Everything you need to know to plan a South African safari

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Kirsten Powley
10/14/2020

A South 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. That is, lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo – originally named because they were the most difficult to hunt on foot. Aside from wildlife spotting, you'll witness some of the most renowned sunsets in the world.

But a safari is a hard thing to plan. There's a lot to consider – like what type of accommodation to choose, which game reserves to visit and when to go. 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 destination, 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 the park is. The Kruger measures 19,485 sq km, reaching from the Mozambique border across the provinces of Mpumalanga and Limpopo.

White rhino chatting with a bird, Kruger National Park, South Africa © 4uphoto_Valeria De Mattei/Shutterstock

There are different ways to do Kruger National Park at different price points. The park is run by South African National Parks. The park has additional land on the western flank is divided into private farms and game reserves known as 'Greater Kruger'. These private reserves, such as renowned ones like Sabi Sands and Lion Sands, will give you an exclusive, luxury experience. Alternatively, you can stay outside the park and organise a self-drive or organised tour.

How do I get there?

The best way to get to Kruger National Park is by flying into Johannesburg and transferring to a smaller flight into the park, hiring a car, or joining a tour with transport provided.

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Kgalagadi Trans-frontier Park, Northern Cape

Africa's first trans-frontier park spans South Africa and Botswana – so you can tick two countries off in one go on safari here. The open landscape gives an unobstructed view for spotting animals. 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. The park is also known for its seasonal movement of herbivores such as wildebeest, springbok and the gemsbok.

How do I get there?

As with Kruger and South Africa safari journeys, you'll most likely start by flying into Johannesburg. You can then rent a car or take another flight closer to Upington, where you can 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, Hluhluwe-iMofolozi Park is considered superior by some. While it can't compete with the game populations, it does have a distinctly more wild feel. Only one of the rest camps is fenced off, allowing the animals to wander at leisure. 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?

Durban is the best starting point for Hluhluwe-iMfolozi. 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 a bigger elephant population. In addition, Addo Elephant Park (and the private reserves around it) are malaria-free. This means no inconvenient or side-effect inducing medication is needed. It's also the only national park in South Africa that has a section of coastline.

Elephants are of course the main draw, but lions and hyenas have been reintroduced here. Addo is also home to the Big Five. The bush is thicker here 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 or get picked up by a lodge or tour.

Two young elephant calves © John Michael Vosloo/Shutterstock

Madikwe Game Reserve, Northwest province

Tucked near the Botswanan border, Madikwe Game Reserve has remarkably few visitors compared to other South Africa safari parks. Despite this, it 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, Madikwe is an exclusive resort. There's no self-drive option here and day visits aren't allowed. 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, or take one of the few daily flights from Johannesburg airport to the park.

When's the best time to go on a South Africa safari?

The best time to go on a South Africa safari 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. That said, the summer months (November to April) are often cheaper, the lush vegetation is spectacular, and baby animals can make an appearance.

Cheetahs out for a stroll © Ewan Chesser/Shutterstock

Accommodation

Budget and mid-range

It's not often you hear the words 'South Africa safari on a budget', 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, depending on the operator, can keep costs affordable.

Luxury

As has been suggested already, choosing a private game reserve will push you towards the more luxury end of your budget. Private reserves mean you won't be sharing the park with a trail of other cars. 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.

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Top image: Cheetah at Kruger National Park, South Africa © Sekar B/Shutterstock

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