Guide to South African Safaris

With South Africa’s long list of animals that most people rarely get to see in the wild. Going on a safari is one of the top things for visitors to do when visiting the country. Most of its parks and reserves offer the opportunity to watch the “Big Five,” elephant, leopard, lion, rhino and buffalo. There’s a good chance that you’ll see them all in one visit. Listening to the sounds of a lion’s roar, hearing the raspy call of the leopard, feeling the vibrations of thundering elephant herds. And enjoying relaxing evenings punctuated by the whooping of a hyena is something you won’t soon forget.

The country is home to many national parks and game reserves, all offering something unique. The lodges typically offer game drives that allow you to head out with an expert guide who knows to find the wildlife, even when the animals are well-concealed in undergrowth or grass. Bush walks are possible too, bringing the chance to focus on smaller animals and the little things that are often missed when tracking from a vehicle.

Image Credit: Baobab Ridge

Kruger, South Africa
Eastern Cape, South Africa

The Greater Kruger Park

South Africa’s most famous park is the oldest and largest in the country. It boasts the greatest variety of wildlife in all of Africa, covering a 7,523-square-mile and inhabited by 145 mammal species, including the Big Five, crocodiles, hippos, wild dogs, giraffes and cheetahs. Birdlife is impressive too, including parrots, raptors, hornbills, huge eagles, and lots of songbirds.

The Kruger is split into two types of reserve:

  • Kruger National Park covers 20,000km and is run by the South Africa Government, it has many rest camps and is very popular with self-drivers who want to go on safari. It has day visitors, tour buses and campers, as a result, it and can get very busy. It is not uncommon to have 20 vehicles at a lion sighting. There are some areas of the park that have a lodge with a private section to game drive on.
  • Greater Kruger Park, the term refers to about 20 private reserves which sit next to the Kruger National Park. These private reserves generally have open borders with the main National Park and the animals flow freely between the two areas. We  recommend our clients stay in these private reserves for several reasons:
  1. You can only visit these private reserves if you are staying at a lodge on the property, the result is you get a real wildlife experience in a peaceful area of the park.
  2. The number of visitors out on game drive is tightly controlled, so you do not end up in a traffic jam in the bush!
  3. These private reserves have highly qualified guides who know the area and wildlife. The guides communicate constantly so know where the animals are and what their behaviour patterns are.
  4. Private reserves can go off-road in search of the wildlife and they can go out on night drives – both these activities are not permitted in the Kruger National Park.
  5. The lodges in the private reserves offer a much higher-end experience.
Madikwe, South Africa
South Africa

Greater Kruger Park – Private Reserves

Sabi Sands Private Reserve 

The Sabi Sands is renowned as one of the best safari areas in Africa and for having some of the most luxurious lodges. The reserve shares a 50km unfenced border with the Kruger National Park, allowing free movement of animals. There is an exceptionally high concentration of wildlife in this area as well as astonishing biodiversity. This one of the few spots in Africa where leopard sightings are commonplace. This is one of the most expensive safari destinations in Africa, but it offers an exceptional safari experience. It is a great destination for a first-time safari as you will see so much in a short period of time. This reserve is accessed from Nelspruit Airport which also offers connections to Mozambique. It is a good choice if you would like to head to the beach after your safari.

Timbavati Private Reserve

The Timbavati is further north than the Sabi Sands and is accessible from Hoedspruit Airport. This private reserve is very similar to the Sabi Sands, it shares unfenced borders with the Kruger Park and has excellent game viewing. You are less likely to see a leopard here but probably more likely to see a wild dog. The Timbavati is a quieter reserve with fewer vehicles, this does mean there are fewer guides to share animal sightings. Your guide will have to work a little bit harder to find the animals, but you have a much wilder experience.  The area is dominated by high-end lodges, but they are much more affordable than the more famous Sabi Sands lodges.

Klaserie Private Reserve 

This is a less well-known reserve than the Timbavati or Sabi Sands, it also shares unfenced borders with the main Kruger Park and has great game viewing. You are not as likely to see the Big 5 in one game drive here, but over the course of a three day stay, your chances are good. This reserve has a great range of mid-priced lodges, many are owner run and managed. It is not uncommon for the owner to take you on your game drives. It offers a much less commercial safari in a more remote area of the park. We love this area as the value for money is outstanding and it is an affordable way to explore this area. It is a short drive from Hoedspruit Airport.

Sundowner - Image Credit Jaci's
Cheetah & Cubs

Madikwe Game Reserve

South Africa’s second-largest game reserve is a one-hour flight or five-hour drive from Johannesburg. It offers a more traditional safari experience, going on game drives without seeing a lot of other vehicles. The 75,000-hectare reserve borders Botswana and is lush due to Marico River and is home to the Big Five (Elephant, Rhino, Lion, Buffalo and Leopard) as well as being known for its Wild Dog and Cheetah sightings. Madikwe has a range of luxury lodges catering to families and couples. It is a malaria-free area and located right up near the border with Botswana. It is a more remote and wild safari than most other reserves in South Africa.

Image credit: Jaci’s Safari Lodge (left)

Eastern Cape Private Reserves

These reserves are easily accessible and malaria-free. The reserves are a 90-minute drive from Port Elizabeth Airport but many people will do a self-drive from Cape Town along the coast to the Eastern Cape Reserves. The area is made up of several private reserves, each reserve has its own lodges. This area is less ‘wild’ and more commercial but still offers a great safari. Game drives make up the majority of game viewing here, but it’s also possible to head out on foot. Kwandwe Private Game Reserve is one of our favourites in the area, with safari walks led by highly experienced guides who highlight the most interesting details often missed from vehicles, bringing the African bush to life.

The best time to come for game viewing corresponds with Cape Town’s best weather of the year, October through April, and unlike most of the area safari destinations.

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