Vivien's South African Safari
Self-drive safari through South AfricaVivien and Alastair went on a self-drive safari through South Africa in an Avis Ford Ranger Camper and sent us a recap of their experience.
After a successful trip to Morocco a year ago, Alistair and I decided to explore more of Africa, this time heading for South Africa. We booked our motorhome into an undercover storage facility and flew to Johannesburg, to be met at the airport by our safari representative who took us to their nearby base.
I booked our trip online with an agent, Trevor Everts, who answered all of our questions and, after much research, found the best deal and the right safari vehicle for our needs with Avis Safari Rental.
Upon arrival, Martin from Avis Safari Rental collected us and took us to his depot where we were given a full demonstration of the vehicles, completed the paperwork and begun our journey, navigating south out of Johannesburg heading for Sani Pass on the Lesotho border.
South Africa can be notorious for petty crime and carjackings in major towns. But, to put things into perspective, these crimes also occur in the UK, so a sensible approach without paranoia should be taken. Make sure the vehicle is locked at all times when travelling or parked, keep all electronics and valuables out of sight and be aware of your surroundings. Campsites are pretty safe (watch out for opportunist thieves in the form of baboons and vervet monkeys!) and all of the South Africans we encountered were polite, friendly and helpful. Afrikaans is commonly used but English is widely spoken to varying standards.
Picking up the thread of our adventure we headed for Sani Pass. Upon arrival at the backpacker campsite, thick clouds and rain blocked the view of the mountains but, thankfully, we woke up to a beautiful day with clear blue skies and made our way up the pass. The Ford Ranger 3.2 Six Speed Automatic, with optional high and low four wheel drive, all terrain BF Goodrich tyres and heavy duty front suspension made light work of the gradient, stream crossings, loose gravel and narrow spaces. We both found the Ranger easy to drive and seldom had to engage four wheel drive as the engine produced more than enough power and the automatic gear box was very responsive when dealing with the steep gradient. The fuel consumption averaged at 24 mpg, and at 72p per litre is reasonably economical. Reaching the top of the pass we made a brief crossing into Lesotho and admired the view of this mountainous country while enjoying a cup of coffee. We then headed back down and onwards to our next destination.
The Ranger not only handled well off road but also offered a comfortable drive over long distances. With the added bonus of cruise control and air conditioning the miles went by smoothly. The roads vary a great deal from 4x4 tracks and gravel roads to main toll routes. The main roads tend to be lorry routes. There are a lot of overtaking opportunities and yellow lining, where vehicles pull over to the equivalent of the hard shoulder to allow passing, but this is not always safe as the hard shoulder may end un-expectantly or be obstructed. Four way stops are widely used and traffic lights are called robots. The general standard of driving is reasonable and on the whole speed limits are obeyed and there are a lot of policed speed traps. However, expect the unexpected in the shape of people, unpredictable local transport, cyclists on the wrong side of the road, livestock, uneven road edges and large axel wrenching potholes. It’s best to avoid driving at night for these reasons, especially in the rural areas. All vehicles are right hand drive and use the left hand carriageway, the same as the UK. Taking the quieter gravel back roads exposed us to the everyday village life of South Africa which is far more interesting than the highways.
Our unplanned route led us east to Greytown, past Dundee and through to the KwaZulu-Natal battle sites, the most memorable one being the Battle of Blood River, with 64 full size bronze wagons arranged in a laager in commemoration of this historical event. The benefit of not having a set route is that we could visit the places recommended by the locals, such as the wagons, waterfalls and little known mountain passes.
At each campsite the Avis Safari Vehicle came unto its own. The walk around awning provided much needed shade from the side to the rear of the camper and the pop up rooftop tent meant it took no longer than four minutes and seven seconds to pitch camp. There are five outside storage lockers allowing instant access to everything we needed, LED lights, which can be switched from white light to red (which attracts less mosquitoes and other insects), strategically placed around the vehicle to offer good all-round night vision. Two slide on shelves fit to either side of the truck bed which provide extra space to work and slots for two washing up basins at the hot water point, which is also for used for the shower. The sleeping arrangement in the pop-up tent is a comfortable and airy double bed despite the thin looking mattress. Access is through the backdoor (no ladder required) and there is enough room to change. The National Luna Twin fridge freezer in the rear of the vehicle provides good capacity and coped with the hot weather which meant we never ran out of ice, cold drinks and food. The safari vehicle attracted many admiring glances and enquiries from other campers.
Campsites are plentiful and you usually don’t need to book. I had pre-booked our campsite in Kruger Park but when arriving discovered that it wasn’t necessary. This may vary according to the seasons though, especially at the more popular sites. The cost of campsites range from £4-30 per night. This includes electricity, handy bins and water taps situated throughout the camp, and each stand (pitch) has a braai area for a BBQ/fire. As with all ablutions worldwide the level of cleanliness varied, however the showers never failed to have enough hot water and most had bath facilities as well. Some sites even have private facilities for individual use. Virtually every site has chalets which you can rent per night at a reasonable rate. Most of the larger sites have a shop with a varying range of groceries, fuel for the BBQ, firewood, and sell cellular airtime top-ups.
On the road there are many filling stations, shops and restaurants but there can be long stretches with little to nothing in remote areas. Spar has supermarkets throughout SA and there seems to be a store in most towns. The community supermarkets tend to have less choice and sell more bulk products. We had to do some searching for gas refills, with hardware stores or specialist gas outlets being your best bet. The bottles are refilled and given back, so partially empty bottles can be topped up. To fill a 3kg cylinder cost around £5. Eating out is reasonable with a good standard of cuisine. Steaks and pies are a SA speciality, a tender sirloin costs around £7 in a restaurant.
Kruger National Park is run by South African National Parks (www.sanparks.org) who manage most of the national parks in SA. It is well worth purchasing a Wild Card online before travelling from the UK. The parks charge a conservation fee of £35 per day for two people where the Wild Card covers these fees and can be purchased for about £200 for a year’s membership, well worth the money. We spent 11 days in two parks and I wished that I had known that the Wild Card is available to foreign visitors. The Kruger campsite fees (excluding the conservation fee) are a reasonable £16 per night and all the sites have good facilities and offer the peace and quiet of a bush camp. Kruger Park has got malarial mosquitos, I’d recommend buying medication from your local GP before travelling. Prophylactics are available in SA but cost twice as much and you will require an appointment with a private doctor to obtain a prescription. There were few mosquitos though and wearing longs in the evening with the use of insect repellent gave a reasonable amount of protection.
We found our self-drive safari to be extremely rewarding and searching for the big five was something special. There is nothing like being confronted by a large oncoming elephant or giraffe whilst driving in your own vehicle. We are accustomed to going to bed late and being late to rise but we found ourselves being lulled into SA time where locals tend to settle down for the night between 8-9 pm and are up around 5-7 am, which is a great time for game spotting. A celebratory breakfast at 7am, after finding two lionesses lying in the road, was a definite highlight of our trip. The giraffe, elephant, rhino, hippo, buffalo and antelope encounters are all unique and, when there was no wildlife around, we found ourselves bird watching, amazed at the great variety of birds, all beautiful and showing off wonderful colours. Two bushveld walks with armed rangers were a real privilege and we gained a useful amount of knowledge about the identification of spiders and other flora and fauna for our own walks elsewhere. The smaller Mpangubwe Park on the Limpopo River and the confluence of Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Botswana has a wonderful rocky topography and here we saw our largest herd of elephants.
From Kruger Park we made our way to the Drakensburg Mountain range which begins in north east South Africa and affords spectacular views and many natural wonders. Taking our time we visited Blyde Dam while camping at Swardini, a lovely site nestled in the mountains with good local hikes. God's Window, Macmac Falls, Macmac Pools and Bourke's Luck Potholes are all worth a visit with stunning views and interesting mountain passes. Pilgrim's Rest, a mining town caught in a1920's time warp, and Sabie to the south are also worth seeing. At this altitude it is noticeably cooler in the evening and night time. For our last few days we headed for the coast, visiting St Lucia, and then wound our way back to Johannesburg, taking roads less travelled to enjoy a final look at rural life and dirt road driving.
A month is little time to explore SA, and then there are all the neighbouring countries awaiting a visit. The Ranger is certainly the right vehicle for this type of trip, one that can cope with rough roads, cruise long distances and is easy to park in town. The Alu-Cab Safari top made camping comfortable and easy, and is ideal for the warmer climes of Africa.
Looking forward to a future trip.