Of the many amazing things to do in this beautiful county - a South African safari is among the most awesome. With game parks and reserves scattered across the country, covering vast areas of the stunning landscape of every description, you are never far away from an encounter with nature and an experience of a lifetime.
Kruger National Park
Of the many sights to see in South Africa, spotting the “Big Five” on safari – lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant and Cape buffalo – is an unmissable experience. Seeing these magnificent animals is a much easier (and safer) proposition than it once was, especially in Kruger National Park, a vast tract of land that is one of Africa’s largest game reserves and one of the best places to visit with kids.
It may look tiny on a map of South Africa, tucked away into the northeast corner, but it’s a staggering 350km from north to south and 80km from east to west. The number of animals is equally big: roughly 160,000 impalas, 30,000 zebras, 13,000 elephants and 1,600 lions roam the park among the 140 species of mammals.
Once you’ve seen the "Big Five" and plenty of others, you might be just as taken by the birdlife. Kruger even has its own “Big Six” birds found nowhere else in the world – among a total of 500 bird species.
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 the transport provided.
Kruger National Park is one of the best-known national parks in South Africa and is always worth a visit. Start and end this tailor-made Kruger adventure in Johannesburg is the perfect stop to then take a domestic flight towards George or Cape Town for the rest of your trip.
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park
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 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.
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 rhinos, 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 South Africa safari escape.
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 in other parks, which means it may sometimes be more difficult to see the 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 here and then drive or get picked up by a lodge or tour.
Madikwe Game Reserve
Tucked near the Botswanan border, Madikwe Game Reserve has remarkably few visitors compared to other South African 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.
Private game reserves
On the western edge of Kruger are many private game reserves that add five-star pampering to the safari experience. There are no fences separating them from the national park itself, so the wildlife is the same, but game drives can go off-road for an even closer encounter. And afterwards, you can relax in luxurious surroundings and share stories over the very best in food and drink.
Sabi Sands is a large reserve with a number of luxury camps, including Singita which has often been voted the best in Africa. The exclusivity of Sabi Sands means its wildlife is well accustomed to human behaviour and vehicles can get very close indeed. It’s named for spanning the Sabie and Sand rivers, so rest assured it’s not actually a sandy desert.
MalaMala is even more exclusive, only open to guests staying at the reserve – not the policy elsewhere. That means fewer vehicles and better game spotting, making it a popular choice for photographers. While still luxurious, and a haunt of A-List celebrities, its emphasis is on Big Five viewing rather than the latest style trends.
Greater Makalali Game Reserve
The Greater Makalali Game Reserve is an hour west of Kruger National Park, and roughly 80km from Hoedspruit Airport, in the arid Lowveld region of Limpopo. It’s open savanna grassland and acacia bush, cut by the Makhutswi River, and dotted with native trees such as marula and knobthorn. These rolling hills are a contrast to the rougher terrain closer to Kruger, making for lovely views and easier Big Five spotting.
Makalali is an important migration route for wildlife, connecting Kruger with the rugged Drakensberg mountains to the west at the edge of the African plateau. The reserve is for overnight guests only and Garonga Safari Camp is one of the most romantic lodges you can find. Makalali means “place of rest” and you’ll understand why if you stay.
MUST-DO: Makalali is home to the lovely but rare sable antelope, whose horns can reach up to 1.2m in length, making it a special sight to add to your Big Five viewing.
South African National Parks
Kruger gets the headlines but South African National Parks (SAN Parks) actually manages 21 parks in all. These include such gems as Mokala National Park in the Northern Cape, home to many endangered species, and Mountain Zebra in the Eastern Cape, where you can track cheetahs on foot with an experienced guide. That’s just as amazing as it sounds.
MUST-DO: The black-maned lions of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, bordering Botswana, are a unique sight in themselves but the Kalahari desert adds even more to the experience. It’s also the best place in South Africa to see a cheetah.
Aquila Private Game Reserve
Only two hours from Cape Town, Aquila's remote setting makes it feel even further away from city life. It’s the only Big Five reserve in the Cape. You may even tick them all off on the drive-in, especially in the dry season when the bush is thinner.
The four-star lodge has bars, a restaurant and a spa and you can watch hippos in the reserve’s dam from many of the rooms. Scattered around the grounds are private luxury cottages in African style.
If you can drag yourself away from the buffet, there are dawn, post-lunch and sunset game drives. You can also enjoy the reserve on quad bike or horseback.
MUST-DO: No wildlife lover’s trip to Cape Town would be complete without a visit to the Boulders Beach Penguin Colony in Simon's Town. However, the seal colonies at Hout Bay or Duiker Island are just as entertaining.
Safari at Sea
As well as the Big Five, in South Africa, you can add whales and the great white shark to make the Big Seven. For that, you obviously have to head to the coast.
This eastern coast, with the city of Durban at its heart, meets the border with Mozambique in the north and the Eastern Cape Province to the south at Port Edward. KZN’s Indian Ocean frontage means plenty of soft sandy beaches, seaside resorts and nature reserves with lots of birdlife.
iSimangaliso Wetland Park
North of Durban, this park protects almost 300km of coastline from St Lucia northwards. There are eight interconnected ecosystems including coral-rich Sodwana Bay, great for scuba diving, and freshwater Lake Sibaya, with its huge numbers of hippos, crocodiles and birds.
There are plenty of lovely sub-tropical beaches along this coast and a good choice of places to stay, from luxury beach lodges to campsites. A 4x4 vehicle is a good idea if you want to explore further north but Cape Vidal, just outside St Lucia, is a beautiful campsite where you can sometimes see whales and dolphins offshore.
Between November and March, you have the joy of sharing the beaches with nesting loggerhead and leatherback turtles. You won’t want to disturb them, so sign up for a tour with an expert guide.
Inland, you can see the Big Five in Mkuze Game Reserve which also draws in birdwatchers from all over the world for its 420 bird species. Tembe Elephant Park is another special place, where some of the largest elephants in Africa are looked after on land donated by the Tembe tribe.
KwaZulu-Natal’s whale season is June-July when they follow the Sardine Run up the coast on the way to warmer waters. This migration is much bigger in numbers than the famous Serengeti wildebeest migration, involving billions of South African pilchards and their predators: mainly gannets and dolphins.
A sightseeing flight, or even an up close and personal guided dive, is the best way to grasp the truly awesome size of the shoals while also spotting whales and dolphins. Despite its scale, and starring role in documentaries such as BBC’s The Blue Planet, there’s a lot about the Sardine Run we still don’t know.
Hermanus and Gaansbaai
These towns are in Western Cape Province at either end of Walker Bay, world famous for whale watching. You can actually stand on the coast and see pods of Southern Right whales breaching a few metres offshore during the season from July to November.
The peak is in September and October when the two-day Hermanus Whale Festival marks the annual return of the Southern Right whales to their winter mating and breeding grounds in Walker Bay. Humpback whales, orcas, Bryde’s whales and pods of dolphins can also be seen at other times of the year.
Boat trips will bring you even closer to the whales, while aerial tours again give a unique view from above. A sea kayak tour is another option if you’re brave enough. Southern right whales are quite sociable and interact well with dolphins and boats.
MUST-DO: The 7km-long Klipgat Hiking trail from De Kelders to Gansbaai has great ocean views, bracing sea air and some of the best whale-watching.
The ultimate trip from Gaansbaai is to dive with great white sharks. Of course, you don’t actually swim with them (phew!) but watch them being fed close-up while protected by a steel cage. You don’t need any previous diving experience, either.
You are fitted out with a wetsuit, mask and scuba tank and given simple instructions. Once in the cage, you stay on the surface until the divemaster tells you the sharks are around. Then you dip underwater to enjoy an experience that certainly gets the heart pumping.
As well as the great white shark, a visit to Dyer Island will give you a sighting of whales, dolphins, penguins and seals to complete your South Africa safari experience.
Cape Whale Route
Walker Bay is just the start of a “Cape Whale Route” that runs for 900km along the south coast. It takes in Cape Agulhas, the most southerly tip of Africa, where you can spot whales from the dunes of Agulhas National Park. Maybe not as many as at Hermanus, but there will be far fewer people too and wilder scenery.
The town of De Hoop is another less crowded alternative to Hermanus. De Hoop Nature and Marine Reserve protects an important whale nursery. Another nursery is at Witsand, on the mouth of the Breede River. Boat trips in the bay are banned to protect the whales, but you can see plenty from the land while enjoying fabulous beaches.
West of Cape Town, the towns of Yzerfontein, Lambert’s Bay and Strandfontein offer another alternative to Hermanus, with the flowers of Namaqualand blooming from late August to early September as a photographic bonus to the whale season.
MUST-DO: Seal Island off Mossel Bay is home to thousands of Cape fur seals and is a good place to spot dolphins, whales or even sharks.
When's the best time to go on a South African safari?
The best time to go on a South African 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.
Start this tailor-made Five Star South African trip in Johannesburg with a few days of exploring the city. Afterwards, take the exclusive Rovos Rail to Cape Town with several stops on the way. From Cape Town, you will explore the peninsula as well as the wine lands. The Garden Route rounds up this luxurious trip.
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 a tour which, depending on the operator, can keep costs affordable.
As has been suggested already, choosing a private game reserve will push you towards the more luxurious 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.
- The Marine Hermanus
- Saxon Hotel, Villas & Spa
- Prana Lodge
- Kapama River Lodge
Luxurious places to stay in South Africa
Ready for a trip to South Africa? Check out the snapshot of The Rough Guide to South Africa or The Rough Guide to Cape Town, Winelands & Garden Route.
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