Introduction / Background
Few things can beat the exhilaration of a safari game drive – the African wildlife viewing experience using a vehicle. This has become the conventional way to experience Africa’s greatest landscapes and wildlife. There are few real wilderness areas left to the human race and it is important to share awareness and enjoyment of the wilderness with people across the globe. The more people worldwide to gain an understanding and appreciation of the wild and our natural heritage, the greater the chance that our future generations will also benefit.
Game drives offer a unique wilderness experience, bringing you very close to the animals and often providing you with the services of a knowledgeable guide. There are thousands of wildlife destinations across the African continent offering a safari vacation that could be fabulous and exhilarating.
Tourism is big business and plays a significant role in the economies of these African countries. Everyone involved with the tourism business – from government officials to those who prepare our meals – has a strong, vested interest in the success of your safari. It is in the best interest of all to ensure that your journey is safe and not subjected to unacceptable risks.
It should be kept in mind that there is always a certain degree of danger when you are in the bush with wild animals. Game safaris are however overall exceptionally safe. Accidents are infrequent and most game reserves and ranches have excellent safety records.
Practical thinking, common sense and preparation will offer a risk-free and memorable travel. We are aware that a safari in Southern Africa would be that much more enjoyable if you have peace of mind regarding the safety of you, your family and loved ones.
When you go on safari, your safety should always be the first priority. In this section we will provide you with suggestions to make your safari a safer journey irrespective whether you are the driver, passenger or visitor on foot.
Transportation and game viewing
There are various methods of game viewing in African game reserves, ranging from open top vehicles to walking trails, guided game drives to self drive safaris. Each of these has their own benefits. With a guided safari you are guaranteed to learn much and also have access to some daily events which are hard to find yourself. Self drives however give you the power to choose your own pace.
Game drives are really an awesome way to experience and enjoy the wild life. From the comfort of an open vehicle you can explore the wild, taking your time to absorb and appreciate the nature around you.
Most safari vehicles are four-wheel-drive, customized to maximize your game-viewing experience. The exact design of the vehicle will differ from reserve to reserve and the preference of your African safari tour operator. Many will have been individually converted. Those in Southern Africa are traditionally completely open-sided and with tiered seats rising up behind the driver to ensure every traveller has a clear view. You will most likely travel in a well-maintained, specially designed vehicle that provides flexibility, protection from the sun, and support.
Some also has a small tracker’s seat that folds out on the hood at the front of the vehicle, allowing a specialist guide to track spoor through the bush and help find a route across broken ground. A canvas shade is sometimes fitted, but a hat against the sun is always a sensible precaution.
In East Africa minivans are still a popular way of experiencing an African safari. These tend to be four-wheel-drive with flip-top or elevated roofs so guests can stand up to get the best vantage point. Game drive vehicles will allow tourists not only to focus on the big aspects of nature but also on the smaller things that most people miss when they only drive around.
Some experts believe that these specially designed vehicles allow you see more because, your human scent and shape is disguised and you’re no longer seen as a threat. Wild animals will often let a vehicle much closer than they would a person on foot. It is easy to track game and, when you find it, a vehicle keeps you safe and secure. A four-wheel-drive vehicle will easily climb steep inclines to give access to great views with plenty of handy places to keep your binoculars, blankets, scarves and gloves for the chilly winter mornings.
Drivers are often selected not only for their safe driving practices, but also –very importantly - for their safari expertise and knowledge of the area and the wildlife!
For those who desire to experience Africa in the real intimate way, and depending on the game reserve of ranch visited, there might also be guided walks through nature. The visitors will then be accompanied by an armed guide ensuring their safety wherever they go whilst also teaching them about plant and animal life along the way.
When you are with a trained guide, either in a private game reserve or on a guided safari trip, you should have little reason for fear!
Safe Driving in the Game Ranch / Nature Reserve
At game ranches where there are guided game drives, you will usually find between two to three game drives each day. The first starts just before sunrise, the second takes place in the afternoon and the last later on in the evening, coming back to camp at nightfall. In private reserves where night-drives are permitted, a guided safari might last long after dark.
Game-drives after dark or at dawn are often a real highlight as you’re also likely to encounter a whole range of nocturnal species: leopard, porcupine, hyena and countless owl species, located by their glinting eyes and brought into sharp focus by high-powered spotlights.
We would like to focus on safe driving advice where the safe driving is in the hands of the visitor. We would like to provide the following recommendations:
- You should only travel in a vehicle that is well serviced and roadworthy.
- Prepare carefully – enquire from game rangers and management at the reserve about the roads and whether your vehicle will be capable of travelling on these roads.
- Do not “test” the capabilities of your vehicle and avoid driving where you cannot see the surface of the road.
- Before you embark on your safari, inform others where you will be travelling and when you could be expected to return. [It is best to drive in a convoy!]
- Remain on the paths at all times and do not leave them – you will not be aware of nasty surprises next to the roads.
- Expect roads to be narrow with few overtaking opportunities.
- Be alert to varying road conditions, changes in road surface, sharp corners or crests which reduce visibility – adjust your speed accordingly.
- Visibility is often reduced by the presence of encroaching roadside vegetation and sharp corners.
- Patience needs to be demonstrated when sharing the road with other visitors and wildlife.
- Speed needs to be reduced to the advised limits – remember this is a game drive – slow down and enjoy the view!
- Drivers need to be aware of the impact of the changing weather on the road surface and surrounding environment and drive accordingly by reducing speed and using lights appropriately.
- During winter, fog is a regular occurrence at dawn and at dusk which can obscure driver vision and will require even slower speeds.
- On a self-drive - stay in your vehicle at all times - you will put yourself in danger if you get out of your car anywhere unless at a designated safe place.
- Remember that even though you may have carefully scanned the area, animals are masters at remaining concealed - predators do it daily when stalking prey – do not risk becoming prey.
- If you are close to an animal and observing it, take note of its behaviour - if it looks agitated in any way, or makes mock runs at you, or stares and paces up and down, then move slowly off.
- You should be safe within your vehicle as vehicle/animal incidents are very rare.
- The only animal that can really take you on in a vehicle is an elephant and they could be dealt with mostly by just holding your ground with the engine of the vehicle turned off.
- Revving the engine or hooting is not a good idea as this might be seen as a challenge - a contest where the odds are not on your side!
The nature enthusiast should always equip himself with a few necessities to make his game driver safer and more enjoyable. Remember that you are in nature, and nature provides a few unique challenges. Always keep these suggestions in mind:
- Enquire about the climate and weather conditions before you embark on a safari.
- Safari operators might be able to provide recommendations on the desired clothing during the specified period of your travel.
- If you do go for a walk, wear good shoes, socks, and long trousers. Chances are scorpions and spiders wouldn't bother you anyway, but why take a chance?
- Listen to the weather reports but make provision for sudden changes.
- Even in mid-summer pack a light fleece or something to ward off the chill.
- Weather reports seldom consider the temperature at 5am. In winter pack like you're going to somewhere snowy but make sure you can strip it off because by mid-morning temperatures are normally pleasantly warm.
- Always be prepared for the warm African sun with a hat, suntan lotion and enough water to prevent dehydration.
Some visitors have asked about the reason for the loaded rifles carried by guides. This is not a defense mechanism for an attack against the vehicle, but rather for the protection of the tracker and guide if they go off on foot to follow some prints into the bush.
The only real danger to the average visitor is getting hit on the head by an overhanging branch - so keep an eye on the road, the animals and vegetation / trees next to the road!
Asking the Experts/ Guides... and Listening!
The single most important bit of advice is to listen and obey the advice from management and staff at the game reserve. You are not their first visitor – you are the person least aware of the dangers at the game reserve. They only wish to make your stay safe and enjoyable! You could enquire beforehand whether your guide is a professional and is properly qualified. The Field Guides Association of Southern Africa [FGASA] is the only acredited Training Provider.
Always keep in mind:
- Game guides / drivers are experienced guides and have spent years studying and observing animal behavior.
- Guides and drivers are multi-lingual and will be happy to respond to any and all questions that you may have about animals, birds, or plant life.
- They may even have a vast and extensive knowledge about their country, and you'll appreciate how willing they are to share it with you.
- Always listen to the camp staff and guides – adherence to their instructions and safety advice are not negotiable.
- Experienced safari guides are there to advise you on when it is safe to approach animals and what precautions to take.
- They know best how to position the vehicle for the best viewing and to ensure the safety of both visitor and wildlife.
- Your guide is trained to understand the animal's behaviour, and will not put his guests in any threatening situation.
- Wildlife is potentially dangerous, but as long as you adhere to what you guide tells you, there is very little to worry about.
- Your guide will assess every situation and act and advise accordingly.
- At some popular gathering points like water holes, animals become used to the presence of humans gawking at them, and become seemingly easier to approach.
- Wild animals are dangerous however; they should not be underestimated and should never be antagonised.
- Don't go wandering off from viewpoints alone. This is simply asking for trouble.
The enquiries from visitors should stretch beyond what is to be expected on the game drive. Please consult management upon your arrival for information on safety within the camp/reserve, designated areas for smoking etc. Walking is normally only allowed at the visitor centers, lodges, and camps. In the bush we are in wild country, and wild animals may frequent the lodges and camps. Guards will escort you to and from your lodging, particularly at night. You should never walk outdoors after dark without a guard, even to your rooms. After retiring to your rooms at night, don’t leave them.
It is best to consult with management at the reserve about safety precautions and potential risks at your specific reserve and place of accommodation.
Safe Driving with Wildlife in Mind / Caring for safety of Animals
When in the wild we need to respect nature, wildlife and vegetation. It is not only our safety we should be concerned about, but also that of the wildlife we are observing! We would like to provide the following recommendations:
- Smoking should be restricted to designated areas only, and definitely not allowed in the veld.
- The dry African bush ignites very easily, and a flash fire can kill animals.
- When driving at night, early morning and at dusk caution needs to be taken as these times are when animal activity and the chance for vehicles to impact with animals are the greatest.
- Try to slow down, especially after dark. Many animals needlessly become victims simply because people drive too fast to avoid hitting them. Speed poses a risk to human and animal safety.
- Scan the road as you drive, watching the edges for wildlife about to cross. Young animals, in particular, do not recognize cars as a threat.
- Wild animals are unpredictable and do not understand that the approaching lights on a vehicle means danger. They can be scared into erratic behaviour and dart straight out in front of the motorist.
- The best way to avoid a collision with a wild animal is to anticipate that you will find one around the next corner so that you are able to react appropriately in the situation.
- Remember that where there is one animal crossing, there may be more, young animals following their mother or male animals pursuing a mate.
- At viewpoints, hides and camps, wildlife is more familiar with people and less intimidated by your presence.
- Never attempt to feed or approach any wild animal on foot, respect their fear of humans.
- Never tease or corner wild animals - this may cause an unpredictable response and a potentially dangerous reaction.
- Observe animals silently and with a minimum of disturbance to their natural activities. Loud talking on game drives can frighten the animals.
- Never attempt to attract an animal's attention. Don't imitate animal sounds, clap your hands, pound the vehicle or throw objects from the vehicle.
- Respect your driver/guide's judgment about proximity to lions, cheetahs and leopards. Don't insist that he take the vehicle closer so you can get a better photograph. A vehicle driven too close can hinder a hunt or cause animals to abandon a hard-earned meal.
- Never throw litter from your car! Litter tossed on the ground can choke or poison animals and birds and is unsightly.
Preparedness for Emergencies on Safari
Be prepared for a variety of potential emergencies. Emergencies on safari can occur in many forms and could include:
- Vehicle breakdown or vehicles getting stuck
- Medical emergency such as heart-attack, dehydration etc
- Emergencies/ trauma caused by animal attack - attacks by wild animals are however rare.
- Injuries from smaller animals, snake bites or insects
- Injury to animals caused by road accidents etc. - rather avoid attending to injured animals yourself. The animal doesn't know you are trying to help and may bite or scratch in self-defense.
Careful preparation will allow you to respond swiftly and effectively! The best advice is to enquire from the management at the game reserve on arrival. Ask them whether there is an emergency protocol and guidance on emergency numbers, medical attention, medical evacuation etc. The more prominent game reserves will have arrangements to provide air evacuation services in medical emergencies as well as air ambulance transfers between medical facilities.
The vehicles used on game drives are usually equipped with a first aid kit and guides might even know the basics of first-aid treatment. Most of these vehicles are equipped with both long-wave and short-wave radios and cell phones so that your guide/driver can contact lodges and camps and request medical attention or vehicle breakdown support.
[Emergency info is available on your cellular phone at the mobile road safety website at arrivealive.mobi]
A safari game drive is intended as an opportunity for visitors to forget their problems and the outside world, to enjoy nature, become rejuvenated and recharged. Careful planning and preparation will make your African safari a journey to cherish.
Understanding the rules of conduct and appropriate behaviour is an important part of safari safety. With awareness and cooperation, you will be ready for a safe and memorable journey!