Being your own safari guide
You’ve downloaded the KrugerExplorer App and made your plan for the big self-drive Kruger National Park safari, but you’re nervous about being your own self-drive guide for a load of reasons: What if you can’t find any animals? How will you know what we’re looking at? Is self-driving even the right decision?
The short answer is: You can definitely be your own safari guide! We strongly recommend you read all of the below for our tips on being a self-drive safari guide (maybe even a couple of times!), as it will prove invaluable and help you get the most out of your trip.
Keep a broad and inquisitive mind
On occasion we have chatted with glum-faced people in rest camps and the reason for their mood is always the same: “We’re here for the cats but we haven’t found any”.
Oh dear. There are 150+ species of mammal and 500+ species of bird, plus even more reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates, trees, flowers and geological areas in Kruger National Park, but some people want to limit their points of interest to just lions, leopards and cheetahs. With so much to see, why limit your interest to just three species of animals? Of course, seeing cats can be wonderful. It can also be highly frustrating with lions snoozing under a tree in the heat of the day and not doing much else for hours!
So our advice is simple: develop an interest in everything you might see.
For first timers, this will be easiest with the mammals. Finding and ticking off the multitude of non-cat predators, megafauna such as elephants and giraffe, the antelope and the many smaller critters is great fun. Learning about these animals is genuinely fascinating and catching a sighting of as many as you can is a superb game to play in the park.
Adding the larger and most common birds to your ‘must see’ list is brilliant too - the eagles, herons, storks, rollers, glossy starlings, doves, guineafowl, spurfowl and many more will provide much entertainment and interest between the bigger sightings.
Learn about what you are looking at too. Some visitors often drive past a steenbok thinking it’s “just another impala” because they haven’t taken the time to learn the physical appearance differences.
You will get so much more excitement out of your visit this way too. The KrugerExplorer App is full of insightful and interesting content about all the animals you are likely to see, so keep reading, absorb as much as you can and we promise you’ll come away from Kruger with a knowledge and enjoyment that you hadn’t anticipated upon arrival.
And while you’re busy completing your antelope photo collection and cataloguing the birds, you might just encounter a huge pride of lions chasing down prey when you least expected it…!
Looking is a skill
We all know how to use our eyes, but there is a big difference between observing generally and proactively looking for something. For drivers who are used to generally keeping an eye on the road as they drive, this is a particularly important change to the usual driving habits.
In short, you need to closely observe your surrounds as you traverse the roads of the park. This means to the side of your vehicle as well as in front, as you are more likely to see things in the vegetation than in the middle of the road.
Look under bushes and in the boughs of the trees (leopard or martial eagle anyone?). Turn your head and look behind trees and bushes - a different perspective can reveal a huge giraffe that was completely obscured and camouflaged from the first angle. Found a herd of herbivores or a pack of wild dogs? Look behind your vehicle too - it might be a bigger herd than you first realised!
Proactive looking is a conscious effort and is undoubtedly tiring too. The mind tends to switch off and roam onto other thoughts when not strongly stimulated - try to switch back to proactive looking if you find yourself thinking about other things during a quiet spell!
But looking for what exactly...?
This is the tricky part…
Our advice has always been to look for three things:
Contrasting shades among the colours of the bush.
This isn’t fool-proof though; plants move in the wind, rocks and tree-stumps create silhouettes, the bush is a varied palette of contrasting shades. If you think you’ve seen something, then it’s always worth stopping and backing up to check - there are no bad shout-outs in a safari vehicle!
Also learn to use the periphery of your vision. The biology behind this is that if the centre of our retina was the most sensitive part, it would cause tunnel vision and wouldn’t offer much last-second protection against an attacking predator coming in from our side. The periphery of our retinas is therefore actually more sensitive to movement and contrast than the middle, so you are more likely to catch a glimpse of something out of the corner of your eye than if you are looking straight at it.
Things that hinder looking...
There are a few very simple things that massively reduce your chances of spotting the animals that you are hoping to see.
Speed is a major issue. If you are zooming along at 50kmph then you are pretty much wasting your time and money. Moving so quickly significantly reduces the time available to you to make a spot and prevents you from seeing any movement beyond your own. You will also scare off anything that is close by.
Windows and even sunglasses are also problematic. We often see visitors cruising along at 50kmph with the windows up tight. Yes, the air-con is probably very pleasant but it’s another visual layer that reduces the contrast of the outside colours and significantly impacts your chances of seeing animals. Yes, you will get dusty and hot (or cold just after sunrise) with the windows open - but, you are in the bush looking for wild animals and it all adds to the wonderful sense of adventure!
Windows also prevent another important sensory aid that you should not underestimate: hearing. Driving slowly with the windows down means you will not hear the vocal song of the birds or the rustling movement of animals in the nearby bush. This is imperative - the mammals, reptiles and birds are generally very well camouflaged, but their noises are a superb freebie to an animal with good hearing like us humans!
Frequently seen animals such as impala and baboon also give out alarm calls when a predator is nearby – this is gold-dust to a safari driver as it could mean lion or a leopard are in close proximity. It could also be a snake which may be impossible to spot in the vegetation, but again, having the windows up means you miss the alarm call and lose the chance to even try and spot the predator.
Do the right hours
This is so important, and in more ways than one.
Firstly, you are visiting a place the size of Wales / Belize / Israel / New Jersey and the roads give you access to just a tiny percentage of the park. Fortunately, many of the roads follow rivers or approach waterholes, which significantly increases the chances of seeing animal activity, but be aware of just how little of Kruger you will actually see, even if you drive along every single road over the course of many weeks!
How can you improve your odds of getting that special sighting? Do the time and do it at the right time. This means spending as much time as you can out on the roads but also be out at the best times of the day.
This latter point is mandatory! You must leave the camps as close to gate opening time as possible. Dawn is the best time of day in the park - the nocturnal animals are still finishing their business before settling down to rest, while the diurnal animals are getting warmed up in the first of the sun’s rays. You also get a head-start on visitors who make the mistake of having a lie-in.
During the South African summer months, this means (brace yourself!) 4:30am drive start times. That’s daunting for most of us but once you get into a routine with early dinners and bedtime then it’s really not a big deal. In the winter months it is often a 6am start time.
Additionally, don’t forget that the heat of the early afternoon is often the least productive time of the day for game viewing, so it’s a great time for a nap after an early lunch if you are struggling with less sleep. Equally, a cooler cloudy mid-afternoon can be very productive while a rainy dawn will be tough going, so adapt your plans according to the changing weather patterns too.
Late afternoon is also a glorious time for game viewing, golden hour photography and catching that last amazing sighting before a celebratory drink in the rest camp.
So, drive for as much as you can during the day, planning your drives accordingly, but rest at the right times so you can be out on the road with the animals when they are also up and about.
Pick the right routes
You might have mastered all of the above but if you drive down a road with no animals then it stands to reason that you won’t see anything!
There’s a huge selection of roads in the park and near each camp. The animals migrate depending on the availability of water and food, the threat of predators and the time of day.
Dry season will see an increased density of animals around sustained water sources and so understanding where is wet is important. Equally, the dry areas away from waterholes bloom into foliage during wet season, offering lots of food for herbivores - yet the wall of green can seriously limit your view and make for tough game driving conditions.
So use the KrugerExplorer App routes section and other local knowledge to understand the location of the animals depending on the time of year and any immediate pressures. Ask around in camps, particularly the various rangers, professional drivers and other guests. Ask people out on the roads too. Also take every single side-loop road; it may look quiet down there, but you never know what might be revealed by a different angle of sight through the bush.
But also remember that the guest you are speaking to who “saw absolutely nothing” probably started out at 10am, averaged 50kmph, had the windows up the whole time and excluded the antelope, zebra, giraffe, elephant and buffalo from their list of sightings – because they were looking for cats! We’ve seen many people drive straight past wonderful sightings because it wasn’t a cat and then complain loudly in the restaurant later about how poor the game viewing was.
Share your own brilliant sightings so others can enjoy them too. It all becomes a lot more rewarding when you are part of a community looking for the incredible wildlife that Kruger has to offer.
The virtue of patience… It goes without saying - this is nature and you can do all the right things, in the right places and at the right times of day… and see very little because there are no guarantees.
You will experience great flurries of activity but will also have slow patches too, so patience throughout is very important.
It will often feel like a healthy dose of luck is needed too. However, the more you follow these tips and remain patient, the more “luck” you will have. So maybe luck has only a small part to do with it after all….!
Yes, you can!
Yes, you can definitely be your own self-drive safari guide!
Plan your routes according to local knowledge and the amazing routes in the KrugerExplorer App. Start early, drive slowly, use your eyes and ears and be patient. And enjoy the envy of those you chat to in the camp thanks to all the superb sightings you’ve experienced during your drives!
Please share your stories, photos and videos with the KrugerExplorer community after your trip too!