There's nothing like the thrill of a South Africa safari: game drives in the soft morning light, watching a herd of elephant from the deck of your luxurious lodge, the intoxicating scent of the African bush and dining under a star-scattered sky. The only question left should be: which park or reserve is best for you?
With so many choices of where to go on a South Africa safari, we've identified the absolute best that this diverse country has to offer.
Kruger National Park
South Africa’s largest and best known reserve, the Kruger Park and its legendary private reserves and concessions are home to the country's greatest diversity of wildlife and include the super-celebrities of the safari circuit: Africa’s Big 5.
Why pick Kruger for your South Africa safari? It's where to go in South Africa for guaranteed Big 5 sightings as well as all the other classic savannah animals; there’s accommodation to suit every style and budget; and since it's so well connected by regular flights, you can easily round off your Big 5 safari with a few days on Cape Town’s beautiful beaches or even a tropical island off the Mozambique coast.
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For an exciting and stress-free family safari the Eastern Cape is hard to beat. A combination of child-friendly lodges in malaria-free reserves within driving distance of the Garden Route means an unforgettable family holiday. But it’s not just families who get to have all the fun in the Eastern Cape: these Big 5 reserves also have a handful of secluded, luxurious lodges that are among our favourites for a romantic safari away from crowds and kids.
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It’s often said that locals know best and when South Africans go on holiday their top choice is often the province of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN). From the broad beaches of the sunny KZN sub-tropical coast and the luxury accommodation of its big game reserves to soaring mountain peaks and historic battlefields – KZN is where to go in South Africa for game viewing, bird watching, adventure, history and on-the-beach relaxation.
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Pilanesberg National Park
An ancient, extinct volcanic crater, Pilanesberg National Park is one of South Africa's best wildlife destinations and is centred around a large hippo and croc-filled lake. Although conveniently close to super-resort Sun City, these two top destinations feel words apart: some visitors choose to stay in Sun City and pop across for a half-day safari, but with such great Big 5 game viewing on offer plus a wide choice of excellent safari lodges, we’d highly recommend a night or two in this beautiful piece of African wilderness.
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Madikwe Private Game Reserve
About a 3-hour drive or short charter flight from Johannesburg lies one of South Africa’s least known large reserves: Madikwe Private Game Reserve. Its Kalahari grasslands and woodlands are surprisingly full of animals and it's one of the best places in the country to see the highly endangered African wild dog plus the Big 5. What’s more, if you’re looking for a family safari, the great news is that Madikwe lies outside the malarial belt and offers excellent family-friendly lodges as well as romantic retreats and honeymoon suites.
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Tswalu Kalahari Reserve
With the red sands of the Kalahari Desert and the rugged Korannaberg mountains as its backdrop, the sprawling 100 000ha Tswalu Kalahari Reserve is one of the largest private game reserves in Africa. Once an overgrazed farm and hunting ranch, Tswalu has since been transformed by its owners, the famous Oppenheimers, into a model of sustainable tourism and local empowerment, making it an extraordinary community-based conservation success story.
And that's before its wildlife and natural beauty: malaria-free Tswalu Kalahari Reserve boasts the full range of Kalahari species including lion, black rhino (a third of South Africa's population) and cheetah as well as classic African mammals such as buffalo, sable and roan antelope. The 230 bird species will keep birdwatchers happy and the astonishing views and phenomenal night skies will captivate every visitor.
South Africa's Limpopo Province is the setting for one of the country's little-known wildlife secrets: the Waterberg. Tucked up against the Botswana border, the Waterberg’s 150 000 hectares of unique bushveld vegetation is home to an impressive range of classic African mammals including elephant, giraffe, lion, leopard, spotted hyena, buffalo and both black and white rhino. Tick off these animals and more during day and night game drives through the Waterberg's plunging valleys and tangled woodlands.
Happily, such a premier Big 5 destination is not only malaria-free but very accessible as well. A mere three and a half hours from Johannesburg, the Waterberg region is home to some of South Africa's best private reserves, making this pristine wildlife-rich area an attractive and affordable alternative to the Kruger National Park.
Best Time to Go on a South Africa Safari
The best time to go on a South Africa safari is during the May to October winter months. The vegetation is at its most trampled and thinnest at this time so game viewing is far easier than during the lush, green summer months. Day time temperatures are mild to warm (maximum 20 to 23°C) while nights are comfortably cool. Note that the later dry season months of September and October often experience extremely hot and dry conditions.
There's also very little winter rainfall in South Africa's northern safari destinations (such as the Kruger National Park and KwaZulu-Natal's reserves) which greatly reduces the risk of malaria. Although these destinations do lie within the malarial belt, the chances of contracting the disease while on safari, even in mid-summer, are extremely slim indeed.
If you want to include some time on the beach during your South Africa safari, it's important to remember that the beaches of Cape Town and the Western Cape are at their warmest, driest and sunniest from November to mid-March. Luckily, the warm sub-tropical waters of KwaZulu Natal's coastand the Eastern Cape make for a great beach holiday at any time of year.