To be honest, we were more than a little intimidated by the thought of flying to South Africa – a very large country and continent we had never been to and knew next to nothing about – renting a vehicle, and exploring completely on our own for a couple of months. The major draw for us was to view and photograph African wildlife, but we had a very vague concept of what that meant. But, after failing to find mileage tickets on many prior attempts, in December of 2018 we were able to score Business Class mileage award seats on Cathay Pacific for September, 2019.
The truth is, when we made our reservations, we simply did not have the money to plan a guided or escorted trip. So, the planning process and budgeting for a “frugal, but not cheap” independent travel adventure began almost immediately after getting our Alaska Airlines confirmation email.
Perhaps others thinking about doing a “roll-your-own” self-drive safari type trip will be able to benefit from what we can share here. It was a learning experience that took lots of time and energy to plan, but we broke it down into a process that looked roughly like this:
Step 1: Where to Start?
So, you found a way to get to South Africa? Cool! What do you want to see and do? How long do you have? It’s a very, very big country, with lots of things to see and do, different cultures to learn about, amazing natural sights and a fascinating history. Figuring out what your options are is going to require some research. Do your homework, and then make a prioritized list of your “must see” places or things to do, and then some “would be nice” options.
Step 2: Getting Around
Assuming a guided or escorted experience is not in your budget, what are the other options and their relative costs? Contrary to what we had been led to believe by friends and fellow travelers, South Africa is not a particularly expensive destination. But, it does have some challenges and risks for the independent traveler. What are those potential risks, and what is your comfort level with those risks? In general, if you’re driving, you will only be doing so during daylight hours, regardless of where you go. The kind of vehicle you get will also determine your route to some degree. Does your wish list have any locations with logistics challenges, or methods of transport that are important to that experience? These are important initial questions.
Step 3: Sketching Out A Plan
Now that you have a list of prioritized things to see or do, and some idea of what’s available, you need a rough plan. Your plan is always going to be a balancing act between your identified priorities, what’s practical given your time and transportation methods, and what you can afford. String it together into a rough plan, and the sketch out the dates on a calendar: Roughly how many days do you ideally need for visiting point A, B, C and D? What is the minimum at each? These will require more research, and may result in some adjustments / additions / deletions to your list. Don’t forget to plan for how many hours (or days) you’ll need to travel safely between each destination during daylight hours.
Step 4: Making Reservations
Many of the common accommodation aggregator booking sites, such as Booking.com, Agoda, Airbnb, VRBO, have South African locations listed, and we had great success with several of those. But, some of the destinations we visited fit into a very specific travel niche, and you will be better off using South African-based sites for those. When making your draft plan, try to avoid anything that is a great value, but does not have free cancellation. Your plans are likely to change as you learn more about the country and your options. We ended up using Plan B or C in the end, and we were very happy with our trip. But, had we booked those lower-priced options initially and then been locked into our initial plan in order to avoid a significant cancellation penalty, we would not have had as great a time. Our first plan was not our best plan. 😉
Step 5: Logistics, Gear and Gizmos
Once we realized we really were going to South Africa on a “bucket list” worthy trip, we also started to recognize we were going to need to plan for, and solve some of the inherent challenges that come with independent travel in this region. We needed to plan for connectivity in remote areas, reliable navigation options, more photography equipment that we usually carry, long hours in a car, finding food and beverages while mobile, planning for cooking in a variety of camps and accommodation types. You get the idea. All of these challenges were well worth thinking through in advance, as our needs were very specific to our destinations. We met people who had arrived in South Africa without much prior knowledge, and they were generally far less happy with their experiences than we were. It is not a forgiving destination for the ill prepared, but the rewards of front end planning and research are significant.
If all this sounds daunting, don’t be discouraged! Our South African trip planning paid off, and we had a blast. Actually, in retrospect, it was one of the very best trips of our lives. Yours will be too, with a little advance planning.
The following post topics in this thread will try to provide you with the resources we used, and some of the tips and tricks we learned about each of the steps above.