Note: In the US, we say rental car, in Africa it is called a hire car but it is the same thing.
Warning: This is a fairly long article, but it is addressing one of your largest expenses while you are on the ground in Africa. Furthermore, if not properly handled, it could create your largest stress during your vacation holiday.
To date, I have rented vehicles twice to go into Chobe. Both trips were quite successful; however the learning about vehicles from the first trip made the rental on the second trip a more enjoyable experience.
In beginning this discussion, it must be said that the decision of a self-drive safari was predetermined from the start. I was going to go into Chobe with a group of South African photographers and needed to blend in. Their way to drive in a safari (and I think the best way), is to have one person in the front seat row and a second person in the back seat row. This allows both photographers to shoot out the left or right window with no other people as obstructions. This also meant that I would not be welcome in another team’s vehicle so I needed a rental/hire 4×4 vehicle for the use by my son and me.
With understanding of my logistical needs, I searched on-line for rental options and also had by friend in Johannesburg look for options. I found many companies and will discuss a few specific one’s later; however, I also found that there are key points to look for and issues to discover and understand:
- The vehicle MUST be a 4×4 to drive in Chobe National Park
- How soon prior to the trip should I book?
- Should I rent the vehicle in South Africa or wait to rent in Botswana?
- Does the rental company provide for access to mechanics in the Chobe area?
- There are many size vehicles available – many with names different than their American counter-part.
- There are several types of insurance options such as standard insurance, theft waivers and collision waivers to consider.
- One needs to consider mileage and whether an unlimited mileage option is worth the cost.
- Manual versus Automatic transmission
- Do you also need top-side camping gear with your rental?
- Is there a delivery or drop fee?
- Is there a “Border Crossing Surcharge” and how much is this?
- Watch for a “cleaning fee”.
- Is there a second driver fee?
- What are typical payment terms and can I use a US credit card? If exchange rate is good at the time of booking, can I pre-pay?
My 2007 Rental
On my first trip, I used a company known as Holiday Autos (web address: www.holidayautos.co.za). I finalized this booking in June for my planned trip in mid-July. I have since learned that this is extremely late to reserve one’s vehicle. I suggest that this step should be completed by the end of February to ensure the right equipment.
The Rental negotiation and contract efforts went very smoothly through both e-mails and telephone discussions. All of my questions were answered promptly and courteously. I planned to pick up the vehicle in Johannesburg and drive to Chobe. It is important that you inform the rental company of your itinerary plan as paperwork is required to transport a vehicle across country boundaries. I also noted a preference to pick up the vehicle on the north side of Jo’berg rather than the Airport. This option was at no cost. After discussions of vehicle options, I chose a four door Nissan Hardbody. The vehicle also had a fiberglass camper shell over the bed. This pick-up is called the Frontier crew cab (Pick-ups are known in Southern Africa as a “bakkie”) in the US. This manual transmission vehicle (No auto transmission option available via my rental company) is a well proven safari vehicle. The rental allowed unlimited mileage. Once payment was made via faxed credit card information, I was supplied a voucher for collection of my vehicle. By the way, my 11 day rental fee in 2007 was ZAR 13,000. At the time, the exchange was around 7 rand per dollar, so the vehicle rental cost around $165/day plus gasoline.
With receipt of the voucher, I was surprised. I was to pick up the vehicle in downtown Sandton (good location) at the Avis rental site. What I learned is that Holiday works with various major rental companies and shops the best price for the time of the rental. Dealing with Avis, an internationally reputable company, initially gave me comfort. I have now decided that this was a false comfort. While my vehicle was “good enough”, here is why I do not advise renting from mainstream auto rental companies for safari:
- Major rental companies primarily handle “on road” automobiles. I don’t see where they make any special inspections or plans for preparing for the “off road”
- Major rental companies expect the vehicle to be returned in exactly the condition it left. Safari specialty companies understand basic scratch wear and tear will occur
- Major rental companies have limited available hours for pick-up or drop off. Safari specialty companies seem willing to adjust to your needed arrival and departures
- Avis has an office at the airport in Kasane, but does not have a specialized mechanic to support equipment problems. While specialty companies may not operate exactly where you need, they have relationships with mechanics in hubs such as Maun, Francistown and Gaborone to respond to issues.
Back to the story. Pick-up of the vehicle went smoothly. Following a quick walk around inspection of the vehicle with the Avis agent, I was on the road. In my eagerness to depart, I did not look closely enough at the tires. The vehicle was equipped with narrow width street tread tires. Further, the tires were quite worn. This was discovered when I started having slipping problems in the sands of Chobe. Further, I was not briefed on such things as location of the jack nor where and how to access the spare. This problem also raised its ugly head when I had a puncture in a remote area of the park. Once I used the standard issue jack (which is not really designed for soft surface use), I learned that my spare tire had virtually no tread. I survived these issues but with the adage in mind: once burned, twice learned!
Fast forward to my 2009 experience
Once more I planned my trip for mid-July. After some research on safari specific suppliers of 4×4 vehicles, I settled on Bushlore (www.Bushlore.com ) due to references and price. I also decided to go for a slightly bigger vehicle, the Toyota HiLux Double cab, also known in Africa as a ‘backie’ (In the US, this is the Toyota Tacoma crew cab.). Per Bushlore, this truck was specifically serviced by them for exclusive off-road use. Tires are heavier duty, plus there is a 2nd spare on a rack above the cab. The vehicle had manual transmission (only choice available) and came equipped with a 150 liter long range fuel tank (diesel), and misc. off road equipment such as a heavy duty jack, storage boxes and a large water storage vessel. The rental allowed unlimited mileage. Other “extras” that made me prefer Bushlore this rental:
- I had the option (for a fee) of collecting the vehicle in Kasane
- If I collected the vehicle in Jo’berg, they would deliver the truck to me (I was staying at a friend’s house) and collect the vehicle at my Jo’berg residence upon my return.
- They had a 24 hour help line and mechanics on duty in Maun and Francistown if needed.
I initially planned to hitch a ride in my friend’s vehicle to Kasane and then take the rental there. After doing the math, I decided that the delivery fee equaled two extra days rental. While most of these 2 days were driving time to and from Chobe, this did afford 2 extra half days with the vehicle in the park. The long range tank and diesel engine gave good fuel consumption and amazing range, with only a single fuel stop on the trip to Chobe. The 2009 price for my 11 day rental with all fees came to ZAR 12,800. On this trip, the exchange was nearly 10 rand to the dollar when I made down payment and 8 rand/US$ at final payment, so my cost all in was $133 per day for a far superior vehicle. Speaking of superior, I am now a huge fan of the Toyota HiLux. I hope to by the US version, the Toyota Tacoma for my future US travels. This vehicle was a monster, handling was superb and I felt total control over any terrain. As for Bushlore, I plan to use them again (if the price is competitive) on the next trip. Service was excellent. The returned vehicle had minor brush scratches and a windscreen chip – but this was considered acceptable wear and tear.
While I had a great experience with Bushlore, the Holiday Auto experience was not bad; one just needs to know more on what to check on inspection. I have also heard good things about Drive South Africa ( www.drivesouthafrica.co.za ). I am sure there are other quality companies. If you are aware of some of these, please add a comment to this message and we will check them out for additional options to be shared by all.
As I summarize, I am not sure I have answered all of the questions I noted in the opening, so here is where I will clean up the loose ends:
- How soon prior to the trip should I book? If traveling in peak season, at least 5 months early.
- Should I rent the vehicle in South Africa or wait to rent in Botswana? Your call, but I can find no savings other than fuel (and we are talking an 1100 km trip each way, so not insignificant) for renting in Bots, meanwhile you have more freedom.
- Does the rental company provide for access to mechanics in the Chobe area? Few will, so the question is really how one should handle service needs – and the answer is different with each supplier.
- There are many size vehicles available – many with names different than their American counter-part. I highly recommend the Toyota HiLux. The Nissan Hardbody is acceptable. Slightly smaller, but more expensive is the Land Rover Discovery. Great but expensive is the Toyota Land Cruiser. I would not consider any of the smaller 4×4 crossovers, though you will see some of these in the park.
- There are several types of insurance options such as standard insurance, theft waivers and collision waivers to consider. Beyond the standard, you may not need the others. Check with your current domestic insurance company to see what coverage is provided by them. Theft coverage will run you around ZAR70 per day and collision coverage will be around ZAR 200 per day (2009 pricing), so it is expensive. I did not take these options.
- Manual versus Automatic transmission – for the quotes I have received, only the “car like” 4×4’s offer automatic. Most experts say the manual is better in a jam. I don’t know but it doesn’t take long to get used to shifting with the left hand (remember, you drive on the left side in Botswana and South Africa).
- Do you also need top-side camping gear with your rental? If you plan on camping, this is a must. For a fee, Bushlore clearly equips for these needs. I stayed at a lodge.
- Is there a delivery or drop fee? Within Jo’berg there was not with Bushlore. Within Botswana there is a large fee. For pick-up in Kasane, I was quoted ZAR 4,200 + ZAR 600 border crossing surcharge. At 8 ZAR/US$, that is about $600!
- Is there a “Border Crossing Surcharge” and how much is this? This paperwork is critical for driving across borders; make sure you have the paperwork! See above for Botswana pick-up. For the Jo’berg pick-up, I paid a fee of ZAR 500, but I saw some quotes as high as ZAR 1000.
- Watch for a “cleaning fee”. This is negotiable when you are getting the vehicle for more than a week. They tried to charge me ZAR 330 and I think I got it reduced to ~ ZAR 250. I should have fought this more.
- Is there a second driver fee? From my experience, with the major car rental companies, this seems to be an issue, the off road specialty companies don’t squabble over this.
- What are typical payment terms and can I use a US credit card? If exchange rate is good at the time of booking, can I pre-pay? For this trip, I actually made a 40% down payment since the exchange rate with the dollar was good at the time of my transaction. The standard booking deposit appears to be 15% and credit card is fine. I don’t like faxing out my card number, but I have now done it twice. Make sure you notify your credit card company that you are making a large transaction if Africa or they may freeze the account.
I know this article is long, but the vehicle is probably your biggest expense when in Africa, so I hope my taking this time from you saves you a few hundred dollars.
EDIT TO ARTICLE: Since writing this article, I have decide to add a little info.
- Be aware that Avis does have an office in Kasane. It is out at the local airport. They off a variety of rental models in Kasane from sedans, mini buses to 4 wheel drive vans that are suitable for a self drive safari in the Chobe National Park. Additionally, they have offices in a few other Botswana towns. Here is a link to their site.