Safari in South Africa – The Complete Guide
South Africa has a so much to offer when it comes to an amazing safari experience. There are many game reserves in South Africa to choose from, from exclusive, private game reserves to expansive national parks.
Going on a safari in South Africa is very often the highlight for most travellers visiting South Africa. It is also often the most expensive part of the trip, and it can be quite daunting to decide where to go.
Over the past 10 years I have stayed at over 50 safari lodges in South Africa so I now have a pretty good idea of what makes a great safari experience. It is not just about the game viewing, there are so many other factors that also play an important role.
Daily we receive many questions and concerns about selecting the perfect South African safari lodge. In this article I aim to highlight the most important points to consider when going on safari in South Africa.
Why go on safari in South Africa?
The first question that I am often asked is why we recommend going on safari in South Africa and not one of the other well-known African safari destinations such as Kenya, Tanzania or Botswana?
The quick and easy answer would be that the safari experience in South Africa is excellent and, in comparison to most other destinations, very affordable. Most clients however want more information than this to really convince them.
A large variety of game reserves to choose from
Firstly, South Africa offers a great variety of game reserves that you can choose from. There is the Kruger National Park in the northeastern region of South Africa. There are also a large number of excellent private game reserves bordering the Kruger Park which form the Greater Kruger. There are also malaria free game reserves in the north, within easy access from Johannesburg, as well as in the Eastern Cape. While the lodges in these reserves are for the most part excellent, there are sadly some lodges that are not so great so it is important to choose the right lodge in the right area.
Excellent safari and easy access
Overall the safari experience in South Africa is excellent. Many game reserves in South Africa have a high density of game, especially large predators. With a great game ranger and tracker your chances of seeing the Big 5 are generally very good.
Another great advantage of going on safari in South Africa is that it’s quite easily accessible. If you have a good budget you can look at flying directly from Johannesburg to the lodge as many have airstrips. There are also direct flights from Cape Town and Johannesburg to the main airports in the Kruger Park area (Hoedspruit and Nelspruit).
The Pilanesberg National Park and Madikwe Game Reserve are also only a few hours’ drive from Johannesburg. In comparison, going on safari in Botswana, Kenya or Tanzania often involves more regional flights or long overland transfers.
Large number of safari lodges to choose from
There is a variety of lodges to choose from when going on safari in South Africa, from budget friendly alternatives to ultra luxurious safari lodges. In South Africa nearly all the lodges are priced in South African Rand, which makes it very price competitive in comparison with the rest of Africa where most lodges charge in US dollars. The depreciating value of the South African Rand over the last couple of years makes for even more comparatively well-priced options. This combined with the wide variety of lodges to suite different preferences makes South Africa a very attractive safari destination.
South Africa is not all about safari though - there is so much more to see and do in this beautiful country. When choosing South Africa as a safari destination you have the added bonus of being able to combine it with an amazing visit to Cape Town and the Winelands; a drive out to Hermanus or up the Garden Route; and even a beach holiday in northern Kwa-Zulu Natal.
National Parks vs Private Game Reserves
The first thing people associate with a safari in South Africa is the world famous Kruger National Park. The Kruger Park is an amazing national park covering an area of about 20,000km2. This is approximately the same size as Wales in the United Kingdom.
The importance of the Kruger Park in terms of conservation in South Africa is without question. However, this does not mean that it is necessarily the best safari option in South Africa. I would rather recommend a safari lodge in one of the private game reserves bordering the Kruger Park, such as the Sabi Sands, Timbavati or Klaserie. These reserves share unfenced borders with the Kruger Park so the game can wander freely between the reserves.
The advantage with going on a safari in a private game reserve is that the actual safari experience tends to be better. They don’t allow self-drive day visitors in these reserves, making it a more exclusive and unspoiled safari experience. Also the game reserves are not governed by the same regulations as the national parks. In many of the private reserves the game viewing vehicles are allowed to go off-road so you can get closer to sightings. Here the lodges can also offer added safari activities such as game walks and sleep outs in the bush, which are often not offered in the national parks. To sum up, the safari lodges in the private game reserves can be a lot more flexible than those in the national parks. This makes for a better, more all-round safari experience.
When is the best time of year to go on safari in South Africa?
South Africa is a all year round safari destination because of the size of the country and the fact that there are game reserves in different parts of the country.
The best time to go on safari in the Kruger Park area (“the Lowveld”) is during the South African winter and spring, between May and October. This area experiences summer rains (November to March) so during winter the days are sunny and warm, with cold mornings and nights.
During winter it is quite dry so the vegetation is not as dense. Many of the waterholes dry up so the animals concentrate around the ones that are left, making for better game viewing. As it’s so dry there are also hardly any mosquitos which is always an added bonus in an already low risk malaria area. The same goes for the parks and reserves such as the Pilanesberg and Madikwe, in northwestern South Africa, which are in malaria-free areas.
Many northern Europeans like to travel to South Africa during our summer months (November - March) which is the peak time for malaria in the Kruger area. If you want to avoid taking malaria prophylactics I would recommend going on safari in the Eastern Cape - the weather is great during this time. It’s a malaria-free area and there are some great safari options to choose from.
How happens on a typical day on safari in South Africa?
Most private safari lodges follow the same basic daily schedule. Your day starts quite early, about 05:30 in summer and 06:30 in winter. After a quick coffee you head out on your morning game drive. The morning game drive normally lasts about 3 hours. After the drive you head back to the lodge for breakfast.
After breakfast some lodges will offer activities such as bush walks. This is a great way to experience the bush from a whole different angle. Bush walks focus more on the smaller things around you, which you tend to miss when you are in a vehicle. You could also spend this time relaxing at the lodge. The safari lodges in South Africa also have plenty to keep guests entertained between game drives. Most lodges have a pool area where guest can cool off during the hot summer days. In winter you can relax in the lounge and warm up by the fire with a glass of wine. Many lodges have waterholes where you can sit and watch the passing game. Some lodges also have fantastic spas where you can enjoy some treatments after a tiring morning game drive.
After a late lunch you head off on your afternoon game drive, which also lasts around 3 hours. The drive often carries on until the sun has set so that you have a chance to spot some of the nocturnal animals en route back to the lodge. After your evening game drive you head back to the lodge for dinner. Dinner is often a South African BBQ (“braai”). In some cases you might even get to experience a boma or bush dinner. The lodges try to do something different every couple of nights so that you don’t do the same things every night that you are there.
How long should you go on safari?
This really depends on your interests in game viewing. Some people like to go on week long safaris, maybe even in two or three reserves, to get different experiences. However, most people prefer stay at one safari lodge for 3 or 4 nights. We don’t recommend spending fewer nights on safari, as you really need to take your time and fully take in the whole experience.
The rest of your holiday can be spent exploring other parts of South Africa such as Cape Town, the Winelands and the Garden Route.
Going on safari in South Africa with children
Going on safari as a family can be a wonderful experience. There are however a couple of things to consider when planning a safari with children.
- Your options of safari lodges will be very limited. Many safari lodges in South Africa do not accept children under the age of 12 at the lodge. The ones that do usually do not allow children under the age of 6 on game drives. Some will only allow children between the ages of 6 and 12 on game drives at the managers’ discretion once you arrive. There are a couple of lodges that will allow younger children (under 12 and sometimes even under 6) on game drives, but even some of these will require that you book a private vehicle for your game drives, which can get expensive.
- Think about going on a safari in a malaria free area so that you do not need to take malaria prophylactics. There are some great malaria-free reserves in South Africa, such as Madikwe, Shamwari and the Pilanesberg.
- Many safari lodges in South Africa offer baby-sitting facilities for young children. This is a great option if you want to go on safari with children that are too small to go on game drives. Some child friendly safari lodges also have great children’s safari programs. These programs often include mini game drives and tracking with a game ranger.
If you consider these key points when choosing a safari lodge there is no reason that you should not have an amazing family safari holiday.
What does it cost to go on safari in South Africa?
Safari tends to be the most expensive part of any holiday in South Africa. However it is worth noting that there is usually a lot more included in the price in comparison to your usual B&B accommodation. The price for a safari includes your accommodation, two game drives daily, full board (and often even drinks). It often also includes other safari activities such as bush walks.
The price range for a safari is wide. The less expensive, but still very good safari lodges, cost about ZAR 3,000.00 per person per night. The most luxurious safari lodges cost as much as ZAR 25,000.00 per person per night, with many options in between.
While the Sabi Sands Private Game Reserve is well-known for its fantastic game viewing, specifically for leopard sightings, most of the lodges do tend to be quite pricey and the more affordable options tend to get booked out quite quickly because of this.
Top 5 Budget friendly safari alternatives in South Africa
Top 5 Mid range safari alternatives in South Africa
- Kambaku River Sands (Timbavati)
- Arathusa (Sabi Sand)
- Savanna (Sabi Sand)
- Rhulani (Madikwe)
- Dwyka Tented Camp (Sanbona)
Top 5 Luxury safari alternatives in South Africa
- Londlozi Granite Suites (Sabi Sand)
- Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge (Sabi Sand)
- Dulini (Sabi Sand)
- Royal Malewane (Thornybush)
- Chitwa Chitwa (Sabi Sand)
What to bring on safari?
Going on safari in South Africa tends to be a very comfortable experience so you do not need to worry too much about what you bring with. Below you will find a useful packing list of the things that we recommend you bring with you on your safari.
- Bring your camera and make sure to have a large memory card. You will be taking lots of pictures
- Binoculars are not really necessary, especially when you can get up close to the animals, but a must for bird lovers
- Comfortable shoes, especially for the bush walks
- Long sleeved shirts for the evening.
- A warm jersey
- A beanie and a very warm jacket if you are going on safari in winter, as it gets very cold on the open safari vehicles.
- Long pants, especially if you are planning to go on a bush walk
- Chargers for all you electronic equipment - you don’t want to be stuck mid-sighting with no battery!
- A hat or a cap
- Sunscreen - the African sun burns!
- A good book so that you have something to read by the pool.
We hope that this article covers most of the questions about going on safari in South Africa.
If you have any further questions or would like help with planning your South African safari please contact us and we would be delighted to help you.