A veritable 'Garden of Eden', the Sabi Sands is undoubtedly one of the brightest jewels in the Kruger crown. This unspoilt corner of South Africa has astonishing biodiversity, with 505 bird and 148 mammal species calling it home. Coupled with a temperate climate, seamless access from Johannesburg and arguably the biggest collection of award-winning 'safari chic' accommodation on the planet, it's easy to see why both safari beginners and old hands flock to the Sabi Sands year after year. But what makes it so sought after and why are prime lodges in peak season booked up months in advance?
The Sabi Sands is a private game reserve that shares a 50-kilometre or 31-mile unfenced border with the legendary Kruger National Parkin South Africa.It is known for delivering consistently rewarding Big 5 game viewing and is considered one of the best safari areas in the country. One any given day, the thousands of animals that live in the area - Kruger's last census counted about a thousand leopard, over 1 600 lion, at least 120 each of cheetah and wild dog, and about 13 000 elephant - are free to wander as they have for centuries, thrilling wildlife lovers with incredible sightings and gorgeous photographs.
The Sabi Sands offers the best of both worlds: game can come and go as it pleases but visitor numbers are very limited, giving you excellent game viewing in an uncrowded area.
As Africa Safari Experts we get many enquiries about this beautiful part of the world – here are the questions we get asked most frequently and our honest answers.
What is the size of Sabi Sands?
In terms of Africa’s colossal game reserves, the Sabi Sands is fairly small at 65 000 hectares – Kruger, for example, is a massive 30 times bigger.
It is bordered by the Sabie River to the south, Kruger to the east and Manyaleti Game Reserve to the north. The Sand River wends its way through the middle of the reserve; its many streams reach deep into the reserve, bringing water to wildlife. The terrain is typical of the Lowveld area: rocky outcrops known as ‘koppies’, thicket vegetation with tall trees favoured by leopards, and occasional open savannah areas frequented by lions and cheetahs.
What is the difference between the Sabi Sands and Kruger?
Kruger is a national park, meaning it is administered by the South African government. It is open to the public and thousands of visitors arrive every year in cars and busses to drive themselves around. Night drives and nature walks are not allowed, and accommodation is in public campsites run by the South African National Parks Board.
The Sabi Sands, on the other hand, is privately owned and managed. Only guests staying at its lodges are permitted to enter and no day visitors or self-drivers are allowed. Guides can undertake exciting safari activities like spot-lit game drives to seek out nocturnal animals and nature walks to find smaller fauna and flora often overlooked in a vehicle.
Will we have the reserve to ourselves?
The Sabi Sands is ‘broken up’ into several parcels of land that are used by top safari lodges – prestigious brands like Singita, Londolozi, Sabi Sabi and Ulusaba all have several lodges here. Some lodges co-operate with each other and allow each other to traverse ‘their’ land to get to sightings or lookout points.
One of the few parts of the Sabi Sands that is considered really ‘private’ is Mala Mala – no other lodges’ vehicles are allowed into Mala Mala’s areas.
You will thus share most of the reserve with your fellow safari lovers.
Will we see other vehicles?
Unless you are staying in an area like Mala Mala – which has only three lodges in a massive area all to itself – you will probably see other vehicles (these can include delivery trucks and tractors used for bush management). There are nearly 30 lodges in a relatively small area so crossing paths with another game-drive 4x4 is almost inevitable and you will likely have other safari lovers at sightings, especially during the midyear high or peak season, or if it is a very unusual sighting like wild dogs or a kill.
The Sabi Sands’ intimate size is actually an advantage: it makes game easier to find because you don’t have to travel very long distances.
What wildlife will we see?
Endangered species have been slowly reintroduced over decades to the area. Today there are 147 mammal species (including all of the Big 5 – elephant, lion, leopard, buffalo and rhino); 507 recorded types of birds; and a whopping 336 species of trees. This is a birding hotspot with curiously named species like widowfinchs, buntings, cisticolas, mannikins, wydahs and eremomelas. The southern ground hornbill monitoring project has been doing very successful conservation work here.
The vegetation provides a haven for white rhino, reedbuck, cheetah, eland, sable antelope, nyala and hyena. The Mala Mala area is especially noted for wild dog while all of the Sabi Sands is known for prolific leopard sightings – it’s not considered unusual to see leopard on almost all game drives.
How long should we spend there?
The ideal stay is three nights: this gives you two full days in the reserve so you can go on a minimum of four game drives (two daily, in the morning and evening). Depending on what time you arrive and leave, you may also be able to fit in another evening and morning drive, making for six in total. Remember that even though leopard and rhino sightings may be prolific, they are never guaranteed so the more drives you can go on, the better.
If you spend two nights, this gives you only one full day to explore the area and you may not be able to fully appreciate how beautiful it is.
If you have longer than three nights to spend, then consider moving lodges so you can go on drives in different areas of the Sabi Sands. Bear in mind that you will not be able to drive across the whole reserve to get to your new lodge because of all the traversing rights: you will drive out of the gate and re-enter at a point closest to your new accommodation, meaning you will pay gate fees again.
How do we get there?
It is very easy to fly to the Sabi Sands: there are regular flights to Hoedspruit in the north, Skukuza in the south and to Kruger-Mpumalanga International Airport from Cape Town, Johannesburg, Victoria Falls and Mozambique.
It is also possible to drive from Johannesburg – we can arrange a rental car or a private driver-guide for you. This will take at least seven hours so unless you have plenty of time to spare, driving will cut significantly into your ‘safari time’. Flying is far more convenient, less tiring and gives you more time in the reserve. Some lodges, like Chitwa Chitwa, Ulusaba, Dulini, Sabi Sabi, Londolozi and Mala Mala have their own airstrips where light aircraft can land.
How does Sabi Sands compare to other game reserves in the area?
There are several other private game reserves in the area like Timbavati, Thornybush, Kapama, Selati, Klaserie and Manyaleti. The vegetation and climate are obviously the same but the density of game may vary depending on the wildlife-management practices of each individual reserve.
Broadly speaking, Sabi Sands is considered to be more exclusive and the others more accessible but remember that price is only one element of a rewarding safari.
Sabi Sands is in very high demand, especially during peak season, so advance booking is encouraged. From about June to about September, the dry winter provides spectacular game viewing in cooler conditions. If you want to visit at this time, please do not leave your booking to the last minute.
What is the accommodation like?
The Sabi Sands provides a premium safari experience and accommodation is top notch. Our Africa Safari Experts work closely with clients to match them to the best lodges for their unique expectations and needs.
If you’re travelling as a group or large family, Castleton, Lion Sands Ivory Lodge, Ulusaba Cliff Lodge and the Chitwa House all provide sensational ‘villa-style’ accommodation that is more like staying in a private residence than a lodge. This gives you a more private and tailor-made experience: private chefs will discuss menus with you and you will often have your own dedicated guide and vehicle instead of having to share these with other guests.
We want to go – how long in advance should we book?
The safari high season runs from about June to August, which coincides with major events like the South African midyear school holidays and the northern hemisphere summer vacation. We advise booking as far in advance as you can if you wish to travel to Sabi Sands at this time of year – six months is ideal to get your first choice of accommodation.
The rest of the year remains popular but you can probably book a few weeks to three months in advance, unless you want to go on safari over the December festive season. Then the 6-month rule of thumb kicks in again.
If you suddenly find out you can travel very shortly – lucky you! – then it is still worth your while to enquire about accommodation in Sabi Sands as our Safari Experts have the latest cancellations and room availabilities at their fingertips and may be able to help you.
The Sabi Sands is ideal for first-timers as the game viewing is easy, the climate moderate, the distances short and the logistics convenient. But even experienced safari goers will enjoy seeing how a landscape once denuded of much wildlife at all has been painstaking brought back to its original splendour.