South Africa has an abundance of cultures as well as eleven national languages, but some of its most fascinating residents never utter a word. As the early morning mists settle on the savanna and sunlight strikes the rocky outcrops in the mountains, a world apart from the bustling city centers and towns greets the daylight. Lions snooze under the shade of acacia trees, zebra and antelope graze on the grassy plains, and elephants wind their way to the water holes. It is everything travelers imagine of the wilds of Africa, full of potential and peace remote from a sometimes chaotic human world.
Visiting South Africa’s best game reserves, luxury game lodges and national parks allows travelers to see some of the country’s most beautiful scenery and distinct wildlife. The country’s flora and fauna are a unique and much loved attractions year after year, for both visitors and South Africans alike.
“Safari” is a Swahili word which originally meant “long journey” but not necessarily to do with animals. The British began using it when they went out to view animals, as locals would call the trip a safari.
A safari experience doesn’t have to break the bank as there are plenty of accommodations that don’t call for luxury bedrooms or private pools. With so many options for staying in or visiting game parks, any traveler can have an African safari experience and make it worth every penny.
The Gauteng Province, which contains Johannesburg, lies on the Highveld, or plateau region, which is mainly farmland and residential areas (one-third of the country’s population live here). Head north and the topography descends into the Bushveld, the low lying dry forested areas dense with wildlife. Reaching east from Gauteng to the Limpopo Valley, the Lowveld has plains similar to the Highveld, but is slightly warmer. The countryside becomes green and hilly in Kwa-Zulu Natal and along the coast further south.
Below are some of the most popular and diverse game parks the Rainbow Nation has to offer, all in malaria free areas.
What You Will See: The Big Five – a term originally coined by hunters for the five African animals hardest to hunt on foot, later adopted by safari lodges for marketing – the African elephant, lion, Cape buffalo, leopard, and the rhino. Not to leave out almost every other species found in Kruger including cheetah, giraffes, warthogs, antelope, wildebeest, you name it, it’s there. (No tigers though, an occasional misconception about Africa)
Accommodations: The private game lodges are all inclusive for the price, meaning all meals and game drives are taken care of. They are situated throughout the park, as well as private reserves adjacent to Kruger, and can cost anywhere from $500 per night to upwards of $1,000 per night and beyond, depending on your preferences of location and amenities.
Bush camps, which are secluded lodges in the bushveld, are the next best option. They offer fully equipped accommodations (without extra luxuries), but do not include guided safaris or meals. Self-catering is recommended, and you can book your own guide and safari vehicle separately. Prices vary from $125 per unit per night to $600 for nicer lodgings.
The third and most common option in Kruger is a rest camp. The option is great for visitors doing a self-guided drive through the park, budget savvy game viewers, or those happy to be a little closer to nature. There are equipped guesthouses, smaller cottages and bungalows, all with bathrooms, kitchens and cooking equipment. Huts, campsites and fixed safari tents are centered around communal facilities for cooking and washing up. Morning and night game drives are offered with 20 seater trucks at most rest camps.
Every accommodation level offers vacation packages for 3 day, 5 day and longer stays. The cheapest and easiest way for game viewing in Kruger is getting a 3 day self-drive safari package. It provides lodging for two nights in canvas tents (these aren’t the canvas tents you are imagining, they raised on wooden foundations and well covered) and three days of driving at your leisure, for around $300.
For a special safari experience, splurge around $300 for a hot air balloon safari with Balloons Over Africa (website)
Getting There: Drive from OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg (about 5 hours). Fly directly from Cape Town, Durban, or Johannesburg to Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport and hire a car, then drive to the park (2 hour drive to the southern campsites)
Pilanesberg Game Reserve is situated northwest of Johannesburg, and hosts the Big Five among many other mammal and bird species. The area is in a transition zone between two types of terrain, the Kalahari desert and the Lowveld vegetation, or the Bushveld. This means many types of animals inhabit the grasslands, hills and valleys. Rare species like the brown hyena and the cheetah also call the reserve home.
Visitors can explore the park on self-drives or guided game drives. There are a number of hides (raised, protected areas great for photographing wildlife) and scenic picnic sites available for those passing through on day trips. There are five different lodges in the area, and they can vary between $250 and $300 per person per night, depending on the time of year.
Getting There: 2 hour drive from Johannesburg/ Pretoria
Further north of Pilanesburg on the border with Botswana is Madikwe Game Reserve, one of the most remote and largest wilderness areas in the country. While more exclusive, the park offers the “top ten,” a self-invented expansion on the Big Five including hippos, giraffe, wild dogs, hyena, and the cheetah. Just like Pilanesburg, the diversity in topography gives diversity in the wildlife as well.
Mostly luxury private game lodges; there is no entry without booking into a lodge on-site. There are 13 official and all-inclusive Madikwe lodges, as well as smaller privately owned locations. Tau Game Lodge is one of the cheaper options at $300 per person per night; the others run upwards of $350. Keep in mind these are 4 or 5 star accommodations, in the middle of the African wilderness.
Getting there: 90 kilometers north of Zeerust, 3.5 hours’ drive from Johannesburg or Pretoria.
Phinda Private Game Reserve is at the Southern edge of KwaZulu Natal on the south coast of the country. It is noted as having “Seven Worlds of Wonder,” with seven distinct habitats- woodland, grassland, wetland, forest, mountain ranges, river courses, marshes and pans (natural basins).
Accommodations: Phinda is on the higher end of the budget spectrum, with its 6 luxury lodges as well as beaches and reefs close by. The area is well known for its cheetah population. Aside from game drives, guests can enjoy scuba diving, walking safaris and dive with whale sharks. The cost reflects the experience at $500 – $600 per person per night but it’s well worth the price.
Getting there: 1 hour flight from Durban to Phinda, or 3 hour drive from Durban
Hluhluwe–iMfolozi Park is the only state-run park in KwaZulu-Natal where all the big five game animals occur, as well as the oldest proclaimed park in Africa. Due to conservation efforts, the park now has the largest population of white rhino in the world. There are many ways to enjoy the park: automobile trails, foot trails for day walks, picnic sites, as well as standard games drives with a guide.
Accommodations: Visitors pay $10 per day as a conservation fee, and may stay at one of the two lodges, Hilltop or Mpila, which average $100 per unit per day. The park is great for its campsites, as well as nearby beaches. KwaZulu-Natal has many great bed and breakfasts, try one inside the park called Emdoneni Lodge & Game Farm
For an experience unique to the area, try a boat safari. A 40-seater boat on Hluhluwe dam takes visitors on guided trips twice a day.
Getting there: Drive north from Durban 3 hours to Mtubatuba, just west is the park entrance.
If you are looking for one of the best Johannesburg safari experiences not far from the city, take a half-day trip to the Lion Park. With a self-drive path through multiple lion enclosures as well as plenty of open land for other animals on site, you’ll be able to see everything up close and personal. There are also feeding posts for giraffe and other buck, even ostriches that roam the grounds. Don’t miss the chance to pet a lion cub, certainly not something you do every day and a special experience not found in regular game parks. You can even book ahead to experience a walk with a full grown cheetah.
Self-drives with lion cub interactions are $20 for adults, $12 for kids.
Cheetah walks are $60 per adult, but you must be 16 years or older to participate.
Open daily from 9am – 9pm, about a 30-minute drive from the center of Johannesburg.
Game viewing is easiest during the winter months, and bugs are less of an issue, while during summer there are more young animals born and the scenery can be prettier, but any time of year the animals will be out and about. Be careful about peak season in December, you will need to book ahead as many families use the kids’ summer break to go on trips to game reserves and the coast.
Use common sense. These are wild animals, though many are accustomed to the presence of a motor vehicle. The elephants may look slow and docile, but they can run at 25 mph, so unless you are Usain Bolt, you can’t hope to outrun one. The hippo may look rotund and friendly, but both these animals are responsible for more human deaths than any other large animal in Africa, even lions and sharks.
Stay on the road. Private vehicles are not equipped or allowed to venture off the beaten path. Safari vehicles and game drivers are trained to navigate the bush and minimally disturb the terrain. And there is no AAA for your 4×4 rental stuck in the mud.
When staying in a lodge, tip staff 10-15% daily, usually $3 – $5 USD per day. For game drivers and guides the rule of thumb is $20 per day, or $5 – $10 per guest per day, but of course it is up to you how great you think your experience was. Be patient and keep in mind they don’t control where the animals are, only optimize your chance of seeing them. Some of the nicest moments can be simply admiring the landscape as you cruise along. You don’t get to see Africa every day!
Equipment – binoculars, cameras with great zoom functions (flash off), warm clothes (it can be surprisingly cool on early morning and evening game drives, even in summer), and a book about the environment and wildlife around you, since Wi-Fi wont be available to look up answers
A sense of adventure – with every safari there is a degree of unpredictability, which is often what makes it wonderful and exciting. Also, there are no porta-potties positioned for you convenience – that’s what the bushes are for!
A little patience – the larger game reserves are not like a zoo. Animals can be hard to spot, they won’t always be directly on the road, they are wild by nature and aren’t trained appear on cue. Game drivers often know where it is likely to spot certain animals, and their radios allow them to communicate where a sighting occurs, so that as many people can enjoy seeing things as possible. Equally as often things will happen completely at random. You may see very little one morning, and then stumble upon a lion kill or a newborn giraffe the next afternoon.
Curiosity- if you want to know something, ask. Drivers are well versed in most every animal you’ll come across, and they love seeing them just as much as you do. If your group is amenable, and you are hoping to see a specific animal, let them know. They’ll have a better idea where to take you and give you the best viewing experience possible. But be respectful, they aren’t elephant whisperers either and can’t produce a leopard on cue!