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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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.

Best time for safari in South Africa

The 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. 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.

Weather month-by-month

January is hot and dry on the Cape, and this coupled with South African school holidays makes the region very popular at this time of year. The Garden Route is stunning at the beginning of the year, with the dry weather drawing animals to come and drink at water holes. Baby penguins are born on Boulders Beach on the Cape in January and February.

March marks the start of autumn in South Africa but temperatures remains high, though rains fall on Kruger, making the bush thick and wildlife harder to spot. Instead, head for the beaches in the south and soak up some late summer sun. April and May are cooler still and are an excellent time to visit the famous national parks, as rutting season begins and larger animals are out in force.

As winter takes hold the Cape can become cool and drizzly, so instead make for the north and east where the temperatures are warmer and conditions drier, with July a great time to spot the Big Five in national parks. If you do stay south, June is migration season for southern right whales along the Cape’s southern coast.

August brings spring to South Africa and gorgeous wildflowers bloom on the west coast until the early summer. September is birthing season in the national parks and as the weather warms up across the country, this is a perfect month to combine regions before the summer rains set in. Whales calve in Walker Bay until October.

Festivals & events

South Africa hosts a huge number of festivals throughout the year, starting on January 2nd in Cape Town with the Kaapse Klopse, Cape Town’s answer to Rio’s Carnival. The highlight is the Tweede Nuwe Jaar (Second New Year) street parade where you can watch hundreds of partygoers sing and dance past in extravagant costumes.

The autumn brings harvest season in the wine regions, and there is no better way to celebrate than the Robertson Valley Hands-On Harvest, a three-day wine and food festival in March. If that is not enough indulgence for you, the Knysna Oyster festival takes place every June or July.

Away from the dinner table, South Africa’s arts scene offers up plenty of choice, from the Cape Town Jazz Festival in March to the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown in July, as well as Kirstenbosch’s famous series of summer concerts in November. If all that sounds too mainstream for your tastes, head to Afrikaburn, South Africa’s answer to Burning Man, a counter-culture festival held for five days in the autumn in the Tankwa Karoo in the Northern Cape.

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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.

Wildlife encounters

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.

Healthwise, 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.

Safari packing list

You don’t need much specialist equipment 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.

What to pack for a safari in South Africa

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

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

Which region should I visit?

If safari and wildlife spotting is the be-all and end-all to your trip then the the northeastern region with its greater density of parks and reserves is likely your best option.

But if you intend to mix safari with some other activities, such as whale watching, diving, food and wine, then the parks of the Eastern and Western Cape may be a better option.

For detailed guides to each region see the following section, South Africa's best safari parks.

Self-drive or organised safari?

There are two main classes of safari: self-drive and organised trips.

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.

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’re cheaper, allow you to visit places that aren’t included in package tours, and they give you more freedom to change plans at the last moment.

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. 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 safaris are created equal. The best organised 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.

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

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.

How much does a safari in South Africa 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.

What are the days like while 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.

Is safari dangerous?

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.

Are safari camps family-friendly?

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.

What is the food like in safari camps?

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.

Currency and money

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.

Will I have to carry lots of cash?

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 travelers checks at a bank).

How much should we tip our safari guides?

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.

How to book a safari in South Africa

Stuart Butler

Stuart is the author of Lonely Planet’s Trekking in Nepal, the Rough Guide to Nepal, the Tibet chapter of the Rough Guide to China and the Bradt guide to Kashmir & Ladakh. He also writes widely about East Africa and conservation issues.

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