We’ve always said that travel is the best education anyone can get.
Our eyes have been opened and world flipped upside down by all that we have learned through our different experiences. One of the most memorable and forever changing lessons was the month Josh and I drove ourselves through Botswana and Namibia with no guides, no locals, just a 4×4 truck, a tent a few very warm blankets!
So, what did we learn from our self drive safari in Botswana and Namibia?
The importance of guides… and the adventure of doing it yourself
All of our game drives were just the two of us in search of wildlife…and honestly simply getting from point A to point B safely and before sunset without getting horribly lost. Eventually we opted to do one guided game drive in Chobe National Park. Josh had been driving for two weeks straight with white knuckles, and we decided it was time he had a break.
During the 2 hour game drive, our guide drove right next to wildlife that we would have been terrified to get close to in our own car. He was able to read their movements and noises and know what they were thinking. He also had the connection with the other guides out in the park, so if there was an animal to see, he would know about it and drive quickly so our group wouldn’t miss it.
When we passed over the steering wheel and took a back seat to enjoy the wildlife, for those few hours we felt safe.
But…is feeling safe why you go on a safari? Maybe, but not for us.
When we drove ourself we felt the adventure of every turn and excitement of each new animal spotting being ours. We had no idea what to do in the bush, how to handle wild animals and the questionable danger is what made our trip exciting.
Every night we went to bed in our tent listening to coyotes, elephants and who knows what walk by our car. Every day was spent with our heart beating, eyes wide open, taking in every scent and sight that came near us. We became professional animal poop experts, we read our kindle at night about the different animals we were seeing and we quickly learned how to drive ourselves through 3 feet of sand and around fallen trees with a stick shift.
The adrenaline rush we had for the month driving ourselves, beat out any safe guided tour we could have joined.
A little bit on safety
The first question we get when we tell people we drove ourselves through Africa is “wasn’t that dangerous?“.
If this question was related to the wild animals we were in search of and sleeping near, then yes there was definitely a question of safety, and trust us we took every precaution. If the question was related to the people we met, then no, safety wasn’t an issue.
We learned in that month that safety is relative, and a lot of it is in the stories you create in your mind. If you think you aren’t safe, you will look at everything and everyone you encounter with distrust. We started out our drive questioning every grocery stop, “will our car be there when we get back”, every ATM, “why is that person standing so close to me while I’m getting my money out”, and so on. We were distrustful for no reason.
After a few stops and thank goodness, some help from the locals when our truck’s rear shock fell off, our tire got a huge bolt in it, or we got lost along the drive, we came to realize that any fears were in our head and the people of Botswana and Namibia wanted nothing more than to help us and welcome us into their country.
Don’t get me wrong, I am sure you have heard stories of someone that had something happen to them, and those types of stories could happen anywhere. Generally we found these two countries safe and enjoyable to travel through… except when we had to sleep under a tree of baboons…I will never trust those animals!
GPS is overrated
To add a GPS to our 4×4 rental would have cost an extra $50 per day. Looking back now I laugh at how we thought that was expensive in comparison to the stress of using 10-year-old maps.
On our self drive through Botswana and Namibia we used 10-year-old maps for the entire month of driving through the bush, and had no trouble getting around. We got out of the car every now and then and asked directions – some of the roads which most definitely did not appear on our out-dated maps, but we wouldn’t change it for anything.
We think back to how many times GPS has led us astray, down dead end roads and instructed us to drive into lakes that would obviously not get us to where we wanted to go. I have a love affair with maps, and the decision to drive GPS-free was one of the best adventures we could have had.
Being Comfortable in Uncomfortable Situations
Every day was uncomfortable. The simplest thing like going to the bathroom becomes uncomfortable when you are driving through the middle of nowhere and you quickly learn when you gotta go, you gotta go. We would try to find the most wide open space possible (which is weird to say when you are doing a very private act) and take turns ‘on the lookout’ for wild animals while the other would squat as close to the car as possible and relieve their morning coffee.
TMI? I know.
These uncomfortable situations quickly became normal and comfortable… and necessary. When you do a self drive safari, make sure you pick your travel companions carefully because you experience it all together, the good the bad and the never want to experience. If peeing on the side of the road… or in full view of a potential lion makes you squeamish, I suggest you opt for a trip with more bathrooms and less uncomfortable situations.
When it’s just you and a 10,000 lb. elephant in the middle of the Botswana bush you learn patience.
We waited for 20 minutes… and then another 10, while a solo male elephant ate at a nearby tree. His butt blocked the one road we could take to continue our drive, so we waited. Finally our patience was tested (mostly mine) and we wanted to continue on our drive. We had a long way to go and knew we had to make it to the next campsite before sunset… so we inched forward. Barely inched forward, we might have rolled the car a meter before the male elephant set his sights on us.
We had been fake charged a few times during our self drive safari, but this was different. This time his ears were pinned back and he had a glisten in his eye that meant business. Josh started reversing in 3 feet of sand, attempting to avoid the hundreds of trees that awaited us, and my heart started beating faster than I could have ever imagined. The whole experience which seemed to last for 10 minutes was most likely over in less than 40 seconds. For whatever reason the elephant chose not to follow us into the narrow meadow of trees we were still frantically maneuvering, and we had in that moment learned the real meaning of patience.
More than anything, at the end of the day we learned how to relax.
After the adrenaline had left our bodies, we sat out around our campfire (if the elephants decided to leave us alone), had a glass of wine watching the sunset over the horizon and the millions of stars fill the vast Botswana sky. There is no way to describe the utter beauty that we were surrounded with, I only can encourage you to get out and experience it for yourself!
With no internet, outside lights, or traffic noise it was just us. The feeling of being alone, peace and pure relaxation at the end of the day was the perfect memory to keep with us after a month-long self-drive safari.
What questions do you have about doing a self-drive safari?
How closely did you end up following the itinerary you laid out here: https://www.traveling9to5.com/2012/06/lost-in-africa/?
Did you think you had enough time or if you had to do it again would you add more days? Any additions/subtractions you’d make to your route?
Hi I want to drive from south africa through botswana to namibia and back. Do you think it would be safe to take my 1year old with us? Camping.
Wow, sleeping under a tree of baboons! Sounds amazing although I’m not sure I’d get the best night’s sleep there.
Peter Jenkins says
Hello. I used to live in Botswana, many years ago, and have travelled through the same places you have. I now live in Sweden, and have often considered a holiday back there. I didnt know you can hire self drive, and am very interested. Which company did u use, and where did u pick the vehical up from.
Caroline Eaton says
We used Bushtrackers and had a great experience with them! We picked it up in J-burg where we flew in and then drove to our first campsite in Botswana that day. http://www.bushtrackers.co.za/
We also used Bushlore for our self-drive safari. You can read our review here: http://globegazers.com/2014/08/24/bushlore-review/
We also picked up and returned in Johannesburg.
Jose Antunes says
How wonderful to spend the day in this place and as you said, at the end of the day relax with this sunset is simply wonderful.
Pam couture says
Hi! My husband and I are flying to Namibia May 29 to do our first self drive ! Windhoek to sosoveil to bagletel then up through Botswana ( deception camp direction) then ending in Victoria falls. We will have a specific itinerary and gps! My concern are night time sleeping in the roof top tent and having animals bang our vehicle. Are we safe? Any experiences anyone can share I’d appreciate thanks