviously prohibited in most cities, it is even more of a risk to be drunk while driving in the bush. Your responses may be slower and if an elephant charges for example you will need all your wits about you to get out safe and sound. Of course in order to avoid this you should first have been driving slowly enough to be able to carefully scan the road and your surroundings.
Study the park's rules and regulations
Before entering the park, make sure you get as much information about the park as possible. As well as helping you find animals, this will also ensure you do not get lost. Most parks have specific entrance and exit times that you need to respect or you may get a fine, or worse. South Luangwa National Park, for example, opens at 6am and closes at 6:30pm for self drives.
You need to book with a local guide - usually with a lodge or you can ask the guide for the contact of a private guide - if you wish to do a night drive as no permits are issued for self-drives after nightfall.
It is easy to get lost in a national park. In the Luangwa Valley in particular there are no maps which you can buy to guide you. Your best bet is to follow the main road and if you see other safari vehicles, ask them nicely if they have spotted anything interesting and try to get directions. You may also follow them but if you do so keep a reasonable distance between you and the other safari vehicles so as to not disturb the other guests' experience.
There are also some rules at sightings. Game drive vehicles registered under various lodges may stay only about 10 minutes at one sighting and then they must leave the spot so other people may enjoy the sighting. It can be very frustrating for guides who respect the rules to see game drives parked in the same spot for half an hour to an hour as they have to explain to their guests why they can't also stay there.
You should also be giving enough space for everyone to park besides you. Coming at a sighting and parking in between the other vehicles and the animal or animals they are watching is rude and the other guides may also report you at the gate.
Stay in your car!
Guides have had years of experience in the bush and are able to read animals behaviours. Even if you have already driven in a national park before, you should always be cautious. Lions, leopards or even elephants may be very approachable, especially in the Luangwa Valley where they are used to vehicles, but they remain wild animals and can be very unpredictable.
Sticking your hands or arms out of the car, waving at the animals or standing with half your body out of the vehicle is a no no. Firstly, you may startle the animals, or you may drop something and may put yourself in danger when you retrieve it.
You may of course stop to use the "bush loo" or have a coffee break, but the rule is to not wander more than 15 metres from your car. Preferably stop by the river or in a wide open plain where you have a good view of your surroundings. When going behind a termite mount to do your "thing" make sure you look carefully around and turn to face the open bush.
Leave no footprints
We all want to keep Mother Nature pristine, right? Pick up any paper, bottles, plastic bags, cans, remains of food or rubbish that may be on the ground before leaving. Also be careful that the wind doesn't blow anything away. Animals can choke on plastic bags and from eating plastic wastes. It also tarnishes the scenery for the next visitors.
The goal is to maintain the park and if everyone does their bit it is a much easier task. We are lucky in the Luangwa to have such beautiful and unspoilt national parks and we would like to keep it that way. Also, if you do happen to find rubbish on the way and it is safe for you to do so, please pick it up.
Never, ever go off-road
As tempting as it might be, do not venture off-road. First of all it is illegal in most of Luangwa's national parks, but it is also very risky. In the dry season vehicles the dry sand of the less used "pathways" can easily leave you stranded and in the rainy season you will easily get stuck in the mud.
Plenty of tourists and even knowledgeable safari guides get stuck every year thinking they could go through that mud-hole or sand patch and get trapped. What's more you would be lucky to find someone on the way who can help you but there are no guarantee that you will see another vehicle before the end of the day!
Drive slowly and respect the animals
Avoid dusting the road and disturbing the ecosystem by driving too fast. It is also illegal to drive over any form of dung or scats as you may end up carrying around a smell that shouldn't be there thus disturbing the animals.
It is also way safer, obviously, as you never know what you may find around the corner. Elephants, buffalos and hippos although big, tend to be very well-hidden in the thickets and you may see them only at the last minute.
Also driving too fast means you may miss out and not see an animal which you might have spotted had you gone a little slower.
And no matter what animal you see, make sure you respect a certain distant for safety reasons, but also to give the animals space to move around. A cornered elephant or leopard will more likely act aggressively.
All in all self-driving in a national park in Africa should be considered a privilege and with a few safety tricks up your sleeve, some solid knowledge of your vehicle and a healthy respect for nature it makes for a great adventure and one that you will remember forever.
Article written by Luangwa Wildlife Magazine editor-in-chief and wildlife journalist Mahina Mahina Allkemya Zulu. Pictures taken by Kelvin Zulu, Luangwa Wildlife Magazine photographer and expert safari guide. Contributions (articles and/or pictures) are welcome and can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. For advertising enquiries, email us at email@example.com.