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10 Lessons from our first 4x4 Safari

Our first ‘Adventure in the Wild’ was one of the most memorable experiences ever, but our lack of experience made it extremely hazardous.  It taught us that there is no substitute for proper research, planning and preparation before a trip. Thirty years later, despite better communications and much of the infrastructure measurably improved in Southern Africa, many of the lessons we learned then are still appropriate.

1.  Plan your route

Plan your route carefully and then make adequate provision for contingencies. Four-wheel drive vehicles are notoriously slow, so ensure that your stops are not too far apart and that you allow sufficient time to set up camp in the evenings. Having an itinerary makes it far easier to schedule fuel stops and to know when to top up on water and provisions, but do build in some flexibility for unexpected stops or detours, both of the emergency and exploratory kind. 

2.  Travel light

Just as important as planning your route is the decision on what you need to take along for the trip. Most people who have been on a 4x4 safari will tell you that they took far too much with them. You can generally travel light in Southern Africa without the need for taking very much in the way of clothing. Unless you are travelling way off the beaten track, provisions can generally be procured in most outlying areas. What you do need to consider is the little luxuries that may be harder to find the further you venture away from civilization. It is probably wise to purchase your favourite beverages, dairy products, good meat (if you are not crossing international borders), condiments and toiletries, before you leave the last city or big town.  

3.  Modify your vehicle  

Experience has taught us that while you may go a long way in a standard 4x4, your safari will be a lot more enjoyable if your vehicle is fitted with the appropriate accessories. These may vary widely depending on your chosen destination, but here are some of the standard enhancements that we have made to the 4x4 hire vehicles at Bushpig Safaris.

First is the addition of a long-range fuel tank; safer and far more convenient than the option of carrying jerry cans on those long trips. The same goes for a fitted water tank; so much more suitable than plastic bottles and the water tastes better as well.  A sturdy aluminium roof rack will provide a solid platform for your folding tents, enabling you to comfortably sleep in a more secure environment.   

A high-lift jack and a shovel can be secured outside the vehicle, as can one or two brackets to hold your gas bottles. As a precaution for travel on dusty roads, we have fitted snorkels to our Land Rovers.  An air compressor, concealed in the engine compartment, will be invaluable when you need to inflate your tyres. We have also added bush/crash bars to our vehicles as well as spotlights for driving, with a small rear fitted lamp for use in the camp.

Inside the vehicles, we have chosen to fit larger than normal 60L National Luna fridge/freezer units. We selected this brand because these units can be operated as either a fridge, a freezer or as a combination of both. To avoid a repeat of past mistakes, we have had all of our Land Rovers wired so that they can also be plugged into an external power source. In addition, we have installed dual battery systems in each vehicle. 

Although each fridge/freezer unit can slide out on a rack, we have chosen to improve access to the storage area by having aluminium window panels fitted to the rear sides of the vehicle. Below the storage compartment and fridge/freezer is a set of sliding drawers for storage of smaller items.

Each vehicle has been fitted with an in-car security safe for cash and small valuables. Other items that we would recommend you to carry in a vehicle include a good quality GPS system. For our 4x4 vehicles, we have the Garmin Montana 600 GPS loaded with Tracks4Africa maps. Based on experience we also know that a fire-extinguisher is an absolute necessity, as is a comprehensive first-aid kit.

Finally, a good set of tools and recovery equipment is a must have. For those really challenging trips we would recommend adding a winch to the vehicle.

4.  Prepare your vehicle

Before you depart on your 4x4 safari, make sure that your vehicle has been adequately prepared for the journey you have planned. Aside from the obvious, like ensuring that your vehicle has been serviced, tyre pressures checked and fuel and water tanks filled, it is also advisable to test all of the accessories to ensure that they function correctly. Turn on the fridge/freezer unit, check that the air-compressor is working, fill the gas bottle/s, lock or fasten all of the loose items outside of the vehicle. Finally, make sure that all necessary moveable accessories have been stored in the vehicle, i.e. recovery gear, toolbox, etc.

5.  Know your equipment

It is a futile and highly frustrating exercise to arrive in the bush with equipment that you are unfamiliar with. For a start, make sure that you know how to rig and dismantle your tent, roof-top or otherwise. It may be a simple thing, but with our current roof-top tents we struggled to fit the cover until we discovered that it is very easy if you simply sit on the tent while attaching the cover. If you’re fairly new to the game, be sure to learn how to operate a four-wheel drive vehicle, when to use high and low range and how to drive in thick sand. Other techniques to master include the use of a high-lift jack. For example, it is particularly important to stay well clear when you lower it in order to avoid being injured.

6.  Carry recovery equipment

Take the time to learn as much as possible about recovery equipment and recovery techniques. You may end up getting stuck or breaking down in a remote location. In most instances, local farmers and the 4x4 community in Southern Africa will stop to assist a stranded vehicle, but you can’t always count on someone else being around when you do need help.

7.  Don’t be isolated in an emergency

If you are planning to travel to areas not covered by a cellular network, be sure to take a satellite phone. Whether you need an emergency medevac or just some advice on how to fix a problem, it pays to have access to the best technology available.

8.  Don’t take unnecessary risks

Wild animals are just that! If you enter their domain, it is prudent to show some respect. As far as your vehicle is concerned, try not to tackle any terrain that you are not comfortable with. If the road necessitates fording a shallow river, wade across first to determine the depth and to check for any hidden obstacles. Try to avoid travelling after dark where possible and drive a little slower when travelling on gravel roads.

9.  Talk to the locals

Knowledge is invaluable! The best place to get help when you are facing any uncertainty out in the bush is by seeking advice from the locals or from any seasoned travellers that you may encounter.  

10. Consider the medical implications

Aside from packing a good first-aid kit, ensure that you are up to date on compulsory vaccinations for any country that you are planning to visit before you travel. The website for the Center for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) is a good place to establish these requirements. Most important, do not forget your malaria prophylaxis if you visit the Lowveld or venture further North.

Happy Travels - Mike!

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