How to plan a South Africa safari

For many travellers, a safari is a one time only experience. Consequently, it pays to plan and research a safari experience to ensure that you get the best possible trip. Doing so will mean you’ll have a better chance of seeing the wildlife you want to, potentially reduce costs and also open up new options and routes.

From which national park to visit to how much everything will cost and the type of safari to take — here’s how to plan your safari in South Africa.

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Where to go on safari

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.

When to go on safari

The best time to visit South Africa for safaris is between May to September. This is South Africa’s dry season, but also low season as temperatures drop for winter. Wildlife is easier to spot in these months, as vegetation is lower and animals gather around waterholes.

It is possible to visit any of South Africa’s national parks during these months, but consider when to go if you plan on combining safari with other routes. For example, if combining safari with Cape Town, consider the summer months of November to March. For whale watching on the Western Cape, visit between June and November. For year-round sunshine and wildlife watching, KwaZulu-Natal is your best bet.

For more information, see our full When to visit South Africa guide.

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How long should a safari be?

A safari can be as long or as short as you want it to be. There are options for 3-4 week safari experiences that take in most of what South Africa has to offer, as well as short 3-5 day trips to single lodges and everything in between. In reality, most safari tourists are likely to fall somewhere in between. A ten-day trip gives you the opportunity to experience 2-4 different safari camps.

It’s worth spending more time at two camps than less at four. The longer you stay at a camp, the better your chances of having memorable wildlife encounters. You’ll also understand more about the environment you’re staying in, and get to know your guides better — both enhance the overall safari experience, transforming it from a holiday to a more meaningful trip.

What will it be like on safari?

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.

How much does a safari cost?

Going on safari in South Africa isn’t a cheap holiday. There are several ways to save money, from self-drive trips to travelling out of season and staying in budget campsites. In general, expect to pay anywhere from $150 per person per day for a budget safari to in excess of $1,000 per person per day for luxurious lodges in Sabi Sands.

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.

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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. The park is readily accessible and, thanks to an impressive road system, easy to travel around.

This is safari made easy — perhaps too easy. 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.

Kruger National Park 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 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 a 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

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.

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Best Reserves In Kruger National Park

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:
Big Five
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
Birdlife

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
Birdlife
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
Photo safari

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
Big Five
Family friendly

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
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
Big Five
Photo safari

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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 lodges and accommodation

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.

A place of superlatives, Sabi Sands Game Reserve is in effect a continuation of the massive Kruger National Park, but by anyone’s standards Sabi Sands is no mere Kruger add-on. 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. And these reserves restrict visitor numbers to the lucky few guests staying at a handful of small and intimate camps.

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And what camps these are. If you’ve been fortunate enough to visit one of the private conservancies near Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve, you might think you’ve seen and experienced it all when it comes to pampered luxury. Well, many Sabi Sands camps are at least their equal, and sometimes are even more breathtaking. When it comes to wildlife, Sabi Sands is equally impressive. All the reserves here are unfenced and co-join with Kruger, which means that the wildlife can slip effortlessly around the ecosystem, and world-class wildlife guides will ensure that you get the most out of this stunning wilderness. If you can afford it, there’s no question that Sabi Sands offers the best safari experience in South Africa.

Sabi Sands Wildlife

No matter how glorious the accommodation or how gorgeous the scenery, it’s the wildlife that really counts — and few places in Africa are as good for large mammals as Sabi Sands. Indeed, many a safari expert will tell you that Sabi Sands might just be the best place on the continent in which to see all of the Big Five in a short period of time. What’s more, with visitor numbers restricted and rules on the number of jeeps allowed at any given sighting strictly enforced, it can often feel as if you have many of these animals all to yourself — and this is especially the case in the remoter northern parts of the reserve.

Elephant and lion are commonly seen as are big herds of buffalo. Rhinos are present, but are generally the hardest of the Big Five to track down. Less common, but still seen with some frequency are wild dogs. If they’re denning in the area, then guides will know and you’ll have a good chance of seeing one of Africa’s most successful, but persecuted, predators.

As with Kruger, Sabi Sands has great birdlife, although with less habitat diversity the species count is lower.

When to visit

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. Overall, June is probably the best month to visit as wildlife activity is intense, but with school holidays yet to begin, it’s less busy and accommodation is cheaper.

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Sabi Sands Reserves

Sabi Sands Game Reserve

South Africa’s most famous private game reserve, Sabi Sands really does offer it all: incredible wildlife, blissful and intimate accommodation, superb guides, comfortable, customised safari vehicles and low visitor numbers. If you want a quick-fix of mega-fauna — and you can afford the price tags — then there’s unlikely to be a better place in South Africa. Other highlights include the birds. Some 300 species have been recorded here. Then there are the walking safaris and the chance to indulge in once-in-a-lifetime experiences such as sleeping out in the open air in a romantic ‘star bed’.

Best for
Luxury lodges
Big Five

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), leopards and cheetah, but guides here are keen for guests to expand their horizons a little and look beyond the Big Five. So, they will regale you with information on the many giraffe, zebra, wildebeest, klipspringer, warthogs and waterbuck that are all daily game drive encounters.

The focus here is on low-key luxurious and beautiful accommodation and highly personalised service. They also actively encourage family safaris.

Best for
Family friendly
Photo safari

Londolozi Game Reserve

One of the original private game reserves in South Africa, Londolozi has been in existence in some form or another for nearly a century, and they’ve got the whole safari and conservation thing down to a fine art. They were one of the pioneers of leopard habituation, so you have them to thank for the ease with which these most graceful of cats are seen throughout the Sabi Sands area. But like all the reserves in Sabi Sands, 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.

Best for
Luxury lodges
Big Five

Mala Mala Game Reserve

Another one of South Africa’s original private game reserves, the massive Mala Mala has been operating since the 1920s. Although part of the Sabi Sands Reserve for some time, Mala Mala has gone its own way, but the visitor wouldn’t know the difference. The wildlife is just as impressive as before and the whole safari experience is just as polished. The difference is that Mala Mala is (marginally) more affordable than most of the others and, at around 130 sq km, is much larger. 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 it their favourite South African reserve.

Best for
Big Five
Photo safari

Sabi Sabi Game Reserve

A collection of former rangelands, Sabi Sabi is the discerning (and very well-heeled) safari goer’s choice. 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). With just four uber up-market but radically different places to stay, and traversing rights given to only one outside lodge, Sabi Sabi is exclusivity redefined.

Best for
Luxury lodges
Big Five

Ulusaba Game Reserve

Owned by Richard Branson, the Ulusaba Game Reserve offers much of the best of Sabi Sands. Here there are gorgeous lodges, superlative wildlife viewing and, unusually for the Sabi Sands area, eye-wateringly beautiful scenic backdrops. Unsurprisingly, it attracts celebrities but it’s also a down-to-earth reserve and it welcomes children with innovative family-friendly activities. On the downside, the fact that it’s one of the smaller reserves in the area and a number of outside lodges have traversing rights, means that it can get a bit busy with vehicles at times.

Best for
Luxury lodges
Family friendly

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Sabi Sands lodges and accommodation

Sabi Sands is a very upmarket safari destination. Unless you’re able to drop hundreds of US dollars a night on accommodation, you’ll need to look elsewhere as the reserves here are not open to outside visitors. The prices quoted by lodges here might appear astronomical 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.

It’s simply not possible to recommend any particular Sabi Sands camp or lodge over another. All are pretty much perfect in their own way, and the guiding and wildlife sighting at all of them is of equal standard.

Did you know?

The Sabi Sands reserves basically kick-started the entire private conservation area movement in Africa and some of these reserves have been in operation in some form or another for approaching a hundred years. But Sabi Sands has more than just history on its side, it also has some of the world’s most reliable leopard and other Big Five sightings.

Centred on the beach bum surf city of Durban, the huge — and hugely diverse — province of KwaZulu-Natal on South Africa’s east coast doesn’t have the stellar international wildlife reputation of other parts of South Africa. And yet, with its rich ocean currents, soaring mountain plateau, searing savannahs and swampy shorelines, sub-tropical KwaZulu-Natal is actually one of the more rewarding wildlife-watching areas of the country.

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Drag yourself off the beach towel and you might find yourself having thrilling face-to-face encounters with lumbering hippo, ancient turtles, racing cheetah, breaching whales, growling lions and heavy-footed elephants.

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. It’s a wonderful region to explore and one that, for the moment at least, is mainly the preserve of in-the-know South African wildlife watchers.

Wildlife in Kwazulu – Natal

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 animals that call Kwazulu-Natal home 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.

The bird-life in this region is also unusually prolific and even the least ornithologically inclined visitor can’t fail to be startled by the flurry of bright feathers of a mangrove kingfisher (a winter only visitor) or Natal robin (its name recently changed to red-capped robin-chat).

Kwazulu-Natal is a wildlife-watching destination all year round with something magically natural taking place at any given time. The prime period for Hluhluwe-iMfolozi though is May to August when the grass is shortest and wildlife easiest to spot. But if you like your animals small and cute, then November to January is birthing season for many mammals, while in February the elephants make a bee-line for the marula trees. The bigger parks in this area are very popular with South Africans and it’s worth trying to avoid the school holidays if you value a modicum of peace.

When to visit

KwaZulu-Natal is a year-round wildlife-watching destination, with something magically natural taking place at any given time. The prime period to visit Hluhluwe-iMfolozi is May to August, when the grass is shortest and wildlife easiest to spot. But if you like your animals small and cute, then November to January is birthing season for many mammals, while in February the elephants make a bee-line for marula trees. The bigger parks in this area are very popular with South Africans and it’s worth trying to avoid the school holidays if you want a more peaceful experience.

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Kwazulu – Natal Reserves

Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park

Second only to Kruger National Park, the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park is a nearly thousand square kilometre slab of wilderness surrounded by private game reserves. With its soaring hills and mountains, Hluhluwe-iMfolozi is scenically much more inspiring than the sometimes drab scrub-scape of Kruger. It is thanks to an innovative and wildly successful breeding programme here that the southern white rhino exists at all, and rhinos from Hluhluwe-iMfolozi have been used to re-populate parks and reserves across southern Africa.

Today, it would be a rare game drive that didn’t bump into at least one of these prehistoric looking creatures. Elephants are common as are buffalo, zebra, giraffe and wildebeest. Much harder to find are the big cats.

Hluhluwe-iMfolozi is easily accessible and has great facilities for people on all budgets. This makes it a good family-safari destination, but it also means it’s the most popular park in KwaZulu-Natal and during the holidays it can get very busy with holidaying locals.

Best for
Family friendly
Budget

Phinda Game Reserve

If you’re a fan of that spotted blur of speed, the cheetah, then Phinda Game Reserve will make you very happy. Completely fenced, and therefore not really a part of a greater ecosystem, Phinda Game Reserve still manages to be one of the very best private game reserves in South Africa.

With its winning combination of attractive scenery, large numbers of mammals including all the Big Five, more than 400 bird species, stupendously beautiful accommodation and a real sense of exclusivity, a range of exciting visitor activities and a forward-looking conservation and community programme, it’s easy to see how it garners endless accolades.

To combine safari with marine wildlife watching, visit the Sodwana coast which rivals the Great Barrier Reef for marine birds.

A stay here doesn’t come cheap and you can only enter the reserve as a guest of one of the six very upmarket lodges. But if your budget stretches to it then, in our opinion, Phinda is one of the very best places for a short safari and you’re almost guaranteed to see all the flagship animals.

Best for
Birdlife
Luxury lodges

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Kwazulu – Natal lodges and accommodation

Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park is the more wallet-friendly of the two parks included here. The park authorities maintain a number of (fairly simple) camps with rondavels (huts) and safari tents. There are also some upmarket lodges which have to be rented in their entirety. You need to provide your own food but a chef is on hand to turn it into something very edible!

Phinda Game Reserve is a different story. There are six lodges here all of which are extraordinarily lavish and come on a full-package basis including meals, safaris and most drinks and other activities. All of them are managed by &Beyond (andbeyond.com) — one of Africa’s better and more conservation-minded safari companies.

Help collar an elephant

For an experience never to be forgotten, guests at Phinda Game Reserve can join the elephant collaring experience. The elephants are collared so that scientists can track their movements accurately and get a more complete grasp on what needs to be done to protect them. Guests can observe scientists and vets track, dart and collar the elephants, but due to the nature of the work this experience can only be had when an elephant actually needs a collar replaced.

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.

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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.

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.

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North West Province reserves

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
Big Five
Budget

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
Family friendly
Self-drive

Pilanesberg National Park

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
Big city access
Budget

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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.

In many respects, the Eastern Cape is a microcosm of the best of South Africa. Here are swathes of surf-lashed beaches, big industrial cities, desert horizons and green and quiet walking trails winding over mountain passes and along coastal cliffs. There is also an abundance of wildlife and a diverse network of national parks and game reserves in which to enjoy the animals. In general, the parks and reserves in this region are smaller than those in the northern half of the country and lack something of the grand scale and wilderness found in other areas. Even so, with all the Big Five present, this is a great short safari destination.

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Throw in easy access from major travel hubs, excellent tourist infrastructure and the possibility of slotting beaches, Cape Town and other attractions into the mix, and you’ll understand why the Eastern Cape is one of the most rewarding and deservedly popular wildlife destinations in South Africa.

Eastern cape wildlife

Eastern Cape contains many different ecosystems and this is reflected in the large range of different, and very diverse, species found here. How diverse? Well what would you think if we said that in the morning you could watch a lion yawning under the shade of a spreading acacia tree, and in the afternoon you could giggle at penguins, those classics of the ice-pack, waddling comically up a sub-tropical beach?

All of the reserves and parks listed here are home to buffalo, elephant, rhino, lion and leopard as well as a multitude of other big mammals. But the bird life is equally spectacular and includes some regional endemics. Talking of endemics, who would want to miss out on a date with the flightless dung beetle, Addo Elephant National Park’s endemic insect! Okay, so a photo of it isn’t going to wow your friends the way a picture of a snorting hippo might, but it does go to show what a depth of wildlife watching opportunities the Eastern Cape has.

Eastern Cape is a wildlife-watching destination all year round, but the prime months are April, when the summer rains should have ceased, the countryside is lush and green, and the temperatures are pleasant, and September and October when spring flowers bud in the semi-desert Karoo area.

When to visit

Eastern Cape is a wildlife-watching destination all year round, but the prime months are April — when the summer rains should have ceased, the countryside is lush and green, and the temperatures are pleasant — and September and October when spring flowers bud in the semi-desert Karoo area.

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Eastern Cape reserves

Addo Elephant National Park

This, one of South Africa’s largest national parks, is best known for its namesake elephants. But this diverse park, which includes river valleys, mountains, savannahs, forests and beaches, has much more 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. But it’s those elephants that most people come to see. When the park was formed back in the 1930s there were fewer than a dozen elephants here. Today there are more than 600 and sightings are almost a given.

As well as fantastic wildlife, Addo has excellent tourist facilities and accommodation, easy access, a good road network and, with hiking, kayaking and horse riding, plenty of activities to get you out of the cramped safari vehicle. This is also one of the better family safari destinations.

Best for
Family friendly
Big city access

Amakhala Game Reserve

Amakhala might be a relatively small private reserve (around 75 sq km), but it packs a big punch. 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. Expert guides will ensure that most visitors get to gawp at all these animals. Amakhala has a good range of accommodation and caters to most budgets.

Best for
Big Five
Budget

Kariega Game Reserve

The family-owned and managed Kariega is a 10,000-hectare private reserve made up of former ranch and farmland. Restocked, as almost all the parks and reserves in Eastern Cape have been, with native wildlife that was wiped out in the 1800s and 1900s, Kariega today has thriving populations of all the classic large mammals of southern Africa. The coastal bush and lush river valleys give the reserve a rare scenic beauty. With a combination of quality accommodation, superb guides, lots of different activities and proximity to the beaches of the Garden Route, Kariega is almost the perfect destination for a short safari break.

Best for
Big city access
Self drive

Kwantu Private Game Reserve

At 6,000 hectares, the Kwantu Private Game Reserve is a relatively small reserve 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. As with many Eastern Cape reserves, a heart-pumping vehicle safari is not the only reason to visit. The reserve also offers swimming pools, top-class accommodation, a domestic animal “touch” farm, herb garden, reptile centre, museum and sports. 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.

Best for
Big Five
Family friendly

Lalibela Game Reserve

Spanning five different ecosystems and home to an impressive range of plants and animals, this malaria-free, Big Five reserve is the only private reserve in the Eastern Cape that has no public roads running through it. This means that the wildlife here (which as well as the Big Five also includes zebra, impala, giraffe, cheetah and jackal among others) can be seen in 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. Being only about an hour from Addo Elephant National Park and the city of Port Elizabeth, means that Lalibela is easily reached.

Best for
Big Five
Big city access

Pumba Game Reserve

Being very close to the sprawling city of Port Elizabeth and open to day guests (though only those who take one of the reserve’s organised safaris), means that Pumba Game Reserve receives a lot more visitors than some of the region’s remoter parks. As with any Eastern Cape reserve worth its salt, Pumba has all the Big Five as well cheetah, hippo, 300-odd bird species and unusual white lions. Alongside safaris, other activities include walking safaris, nocturnal game drives, specialist birding safaris, fishing, archery — and there’s even a spa for good measure.

Best for
Big Five
Big city access

Shamwari Game Reserve

Perhaps the best regarded — and most exclusive — of all the private game reserves in the Eastern Cape, Shamwari is a short drive to the east of Addo Elephant National Park. Like that park, it is home to a large number of classic African safari mammals including rhinos, elephants and lions. What makes this park really stand out from the wildebeest herd 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.

With a dedicated children’s coordinator and a range of child-friendly activities, this is one of the better family safari destinations in the country. Shamwari is only open to guests at its very plush lodges and the Edwardian manor house.

Best for
Luxury lodges
Family friendly

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Eastern Cape lodges and accommodation

There’s a wide choice of accommodation in Addo Elephant National Park with something to suit most budgets. For something special, try Kuzuko Lodge or the River Bend Lodge.

The private reserves all have their own, mostly upmarket, lodges and camps. See the individual park websites for details of these.

Back from the brink

Hunting and alternative land use decimated populations of large mammals throughout Eastern Cape in the 18th and 19th centuries. Today, most of the private reserves in the region have been restocked with native wildlife and numbers of all the big mammals are rising fast.

For most visitors to South Africa, the Western Cape is all about the finer things in life: food, wine, beaches and Cape Town — arguably the most beautiful city in Africa. For many, wildlife safaris don’t really come into the equation.

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However, if you know where to look, then the Western Cape does offer the chance to pull out a big camera lens and head out in search of elephants and lions. 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 Africa.

However, if all you’re looking for is a family-friendly, short safari experience that can be easily slotted into a wine tour or a Cape Town city break, then the Western Cape fits the bill.

Western Cape wildlife

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.

Western Cape is a wildlife-watching destination all year round, but try to avoid December and January which are busy tourist periods when accommodation prices rise significantly.

When to visit

The Western Cape is a wildlife-watching destination all year round, but try to avoid December and January which are busy tourist periods when accommodation prices rise significantly.

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Western Cape reserves

Aquila Private Game Reserve

Named after the endangered black (Verreaux) eagle, Aquila is one of a number of small and rather stage-managed private reserves, a short drive from Cape Town. The 10,000-hectare conservancy was established back in 1999 and at the time was home to only a few antelope. Today, thanks to animal reintroduction and solid conservation programmes, Aquila Private Game Reserve is home to all of the Big Five as well as a significant number of other large mammals and birdlife.

It would be wrong to paint Aquila as a true African wilderness experience, but it can’t be faulted for quality wildlife viewing, which includes near guaranteed sightings of lions and all their friends and enemies, lots of alternative activities, easy access (you can visit on a day trip from Cape Town), and high-class accommodation.

Best for
Big city access
Big Five

Named after the endangered black, or verreaux, eagle (Aquila verreauxii), Aquila is one of a number of small and rather stage managed private reserves, a short drive from Cape Town. The 10,000 hectare conservancy was established back in 1999 and at the time was home to only a few antelope. Today, thanks to animal reintroductions and solid conservation programmes, Aquila Private Game Reserve is home to all of the Big Five as well as a significant number of other large mammals and birdlife. It would be wrong to paint Aquila as a true African wilderness experience, but it can’t be faulted for quality wildlife viewing, which includes near guaranteed sightings of lions and all their friends and enemies, lots of alternative activities, easy access (you can visit on a day trip from Cape Town), and high-class accommodation.

Sanbona Wildlife Reserve

Combine big cats with wine tasting, and you get the 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. Covering more than 50,000 hectares, Sanbona is large enough to feel like a genuine wilderness, but at the same time is only a three-hour drive from Cape Town and lies close to the Western Cape’s famed wine lands. This means it’s easy to slip a Big Five safari into a wine tasting tour and a Cape Town city break.

Situated at the foot of the Warmwaterberg Mountains in the Little Karoo, Sanbona offers three reserves with all the usual luxuries.

As well as standard vehicle safaris, we recommend joining an overnight walking safari and trying a bush camping experience. Look out for the 3,500-year-old rock art depicting people and animals left by the San and Khoikhoi tribes.

Best for
Big Five
Self drive

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Western Cape lodges and accommodation

The reserves have their own upmarket lodges and camps. See the individual park websites for details. Both reserves are close enough to Cape Town to make day trips feasible if not entirely desirable — after all, the accommodation is a major part of the whole experience.

Don’t miss

While you’re in the Western Cape don’t miss a trip to Table Mountain (as if you would!) In addition to the great views over Cape Town, its distinctive shape, known as a “sky island”, is a botanical wonderland. The plant life here is primarily fynbos, a type of shrubland that is unique to the region. There are more than 1,500 species that are found only on Table Mountain and nearby Black Table and are protected by World Heritage Site status.

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