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. 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 impala, 30,000 zebra, 13,000 elephants and 1,600 lion 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.
MUST-DO: If you have the time, a three or four-day wilderness walk in Kruger is a unique way to see the wildest of African nature, with a very experienced (and armed) ranger to keep you safe.
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.
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 Drakensburg 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.
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 cheetah 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 cheetah.
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.
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.
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’s 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 lots about the Sardine Run we still don’t know.
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.
Hermanus is only a 90-minute drive southeast of Cape Town, with Gaansbaai another 40km away, so a day trip is very do-able. Away from the ocean, both towns have some lovely restaurants, interesting galleries and good shopping.
If you want to stay longer, there are lots of options, from simple B&Bs to luxury hotels. The village of De Kelders outside Gansbaai is well worth a look for some good B&Bs, where you might even see whales from your doorstep.
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 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 African safari experience.
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.
The route ends at Plettenberg Bay where resident populations of Bryde’s whales, orcas and dolphins make for year-round viewing.
West of Cape Town, the towns of Yzerfontein, Lambert’s Bay and Strandfontein offer another alternative to Hermanus, with the flowers of Namaqualand blooming during late August to early September as a photographic bonus to the whale season.
Yzerfontein is only an hour from Cape Town and just south of the West Coast National Park, well known for its birdlife. Lambert’s Bay also has Bird Island, with colonies of Cape gannets, crowned cormorants and Cape fur seals. The Olifants River Estuary north of Strandfontein is the place to see flamingos and pelicans among 200 other bird species.
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.
The Big Five rhino © Shutterstock
Buffalo at Kruger National Park © Shutterstock
Private Game Reserves hippos © Shutterstock
Elephants at a plunge pool in Sabi Sand Game Reserve © Shutterstock
Leopard at MalaMala © Sean de la Harpe-Parker/Shutterstock
Male sable antelope © Shutterstock
Cheetah on a termite mound in San Parks © Shutterstock
Lion at Aquila Game Reserve © Josef Hajda/Shutterstock
The Big Seven whale © Shutterstock
iSimangaliso Wetland Park © Shutterstock
Sardine run © Wildestanimal/Shutterstock
Southern right whale off the coast of Hermanus © John Fader/Shutterstock
Great White Shark diving in Gaansbaai © Shutterstock
Meisho Maru Shipwreck along the Agulhas Coast © Shutterstock