1. When to go
For wildlife watching, winter (June to September) is ideal as many trees and shrubs are leafless, which aids spotting. Limited food and water also means that animals are out in the open more often foraging, hunting or grabbing a drink at a waterhole. South Africa’s summer (December to February) sees the countryside at its most lush, but animals can be lost in dense shadows. Most common at this time are holiday makers from Europe, who come in herds for the hot temps.
2. Choosing a National Park
South Africa has over 600 parks and reserves. You can find one offering any kind of experience you want, from utter desolation, to verdant savannah rich with life in all forms. You can join guided safaris, set out on your own or find serenity at a campsite far from others. They also cater to travellers on all budgets which makes them both affordable but also often crowded in parts. Most have good roads you can tour in your own rental car. For your first safari, two parks stand out:
Kruger National Park
The national park for safaris. Yes parts can get crowded, but given that it’s the size of Wales, you can easily escape to a remote corner. Every iconic – and not-so-iconic – African animal is found here. You can stay in the park in everything from isolated campsites to bungalows and cottages in busy compounds, with prices that are some of the best value on the continent. Staying in the surrounding towns like Nelspruit, which have hotels, hostels and resorts for every budget, may be tempting, but they make accessing the early morning wildlife drives (the highlight of the day) difficult; the commute and park-gate traffic can eat into the best part of viewing time.
Combines lush scenery with all the expected wildlife. Located in the heart of Zululand, the famous culture of the namesake tribe is prevalent. Beaches along the nearby Elephant Coast are among South Africa’s finest, so you can see wildlife and go for a dip. The park is especially noted for its network of hiking trails that include multi-day itineraries and camping deep in the bush.
3. Choosing a private reserve
There is only one real reason why you may not choose a private wildlife reserve: cost. These are not places for people on a tight budget, with prices reaching thousands of dollars per person per day. But for people who want the ultimate safari-experience, a lodge in a private reserve offers:
Close proximity to wildlife
Not only do you avoid long drives before your safari starts but that bump you hear in the night may be an elephant looking in your window. Unlike most of the government camps, lodges here are rarely ever fenced. And when on wildlife drives, guides are usually permitted to leave the reserve’s dirt tracks and head directly to sightings in the bush instead of having to watch from afar (as is the case in the national parks). Sabi Sand Game Reserve, which adjoins Kruger National Park, is widely considered to be the best place in Africa for spotting animals.
Word class safari guides
Guides working at private reserves are at the top of their game. They read the animal footprints on the dirt each morning like a newspaper and have the best chance of finding you the most incredible wildlife encounters. In the highest-end reserves, guides wear ear-piece radios and communicate with each other to let them know where any key sightings are taking place.
Safari jeeps in the park may hold up to 15 guests, while those in private reserves tend to max out at six. At some high-end lodges it might actually just be your party in the vehicle. The fewer the people, the more individual time the guide has to give you; you’ll also have more say in how long you stay at individual sightings. Most reserves also set a strict rule of no more than three vehicles at any one sighting, whereas there may be dozens of them in the parks.
Since you’re staying amidst the wildlife, you can easily create your own menu of activities on the fly, such as guided walks through the bush or tours that focus on particular species. At Samara Private Game Reserve in a verdant valley amidst desert in the Eastern Cape, there are treks to track cheetahs on foot. One way to save on the costs of a private reserve is to spend just a few nights at one at the start of your trip. Take advantage of the talented guides and abundance of wildlife to see a lot of animals quickly and learn a lot about South Africa’s wildlife. Then, with your wildlife urges somewhat sated, try a completely different experience in a national park, where you can concentrate more on appreciating the rhythms of life and natural beauty.