Picture the scene: there’s an African sunset at its finest beyond an acacia tree. You’re perched on the back of a game-viewing safari vehicle. Beyond the bonnet is a sighting that’ll set tongues wagging back at the luxury game lodge you’ve escaped to for the weekend. To give everyone on the vehicle a good view, the ranger decides to move the Land Cruiser forward a few metres.

The diesel engine rumbles into life, spews a cloud of black smoke into the air and lurches forward. Just in time for you to watch the leopard, aardvark or (insert once-in-a-lifetime-sighting) melt away into the undergrowth, alerted by the noise. The ranger shoots everyone a sheepish grin and the Cruiser rumbles off in search of its next sighting. The sense of disappointment can be palpable.

"It was my pet hate on a game drive, and I thought there must be a way to improve on this," grumbles Japie van Niekerk, owner of the luxurious Cheetah Plains lodge in Mpumalanga’s exclusive Sabi Sands Game Reserve, where four-bedroomed bushveld houses start at R90,790 a night.

But aside from raising the bar for ultra-luxury safari lodges, Cheetah Plains is also part of a revolution in the safari industry as operators make the switch from noisy diesel-guzzling game-viewing vehicles to whisper-quiet electrically driven 4x4s.

Haul out the diesel engine, tanks and fuel-burning bits, drop in a few battery packs, control gizmos and an electric motor, flick the switch and you’re ready to roll away in silence. That leopard won’t be scared away again.

Converting the power source in game-drive vehicles from combustion engines to electric energy isn’t a new idea. In Botswana’s Chobe National Park, Chobe Game Lodge started operating electrically powered safari vehicles — and electric boats for quiet twitching trips on the Chobe River — in 2014. Since then the cost has fallen and the efficiency of the technology has risen, making electric safari vehicles more affordable and accessible.

Picture: SUPPLIED
Picture: SUPPLIED

Steve Blatherwick of Electric Safari Vehicles (ESV) in Mbombela says: "Only in the past three or four years has the battery technology improved sufficiently, and that’s thanks to Tesla. They are still the best on the market for cars. The motor technology has also improved dramatically. We’re now using electric motors that are 95% efficient."

A handful of vehicles are already on the ground, and ESV is working on a fleet of 25 electric safari vehicles for a lodge operator in East Africa. Further orders from Londolozi and Richard Branson’s Ulusaba are on the books.

By June —just in time for the annual migration of tourists — electrically driven safari vehicles will also be around in Kenya, with Asilia Africa testing the technology at Ol Pejeta Bush Camp.

Conway Sassoon, field operations manager for Asilia Africa, which operates 20 properties across Kenya and Tanzania, says: "We are very excited to be testing this new technology at Asilia. We believe it will both enhance our guests’ experience and reduce our carbon footprint. And because Ol Pejeta Bush Camp runs entirely on solar power the electric cars will actually be powered by sunshine."

Transformation torque

From an operational point of view there are numerous benefits for safari lodges to switch from diesel motors to electric power.

"We use brushless motors that have a factory guarantee of 200,000km, and zero maintenance is needed," says Blatherwick. "Plus, the smoother take-off means less vibration on the drivetrain, so your differential and gears last longer."

Unlike combustion engines, which require increasing revs to deliver power, electric motors provide immediate torque, making it easier for guides to navigate tough terrain. Vehicles retain their low-range and diff lock capabilities, and, depending on the conversion, the vehicle’s full gearbox may remain in place.

And what about the risk of running out of battery in a reserve brimming with toothy predators? With ever improving technology, and using regenerative motor braking to charge the battery during deceleration, that’s unlikely to happen.

Depending on the battery pack, ESV promises a range of up to 240km a charge, with an average charging time of seven hours. At Cheetah Plains the electric Land Cruisers get about 50km on a single charge, more than enough for a typical game drive.

Perhaps surprisingly, river crossings also aren’t a problem, as batteries and electric motors are sealed in waterproof housings that allow for up to 1m of submersion.

But while fans of the technology are quick to sing its praises, some of the larger safari outfits are yet to commit to going electric in the great outdoors.

Picture: SUPPLIED
Picture: SUPPLIED

Two of the biggest names in high-end safari tourism, and Beyond and Singita, are yet to flick the switch from diesel to electric.

"Electric vehicles are designed and weighted differently to combustion engine vehicles, so we would rather wait for a properly designed electric vehicle," says Andrea Ferry, sustainability manager for Singita, adding: "The cost of conversion is significant. I have calculated [that] the funds spent on converting vehicles would better be spent on installing solar power [and] reducing our electricity carbon emissions."

Conversion certainly isn’t cheap. ESV’s conversions cost about $60,000 a vehicle, approximately the same as the purchase price of the Land Cruiser that’s about to be disembowelled.

But in its sales pitch to clients, ESV says it calculates that a safari vehicle that drives an average of 30,000km a year — 82km a day, if driven daily — will save the owner $11,723 a year in maintenance and fuel costs, paying off the conversion in just over five years.

If the vehicle is charged using solar energy, it’s even sooner.

"The cost of conversion is quite high, but the longevity of the vehicle will increase and the maintenance and service costs will decrease. And you’re not going to worry about fuel ever again," says Blatherwick.

Kenyan company Opibus converted Asilia Africa’s vehicle at Ol Pejeta using Swedish technology.

"Opibus estimates that by running an electrical vehicle we will save $7,000 a year in fuel and servicing costs," says Sassoon. "The conversion is costing $37,000, so it should take us about five years to recoup the cost."

Barker Performance in Benoni, which has been building safari vehicles since 1997, did the conversions for Cheetah Plains.

Van Niekerk says: "We’re not finished with the project, but by the end I’ll be surprised if we have any change from R1m for each vehicle. But then, look, I’ve also spent R250,000 on a couch for the lodge, and nobody sits on the bloody thing! We must spend money on the most important tool of the business, which is the vehicles."

He’s not wrong, and it’s an evolution that’s been a long time coming.

At many of the country’s leading five-star lodges a buttock-crunching bench seat on the back of a bouncing Land Cruiser is seen as part and parcel of an authentic safari experience. For the well-heeled guests of Cheetah Plains, that’s not good enough.

Aside from converting to electric motors, Van Niekerk has improved the vehicles from the ground up, improving the suspension —"It must drive like a Range Rover" — and overhauling the notion of a safari seat. At Cheetah Plains the seats are slightly reclined for comfort, offer USB ports for charging and — hallelujah — feature integrated electric warmers to ward off the chill of dawn drives.

While many operators will, rightly, trumpet the ecological benefits and reduced carbon footprint of converting to electric, the shift is just as much about improving the safari experience.

"People come to the bush not just to sit in a lodge. They come here to be out on a drive and view the exceptional game we have in SA and at Sabi Sands. That makes the safari vehicles the most important part of the business," says Van Niekerk.

"Cheetah Plains was built on what I believe is the right thing to do, irrespective of what it costs, and in my years of business I have seen that if you do the right thing, do it better than anyone else, and keep improving, no matter what it costs, the return will come.