GlobalETA’s Guide to Game Drive Etiquette

Ever been on a safari or game drive in Africa? If you have been on as many as I have (game drives are my happy place!) then you get to the point where you can be pretty particular about your experiences and sometimes disappointed by the behavior of some of the other guests. It’s always good to have an open mind and patience when in the middle of a vehicle full of other tourists who may or may not have the same goals or knowledge as you when it comes to the safari experience. But if you are new to game drives, you should also prepare yourself for what it’s like and what’s expected. Start here with some general information and some “dos and don’ts” of game drives!

There are many ways to experience the wildlife of Southern Africa. One of the most common is to visit game and nature reserves and either go on a self-drive or a guided tour. This post will focus on guided tours of Southern Africa. Whether you stay at within a large park such as the Kruger in South Africa or Etosha in Namibia or you choose a lodge outside of a park or in a private park, most accommodations will offer game drives. Do check the excursions available at the place you choose before you book because fees and inclusions will vary, some require advanced booking, etc.

​While each lodge offering is different, there are some common game drive practices that you can expect. For instance, a lodge will usually offer a morning drive and an afternoon drive. The middle of the day is often to hot and the chances of seeing wildlife goes down but I have taken an all-day game drive in Namibia and had some luck, so they do exist. I find it is nice to have a break in-between drives though, to freshen up, have lunch, take a swim, do some exploring, rest, etc.
​Game drives in the morning and afternoon usually last around three hours each. There is usually a break offered in the middle where you can exit the vehicle and have a snack. In the morning, hot coffee or tea and biscuits are a welcome way to enjoy the sunrise. And frankly, nothing beats a G&T sundowner in the afternoon bush. After the break, you get back in the vehicle and enjoy the rest of the drive.
All guides and game rangers are not created equal. I have had my fair share of guides who were not good but we will focus on the ones who have been extraordinary! Good guides will start by introducing themselves and explaining what to expect and how to stay safe during your drive. They will also encourage you to ask questions and let them know if you see something during the drive. They aren’t the only ones who can spot the wildlife – you’re a team on this adventure! Just be sure to be aware of your volume and timing to not scare animals away or disrupt others’ experiences on the drive. More on this below…
​Be aware that drives first thing in the morning and last thing at night are often cold. Layer your clothes, bring a hat, or otherwise come prepared for changing temps. Many lodges will offer wool blankets to guests in their vehicles but this isn’t a given. If it looks like rain, bring a hat or rain poncho.
​Game drives tend to be very bumpy because the good ones get off the tarred roads and onto gravel or dirt ones. I personally love this aspect but if you have a bad back or get carsick, it’s best to prepare for this in advance. I always bring lip balm and water, for example, because I hate the dry feeling I often get while traveling that can be exacerbated by dust and wind on drives.
Now that we’ve covered some general information about what to expect on your game drive, keep reading for some more specific suggestions for good game drive etiquette!
  • ​Please be aware of your volume. I mean, we all want to talk and ask questions and share our excitement with others but be aware of your volume, language, and laughter. This includes clicking, snapping, whistling, or otherwise trying to get an animal’s attention for a photo opp. This is just annoying and may cause the animal to run away.
  • The exception to the above is when you see spot something great – you are encouraged to alert your guide when you see something. The common way to do this is, “Isaac, giraffe on the right, 3 o’clock!” or similar.
  • Bring your camera! Well, duh. But what I said was bring your camera. As opposed to your iPad. Your iPhone, okay, but taking a photo with a giant iPad can really get in the way of other passengers in the vehicle. Also, turn off the sound on your camera and phone – some of the wildlife such as wildebeest and small antelopes are very skittish so you don’t want to spook the animal you’ve hoped to see all morning.
  • Listen to your guide and ask questions. A good game ranger or guide can make or break your game drive. If you have a good one, listen to them for they are the experts! You can learn so much about the flora and fauna and they will spot things that most of us would miss.
  • Do not get out of the vehicle. This should be obvious but you would be surprised… When animals see a game drive vehicle, they see a large animal. If you all get out of the vehicle, they see a few weak, stupid creatures that some may want for lunch. So, it really is in your best interest to stay inside the vehicle. The exception to this of course is when a driver invites you to exit the vehicle, for instance for your afternoon sundowner. For these breaks, the guide will stop at a place they know is safe and where they can keep an eye on the surrounding area. Also, keep your hands and arms in the vehicle and watch for branches, etc. that may hit you during a drive – those acacia thorns are no joke!
  • Be prepared. Be aware of the weather and wear appropriate clothing. Bring water or a small snack. Bring sunglasses, a hat, and sunscreen. I also bring my animal and bird pocket guides and a pen so that I can mark off what we see. This can be a good activity for kids as well.
  • Please also prepare your children. If you are traveling with kids, explain to them in advance what types of behaviors are acceptable. Please pay attention to them when they are noisy or running around when you stop for a sundowner. Their behavior influences the experiences of the other passengers.
  • At the end of a drive, please do tip your guide and/or driver. Your tip can be commensurate with the experience you had so don’t be shy to recognize someone who gave you an excellent drive!
  • Please keep in mind that there is no guarantee to see an abundance of wildlife on each and every drive. Depending on the weather, time of day, etc., you may have some great sightings or you may not. Good guides know where animals were spotted that morning or the day before and will take you there. They know how to track animals and are used to seeing them in the bush. But they are not magicians and cannot make that lion just appear before your eyes! So please be don’t blame your guide if you have a “slow” drive. Good guides will be able to fill the drive with fascinating information about birds, insects, trees, bushes, and the local people and geology even if the big game aren’t cooperating.

 

​Essentially, my best advice for those on game drives (and, let’s face it, when being out in the world in general) is to be aware and considerate of others around you. Most of the time, you will not be alone on your game drive so be aware of others around you and the experience that they would like to have as well. This may mean switching up seating in the vehicle to give others a chance to sit in the front or the back as they would like. It means looking back occasionally to ensure that the folks behind you can see and take a photo. It also means being aware of your volume when you are talking. So, bottom line: exercise common courtesy, have an open mind and wide eyes, and you will have, what is for many, a once-in-a-lifetime experience!

What advice do you have for folks who are headed on safari for the first time? What have been your favorite sightings or experiences on game drives? Let me know in the comments section below! 

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