expedition leadership

Organizing an Expedition
Part 3 — Expeditions in savannah (veldt and the bush)
by survival expert James Mandeville

expeditions in savanna reader rating=NR
February 2016. Not yet rated.

Understanding the Biome

All savannah grassland biomes are found within thirty degrees of the equator. The savannah biome is characterized by a very dry season and then a very wet season with warm temperatures year–round. For this reason, plants found in the savannah grasslands have adapted to survive long periods of drought, and grazing animals normally migrate great distances to move as the weather changes and they attract, of course, the predators that prey on them.

Savannahs are situated between a grassland and a forest. They can also overlap with other biomes. There are savannas located in Africa, South America, India, and Australia.

savanna in Africa
Typical African savannah

In Africa, the grasslands are called savannas and range from desert grass plains to those of trees and bushes. A large area of treeless grassland is known as "veldt," which is a flat area covered in grass or low scrub, especially in the countries of South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Namibia. You may also have heard the term "African Bush" used. The Bush is usually the Mpumalanga and Limpopo Lowveld, the Limpopo River Valley, northern KwaZulu–Natal or any other similar area of wilderness.

savanna in S. America
Typical savannah in S. America

(In Australia the term "The Bush" refers to any sparsely–inhabited region, regardless of vegetation. "The bush"" in this sense is uniquely an Australian term, whereas in New Zealand, "Bush" primarily refers to areas of native trees rather than exotic forests, although, as in the Australian, "Bush" can refer to areas outside urban areas, encompassing grasslands as well as forests.)

What to expect

Savannahs can be vast and seem empty wildernesses but in reality they are complex environments supporting a wide variety of plants, animals and indigenous peoples. They provide food, fuel, medicine and shelter but it is very easy to get lost or become disorientated. Unless you are with experienced and competent guides, a map and compass, GPS (if available) and the ability to use natural navigation signs, are essentials. Most expeditions in savannah are by vehicle, however, when walking it is a good idea to carefully study the lie of the land ahead as you go. It is equally important to keep looking behind you so you will see what the route looks like if you have to retrace your steps. Landmarks in savannah are rock outcrops, strangely shaped trees, watercourses, the shape of distant mountain ranges etc.

On the move
If you are walking in savannah never travel alone, particularly in areas where you may meet dangerous wildlife. Every person on the expedition must carry a survival kit, plenty of water, a means of lighting fire, a whistle, a compass, a knife or machete and a first aid kit designed for the area. Most areas with dangerous game these days are in National Parks so you must employ an armed qualified ranger or authorized guide to accompany you. Note that in some countries poaching is a major problem and poachers are unpredictable and dangerous. Do not wear camouflaged clothing (illegal in some countries) as you may be mistaken for a poacher yourself and get into serious trouble, even be shot at.

Dangers from Wildlife in Savannah Areas

Big cats:

Wildlife experts claim that normally, lions rarely attack humans. Most recorded instances have been a result of ignorance or sheer stupidity on behalf of tourists, because of territory protection or severe hunger. Attacks do happen however, and usually result in death or severe mauling.

If you spot lions in the wild, do not approach them under any circumstances. If the lions are not aware of you, then move in the opposite direction a quickly as possible. Check back often to see if a lion is following you.

If a lion is aware of your presence, keep moving in the opposite direction but walk slowly backward keeping your eyes on the lion. Lionesses hunt in groups, so be wide awake to make sure they are not circling around you. Never run. If you start to run, a lion will instinctively chase you and you have no chance of outrunning a charging lion.

Although a cheetah is capable of killing a human, there has never been a documented case of cheetahs killing humans in the wild.

Leopards do not typically attack an adult human but there have been documented cases of leopard attacks and mauling that later resulted in death.

Tigers attack humans for various reasons. If a human comes too close and surprises a sleeping or a feeding tiger (particularly if it is a tigress with cubs), a tiger may attack and kill a human. Tigers can also attack humans in a case of mistaken identity (for example, if a person is crouching while collecting firewood, or cutting grass). Some also recommend not cycling or running in a region where tigers live in order not to provoke their chase-and-kill response.

Panther/ Puma
There are recorded sightings of these large cats in savannah regions in South America but it not the animal's normal habitat. Fatal attacks by panthers are anyway statistically quite rare but they will attack humans, although they stalk solitary prey and are most unlikely to attack a group of people.

Dangerous large animals

African and Asian Elephants
As with all wild animal attacks, the golden rule is not to run from an elephant. An elephant moves fast and they can demolish anything in their path. There are stories of people climbing trees to escape a rogue elephant, only for the elephant to knock the tree down and then trample them. An angry elephant is a deadly foe. Elephants grow as large as about 4 metres tall and weigh as much as about 5.4 tonnes, but they can run 40 to 48 kilometres an hour.

Classic wisdom is to face up to the elephant. Make a lot of noise, shout, hit a tree with a branch, do anything that makes a loud noise. Elephants will normally back off and move away.

Also known as the African or Cape Buffalo, they are some of the most dangerous animals in Africa. They do not charge at humans on sight, but they see man as a predator and start fighting. According to statistics, more hunters are killed by Cape buffaloes than any other animal, so give them a wide berth. If you chance upon one and startle it, the buffalo will charge without warning. They are fast and relentless. Conventional wisdom is to face the charge, then jump out of the way at the last moment, like a bull fighter. People have climbed trees to escape, only to be trapped for days as the buffalo stays under the tree grazing and waiting for the victim to try and escape. Unfortunately, conventional wisdom also states that no one ever escapes an attack by a Cape buffalo. Wounds from the horns lead to serious and debilitating infection. Without urgent medical treatment a victim will die.

The hippopotamus
Lives in: Lakes, rivers, wallows – in fact in any water in Africa. Can be found on African savannah. Responsible for: an estimated 100 – 150 fatalities a year.

At the first glance, hippos look clumsy, awkward and lazy, but that's not the case. These animals are considered among most dangerous in the world. They weight about 2.7 to 3.6 tonnes (3 –4 tons) and their bodies are about 3.5 metres (11 feet) long. If you wounded one, or entered a hippo's territory when it has young, most likely it would attack; such encounters are often fatal. They can trample the invader or cause fatal wounds with their massive teeth. They can turn over a small boat or bite through its lining with their teeth. Hippos can run at about 35 km/h (22 mph) on land, so you can't outrun one.


If you are walking through savannah always walk in single file with a look out at the front and end of the file, although everyone has to maintain a keen lookout. It is not only big game that poses a danger in savannah, snakes pose a big potential risk especially in wet grassy areas. If you are in long grass and have pack animals with you let them go first and follow in their tracks, as a most snakes that may be in your path will get out of the way before you come along.

Most snake strikes are below the knee so protective snake gaiters are a must for people and pack animals. There are spitting cobra species that live in savannah and some species "spit" their venom as far as 2 m (6.6 ft). While spitting typically is their primary form of defence, all spitting cobras also can deliver venom by biting.

Great care must be taken around trees, scrub and when picking up material for a fire, etc. Always sleep off the ground or in a tent with a sewn in groundsheet. Take particular care if moving around at night as this is when snakes hunt. Some snake species are arboreal and may not be readily noticeable, so take care if cutting off branches. Some snakes are dangerous by way of constriction. African rock pythons (Python sebae) are the largest and most temperamental snake in Africa. Aggressive constrictors, rock pythons prey upon animals of all sizes from rodents to antelopes and have attacked humans.

Many people are bitten by snakes because they try to handle them. Never be tempted to do this, even with non–venomous snakes as the latter can still bite and bites quickly become infected. Prior to the expedition the leaders should make sure that all expedition members are briefed on identification of the snakes they may encounter in the area and how to respond to them. A doctor needs a positive identification of a snake in order to administer the appropriate anti–venom. It is a problem to be taken seriously — more than 1.5 million people in Africa are bitten by snakes each year, up to 20 percent of victims will die and 5 percent will require amputations. Snake bites are also common in the South American savannah with circa 20,000 bites reported annually resulting in over 1000 deaths (mortality figures have reduced since better availability of anti–venom).

Crocodylus niloticus, Nile crocodiles, live in the African savannah. Capable of reaching 4.6 metres (15 feet) in length, these crocodiles prefer swampy locations close to large bodies of water where they can easily hide themselves to stalk prey as well as rest. West African dwarf crocodiles can also be found in the grasslands. Much smaller than the Nile species, the dwarfs only grow to about 1.8 metres (6 feet). Crocodilians do kill hundreds of people each year. Whilst most of these attacks occur in Africa and Asia, these powerful reptiles are also found in parts of South America, Australia, and the southern United States. In the event that you are attacked, you may be able to survive if you fight back strategically. Stay away from infested waters. It's especially important that you avoid approaching water at dusk or at night when the animals are harder to see and when they most actively hunt.


Ticks are a problem in savannah and grassland in general. Tick–bite fever is a bacterial infection that is spread through the bite of infected ticks.

savanna in S. America
Typical tick–bite

Symptoms usually appear within 2 weeks after a tick bite and often include fever, headache, muscle soreness, and a rash. At the site of the tick bite will be a red skin sore with a dark centre. Ticks that are infected with tick–bite fever are usually most active from November through April. There is no vaccine so you must take preventative measures, which include:
  • Cover exposed skin by wearing long–sleeved shirts, long pants, and hats. Tuck in shirts, tuck pants into socks, and wear closed shoes instead of sandals to prevent bites.
  • Use a repellent that contains 20% or more DEET for protection that lasts up to several hours. If you are also using sunscreen, apply sunscreen first and insect repellent second.
  • Use permethrin–treated clothing and gear (such as boots, pants, socks, and tents). You can buy pre–treated clothing and gear or treat them yourself.
  • Check your entire body (under your arms, in and around your ears, in your belly button, behind your knees, between your legs, around your waist, and especially in your hair). Use a hand–held or full–length mirror to view all parts of your body.
  • Remove ticks using fine–tipped tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin's surface as possible or use a device specially made for this purpose; there are several tick removal devices commercially available. Pull upward with steady, even pressure. Don't twist or jerk the tick; this can cause the mouth–parts to break off and remain in the skin. If this happens, remove the mouth-parts with tweezers. If you are unable to remove the mouth easily with clean tweezers, leave it alone and let the skin heal. After removing the tick, thoroughly clean the bite area and your hands with rubbing alcohol, an iodine scrub, or soap and water. Dispose of a live tick by submersing it in alcohol, placing it in a sealed bag/container, wrapping it tightly in tape, or throwing it onto a fire. Never crush a tick with your fingers.
  • Do not use old remedies like applying a lighted cigarette end to the tick's body, painting it with nail polish or covering it in petroleum jelly. These ideas were to make the tick detach from the skin but it is better not to wait for the tick to detach in this way in case it disgorges the contents of its stomach into the skin — get rid of it immediately.
  • regularly inspect animals, clothing and equipment.

The most common varieties of tick bite infections are:
  • Rocky Mountain spotted fever.
  • Lyme disease.
  • Ehrlichiosis.
  • Tularemia (rabbit fever).
  • Babesiosis.

Anyone bitten should seek medical attention as soon as possible.

Savannahs can be mosquito infested areas and mosquito bites can be more than just annoying and itchy. Mosquitoes can carry serious infectious diseases, such as:
  • Chikungunya, a virus infection resulting in a sudden onset of a high fever and joint pain.
  • Dengue, a disease caused by one of four viruses: dengue virus 1, 2, 3, and 4. Because there are four different viruses, it is possible for someone to get dengue up to four times. Dengue is a leading cause of illness and death in the tropics and subtropics.
  • Zika, a virus spread to people through mosquito bites. The most common symptoms of Zika virus disease (Zika) are fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis (red eyes). The illness is usually mild with symptoms lasting from several days to a week but can cause birth defects if a pregnant woman is infected. Severe disease requiring hospitalization is uncommon.
  • West Nile virus (WNV), most commonly transmitted to humans by mosquitoes. Most people infected with WNV will have no symptoms. About 1 in 5 people who are infected will develop a fever with other symptoms. Less than 1% of infected people develop a serious, sometimes fatal, neurological illness.
  • Malaria, a mosquito–borne infectious disease of humans and other animals. Malaria causes symptoms that typically include fever, fatigue, vomiting, and headaches. In severe cases it can cause yellow skin, seizures, coma, or death.
  • Yellow Fever, although rare among foreign travellers and tends to be found in Sub–Saharan Africa, South America and parts of the Caribbean. The disease varies in severity from a mild fever to a haemorrhagic fever and can be prevented with a vaccination. In most countries where Yellow Fever exists all travellers have to be vaccinated and carry vaccination certificates.

Protect yourself by using insect repellent and wear insect repellent clothing. Wear long trousers and especially in the evening wear long sleeved shirts. If crossing grassland where there are swarms of mossies, wear a mosquito hat. Always use a mosquito net at night. Prevention is the best way to protect yourself but whatever precautions you take you will get bitten by mosquitoes so take prophylactics and make sure appropriate vaccinations are current.


Electric storms
Electric storm in savannah regions can be dramatic with repeated lightning strikes. Often these are dry storms and the thunderheads can be seen building up miles away. Lightning strikes are a great risk in savannah, do not seek shelter or camp under even small trees or bushes, especially during electric storms, because lightning will hit the highest object and often this is quite a small tree or section of scrub. The best defence is to lie down and keep as low as possible. If lightning strikes are close, tell everyone to spread well out and adopt the lightning position.

lightning position

In the dry season water is scarce in savannah and air temperatures are often high. All water has to be sterilized (the same applies in the wet season). If collecting water with débris content this should be filtered and the water boiled or sterilizing tablets added to make it potable. Water is scarce for animals too and any water holes, even small ones, will attract animals. Great care has to be taken collecting water, always have a person on look out because all predators know that a water hole is the best hunting ground and you can become prey. Water holes are always highly contaminated by animal urine, faeces and animal remains. Never take the water directly from a water hole as even filtering, boiling and sterilizing the water may not be enough to make it absolutely safe. The best technique is it dig a hole near the water hole and let the water seep into it using the ground as a natural filter. Water collected in this way still needs treating to make it potable.

Expedition vehicles

Terrain and topography on savannahs can vary greatly. Boggy ground, boulder–strewn areas as well as endless nondescript vistas of tough grass tussocks all offer different obstacles and challenges to travel by vehicle. A fully equipped 4x4 vehicle is essential. Expeditions should have a minimum of two, preferably three vehicles, each of which should carry the same emergency equipment making them independent units that can support each other. A long wheelbase Land Rover or Toyota Landcruiser are examples of vehicles that can be more easily modified for crossing savannah than most of their rivals. For one thing, spare parts for these vehicles are often obtainable in obscure parts of the world because the locals use them. Vehicles have to be specially prepared with strengthened shock absorbers, sump protection, a bull bar, fitted drinking water tank and reserve fuel tank. A winch, roof rack and roof tent is a must, as well as all the usual spares you would carry with you. Auto inflate/deflate fitted to the tyres is a good idea to save the driver getting out of the vehicle. In the dry season vehicle weight is not such an issue (apart from fuel economy) but in the wet season vehicle weight has to be kept to a minimum and carrying extra equipment to free a bogged down vehicle is essential.

land rovers crossing savanna in Africa

Preparing for the terrain
Surface roughness, surface unevenness and surface strength will be the main problems for vehicles crossing savannah. The unevenness of grass tracks — undulations or sudden potholes on dirt roads, or tall grass hindering vision when off road — will call for sensitive control of speed and usually an "on–off tracks" tyre pressure tied to a moderate upper speed limit. Typically this might be 1.5 bar or less, and 32 km/h (20 mph) or even less to enlarge the tyre footprint and benefit flotation for a light 4 X 4 such as a Land Rover Defender 90 or a Landcruiser when on wet savannah or wet dirt tracks; increasing to 1.8 bar and 64 km/h (40 mph) on firm ground. Choose tyres for the sturdiness of their sidewalls and their ability to run at very low pressures for extended periods.

Preparing the vehicle

If you are taking a vehicle off the road there is a critical rule, which is payload, versus range and time, plus water. The payload of the vehicle is its weight plus total cargo. The range of the vehicle is the amount of fuel needed to make the journey when fully laden plus 20%. Time is the estimated journey time, plus a 20% contingency figure and water is estimated at 3.8 litres (1 US gallon) of water per person per day. In fuel and water alone, you are carrying a lot of extra weight and this will reduce the range of the vehicle. If you use air–conditioning, this will dramatically increase fuel consumption. Do not rely on the manufacturer's data, for all these values, always make a few practice runs and learn how your vehicles can perform.

A critical rule is never travel with just one vehicle, a convoy of two is the minimum for any expedition. Vehicle recovery in remote regions is often impossible and at the best fantastically expensive. The expedition must contain two or three people who know how to make "bush" repairs to the vehicle type used and for this reason it makes good sense to use the same type and model of vehicle and to carry essential spare parts and the tools to fit them.

Dust and insects
Moving parts on the vehicles need protection from dust in the dry season. Carburettors, fuel inlets, air and oil filters need to be specially adapted to cope with dust and insects in the dry season and wet in the rainy season. All air intakes need dust or insect filters fitted over them. An open topped or canvas covered vehicle is not suitable on a big game reserve unless accompanied by an armed guide.

You need to have a performance battery like the NATO–block battery. These dual–purpose, heavy–duty gel batteries can cope with deep current cycles as well as instant high currents. Such batteries are rated between 125 and 200Ah and you will never be stranded without enough power to start the vehicle. Unfortunately, most suppliers retailing batteries are hopeless when it comes to special applications like these, so you need to know what you want. Sonnenschein Dryfit batteries are a good choice (available through Exide). If you use an electric winch, you need one of these batteries.

Recovery equipment
All vehicles should be fitted with a winch. Cheap winches in the price region of 200 – 300 pounds sterling are definitely unsuitable. If you decide to fit a winch, the straight line pull should be around double the laden weight of your vehicle or greater. Remember to buy some ground anchors and to carry a heavy hammer.

Recovery equipment is essential when travelling in the wet season. For ropes and shackles, use only high quality, rated material. Inferior quality recovery equipment can be highly dangerous and cause serious injury. Rated shackles have a blue or green painted pin and should have a strength of at least 6 tons (6.09 tonnes), which also goes for ropes. A recovery rope for the savannah should be around 10 metres (33 feet) long. You might prefer the more fancy Kinetic ropes, but bear in mind that you only get about 30 to 40 kinetic pulls out of one before it degrades to an ordinary rope. Carry a heavy–duty shovel with a wide, (ideally) pointed blade on each vehicle. Army surplus stores have "pioneer" shovels that are strong and durable. A lightweight option is made by Fiskars, Scandinavia. These are vital if a vehicle gets bogged down; they are also useful for digging latrines.

Sand plates are useful in the savannah for helping a vehicle cross water logged ground and when the wheels start to sink in to mud. Alloy sand plates are light but bend easily. Military sand plates made of steel are cheap but heavy. Kevlar sand plates are light, durable but very expensive. 4Technique's sand ladders are made from an alloy–steel compound; they weigh around 3 kilos (6.6 pounds) each, are solid and can also double up as a ladder for your roof rack. (Distributed in Europe by Taubenreuther.)

Roof rack and roof tent
Roof racks free up valuable space inside the vehicle. Ideally, choose a model that supports the weight over the full length of the gutter and travels the full length of the vehicle. Fit chequer plates to the wing and the bonnet so you can climb onto the roof rack, or fit a ladder to the rear of your vehicle. Cover the loaded roof rack with a water proofed white tarpaulin (white reflects more heat) to keep insects out and dust down, but do not store anything on the roof rack that can be damaged by heat, it will get hot up there. You can fit up the roof rack with a tent so you can sleep on top of the vehicle at night, which is a very good ideas particularly in the wet season when snakes are more of a risk and in areas where predators roam around (a big cat could still get on top of any vehicle. If there are big cats in the area sleep in the vehicle and lock the doors, lions they are capable of opening them! Joking? no they really are clever enough). Do not load your roof rack up so much the vehicle becomes top heavy.

Consider also having a tropical roof fitted to your vehicle if travelling in the dry season. This is a second roof mounted on top of the vehicle's roof with an air gap between the two. This will lower the temperature inside the vehicle.

Fuel and water
Fuel—Military type "jerrycans" are most suitable for fuel. Make sure the rubber seal is in perfect condition if buying second–hand cans and take a spare seal or two if in doubt. When you purchase jerrycans, check the manufacturers stamp and batch number on the side or base of the can – cheap imports are around that only last a couple of days under severe conditions. For pouring fuel or water you will need a nozzle – always take one with a ventilation pipe otherwise it takes as long as ten minutes to empty a 20 litre (5.3 US gallons) can.

Water—The most reliable water containers are Army–type containers; they are strong but lack a tap for convenient operation, although, many models of electric or hand pumps are available. Avoid second–hand containers, as you do not know what they have been filled with previously. Consider fitting a water tank into the vehicle, it keeps the water cooler, you can't lose it and it is faster to fill. Land Rover makes a 50–litre (13 US gallons) stainless steel water tank that fits in the vehicle's foot well. Carry a portable water pump, filtration system and water sterilizing equipment with you so you can fill up from any potentially potable water you find along the way.

Insurance for the expedition

Insurance cover is essential for all expedition members. Cover must include: accidents, illness, natural disasters, loss or theft of valuables and personal items, and loss or theft and damage to expedition equipment. Vehicles will need a separate insurance cover; if this includes vehicle recovery from a remote location the premium will be very high and many insurers will not cover this eventuality. Both expedition leaders and expedition members have to be insured for claims made against them by a third party.

The legal responsibility of the expedition leaders is always closely examined by insurers and this has to be professionally drawn up by a lawyer as liability or negligence leading to claims against the expedition leadership is a difficult legal area even if all members of the expedition have signed a disclaimer absolving the expedition leadership from person.

When arranging insurance be aware that the law requires that the person applying for insurance cover discloses all material facts to the insurers whether or not the insurers ask for it. Failure to comply with this fundamental tenet of insurance law can have the effect of completely invalidating the insurance contract. It is not always easy to pre–determine what material facts an insurance company may subsequently say they should have been made aware of; there is no easy guide to what is material, but think what information is needed to enable the insurer decide on a fair premium.

Insurance cover for war and terrorism
One of three situations is likely to exist on the insurance policy:
  • Total exclusion for terrorism and war;
  • full cover for terrorist acts but war excluded;
  • full cover for terrorism and war risks; war cover only if one of the five major powers not involved.

The third option will carry an additional premium conditions and insurers normally include a 7-day cancellation clause in their wordings which they can invoke.

Legal liability and insurance cover
The litigation resulting from deaths on an expedition makes it vitally important that anyone leading or running overseas expeditions has adequate public liability insurance which will also provide the indemnity for the costs of defending any legal action that may be taken against them.

The problem with liability cover is that all countries have their own laws, which vary, so make sure that insurance policies purchased in the home country have worldwide jurisdiction and appropriate geographical cover. On this basis insurers will also defend legal liability claims outside the issuing country.

In most countries law and liability insurance policies are based on negligence; a individual cannot be blamed for genuine accidents where no fault is attached. If no one is at fault no one can be successfully sued for negligence. A third party must prove that you have been negligent. To minimize a potential legal liability claim, it is therefore essential to try to minimize any risks that are foreseeable – an unactioned foreseeable risk would allow a third party to pursue a negligence claim. For this reason a full risk assessments for the expedition is essential and the insurers will often help and advise on this.

Other insurance cover you need to consider:
  • Medical and additional expenses on the expedition and afterwards.
  • Medical treatment abroad.
  • Personal accident covering death or disablement after accidental bodily injury.
  • Cancellation and curtailment by expedition members or of the whole expedition by the expedition leadership.
  • Replacement and rearrangement of people or the expedition.
  • Expedition equipment stores and money.
  • Personal belongings and money of individual members.
  • Equipment and stores sent unaccompanied.
  • Kidnap and ransom cover.
  • Repatriation of a dead body

This is just a guide, there are more insurance categories that can be added. Premiums are high for expeditions, both as a whole and for individual expedition members. If these are prohibitive, then you probably cannot afford to undertake the expedition as the cost involved of not having insurance are vastly higher should things go wrong.

Expedition leadership
Future articles to follow