Solar-powered 4x4s are changing game drives forever

For Sipps 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.

“I could hear this buffalo panting heavily deep in the bushes,” recalls 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.”

Although the diesel-hungry Land Rover chugging noisily across the African savanna is a time-honored trope of the safari industry, it’s an image steadily being replaced by eco-friendly, whisper-quiet vehicles powered by sunshine.

“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

Today’s electric safari vehicles (ESVs) are typically rebuilt Land Rovers or Toyota Land Cruisers, the diesel-driven industry standards. Private companies in South Africa and Kenya are responsible for making most conversions, 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 prices have come down, that’s still a substantial investment, even for the largest safari operators in Africa, which explains why the likes of AndBeyond, Singita, and Wilderness Safaris have yet to add ESVs to their fleets.

“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.”

With 67 game vehicles in operation across its lodges in East Africa and Southern Africa, Ferry says that converting Singita’s fleet would cost around $3.5 million dollars. That’s the equivalent of 1,400 bed nights at current rates, money she argues is better spent on taking lodges off the national grid via solar power. Electric motors capable of driving heavy off-road vehicles draw plenty of power, and the solar roof panels that charge the vehicles’ batteries have only recently become efficient enough to meet those needs.

“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.”

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