The Best Safari In South Africa: An Essential Guide

Safari Parks In South Africa's North West Province

Safari Parks In South Africa's North West Province
By Stuart Butler

This is one of the more easily accessible wildlife areas of South Africa.

Three or four hours after stepping off an international flight in Johannesburg, you can be holding your breath as a lion paces confidently towards you in one of the province’s fabulous national parks or game reserves.

Reserves in the North West Province

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Madikwe savannah landscape in South Africa

Zebras crossing in Madikwe Game Reserve

North West Province wildlife

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.

When to visit

North West Province is a wildlife-watching destination all year round, but do be aware that it can get unbearably hot between November and January. April and May are fabulous months to visit with cooler temperatures and (aside from Easter) generally smaller crowds.

Giraffe close up from Pilanesberg National Park South Africa

Giraffe in Pilanesberg National Park.

North West Province reserves

This part of the country suits all budgets and safari types. In some parks, you can self-drive, camp and search for your own big cat thrills. In others, you can set out on foot with expert rangers for the ultimate up-close and personal moment, and in some of the private game reserves, you can wallow in luxury and a highly exclusive safari experience.

Although some of the parks and reserves here are fairly close to major cities (and the gloriously tacky Sun City — South Africa’s answer to Las Vegas), this is a region of real wilderness where wide-open spaces, big skies, stirring semi-desert scenery and star-spangled night skies are the backdrop to some of southern Africa’s most epic wildlife encounters.

Madikwe Game Reserve

Madikwe is unusual in that it is owned by the state in partnership with local communities and the private sector. However, it is run in the same manner as one of the exclusive private game reserves. There are no self-drive safaris here and only people staying in one of the upmarket (but slightly more affordable than normal) lodges are allowed into the reserve. This gives the reserve, which has been formed out of old farm and ranch land, a real air of tranquillity and the wildlife obviously appreciate this as well.

Most of the Big Five are easily seen with rhino a real speciality. Leopards are present but tend to be very shy and sightings are something to celebrate. Wild dogs and the unusual brown hyena are frequently seen and birdlife is also good. With lower prices than somewhere like Sabi Sands in the Kruger region, but with a similar exclusive vibe, Madikwe suits those who want all the advantages of a prime private reserve but who don’t have quite enough cash to splash out on those big names.

Best for: Budget friendly and the Big Five

Waterberg limpopo province South Africa

Safari in Waterberg Biosphere Reserve

Waterberg Biosphere Reserve

The vast upland massif of the Waterberg region is one of only two biosphere reserves in all of Africa. This is a region of superlatives where space, solitude and wildlife are backdrops to day-to-day life. This isn’t so much a single unbroken reserve, but rather a puzzle of interconnected reserves and small human settlements. A journey here is proof that wildlife and humans can live and thrive side by side.

The best-regarded reserves are the Lapalala Wilderness Area, Marakele National Park, and the Welgevonden Game Reserve. What wildlife you’ll see really depends on which reserve you visit. Some, such as Marakele and Welgevonden, have all the animals you came to Africa to see, but others (particularly the smaller private reserves) are fenced and mainly have smaller creatures. In these reserves, the focus is more on family-friendly activities such as cycling, walking and bush camping.

Best for: Self-drive safaris and family holidays

Pilanesberg National Park

Pilanesberg is safari made easy. If the traffic is in your favour, then you can get from Johannesburg to the gates of this small park in just two hours. This means that Pilanesberg is very popular with South Africans and its tourist facilities are very well developed. There’s a good range of accommodation in all budget categories, it’s malaria-free and the park’s small size makes it a good family destination. However, purists might say that Pilanesberg is too well developed. Some of the roads are surfaced and there can be congestion at some of the animal sightings, which means that sense of wilderness can be lost.

However, you can’t argue with the quality of wildlife. All the Big Five are here and the park is especially good for rhino and elephant. You also have a better than average chance of spying some wild dogs and the list of birds is impressive with at least 350 different species recorded.

Best for: Budget friendly and big city access

Lion Pilanesberg National Park South Africa

Lion in Pilanesberg National Park

North West Province lodges and accommodation

There’s a wide choice of accommodation in most of the province’s parks and reserves and, Madikwe aside, all levels of budgets are catered for. Madikwe Game Reserve is open only to high-end, exclusive tourism though prices are lower than in similar reserves in other parts of South Africa.

From farming to conservation

Most of the parks and reserves in the Waterberg area are made up of former ranching and farming land. When the focus shifted towards safari tourism, most of the reserves set up various conservation and animal reintroduction and restocking programmes.

Safari Parks In South Africa's North West Province

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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