“I could hear this buffalo panting heavily deep in the bushes,” recalls Sipps Maswanganyi, head guide at Cheetah Plains, a luxury outfit in South Africa’s Sabi Sands Game Reserve. Following those faint sounds, he found a 1,500-pound bovine on its last breaths, being taken down by seven stealthy lionesses. “If I was in a noisy diesel vehicle, I would have driven right past, not hearing a thing, and we would have missed it all.”
For Maswanganyi, a safari guide with 20 years of experience in the African bush, it was one memorable sighting that sold him on electric safari vehicles.
From Noisy Diesel-Hungry Land Rovers to Quiet, Solar-Powered EVs
In the years past, a major image that was synonymous with safaris, apart from the animals, were the noisy fuel-powered Land Rovers that moved visitors around different experiences in the resorts. However, this is changing.
“It was an easy decision,” says Cheetah Plains owner Japie van Niekerk of the decision to offer an all-electric fleet of safari vehicles. “They are silent. They’re low on maintenance. And there are huge logistical benefits, as we don’t have to deliver fuel to the lodge out in the bush. But more than that, it’s the right thing. We are guests in nature, so why leave a footprint when we can be silent and blend in?”
Van Niekerk is just one of roughly a dozen early adopters, who since 2014 have begun ditching diesel engines. Now, with the technology becoming more affordable, and a growing awareness around sustainable travel causing safari outfitters to double down on greening their operations, the trend – which transforms the safari experience for guests, too – is finally gaining traction.
Disrupting the Disruption
The electric safari vehicles (ESVs) used at the resorts are typically rebuilt diesel-powered Land Rovers or Toyota Land Cruisers. The resorts employ the services of private South African and Kenyan companies for most of the conversions, which involves replacing the engine, gearbox, and combustion components with an electric motor, batteries, and control system. The extensive retrofit often allows for more whimsical upgrades, too, from in-built seat-warmers to USB charge points. The process costs from $35,000 to $45,000 per vehicle.
Although the prices have come down, it is still an expensive decision, which explains why even large safari operators like AndBeyond and Wilderness Safaris are yet to make the switch to ESVs.
“In time, we will convert to electric vehicles,” explains Andrea Ferry, Singita’s group sustainability coordinator. “The reason we’re not there yet is simply about priorities. Right now, it’s better to spend our available funds on renewable energy.”
“There’s no point having an electric vehicle charged by a coal-driven national grid. You need to be on solar and charge the vehicle on solar,” agrees Tony Adams, conservation and community impact director at AndBeyond. “Electric vehicles are phenomenal in terms of guest experience, but our focus is on the work we’re doing in the communities—converting onto solar—and the reduction of our overall carbon footprint.”
The Economic Upside
For lodges with sufficient solar capacity and capital to spare, electric vehicles offer significant economic advantages.
Converting the three Land Cruisers at Emboo River in Kenya’s culturally rich Maasai Mara National Reserve, cost $105,000, an expense co-founder Valery Super estimates will be recouped in three years, thanks to lowered operational costs.
At Ol Pejeta Bush Camp in a rhino-dense corner of northern Kenya, Asilia Africa is running a trial on a single ESV and already counts savings of around $8,000 per year in fuel and maintenance. And Chobe Game lodge in northern Botswana has had such success with ESV jeeps that it has also invested in electric boats.
“Since we went electric [in 2014], the vehicles have saved close on 50,000 litres of diesel, and the boats have saved 50,000 litres of petrol,” says Chobe’s marketing manager Andrew Flatt, who estimates that the lodge recouped its initial investment in four years.
Capability isn’t a concern. Electrical components in modified safari vehicles are surprisingly rugged; sealed engines allow guides to ford rivers and wade through deep sand, just as they could with a traditional, combustion-driven vehicle.
A Better, Greener Safari
All this means that guests won’t be limited as to where they can go, much less what they can see. While early conversions suffered from range and recharging issues, current ESVs manage around 100 kilometres (62 miles) on a single charge, roughly twice the distance of your average game drive.
And the benefits are tangible. For wildlife enthusiasts, the metallic rattle of a diesel engine may feel exhilarating – proof of adventure – until it spooks the herd of red lechwe that were about to become supper for a lurking leopard. With the help of electric vehicles, even birders can silently reposition for better views without scaring off a dream sighting. There’s an entire bushveld chorus that most people miss out on.
“Without the noise of a diesel engine, you can really connect to your guests and to nature,” Maswanganyi says.
Even he has been surprised by some of what he’d been missing under the roar of his engine all this time. “You can hear the hyenas call while you’re driving,” he explains. “And on some nights,” he continues, “you can even hear porcupines walking through the bush.”
A Better, Greener Africa?
As conversations shift towards reducing the humans’ carbon footprint globally precipitated by climate change, Africa has been noticeably absent especially where it involves concrete steps the continent is taking to in this regard.
If luxury safaris successfully shift to electric vehicles while reaping significant economic benefits, might that perhaps spur the different governments to make policies that encourage a rapid move to EVs among its general population?
Maybe not, but as these safari operators have come to realise, it is only a matter of time.