A game drive is the highlight of any safari, giving the opportunity to experience the natural beauty of Africa and see the wildlife in their natural surroundings. Read our ultimate guide to safari game drives below, including tips for getting the most out of your game drive, plus some ideas for essential items to take with you.
What is a safari game drive?
Game drive (sometimes also written gamedrive) is a term that should be self-explanatory: The word game refers to wild animals and the word drive refers to a drive with a vehicle! In its most simple form, a game drive is a journey in a vehicle to observe animals in their natural habitat.
A safari game drive can be taken in your own car in national parks and game reserves that allow self-drive, or it can be a guided drive in a specialized game drive vehicle led by a professional range/guide to explain the wildlife and surroundings. This page focusses on game drives run by safari companies, lodges and national parks in specialized safari vehicles, driven by a ranger. Self-drive safaris allow you to take your own game drives whenever and however you want, but much of the information below is just as relevant to self-drive safaris as it is to game drives with professional rangers.
What to expect on a game drive
Every game drive is different – which keeps things exciting – but the format of a game drive is likely to be quite similar, wherever you are:
- The time of day will usually be early mornings, late afternoon or at night – the coolest times of the day when most animals are more active.
- With the length and distance will vary, game drives last around 3 to 4 hours, and will include a break.
- With luck you’ll see a mix of different wildlife sightings, with stops to take in and photograph each animal type.
- You should get plenty of conversation with the ranger to learn about the animals you see, plus lots of other related info about the habitat, plants, birds, animal tracking, and if you’re lucky, the occasional amazing animal story or two.
- A break where you can get out of the vehicle and have a drink and a snack – usually somewhere with a great view of wildlife and/or the bush. On morning drives you’ll likely have a hot drink, and on afternoon drives the break is timed to enjoy the sunset with a refreshing sundowner. Unbeatable!
Rangers are usually in radio contact to share sightings with rangers in other vehicles also out in the same area, In most places, there’s an etiquette once a sighting is shared, whereby no more than two or three vehicles will approach a sighting at one time so as not to disturb the wildlife, and avoid a scrum of vehicles. At exclusive game reserves, you may well never see another vehicle whilst on a game drive, but in crowded national parks such as the Serengeti there may be a dozen or more vehicles vying for the best spot at a sighting.
What do you drive in?
There are two main types of specialized safari vehicles for game drives. Which type you’ll have depends in large part on which country you’re in. Generally speaking:
- In East Africa game drives tend to happen in a 4WD Land Cruiser, with a roof that can be lifted so you can stand to get an unobstructed view o the animal. This puts you at a nice height for game viewing and gives you some stability for photography using the roof of the jeep.
- In Southern Africa safari vehicles tend to be open-sided 4WD vehicles, with a roof and no sides. This set up gives great 360-degree game viewing, even as you’re moving.
National park vs game reserve
Whilst the animals may be the same taking a game drive in a private game reserve or a national park, there are more rules to follow in a national park, which can impact the quality of your wildlife viewing. The two key ones are:
In national parks you have to stick to the established roads or tracks, whilst one of the coolest things about game reserves is that you’re allowed to head off-road to follow a major sighting.
In national parks (with some notable exceptions) you are usually restricted to game drives between sunrise and sunset only. At a game reserve you can go on game drives after dark (a night safari), when the guide will often use a red light so as not to distress the animals’ night vision, or cause them distress.
6 Tips to get the most from your game drive
Whether you’re at a high-end lodge or doing a self-drive game drive there are a number of things to think about ahead of time to ensure you have the best possible game drive experience.
1. Have realistic expectations
Your game drive will take place in a game reserve or national park, not a safari park. This means wild animals living in their natural environment, spread over large ranges… which in turn means that sightings are never guaranteed – no matter how much you’ve paid for your safari!
You should also do some research – ideally, before you book your trip – into the type of wildlife there is (and isn’t) in the park or reserve you’re visiting. Is it home to the big five? It’s no good heading off on a game drive hoping to see a leopard if there are no leopards there!
It’s generally best to have as few expectations as possible and be wowed when you do see that lion kill, or African rock python attacking an impala. If it’s a quiet drive without too much wildlife make use of time by speaking with the driver or guide to get them to share their wildlife knowledge with you.
2. Patience is key
Whilst there are all sorts of ways to improve your chance of seeing particular animals, at the end of the wildlife spotting is often simply a waiting game. Whether you’re sitting by a waterhole or slowly trundling through the bush with your eyes peeled, having patience when on a game drive is critical.
Similarly, if you’re on a game drive with other people you may find the ranger will stay longer at some sightings that you would like, or not long enough with other animals. The ranger tries to keep everyone in the vehicle happy for the whole game drive, and this will likely require compromises. At the end of the day, you have to go with the flow and enjoy the game drive for hat it is.
3. Share camera duty
If you’re on a game drive and want to capture some great shots, having more than one camera at the ready will help. One person can take a camera with a good zoom lens and another a camera with a wide lens (or even just a smartphone). Having two people prepared to take a snap with different setting s mean you’ll get snaps faster, and end up with a better variety to look back on.
4. Use the time to improve your wildlife knowledge
During a game drive, you’ll be spending time with one or two rangers who will be experts on the local terrain and wildlife. They’ll likely have plenty of stories, and certainly have lots of information about the animals. The more you speak to them and ask them the more you can learn – which may well help you spot the wildlife yourself, or get a better picture… or just make you seem even more of an expert when you get home!
5. Consider carefully where to sit
Open vehicle game drives usually take between 4 and 10 people, in a vehicle with three rows of seats behind the driver, each one a little higher than the last. Sitting in the middle row of seats gives you the benefit of being raised for better animal sightings, but also within easy talking (and listening!) distance of the guide. Of course, where you sit comes down to personal preference, but the middle of the vehicle offers the best of both worlds… at least for your first game drive. If you’re lucky enough to be going on a few game drives then mix it up and see which one you prefer for next time.
6. Consider taking a private vehicle
A shared game drive of 4-10 people will do the job for most people, but you may want to consider paying some extra to take out a private vehicle for a game drive. This might make sense if you’re a keen photographer or birder, and your needs are different to the average guest.
And one bonus tip that we cover in more detail below is to make sure you take all the right stuff along with you, to make your game drive as enjoyable as possible.
Useful things to take on a game drive
If you’ve not been on safari before we have a couple of articles worth reading on what to wear on safari, and useful things to take on safari. These give some useful info in the context of what to have with you on a game drive, but here’s the short(ish) version:
Layers of clothing: If you’re going on an early morning game drive these can start out rather cold, but soon heat up as the sun rises in the sky. Bringing two or three layers will ensure you’re always feeling comfortable. If you’re on safari in winter or at elevation you may also want to consider a scarf and gloves for morning game drives.
Hat: A wide-brimmed or peaked for summer will give you maximum sun protection, whilst in the winter a warm hat is probably more of a concern.
Sunglasses: Ideally a quality pair of polarized sunglasses to reduce glare.
A sturdy aid of walking shoes: To help you feel safe and secure when walking in the bush. Although most of your time on a game drive will be spent inside the vehicle, you may hop out for a comfort break, sundowner, or to get a closer view of interesting small flora or fauna that a guide points out.
Insect repellent: Particularly important when going on evening and night drives when mosquitos are at their most active.
Hand sanitizer: It can get quite dusty on game drives.
Sunblock: Scent-free sunblock is recommended, to apply before you head out, and take some with you to reapply as needed.
Camera: This one completely depends on personal preference, and how much you want professional quality photos as a reminder of your game drive. Whatever level of photographer you are, the general rule is to pack light so you can be nimble enough to catch shots quickly. Extra batteries and memory cards are useful, as is some sort of waterproof and dustproof bag to keep all your photography and electronic equipment in. See our guide to photography on safari.
Binoculars: With any luck, you’ll get up close to many animals on a game drive, but it’s likely you’ll also have sightings of wildlife in the distance… which is where having your own binoculars comes in handy. A magnification of at least 8X30 is recommended for comfortable game viewing.
Animal guide book: Your guide may well have a reference book or two, but nothing beats having your own animal guide book (and a bird guide book if that’s your passion!).
Water and snacks. Be sure to take drinking water out on every game drive with you in a refillable bottle. Nuts and dried fruit make for great game drive snacks. The excitement and fresh air can make for an appetite at times, so it’s good to have some nibbles to hand.
Small first aid kit: This might seem like overkill, but by definition when on a game drive you’ll be in a remote location. Your guide should have a basic first aid kit, but packing a light first aid kit including basics like aspirin, plasters, bandages, stomach relief meds, and anti-septic and anti-histamine creams will ensure you’re prepared for most eventualities.
Go on a virtual game drive today!
To get a flavour of what’s involved in a game drive you can check out the below live stream, brought to you by WildEarth &BEYOND Ngala Private Game Reserve and Djuma Private Game Reserve.
Each day they’re live streaming twice-daily, three-hour-long game drives where you can interact with guides by asking questions via YouTube or Twitter, using #wildearth. Safari times are 06:30 – 09:30 and 15:00 – 18:00, both CAT.