Every year I hope to take a big trip to somewhere new, and as a true car geek I always like to check out the local car culture and admire all of the cars that we don’t get in the US but are more commonplace abroad. Last year, I visited Monte Carlo, Monaco, which has the most millionaires & billionaires per capita of any country in the world, and checked out all of the exotic vehicles there. This year my big trip was quite different – we visited South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Botswana to go on a safari and have a more cultural experience. My wife and I visited for two weeks, and we spent the first 6 days in Cape Town, ZA and then ventured up north to Kruger National Park, Karongwe Private Game Reserve, Victoria Falls, and then ending in the Chobe National Park in Botswana.
Going on a safari requires a special kind of vehicle; it needs to be offroad capable to get where the animals are, it needs to seat ~9 passengers, have a relatively decent ride quality so your customers don’t get car sick, and they need to be very durable and reliable so that you don’t break down surrounded by lions, elephants, and other animals that could kill everyone on board if they’re not able to make a swift escape. Given those requirements, the Toyota Land Cruiser, Land Rover Defender, and Toyota Hilux (a pickup) are the most popular as they’re very rugged, reliable, and easy to find.
Each outfit we visited had slightly different variations of the standard safari setup; in the National Parks, the laws usually required that the safari vehicles had a full roof with protection for a rollover, while the private reserves generally do not. The full roof and side bars are nice from a safety perspective, but the roof and railings definitely limits visibility and creates a little more of a disconnect from the wildlife. Some of the private game reserves we went to had vehicles that were almost completely open air (not even a windshield) and that was an awesome way to experience things. The only downside of the fully open air approach is that the wind chill in the morning can be a little uncomfortable. There is also no shade if it gets hot in the middle of the day, but that is a compromise I’d be willing to make.
Interestingly, the Land Rover Defenders were the favorite of the guides when the trails would be particularly rough, as they tend to do the best offroad, but in nearly all other cases the guides tended to prefer the Land Cruisers since they ride a little smoother and have some more creature comforts. As a passenger I could definitely tell the improvement in ride quality in the Land Cruisers, but I’ve always had a fetish for Defenders so I didn’t mind either vehicle.
The pickup based Toyota Hilux safari vehicles (above) were probably the cheapest and least remarkable options, but have their place too. They’re slightly less luxurious as the Land Cruiser, and definitely much less capable than the Defender, but for most uses they do a good job at getting from A to B.
Another cool feature was the brush guards at one reserve not just had your usual equipment, but a folding table that could be used to serve drinks & appetizers at the end of a long day. It was quite the experience to have a beer overlooking the African bush and see all sorts of wildlife in the distance.
When not in use, the table just folds in like above – cool stuff! While the cars were cool – the wildlife was definitely the highlight of the trip. We saw all of the “Big 5” animals from super close, and even witnessed lions eating a fresh kill and a leopard take down a bushbuck. If you love nature or animals, I would definitely recommend an African safari in your lifetime – while its expensive and requires a lot of travel, it was 100% worth it for us.