Safari Safety 101: What to know when driving your own vehicle on safari

2015-03-25 12:53
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There is always a certain degree of danger when you are in the bush with wild animals. And although game safaris are typically safe, and accidents infrequent, problems can occur.

As part of Arrive Alive's safety campaign, the South African roads safety campaigners have released a Safari Road Safety guide.  

Arrive Alive says that "above all, practical thinking, common sense and preparation will offer a risk-free and memorable travel".

See: WATCH: SA game ranger goes 'bos', loses his cool with German tourist

An unsafe safari experience is unavoidable. It is therefore important to remember that when you go on safari, your safety should always be the first priority. 

Safe Driving in the Game Ranch / Nature Reserve

At game ranches where there are guided game drives, you will usually find between two to three game drives each day. The first starts just before sunrise, the second takes place in the afternoon and the last game drive is usually later on in the evening, coming back to camp at nightfall. In private reserves, where night-drives are permitted, a guided safari might last long after dark.

Game-drives after dark or at dawn are often a real highlight as you’re also likely to encounter a whole range of nocturnal species: leopard, porcupine, hyena and countless owl species, located by their glinting eyes and brought into sharp focus by high-powered spotlights.

However if you're doing a self-drive safari, safety is entirely in your own hands and it would be good to keep the following arrive alive recommendations in mind.

Loved this little guy... Spotted at the Lion Park. #Joburg #AviosCitySwap

A photo posted by Traveller24_SA (@traveller24_sa) on

- Only travel in a vehicle that is well-serviced and roadworthy.

- Prepare carefully: Ask game rangers and management at the reserve about the roads and whether your vehicle will be capable of travelling on these roads.

- Do not “test” the capabilities of your vehicle and avoid driving where you cannot see the surface of the road.

- Before you embark on your safari, inform others where you will be travelling and when you could be expected to return. [It is best to drive in a convoy!]

- Remain on the paths at all times and do not leave them – you will not be aware of nasty surprises next to the roads.

- Expect roads to be narrow with few overtaking opportunities.

- Be alert to varying road conditions, changes in road surface, sharp corners or crests which reduce visibility – adjust your speed accordingly.

- Visibility is often reduced by the presence of encroaching roadside vegetation and sharp corners.

- Patience needs to be demonstrated when sharing the road with other visitors and wildlife.

- Speed needs to be reduced to the advised limits – remember this is a game drive – slow down and enjoy the view!

- Drivers need to be aware of the impact of the changing weather on the road surface and surrounding environment and drive accordingly by reducing speed and using lights appropriately.

- During winter, fog is a regular occurrence at dawn and at dusk which can obscure driver vision and will require even slower speeds.

- On a self-drive - stay in your vehicle at all times - you will put yourself in danger if you get out of your car anywhere unless at a designated safe place.

- Remember that even though you may have carefully scanned the area, animals are masters at remaining concealed - predators do it daily when stalking prey – do not risk becoming prey.

- If you are close to an animal and observing it, take note of its behaviour - if it looks agitated in any way, or makes mock runs at you, or stares and paces up and down, then move slowly off.

- You should be safe within your vehicle as vehicle/animal incidents are very rare.

- The only animal that can really take you on in a vehicle is an elephant and they could be dealt with mostly by just holding your ground with the engine of the vehicle turned off.

- Revving the engine or hooting is not a good idea as this might be seen as a challenge - a contest where the odds are not on your side!

- The nature enthusiast should always equip himself with a few necessities to make his game driver safer and more enjoyable. Remember that you are in nature, and nature provides a few unique challenges. 

The only real danger to the average visitor is getting hit on the head by an overhanging branch - so keep an eye on the road, the animals and vegetation / trees next to the road! 

Asking the Experts/ Guides... and Listening!

The single most important bit of advice is to listen and obey the advice from management and staff at the game reserve. You are not their first visitor – you are the person least aware of the dangers at the game reserve. They only wish to make your stay safe and enjoyable!

You could inquire beforehand whether your guide is a professional and is properly qualified. The Field Guides Association of Southern Africa [FGASA] is the only accredited Training Provider.

Safe Driving with Wildlife in Mind / Caring for safety of Animals

When in the wild we need to respect nature, wildlife and vegetation. It is not only our safety we should be concerned about, but also that of the wildlife we are observing! We would like to provide the following recommendations:

- Smoking should be restricted to designated areas only, and definitely not allowed in the veld.

- The dry African bush ignites very easily, and a flash fire can kill animals. 

- When driving at night, early morning and at dusk caution needs to be taken as these times are when animal activity and the chance for vehicles to impact with animals are the greatest. 

- Try to slow down, especially after dark. Many animals needlessly become victims simply because people drive too fast to avoid hitting them. Speed poses a risk to human and animal safety. 

- Scan the road as you drive, watching the edges for wildlife about to cross. Young animals, in particular, do not recognize cars as a threat.

- Wild animals are unpredictable and do not understand that the approaching lights on a vehicle means danger. They can be scared into erratic behaviour and dart straight out in front of the motorist. 

- The best way to avoid a collision with a wild animal is to anticipate that you will find one around the next corner so that you are able to react appropriately in the situation.

- Remember that where there is one animal crossing, there may be more, young animals following their mother or male animals pursuing a mate.

- At viewpoints, hides and camps, wildlife is more familiar with people and less intimidated by your presence. 

- Never attempt to feed or approach any wild animal on foot, respect their fear of humans.

- Never tease or corner wild animals - this may cause an unpredictable response and a potentially dangerous reaction. 

- Observe animals silently and with a minimum of disturbance to their natural activities. Loud talking on game drives can frighten the animals. 

- Never attempt to attract an animal's attention. Don't imitate animal sounds, clap your hands, pound the vehicle or throw objects from the vehicle.

- Respect your driver/guide's judgment about proximity to lions, cheetahs and leopards. Don't insist that he take the vehicle closer so you can get a better photograph. A vehicle driven too close can hinder a hunt or cause animals to abandon a hard-earned meal. 

- Never throw litter from your car! Litter tossed on the ground can choke or poison animals and birds and is unsightly.

Transportation and game viewing

Never let a little bit of drizzle get in the way of a morning game drive. #gondwana

A photo posted by Traveller24_SA (@traveller24_sa) on

Most safari vehicles are four-wheel-drive, customized to maximize your game-viewing experience.

The exact design of the vehicle will differ from reserve to reserve and the preference of your African safari tour operator.

Those in Southern Africa are traditionally completely open-sided and with tiered seats rising up behind the driver to ensure every traveller has a clear view. You will most likely travel in a well-maintained, specially designed vehicle that provides flexibility, protection from the sun, and support.

Drivers of such safari vehicles are often selected not only for their safe driving practices, but also –very importantly - for their safari expertise and knowledge of the area and the wildlife.

For those who desire to experience Africa in the real intimate way, and depending on the game reserve of ranch visited, there might also be guided walks through nature. The visitors will then be accompanied by an armed guide ensuring their safety wherever they go whilst also teaching them about plant and animal life along the way.

When you are with a trained guide, either in a private game reserve or on a guided safari trip, you should have little reason for fear... unless you're on tour with a chop like this dumb German tourist, of course. 

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