South African safaris
By Laura Gelder | February 2019 | 7 minute read
Roam South Africa’s plains, bushveld and desert as we break down the country’s safari options province-by-province.
“South African Tourism’s recent campaign, Discover Your South Africa, revealed that the prospect of coming face-to-face with one of the Big Five is the biggest bookings draw for British travellers”
So much choice
The range of safari areas within South Africa means that there’s plenty of choice and something to suit everyone,” says African Pride’s Product Manager Suzanne Walford.
But that, perhaps, is why South Africa can be a daunting prospect for agents uninitiated in safari. Walford reports an early increase in demand for the Kruger area and Madikwe Reserve this year. “The peak school holiday periods are filling up fast,” she says. “The popularity of these reserves is down to the wildlife experience and the exceptional range of accommodation. If ticking off the Big Five is important it’s hard to beat Kruger and its neighbouring private reserves – your chances of spotting leopard there are probably as high as you could expect.”
Kruger National Park
The most famous safari destination in South Africa is almost 2 million hectares in size. It’s one the largest wildlife reserves in the world and home to the Big Five as well as an abundance of other wildlife, birds and varied flora. The landscapes range from tropical forest to mountains and bush plains. There is something for everyone here, from self-drive and basic government-run camps to ultra luxury and style.
Private reserves are found all over Greater Kruger Region and three of the most famous are probably Sabi Sands, Timbavati and MalaMala, the largest and most historic private big game reserve in South Africa. These share unfenced borders with Kruger.
This province has scenic game viewing totally different to Kruger and is close to some of the country’s nicest beaches, for those who want to combine both.
Africa’s oldest game reserve, Hluhluwe Umfolozi Game Park, is here and now even easier to reach with British Airways’ new direct flight to Durban. The park has the Big Five, as well as leopards and endangered African wild dogs. The public reserve is self-drive, although tours are available.
Also close to Durban is Karkloof Safari Villas, an eco-friendly property surronded by free-roaming wildlife and picturesque waterfalls and rivers.
A more luxury option is andBeyond’s Phinda Private Game Reserve, set within easy reach of the Indian Ocean and the famous iSimangaliso/Greater St Lucia Wetland Park. The reserve is home to rare black rhino and the elusive cheetah.
Cape Town’s province isn’t famous for safari but has good options for clients tight on time. Aquila Private Game Reserve is two hours from Cape Town in the Klein Karoo region. Guests can seek out the Big Five by jeep, on horse-back, by quad bike, or even from the air. Aquila caters to both day visitors and those who wish to stay overnight in one of their luxury chalets.
In the same area is Sanbona Wildlife Reserve which has five-star lodges and luxury tents and is famous for its population of rare white lions. Four hours from the Mother City, Big Five Gondwana Game Reserve has giraffe, hippo, cheetah and zebra too. The park is notable for its lovely views of the Langeberg and Outeniqua Mountains and has a Junior Rangers programme.
Clients embarking on the Garden Route from Cape Town will end up in this region, which makes it a simple add-on safari option. It benefits from being malaria-free too. The oldest reserve in the region, Shamwari, is home to the Born Free Foundation and of course sports a healthy population of cats.
Other stand-out options here include Samara Private Game Reserve which is ideal for families thanks to its programme of game drives, guided walks, land rehab projects, rock painting, tree planting and tracking lessons. In 2018 lions were reintroduced so it is now a Big Five game reserve.
Addo Elephant Park, an hour’s drive from Port Elizabeth, is the third largest in South Africa and home to over 600 elephants as well as black rhino, antelope and cape buffalo. Visitors can book a hop-on-guide or safari in their own car.
Bordering Bostwana and an easy drive from Johannesburg, this region is malaria-free.
Pilanesberg National Park has 55,000 hectares set on the eroded remnants of an alkaline volcanic crater straddling dry Kalahari landscape and wet Lowveld vegetation. It attracts a huge variety of flora and fauna not often found in close proximity to each other.
Madikwe is a Big Five game reserve situated against the Botswana border close to the Kalahari Desert. Covering approximately 60,000 hectares, the rich diversity of vegetation ensures a wide range of game and the topography offers ideal viewing. Day visitors are not allowed into the park, so the number of vehicles around during game drive hours is limited.
This is usually one for repeat visitors, being as it is, far away from South Africa’s best-known attractions. It’s also malaria-free.
The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in the Kalahari Desert offers vast landscapes and black-mane lions with accommodation ranging from camping to luxury lodges.
Outside this park options include Mattanu Private Game Reserve which offers luxury safari tents and log cabins with helicopter game viewing, fly-fishing and quad biking, and Camp Nguni which offers bush walks and mountain biking while Tutwa Desert Lodge has eco-friendly accommodation and offers paddling on the Orange River and fly-fishing opportunities.
Accommodation: The Royal Portfolio opens The Farmstead, a new safari lodge at Royal Malewane on June 1. It will include three luxury farm suites and The Farmhouse – a four-bedroom villa. The lodge will have a spa treatment room, gym, fire pit and dining deck overlooking a waterhole. Royal Malewane’s original lodge has been refurbished and added The Masiya Bar, a contemporary gin and whisky bush-bar with private dining.
Kruger Shalati is an ‘Afro-chic’ boutique hotel opening this year in a restored train carriage on the Selati bridge on Kruger National Park’s Sabie River. Newly opened in December is andBeyond’s Tengile River Lodge in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve. Raised above ground level, the eco-friendly lodge’s suites feature sunken lounges and bedrooms and bathrooms which open out onto the forest.
Within Sabi Sand, the Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve’s Selati Camp has unveiled new outdoor lounges, decks and living spaces. Sabi Sabi recently launched three and four-night fly-in safari packages to help its guests make the most of their time.
Activities: A Par 72 nine-hole golf course has opened in Kruger National Park on the outskirts of Skukuza Rest Camp. The course is not fenced-in so golfers may be playing with hippo and baboons.
Gondwana Game Reserve now has four mountain bike trails, graded for length, difficulty and suitability. Bikes and helmets are available free of charge.
Conservation: Samara Private Game Reserve has become a Big Five reserve by re-introducing lions. Samara also has a project to replant the area with spekboom, an indigenous succulent which has been overgrazed by livestock. Guests receive a cutting to plant or take home.
Morukuru has launched the Safari-with-a-Purpose three-day programme at Madikwe Game Reserve. Its primary focus is rhino protection, collaring, lion contraception and rhino notching/chipping.
The Mantis Collection has launched uMfolozi Big Five Reserve, a 600-hectare tract of tribal land, being incorporated into the Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park. Two five-star lodges are being built, the Mthembu Lodge and Biyela Lodge.
Where to book it
Abercrombie & Kent has a new 13-night Family Cape Adventure takes in Cape Town, meerkats in the Kalahari and Madikwe. From £6,995 per adult and around £2,965 per child. Flights included.
African Pride’s 14-day Classic South Africa itinerary has four nights at Cloud 9, Cape Town, one night at Maison Chablis, Franschhoek, two nights at Hlangana Lodge, Oudtshoorn and three nights apiece at Bosavern Guest House, Plettenberg Bay and Pumba Msenga Game Reserve (all B&B except Pumba which is full-board). From £2,840pp based on September 2019 departures and with flights and car hire included.