We are spoilt for choice in Southern Africa when it comes to picking safari destinations that offer visitors the opportunity to self drive in national parks.
There’s the thrill of being the one behind the wheel when you find that leopard hiding behind a bush or a herd of elephants crossing the road in front of you. However, many people find the idea of being behind the wheel daunting and fear that they won’t see any animals. Here are a few tips that I have learned along the way that I hope will help you in finding and spotting animals for yourself.
1. Get a decent pair of binoculars
A good pair of binoculars can make or break a sighting. With a bit of practice they can also be used to take photos or videos with your phone if you don’t have a zoom lens.
2. Get up at the crack of dawn
Be the first car out of the gate when it opens. Most animals, especially predators, are more active at dusk and dawn. Many people are still sleeping, so any sightings you get you will often have to yourself.
3. Drive slowly
It is much easier to spot animals when you drive slowly and animals are less likely to run away from your vehicle. In the rain keep an extra eye out for tortoises and snakes coming to drink from puddles on the road.
In parks that allow you to have your windows open it is a good idea to roll them down. Turn off the radio and awaken your senses to the sounds of the African bush. If you hear the birds frantically calling or other animals alarm calling, there’s a good chance that there’s a predator in the area. Maybe you can hear the elephant around the corner trumpeting.
5. Watch the herbivores
A herd of impala, wildebeest or a giraffe all staring intently in one direction means one thing – there is a predator. Sit tight and scan where they are looking with a pair of binoculars and see if you too can spot the danger.
6. Be patient, don’t rush
Sitting at a watering hole often pays off, especially in drier months when animals are forced to come to larger water sources. If you have an interest in birds you can never get bored sitting by the water. If birds are not for you, park up in the shade with a good book, just make sure you look up every now and then!
If there is an elephant walking down the road or feeding on a tree next to the road remember it has right of way. Move out of it’s way or wait for it to finish feeding instead of trying to push it out of the way. This is how accidents happen.
7. Switch off your lights and engine in a sighting
Lights and vehicle noise can disturb animals, causing them to move away. It may be the middle of the day and forty degrees Celsius outside but if you sacrifice your air-con for a little bit you won’t regret it (you are in Africa after all).
8. Respect the animals
Don’t ever drive off the road towards an animal because you can’t see it properly. You will disturb it and damage vegetation. Instead be patient and use a pair of binoculars.
Respect the animal’s comfort zone. Don’t park on top of a lion, just because it chose to lie next to the road.
If you are trying to get an animal to look at you for a photo be patient. Do not beep your horn or whistle at it. This is not fair on the animal and will most likely scare it.
9. Talk to other people
Chat to other people you pass or at camp and find out what sightings they’ve had. This exchange of information is often very helpful.
10. Take water and snacks with you
Extra water is always a good idea to have onboard in case you have any vehicle difficulties or there is a sighting that is just too good to leave. Some snacks and drinks in the car also prevent grumpy passengers so you can keep looking for animals. Just be sure to keep all rubbish with you.