Photo: Gideon Ikigai/Shutterstock

8 Things I Learned While Stranded After Dark on an African Safari

South Africa Travel Safety National Parks
by Tayla Blaire Aug 17, 2023

In October 2019, my husband and I booked a weekend getaway in the Pilanesberg, a Big Five game reserve in South Africa. Work had been really stressful, so we figured a trip to a nearby reserve for a few game drives (or safaris, as they’re commonly known) would be just what we needed.

While there are numerous luxury hotels surrounding the national park, we stayed at one of the more discount options to save a few extra dollars. The desire to save some money was also why we opted to do a self-drive in our own car, rather than going with a guide or booking a seat in an official safari vehicle.

But saving a little extra was also why we hadn’t yet bought another car. We were in my little Suzuki Swift, nicknamed “Tayla Swift,” and it was a warrior. By 2019, I’d had it for 10 years, and it had been through a lot. Tayla had taken us through Kruger National Park, around the Vredefort Dome, into the Drakensberg Mountains, and more. But, as it turns out, Tayla was no match for the Pilanesberg.

safari safety - lions in pilanesberg national park

Photo: jirisykoracz/Shutterstock

Around 4 PM on our drive, we noticed a light flashing on our dashboard after driving on a dirt road. My car is no stranger to dirt roads; we travel around the wilder parts of South Africa, after all. It had handled far worse road conditions than what we were driving on, but it turns out a very pointy, very unlucky stone had punctured our oil tank, and once we turned off the car, we couldn’t restart the engine. We called the emergency number listed on the brochure we were given at the entrance, but there was no answer. We figured we’d flag down a passing car and ask them to alert the rangers upon their exit.

But there was no passing car.

We honked repeatedly, trying to attract attention. Minutes ticked by, inching toward the park’s closing time of 6 PM. We frantically started calling our hotel, which said it couldn’t help as we had chosen to self-drive instead of booking a safari through them. We kept trying the emergency line for the park, but no answer. We even called nearby hotels, which said they could only assist us if we were staying with them.

Closing time came, and closing time went. Darkness fell. Without being able to turn on the car, we couldn’t roll down the windows, and the car became stifling hot. Instead, to cool down, we had to fearfully open and close the doors as fast as we possibly could — it’s a Big Five reserve, after all. Each time I opened my door, I half expected to see a lion licking its fangs just waiting for its chance.

Eventually, we were able to find help. The receptionist at one of the bush lodges we randomly called (Kwa Maritane) connected us to one of their game rangers named Francois, who asked us to describe where we were, which was tricky in the quickly fading light. We explained that we could see pinprick lights on the left that indicated the far-off highway and a silhouette of a hill in front of us. We flashed our lights (miraculously still working) and continued to honk, hoping it would help him find us sooner.

Eventually, our knight in shining armor (read: a game ranger in khakis) came to our rescue, and we clambered into his game vehicle – mere seconds before a herd of elephants came around the corner where our car was. Possibly, they were drawn by the racket we were making. If Francois had arrived even just two minutes later, the elephants would have surrounded us in the Suzuki Swift – and in the dark, we wouldn’t have known they were there. Elephants, despite their size, move remarkably quietly. And I’m not sure how the elephants might have reacted to a honking horn and flashing lights.

safari safety stranded after dark elepehant

Photo: Gideon Ikigai/Shutterstock

My car had to be left behind and Francois escorted us back to safety. The next day, he helped us tow my car to the parking lot, where it was towed back to Johannesburg. Suzuki no longer manufactured replacement engines, and a new fitting would cost almost as much as a secondhand car.

The lesson learned? Trying to go too budget on our safari not only ruined the game drive, but also endangered our safety and left us in what could have been a nightmarish scenario. We also ended up having to buy a new car, and put a strain on ranger resources to come find us. Lesson learned, and I won’t do any more game drives without a ranger or reliable vehicle.

While we were stranded, I had plenty of time to think about what we should and shouldn’t have done, and ways the day could have gone a lot better. Here’s what I learned.

safari safety car getting towedA

Tayla Swift getting towed from the park entrance. Photo: Tayla Blaire

Just pay the extra for a proper, escorted game drive

Even if you are renting a car to get around South Africa (or whatever country you’re visiting), I’d recommend opting for an escorted game drive. Your driver knows the terrain better than you ever could, they have backup help available if needed, and they are trained to assist with anything that could go wrong. Game drives don’t have to be incredibly expensive (in Rwanda’s Akagera National Park, they start around $40 per person for a half day). But be sure to tip your guide handsomely, especially if they help you spot wildlife.

If you decide to self-drive, ensure you’re in a 4WD vehicle

safari safety 4x4 car

Photo: WildSnap/Shutterst

(Also known as a 4×4 or off-road vehicle) Most parks have roads with extended sections of dirt, stone, or mud, which can be, evidently, really dangerous for smaller vehicles, especially after rain. Make sure you’ve got high ground clearance and familiarity with the vehicle in case you need to make some very sudden reversing maneuvers or tight turns. If that feels unnecessary to you, you haven’t faced a herd of elephants in the dark before.

Keep a sufficient supply of snacks and water on hand

If you experience a breakdown, you’ll be reassured knowing you have supplies available, especially if it’s hot. If you’re on a guided game drive with a good hotel, chances are the guide supplies these for you; a cold drink in the midst of an African summer after spotting wildlife is the stuff dreams are made of. Also ensure you have crucial medication, like asthma inhalers or EpiPens. Snacks can even come in handy during less-critical times, like when you encounter a herd of animals you’d like to stay and watch for a while.

If self-driving, stay on the recommended routes

safari safety elephant and road

Photo: Carcharadon/Shutterstock

Look at your maps closely and try to stay on the packed dirt roads or, better yet, paved roads. Dangerous things can happen when you go really off-road, so stay where it’s safest. You also have the highest chance of encountering other cars if something goes wrong when you stay on the main roads. Park rangers and visitor center employees will always be able to recommend what roads are best given the park’s weather and conditions at any given time.

Listen to your guide

Your guide will likely begin your game drive with some safety tips – don’t zone out as you hear them. None of the rules are arbitrary and you are entering an environment with some very dangerous animals. Your guide is trained to help you navigate this space smoothly, but you have a part to play, too. Keep quiet when you’re told to, keep your arms inside the vehicle, and leave the park with no traces that you were ever there. It’s about not just protecting you, but protecting the animals’ health and habitat, too.

Dress warmly for morning and sunset drives

safari safety cold morning kid

Game drives: they can get colder than you’d think. Photo: Blue Orange Studio/Shutterstock

Most game drive vehicles are open-air, sometimes without any type of roof. And while you move very slowly near animals, there will be periods where you cruise along at high speeds. This can get really cold. Wear an insulated jacket, a fleece, maybe some gloves, and a beanie, too. These will also help if you’re out after dark unexpectedly.

Bring insect repellent and sunscreen

You’ll spend a lot of time stationary inside your safari vehicle when you’re watching wildlife. Apply bug repellent and sunscreen to your exposed skin to ensure you leave with memories and not mosquito bites and sunburns. Clothing with built-in SPF protection is also helpful. Be particularly mindful of sun protection if your hotel offers game drives in an open-top vehicle. And bring extra, in case you get stuck outside for a little longer than expected, like we did.

Bring a backpack

safari bag backpack

Photo: Maria Markevich/Shutterstock

Keeping items in your pockets or on your lap becomes increasingly difficult on tough terrain. It’s easy for your loose items to go flying when moving at high speeds, and you don’t want to drop anything unnatural in the wilderness as it can be harmful to the animals. So bring a backpack or other bag you can securely close and secure to yourself while driving. Ensure all your trash stays in the bag too, and practice ‘leave no trace’ principles. You also don’t want your camera bouncing around your neck the whole time, so even a small camera bag can be very useful.

Game drives in wildlife parks are absolutely incredible experiences, provided you approach them with safety in mind. My South African hubris led me into a very tricky situation that I could have avoided if I’d paid the experts to do what they do best. So plan ahead, be safe, and trust (and tip) the guides and professionals who work in the parks and know them inside and out. In some cases (like mine), they can be literal lifesavers.

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