How to: survive in the African savannah

Masai man walking in the African savanna

The African savannah is an almost mystical place, where lions roam and elephants bulldoze paths through the trees.

It can be magical, especially if you are on safari with a good guide.

But it can also be dangerous.

This article shows you some basic tips for surviving in the African savannah, including finding water and edible plants.

How to Survive in the African Savannah

Giraffe carcass in Etosha National Park, Namibia

Many people visit the African continent. Some enjoy holidays to Egypt or Cape Town, others look to explore the wide-open plains of the savannah.

Most who visit the savannah are on a fun-filled safari, searching for the world’s most incredible wildlife.

Savannah can be found all across the continent, but most visitors explore the savannah of East and Southern Africa.

I’d recommend you explore the region with a guide. But if you are stranded in the region without a guide, or transport, there are several things you can do to find water and survive.

There are over 3000 species in the African savannah and negotiating the area, especially at night, can be fraught with dangers.

Accidents involving wild animals happen every year, so it is unwise to be alone in the area, especially if you are unfamiliar with the territory.

One Africa Freak contributor was recently in Botswana and woke up to a crocodile pulling his tent into the river. At the very same campsite two hippos were found marauding through tents.

So even at a registered campsite it can be difficult to survive in the African savannah.

Finding water

The first thing you should try to do is find water. It doesn’t rain very often in the savannah so this can be a challenging task.

There are a few ways you can locate water; you could follow animal tracks and see if they lead to a stream, head for the highest point and find the source of a stream or you could dig beneath the surface of a dried up river bed.

By heading to the highest point you may also be able to find civilization, so this might be the best course of action. Heading for a mountain or ridge will also give you a focal point, which will stop you wandering around in circles.

From this vantage point you may be able to see smoke or the outline of villages. If you are not able to see any civilization then try to find a stream and if possible follow it. Water may lead you to a farming area and people.

Once you have located a water source you should make sure that it is safe to drink. Standing pools of water should be avoided as they can harbour bacteria and parasites.

The best source of water would be an underground well and by digging at the lowest point of a dried up riverbed you may be able to find a clean water source.

Another good source of water would be a fast moving river, although you should try to boil this before drinking.

In some areas, roots can also be a good water source. The Bushmen for example (also known as the San people), have found a great way to adapt to harsh environments.

In order to find water in the Kalahari Desert, they use a specific root called the “bi! bulb”.

Bi! bulb water extraction!

Food sources?

When stranded you should keep an eye out for food, and once you have located water it will be easier to find a food source.

In the surrounding area you may come across fruit and berries, but before biting into the fruit you should check to make sure it is safe to eat.

Here’s one way of proceeding:

  1. Break open the fruit and if it smells of almonds or peaches you should avoid it.
  2. If the fruit passes the smell test you should rub the fleshy part of the fruit on your skin. If within a minute you come up in a rash needless to say it is not safe to eat.
  3. You should then brush the fruit on your lips. If it burns, throw it away.
  4. Next, if the fruit has passed all these tests you should put it on your tongue, but don’t swallow anything yet. If it irritates your tongue then it is not edible.
  5. Finally, if the fruit is still okay you should take a single bite. Wait a few hours and if you are sick then the fruit is a no no.
  6. If after all these tests you feel okay you can eat the fruit.

Edible fruits and useful plants found in Africa

Fresh fruit hanging from a baobab tree

Abal (shrub; North Africa). Its flowers can be eaten, and contain high concentrations of both sugar and nitrogen.

Acacia (tree; prominent throughout Africa). You can eat its leaves, flowers and pods (either raw or cooked).

Baobab (unmistakable tree; quite common throughout Africa). You can eat the root, the fruit pulp, the leaves (in a soup) and even the seeds that can be ground for flour.

Beech (tree; North Africa). Beech pods produce edible beechnuts once you remove the shell and white kernel within. Beechnuts have a sweet flavor and high oil content.

Common guarri (shrub; South Africa). Black fruits are edible, while the bark can be used to get rid of headaches.

Interesting bonus: you can fray the twigs to make a toothbrush.

Marula (tree; common species). Very tasty fruit, out of which the famous Amarula liquor is made.

Monkey orange (tree; most common in woodlands). Round fruit with hard shell. Easily crackable, and very juicy flesh.

NB: Do not chew the soft seeds as they are poisonous.

Raisin bush (shrub; mainly Southern Africa). Bushmen people use the branches to make bows, arrows and friction sticks to make fire. Raisin bush berries are edible, the leaves can be used for tea, whilst the bark is often utilized to make rope.

Wild melon (creeper; arid and semi-arid regions of Africa; known as “Tsamma” in the Kalahari). Looks pretty much like the usual melon variety.

Could be a life saver when stuck in the middle of nowhere due to its high water content. Both the seeds and skin can also be eaten when roasted.

Last Tips for Surviving in the African Savannah

You should never wander off alone in the savannah.

The trained guides who take you on safari know the land like the back of their hands, so you should not get lost when with them.

Remember to be safe and don’t wander off.

Let’s hope you never need these tips! 😉

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