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A Guide to Your First South Africa Safari

Few countries rival South Africa when it comes to wildlife and convenient travel. Home to the Big 5 and a bird list that nudges North America’s, it’s a country that takes conservation seriously: just one of its game reserves is the size of Wales while many others provide strongholds for endangered rhinos, cheetahs and wild dogs.

The infrastructure will have you thinking ‘hey, this is just like home’, making South Africa a destination that showcases its natural heritage with ease. Accommodation ranges from five-star to star-lit, and includes family lodges, honeymoon hideaways, and grand tented camps of which Hemingway would have approved. You can hop onto a scheduled tour or take advantage of expert advice and tailor-make a fly-in or self-drive safari to your exact specifications.  

So, where to go? The Kruger is a must-see along with some of South Africa's rightfully famous private reserves. There are malaria-free areas, urban gems like Cape Town, tropical Indian Ocean beaches, as well as impressive places where you can combine Gary Player golf courses with game viewing.

It’s time to unpack the South Africa safari experience!

A Guide to Your First South African Safari - Kruger leopard
The Kruger and its neighbour, the Sabi Sands, are world-famous for reliable and high quality leopard sightings. Keep your camera ready!

The Flagship: The Kruger National Park

The Granddaddy of South Africa’s reserves, the century-old Kruger is synonymous with safaris. But the trick is to stay at one of the private reserves that adjoin the main park, or one of the exclusive-use concessions located within it - these promise crowd-free environments where the game viewing ranks among the best on the continent. Indeed, such is the density of game in the Sabi Sands, Timbavati and Thornybush private reserves that it’s not unusual to see the Big 5 in a single day, with leopard sightings so good you’ll feel like you’re in a Nat Geo feature film. Night drives, guided walks and off-road driving add to the adventure, while open-top tree houses, world class spas, fine dining and private villas deliver an all star experience.

There are plenty of family-friendly lodges with babysitters and children’s activities as well as camps that emphasise the romantic side of safaris – sumptuous, tucked-away suites and candle-lit dinners for two. You can drive there yourself from Johannesburg or fly in from almost anywhere, and for a scenic appetiser, spend your first night in the surrounding Panorama Route. The ease of getting around South Africa and to neighbouring countries makes it simple and easy on the pocket to combine the Kruger with a number of attractions - add the white beaches of Mozambique’s Bazaruto or Quirimbas Archipelagos, or Africa's gastronomy and design capital, Cape Town, or the continent's self-proclaimed adventure capital, Victoria Falls.

A Guide to Your First South African Safari - Singita Lebombo
Singita Lebombo is just one of the superb luxury lodges in the Kruger.
A Guide to Your First South African Safari - Panorama Route
Explore the neighbouring Panorama Route on your Kruger Safari.
A Guide to Your First South African Safari - Combine your safari with a trip to Cape Town
Combine your South Africa safari with a holiday in Cape Town - Africa's most cosmopolitan city.

When to go: the May to October dry season is the best time in terms of climate and game viewing. The rainy summer season is a time of newborn antelope, lush green views and sensational bird watching. Bear in mind that Kruger falls into a malaria zone: the risk is slight - even in summer - but consult your medical practitioner before you travel.

Private Kruger reserves - where to stay: For families – Thornybush Main Lodge, Kirkman's Camp; for couples - Singita Boulders, Lion Sands Ivory Lodge, Ngala Tented Camp, Exeter River Lodge, Singita Ebony

Private Kruger concessions - where to stay: For families – Lion Sands Tinga Lodge; for couples - Singita Lebombo, Lion Sands Narina, Jock Safari Lodge

A Guide to Your First South African Safari - Game Drive at Madikwe
Madikwe is a malaria-free reserve in South Africa's north west, and is fantastic for family safaris.

Keeping it easy: Madikwe & Pilanesberg

Malaria-free, home to the Big 5 and located close to Sun City, Africa’s biggest and boldest holiday resort – what’s not to like about these two premier reserves?

A beautifully scenic reserve cradled in an extinct volcanic crater, Pilanesberg is th closest to Sun City – in fact, it's right next door. For those who want to mix waterslides and championship golf courses with game viewing by 4X4, elephant-back and hot air balloon, this is the ideal destination. Two-and-a-bit hours' drive from Johannesburg and offering great game viewing year round, Pilanesberg is a perfect introductory safari and is easily included on a self-drive itinerary - families with young children will love it.

The experience is far more exclusive at Madikwe. Set on red sands at the edge of the Kalahari, this private reserve is home to a beguiling mix of desert and savannah species, and its accommodation varies from camps specialising in families to those offering the ultimate in romantic luxury. Under a 2-hour drive from Sun City, Madikwe offers an extra edge to a self-drive safari: you’ll join night drives and sit down to lavish lantern-lit suppers away from camp.

A Guide to Your First South African Safari - Hot air ballooning at Pilanesberg
You can enjoy hot air balloon flights over Pilanesberg National Park.
A Guide to Your First South African Safari - Family-friendly safaris
Madikwe's family friendly approach makes it an ideal safari destination for kids.
A Guide to Your First South African Safari - Combine your safari with a Mozambique beach holiday
If the thrills of a safari aren't enough, then why not escape to a Mozambique island for a few days of bliss and relaxation afterwards?

When to go: anytime between early May and the end of October: there is barely any rain and game viewing is good as animals concentrate near water. Mid-winter (June to August) is very dry and cold; the November to April summer is hot with regular afternoon thunderstorms.

Pilanesberg - where to stay: For families – Ivory Tree Game LodgeBlack Rhino Game Lodge; for couples - Tshukudu

Madikwe – where to stay: For families – Tuningi Safari Lodge, Madikwe Safari Lodge; for couples - Jamala Madikwe Royal Safari Lodge

A Guide to Your First South African Safari - Walking safari
The Eastern Cape reserves are also commonly Big 5 areas; walking safaris like this one will bring you up close to rhino and other game.

Phoenix rising: the Eastern Cape

Until recently, South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province lay low on the safari radar. But thanks to the efforts of far-sighted conservationists, the call of lion and rumble of elephant are once again part of the landscape. Beautiful malaria-free game reserves thread along rivers and onto great escarpments, sitting under dazzling night skies and resonating with a renewed energy.

These are multi-faceted reserves, places where Big 5 game viewing vies for your attention with river cruises and cultural tours. Families can enjoy the option of private villa accommodation, and since many lodges offer family-oriented safari programmes, parents get to enjoy a massage at the spa while their children have a hands-on cooking lesson or learn how to track animals.

Add an Eastern Cape safari onto a Cape Town and Garden Route tour: the can-do nature of this popular holiday region means a self-drive safari is ideal – pick up your car in Cape Town and return it in Port Elizabeth before flying out. You can take in the Whale Coast and Cape Winelands on the way, leaving you plenty of time to discover why the Garden Route is so named before settling back for a few days of classic Big 5 game viewing.

A Guide to Your First South African Safari - White lions
The white lions of Pumba Game Reserve are a famous attraction.
A Guide to Your First South African Safari - Game Drive at Kwandwe
The Eastern Cape provides a unique landscape of scrub, woodland and escarpment.

When to go: the Eastern Cape’s temperate climate means a safari at any time of year but if you want a Garden Route beach holiday too, then choose the warm and largely dry summer months from November to April.

The Eastern Cape – where to stay: For families – Kwandwe Great Fish River Lodge, Hillsnek Safaris; for couples - Pumba Water Lodge 

Written by Dominic Chadbon. Connect with him on Google+.

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