Night game drives are an essential activity to have a full safari experience. When the sun goes down an entire new set of animal species takes the stage and some of the most popular animals that may be seen by day dial up their activity level.
Without a doubt cat sightings are the most popular sightings wish by safari tourists. Of the six most commonly seen cat species (lion, leopard, cheetah, caracal, serval, and African wildcat) only the cheetah is typically more active during the day than at night in major safari areas. Lions are clearly the iconic safari animal and they are often found as ‘flat cats’ resting in the heat of the day. In the first definitive study of lions George Schaller (The Serengeti Lion) found that lions usually became active in the last two to three hours of the day at which time they often scout out potential prey and then once darkness falls they move into hunting action. Most predators are opportunistic and when there is sufficient cover and other factors in their advantage such as restricted water resources during the dry season they can hunt with some success during the day but in general predators gain great advantages when it becomes dark and in most areas the majority of hunting, killing, and eating happens at night. Often during the first hours of daylight guides are able to find the aftermath as predators are still feasting on a pre-dawn kill. When on safari in an area that allows for night drives if you find lions or a leopard at the end of the day you can stick with them into the darkness and potentially witness the high drama of the hunt.
Unfortunately in most National Parks safari vehicles are required to be back in camp by dark with no night drives allowed. Recently Etosha National Park has added night drives with park rangers as has been done for years in Kruger National Park. Because of the heavy number of visitors in National Parks these restrictive policies are good and necessary for the protection of the wildlife. Private concession areas and community conservatories usually operate low-density tourism and thus can offer the night game drive experience. Most of the time what is marketed and considered a night game drive is simply driving back to camp at the end of the afternoon game drive after dark while using a spotlight to search for animals. This will usually last between thirty and sixty minutes unless something special, such as lions on the hunt is located. This style of night drive is good for capturing the transition from day to night with the species that increase activity at dusk but being out later is essential to spot some of the truly nocturnal species. Because of this I recommend that safari goers request one ‘true’ night drive from their guide where perhaps dinner is held early and then the drive proceeds for two to three hours post dinner. I have found that guides are very receptive to this suggestion and most enjoy the opportunity to see species that are infrequent for them as well.
Use of a spotlight is an extremely efficient way to find animals because most animal eyes will reflect in the light and based on the color of the reflection, as well as if one eye is showing (usually an herbivore) vs. two (predator) is enough for an experienced guide to know what type of animal has been spotted from a far distance away. I’ve seen many reports from astonished guests who are amazed at how a small chameleon in the midst of a bush is spotted at night by their amazing guide. Such a lizard that would almost certainly be missed during the day has its one eye on the side toward the vehicle glowing a bright silver beacon when the spotlight passes over it making it a can’t miss for an experienced guide.
Beyond diminutive species like chameleons and bushbabies, there are a number of mid-size mammals such as civets, genets, porcupines, aardvarks, pangolins and brown hyenas that are thrilling to see and become highly sought after by experienced safari aficionados who have seen all of the common diurnal species. To date eleven mammal species that I spotted for the first time were found on night game drives. Herbivores (grazers and browsers) are not spotlit to avoid putting them at a disadvantage to predators, because of this some night game drives can be very quiet but that can change instantly when finding a new species for the first time. In between sightings is the time to appreciate the lack of ambient light and witness star studded skies that burst through the darkness. If you have the good fortune to sit in the company of lions with the lights shut off as their roars penetrate the darkness and reverberate through your body you will realize that wild Africa is so much more than just what you see and that after dark is a vital part of the safari experience.