Many people are unaware that the types of vehicles typically used for wildlife viewing safaris in eastern Africa differ from those used in southern Africa. In southern Africa, most game drive vehicles are very open like the ones shown below.
In eastern Africa (namely Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda) one will typically find closed safari vehicles including the ubiquitous minibus’s. We think this is primarily because these countries have extensive road networks and many safaris are conducted with a driver and vehicle which stay with you from arrival and until you depart.
Closed vehicles are not ideal for wildlife viewing (which I will explain below) but their use in eastern Africa on road-based safaris makes sense as travelers would not want to drive for hours, at speed, along paved highways and on dirt roads. The dust, wind, rain and heat (or cold) would make for a very uncomfortable ride.
Let’s focus on the primary safari vehicles in eastern Africa’s Kenya and Tanzania as these are the region’s primary wildlife viewing areas. Closed safari vehicles in Kenya/Tanzania typically take up to 6 guests in 3 rows of seating with a pop-top roof hatch which is raised for wildlife viewing (see photos below). Though designed for riding 6 in the back, that’s really not very practical when you are viewing and photographing in the reserves.
A key question to ask when booking a trip is how many people they budget to be in the seating of the vehicle. It they plan on 6 to the vehicle, one can expect tight space, very limited room for camera gear and challenges getting everyone a good position on the sightings. For wildlife viewing you stand and pop your head and shoulders through the hatch. If you don’t wish to stand you can open a window however, the sliding windows can be quite small. Also note that most safari vehicles in eastern Africa are fitted with internal framing which can get in the way of moving around within the vehicle and viewing game. Closed vehicles can also become very hot as they often do not have AC. One bonus with the closed vehicles used for long road-based safaris – they often have a small fridge (although the noise can be distracting when watching animals). Open safari vehicles typically have a cooler filled with ice and drinks.
Our recommended alternative are more open vehicles for game viewing. Both Kenya and Tanzania now have good, reliable, airplane service which can fly guests to their specific safari lodges and camps – this saves a tremendous amount of driving time (as an example you can fly 1.5 hours from Arusha to the Serengeti rather than driving 12 hours). It allows many of these properties to offer open safari vehicles. As you will see below, when it comes to wildlife viewing, open vehicles are the way to go and Tanzanian properties that offer them are high on our list of places to stay!
When flying between our preferred safari camps and lodges you will use their open vehicles and their resident guides who know what the animals in the area are up to and where to find them.
Guides based in towns such as Arusha (near Kilimanjaro Airport where many Tanzania visitors arrive), who conduct road-based safaris, often have no clue what is happening wildlife wise in an area. While driving they will call other guides (either by radio or on their cell phone) for updates. Upon arrival at each safari camp or lodge they will ask the resident guides what is going on. I have also gotten lost with Arusha based guides as they are not out in remote areas every day and don’t know which roads are best to use.
Many take road based safari trips to east Africa, visiting several regions and lodges during their stay. If chooses a road based safari in east Africa, there is a benefit of a private vehicle for ones self. This is because these road based safari companies operate their own vehicle with a guide they supply for you. These companies have negotiated a lower nightly rate at each lodge as you are not using the property’s guides / vehicles. If you wish to use the more open vehicles and the locally knowledgeable local guides of the lodge, typically you must pay an additional surcharge. When using a lodge or camps open vehicle, with their guide, you typically share the vehicle with other guests who are also staying at the property. If you prefer to have exclusive use of an open vehicle this needs to be arranged, at extra cost, in advance.
I have gone on safari over 30 times and I cannot recall one person who has ever said they prefer a closed vehicle for wildlife viewing.
While this may seem like a little thing relative to the entire trip, you spend a lot of time in that game drive vehicle. We know that you go to Africa to get good views and bring home great photos and that is why we research these little details to make this ‘bucket list’ trip the trip you dreamed it would be.