Safari Etiquette for Self-drive

The final post in this series for taking yourself on a self-drive, and probably the most important of all of them, correct safari etiquette. Safari etiquette has a number of different topics to think about, the first and absolute utmost is adhering to the park rules. After you have made your reservation, you will be sent through a number of different PDF documents, all of which you should print and take with you as they contain important information. One of those documents will include the park rules. There are quite a number of park rules, but one of the most important that you must not disobey is that you must stay in your car unless you are in a designated area. You are not even allowed to open your car door unless in a designated area. This rule is mainly due to safety, as with some areas being very thick bush, it makes it incredibly hard to see if there are any animals hiding behind them. If you are out of your car, you may get a nasty surprise of an animal appearing right next to you. There are areas within the park where you may alight from your vehicle such as the camps, picnic areas, and bridges. Please read the rules and check the signs to make sure which areas are safe for you to get out of your car. If you are exiting your car in an area that wildlife may still be found, such as picnic areas, bird hides, bridges, and viewing points, make sure to have a very thorough look around to ensure it is safe to leave your car. An animal isn’t really aware of people in cars, they can’t even tell there are people in open game trucks unless the silhouette of the car is broken by a stray leg or arm, so just be sure to be very careful. 

You will often get large numbers of cars at sightings of leopards, or any big cat really.

Another area of safari etiquette to be aware of is your behaviour at game viewings. In the south of the Kruger park, there are usually a large number of tourists, which means most of the time you are spotting for large car gatherings rather than animals. When you reach a viewing, be very, very patient. No one will be happy with you pushing in, shouting and carrying on. Not only is this behaviour disrespectful to other people who may have been waiting longer than you, but that kind of behaviour may disturb the animal and cause them to move away, ruining it for everyone. There will be people who behave like this, I have been a witness to it myself, but the best thing to do is to not stoop to their level of idiocy yourself. It is also important that if you are at a sighting, that you don’t hog it, preventing anyone else seeing it. That kind of behaviour is rude and selfish as everyone is there for the exact same reason – to see wildlife. Make sure to have a good look at the animal, get your photos and then once you feel like you’re done, move on so that someone else can take your spot and have a nice viewing of an animal. On the flipside to this, it is quite common for people to pull up and tell you where they’ve seen animals. We had a few experiences of this with very kind people tell us where they have found leopards, cheetahs and such. It is very important though that you never tell anyone that you have seen a rhino. For the rhino’s protection, keeping their location a secret, even from other tourists is especially important as they are one of the most highly sought-after animals for poaching. We all wish that everyone has good intentions and they’re only asking so that they can say they’ve seen the big 5, but you just never know. So even if you just drove past a rhino, you can’t tell anyone that, they’ll just have to find it for themselves! 

A very happy, zen cheetah. Again, another animal where large gatherings of cars are common.

Important things to know when driving around animals:

Understanding animal behaviour, and how to be safe when driving around them, is very important. Especially so after you’ve maybe come too close by accident and now you don’t want to stress the animal out. Generally, the animals are habituated to cars in the Kruger, meaning they have a high level of tolerance of vehicles, but they are not tame and definitely not approachable. In general, animals are pretty much completely unaware of people inside vehicles, even open game-viewers, this is due to them seeing in black/white/grey tones and so a car just appears as a block to them. As soon as someone breaks the outline of the vehicle however, they are then very aware that there are other living creatures in that vehicle. Anything such as sticking an arm or leg out of the side of the vehicle, or opening a door and peering out of it, can alert an animal to your presence. So, it’s very important that you keep all limbs inside the vehicle.

We were very lucky to come across this small family of hyena, I think there were 3 babies and a mother, or at least an adult with them. This cub I would guess to be around 4-5 months old. These hyenas were right next to the road and so we had to be especially careful when putting our cameras out the window, that none of our body parts followed.

Now comes the tips on generally driving around animals. In the Kruger, the speed is limited at 50kmph, or about 30mph. I actually preferred driving a lot slower than this to really have a good look around to spot animals, making sure you’re able to stop suddenly if an animal were to appear right in front of you in the road. By going slowly, it also means you can check thoroughly to try and see where animals are, which is even more difficult in areas with very thick bush. We had quite a problem with elephants suddenly appearing on the road out from areas of thick bush, they are almost completely invisible because of their grey colour, especially in winter where the branches are a fairly dull colour too. Provided you are on the road first and they encroach your space, as long as you stay completely still and don’t rev the engine or anything, they will typically just walk by with no trouble. We had one instance where we arrived at the same point of the road as an elephant at pretty much the exact same point in time, the elephant therefore felt a little uncomfortable with us being in their space, and so we reversed very slowly just a few metres to show we weren’t a threat, the elephant then showed it was relaxed and continued crossing the road, heading off across the plains. You may be wondering how I could tell the elephant was a bit uncomfortable with us being that close, and the signs were all in the body language. The body of the elephant was side on as it was going across the road, but it had turned its head towards us with the ears were flared forwards. When the ears are flared forwards, they are trying to appear bigger and more “threatening” to warn you not to get any closer. My boyfriend was driving at the time, I told him to stop for a few seconds just to see what the elephant did, when the elephant stopped and continued to look at our car with its ears forwards, I knew we were inside its comfort zone and that we needed to give it space. So, very slowly, and trying hard not to rev the engine too loud, we reversed maybe 5-10 metres; just to give the elephant space and to show we weren’t any danger to them. At this point, the elephant’s ears dropped and started gently flapping again (a sign that they are relaxed and content), and the elephant then proceeded to walk off in the general direction they were heading originally. 

So, let’s look at why the elephant may have been slightly on edge with us being that close. Animals generally have 3 zones which determine which behaviour they may perform, which are 1 – Fight Zone: an animal in the fight zone has no time or space to flee from the danger – will often attack. 2 – Flight Zone: the animal has time and space to move away from the danger – poses little threat and will flee. 3 – Comfort Zone: the animal is completely relaxed with the presence of a threat or danger at this distance – they don’t see a reason to attack or flee. See the diagram below to understand the positioning of these zones, the animal will be in the centre of the rings:

You should always aim to be in the animal’s comfort zone, appearing unthreatening and allowing the animal to feel safe and behave naturally. If the animal ends up being close to you, remember to watch their body language and if required, reposition yourself quietly, slowly, and calmly.

I can’t remember if this was the herd we ended up slightly too close to, however, you can see here that they are pretty relaxed as their ears are flopped back. If they were alert, their ears would be very forward, the trunk may even be raised and they would face us with their whole body.

If you would like to approach an animal to get a better look, or a better position to take a photograph, think about the angle in which you are approaching the animal and what might appear as threatening and dangerous to them. If you drive straight at an animal, the animal may think you are trying to attack them and, with enough distance between you, may run off. If you are close, they may feel provoked and attack. The best thing to do is to approach at an angle where you are facing slightly away from the animal but can easily come alongside them. Remember to mind your distance so that you don’t make them feel threatened, I would suggest 20 metres as a minimum. Keep watching their body language for signs that they’re beginning to feel threatened by your presence such as if they’re facing right towards you, pushing their ears forwards, some animals will even stamp their front legs when agitated. 

I have gained part of this knowledge through reading Beat About the Bush Exploring the Wild, The Comprehensive Guide by Trevor Carnaby, but also through being in the presence of professional field guides and asking them questions on what to do in situations such as ending up too close. 

I once asked what to do if you accidently end up too close to an elephant and how to react. The advice I was given was to stay completely still. If you begin reversing, especially at speed, an elephant will see this as a game or a challenge and will chase you round the whole park. Noise and movement, especially things like using the horn, revving, banging the car doors, or waving arms will be seen as threatening behaviour and if you are too close to an animal, they may see that as reason to attack you. 

When you are viewing animals, make sure to switch the car engine off. Not being able to just drive off may make you feel unsafe, but without the noise of the engine fan, you are actually a lot safer as the car wouldn’t be making agitating noises. Remember that all members of the group in the vehicle need to remain quiet and make as little movement as possible while you are watching. 

Make sure to go and use the bird hides that are available. We went to quite a few of them and found a fairly large variety of birds for the winter time. This is a beautiful African Darter.
Another bird found at a hide – an African Fish Eagle. Absolutely beautiful birds, and definitely a worth while activity if not much other wildlife is about.

I hope all of you have gained some good knowledge on how to go about planning, booking, and going on your own self-drive safari, and once the world has started to get back to a bit of normality, you may all give it a go. I look forward to hearing about your adventures in the future! Feel free to contact me if you have any questions, are planning your trip and want to know about some of the camps, or anything like that. I can’t wait to get back out in the world and I hope I can meet some of you out there too!

Information sources:

  • Carnaby. T. 2018. Beat About the Bush, Exploring the Wild, a Comprehensive Guide
  • Various Field Guiding friends.

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