Would you consider an African self-drive holiday for your next trip? What if I told you it can be up to 40% cheaper than a private-guided tour?
When you pay for a private guided tour you are not only paying for the vehicle, you are also paying the driver/guide wages and all their accommodation and food for the length of the tour. Granted this is at much lower rates than tourists pay because most lodges across the continent have separate accommodation for guides/drivers. However, whilst these costs are not so bad if splitting between a bigger group, they are very noticeable if only 2-3 people are travelling.
I of course recognise this type of holiday isn’t for everyone, for a wide variety of reasons. However, I feel self-drive holidays could be set to increase in popularity following the Covid-19 pandemic, as more people are considering travel options that have a focus on social distancing and isolation. Travelling in your own vehicle at your own pace certainly ticks this box. A self-drive holiday in Africa has the added bonus that many countries boast wide open spaces, remote lodges and a focus on nature and being outside – all things that Covid hates!
Self-drive travel offers the ultimate in flexibility because you can stop anywhere on route that looks interesting, whether this be amazing scenery, meeting local people, wildlife spotting, shopping or trying an activity you didn’t realise was available until you drove past! Your money also goes a lot further, so if you are willing to self-drive you may choose to spend more on your accommodation and activities, and get more out of the destination. Whilst you can argue flexibility is also possible on a private-guided tour, the reality is most people largely just go with the driver suggestions, often choosing to just sit back and enjoy the journey – which does have its own positives!
There are essentially two different ways to approach self-drive trips. The first is to just contact a car-hire company, book a couple of nights accommodation at the start of the trip and then decide your route as you go. This offers the ultimate in versatility, and is great if you have plenty of time as this allows you to make decisions as you go depending on what sparks your interest on route. The problem with this approach is that at certain times of the year you could struggle to find suitable accommodation at the last minute in some areas (Namibia in peak season is a key example), and this could mean unnecessary stress, which goes completely against the reason for holidays! The second way is to do the research ahead of time, perhaps working with a specialist tour company, and to plan the route out and book accommodation according to your plans. This is definitely a sensible option if you are only travelling for a couple of weeks, as making sure you have an achievable route is crucial to ensure you can fit in what you want to achieve, without feeling constantly rushed. I personally prefer the second type, but this is also because I absolutely LOVE spending my evenings researching itineraries, creating spreadsheets, reading about destinations and just generally travel dreaming about where to visit next in Africa!
Two of the biggest reservations about self-drive tours are often nervousness about ease of driving in another country, and safety. If you have these reservations then I strongly recommend booking through a specialist tour operator. Not only will they book your accommodation, car, and activities, they will provide specific route maps that detail the safest and easiest routes – something that Google maps/Tom Tom etc definitely don’t do! They will also answer all your queries before you travel utilising their own personal experiences, which is invaluable. The only time I find driving in African countries a little daunting is in the cities, and this is because they can be busy and confusing with lots of unfamiliar signs/lanes etc. However, I also feel the same when driving in unfamiliar towns/cities in my own car at home in the UK! I honestly believe that if you are a reasonably confident driver then you will have no issues with self-drive in the popular self-drive countries in Africa.
South Africa and Namibia are the most popular self-drive destinations for international visitors, with many people from around the world choosing this style of travel. I have personally done a number of self-drive trips in the last few years, either with friends or family. These include:
- Exploring the Western Cape – This tour was largely based in Cape Town but with day and overnight trips out to the Wine Region, Cederberg and the coast at Paternoster. This trip offered a great combination of relaxation at the beach, nature walks and stargazing around Cederberg, great food and wine in Paarl/Franschhoek and all the buzz of Cape Town – and we all know by now how much I love it there!
- Garden Route from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth. This is probably the most well known and ‘standard’ route in South Africa, popular with a lot of visitors. The highlights of our trip were a sunset cruise on the beautiful lagoon in Knysna, the Meerkat Adventure Tours in Oudtshoorn (even with the 4am start), the meeting oceans at Cape Agulhas and a 3 night safari at the wonderful Shamwari Game Reserve.
- Namibia – Again I took a popular and standard tourist route through Sossosvlei, Swakopmund, Twyfelfontein and Etosha but with an addition, and my favourite part – a few days travelling through the the lush green Caprivi Strip. We also continued on with a seamless road transfer into Victoria Falls, as you can’t take hire cars into Zimbabwe. I highly recommend doing a self-drive in Namibia to anyone – even solo travellers! The roads are so easy to navigate, and most of the time you can go for miles without seeing another vehicle. It is also a country that can be easily visited all year round (Caprivi excluded due to the seasonal flooding). My company only sells tours with vehicles that are tracked so our local partners know if there are any issues on route, and they also provide 24 hour assistance, and give all clients a local mobile phone to use throughout the trip. Therefore when I travel in Namibia I always travel this way too – and it’s fantastic!
- Panorama Route and Kruger National Park – This was a short fly-in visit of only 7 days, but one I absolutely loved. I took Mother Hen and we particularly enjoyed the self-drive safaris in Kruger. Granted we didn’t see as many great sightings as you possibly would with a guided 4×4 tour that can go off the main roads. However, it was brilliant just being able to stop and watch giraffes, rhino and elephant for an extended period. We did underestimate the distance/time involved doing Hazyview to Graskop in a day following an early morning cruise in Blyde River Canyon. It was dark and late by the time we managed to get back and the rumours are true – some of the driving on the roads in Mpumalanga leaves a lot to be desired!!
- Port Elizabeth to Durban – Oh we definitely made some route errors on this one! I’m saying nothing about taking a wrong turn through a township to what we thought was a hotel…..only to quickly realise we had turned up at the local prison!! The main issue on this trip was we were too ambitious with the distances we could travel in a day, and ended up having to switch our trip around a couple of times as we just couldn’t safely get to our accommodations as planned. We had based timings on previous driving experience in the Western Cape, where the roads are in significantly better condition! We also had some incredibly bad weather to deal with over the mountains, that massively slowed us down, as we drove to keep safe! The plus side was we had a lovely unplanned stay at Seagulls Hotel near Kei Mouth, an area we never expected to see! We also had one of my favourite ‘unexpected’ nights ever at a cosy B&B in Underberg that turned out to be run by someone who grew up 30 miles from where I grew up in the UK! We spent the evening chatting to a great couple from Durban who were also staying at the B&B who shared their meat and cheese platter with us! They felt sorry for us as it was late and all we had with us for dinner was several bottles of wine and some crisps! In our defence we were supposed to be heading to a lodge with dinner included, and this was just what we kept in the car as standard! We did of course share our wine! They even offered to take us up Sani Pass the next day in their 4×4, but unfortunately as we were already way behind schedule we had to decline…. To be fair – as I sit here and write it’s becoming clearer that this hilarious trip is probably worthy of its own blog!
So where do I want to self-drive next? I actually have a trip booked in for August 2021 (fingers crossed!) to eSwatini, South Africa and Lesotho. I am travelling with five friends and you can see our booked itinerary here, if you are looking for some inspiration….
Further to this I am genuinely excited by the Malawi self-drive that I have recently been researching. There are some good accommodation options, and a diverse range of things to do including visiting tea plantations, Lake Malawi, lush green mountains and a couple of different game parks. Malawi is an incredibly friendly country, that is growing in popularity every year so I think now is the right time to visit again, this time as a self-drive. Some key lodges to consider would be Huntington House at Satemwa Tea Estate and Mvuu Lodge (not camp). I might also try to see if I can do a slightly longer trip and include Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve and Ntchisi Forest Reserve an escarpment of the East African Rift Valley, on Ntchisi Mountain, in some of Malawi’s last remaining indigenous rainforest! If you are interested in a Malawi self-drive then do give me a shout!
I also plan to start looking at Kenya, Uganda, Senegal and Zambia to see what the art of the possible is in these destinations as well. I would love to add Zimbabwe to this list too, as one of my all time favourite destinations, but I just need to be clear on the current road block situation first, as this is a genuine deterrent. I know a couple of years back they had all but cleared, but then post-covid I noticed they had started to re-appear again!
- Avoid the temptation to ‘see more’ by only staying 1 night in places. The reality is you end up spending so much time on the road you actually miss out on seeing things in destinations as you simply do not have the time.
- Book through a reputable company. They will they help you to design a workable, safe and enjoyable route, give information about ‘must see’ attractions on route and can offer assistance and advice in the event of any issues.
- Get the full insurance cover. Some basic insurance doesn’t include theft, so you could find yourself with a very expensive bill for something completely outside of your control if you don’t check the detail!
- Don’t always go for the cheapest vehicle available, especially if you are going on an extended trip. Think about what your needs are and how you will be using the vehicle. On one of the first trips we hired a small Polo (which we loved and named Petey) but the problem was it only had space for one suitcase in the boot, this meant that the second suitcase and the rest of the stuff had to sit on the backseat…meaning all our stuff was on display – so not the most secure if we needed to leave the vehicle anywhere before getting to our accommodation. It also really didn’t like the hills….and we were in the Drakensberg! I’m sure we could have walked quicker up some of them!
- I recommend only planning a maximum of 5 hours driving a day as this allows for plenty of relaxed sightseeing on route, and also allows time to resolve any unexpected issues that may happen on route (hopefully unlikely!). Worst case scenario is you have a quick smooth drive, and you get more time to relax at the destination!
- I have a rule to only drive in daylight hours, and I strongly advocate following this rule, largely for safety. Roads are much more difficult to navigate in the dark, especially the winding mountain tracks (with sheer drops) and areas where wildlife can come out of nowhere in front of vehicles!
- Pack basic supplies into the vehicle, just in case. Water, snacks…. a meat and cheese platter! You never know when they might come in handy 🙂