Stuart Butler
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There can be few experiences more exhilarating than hearing the roar of a distant lion as the sun rises on an African morning.

South Africa has long been regarded as one of the world’s great safari destinations. The diversity of landscapes, from jungly swamps to searing semi-deserts, is without equal and the wealth of wildlife simply extraordinary. South Africa is one of the four countries home to the majority of the endangered black rhino population.

On safari in South Africa you can watch lions hunt, elephants trumpet, flamingos turn a blue lake pink, whales breach, penguins waddle and rhinos plod through the woodland like great prehistoric beasts. You can paddle kayaks down lily-fringed waterways in search of hippos. You can sit quietly in a bird hide waiting for a colourful ball of feathers to reveal itself. You can ride mountain bikes over savannah plains or learn from experts about conservation in southern Africa today. And, of course, you can climb into a jeep and set out on a pulse-racing game drive in search of the Big Five.

But with such a range of choice, knowing where to begin is the first hurdle. Which is why we created this guide, an expert introduction to safari in South Africa. Saddle up for the ride, this is the thrill of a lifetime!

Stuart Butler

Get the digested read

Where to begin? When to go? How to plan? So many questions, so little time. That's why we've asked leading South Africa safari expert Stuart Butler to answer your most frequently asked questions in this handy four-part email series.

The best safaris in South Africa

Some of South Africa's best safari reserves according to renowned travel journalist, Stuart Butler:

Best for the Big Five: Thornybush Game Reserve, in Kruger National Park: luxury lodges, acclaimed guides and a better than average chance of seeing a cheetah – one of the best private reserves in Kruger.

Best for luxury safaris: Sabi Sands Game Reserve, a stupendous reserve with wildlife drama, beauty and high-end luxury.

Best for crowd-free safaris: Phinda Game Reserve in Kwazulu-Natal, underrated and quieter than South Africa's more famous safari destinations.

Best for family safaris: Madikwe Game Reserve in the Northwest Province; a great mid-range reserve that offers some of the benefits of a private reserve without the price tag.

South Africa

Safari jeeps in South Africa

The best safaris in South Africa

Where to go, what to see, where to stay

There are infinite ways to enjoy the wildlife and the soul-stirring landscapes they live within. With accommodation ranging from family-friendly camps to luxury safari lodges, you can spend time walking with highly-trained guides in the bush, searching for the tiny creatures that keep the ecosystem ticking. The following are some of South Africa’s best safari destinations and experiences.

Lains zebra in Kruger National park South Africa

Zebras drinking from a water hole in Kruger National park

Kruger National Park

Best for: iconic safaris & exclusive reserves

One of the great safari parks in South Africa, 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. 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.

Best safari reserves & camps:

Thornybush Game Reserve - With luxury lodges, acclaimed guides and a better than average chance of seeing cheetah (as well as many other flagship animals), Thornybush can now rightly hold its head up high as one of the best of the Kruger area’s private game reserves.

Balule Nature Reserve
- A game drive in this reserve offers the chance to spot the Big Five as well as large numbers of hippo. There is also excellent birding with more than 260 recorded species including hobby falcon and harlequin doves.

Timbavati Game Reserve
- This private reserve borders the main Kruger park and, with no fences to block access, is known for its high-quality guides, a wide range of safari activities, superb luxury lodges, and a rare population of white lions.

Karongwe Game Reserve - Known for offering some of the highest chances of spotting the elusive leopard. Other highlights of this safari park are the superb guided bush walks and exceptional birdwatching.

Klaserie Nature Reserve - Klaserie combines memorably diverse scenery, including glittering waterways, and an impressive range of wildlife such as rhinos, elephants, lions, hippos and some massive buffalo. The birdlife is equally impressive and this reserve is committed to environmental education for local children and supports a number of long-term scientific studies.

Kapama Game Reserve - Kapama makes for a good first-time African safari destination in the greater Kruger region. One unique feature of a safari here is the reserve’s elephant experience, with a number of elephants (rescued from elephant-back safaris) and the elephant interaction experience allows you to get close to these not-so gentle giants.

Manyeleti Game Reserve
- Retaining an exclusive atmosphere thanks to having only four excellent lodges and camps with accommodation suitable for budget, mid-range and luxury travellers, this reserve hosts all the so-called Big Five and a whole range of Kruger’s other stars.

Leopard in the Sabi Sands Reserve

Leopard in the Sabi Sands Reserve

Sabi Sands Game Reserve

Best for: absolute luxury safaris

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.

Best safari reserves & camps:

Sabi Sabi Game Reserve - This stupendous reserve has all the wildlife drama and beauty that is to be expected of the Sabi Sands area, but the whole package is just that much more luxurious and exclusive than most of the other Sabi Sands camps and reserves (and let’s face it, you’re hardly slumming it in any of them).

Lion Sands Game Reserve - Holding one of the highest concentrations of large mammals per hectare on the planet, Lion Sands Game Reserve is renowned for its lion sightings (there are three prides in particular that everyone seems to get to meet up close), as well as leopards and cheetah.

Ulusaba Game Reserve - Here there are gorgeous lodges, superlative wildlife viewing and, unusually for the Sabi Sands area, eye-wateringly beautiful scenic backdrops. Unsurprisingly, it's luxury lodges attract celebrities but it’s also a down-to-earth reserve and it welcomes children with innovative family-friendly activities.

Londolozi Game Reserve - Londolozi has the full bag of big African mammals in abundance as well as the normal faultless guiding and divine lodges. Situated on the Sand River in the heart of Sabi Sands, this reserve is also hot on community activities and involvement.

Mala Mala Game Reserve - Its size, and the fact that guests of other reserves are not allowed, means that you have this wonderful sweep of bushy savannah all to yourself. Many safari experts consider Mala Mala their favourite private game reserve in South Africa.

032 Kwazulu Natal South Africa

View of Kwazulu-Natal


Best for: less crowded safaris

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.

Best safari reserves & camps:

Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park - With soaring hills and mountains that are home to 350 species of birds, including an abundance of raptors and a colony of the southern bald ibis, Hluhluwe-iMfolozi National Park is a birding paradise.

Phinda Game Reserve - High-end Phinda is one of the very best places for a short safari and, on a game drive in Phinda, you’re almost guaranteed to see all the flagship animals, plus the lightning-fast cheetah.

Madikwe Game Reserve

Elephant in Madikwe Game Reserve

South Africa's North West Province

Best for: quick & accessible safaris

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.

Best safari reserves & camps:

Welgevonden - Contained within the Waterberg Biosphere Reserve, Welgevonden has space, solitude and abundant wildlife - almost purpose-made for wildlife photography.

Madikwe Game Reserve - Madikwe is a great all-rounder, a mid-range reserve that offers some of the benefits of a private reserve without the price tag. There are no self-drive safaris allowed here, so photographers will get the undisturbed wildlife all to themselves. With the complete Big Five collection, plus plenty of bird life and populations of wild dogs and the unusual brown hyena. Unlike many nominal ‘child friendly’ reserves, Madikwe makes a concerted effort to provide family-oriented facilities, ranging from kids’ clubs and toddler care to specially trained guides to bring the safari experience alive for all ages.

Waterberg Biosphere Reserve
- Waterberg offers malaria-free game viewing within easy driving distance of Johannesburg — perfect for families who don’t want the hassle of flying to Kruger, or the drive to Madikwe.

Pilanesberg National Park - Its proximity to Johannesburg and highly developed facilities make this a convenient (if busy) safari destination. But the Big Five are here, and the park is especially good for rhino and elephant. Nearly all lodges and resorts in Pilanesberg National Park welcome children — but some have gone above and beyond to cater specifically for family groups with kids of all ages.

Addo Elephant National Park

Elephants at a water hole in South Africa

The Eastern Cape

Best for: easy access from Cape Town

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.

Best safari reserves & camps:

Addo Elephant National Park - One of South Africa’s largest national parks, this diverse park, which includes river valleys, mountains, savannahs, forests and beaches, has more than elephants to offer. A few lions saunter in and out of the shadows, and buffalo, various antelope and even rhino are all present, but there are also plenty of unexpected safari animals including Cape fur seals, penguins, southern right whales and — for those brave enough to go for a paddle — great white sharks.

Amakhala Game Reserve - Formed after a number of local landowners agreed to pull down the fences and devote their rangelands to wildlife conservation and safari tourism, Amakhala has all the Big Five, as well as cheetah, zebra, giraffe and wildebeest.

Lalibela Game Reserve
- As well as the Big Five, Lalibela is also home to zebra, impala, giraffe, cheetah and jackal and offers a still and pristine environment that feels a long way from human hands. Fortunately though, civilisation and a gin and tonic are always on hand at one of the park’s luxury lodges.

Pumba Game Reserve
- Pumba has all the Big Five as well cheetah, hippo, 300-odd bird species and a population of rare white lions. It's one of the busier safari parks in South Africa, but offers activities including walking safaris, nocturnal game drives, fishing, archery and even a spa.

Kariega Game Reserve - Kariega’s tidal estuaries and coastal habitats are home to over 600 species of birds including the African crowned eagle, kingfisher, crowned hornbill, and Cape Longclaw.

Kwantu Private Game Reserve - Kwantu Private Game Reserve is a relatively small safari park by African standards, but with all the Big Five present as well as a host of less celebrated creatures it’s easy to fill several safari days here. This is also a highly recommended family safari park. The reserve is open to day visitors (although they must use park vehicles and have a guide) which can reduce the exclusivity aspect a little.

Shamwari Game Reserve
- What makes this park really stand out is the range of activities available alongside classic safari drives. There’s a rhino awareness centre, a big cat sanctuary, plus field guide courses and conservation volunteer opportunities for those who want a deeper look at South African conservation techniques.

Aquila Private Game Reserve

Zebras in Aquila Private Game Reserve

The Western Cape

Best for: family-friendly & short safaris

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.

Best safari reserves & camps:

Aquila Private Game Reserve - Although Aquila is a conservancy established in 1999, it can’t be faulted for quality wildlife viewing, with game drives offering sightings of lions and all their friends and enemies and with easy access from Cape Town and high-class accommodation.

Sanbona Wildlife Reserve - Like the nearby Aquila reserve, Sanbona is an exclusive private conservancy that’s been restocked with the big ticket animal attractions — lions, elephants, buffalo and rhinos — and, thanks to the expert guides, all are regularly seen on safaris here.

In this guide:

The Best Safari In South Africa: An Essential Guide

Stuart Butler

Stuart is an award-winning travel journalist covering safari 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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