South Africa Self-Drive Safari Stops

The majority of our safari was focused on Botswana and Namibia, but we did pick up and drop off our truck in Johannesburg, so we stayed in South Africa for a few nights at the beginning and end of the trip

Safari Night 1: Waterberg Wildnerness Reserve, between Mookgopong and Polokwane

Getting There
We had just picked up our truck and were still adjusting to driving a large 4×4 truck on the left side of the road, so we were happy that this reserve was only a few hours away.

It was a little-nerve-wracking getting to the site though, because they were doing road construction and we had to take this pretty wild side path. Luckily one of the managers showed us the way or we might never have found it!

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Campsite
This was a very nice site. Nice trees isolating us from the other sites (although we were the only ones there this night). A nice stone table and fire pit with provided firewood that made an excellent fire.

The camp managers were also super nice and helpful. We had forgotten to buy matches at the store, so they gave us a full box plus some firelighters (excellent stuff that we are curious why it isn’t more popular in the USA). Also, we realized here that Bushlore forgot to fill our 40L water tank in the truck, and they were kind enough to give us a hose to hook up to the water outlet and fill it (and to help us tighten the connection).

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This was only the beginning of the fire!

Ablutions
Since it was our first night on the road, we didn’t have any expectations for how rustic things would be. We were pleasantly surprised at how fancy this one was, with a nice building with fancy fixtures and good hot water.

Activities
They have different 4×4 driving trails throughout the reserve, and one of the managers was nice enough to recommend a route for us. This gave us a very pretty view over the property for sunset.

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Safari Night 23: Red Sands Desert Lodge, near Kuruman

Getting There
If you’ll recall, night 22 was in Keetmanshoop, Namibia. This is quite a long distance away from Kuruman, so this was our longest driving day of the trip. By this point Eric had gotten a little more comfortable with the manual transmission, so he was able to do a few hours of highway driving.

We did also have a border crossing, but luckily again we seemed to be the only ones crossing at the time. Getting into South Africa was especially interesting. All the customs agent asked was about how big the states in the US were. The police officer ran our fingerprints, and told us that we were rejected… but we could clearly see the “No Match” on the machine and his partner was grinning and messing with his cell phone in the background – and the officer eventually admitted he was joking. The person that was supposed to inspect the car inside just wrote down our license plate and asked if she could ride to Johannesburg with us. Everyone there just seemed to be looking for some sort of entertainment!

Campsite
Not as nice as it should have been… When we arrived at Red Sands, they had no record of the booking that Bushlore had made for us there. We called Bushlore and they said we should just pay for it (again) and sort it out back in Joburg. But, there were no actual sites available. There was no other campground nearby, so we weren’t sure what to do. But then a manager stepped in and identified an area with a table that we could us as a site for the night. The site itself didn’t have much beyond the table, but it certainly beat sleeping on the side of the road.

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Ablutions
We were allowed to use the big ablutions block near the actual campsites. Since the camp was full this meant that the ablutions was somewhat crowded. We didn’t take showers, but heard others complaining of limited hot water.

Amenities
They had a nice reception area with free wifi… but only a 50 MB data limit. We burned through this in about 30 minutes :(. There was a nice restaurant as well where the we doing  braai (bbq) buffet, but we had enough food left that we decided to cook anyway. We did visit the bar to relax after the stress of driving and site mixups. Here we had the Castle Milk Stout for the first time, which was a nice change of pace from all the standard lagers we had been drinking.

Safari Night 24: Magalies Sleepy River, Magaliesburg

Getting There
For our last night we decided to go off the beaten path of what others do for their safaris. Instead of making the long drive from Kuruman back to return the truck, we decided to stay in this area just an hour outside of town. So we just looked up the campground on the Internet and found our way to it.

When we arrived, they seemed somewhat surprised to see us. It seems like they are mostly a summer operation and don’t really actually open in the winter. But, they were happy to take our money for the site.

Campsite
There was only one other person in the entire camprgound (a long-term caravaner), so we definitely had our pick of sites. The setting is very pretty, with lots of nice trees and hills surrounding.

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Ablutions
A nice big building with good hot water

Amenities
Looked like there would have been a lot more going on in the summer – pool, hiking, etc. They did have a beer fridge that we purchased a couple of beers from since our box of wine had run out the previous night.

Activities
This was right next door to the Cradle of Humankind area, which was another reason we chose to stop here.

Final Thoughts
It’s hard to really have much of an opinion on our South African safari stops since we didn’t spend much time at any of them. But one common theme was definitely the friendliness and helpfulness of all the employees that we interacted with!

Sossusvlei

One of the biggest reasons we wanted to include Nambia on our self-drive safari itinerary was to visit the surreal landscape of the dunes of Sossusvlei in the Namib Desert. We were able to spend two days exploring the area.

Unfortunately, a lot of our visit was dominated by the wind, which we described here.

Deadvlei

This pan with dead trees surrounded by massive red dunes was what we had seen pictures of and were looking forward to the most. It was a bit of a chore to get there – an hour drive on a paved road, 5 km on a sandy 4×4 track (Botswana experience came in handy here!), and then a 1 km hike through some blowing sand.

But once we crested a dune and saw the vlei, we were pretty happy to be here!

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Down in the vlei, the wind was mostly blocked by the dunes, so we spent a long time soaking in the surreal scenery around us.

Sesriem Canyon

The campground for the area is located near the Sesriem Canyon, which is a pretty cool attraction in its own right. We spent an afternoon walking upstream and downstream through the dry canyon bed.

Scenic Lookout

This was marked on the map, but not with a sign! We wouldn’t have found it if we hadn’t seen someone else here. We were able to walk out and get a nice view of the red dunes.

 

Elim Dune

Another spot that was on the map but a little hard to find. We climbed this dune, found right inside the park, on our first evening. We didn’t make it all the way to the top, because it got a little windy (and Della discovered that Keen’s are not the best for dune hiking)

 

Dune 45

One of the most popular activities in the park is to wake up very early and drive to this dune, hiking up in time to catch the sunrise over the red dunes. We planned to do this the morning after our first night in the park. But, when the aforementioned wind was still blowing when the alarm rang, we opted not to go. We thought about doing the climb the next morning before we left, but since the wind was also blowing hard that morning, we decided to skip this dune. We were pretty bummed about this!

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See the blowing sand? We decided to pass on that in our face

Hidden Vlei

The guidebook and a sign said this was only 2 km from the main Sossusvlei parking lot. But it was so windy that we couldn’t find the markers we were supposed to follow!

Hidden Vlei was somewhere out there... we think

Hidden Vlei was somewhere out there… we think

Moments of Misery: A Mighty Wind

Most of our posts on this blog will be happy recollections of some moments of our trip. But life on the road won’t always be fun. We feel like we’d like to share some of these moments of misery too. (OK, and vent a little about them too…)

Nineteen days into our safari, we were feeling so confident about the camping aspect of the trip. Sure, it had been a little cold, but we had figured out how to dress ourselves to deal with that. We were getting at least 8 hours of sleep a night, if not more.

Then it got windy.

After the sun went down on our night in Solitaire, a strong wind started to blow. We manoeuvred the truck into place behind the ablutions block, but it still didn’t really block the wind very well. Our tent was pretty sturdy, so we were worried about it collapsing or blowing away, but the wind was gusting strongly enough to cause the sides to flap very loudly, and even the wooden floor to vibrate. We didn’t get much sleep until the wind died down around midnight.

Hiding our tent behind the ablutions building

Hiding our tent behind the ablutions building

The next morning we were pretty frustrated not to have gotten much sleep. But, it wasn’t windy anymore, so we hoped our next night in Sesriem would be better. All day it was nice and calm, and even by the time we went to bed, there was only a light breeze. We were looking forward to a nice night of sleep to make up for the previous night.

Around 11, the wind came.

It was just as bad as at Solitaire, and this time continued on through the morning, interrupting some of our plans for visiting Sossusvlei. By the afternoon, the wind had died down to a light breeze. OK, this night, we really were looking forward to some solid sleep.

Around 10, the wind came.

Again, the wind lasted until the morning. We left Sesriem pretty bitter about the lack of sleep and interruption of our plans.

 

The next night, in the Quivertree Forest, there was no wind, and we finally got some good sleep!

Self-Drive Safari, Week Two

We’re not sure we will have Internet access while on our safari, so we’ve scheduled a few posts like these to automatically go out. During the 2nd week of our safari, here is where we are planning to be:

Day 8 – July 15

We will spend the morning in Savuti then head into the northern Botswana town of Kasane, where we are camping at the Chobe Safari Lodge.

Day 9 – July 16

We will spend the day exploring the Ihaha area of Chobe near Kasane, and spend another night at the Chobe Safari Lodge.

Day 10 – July 17

We will take a day trip to Victoria Falls! We think we will go to the Zimbabwe side (for yellow fever reasons). We will spend another night at the Chobe Safari Lodge.

Day 11 – July 18

We leave Botswana and head into the Caprivi Strip region of Namibia. We will spend the night at Camp Kwando.

Day 12 – July 19

We drive further along the Strip, spending the night at Ngepi Camp.

Day 13 – July 20

We drive out of the Strip and to a town called Rundu near the Angola border, spending the night at Nkwazi Lodge.

Day 14 – July 21

We have a long day of driving, making it all the way to Etosha National Park. We will be camping at the Halali Camp

Planning Our Self-Drive Safari

Why Self-Drive?

When setting out our overall itinerary, we decided that we wanted our first stop to be South Africa.We also know we wanted to do some sort of safari to see some of the amazing wildlife and sights that Africa has to offer. But what kind of safari should we do?

First, we had to figure out where we wanted to go. Some people just go out to Kruger National Park in South Africa. While that sounded like an excellent destination, once we saw pictures of places like Sossusvlei and Victoria Falls, we decided to focus on getting to both Botswana and Namibia out of Johannesburg.

A quick glance at the prices or the luxury guided safaris let us know that was a no-go. Another option that a lot of “backpackers” do is to do a group “overland” tours through a large tour operator. This would have allowed us to see a lot the highlights, but the downside seemed to be to us that we wouldn’t be able to set our own pace.

Then, we stumbled across a blog by Traveling 9 to 5 about a self-drive safari. Intrigued, we looked into this further and thought it sounded pretty cool. You rent a truck with camping equipment and drive yourself on your own itinerary. This seemed like it would allow us to see exactly what we wanted while not breaking the bank. So, we started planning for this option.

Picking a Truck

There are many operators in Johannesburg that will rent you the standard self-drive safari vehicle: a four-wheel-drive pickup (always white for some reason) with a tent mounted on top and camping supplies included. We wanted to find a good deal, but also wanted to go with someone that seemed responsive to our concerns.

We got quotes from a few different places, then made a spreadsheet to compare their daily costs, insurance options and other fees. In the end, we went with Bushlore. Their costs were on the lower end of the spectrum, and they were very responsive in answering questions. From their selection of trucks, we chose the Toyota Hilux with Safari Camper.

Choosing the Route

The next step was to figure out where the truck was going to take us. July is part of the high season for safaris, so we couldn’t afford to dawdle. Conveniently, Bushlore offers a service to help plan the itinerary and book accommodations along the way. So, we got in touch with the booking department and started making plans.

The agent came up with a day-by-day plan and quoted us a price to book the whole thing. However, we felt like we needed a little more information. First, we mapped out the itinerary ourselves to see if the number of days could be condensed. Then, we researched all of the proposed campsites (cross-referencing against Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor, of course) to see if any of them could be booked by us directly.

Our first attempt at mapping out the destinations

Our first attempt at mapping out the destinations

It required a little back and forth, but eventually we settled on a route and cost with the agent. We came up with a 25 day itinerary, which doesn’t allow for a lot of downtime but hopefully won’t be too hard to get done. It turned out that it was easier and almost as cheap for Bushlore to book the campsites for all but one of the destinations…

The Time We Wired Money to Africa

The website for Etosha National Park in Namibia seemed petty straightforward, and the price they were requesting for a campsite was about half of what Bushlore quoted. So,we decided to try and book it on our own. Things seemed to be going pretty smoothly until it got to the whole payment part of it.

We had thought we could pay by credit card, but it turned out the only option was to wire money. We hadn’t really done that before, so it took a little figuring out how to even do that. It was tough to even figure out if we were sending it the right place – the way it was supposed to work was that we wired to an account in the US that is associated with a foreign exchange company that would then send the appropriate Namibian dollars to Etosha.

We were a little scared that somehow this was a scam (and trying to explain that we were attempting to wire money to Africa while talking to representatives of our bank felt a little silly), but by this point we were in deep enough that we decided to just send the money anyway. If we ended up losing it, it wasn’t going to be the end of the world and would be a good lesson learned. We were getting a little nervous because it took Etosha quite a while to email that they received the payment… but they finally did (after close to 3 weeks)! Hopefully when we show up there, they will still remember that…

 

After telling everyone how flexible we want to be on our trip, it feels strange to have planned out the first month in such detail! We’re just hoping that all of this up-front planning will help make this self-drive safari go as smooth as possible. Look forward to more posts in the future about how close we can stick to this plan 😉