An impala herd drinking at a waterhole with reflections in the water
travel guide

South African safaris: Lions, leopards and luxury lodges

Seeing wild animals in their natural habitat is easily one of the most magical travel experiences. While you may have seen these animals at the zoo, watching them in their own space is a completely different experience.

You can see the big cats lazing in the sun, cheater cubs rolling around together as they play, and giraffes wandering through the savannah. Crocodiles and hippos submerge themselves in murky rivers and predators chew on the remnants of last night's dinner. Going on safari brings a fresh perspective to life, travel and humanity - if you're thinking about going, you won't be disappointed.

South Africa is a wonderful destination to have a well-rounded safari experience, with the comforts of every day life. The game parks are large and well-maintained and it's possible to see a huge variety of animals while you're there and it's particularly well suited to travellers heading on their first safari. Here's what you need to know to plan your South African safari.

Two lionesses with a lion cub

The Big Five and other animals

So, what animals can you expect to see on safari in South Africa? Well, a huge range, to be honest. South Africa is home to over 500 bird species, 100 species of reptile and 150 mammal species, including the Big Five and the endangered African wild dog.

Seeing the Big Five - lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants and Cape buffalo - is the ultimate safari challenge. These animals were historically thought to be the most difficult to hunt and catching them was an accomplishment. You'll find your game rangers do their best to track them down and you're likely to see all of them if you visit the Kruger National Park.

You'll probably see a range of other animals too, including zebra, giraffe, cheetahs, kudu (deer with large ears and impressive, curling horns), springbok (South Africa's national animal), warthogs, crocodiles, hippos, various birdlife and many more.

Zebra at sunrise in the bush

Is it worth booking a safari tour in South Africa?

It's very easy to travel in South Africa independently and many game lodges will help you organise game drives and other safari experiences. It's also possible to go on a self-drive safari - just hire a car and drive through the game park - however, you're likely to see many more animals if you go on game drives. The rangers know the reserves very well and communicate with each other about where specific animals have been seen.

You don't need to go on a safari tour to go on a game drive. It's very possible to book your accommodation and game drives separately and, if you stay at some lodges, a couple of game drives will be included. Saying that, booking a multi-day safari tour does give you the ability to see multiple game reserves and enjoy the experience without dealing with any of the logistics yourself.

Safari tours can also be a good way to travel between destinations (e.g. Victoria Falls to Johannesburg) and see other points of interest along the way. Just keep in mind that they are often more expensive than organising your trip yourself.

Some popular safari tours in South Africa:

Taking photos on a game drive at Mkuze Falls Game Reserve, South Africa

Game drives in South Africa

The best way to see wildlife is by going on a game drive. You'll usually be in a jeep with a small group of travellers, a ranger and a tracker. The rangers usually know the game park very well and can find animals which you may not spot if you're driving by yourself.

Going on a game drive also lets you see larger animals up close. Animals are accustomed to seeing vehicles in their territories and often perceive the jeep as a single, large animal. Just remember to follow the ranger's advice and stay in the vehicle at all times, including your car if you're self driving.

Full-day safari

Spend a full day driving through the game park looking for animals. These are especially popular in the Kruger National Park and usually include a stop at a café for lunch. Just keep in mind that it can be a long day and animals usually sleep during the middle of the day, when it's warmest.

Sunrise game drive

Mornings are a beautiful time to go on safari. It's not too hot, you'll often see the animals out and about and there's something magical about seeing the bush first thing in the morning. The downside is that it leaves very early in the morning and it can be cold, so dress appropriately.

Cars stopping to watch a family of elephants in the Kruger National Park

Night game drive

These are often also called sundowner or afternoon game drives. Head out in the evening and enjoy a drink while you watch the sunset in the bush. Then watch the nocturnal animals coming out. It does get cold, so be sure to dress in layers and wear and jacket.

Book a sunset safari in the Kruger National Park.

Self-drive safari

Drive yourself through the game parks and see animals as you go. Depending on the day, you may see many animals as you drive through the park, other times not so many. Try to go at cooler times, and wait by the water holes to see what comes out.

One of the challenges of self-driving is that you don't know the reserve as well as the rangers and you don't get tips on where the animals are. Some people try to follow the jeeps, however that isn't necessarily a good way to find animals. If you do decide to self-drive, stay in your car at all times - the animals aren't as friendly up close as they can seem from further away.

Walking safari

Leave the jeep behind and wander through the bush on foot. This is a particularly good option if you're interested in bird-watching and seeing some of the local insects up close and learning more about animal life-cycles and the ecology of the area.

A pool at a safari lodge in South Africa

Safari lodges in South Africa

There's a wide range of accommodation if you want to go on safari. You can camp in the Kruger National Park and some other reserves and there are often bungalows or hotels available outside the reserves. However, if you want the quintessential safari experience, staying at a lodge is the way to go.

Lodges are usually located within private game parks or wildlife sanctuaries, meaning you can see animals up close and personal during your stay. Some of the private reserves won't have the big cats near the lodge, while others will have several rangers on hand. The lodges range from comfortable to luxurious and usually offer a pool and bush views. They are generally all inclusive with breakfast, dinner and sometimes a couple of game drives included.

Staying at at a safari lodge is a remarkable experience. You may find yourself visited by animals during your stay - I've personally turned around to see zebra, warthogs, kudu, giraffes and bushbabies wandering by. Many have panoramic views over the bush, often with animals visible in the distance. It's peaceful and serene and the modern world and everyday life seems very far away. You'll find a few recommendations for safari lodges in the sections below.

 An impala herd drinking at a waterhole with reflections in the water

Visiting the Kruger National Park

Kruger National Park is one of the largest national parks in the world. Almost the size of Belgium, visiting Kruger gives you a sense of how much space the animals need and the size of their territories. It's vast and you won't be able to see the entire park in a day. Due to the size, it also takes longer to find the animals, so expect to spend a lot of time driving.

A popular destination with well-maintained roads, it's easy to visit the Kruger National Park by yourself. It's a good option for a self-drive safari, although finding animals can be a bit hit and miss due to the size. It can also get busy, especially during holiday periods, so you may want to time your visit accordingly.

There are also a number of private reserves on the outskirts of Kruger National Park. If you stay at a lodge in the private reserve, you can also go see the animals or see the game drives within the smaller reserve. Popular options are Sabi Sands, Timbavati Private Nature Reserve, Thornybush Private Game Reserve and Kapama Private Game Reserve - see the next section for more information on these.

For more affordable accommodation, you can stay in the campgrounds in the Kruger National Park itself, or in the nearby towns of Hazyview (near the Panorama Route and Sabi Sand) or Marloth Park (near the southern entrance of the park). Accommodation options range from hotels and game lodges to self catering options, suitable for the whole family.

One of the great things about visiting the Kruger National Park is that there's also a lot to do in the wider Mpumalanga area. If you're driving from Johannesburg, the Panoramic Route is beautiful and you can stop at the Blyde River Canyon, Bourke's Luck Potholes and Berlin Falls. Plan to spend around 6-7 hours on the route, including stops to admire the stunning views.

Kruger National Park game drives and tours:

A leopard relaxing in a tree in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve, South Africa

Private game reserves in South Africa

If you're staying at a game lodge, there's a good chance it'll be situated in a private game reserve. Private game reserves are smaller than the larger game parks, which means the rangers will have a much better idea of where the animals will be. If you are short on time or if you have small children, a private reserve could be a good option.

Private reserves are usually reserved for guests staying in the reserves, and they are also much less crowded at peak times. The lodges at these reserves are also very expensive, particularly the ones bordering the Kruger National Park. They usually offer luxury accommodation and amenities, with daily game drives and all meals included. Visiting a private reserve is an excellent splurge trip for a special occasion.

Saying that, you don't get quite the same appreciation for space and scale in the private reserves as you get when travelling through the Kruger National Park. They are still well worth considering, particularly if you're travelling during the school holidays or want to be sure to see the Big Five in a day or two.

Private reserves near the Kruger National Park

A lion roaring at Aquila Private Game Reserve

Safaris near Cape Town

If your travels in South Africa are focused around Cape Town, it's still possible to experience a safari during your trip. There are several excellent wildlife reserves near Cape Town, which are perfect for a short break out of the city. While a couple of them are close enough to visit as a day trip, it's definitely worth spending a day or two overnight to take your time, see all the animals, and relax in the bush.

Sanbona Wildlife Reserve

About 3.5 hours from Cape Town, Sanbona is famous for its white lions, which can be spotted in the wild. You'll also be able to see cheetahs, elephants, and zebras and there are four lodges on-site to choose from.

Stay onsite at the luxury lodge or at the Whitehouse in nearby Barrydale for a more affordable option

Aquila Private Game Reserve

Just two hours' from Cape Town, you'll find the Aquila Private Game Reserve which offers visitors the chance to see the Big Five. Visitors can also spend time with rehabilitated animals at the on-site Animal Rescue Centre.

Stay onsite at the Aquila Private Game Reserve and Spa or visit on a day trip from Cape Town.

Gondwana Private Game Reserve

Gondwana Private Game Reserve is about four hours out of Cape Town and makes a wonderful stop of the scenic coastal Garden Route. Again, you can see the Big Five and you can choose between staying at Kwena Lodge, in bungalows or glamping.

Stay onsite in a luxury bush villa with a spa and infinity pool.

A jackal at a waterhole in South Africa

Best time to go on safari in South Africa

The best time to go on safari in South Africa is from June to October, during the dry season. If you're heading to the game reserves in the northeast of the country (including Kruger), you'll find temperate temperatures. The drier weather conditions mean shorter grass and fewer watering holes, which makes wildlife easier to see.

How long should I spend on my safari trip?

How long you spend on safari depends on how many game parks you want to go to and the number of animals you want to see. Most people will find 3-5 days plenty - staying three nights means you'll have two full days at the reserve and there's a good chance you'll do an evening safari the day you arrive.

If you're interested in wildlife safari or want the opportunity to do a few nature walks, you may want to stay a bit longer.

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Roxanne de Bruyn

Author - Roxanne de Bruyn

Roxanne is the founder and editor of Faraway Worlds. She is a freelance writer and guidebook author and has written for several travel publications, including Lonely Planet and The Culture Trip. With a background in communications, she has studied ancient history, comparative religion and international development, and has a particular interest in sustainable tourism.

Originally from South Africa, Roxanne has travelled widely and loves learning the stories of the places she visits. She enjoys cooking, dance and yoga, and usually travels with her husband and young son. She is based in New Zealand.

Last Updated 10 November 2022

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South Africa

South Africa is a country of contrasts. As well as enjoying the spectacular coastline, peaceful bush and safaris, visitors can also learn about South Africa's difficult history and diverse heritage.
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