What to expect on a game drive in Africa? 15 things you need to know
06 maart 2022 
35 min. read

What to expect on a game drive in Africa? 15 things you need to know

What to expect on a game drive in the African bush as part of your safari itinerary? This exciting activity is on top of every traveler's bucket list to experience a safari of a lifetime with stunning wildlife sightings and colorful birds! Expect to learn new insights and even more appreciation for Africa and its magical nature. 

This complete guide to game drives explains 15 things you need to know about going on a game drive in Africa to see wildlife and birdlife in their natural habitat. For example, tips about what to bring on a safari game drive, what to wear, safety rules during the game drive, types of safari vehicles used, the best time for wildlife viewing and other do's and don'ts for the best game drive experience in Africa.

What to expect on a game drive in Africa?What to expect on a safari game drive in Africa?

Did you know the term 'game' originally comes from the hunt on the most difficult and dangerous (game) animals in Africa, like a buffalo, elephant, or lion? Nowadays, you don't go out hunting, but safely and peacefully searching for wild animals from the comfort of your safari vehicle. Safari is Swahili for 'journey', referring to the whole safari trip that includes for example wildlife game drives, walking safaris, boat tours, and more.

1. What to see on a game drive in Africa?

You can't predict what you will see on a safari game drive. We simply don’t have any influence on the animals' behavior. In fact, we don’t even want to influence their behavior because we try not to disturb the animals in their own natural habitat.  

Having that said, it’s good to know that the amount and diversity of animals differ in any safari destination. Generally, you will most likely spot zebra and many antelopes like impala and gazelle. They live on the African plains and often show their presence. Other animals that are relatively easy to spot are baboons, giraffes, wildebeests, warthogs, and birds

wildlife photography Kenya: baby warthog

Most people aren’t very interested in birds, but did you know that Africa is home to more than 2000 bird species? From bright-colored small birds to prehistoric shoebills and huge pink male ostriches. Africa is a true birdwatcher’s paradise! 

When you go on a few morning and afternoon game drives in a row, the chances of seeing bigger animals like elephants, lions, cheetahs, and buffalo are higher. Rhinos and leopards are generally the most elusive animals to spot.

photographing wildlife Maasai Mara KenyaExpect to see lots of animals on your game drive in Africa, including members of the Big 5.

Some people expect to see the so-called 'Big Five' easily because safaris are often advertised with the Big 5 game animals. Do keep in mind that it can be hard to spot all of these wild animals. I would also advise doing some research if the Big Five animals are home to the safari destination you are visiting. You don’t want to be disappointed because your expectations weren’t realistic. Some people still ask me if I have seen tigers in Africa. Well, I haven't and I never will. You get the point.

In general, you may consider yourself very lucky if you see the Big Five on your safari trip in Africa. Seeing them all in one game drive is almost like winning the jackpot. Apart from that, there's more to safari Africa than the Big Five.

2. What type of vehicles are used for a safari game drive?

Most game drive vehicles are 4WD vehicles that have been modified according to specific safety features. The 4WD (4-wheel drive) or 4X4 vehicle makes sure the car has a more stable and controlled grip on roads. This is more comfortable for all the passengers, especially with off-road driving, which is often possible on game drives in private reserves or in conservancies. Land Cruisers and Land Rovers are often used. Some safari vehicles have a pop-up roof (mostly in East Africa), others have a roof but open sides, which treats you to an amazing 360-degree sight. These safari cars are mostly found in Southern Africa. If you're driving in an open vehicle like that, it might be windy, so don't forget to wear layers. I've included a list of what to wear on a game drive further in this article.

Game drive vehicles or minibusses can normally accommodate 4 to 9 individuals; this depends on the type of vehicle. For photography, it’s nice to have enough space, a wide sight, and stability. These are some main reasons why I prefer spending more money on a comfortable private safari vehicle and a private guide. 

Are you a photography lover? I also wrote tips about planning a photo safari in Africa

4X4 photography vehicle for safari in Africaa Landcruiser is a perfect game drive vehicle, especially for photography on safari

3. Types of game drive: self-drive vs. guided game drive

There are two main types of game drives in Africa: a self-drive and a guided game drive. A guided game drive can be in a group or private and there are usually morning game drives, afternoon game drives and sometimes they also offer night game drives in search of nocturnal animals.

#1 Self-drive 

In some National Parks or private reserves, like Addo Elephant National Park and Kruger National Park in South Africa, you can drive on your own. This is called a self-drive game drive. On an adventurous self game drive, you are the one behind the wheel deciding where to go. At the entrance of the National Park, you will receive a map and you have to stay on designated roads. You can view the animals from the comfort of your own (rental) car. 

#2 Guided game drive 

A guided game drive is led by a knowledgeable and certified field guide or driver-guide who knows the area and its history very well. A guided game drive can be in a group or you can opt for a private game drive. In my opinion, a guided game drive is more impressive than a self-drive. An important reason is that self-game drives are mostly only possible in the bigger National Parks, where it’s more crowded and touristic. When you are on a game drive with a professional guide, it’s not only about finding animals, but it’s a complete experience, using all of your senses and enjoying the beautiful scenery, abundant wildlife, and learning about their behavior and environment. Therefore, I would say a (private) guided game drive is the best game drive in Africa.

photography safari adventure AfricaGuided safari game drive with a local Maasai guide

A professional safari guide, tracker, or ranger can tell you a lot of details about the animals, the ecosystem, animal tracks, and the culture of local people. On a self-drive, you miss a lot of information and the experience is different. Local guides even know stories about individual animals and their relatives because they see them frequently. Another advantage of a guide is that they are connected to the radio station where guides and rangers share information about spectacular sightings. A guided wildlife game drive is more than driving and trying to spot animals. It’s a complete adventure of learning, enjoying, and being in nature. 

maasai guide kenya

4. What to expect on a guided game drive in Africa?

On a guided game drive, your goal is to see African wildlife in their natural habitat. The best time to spot wildlife is during the coolest times of the day when most animals are active. For that reason, game drives typically take place in the early morning, afternoon, or night. Depending on the game drive you booked, you will head out with a guide and your private travel group or with a shared group of up to 12 people.

On the drive, you can expect to see different species of animals. While observing the animals, your guide will tell you more about the animals and their behavior. A good ethical guide will turn off the vehicle at a safe distance from the animal sighting with the sun in your back, to give you the opportunity of taking photos and ask questions. It’s a great way to learn about Africa’s wildlife.

Mating lions on a game drive in the Maasai Mara, Kenya

In many reserves, national parks, or conservancies, guides are in radio contact where they share information about wildlife sightings. Therefore, chances of seeing wildlife are high, but never guaranteed because the animals are wild and roam freely through the parks and reserves. When it’s quiet in terms of spotting wildlife, you do well to speak a lot to your guide to learn from him to gain knowledge about Africa's remarkable nature.

During the drive, a professional guide will also stop for a comfort break to stretch your legs, go to the (bush) toilet, and have a drink or snack. On morning game drives you also have the opportunity to enjoy your breakfast in the bush. I love these long morning game drives.

Breakfast on morning game drivePrivate Guided Game Drive in a 4 wheel drive Landcruiser

5. How long does a game drive last?

An average safari game drive takes about 2,5 to 4 hours, depending on what you see and your game viewing preferences. When you are heading back to your lodge or camp for breakfast and spot a leopard, breakfast can wait. The length or distance of a game drive also varies depending on where you are and what you'll see on the drive. Some destinations offer a full-day game drive, which can take up to 8 hours. During a full-day game drive, you will bring a packed breakfast (and lunch) and you will eat out in the bush, with stunning views everywhere you look. Some destinations offer night game drives, which are often shorter. Night game drives usually last about two hours. 

Lion cubs hunting an impala on a game drive in a private game reserve in South Africa (Shamwari)

6. What is the best time to go on a game drive in Africa?

A game drive activity is possible at various times throughout the day or even a full-day game drive is a good option. Some parks limit driving, for example from sunrise (6 AM) to sunset (6 PM). It also depends on where you are.

The best time to go on a game drive in Africa is usually the hours around sunrise and sunset. These are the coolest hours of the day when the animals are more lively. In the early morning or early evening chances of seeing animals hunt are higher. In the middle of the day, when it's usually hot, there's less action. Lots of animals hide in the shade or in the bushes. If you for example find lions, they are most likely relaxing or sleeping. But, the bush is the bush and you'll never know what happens, therefore I love full-day game drives to take it all in. 

7. What to expect on a morning game drive?

Morning game drives typically start around 06.00 - 6.30 am when the sun slowly starts to rise. After a cup of coffee and a pre-breakfast snack, it’s time to leave for a morning game drive. It can be cold in the morning, so it’s good to put on warm layered clothes. You are driving in an open vehicle, so the wind can be harsh. The advantage of the lower temperature in the morning is that animals are most active. During the morning it can warm up quickly, for that reason it’s good to wear layers. On a clear morning, the lights of the sun reflect a golden glow, which is perfect for taking photos. I love this time of the day, it’s worth getting up early. On the morning game drive, a coffee stop with tea/coffee and some biscuits is included. At around 10.00 am, you normally head back to camp for breakfast. 

Sunrise Mara River KenyaWatching the sunrise on a morning game drive in Kenya

8. What to expect on an afternoon game drive?

An afternoon game drive typically starts between 3 pm and 4 pm. After a well-deserved lunch and some relaxing time, you go out for a lovely wildlife adventure. During the game drive, the sky will treat you with the magical colors of the iconic African sunsets. On a clear day, the sky will turn red, while on cloudy days, the sky changes in dramatic scenery. Your guide will stop at a beautiful place with a view to enjoy the sunset with a sundowner and a snack. The African Amarula liquor, a beer, or Gin Tonics are the most popular sundowner drinks. You will head back to the camp before dinner.

safari sundowner on afternoon game drive in Africa

9. What to see on a night game drive?

Night game drives in Africa are not always possible in National Parks, but in many (private) reserves and conservancies, you can have the unique experience of driving after sunset. On a night game drive, you go out in the dark to spot Africa’s nocturnal animals; active by night. Examples of nocturnal animals are porcupines, genets, aardvarks, civet cats, spring hares, and bush babies. During a night drive, it’s also possible to bump into a leopard, hippos, and lions. After sunset, hippos go out of the water to graze, and lions are more active hunters at night. Your guide will use red (UV) light that doesn't hurt the animals' eyes but allows you to observe the animals in the dark. Spotting animals on a night drive is more challenging, but a cool experience.  

 Masai Mara Leopard on Night Game DriveLeopard in a tree on a night game drive in Kenya 

10. Where to go on a game drive in Africa?

There is no one best place to go for a game drive in Africa. Game drives are beautiful at any African safari destination. Kenya is considered to be the best safari destination for wildlife. But also countries such as South Africa, Namibia, Tanzania, Zambia, Botswana, and Uganda offer amazing wildlife experiences. Your game drive destination also depends on the wishes of the rest of your safari trip. If you only want to concentrate on wildlife, I would highly recommend taking a look at Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Crater (Tanzania), Masai Mara Conservancies (Kenya), or Kruger National Park and the surrounding reserves (South Africa). If you love to have an exclusive luxury experience, I would advise taking a look at Shamwari Private Game Reserve in South Africa. 

Spot the Big Five on a Safari Trip in South AfricaWhite Rhinos on a game drive in South Africa

11. Is it safe to go on a game drive?

Yes, game drives in Africa are generally safe. You should keep in mind that there is always a risk of danger when you are in the African bush with wild animals. When you follow up on the safety rules for a game drive, you don’t need to worry. 

Safety rules on a game drive are for example;

  • Remain seated and keep your arms, legs, and cameras inside the car
  • Don’t scream, lower your voice, and don’t make sudden moves when you're close to wildlife
  • Turn your phone to airplane mode and on silent
  • Don’t wear colorful clothes, but think 50 shades of khaki
  • It's better to not drink or eat while moving
  • take lots of images, but respect endangered animals (think twice about what you post on social media)
  • If you're on a night game drive, don't use your flash; your guide will use a spotlight once you encountered an animal
  • Always listen to your guide

Safari guides are well-trained and game drive vehicles are designed for safety. In case of any danger, always listen carefully to the instructions of your guide. Are you traveling with children? Children under the age of 4 are often not permitted on the game drives. Check this with your travel agent or at the lodge or reserve you're staying.

safari guide AfricaListen carefully to your safari guide when explaining the safety rules on a game drive

12. What to bring on a game drive?

It's always good to prepare yourself before going on a game drive. The night or morning before the drive, your guide will usually tell you what to expect, what to take on a game drive, and what to wear. 

I recommend the following things to bring on a safari game drive to get the most out of your African bush experience: 

  • Smartphone or camera, including charged batteries
  • Binocular to spot wildlife or birds in the distance
  • Neutral-colored layered clothes and closed shoes for when you get out of the vehicle
  • Hat to protect yourself from the sun, buff, scarf, or beanie
  • Sunglasses
  • Rain jacket
  • Sunscreen and insect repellent
  • Water to stay hydrated
  • Medicines if you have any medical conditions and inform your guide about them. 
  • Optionally a bird or mammal book, but most of the time your guide has books in the game drive vehicle 
  • For a bush toilet stop: tissues and a small bag to put it in afterward plus hand sanitizer

binocular for safari in AfricaBring a binocular on your safari game drive

13. What to wear on a game drive?

The best clothes to wear on an African game drive are comfortable, lightweight, and neutral. khaki colors. What colors are better not to wear in the African bush? Do not wear any bright colors on a game drive, and preferably no black, white, blue, or camouflage. Bright colors can scare off animals or radiate danger for animals, while black and white colors attract insects. 

Always try to wear layers, because the weather can change quickly. Also, bring a hat and raincoat, and wear closed shoes. The best clothes are the ones that are dirt-repellent, breathable, and quick-dry. 

safari clothing africaWear layers on a game drive and khaki or sandy colors

14. Is a game drive ethical?

Yes. Care for the environment always comes first. The ethics of certified field guides - who respect nature and have deep knowledge about the African bush - require them to drive slowly and carefully around wildlife to avoid causing stress to the animals. That also means not stopping too close to an animal sighting or not joining a sighting because of respecting the rules regarding the maximum number of cars at a sighting. 

Travel to Zimbabwe: spotting wildlife on safari in Zambezi National Park

Wildlife game drives mostly take place on designated tracks to avoid damage to plant life. Off-road driving is not allowed in most national parks in Africa, although some private game reserves and conservancies do allow driving off-road in search of wildlife. For example, the Mara conservancies around the Mara National Reserve. When off-roading is allowed in search of wildlife, the guide will use parts with more resilient soil to minimize the impact. Game drives can also help in protecting wildlife as the fees provide money for nature and wildlife conservation efforts. The presence of guides and rangers also discourages animal poaching. 

Kenya Photo Safari Masai MaraExpect to see lots of wildlife on your safari game drive in Africa

15. Your game drive experience in Africa - a drive through the wild!

Lastly, I would like to suggest doing your research when planning a safari game drive at certain places in Africa, because there is nothing more disappointing than failing expectations. Every traveler has different wishes. For example, I like to stay longer at one sighting to capture authentic wildlife images. That’s one of the reasons why I prefer a private guide. 

In some places, there are rules about approaching a sighting, like no more than two or three vehicles at a sighting. This is to protect and respect the animals and is often the case in conservancies or private game reserves. I like these rules and it gives you the feeling of exclusivity. Other destinations can be very busy. You may come across a dozen of safari vehicles. This is regularly the case in large national parks in the high season. This kind of situation can ruin your safari experience. Be prepared and get the best out of your African game drive experience! For the best bush experience, also read my ultimate game drive tips for your safari in Africa.

What to expect on a game drive in Africa? A complete guide.

I hope this guide to game drives in Africa answered all your questions about things to expect on a game drive in Africa. In case it did, I would highly appreciate it if you would share this guide with a friend or on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or Instagram. Please feel free to share your thoughts on this guide to game drives in Africa by leaving a comment. Reach out if you have questions about traveling to Africa, photographing wildlife in Africa, or anything else related to Africa, travel, and photography. 

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things to know before you plan a safari game drive to Africa

Kim is an award-winning travel and wildlife photographer, travel blogger, and Africa nature guide. She is on a mission to travel, explore, and capture the world with love and respect for our planet. Kim believes that travel makes you a better person and enriches your life if you treat 'Mother Earth' and all its inhabitants the way you want to be treated, with love and respect! She always takes the scenic route. Happy when she hears the birds sing in the morning and excited every time the sky turns in pretty colors. Interested in self-development and committed to being a more responsible traveler, she is also a wildlife enthusiast feeling at home in the African bush, connected to nature. Kim followed her dream to combine her passions and created 'Our Planet in my Lens', a platform where she shares her travel experiences and travel photography. She writes about responsible travel choices, safari in Africa, travel tips, and photography tips. With her wildlife images, she hopes to spread awareness about the critical facts some animals are facing. She also takes travel lovers on photography trips to Africa.
Maud Mouchart

Maud Mouchart

on 10 Mar 2022

Can't wait to go on a game drive in Africa with you.

Kim Paffen

Kim Paffen

on 10 Mar 2022

Thanks Maud! You're most welcome to join me on a safari game drive or photo safari to Africa <3

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