Tips on self-drive safari: Two American women find adventure, save money on African tour

On safari with Debbie and Joy: Do-it-yourself tour of Tanzania and Uganda proves rewarding and economical.

Self-drive safari affords a close look at elephants and other African animals. (courtesy of Debbie Glover)
Self-drive safari affords a close look at elephants and other African animals. (courtesy of Debbie Glover)

By Craig Davis, craigslegztravels.com

It was inevitable that Deborah Glover would undertake an African safari. It was a priority since she was smitten by “Tarzan” movies in her youth.

When the Plantation, Florida, retiree and a traveling companion spent 34 days on a self-drive safari through Uganda and Tanzania in early 2023, the experience delivered all of the adventure she was seeking.

  • There was a steep mountain climb in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest that led to a face-to-face standoff with an intimidating silverback gorilla doing its Tarzan yell.
  • Opportunities to photograph Africa’s Big Five safari animals (elephant, rhinoceros, lion, leopard, and Cape buffalo) — including memorable sightings of a lion and a leopard in trees — and a wide variety of birds and animals.
  • Visits to remote Maasai villages, a day cruise on the Nile, and an enlightening stop at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania where the earliest evidence of humans was discovered.

There was a misadventure mired in mud in the Serengeti, and plenty of monkey business, including a bold baboon leaping onto the hood of their vehicle.

“We stopped for many animals on the road because they would just walk in front of you,” Glover said. “They were everywhere. Everywhere there were animals.”

Safari at your own pace

Visiting the Dark Continent is no small undertaking. It’s a very long journey from the United States, complicated and costly.

Doing a self-drive safari provides freedom and flexibility to diverge from the main routes of commercial tours. It is also a way to limit costs, which was essential on an extended tour of Africa.

(Click on individual photos to view enlargements.)

If you can afford to spare no expense on a once-in-a-lifetime experience, a luxury guided safari with lodging at 5-star accommodations can run $10,000 to $15,000 for a week (depending on high or low season rates).

One prominent company offers “value safaris” in Tanzania (which includes the Serengeti) for six days/seven nights starting at $5,000-$7,000. Accommodations tend to be tented.

Glover said she spent about $15,000 for a free-wheeling month in Africa. That included airfare, rental of a Toyota 4-by-4 land cruiser, entry fee to national parks (typically $100 to $150) and fees where guides were required (the gorilla trek was $600).

Detailed planning essential on self-drive safari

Two women traveling through the wilds of Africa is certainly bold but was nothing new to Glover’s traveling companion, Joy Reuter, an experienced adventure traveler who has taken do-it-yourself trips all over the world.

Read about another African safari at Craigslegz Travels

Reuter had been to other parts of Africa and spent months researching and planning routes and lodging options in Tanzania and Uganda.

“She was such a great trip planner,” Glover said. “She had a thick book she printed [about] where we were going. She already made reservations [for] some places. She downloaded Google maps for the areas.”

They sought out lodging away from the main safari routes that were economical but comfortable. When they needed a place to stay they used booking.com to get a reservation a day or two in advance.

“We paid between $50 and $70 a night, and sometimes that was split. We paid [as much as] $100, maybe once and we split that,” Glover said. “We stayed in a couple places I didn’t like. But other places we stayed were gorgeous. One place, the Kibale Forest Camp, it was a huge tent with wooden floor boards and two big beds.

“I felt like I was in a Humphrey Bogart movie.”

The arduous climb paid off in a close look at silverback gorillas in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda. (courtesy of Debbie Glover)
The arduous climb paid off in a close look at silverback gorillas in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda. (courtesy of Debbie Glover)

Gorillas in their midst

The most arduous undertaking was the gorilla trek in Uganda, a guided, small-group excursion that required a steep, two-hour climb for a close look at a troop of silverbacks, the rarest of the gorillas, which reside in the mountains of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.

The animals there are used to seeing people, but the males sent a clear message about who ruled the territory.

“It was incredible. You’re pretty close. There might be a big hedge of bushes and vines and the gorilla is right there. The big silverback, all of a sudden he ran around the hedge and he came into the path and [went] ‘Whoo whoo, whoo. whoo!’ I screamed, Glover said with a laugh.

“There was another one they called Angry Boy — he was like a teenager. He came out of another place. It was scary; they are huge. There was a little baby there.
“I’m so glad we did it. It was so authentic. It was nature at its best.”

Safari via social media

Also in Uganda, Glover and Reuter took another guided trek to view chimpanzees in Kibale National Park.

But most days they paid the entry fee to whatever animal preserve they wanted to explore and did so in their own time and desired pace.

Along the way Glover took hundreds of photos and provided a stunning travelogue for friends back home with near daily posts on Facebook from many of the lodges that had WiFi available.

“We saw a lot of stuff. We were so lucky,” Glover said. “We got up real early one day at 6 to go into a park and we saw a jackal and a hyena. They are usually only out at night. I got pictures of them.”

They had sightings of lions and leopards in two different parks. But of all the remarkable creatures they encountered, Glover said, “I liked the elephants the best. The elephants would crowd around your car. I wanted to reach out and touch one but I was scared to.

“Couple times they flapped their ears. They kind of let you know, go away, you’ve been here long enough.”

Trip back in time

Glover dutifully documented it all, including the misadventure in the Serengeti, where she and Reuter spent an uncomfortable night in the vehicle and got stuck in the mud the next day (it was the rainy season).

Most educational was the visit to the Olduvai Gorge Museum in northern Tanzania, which showcases the work of Mary and Louis Leakey, British archaeologists and paleoanthropologists who spent decades uncovering evidence of our earliest human ancestors from digs in the adjacent gorge. The area is referred to as the “cradle of humankind.”

Glover had her hair braided by two African women at one place they stayed. When they visited a Maasai village, despite the language barrier she coaxed smiles from a group of women who agreed to pose for photos in exchange for snacks.

“I just feel like I saw the real Africa, not tourist Africa,” Glover said.

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Some other notable highlights:

Lake Manyara, home of tree-climbing lions

One of the smaller national parks in Tanzania, Lake Manyara is one of the most scenic and teeming with wildlife. A shallow lake covers about two-third of the 125-square-mile park and it attracts huge flocks of flamingos.

The park is home to large herds of elephants and has most every creature Africa is known for. The oddity that it is famous for are tree-climbing lions.

Various sources offer different explanations on why the lions take to the trees: to observe their prey on the savannah plains; to take refuge from elephants and buffalo that charge them; and to avoid insect bites.

Glover and Reuter got a close look at a female lion in a tree at Lake Manyara. In another park, they were treated to a rare sighting of a leopard in a tree.

Rhinos make a comeback

The Uganda portion of the safari not only included the gorilla trek and guided lion tracking, but a visit to Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, the only home of white rhinos in that country.

The sanctuary was established in 2005 to rebuild the rhinoceros population in Uganda, which had been wiped out by the early 1980s due to poaching and habitat destruction. Starting with four animals imported from Kenya and two more from Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando , Florida, there are now 33 rhinos on the sanctuary. They are protected around the clock by park rangers and armed security guards to ward off poachers who covet rhino horns. The objective is to eventually introduce them into protected areas throughout Uganda.

The sanctuary offers walking treks for viewing and photographing rhinos. Glover and Reuter stayed at the Rhino Wildlife Ranch, where people watch from inside a fenced-in area and rhinos are free to roam nearby.

On the walkabout to view rhinos on the sanctuary, Glover said, “there was a mother and a baby and they were so much fun to watch. At one point they were all kind of moving. Our guide said its time to leave because they’re circling us. I don’t know what they would have done to us, but we moved on to a different area.”

Murchison Falls and a humanitarian lodge

The visit to Murchison Falls National Park in northern Uganda was special for a couple of reasons. A boat cruise on the Victoria Nile featured a close look at Murchison Falls (also known as Kabalega Falls), the largest waterfall along any branch of the Nile, and offered glimpses of hippos, crocodiles and other wildlife along the river.

For Glover and Reuter, it included a memorable stay at nearby Mama Washindi Lodge, which supports the From Nobody to Somebody charity for widows and orphans victimized by domestic violence and HIV/AIDs. The objective is to provide healthcare and education for those living far below the standard of the rest of Uganda. All of the orphans are trained in a skill for employment upon graduation.

“That just touched my heart that there was a place like that because domestic violence is really bad in Uganda and the AIDs crisis was horrible,” Glover said.

Advice on self-drive African safaris

The extended tour of two African countries was eye-opening for Glover. She was struck by the poverty, especially in Uganda. But in interacting with people, she gained an appreciation for their self-sufficiency and how they value what they have.

The self-drive experience provided more opportunities for interaction than a typical guided safari.

“To get from one place to another wasn’t all that easy. There weren’t highways all the time. But I’m glad we did that because we got to see villages that other people wouldn’t have seen,” she said.

Glover said she was grateful for the expertise and planning by Reuter, whom she connected with via Facebook and hadn’t met before the trip.

“I learned a lot from her,” Glover said. “I still might do a guided tour because it’s easier. You don’t have to look up hotels and they tell you all the excursions,” Glover said. “But you can do it yourself. You can save a lot of money. It’s a lot of work, though. [Reuter] worked on it for months.

“If I had to recommend to anybody to do it this way, I’d say, do your research. Know the map so you can go from one place to another easily. Even in a park you have to know which gate to go in and which one to exit.”

On lodging: “There’s not a lot of hotels along the road. Most of the lodges we stayed in, they are 8 to 15 kilometers off the [main] road and the roads are terrible. You had to really look on Google to find a place and then try to make a reservation on booking.com or try to call.”

On packing: Keep it simple.

“I bought three pairs of quick-dry pants, a pair of hiking shoes — which you needed [for the gorilla trek] — and about five t-shirts. The quick-dry pants you could rinse out and hang them up and they’d be dry the next day.”

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Planning your self-drive safari

There is a lot of information online about preparing for a self-drive safari and some companies provide the vehicle and gear and will map out itineraries.

The Safaris Africana site has a good overview of what you need to know.

Roadtrip Tanzania rents vehicles, provides 24/7 roadside assistance and offers suggested routes and other guidance for self-drive safaris in that country.

Safari Drive has been outfitting self-drive safaris since 1993 and aids in planning trips in a number of African countries.

Self-drive safaris afford the chance to view all of the popular animals common to Africa. (courtesy of Debbie Glover)
Self-drive safaris afford the chance to view all of the popular animals common to Africa. (courtesy of Debbie Glover)

A novel by Craig Davis

About craigslegz 108 Articles
Travel is about discovery, and I learn most about a place when I explore it on foot. Craigslegz Travels is about favorite places and people, and advice to aid fellow travelers. My emphasis is on venturing off well-worn paths. - Craig Davis