Self-drive or privately-guided safari: What's the difference?

Posted on Fri April 17, 2020.

It comes as no surprise that first-time safari-goers in South Africa have a hard time deciding on the 'best fit' safari for them, often left feeling overwhelmed at the sheer number of options available. There are different types of safari too, with the terms 'self-drive' and 'privately-guided' being thrown around most commonly on travel forums.

So, what's the difference? We asked guide Elly to clarify this topic to help you understand your options and how to get the most out of your safari experience.

What is a self-drive safari?

As the name suggests, a self-drive safari means you are at the helm; driving your own vehicle (personal or rental) into the wilds of South Africa! Kruger National Park is the hottest destination for this type of safari, with an extensive road network that takes you deep into the park in search of its magnificent beasts.

Typically, in these areas, a 2WD vehicle is perfectly sufficient given that most of the roads are sealed - so the average rental car will do. Although, if you can't picture yourself comfortably relaxing in the driver's seat of a pocket-size Ford Fiesta while a 6-tonne elephant bull cruises past then we might recommend opting for one of the bulkier 4WD vehicles (or a private safari)!

But, I'm not a qualified safari guide - is it safe for me to drive around these wild animals?

When it comes down to it, these are wild animals we are viewing and Kruger is not a zoo - you accept a certain degree of risk with any safari activity you choose to partake in.

Having said that, millions of vehicles pass through the National Park every year and the wildlife has therefore become very accustomed to the presence of humans in their environment, seldom acting aggressively towards visitors.

So relaxed are these animals that they have even been spotted using the shade of cars in which to rest or concealing themselves behind these perfectly situated obstacles while hunting.

They are certainly no strangers to your presence, but if you don't feel capable of keeping your cool as a wild animal walks past then handing this responsibility over to a trained guide may be the best option for you. Which leads me to my next point...

How close can I get to the animals?

This entirely depends on the nature and position of the sighting you have stumbled upon during your adventures. While there is little to no difference in the types of animal species you can see on a self-drive safari compared to one that is privately-guided, proximity to the animals is where the private reserves (known collectively as the Greater Kruger) gain an upper hand over the National Park. I go on to explain this in a little more detail below.

If you want to 'do as the locals do' and safari on a budget, then a self-drive safari is undoubtedly the cheapest option. If you've got plenty of time to really explore everything that Kruger has to offer (a National Park roughly the same size as Wales!) then you have the freedom of movement to venture into some of the more remote corners of the Park, such as the northern sector of Pafuri. This is your best bet when it comes to escaping the crowds of the southern sector.

The advantages of a self-drive safari:

  • You call the shots! With this DIY safari experience, you get to decide where you go exploring and how long you stay at sightings.
  • It is a low-cost option. If you're on a modest budget, combine it with tented camping for a more adventurous experience!

In summary, self-drive safaris are high on the "do it yourself" scale but relatively low on the "comfort" scale, unless you opt to stay in more luxury accommodation.

Most visitors to Kruger will combine their time self-driving with some form of privately-guided safari experience, either by paying extra for a guided drive from their accommodation or tying in a visit to one of the private reserves. This allows them to explore the National Park on their own terms while also reaping the benefits outlined below...

What is a privately-guided safari?

A privately-guided safari is one in which a professionally-trained field guide takes you into the bush and regales you with facts and anecdotes about the wildlife you see. These are usually operated in the well-known, open-air game vehicles in which guests occupy rows of tiered seating behind the guide.

Certain lodges, including Klaserie Sands, also have a highly skilled tracker who sits at the very front, scanning the road for fresh tracks that may expose important clues as to the whereabouts of key animals.

Okay, I'll be the first to admit that I'm heavily biased here, but let me outline the clear benefits that these privately-guided safari experiences provide.

Firstly, all of the hard work is taken out of your hands. You're not required to know your way around, how to navigate a map, approach wild animals or deal with any unexpected circumstances if something goes wrong.

Got a flat tyre? No worries, your guide will take care of this while you stretch your legs. Not sure where you should be searching to find the animals? We've got you covered - our experienced guiding team knows exactly what tell-tale signs to look out for or which areas certain animals prefer to hang out. All you have to do is sit back, relax and enjoy the wonders of the natural world as it passes you by.

Sounds like a pretty sweet deal, right? It gets better. Private nature reserves, like the Klaserie, allow a certain degree of off-road driving that is simply not permitted in Kruger National Park itself. This allows your guide to bring you up-close-and-personal with the wildlife you have travelled so far to see, and can often be the difference between a good sighting and a great sighting.

Not only that, but once you've enjoyed your ice-cold gin and tonic while watching the sunset, you are treated to a short night drive before returning to the lodge for dinner. This provides the opportunity to catch a glimpse of our more nocturnal animals or those who prefer to move around in the cooler hours of the day.

The advantages of a privately-guided safari:

  • Benefit from the knowledge of your expert field guide who will interpret animal sightings and answer any questions you may have about the flora and fauna
  • Guides are allowed to drive off-road to bring you closer to the wildlife if it moves deeper into the bush
  • Game drives continue for a short while after sunset to give you the opportunity to view some of the more nocturnal creatures
  • Animal sightings are maintained at only two vehicles per sighting to allow for uncrowded game viewing and photographic opportunities

In summary, privately-guided safaris are low on the "do it yourself" scale but far higher on the "comfort" scale. You will usually pay a once-off fee which will subsequently take care of everything for you, as is the case with Klaserie Sands.

While guided safari experiences in private reserves (like the Klaserie) are going to cost you more, if this is a once-in-a-lifetime trip for you then it is certainly worth every penny.

At the very least, combining the two options is a great way of benefiting from the knowledge of a professional field guide while also enjoying the thrill of exploring the bush on your own terms. Here at Klaserie Sands, we take a few days and create a lifetime of memories...

If you enjoyed reading this article, please click the 'Share this post' button on the right-hand side of the page to allow others to discover the magic that is a safari in the African bush!

Article written by Elly Gearing with photos courtesy of Albie Venter, Nerise Bekker, Henk Brand, Markus Gemeinder, Emily Whiting and Elly Gearing.