African safari game drives – five things you must know

On my recent African safari in Zambia, I went on game drives every day, sometimes twice. I was hosted by guides from Abercrombie & Kent and Sanctuary Retreats, so I was well taken care of, but there was definitely a learning curve and I didn’t have the best practices nailed down until the third or fourth time out. African safari game drives are thrilling and rewarding, but they can also be wildly uncomfortable if you’re doing it wrong.

Here are five essential tips to take with you to Africa before you head out on a game drive of your own:

1. Wear light colored clothing.

It’s not just a fashion thing, and it’s not, as some ludicrously believe, all that functional as camouflage — most animals spot movement better than shapes anyhow. You should wear light colored clothing on a game drive because dark colors attract tsetse flies. They bite. A lot.

2. Go early.

I’m not a huge fan of a 5:00 AM wakeup call (or anything before 8, really), but I quickly learned that the crack of dawn is the best time to see game. The animals come out for breakfast and a drink of water before it gets hot. Furthermore, a morning game drive is a lot more comfortable than the sweltering hours of the afternoon or the buggy sunset.

3. Bring a pen and paper.

You may have your amazing-lens camera at the ready, but remembering which animal or bird is which is virtually impossible without some help. It’s a shame to have endless pictures of things you can’t identify properly (What kind of monkey? Is that a hawk’s nest or an eagle’s nest?). Our camps provided us with checklists for the game we could spot, which certainly helps, but keeping a simple list in chronological order will be even more helpful for identification when you’re going through your photos later.

4. Ask to see what you want to see.

Your guide is not a mind-reader. If you don’t say what you want to see, you’ll get a general tour — when it could be directly focused on what’s important to you. Some people are birdwatchers, some want to catch a leopard in a tree, and some want to make sure they see every kind of monkey. Your guide probably knows the park, the animals in it, and where they hang out very well. If you want to see lions, for example, your guide will know a couple of places they’ve been spotted recently. You’ll still be doing plenty of birdwatching and see a vast array of other animals, but by letting your guide know you want lions, your chances of encountering them are greatly increased.

5. Listen to your guide.

This last tip may sound like a no-brainer, but when I asked my guide in South Luangwa National Park what the most important tip for new safari-ers is, he said that it’s listening. Apparently, his most common peeve is when he drives near to an animal and says “stay seated please,” and then the guests spot the animal and leap to their feet with their cameras, scaring it away. If you are good to your guide, your guide will be good to you and take you to the best spots — don’t take them or their advice for granted.

Also, check out what to do if your safari vehicle gets stuck: Safari vehicles – stuck in the river with you.

[Photos by Annie Scott.]

My trip to Zambia was sponsored by Abercrombie & Kent and Sanctuary Retreats, but the ideas and opinions expressed in this article are 100 percent my own.