Africa safari driving tips: Why preparing for a holiday can be almost as much fun as doing it

A drive through unfamiliar terrain surrounded by wild animals: The Kalahari Desert, Africa

A drive through unfamiliar terrain surrounded by wild animals: The Kalahari Desert, Africa

A drive through unfamiliar terrain surrounded by wild animals: The Kalahari Desert, Africa Photo: Alamy

There was a moment of self-doubt, and it came while I was watching Top Gear.

There is a special episode of that British motoring series that was filmed a few years ago in Botswana, in which the old (and obviously far better) team of Jeremy, Richard and James are challenged to drive some cheap cars across southern Africa. About the middle of the journey they enter the Okavango Delta region, and attempt to drive to a place called Third Bridge.

And that is when the thought occurred to me: I’m going to be driving over there soon. In that same national park. On that same road. And that road looks very, very sandy.

See, I know just enough about driving on sand to realise that I don’t have any clue about driving on sand. It is a special skill in the four-wheel-driving world that involves reducing the pressure in your tyres, keeping the gear low, the revs high and your speed up as you attempt to cross the ultra-soft terrain without getting bogged.

That is the theory, but I have never put it into practice. And yet soon I will have to do exactly that, on those tracks featured on my TV, in a wildlife reserve filled with deadly animals that would be pretty happy to snack on me should I turn my back while trying to dig out my car.

Like I said: self-doubt. What was I thinking signing up for this?


The 4WD journey into the Okavango will be part of a month-long road-trip adventure that I am undertaking with my girlfriend through southern Africa. We are planning to drive through South Africa, Namibia and Botswana, calling in at all the national parks and game reserves we can.

Sounds amazing, right? It also sounds challenging, and a little scary. I am not fond of the idea of becoming one of those quirky news stories: “Tourist attacked by lion while changing tyre”.

Fortunately, I have plans to at least lessen the chances of winding up as a cautionary tale. I’m taking a 4WD course in Lithgow, NSW. I am going to a community college for a few days to learn the basics of engine mechanics. And I am doing a first aid course so I can at least provide some sort of assistance in the event of a lion mauling.

(For your amusement, see the “WikiHow” web page on surviving a lion attack. It includes such gems as: “Knowing what to expect can help you stay calm. For example, know that the lion is going to growl when it charges you. This can shake the ground beneath you, but know this is normal for a lion attack.”)

In undertaking these preparations for the great unknown, however, I have discovered something truly great: a holiday doesn’t have to begin and end with the time you spend away from home. When it requires extensive planning it becomes that much more exciting; you can extend the life of a month-long holiday to the best part of a year.

The 4WD course in Lithgow will be part of my African adventure. I will travel to the bush for the day and get shown the ropes while I am mentally applying this new knowledge to African conditions. Same with the mechanics course, and the first aid course.

Even all the internet research, the emails and bookings have become part of this grand adventure. I have had to figure out where to hire a 4WD from in South Africa. I have had to decide on a rough itinerary, taking into account the condition of roads that I have never driven on before and that, in all likelihood, are not going to be the sealed, multi-laned beauties that I am used to.

I have had to work out how to gain access to national parks in three countries, how to book campsites in those parks, and where to buy food and petrol and other supplies along the way.

It has been a lot of work, but none of this is a chore when you are planning for the holiday of a lifetime. If anything, it adds to the excitement, to the anticipation. The more work you have to put in, the greater the reward.

So yes, I have some lingering doubt in my ability to tackle sandy 4WD tracks in the Botswana wilderness. I am also hoping we don’t break down and I don’t have to stare at the engine and pretend I know what I’m taking about, and that at no point will I have to put my knowledge of lion growls to practical use.

But preparing for that to happen, it turns out, is a huge part of the fun.

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