The Best Safari In South Africa: An Essential Guide

The Best Safaris In Kruger National Park

The Best Safaris In Kruger National Park
By Stuart Butler
Stuart Butler
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Stuart Butler
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The showpiece of South African tourism, Kruger National Park is one of the world’s most famous protected areas, and for good reason.

This huge (19,485 sq km) park in the far northeast of South Africa is home to tens of thousands of mammals and birds including large numbers of all your African favourites.

The scenery is classic Africa, with the diversity of safari activities the equal of anywhere and there are endless accommodation options and safari styles available, from tented camps to luxury lodges. The park is readily accessible and, thanks to an impressive road system, easy to travel around.

Here's our rundown on the best safaris in Kruger National Park.

Best safaris in Kruger National Park

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Kruger national park elephants

Elephants in Kruger National Park

The best safaris in Kruger National Park

Kruger's best safari reserves, lodges and camps

There’s a massive amount of accommodation in and around Kruger National Park. The park itself caters to all budgets, from hardcore bush campers to lodges with a luxury royal seal (and a price tag to match). In general, the finest accommodation and best safari guides can be found in the exclusive private reserves bordering Kruger itself. The prices quoted by such places might appear steep but keep in mind that they generally include all activities including guided safaris in state-of-the-art vehicles, meals and most drinks, plus the conservation fees that help maintain such wilderness areas.

Some suggested top-end places include Singita Lebombo Lodge and the Rzoyal Malewane, both of which are in the Kruger National Park itself. You can’t really go wrong with any of the accommodation in the private reserves but some worth building your safari around include Thornybush Waterside Lodge in the Thornybush Game Reserve, Kapama River Lodge in the Kapama Game Reserve, and the Klaserie Sands River Camp and Makumu Private Game Lodge, both in Klaserie.

Best safari reserves & conservancies In Kruger National Park

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.

Balule Game Reserve South Africa

Safari lodges in Balule Game Reserve

Balule Nature Reserve

Sprawling across 250 sq km, the unfenced Balule Nature Reserve sits on the edge of the greater Kruger eco-system with the Drakensberg escarpment as a memorable backdrop. The reserve is home to 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. There are several quality lodges in different price ranges and activities include guided game drives and walking safaris, fishing, wine tasting and visits to a wildlife rehabilitation centre.

Best for: The Big Five and luxury lodges

Kapama Game Reserve

Kapama makes for a good first-time safari destination in the greater Kruger region. A few years ago, the fences that had for so long separated it from Kruger and the surrounding (unfenced) private reserves were taken down. This has done a lot to increase the wilderness feel of the place. There is a good range of safari activities on offer and it’s child-friendly (as child-friendly as anywhere with wild lions can be). One unique feature of a safari here is the reserve’s elephant experience. The reserve has 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 while a guide explains elephant biology and conservation.

Best for: Family friendly holidays and birdwatching

Drakensberg mountains Royal Natal National Park South Africa

View of the Drakensberg mountains from Royal Natal National Park

Karongwe Game Reserve

Known for offering some of the highest chances of spotting the elusive leopard, Karongwe is a moderately-sized private game reserve hemmed in between four rivers with views of the Drakensberg Mountains. This gives it an unusually lush, green landscape, in contrast to some of Kruger’s drier regions. Other highlights are the superb guided bush walks and exceptional birdwatching (again, thank those rivers). Since there are just five unashamedly luxurious and very small camps, crowds are never an issue here and the quality of the guiding and accommodation is almost unsurpassed in the Kruger area.

Best for: Birdwatching and the Big Five

Klaserie Nature Reserve

Covering some 60,000 hectares, the spectacular Klaserie Nature Reserve is one of the largest privately-owned nature reserves in South Africa. The reserve is also deeply committed to environmental education for local children and supports a number of long-term scientific studies. For the tourist, 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 one of the scientific projects the reserve supports focuses on the prehistoric-looking ground hornbill. There’s a wide selection of accommodation within Klaserie, all of it very luxurious and intimate in scale, and the sheer size of the reserve means that Klaserie never feels busy — except with wildlife.

Best for: Luxury lodges and photography

Manyeleti Game Reserve

Covering 230 sq km and with an unfenced border with Kruger, Manyeleti, which means Place of the Stars in the local Shangaan language, was the only wildlife reserve that black people were permitted to visit during the apartheid era. Today it welcomes everyone, yet retains an exclusive atmosphere thanks to having only four excellent lodges and camps with accommodation suitable for budget, mid-range and luxury travellers. The reserve hosts all the so-called Big Five and a whole range of Kruger’s other stars.

Best for: The Big Five and family friendly holidays

Thornybush Kruger National Park South Africa African Buffalo

African buffalo in Thornybush Game Reserve

Thornybush Game Reserve

For many years, Thornybush was a fenced reserve which meant the management could guarantee the presence of many large mammals, but it also prevented the wildlife from moving freely between the reserve and Kruger itself. It also meant that the reserve lacked a little of the wilderness feel. The good news is that the fences have come down and, with its top-end 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 reserves.

Best for: Luxury lodges and the Big Five

Timbavati Game Reserve

This magical private reserve borders the main Kruger park and, with no fences to block access, it hosts all the main mammal and bird species that Kruger is famed for. What really puts Timbavati on the map is its very rare population of naturally white lions. Lions with such a genetic mutation can only be found in one or two other places in Africa. In 2017, the last white lion in the region died. However, in March 2018, a cub was born with the pigmentation, meaning the legend lives on.

Timbavati is known for its high-quality guides, wide range of safari activities, and superb, high-end lodges with a heavy dose of romance.

Best for: The Big Five and photography

Kapama Game Reserve lion south africa

Lion in Kapama Game Reserve

Safari by foot

For the ultimate in Kruger adventures, try a short bush walk led by an expert walking safari guide in one of the private reserves or, for something even more thrilling, set out to hike one of the multi-day wilderness trails established by park authorities. There’s no better way to get to know wild Africa than by walking, which gives you the ability to touch, smell, taste, hear and sense the African bush in a way that’s never possible in a vehicle safari.

Kruger wildlife

One of the great parks of Africa, Kruger and the surrounding private reserves are home to all of southern Africa’s iconic mammal species including the famed Big Five — buffalo, elephant, lion, leopard and rhino. This is also a great park for giraffe, zebra, cheetah and even wild dogs. The sheer quantity of animals seen on a safari trip here can be mind-boggling.

There are tens of thousands of impala and blue wildebeest and, despite sustained recent poaching, there are still thousands of white rhino (plus some black rhino). The lion population is somewhere around thousand and elephants are doing exceptionally well, with some 13,000 present (which is about double the park’s real carrying capacity). In total, some 140 mammal species are known to live in and around the Kruger eco-systems, which makes it one of the most mammal-rich parks in the world.

The diverse habitats, which include thorn tree woodlands and shrub mopane veld, river valleys lined by tropical forest and searing granite kopjes (hills), supports an even more impressive array of birdlife. More than 500 different species of birds have been recorded in Kruger.

When to visit Kruger National Park

Key wildlife viewing times are between June and September when the drier winter weather causes animals to congregate around water sources, and the March to May rutting season when male wildebeest, impala and other antelope butt heads over the ladies. Overall, June is probably the best month to visit. Wildlife activity is intense, but with school holidays yet to begin, human activity remains light and accommodation is cheaper.

The Best Safaris In Kruger National Park

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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