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South Africa safaris: Overview

Anthony Ham
By Anthony Ham

I fell in love with South Africa the very first time I laid eyes on it. Like so many safari-goers before me, the love affair began in Kruger: big cats, rhinos, elephants and just about every species of charismatic mega-fauna weren’t just present. They were everywhere.

In the years since, as my knowledge of South Africa's safari parks deepened, each visit has only confirmed that my first impressions were, if anything, an understatement. I've been travelling to Africa for two decades as a travel journalist and guidebook author, and some of my happiest safari experiences have been in South Africa.

For me, what makes South Africa special is that it ticks just about every safari box: abundant wildlife, varied habitats and landscapes, a well-organised tourism industry, and a wonderful mix of the accessible and the remote. And every time I come back, I’m surprised by how much there still is to discover and how much there still is to see.

It’s why I keep returning, and I'm sure you will too.

My best South Africa safari tip? There's a whole world beyond Kruger and the other blockbuster parks. Those in the know seek out Timbavati, Madikwe, Kgalagadi and all the other places that the mainstream South African safari industry doesn't want to tell you about. But that's what this guide is for: we'll explore my top recommended South Africa safari parks and reserves in the following pages.

The best safaris in South Africa

South Africa's best safari parks, and some hidden gems

Anthony Ham
By Anthony Ham

Trying to pick the "best" safari parks in South Africa is a fool's errand, but if pushed I'd say it's a toss-up between either Phinda Game Reserve or Tswalu Kalahari Reserve. But all the following would be well worth your time and money.

Where to go on safari in South Africa

Our experts' top picks and some hidden gems

Kruger National Park
Kruger National Park

Kruger National Park

Anthony Ham
By Anthony Ham

Best for: iconic safaris & exclusive reserves

Kruger is South Africa’s most celebrated safari park, and deservedly so. Kruger and the surrounding private reserves are home to all of southern Africa’s iconic mammal species, including the endangered African wild dog, its varied habitats support more than 500 bird species and many of the private reserves offer top quality specialised photo safaris.

A park as good and easy to visit as Kruger attracts a lot of visitors and in high season main routes can be busy. The park’s highly-developed infrastructure also means that it doesn’t always feel all that wild. If this sounds off-putting, fear not: head to northern Kruger for wild beauty, smaller crowds and a palpable sense of adventure. You may have to work a little harder for your sightings up here, but that’s because the animals are a little more wary of vehicles than they are elsewhere. In other words, it feels like a safari of yesteryear. Oh, and the birdlife is exceptional in the north, with species you just don’t find elsewhere in the park.

The park is surrounded by a number of superb private reserves with limited numbers and no self-drives allowed, which means that wild Africa comes growling right up to you. Taking all this into account, whatever sort of safari you’re looking for, Kruger usually comes out on top.

Sabi Sands Game Reserve
Sabi Sands Game Reserve

Sabi Sands Game Reserve

Anthony Ham
By Anthony Ham

Best for: absolute luxury safaris

If I had to make a choice, for me it’s all about the big cats. And there’s nowhere better than Sabi Sands. The leopard sightings in particular here are almost always something special, thanks to the unrivalled quality of the guiding and the intimacy of the whole low-density-tourism experience.

This 65,000 hectare reserve is, in many respects, the finest chunk of wildlife-filled wilderness in southern Africa. The choice safari destination in South Africa for the wealthy, Sabi Sands is actually a grouping of smaller private reserves rather than one single entity. With unfenced reserves adjacent to Kruger, the wildlife slips effortlessly around the ecosystem while world-class wildlife guides ensure that you’re always in the right place at the right time.

The only real downside is the hefty price tag! But if you can afford it, there’s no question that Sabi Sands offers the best safari experience in South Africa. Also, if birdwatching is your thing, as with Kruger, Sabi Sands has great birdlife, although with less habitat diversity the species count is lower.

Kwazulu-Natal
Kwazulu-Natal

Kwazulu-Natal

Anthony Ham
By Anthony Ham

Best for: less crowded safaris

Welcome to South Africa’s cultural heartland, an essential immersion for those seeking to understand this glorious country in all its complexity. Networks of private reserves, plus big-ticket Hluhluwe-iMfolozi range across habitats and landscapes that are quintessentially South African. That these parks even exists gives great hope for the future.

Although there is great wildlife watching in many parts of the region, the largest concentration of protected areas is in the northeastern coastal areas a few hours’ drive north of Durban. Spinning away from the massive Lake St Lucia is a number of interconnecting public and private game reserves which together encompass everything from windblown beaches to Big Five-filled grasslands.

The density of big ticket wildlife is a little lower than in the Kruger area, but thanks to the diversity of habitats the range of animal species is exceptional. All the normal big hitters are here including elephant, lion, buffalo, rhino (both black and white), leopard and wild dogs. Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park and surrounding conservation areas are the best bet for a classic Big Five safari and many an experienced safari goer actually rates Hluhluwe-iMfolozi over the more famous Kruger.

North West Province
North West Province

North West Province

Anthony Ham
By Anthony Ham

Best for: quick & accessible safaris

If I can’t visit Kruger, I head for the North West and into Limpopo. Some of my happiest safari days have been in Marakele, Mapungubwe and Madikwe; the latter is brilliant for everything. Up here, it’s possible to still feel a sense of adventure, as if the animals outnumber people.

In this often dry and sunburnt region, life can be tough and this is reflected in the fact that compared to greener and better-watered areas such as Kruger National Park, the density of animals can be lower.

However, here it’s all about quality and not quantity. Most of the star players are resident on these open savannahs and bushveld, including all the Big Five. This is a prime region for Africa’s most lethal but persecuted predator, the wild dog. Elephants and rhino are also big fans of this part of the country but the cats, though present, tend to be a bit harder to find compared to other South African safari zones. Birdlife is impressive throughout the region.

In short, this part of the country suits two types of safari-goer: those short on time who merely need a quick safari hit with near guaranteed sightings of most big mammals and, by contrast, those with plenty of time and a willingness to forgo large numbers of animals in exchange for the adventure of never knowing quite what might be around the next corner.

The Eastern Cape
Eastern Cape

The Eastern Cape

Anthony Ham
By Anthony Ham

Best for: easy access from Cape Town

Going on safari in the Eastern Cape always feels a little like cheating. But why shouldn’t we see elephants and big cats and other safari specials not far from world-class beaches and the peerless city of Cape Town? Smaller reserves add to the sense of safaris that are custom-made for slotting into an all-round South African holiday.

The reserves here are more compact than elsewhere, but what they lack in scale they make up for in an abundance of wildlife — including all the Big Five.

With easy access from major travel hubs, excellent tourist infrastructure and the possibility of slotting beaches, Cape Town and other attractions into the mix, the Eastern Cape is one of the most rewarding and deservedly popular wildlife destinations in South Africa, with a range of parks to explore.

The Western Cape
Western Cape

The Western Cape

Anthony Ham
By Anthony Ham

Best for: family-friendly & short safaris

Other areas of the country have vast wilderness. Western Cape is instead all about making it easy to see amazing safari animals. Like Eastern Cape, it’s all about smaller reserves chockfull of wildlife, and that’s nothing to complain about. Add in the marine mammals, especially the great white sharks, and it’s a magnificent place to go on safari.

All the famed Big Five are present in this region although in most cases they’ve been re-introduced into fairly small, fenced private game reserves. These are not zoos, but they’re also not vast wilderness zones like the ones you might find elsewhere in southern Africa.

Like the Eastern Cape, Western Cape contains many different habitats, and it supports a wide range of wildlife. This includes some massive marine life including some of the world’s biggest (and hungriest!) sharks. On dry land many of the larger native mammals were wiped out over the last couple of hundred years. However, today, thanks to reintroduction programmes in the region’s private game reserves, many of these animals are returning. It’s now possible to see most of the key big mammal species of South Africa here.

The Kalahari
The Kalahari

The Kalahari

Anthony Ham
By Anthony Ham

Big horizons and the feeling of nature in the ascendant is what draws me to the Kalahari in South Africa’s north.

One of my favourite parks in all of Africa, the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (which South Africa shares with Botswana) is like a gateway into the rich desert biodiversity of one of the world’s largest sand deserts.

Tourists observing a female leopard South Africa

Close encounters with a leopard in South Africa

South Africa safari: Need to know

Everything you wish you'd known before you booked

South Africa is safari heaven. From the world-famous Kruger National Park and Sabi Sands to the lesser-known Karoo and family-friendly experiences in the Western Cape, there’s a wildlife experience to match all needs. First-time visitors will probably want to hit the Big Five highlights of the major parks, but don’t dismiss the more accessible lodges in the North West Province and around Cape Town.

For those looking for a cheaper option, consider self-drive safari routes. A quintessential South African family experience is a self-drive route through Kruger National Park, staying at self-catering campsites, where accommodation can be anything from small huts to guesthouses.

When planning where to go on safari in South Africa, consider what you want to get out of the experience. For luxurious lodges, head to up-market parks like Sabi Sands. If you want to get out into the bush, consider lodges that offer walking safaris. For those less bothered by the big five, consider the birdlife of KwaZulu-Natal or the cheetahs of Karoo.

Safari on your own terms

Anthony Ham
By Anthony Ham

This may be controversial, but in my opinion you should forget about the "Big Five".

The Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo) are the five African safari animals deemed the most dangerous to hunt by colonial-era hunters in the late 19th- and early 20th-century. Yes, it’s a useful marketing tool. And yes, many South Africa safari-goers (and companies) are still in their thrall. But in my opinion the obsession over the Big Five has more to do with nostalgia than the excitement and experience of a safari today.

I’ve nothing against seeing the Big Five animals themselves: each one is a thrill, every time. But I think the emphasis on "bagging" all the Big Five like a colonial big game hunter can detract from fully appreciating the true experience. I’ve encountered travellers who rush away from a lion kill because they’re yet to see a buffalo and their time on safari is running out. Safari, and travel more generally, should be about much more than rushed bucket lists and tick boxes.

Personally, I’m just as thrilled to encounter a cheetah – I’d rather see a cheetah on the hunt than a lion sleeping under a tree – or an African wild dog pack streaming across the landscape and on the hunt. Or a serval, or a meerkat, or a brown hyena. Sometimes, I’ll choose to sit beneath a leopard resting in a tree for a whole afternoon, just on the chance that it will soon stretch, climb down the tree, and head off on some exciting leopard mission.

And it just seems so arbitrary. Why not the "Big Six" (I always add the cheetah to the traditional list); adding African wild dogs and fighting giraffes to become a "Big Eight". This is the problem with the Big Five: it puts someone else’s list above your own sense of wonder.

South Africa safari logistics

There are two main classes of safari in South Africa: self-drive and organised safari tours. And within the latter, there’s a whole world of choice: between a group and a private safari; between a fly-in and a 4WD safari; between a walking safari and one where you remain in your vehicle; between a camping safari and one spent sleeping in lodges.

Self-drive means using your own vehicle (typically a rental car) to travel between the game reserves and, where self-drive safaris are permitted, making your own way through the reserves and parks. You’ll need to book ahead at your chosen accommodation in each reserve, and be sure to check that self-drive safaris are permitted. Although you certainly could rent a 4WD, most South African parks and reserves have excellent road networks and a 2WD is, in most cases, sufficient.

Organised safaris are similar to typical packaged multi-stop tours, usually with a number of different reserves or parks in one trip. They include all accommodation, collection and ground transfers from the airports (or, in the case of some luxury lodges, fly-ins to their own private airstrips). You won’t need your own vehicle and all game drives will be with a guide, usually in a small group of guests.

The main pros to self-drive safaris are that they tend to be cheaper, allow you to visit places that aren’t included on mainstream safari packages, and they give you more freedom to change plans at the last moment. There’s nothing worse than being on safari with other travellers who convince the guide to move on, when all you’d like to do is stick around and wait for those lion cubs to wake up: a self-drive safari solves that problem.

There are a number of drawbacks. Firstly, you most likely won’t be in a specialised safari vehicle, typically a large, open-sided 4WD that is purpose made for good visibility. This is usually a deal-breaker for keen wildlife spotters and photographers, as being in a rental saloon car severely limits where you can go and how much you can see. You could, of course, rent a 4WD vehicle, but this increases the cost significantly. Self-drive safari also means that you are your own guide and wildlife spotter. Fun perhaps, but you’ll miss lots of sightings without a proper guide.

But not all organised South African safaris are created equal. In addition to choosing which accommodation you’ll sleep in, whether you fly or drive in, and how much time you spend in your vehicle, you’ll need to choose between your own private a safari and one you share with others. Private safaris mean having the guide and vehicle all to yourself and/or your travelling party; such safaris are easier to customise, but also more expensive. A group safari means sharing both costs and experiences: you’ll pay less and have a cast of safari companions with which to share it all, but you’ll also have less control over everything from your dates of travel to the itinerary.

Such considerations aside, the best South Africa safari tours use customised jeeps and highly-trained guides who will enliven your experience with their vast knowledge and tracking skills. Poor quality safaris can mean an overcrowded minibus hurtling from one sighting to the next with a guide who barely knows his giraffe from his flamingo. As with most things in life, you get what you pay for — aim as high as you can afford, even if that means taking a shorter trip.

When to go

Blessed with incredible geographical diversity, South Africa is truly a year-round destination. Each region offers something unique and it is always a good season somewhere in this diverse country.

The overall best time to go on safari in South Africa is between May to September. This is South Africa’s dry season, but also low season as temperatures drop for winter; don’t underestimate how long temperatures can fall overnight, particularly away from the coast. Wildlife is easier to spot in these months, as vegetation is lower and animals gather around waterholes.

SA_savannahsunset

Sunset over the Savannah

Safety on safari

Part of the thrill of going on safari in South Africa is the chance to get up close and personal with some of the world’s most awesome — and dangerous — animals. It’s important to follow safety guidelines and some basic health procedures to ensure your trip is as memorable as possible.

First-time safari-goers are often worried about encounters with dangerous wildlife. The simple truth is that you won’t get eaten by a lion. Safari guides are trained to keep their guests safe and will tell you how to act in any given encounter with wildlife.

If you’re on a self-drive trip: never get out of your car unless specifically told that it’s safe to do so; never attempt to feed or pet the animals; and never walk around in the bush alone at night — if you need to leave your tent at night, call security.

Note that elephants, buffalo and hippo are all far more dangerous than lions. Give elephants a very wide berth especially if you happen to be on foot. Never get between a hippo and water and avoid walking in dense bush where you could meet buffalo.

If you’re on a walking trip, try to stay downwind of the animals. If an animal begins behaving in a hostile manner, back away slowly and quietly. In all scenarios, follow the advice of your guides and rangers.

Staying healthy

The more real health risk comes from drinking tap water or eating something which doesn’t agree with you, both of which can lead to an upset stomach for a day or so. Only drink treated water and be careful with what you eat - although the food prepared at most safari camps is invariably safe - and often world-class.

The heat and strong African sun can easily leave you burnt, dehydrated or, worse, give you heat or sunstroke. Wear a wide-brimmed hat, bring lots of water and slap on plenty of factor 50 sunscreen.

Malaria can be a problem in parts of the northeast (which is where the best-known parks and reserves are) so always wear insect repellent at night, sleep under a net and follow your doctor’s advice on anti-malarials.

Health-wise, South Africa is generally a trouble-free destination, but make sure all of your standard vaccinations are up to date before travelling.

Security

South Africa has an unenviable reputation for violence and robbery and it would be remiss to say that there isn’t a danger from this. However, the threat to most tourists is very low. Most violence occurs in poorer city neighbourhoods and not in tourist areas. More to the point, robberies and violence on a safari is only likely to be an issue if a troop of baboons manages to get into your room.

Responsible safaris

A safari is a wonderful opportunity to experience nature on a grand scale. But although it’s easy to get swept up with the romance of it all, you shouldn’t forget that your presence has a direct impact on the ecosystem, for good and bad.

The upside of your safari is that the money you put into the system pays for conservation and helps keep the land protected and wild. Without wildlife tourism, there’s a very real chance that many of South Africa’s conservation zones would become, or remain, farmland with all the implications that has for a fragile ecosystem.

In addition, there are things you can do to make your impact is as positive as possible. Before booking with any safari company, camp or lodge, or even choosing the parks and reserves you wish to visit, take a look at the conservation and community projects they are involved with. Companies investing back into local communities and conservation projects often like to shout about it on their websites. And when you do book, remember to mention that their community projects were a factor in your decision. This will encourage further investment in such programmes.

Respect the wildlife

On safari, treat the wildlife with the respect it deserves. Getting too close to wildlife, approaching animals head-on or pursuing and encircling them is likely to disturb them and cause distress. Approach wildlife at an angle, which is less threatening than coming at animals head-on. Movements must be steady and predictable.

How close you can get depends on the species but in general, your presence shouldn’t alarm the animals, cause them to flee, or change their normal behaviour. If the animals appear disturbed, you should move away immediately.

Noise, such as the sound of engines, laughter and shouting, should be kept to a minimum. Engines should be switched off when stationary and vehicle horns or fog horns on boats should never be used.

Bright lights and flash photography will startle an animal, possibly costing it a meal or even its life. On night drives, the use of naked searchlights should be replaced with red filtered lamps that do not disturb wild animals.

Avoid causing unnecessary damage to the environment. Litter, including plastic bags, batteries and cigarette butts, can be ingested by wildlife, causing injury or even death. Make sure you don’t drop anything and dispose of your rubbish properly.

Follow your guide

Absolutely no direct contact should be made between wild animals and people, including the guides. This can be highly stressful for the animals concerned, run the risk of transmitting disease, and can potentially, cause injury or even death. If you are observing wildlife from a vehicle, never get out of the car unless instructed to do so by your guide.

All animals have very specific diets and feeding them different foods could make them ill. Feeding wildlife can also change their social and feeding behaviour, encouraging begging, causing conflict between other animals, and increasing the likelihood of aggression towards humans.

If travelling in a group, don’t be shy. If you see or experience unacceptable human behaviour that has a negative impact on wild animals, be sure to speak out. If you cannot change the behaviour at the time by voicing your concerns, contact your tour operator afterwards and register your disapproval.

Conversely, if you have a great experience, thank and reward your guide appropriately and let your tour company or agent know that you appreciate their conscientious approach to what should be a magical experience.

Part of the joy of seeing animals in the wild is that you’re visiting them in their own environments and witnessing their natural behaviour. Inevitably there will be times when the animals are less active or visible, depending on the location, the season, or even just the time of day.

Do your research before you travel and find out the best time of year to view the wildlife you most wish to see. If the animals aren’t active when you visit, don’t be disappointed: this is not a zoo. It’s all part of a respectful approach to the natural world that you’re visiting. It’s important that tourists don’t pressure their guides into manipulating the situation to make viewing the animals easier, or to set up that perfect photo opportunity.

Finally, when you get back home talk to your friends about the environmental issues the parks and reserves of South Africa face, and help spread the important message of conservation to your friends and family.

Read more

For more information on ethical wildlife holidays and how to interact with wildlife in a responsible and sustainable way, see our companion guide Compassionate Travel: A guide to animal-friendly holidays.

South Africa safari FAQs

Your questions, our expert answers

Question

How much does a safari in South Africa cost?

Answer

This is a virtually impossible question to answer as there’s such a huge range! But broadly speaking at the low-cost/budget end it ranges from USD $100 to $300 per person per night. This typically includes basic accommodations, such as tented camps or rest camp lodges.

At the mid-range prices might be USD $300 - $600 per person per night with a corresponding bump in accommodation quality.

At the high end there seems to be no ceiling. In private game reserves visitors can spend from $600 to $2,000 or more per person per night. You’ll be grateful that the sundowner is included in the price and additional activities like bush walks, night drives, or even hot air balloon rides may be included.

Stuart Butler
Answered by Stuart Butler
Question

What should I expect on a safari in South Africa?

Answer

Most safaris start around dawn with a quick breakfast before heading out in the vehicles to begin animal spotting. Most animals choose to hunt in the early morning or dusk when temperatures are cooler. It’s also a good time to spot nocturnal animals returning from a night’s hunting, such as lions.

After a few hours in the field, you’ll break for lunch before heading out again until dusk. In general, expect to spend between 6-8 hours each day searching for animals. Remember that temperatures will regularly reach 30C and the tracks the vehicles drive on can be bumpy and dusty. Dress appropriately, wear lots of suncream and drink plenty of water. Evenings are spent swapping stories — and drinks — around the campfire.

It’s also worth remembering that you’re visiting national parks, not zoos. There is no guarantee that you’ll see any of the Big Five — or any animal at all. Conversely, be aware that you’ll spend eight hours a day searching for wildlife. It is possible for animal ‘fatigue’ to set in if you spend too long in one park or lodge. To counter this, visit different lodges or parks, and mix up your experience by including walking safaris, overnight camping or evening safaris.


Stuart Butler
Answered by Stuart Butler
Question

Is safari dangerous?

Answer

In a word, no. The chances of being attacked by an animal are so minimal it hardly warrants considering. However, you must stick to the general rules imposed by the park and heed the instructions of your guides. If you break those and decide to go for a moonlight walk through the bush on your own, then yes, you might become a midnight snack.


Stuart Butler
Answered by Stuart Butler
Question

Is safari family friendly?

Answer

Kids of all ages enjoy safaris as much as any adult. But a safari tends to mean a lot of time in a vehicle, often on bad roads and in hot weather. If there’s plenty of action taking place, younger children will be as hooked as you. But they can become bored the moment the pace slows down. If travelling with kids, ensure you choose camps or lodges that offer plenty of child-friendly activities. Some lodges and camps don’t accept children under a certain age. And don’t plan on heading out on early game drives every morning.


Stuart Butler
Answered by Stuart Butler
Question

What is the food like in safari camps?

Answer

The standard of food is generally very high — even in the remotest lodges. Most lodges will have qualified chefs on hand and part of the entire safari experience is the cuisine and the emphasis placed on food.


Stuart Butler
Answered by Stuart Butler
Question

Will I have to carry cash on safari in South Africa?

Answer

South Africa’s currency is the Rand, denoted by an R in shops and ZAR in currency trading. A favourable exchange rate with major currencies makes travelling in South Africa cheaper than visiting Europe or the United States. You can use credit cards in many shops, restaurants and lodges; there are many ATMs throughout the country and you can exchange traveller’s cheques at all banks. The best cash currencies to bring are US Dollars, Euros or British Pounds as these notes are accepted at the many Bureaux de Change in bigger cities.

You will be offered currency exchanges by people on the street throughout Africa. It may be tempting to avoid the conversion commissions; however, this is illegal and should be avoided at all costs.

On safari, almost all major expenses (all meals, activities, and, sometimes even, drinks) are covered in the costs of accommodation. Any extras tend to be very limited, and can generally be paid by card.

In urban centers, particularly in South Africa, ATMs are to be found in most shopping malls and banks, and will accept international cards using the Cirrus and Plus systems, as well as Visa, Mastercard, or American Express credit cards (provided your credit account has a cash withdrawal facility).

All airports in south Africa also have ATMs, and you can withdraw money as soon as you land (generally at a better exchange rate than if you were to exchange cash or travellers checks at a bank).

Stuart Butler
Answered by Stuart Butler
Question

How much should we tip our safari guides?

Answer

In some environments such as at lodges, on safari and on treks, tipping is structured in ways that make it clear, fair and less easy to abuse. Tips can be given in local currencies or in USD, GBP or EUR, so be sure to carry small denominations with you. As a general guide:

Guide/tracker: Your guide and tracker are central to the success of your safari. You’ll have plenty of time to connect with them and, by the end of your trip, they might just be your new best friends. With guides, it’s customary to leave a tip on your departure. What you choose to leave is totally up to you, but a general rule of thumb on safari is to tip your guide US$10 and your tracker US$5 per person per day.

Guests that are returning to a lodge that they have visited before, sometimes even bring small, personalised gifts for their guides. Alternatively, the lodges will generally give you a guideline for tipping and gifting if you ask them.

Camp/lodge staff: There is a lot that happens behind the scenes on your safari and it’s important to consider and acknowledge all the wonderful people who look after the lodge. Most safari lodges and camps have a communal tip ‘jar’ and around US$10 to US$20 per day is considered a reasonable tip.

Outside of the lodges/camps, you might want to tip 10% to 15% for good service at restaurants and in bars. Most waiters earn an incredibly basic wage so tips are a much-needed supplement. If you're just buying a beer or a coke, it's fine to leave the change rather than a specific tip. If you're dining with a large group at a nice restaurant, a service charge will usually be automatically added to your bill.

At budget hotels, tips for housekeeping are not expected but are nevertheless always welcome. At luxury safari camps there will often be a general tipping box at the front desk or reception. Tips deposited here will usually be spread evenly between camp staff; so if you want to tip someone specifically, make sure to do so directly.


Stuart Butler
Answered by Stuart Butler
Question

What should I pack for a South Africa safari?

Answer

You don’t need much specialist gear for a South African safari.

Most people will want a photographic record of their adventure and if wildlife images are important to you then you need a good DSLR camera with a long lens, at least 400mm. Anything less and the animals will appear as nothing but hazy dots in a sea of scrub. Bring spare camera batteries and memory cards.

Binoculars are another essential. Get the best pair you can afford and make sure that everyone in your group has a pair or there will be endless bickering over whose turn it is to get a closer look at that distant rhino.

A good field guide to the birds and animals is an excellent addition to your pack. Most guides will have one for guests to use, but it’s still nice to have your own.

Lightweight walking shoes are a good idea (and essential for anyone planning a walking safari). Hiking trousers and shorts are also worth having. They provide protection from the thorn bushes and sun and are comfortable to wear. Don’t forget to bring a fleece as it can be surprisingly cold during a sunrise safari. Sun hat, sunscreen and sunglasses are three other essentials.

If staying in up-market accommodation, it’s probably worth bringing a set of slightly smarter clothes for evening dinner.

With fluctuating temperatures — hot and sunny during the day, cold at night — layering is your best option. Some things to consider bringing include:

  • T-shirts or shirts — bring some longsleeve ones to combat mosquito and the sun
  • Lightweight fleece/jacket
  • Safari/combat trousers
  • Shorts
  • Broken in walking/hiking shoes
  • Sunhat
  • Sunglasses
  • Sandals/flipflops for use in lodges/camps
  • Swimwear
Stuart Butler
Answered by Stuart Butler
Question

How long should I plan for a safari in South Africa?

Answer

If you’re just looking for your standard Big 5 safari, fewer nights in one or two really great private reserves trumps more nights in a crowded national park. My standard advice is to get more bang for your buck: aim for fewer nights, but spend more per night for the best reserve/lodge that your budget can stretch to.

Stuart Butler
Answered by Stuart Butler
Question

What are the differences between private game reserves and national parks in South Africa?

Answer

National Parks are government-owned and managed and private reserves are, you guessed it, privately owned and operated.

National parks serve a broader range of budgets, including some fairly low cost safaris and basic accommodation. They’re busier, sometimes feeling crowded, and activities are limited to standard game drives.

Private reserves are a whole other affair, can be very exclusive and upscale and you’ll often have the wildlife all to yourself. Privately operated reserves are free to offer a wider range of activities such as night game drives and horseback rides.

Stuart Butler
Answered by Stuart Butler
Question

What can we do before or after a safari in South Africa?

Answer

Probably my biggest piece of advice would be to make plenty of time to see the rest of the country either before or after your safari. Just a smattering of suggestions:

South Africa’s cities, history and urban culture: There’s Table Mountain, Robben Island, and the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town. The Apartheid Museum and Maboneng Precinct in Johannesburg. And of course a visit to Nelson Mandela House Museum in Soweto.

If nature and the outdoors are your bag look into Blyde River Canyon for breathtaking views and hiking trails, the fascinating hominid fossils at Cradle of Humankind just north of Johannesburg, the waterfalls at Augrabies Falls National Park and the scenic trails and views of Plettenberg Bay at Robberg Nature Reserve.

For some beach and coast time there’s Golden Mile and Umhlanga Rocks at Durban, whale watching in Hermanus (best between June and November), and the lagoons and beaches of West Coast National Park.

Finally for some road trips and scenic routes have a look at the Garden Route, famous for its charming towns and beautiful beaches; vineyard driving routes around Stellenbosch, Franschhoek, or Constantia, or, for something totally different, to the glorious tacky Sun City.

Stuart Butler
Answered by Stuart Butler
Question

Are there any non-touristy tribal experiences in South Africa?

Answer

If you're expecting colourfully dressed, exotic-looking tribal peoples that you can visit and for it not to feel commercial, then no that's difficult to find. An experience like that that you’re paying for will, by definition, be somewhat inauthentic, if not exploitative.

However, if you want to meet people of different tribes but not necessarily dressed in an exotic manner and dancing around for you then that's possible everywhere in South Africa on almost every street.

For something more in-between, and I suspect, more what you're after then I'd try heading to the Kalahari regions in the north. It's a stunning semi-desert region (lots of interesting wildlife and a real wilderness feel) and is the home of South Africa's small San Bushmen community. These were some of the original inhabitants of southern Africa and some do live a very traditional lifestyle (but well away from tourists).

Stuart Butler
Answered by Stuart Butler
Question

How do I find a responsible South Africa safari operator?

Answer

Although it’s easy to get swept up with the romance of it all, you shouldn’t forget that your presence has a direct impact on the ecosystem, for good and bad.

The upside of your visit is that the money you put into the system pays for conservation and helps keep the land protected and wild. Without wildlife tourism, there’s a very real chance that many of South Africa’s conservation zones would become farmland.

But there are things you can do to make your impact as positive as possible. Before booking with any safari company, camp or lodge, or even choosing the parks and reserves you wish to visit, take a look at the conservation and community projects they are involved with. And when you do book, remember to mention that their community projects were a factor in your decision. This will encourage further investment in such programmes.

On safari, treat the wildlife with the respect it deserves. Getting too close to wildlife, approaching animals head-on or pursuing and encircling them is likely to disturb them and cause distress. Approach wildlife at an angle, which is less threatening than coming at animals head-on. Movements must be steady and predictable.

Stuart Butler
Answered by Stuart Butler
Question

Would you recommend a self-drive safari in South Africa? Is it easy?

Answer

Yes, it’s easy to self-drive in South Africa and, generally, fairly safe although car crime can be an issue (don't leave anything in your car in towns). If you're just hopping from national park to park and sticking mainly to rural regions then self-drive in South Africa is simple enough. Just remember that South Africa is a big place so don't try and cover it all in one trip!

Stuart Butler
Answered by Stuart Butler

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About the authors

The best safaris in South Africa

Anthony Ham

Anthony is a renowned travel journalist and guidebook author and is one of the world's leading authorities on Africa safari, wildlife and conservation. He has been travelling to Africa for more than two decades to research Africa safari guidebooks for Lonely Planet. He is widely published in The Age, Sydney Morning Herald, The Monthly, Virginia Quarterly Review (VQR), National Geographic Traveler, BBC Wildlife, Lonely Planet Traveller, Africa Geographic, The Independent, Travel Africa, among many others.

The best safaris in South Africa

Stuart Butler

Stuart is an award-winning travel journalist covering safari, trekking and conservation in Africa for the Lonely Planet, Rough Guides, BBC, Bradt Travel Guides, amongst many others. He is the author of Walking With The Maasai, a journey through some of Kenya's lesser-visited Maasai lands.

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