Jacqueline Roberts compares self-drive safaris in three very different locations.

It’s 5:30am and the mist is still creating an eerie view of the surrounding bush as I creep out of our tent, leaving my husband and son sleeping. The sun is only just starting to penetrate the gloom and I’m crawling slowly forward down a narrow track when I see something up ahead. Peering over the steering wheel, the dark shape comes slowly into view – a lioness is sprawled across the middle of the road.

I turn the car so I can see her through my side window and then spot a young male – just off the track patiently waiting until the lioness is ready to mate again. For now, resting, they are not going anywhere and as the sun starts to warm us all up, I turn off the engine and sit back to soak in the view. The car’s shudder causes the lioness to lazily lift her head and there, in the silence of the African dawn, my eyes meet those of one of her most iconic creatures. It is moments like this that make self-driving safaris so exhilarating and so very special. Of course, there is something to be said for the luxury safari – flying into a stunning camp, being driven by experienced guides in open top safari vehicles, flask of coffee stashed away to ease the early, chilly morning; back to a sumptuous lunch served by a fleet of staff before retiring to a feather-pillowed bed for an afternoon snooze… But, nothing quite beats heading out on the open road, maps and field guides in hand and getting up close and personal with the many wonders of the Afrian bush. Self-driving can be as easy or as challenging as you want and Southern Africa has a plethora of options. Here we visit three very different parks – all superb in their own way and all offering the self-driver truly memorable experiences.

The Kruger Park, South Africa

The oldest and one of the largest game reserves in Africa, the Kruger National Park is the size of Wales. If you’ve never been on a self-drive safari or indeed, have never been on safari before, then the Kruger National Park in South Africa is hard to beat. Kruger was our first foray into self-drive safaris and we didn’t really know what to expect as we drove into the park on our first visit. After checking in at the gate, we drove across Crocodile Bridge and almost immediately began to spot animals – a hippo wallowing in the river below us, a grey heron standing motionless in the shallows, a Nile crocodile sunning itself on the bank and a troop of Chacma baboons frolicking in the trees above. The park is home to 147 species of mammal, 500 bird species, around 200 species of fish, amphibians and reptiles, along with 2000 plant species. With more animals than you can shake a stick at – you have an excellent chance of spotting Africa’s big five in just one trip.

On our last visit, heading out of the park after an incredible few days we took a small detour to sit by the Sabie River and wring the last few magical moments from our safari. Scanning the opposite bank with my binoculars, I saw him – a large, male leopard padding down to the bank and then sprawling out in the shade of a large Acacia tree. Leopards are notoriously hard to spot (no pun intended) – they usually lurk in dense bush or rest high up in trees, perfectly camouflaged. They hunt in the late evening or night so seeing one at noon is a rare treat and seeing one with no one else around is truly awesome. This is the Kruger at its best.

The trick to self-driving is not trying to cover too much ground. You should drive slowly for the best chance of spotting wildlife and take time to sit by a river or waterhole with your binoculars. For larger animals, check out the sightings boards at camps and stops and talk to others. Welcoming nearly two million visitors a year, at times sightings attract large numbers of cars (a tantalising cheetah tail above high grass can keep people there for hours!) but still, it’s never hard to get that feeling of being ‘out in Africa’ and find yourself alone with the animals as with our incredible leopard encounter. I have also learnt to really appreciate smaller animals and have become an avid twitcher!

Kruger’s infrastructure is superb – you don’t need a 4WD, a regular sedan car is fine to drive the superbly maintained roads and tracks. There are a number of National Park rest camps located throughout the park and many private lodges both within the park and on concessions on its boundaries offering you the chance to go from camping one night to abject luxury the next. All camps offer additional activities such as game drives, bush-braais, guided walks, eco trails, etc. If it is your first time on safari, it’s well worth taking a guided drive to learn more about the bush and its inhabitants – as you can’t self-drive after dark, night drives are a great option.

Essential information

Kruger has its own airport which is an easy hour’s flight from Jo’burg or you can drive (about 6 hours) from Jo’burg. Hire cars are cheap and easily available at both airports. All bookings for Kruger are handled by www.sanparks.org For private lodges in and around Kruger, simply google search.

Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe

Despite its troubles over the years, Zimbabwe remains a superb safari destination and one that is easy to navigate. Hwange National Park, in the south, borders Botswana and covers an area of nearly 15,000km2. Hwange is elephant country and home to more than 40,000 – one of the largest populations in Africa. Elephants are incredible creatures – despite their size they can be almost invisible as they pad through thick bush and despite their seemingly gentle nature, they can be extremely dangerous so always give them right of way!

With nearly 500km of road and track, Hwange comprises a considerable diversity of habitats and boasts more than 100 species of mammals (including the big 5) and more than 400 species of bird. We have had excellent lion sightings – my dawn encounter mentioned earlier was in Hwange. With little natural water, the 60 plus (artificially filled in dry times) waterholes attract regular visitors and some also have viewing platforms allowing you to alight, stretch your legs and take some time to enjoy the view. The tarred roads are in an appalling condition but these are few and most roads are dirt tracks. Most of the park can be negotiated with a regular car.

Despite its size, there are only a handful of accommodation options within the park. Three main camps offer camping and chalets and there are a scattering of ‘exclusive’ bush camps where, if you are travelling as a group, you can have your own private (yet basic) campsite out in the bush. Like the roads, the National Park run camps have seen better days but if you don’t mind roughing it a bit, you will certainly benefit as they are rarely full.

For more luxury, you’d need to stay outside the park itself at a private lodge. Both the park camps and the private lodges offer game drives and bush-walks. An added bonus to visiting Hwange is that just an hour’s drive from the north of the park is Victoria Falls – the greatest curtain of falling water in the world, one of Africa’s most visited sites and certainly not to be missed.

Essential information

Fly to Harare (intl. from London) or Vic Falls (via Jo’burg or Harare). For rentals, selfdrivezim.com can arrange cars or fully equipped 4x4s from either Harare or Vic Falls. They can also help you with making bookings with Zim Parks or with private lodges.

Moremi Game Reserve, Botswana

Hearing that lions have been hunting close to camp we hurriedly pack up and head out past the nearby waterhole that has attracted a large herd of wildebeest with their spindly legged calves. A large croc is basking on the bank while a saddle-billed stork is picking his way through the shallows. Just 500m from the camp we spot them – a pair of lions, next to their kill. Their stomachs distended, the wildebeest carcass next to them is nearly picked clean. They are panting furiously, tongues lolling from blood stained mouths; the effort of digesting all that meat clearly visible.

As we head off back to Third Bridge, we see another carcass – attracting a curious handful of white backed vultures that soon turns into a large flock. Jostling for position at the feed they are disturbed by one of Africa’s top scavengers – a spotted hyena has arrived loping across the veld. He saunters forward then rushes at the vultures and as they scatter he starts to tear at the carcass with powerful jaws – hyenas can eat, chew and digest solid bone so the lions’ leftovers are a feast. Occasionally having to remind the vultures who is boss, he spots another carcass (the lions had a busy night) and goes to check that one out – the vultures waste no time and return to to the first en masse. The lone hyena is torn now – which one does he choose? For a few minutes he rushes between the two before deciding and dragging his preferred bones into the tall grass. The show, for now, is over. This is Moremi Game Reserve, one of the world’s most spectacular wildernesses and as wild as it gets!

Sweeping south from the highlands of Angola, water flows from the Okavango River in search of an ocean it never reaches. Thwarted by the sands of the Kalahari Desert, the water arrives in the heart of the dry season, flooding the plains and forming an extensive inland delta, attracting huge numbers of animals and creating one of Africa’s greatest concentrations of wildlife. The Okavango Delta has been named as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa and Moremi makes up 40 per cent of this paradise.

As a low-impact destination, most visitors to Moremi will be high-end tourists who are visiting very expensive, luxury lodges, many of them only accessible by air. There are a few campsites and they must be booked way in advance for high-season. Camps are not fenced so animals are free to wander freely – do not become complacent, do not leave your tent at night (ladies – invest in a shee-wee) and be careful with your food – monkeys and baboons can be a real menace. Never take fresh fruit into the reserve – elephants will smell an apple from a great distance and will do anything to get at them, including opening your car like a tin-can.

Not for the faint-hearted self-driver, Moremi is strictly 4×4 country and can be challenging to say the least. Most self-drivers will start their journey in Maun hiring fully kitted out 4x4s complete with rooftop tents. Any reputable hire company should make sure you know your diff-lock from your gear stick before letting you loose. Roads change dramatically depending on the season and where you are in the delta. Tyre pressure must be dropped to cope with deep sand; waist high puddles and water crossings must be navigated and rickety bridges that seem like they will collapse under the weight of your car crossed. In wet weather, tyres slip on thick mud, in dry weather grass seeds clog up your radiator and there are so many small tracks that without a good GPS, you could be lost for days. Driving is slow going so you have to make sure you leave plenty of time between camps and plan your days conservatively.

Once on the road and into the reserve, Moremi is simply superb. You can drive for miles without seeing another vehicle and wildlife and birdlife are prolific. Moremi is undoubtedly one of the most wonderful safari destinations in Africa and self-driving is an incredible way to see it. Having relocated to Mozambique from the Costa del Sol a year ago, the more I travel in Africa, the more places are added to my list. I have the safari bug and as you read this, I will be camped out in Zimbabwe’s Mana Pools National Park watching one of Africa’s amazing sunsets while hippos wallow in the nearby Zambezi River, lions roar and elephants pad noiselessly through camp.

Essential Information

Fly to Maun via Jo’burg. For renting 4x4s you can either choose one of the larger South African companies such as Bushlore (www.bushlore.com) or Britz (www.britz.co.za) which have the added advantage of being able to pick up and drop off at multiple locations throughout southern Africa if you are planning a longer trip. Excellent local companies include Leo 4×4 (find them on facebook at Leo-4×4-Camping) and traveladventuresbotswana.com – both can also help you with reservations within the reserve.