An African safari is, without any exaggeration, one of the most unique experiences on Earth. The wide, expansive savanna offers a glimpse into a truly wild environment and a chance to see the Big 5 (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo – originally named because they were the most difficult to hunt on foot), hear a cacophony of new sounds and witness some of the most renowned sunsets in the world. And when it comes to that flawless combination, a South Africa safari takes the crown.
But it's a hard thing to plan. For something with so much to consider – like what type of accommodation to choose, where to stay, which parks and game reserves to head to, what time of year to visit – it's hard to know where to start. So, we've rounded up our best tips to help you plan a safari in South Africa.
Which are the best parks for wildlife?
Kruger National Park (Mpumalanga and Limpopo)
Let's start with the big one. Kruger National Park is the ultimate South Africa safari, loved for its extensive wildlife, from the Big Five to cheetah, painted wolves, hyena, wildebeest, zebra, giraffe, hippo, and over 500 bird species. This abundance is, in part, due to how big this national park is – the Kruger measures 19,485 sq km, hugging the Mozambique border and crossing the provinces of Mpumalanga and Limpopo.
White rhino chatting with a bird, Kruger National Park, South Africa © 4uphoto_Valeria De Mattei/Shutterstock
There are plenty of ways to do Kruger National Park across all sorts of budgets. The park is run by the South African National Parks (SAN parks), while additional land on the western flank is divided into private farms and game reserves known as 'Greater Kruger'. Staying at these private reserves, such as renowned ones like Sabi Sands and Lion Sands, will give you an exclusive, luxury experience, while more affordable options are to self-drive or take an organised tour.
How do I get there?
The best way to get to Kruger National Park is flying into Johannesburg and either catching another flight to an airport serving the park, self-driving or joining an organised tour.
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Kgalagadi Trans-frontier Park, Northern Cape
Africa's first trans-frontier park spanning across both South Africa and Botswana, you could even tick two countries off in one go when going on safari here. Although the majority of the park is in Botswana, you'll still find the visit worthwhile. The open landscape gives an unobstructed view for spotting animals, and Kgalagadi is most well known for its predators; if you have your heart set on seeing a leopard, cheetah, spotted hyena or the black-maned Kalahari lion, this South Africa safari will be your best bet. If meat-eaters aren't your thing, the park is also known for its seasonal movement of herbivores such as wildebeest, springbok and the gemsbok.
How do I get there?
As many South Africa safari journeys begin, you'll most likely start by flying into Johannesburg (or somewhere within the Gauteng province), and then either renting a car from there and making the drive to the park, or taking another flight closer to Upington, where you can also rent a car, or have a tour pick you up.
Springbok antelope jumping, or pronking, South Africa © EcoPrint/Shutterstock
Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, Kwazulu-Natal
Despite being a twentieth of the size of Kruger, Hluluwe-iMofolozi Park is sometimes considered to be far superior. While it can't compete with the game populations, it does have a distinctly more wild feel due to the fact that no restcamps (bar one) are fenced off, allowing the animals to wander through at leisure, if they so wish. All of the Big Five are here, and it's one of the best places in not only South Africa, but the world, to see rhino, both black and white. It's also well worth coming here for wilderness hiking trails, of which there are some of the best in the country.
How do I get there?
There's no public transport to Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, so your best bet is renting a car or arranging a tour from Durban. In fact, it's close enough to Durban that you can even go on a day tour, which makes this park a perfect beach-safari escape.
Young zebras playing in the bush © Natalie Shuttleworth/Shutterstock
Addo Elephant Park, Eastern Cape
As the name suggests, this park in the Eastern Cape is known for its excellent elephant spotting – no other park in the country has as many. Another great advantage to Addo Elephant Park (and the private reserves around it if you fancy some pampering) is that it's malaria-free, so no inconvenient or side-effect inducing medication is needed. It's also the only national park in South Africa with a coastline (albeit in a separate section with its own entrance).
Elephants are of course the main draw, but lions and hyenas have been reintroduced here, and Addo is also home to the Big Five. Addo Elephant Park's bush is more thick than other parks, which means it may sometimes be more difficult to see game, but when you do it's usually very close-up.
How do I get there?
Port Elizabeth is the closest major city, so you'll need to fly into there and then drive (either rent a car or get picked up by a lodge or tour) the 75km to the park.
Two young elephant calves © John Michael Vosloo/Shutterstock
Madikwe Game Reserve, North west province
Tucked near the Botswana border, Madikwe Game Reserve has remarkably few visitors compared to other South Africa safari parks, but boasts excellent lodges and wildlife-spotting opportunities, including lions (and the rest of the Big Five), elephants, cheetahs, antelopes, hyenas and over 350 bird species. One of the largest parks and malaria-free, it's also an exclusive resort: there's no self-drive option here and independent day visits aren't allowed, so only guests of one of the 20-plus lodges here can enter the park and reap the benefits of this uncrowded and wildlife-rich area.
How do I get there?
You can drive from Johannesburg, which is 360km away, just make sure you notify your lodge when you will be arriving. By plane, there are a few daily flights from Johannesburg's airport.
When's the best time to go on a South Africa safari?
While park to park the months may alter slightly, the general consensus is that the best time to go on a South Africa safari for the best wildlife-viewing experience is in the dry season, from May to October. The grass is low, visibility is better and the dry conditions mean you'll find more wildlife congregating around the watering holes. The temperatures are also much cooler than the sticky, hot summer. However, the summer months are often cheaper, the lush vegetation is a spectacular view, and baby animals can make an appearance.
Cheetahs out for a stroll © Ewan Chesser/Shutterstock
Budget and mid-range
It's not often you hear the words 'South Africa safari on a budget', given it's a more expensive holiday than most, but keeping the costs down is not impossible. If you're looking to keep the purse strings tight, start with South Africa National Parks. It's responsible for 20 parks in South Africa and its properties are usually much cheaper than those in private game reserves. Doing a self-drive safari will also lower the costs. Alternatively, you can book onto a tour which, dependent on the operator, can keep costs affordable.
As has been suggested already, choosing a private game reserve will push you towards the more luxury, decadent way of experiencing a South Africa safari. There is no self-driving allowed here, which means you won't be sharing your sights with a trail of other cars, and also allows for a much grander sense of wilderness. Instead, you'll be taken out on game drives in a comfortable 4WD with plenty of information from your guide. Accommodation is usually in romantic rooms (hence why safaris are a great honeymoon choice) or luxury "tents", overlooking the savanna.
Top image: Cheetah at Kruger National Park, South Africa © Sekar B/Shutterstock