Should I Do a Self-drive Safari?

Our self-drive safari was an incredibly unique and rewarding experience, though a bit frightening at times and not without a few challenges. Depending on why you want to self-drive, it may be worth doing, but it’s a lot of work and definitely not for everybody. Let’s weigh the pros and cons.

The road out of the Ngorongoro Crater is one of the few paved roads inside the park.

The road out of the Ngorongoro Crater is one of the few paved roads inside the park.

If you have already been on an African safari and seen most of the animals but felt like you wanted to be more in control, then you might enjoy the self-drive experience. You can determine your own route and what you’d like to see. You can delight in the freedom of not being on anyone else’s schedule. Leave anytime you want in the morning and return to camp whenever you wish. If you’re a photographer, you can stop at any time for photos, move to just the right position that you want, spend as much or as little time watching animals. If you wish, you can follow the crowds, or you can go to places less traveled to just enjoy the view. And while you’re waiting, the animals may just come to you. And finally, you can have the rewarding experience of being self-sufficient.

Are you prepared to drive?

Self driving in Tanzania’s national parks is not something I would recommend for those with little or no off-road driving experience. To call the routes we drove “roads” would be generous and misleading. Park roads are rough, narrow, treacherous, and filled with obstacles: rocks, sand, mud, soft steep shoulders, animals, and other approaching vehicles. A 4WD vehicle is absolutely necessary to venture into the park area, however, not just any 4WD will make it. Which is why almost all the safari tour companies use Land Rovers or Landcruisers. I haven’t seen any Jeeps and only a couple of SUVs inside the park. The reason is that the roads are horrible and would literally shake a lesser vehicle to pieces.

The wheels of vehicles bounce along the gravel and dirt and reach a certain frequency where the tires carve evenly spaced ruts perpendicular to the road, developing a washboard pattern. At slower speeds, speeds which the park would like you to drive, the washboard pattern feels the roughest, bouncing the vehicle so violently that it could scramble eggs. Driving at higher speeds  reaches a “sweet spot” where the tires will hit just the tops of the washboard bumps, making the ride smoother. However, since there’s so little surface contact with the tires, the vehicle has little control and the truck can swerve unexpectedly when a variation in the road occurs. Using 4WD doesn’t make it any easier because steering is actually more difficult without improving road contact. This is why even the most experienced of drivers can sometimes lose control and go off the road or worse. Whenever I felt that I wasn’t totally in control, I would simply slow down. Better to ride out a few rough bumps than put the truck in the ditch.


However, there are some disadvantages to self-driving. You must do all the driving and navigating. You must be prepared to drive in poor conditions (see the sidebar) on the left side of the road in a right-hand drive vehicle with a manual transmission. For those in the U.S., that means it’s opposite to the way you would normally drive. Most GPS devices and apps don’t cover off-road or unpaved routes, and even the ones that claim they do, still come up short. You could easily get lost, stuck in the mud, or spend time looking for animals when a guided tour would have that knowledge to avoid those issues.

On a self-drive safari, you must set up your own camp and do all the cooking and cleaning. You’ll need to do menu planning and shopping for food prior to your safari. You must have adequate food storage for all the food you’re bringing along. And finally, you have to do the actual food prep and cooking. While everyone else is leaving to see the animals in the morning right after sunrise, you’ll still be washing your breakfast dishes. Since you really don’t want to be driving after dark, you’ll also need to get to the campsites early enough in the afternoon to find and get a good site.  Setting up camp and cooking dinner, means you’ll miss prime animal activity around sunset. If you choose to spend the sunset hours viewing animals, know that you’ll be arriving to camp in the dark and will get only whatever site is still available. In any case, you’ll be spending lots of valuable vacation time doing mundane camp chores that a guided tour would normally do for you.

Dislodged fuel tank leaking

Dislodged fuel tank leaking

Not only are you the driver and cook, you’ll need to be your own McGuyver and be prepared to deal with all the problems that occur on the road and in camp: mechanical issues with the vehicle (there’s no roadside assistance, nor the cellular service with which to call them), problems with the camp equipment (a clogged camp stove means no hot food), and food preparation issues (oh no, I forgot to buy salt).  Issues that a tour operator would normally handle. And sadly, you won’t save much money, if at all. If there’s just you, or you and one other person, the cost of renting a 4WD vehicle with all the park fees, camping gear, insurance, food, and supplies costs nearly as much as a guided tour. When you take all that work and expense into account a packaged tour is actually a pretty good deal.

If you decide to go the self-drive route, know that you’ll not be doing it entirely alone. Everyone in Tanzania is extremely friendly and helpful. Without the help of local Tanzanian guides, drivers, and cooks, we would still be stuck in the mud, lost near the Mara River, or eating cold food. Someone was always there to help us, give us directions, or even provide a hot meal late at night. And when I had the opportunity to pay it forward and help one of them, I was ready and willing. You’re driving yourself, but you are never doing it alone.

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