By the end of this article you will have a better idea of the safari experience YOU are looking for, and within that, you get a few recommendations that I have thoroughly enjoyed to kick-off your research!
I can say with confidence that the most asked question I get when someone comes to South Africa is, “What safari do you recommend?”
It's used to surprise me this was at the top of the questions list, but now more than ever I understand why! Before moving to South Africa, I can admit I almost thought South Africa was a full-on wildlife country where you ride elephants to work, and school was held in nature-y huts... but with one quick Google search, I learned South Africa is a country with so many layers + elements. Even though I've lived here since 2014, it wasn't until recently that I considered myself as having done a proper safari, which is probably why it was so low on my recommendations list before -- but that is why it is so important for you to find an experience that ticks all the boxes for what you are looking for, and find the magic in safaris like I did!
While I can’t tell you which is the BEST SAFARI in ALL of South Africa, because I haven’t personally experienced them all (YET!), I hope by the end of this article you have a better idea of the safari experience YOU are looking for, and with that have a few recommendations that I personally have enjoyed to kick-off your research!
I would group your safari types into THREE MAIN CATEGORIES. The one-day, the weekend getaway, and the week+ experience.
And to me, this is the most important decision to make as it really is the building base of your safari experience.
One-day game drives* are great for a couple of reasons: *The word game refers to animals that are not domesticated, the wildlife. The word drive refers to a vehicle trip to see them.
• Easy trasportation
They are usually closer to the city, so organizing shuttles to get there is much easier. A lot of packages actually come with pick up and drop off!
• Taster of what a safari has to offer
If your trip schedule is limited and you want a taster of everything South Africa has to offer, it’s a great way to get an idea of what a safari is about.
• If you have never seen The Big Five* in real life
It will be such a treat because many of the smaller game reserves have higher chances of finding their animals. It’s great for seeing as many animals as possible in a short amount of time.
*The term was coined by big-game hunters, and refers to the five most difficult animals in Africa to hunt on foot, but is now also widely used by safari tour operators. In Africa, the Big Five game animals are the lion, leopard, black rhinoceros, African bush elephant, and the African buffalo.
• You learn a lot about wildlife and animals
• The most affordable safari option
WHAT IS MISSING
The one-day safaris are really cool, so this isn’t to discourage or take anything away from that awesome experience, BUT if you read through these next few points and see value in them, then keep reading because the next safari option may just be exactly what you are looking for!
• Some of the smaller reserves don’t host all of “The Big Five”
Since the game reserves closest to the city are a bit smaller, they sometimes can’t hold as many animals. When researching safaris, make sure to look for what animals they have on site!
• Not as authentic of an experience
Since most small game reserves separate their animals in very large cages, it’s sort of an upgraded zoo, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s great for seeing as many animals as possible, but it doesn’t give you the full African wildlife picture.
• A bit more rushed
Since it is only a few hours long and it is a large amount of ground to cover, the guides don’t always spend as much time at each animal. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you just want to see one up close and move on. However, if you are into wildlife photography or are interested in understanding wildlife habits a bit deeper, the magic is in lingering around or coming by again + again.
(3 DAY) WEEKEND SAFARI
If you are scheduling a longer amount of time towards a safari, I definitely recommend going further outside the city! The average amount of time people dedicate to safari lodges is around 3 days. We recently did 4 days (including travel, so it was more like 2 full days and 2 half days), and I thought it was the perfect amount of time!
It was this experience that made me fall in love with safaris!
Just to give you an idea of the schedule for overnight safaris:
Perks of dedicating at least 3 days to the safari:
• More authentic wildlife experience
In the larger game reserves they are not separated off as much, and most of the animals are self sustaining - meaning the rangers don’t feed them, they completely live off the land + animals within the reserve. It’s a proper wildlife food chain!
• You give yourself a chance to see more animals + unique experiences!
Every day on the safari is different! For example, one day we saw a group of 10 elephants or so, and the next day we saw a group of 50 with elephants of all ages walking together! It was so magical - but something that cannot be duplicated day-to-day. So, going on several game drives increases your chances of experiencing the magic of wildlife! (read more about this safari here)
• Going further away from the city you will find the game reserves get quite a bit larger, which in turn allows for more animals!
With more animals, it obviously increases your chances of seeing many of them at a time - way more elephants for example. Also, the larger game reserves usually host a wider variety of animals.
• Surrounded by wildlife
Most lodges are sitting on the game reserve, which means you will be surrounded by wildlife. There is something really special about walking outside your room to grab some breakfast and seeing animals from a close distance, even though you saw them from the safari truck moments earlier.
WHAT IS MISSING
• There is a chance you don’t see an animal (but that's the name of the game baby - pun intended).
Since the space is SO large at these reserves it can be challenging to find the animals some days. But that is what is so great about going on several of them - you always see new animals doing new things!
• Plan things for your free time.
There are a good 6 hours that are unaccounted for. Usually, the lodge will have some extra activities for you to do like a workout facility or a swimming pool. Have a look on their website to see what they offer - it is good to fill in those free hours with something.
I didn’t know where to note this because it really depends on your interests and if you consider it to be a PRO or a CON, but the safari getaways are pretty chill. Other than the early wake-up times and going on game drives twice a day, there is nothing much going on. So the down time will either drive you crazy or you make it an even more enjoyable adventure.
For me, the slowness almost made me take in the wildlife a bit more. I took a nap and caught up on work during the mid-day breaks which I found to be a fun combo between being productive and still on vacation.
So I definitely recommend bringing a book, games and/or an activity for your free time. The lodges usually have some extra options you can book through them such as massages, kayaking, fishing, bush walks — things like that. It is best to see what your safari lodge includes and plan + budget accordingly.
FULL WEEK SAFARI
Although I thought the 4 day getaway was the perfect amount of time in my opinion, now that I have been bit by the safari bug I will definitely be considering a week-long safari somewhere in Africa!
I have heard the most amazing things and what has really caught my attention was all the unique living situations available for those longer safaris! I've seen luxury tree-houses, to glamorous tents, to the most prestige guest houses! The week safaris is an experience meant to be a step above the rest!
• Is it too much time in the bush?
Since there wasn't much to do on our 4 day safari, I wonder if there is enough at these 5 star lodges to keep entertained -- especially given the high dollar amount per night.
• Can you get as close to the animals?
In the private game reserves the animals get somewhat use to the vehicles which is a perk when wanting to get close to the animals. I wonder how close the animals let you get in the National Kruger Park...
• Is the value there?
These 5 star lodges cost a pretty penny, I'd be interested to see if it's well justified in terms of their services + what they have to offer or if you'd leave feeling unfulfilled.
As I briefly mentioned at the beginning, I haven’t experienced enough of the safaris to feel confident in backing a specific reserve as “THE BEST” but I can share which of the safaris I’d recommend you look into based on my good experiences! This will only include ONE-DAY and WEEKEND safaris, as I haven’t done a FULL WEEK SAFARI (yet) but I hope to soon be able to fill in that section with a bit more information!
One Day Safaris
Aquila Private Game Reserve
Inverdoorn Game Reserve Indalu Game Reserve
Weekend Getaway Safaris
Kariega Game Reserve Botlierskop Game Reserve