Open-sided Safari Vehicle by Joe Ross

African Safari Vehicles - Every which way to explore the African bush, from biggest to smallest

So you’re going on safari to see the vast plains of Africa and the incredible range of wildlife on said plains? One of the most important details to check, before booking your safari, is what vehicles are used.

The range is enormous. From none at all – walking safaris – to pop-top 4X4s, from 4-seaters to 44-seaters. You can go bare-bones or air-conditioned high luxury, local dugout mokoros or air safaris for a birds-eye view, in a helicopter. The important thing is to choose the one (or combination) that suits you, for the ultimate safari experience.

We’ll start from the biggest vehicles and end at ‘on foot’.

Article Section Quick Links

  1. Overland Trucks
  2. Micro Buses
  3. Land Rovers & Cruisers
  4. Open Game Viewing Vehicles
  5. Flying Safaris
  6. Hot Air Balloons
  7. Shark Cage Diving Boats
  8. Rubber Ducks
  9. Dhows
  10. Mokoros
  11. Use what yo mama gave you!

1. Overland Trucks

Nomad AfricaOverlander-2 - Nomad Africa

These trucks are especially built to deal with the rough roads of Africa, where pot holes, deep ruts and river crossings are pretty ‘every day.’ They are normally used for longer and larger (12 to 44 people) overland safaris, so need to be able to carry a fair amount of equipment while still offering the traveller a relatively comfortable trip and good views of the passing scenery and wildlife.

Tour operators choose the best truck for each trip, according to the area being visited and the anticipated terrain that will be covered. 

Seating Arrangements

Overland trucks may differ in their seating formation and size. Some have all forward-facing seats, while others may have some backward- or side-facing seats. The seats are generally raised, allowing for good views over the landscape, especially in grassy areas, where you want to be able to spot animals in the grass. Ask your tour operator about seating formation and how many are seated in a row – some seat up to three, which makes seeing out a bit more difficult, if you’re in the middle – before booking your tour.

Windows, pop-up roofs and photo opportunities

The overland trucks generally have large windows, some which open vertically, others horizontally – allowing for good views. Many of them also have a pop-up roof. This allows you to stand up and get 360-degree views and photos.

Luggage Space

All trucks are equipped with storage space (some lockable) for luggage and equipment – some under the seating section, others at the back of the truck and some with a detachable trailer. Obviously space is at a premium, so be sure to pack only the absolute essentials. Also, when packing, use soft luggage rather than hard (e.g. samsonite), as it is much easier to fit into lockers and overhead compartments.

Most overland trucks have a safe onboard for storage of valuables.

Mobile Kitchen & Diner

Many meals while on safari are prepared and eaten out in the bush, far from civilsation. The trucks are fully-equipped for this. Most trucks have a ‘kitchen’ section (often fold-out, beneath the seating area) with stove and hand dish-washing area. They also have a fridge/freezer/cooler boxes to keep supplies and drinks fresh in the African heat. Overlanding safaris are thirsty work!

Safety First!

Safety is non-negotiable. Check with your tour operator that there is a fully-stocked First Aid kit on-board, safety belts on all seats and some means of communication (radio etc.), in case of emergencies while on safari. All legitimate tour operators have their client’s safety first in mind and ensure that their trucks are kept in a good condition and are reliable for long trips – larger fuel and water tanks, spare tyres, knowledgeable and well-trained drivers etc.

Gadgets

Modern overlanding trucks come fully equipped with the modern gadgets that we've all got used to. With iPod/MP3 points, you can listen to your own soundtrack as you watch the African landscape slide by. They also have onboard charging facilities so ensure that your camera remains fully charged and you don't lose that once-in-a-lifetime shot of a lion hunting his prey!

Some smaller tours use smaller overland trucks – seven to nine-seaters – which provide window seats only, so nobody has to be in a middle seat.

Recommended overlanding trips

2. Micro Bussing It

Sprnter -

For smaller safari groups and shorter tours that don’t go through hugely rugged areas, adapted Micro-busses are used, most commonly Toyota Quantums and Mercedes Sprinters. The optimal number in most of these vehicles is six to ten people, forward-facing. When booking a safari, find out from the tour operator which vehicle is used, and how many window seats there are, to ensure that everybody gets a window seat and has a good view of the spectacular scenery and amazing animals of Africa.

These safari micro-busses are especially adapted for safari travel, and are generally equipped with GPS tracking, sliding windows, cooler boxes, fire extinguishers and First Aid kits. They generally have a softer suspension than other safari vehicles, giving a slightly more comfortable trip. Many of them – especially in Kenya – also feature a pop-up top, allowing travellers to stand and view/photograph the countryside.

Some micro-busses are fitted with air-conditioning. This is a welcome relief from the sweltering African heat, but may detract from the whole experience of Africa, as the windows will be closed, blocking out the sounds of the bush.

Recommended trips

3. Land Cruising

William WarbyPop-top 4x4 - William Warby

Land Cruisers and Land Rovers  are used on many safari tours. They range from ‘bare-bones’ models i.e. no added ‘mod-cons’, to highly specialised vehicles that may include air-conditioning, MP3 players and slightly tinted windows for protection from the sun. Some of the newer models also have pop-up roofs, for added viewing potential, especially in Tanzania.

Seating Arrangements

These vehicles, in general, can carry four to six (extended version) passengers, all forward-facing. Check the seating configuration with your tour operator before booking. While the extended vehicles can carry more people, they tend to be slightly more difficult to handle on the road. Most of the Land Cruisers are 4X4s, allowing travel over the rough terrain that Africa is known for… Have a look at images of the road into the Ngorongoro Crater if you want an idea!

While self-hire options are available, tour operators all have experienced drivers who, more-often-than-not have extensive knowledge not only of handling the rough terrain, but of the areas through which we travel.

Safety First!

Most Land Cruisers are equipped with all possible safety features – fire extinguishers, First Aid kits, seat belts and many have air bags. They have specially-designed fuel tanks to allow economical use of diesel during long journeys and snorkels for travel through rivers.

Luggage space & how to pack (light)

In general, luggage is taken either in a trailer, or packed on the roof, to keep the vehicle as uncluttered as possible inside, for your comfort. Remember to pack lightly!

Recommended trips

4. Open Game-Viewing Vehicles

Joe RossOpen-sided Safari Vehicle - Joe Ross

Within many of the game parks, smaller, open-sided, or completely open vehicles are used for game drives. While these are not suitable for long distances – wind, dust, sun, Africa’s elements can be harsh! – they are great for game drives as they allow you to get up close and personal with the sights, sounds and smells of the bush.

These vehicles are most often adapted Land Cruisers which seat between six and nine passengers. Some are designed with tiered seating, so that nobody’s view is blocked by the person in front of them’s head!

Protection from the elements

Due to their being open to the elements, it is vital to protect yourself against the African sun. Hats, scarves and windbreakers are all excellent shields from firey hot UV rays.  Many of these vehicles do have canvas/plastic canopies that can be closed, if the weather becomes unco-operative. Thunderstorms in Africa can be wild, and come on within minutes!

Drivers & Trackers

Most often when going on game drives, there will be a driver and a tracker (often sits on the front of the car, allowing him to track spoor and dung.) The trackers are highly-experienced, and allow one to see the best Africa has to offer in wildlife.

Recommended trips with open game-viewing

5. Bird’s-Eye View

Justin HallPlane view of the Okavango - Justin Hall

‘Air safaris’ are offered at various places in Africa, like Victoria Falls and the Okavango Delta. A flight over the delta in a small plane gives you an idea of the vastness of the area. A helicopter flight over the Victoria Falls will make you feel like an eagle soaring above this spectacular area!

Choppers

The ‘vehicles’ used differ from operator to operator. The helicopters used at Victoria Falls are generally 4- or 6-seaters and many have bubble windows, allowing for good viewing. Do remember that, in the 6-seater, you may land up in the middle seat, making seeing out slightly more difficult.

Light planes

In the Okavango Delta, many of the lodges are only reachable by air, especially during the wet season. Many small plane charters are available both as a means to get to the lodges, and for a birds-eye view of the delta and spectacular photographic opportunities – a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Recommended trips with flying components

6. (99) Red Balloons

Wajahat MahmoodHot air ballooning over the Serengeti - Wajahat Mahmood

What could be better than watching the sun rise over the Serengeti while floating gently above its vast plains in a hot air balloon? Nothing, really. Hot air balloon rides are offered at various places in Africa and provide an incredible, quiet, bird’s-eye view of the vastness of Africa, dotted with wildlife.

Recommended trips with balloon safaris

7. Boat To The Great Whites

Kim NowackiShark - Kim Nowacki

The boat used for our Great White Shark Cage-Diving trips is a newly-built 11 x 3.8 meter catamaran. Combining comfort, practicality and safety, this boat ensures not only a good trip for you, but also promises minimal interference in the shark’s natural habitat.

Staying dry and comfortable

Featuring a spacious indoor cabin, as well as separate wet and dry outdoor decks, the design ensures that when you’re wet, you’re wet, but once you’re out and want to be dry and comfortable, you can be. The cabin includes a private, flushable toilet.

Gadgets

Electronically, the boat is fully equipped with a tracking device, radios, GPS, radar and navigation equipment, depth finder and echo sounder, and even a 12V charging facility for cameras, cell phones and lap tops.

Safety - yours and the shark's

Safety is of utmost importance and there are life vests for all passengers, fire extinguishers, a 50-man life raft and capsize bottles on the boat. In case of medical emergencies, there are two on-board First Aid kits, oxygen cylinders and fluid replacement.

Not only is your safety cared for, but that of the sharks too. The two 200hp outboard engines lift completely out of the water, preventing any chance of injury to the sharks. The cage, too, has no sharp points or edges that could hurt the animals.

The cage itself is specially constructed of re-enforced steel and can take five people comfortably. It is lowered and winched back up using a winch from a sturdy gantry. Oxygen is supplied from the boat to divers via a ‘hookah’ system with 5mm hoses running into the cage.

This, too, is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. There’s not much more exhilarating than coming face-to-face with a Great White in its own habitat!

Recommended shark diving trip

8. Rubber-Ducking the Gorges

Martijn MunnekeRafting the zambezi - Martijn Munneke

Jinja, in Uganda - where the longest river in Africa, The Nile, begins at its source, Lake Victoria - is one of the top whitewater rafting destinations in the world. Add in Victoria Falls, the Fish River Canyon, and the Orange (Gariep) River, where various boat options are offered, from boogie-boarding the rapids through canoeing to rubber ducking both flat water and white water, and it's an adrenaline junkie's dream. Your choice of trip depends completely on your adrenaline requirements/limits!

Whichever you choose, be sure to check that the tour operator follows all safety regulations, ensuring that you have a safe, enjoyable trip through the gorge. Life jackets and helmets are non-negotiable, these waters can get wild, and a knowledgeable, trained guide will ensure you get the most out of your trip.

Recommended trips with rubber ducking

9. East African Dhows

Cesar Gonzalez PalomoEast African Dhow - Cesar Gonzalez Palomo

There is nothing quite so beautiful as seeing a dhow gliding through the warm, azure waters of the Indian Ocean. Originally used for trading, these long, narrow boats with triangular sails, expertly sailed by locals, are used along the east coast of Africa.

So whether you’re heading off to the Bazaruto Archipelago or exploring the coastline of Zanzibar, do yourself a favour and catch a ride on one of these graceful sailing vessels.

Recommended trips with dhow safaris

10. Winding Through the Waterways

Athena LaoMokoro in the Okavango Delta - Athena Lao

If your safari includes a trip into the Okavango Delta, you will more-than-likely experience the gentle pleasure of a trip in a mokoro.  Check with your tour operator that this is included as part of the package, or offered as an optional activity. You don’t want to miss out on this opportunity to get up close and personal with the prolific birds and wildlife – including elephant, hippo and crocs – of the Okavango Delta.

History

These traditional dug-out canoes are made of wood and guided by a ‘poler’, who stands at the helm. While originally made from indigenous trees, such as the Kingella or ‘Sausage Tree’, they are increasingly made of fibre-glass these days. While not as ‘authentic’, this is preserving the indigenous trees of the area and provides just-as-good a means of transport through the spectacular waterways of the delta.

Experienced polers

Many people are afraid of hippos overturning a mokoro. While this is not an impossibility – this is Africa, after all, and you’re in their habitat – the polers are experienced in the area and are very aware that hippos are territorial creatures. They are sure to avoid dangerous situations.

A trip on a mokoro allows you to get as close to the sights and sounds of Africa as is physically possible. Don’t miss out on this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Recommended trips with mokoro poling

Bonus Round : On Foot

Cristoffer CrusselWalking Safari - Cristoffer Crussel

This is (obviously) only an option once you are in the game reserve. Depending on the safety i.e. the presence of dangerous predators, many reserves offer guided walking tours. This is the ideal way to get a true, African, wildlife experience. By walking through the bush all your senses experience Africa – sight, smell, sounds, touch – unadulterated by the sound of motors and really off the beaten track.

Guides and trackers

Most reserves have highly experienced guides who are a fountain of knowledge regarding the fauna and flora of the area and are excellent trackers. This allows you to not only experience the bush, but also learn all sorts of fascinating facts, while seeing the birds, insects and animals that call Africa ‘home.’

If you have the opportunity, do not miss out on a walking safari. You can’t get closer to nature than this.

Recommended walking safari trips


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