How to book a safari in South Africa

South Africa's Best Game Reserves

South Africa's Best Game Reserves
By Stuart Butler

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. 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.

There are infinite ways to enjoy this wildlife and the soul-stirring landscapes they live within. You can walk with highly-trained guides in the bush searching for the tiny creatures that keep the ecosystem ticking. 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 South Africa today.

And, of course, you can climb into a jeep and set out on a pulse-racing safari in search of the Big Five.

The following are some of South Africa’s best game parks and reserves for every type of safari. Saddle up for the ride, this is the thrill of a lifetime!


Baobab trees can live for over 2,000 years

Best Big Five game reserves

For many, safari in Africa is synonymous with seeing the Big Five: lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, and buffalo. Originally coined by big game hunters to describe the most challenging quarry, these days the phrase is more about appreciating the wild and bagging perfect photos rather than skins and trophies. South Africa is one of the few places you can see the Big Five at a single location, and any of the following game reserves would be a good bet:


The mighty African elephant

Where to go for the Big Five

  1. Sabi Sands Game Reserve
    This 65,000-hectare reserve is, in many respects, the finest chunk of wildlife-filled wilderness in southern Africa and is prime Big Five territory.
  2. Madikwe Game Reserve
    A state-run reserve with an air of tranquility that is obviously appreciated by the wildlife. Most of the Big Five are easily seen, with rhinos a real speciality.
  3. Eastern Cape Game Reserves
    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.
  4. Timbavati Game Reserve (Kruger)
    Timbavati is known for its high-quality guides, a wide range of safari activities, superb lodges, and a rare population of white lions.
  5. 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.

Best reserves for birdwatching

The Big Five might steal all the safari limelight, but with ecosystems ranging from marine to forest to savannah, South Africa is also a world-class birdwatching destination. If you’re more into birding than game spotting, or if you’ve already been there and got the Big Five t-shirt, the following parks and game reserves could be for you:


South Africa's lilac breasted roller

Where to go birdwatching

  1. Hluhluwe Game Reserve
    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.
  2. Kruger National Park
    Kruger, South Africa’s safari heavyweight, is home to much more than big game and its varied habitats support more than 500 bird species.
  3. Welgevonden Game Reserve
    Welgevonden is home to the world’s largest colony of Cape vultures, along with the African harrier hawk, jackal buzzard, several eagle species, and more.
  4. 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.

Good game reserves for photo safaris

You’ll get some incredible snaps on any safari. But if you have a keener interest in photography you may be better off on a specialist photo safari trip. You’ll be travelling with fellow photographers, so the others will be as keen as you are on capturing the perfect shot. Your vehicles may also have specialist equipment, such as sliding camera mounts, bucket seats, lighting and a dedicated photographic ranger. For the best photo safaris, have a look at some of the following locations.


Sunset over the South African savannah; perfect photo safari material

Where to go on photo safari

  1. Madikwe
    Madikwe is a great 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.
  2. Welgevonden
    Contained within the Waterberg Biosphere Reserve, Welgevonden has space, solitude and abundant wildlife - almost purpose-made for wildlife photography.
  3. Pumba Game Reserve
    Pumba has all the Big Five as well cheetah, hippo, 300-odd bird species and a population of rare white lions.
  4. Kruger National Park
    One of the great parks of Africa, Kruger and the surrounding private reserves are home to all of southern Africa’s iconic mammal species and many of the private reserves offer top quality specialised photo safaris.

Best reserves for game drives

The game drive is the safari centrepiece. You and your fellow passengers will climb aboard a sturdy 4X4 with your ranger-guide and head out to track down some of that iconic wildlife. There are daytime drives (usually leaving pre-dawn), night drives, and true off-road trips. For some of the best and most varied game drives, take a look at the following:


Game drive in Sabi Sands game reserve

Where to go for game drives

  1. Sabi Sands
    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.
  2. Madikwe
    No self-drive safaris are allowed here, so game drives get the entire place to themselves. With the complete Big Five collection, plus plenty of bird life and populations of wild dogs and the unusual brown hyena, Madikwe is an undisputed chart-topper.
  3. Phinda
    High-end Phinda is one of the very best places for a short safari and you’re almost guaranteed to see all the flagship animals, plus the lightning-fast cheetah.
  4. Timbavati
    This magical private reserve borders the main Kruger park and, with no fences to block access, Timbavati is home to all the main mammal and bird species that Kruger is famed for.

Best South African parks for family safaris

A family safari provides your little ones with the chance to see all those famous animals up close. Many reserves now offer specific family-oriented options. It’s also worth considering hiring a private vehicle for family safaris — this gives you the chance to decide how long to spend out in the open and tailor the trip around your children.


The African wild dog

Where to go for family safaris

  1. Madikwe
    Unlike many nominal ‘child friendly’ reserves, Madikwe makes a concerted effort to provide specifically family-oriented facilities and activities, ranging from kids’ clubs and toddler care to specially trained guides to bring the safari experience alive for all ages.
  2. Waterberg
    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.
  3. Pilanesberg
    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.
South Africa's Best Game Reserves

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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