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Going on an African safari tops many travelers’ bucket list. And for good reason. It is an unforgettable experience that just might change your life.
Though many African nations offer wildlife experiences, we believe South Africa is the ideal safari destination for first-timers. It is an incredibly diverse nation, easy to navigate, and offers plenty of reasonably affordable safari options. Of course, affordable is relative. If you’re used to living like royalty in Southeast Asia for $10/day, you might want to reach for that inhaler.
Sam and I spent two days spotting the “Big Five” in Sabi Sand Private Game Reserve and Kruger National Park last year, and it was easily our most amazing travel experience to date.
So if you’re ready to take the plunge, here is everything you should know before going on a safari in South Africa.
Further Reading: 6 Things to do in Cape Town, South Africa
Types of Safaris in South Africa
You might think of safaris as an exotic holiday experience reserved for ultra-rich globetrotters who have private jets, monogrammed Louis Vuitton luggage, and a taste for caviar. But there is a South African safari to meet any traveler’s needs and budget—even plebeians like Sam and me who consider brand-name pickles an extravagant luxury.
As you start planning your South Africa safari, these are some things you should consider.
Private Game Reserve or Public National Park?
First you will need to decide whether you want to visit a national park or a private game reserve. Since we did both, we were able to get a feel for each option.
The most appealing benefit of visiting a national park is the price—they tend to be significantly cheaper than private game reserves. If a private game reserve is first class, the national parks are economy. But without the stale pretzels and criminal lack of legroom.
Another benefit of visiting a national park is that you can choose between a self-drive safari and a guided safari. For travelers who value freedom and flexibility, a self-drive safari might be a good option.
The drawbacks of choosing a national park are that they are often more crowded, and the accommodations tend to be less luxurious and self-catering (rather than all-inclusive).
The most popular national park in South Africa for safaris is Kruger National Park, which covers 7,523 square miles and contains all of the “Big Five.” We spent a full day there on a guided game drive and enjoyed the experience despite the non-ideal weather.
Private Game Reserve
Private game reserves are the more luxurious option. They tend to boast fancy, all-inclusive accommodations, nicer safari vehicles, and highly trained staff. Private game reserves also tend to be less crowded than national parks. If you want to experience the high life, this is the place to do it.
Outside vehicles are typically prohibited inside the private game reserves, which means guided tours are the only option.
During safaris on private game reserves, travelers typically ride in an open 4×4 jeep with both a driver and a spotter. Guided tours in national parks typically just have a driver.
The major downside to private game reserves is the cost. Remember those ultra-rich globetrotters I referenced? This is where they stay.
If you’re not Beyonce but would still like to visit a private game reserve, one option is to spend the night offsite and simply arrange a day tour.
We did an evening safari in Sabi Sands that included a 4-hour game drive, sundowners, dinner, and round-trip transfer from our offsite accommodations. We enjoyed the benefits of a private game reserve without ringing up a massive bill.
Overall, we much preferred Sabi Sands to Kruger National Park.
Private or group game drive?
Another decision you may need to make is whether you prefer a private or group safari.
Private safaris offer more flexibility. You can stop whenever you choose and spend as long as you want at each animal sighting. Another benefit for introverted travelers (like us!) is that you won’t have to worry about spending 4+ hours in a jeep with strangers.
On the other hand, group safaris tend to be significantly cheaper. And for extraverts or solo travelers, a group option provides more opportunities for social interaction.
We did private drives each day, because we wanted flexibility and unobstructed views of the animals.
Accommodations Inside or Outside the Park?
Where you stay has a big impact on your safari experience.
The more “traditional” option is to stay at a private lodge within the national park or game reserve. Those accommodations typically cost a certain amount per person per day (so even couples sharing a room/suite will need to pay the full price x2) and include meals, game drives, and other amenities. Additional advantages include proximity to the animals and a more “authentic” safari (in some cases).
On the other hand, staying offsite is often more economical. Just bear in mind that you will have to commute to the park before and after each drive, which can result in super long days.
We stayed at a lodge just outside Kruger National Park to keep costs down. We had a two-bedroom, two-bathroom condo with a full kitchen. The river running just behind our condo was filled with hippos, and we saw monkeys swinging in the trees. The only downside was that we had to drive 30 minutes or so for our safaris, which meant getting up at around 4:00 for our morning game drive.
Further Reading: Cage Diving with Sharks in Gansbaai, South Africa
What to know before going on a South Africa Safari
One of the ways to ensure you have a great safari experience is to go into the trip prepared and with realistic expectations. Here are some things you should know before you channel your inner Karen Blixen and set out in search of big game.
You might need antimalarial medicine. Kruger National Park and the surrounding private game reserves are located in a malaria zone. That said, most of our guides said the risk of contracting malaria in that region—especially while on a short trip—is quite small. We recommend discussing malaria prevention options with your doctor. We played it safe and took antimalarial pills for the safari portion of our trip.
It is exhausting. I know spending the day spotting the full cast of The Lion King sounds like a dream—and it is! But the reality is the days spent on safari are long and can be quite exhausting. The schedule is structured around the animals’ activity, which means getting up super early and staying up late. We recommend going into the trip as well rested as possible!
Animal sightings aren’t guaranteed. The amazing thing about a safari is that you can view animals in their natural habitat. The downside is that you are not guaranteed to see every animal on every drive. Kruger National Park alone is roughly the size of Israel, so tracking down certain animals can be difficult. We recommend scheduling at least two or three game drives to increase your odds of seeing everything on your list.
You will have a lot of downtime. There is a lot of waiting during safaris. While you might get lucky and spot herd of animals at once, at other times you might not see anything. Be patient. The next sighting might be just around the corner.
Don’t get too hung up on checking animals off a list. You’ve likely heard safari-enthusiasts mention the “Big Five,” a reference to the five animals big-game hunters of the past found the most difficult to hunt: lions, rhinos, leopards, buffalo, and elephants. Though safaris today are all about hunting with a camera lens rather than a rifle, spotting the “Big Five” is a badge of honor for safari-goers. But even though seeing those animals is exciting, a safari is about the overall experience. Don’t get so caught up in checking animal sightings off the list that you forget to relax and enjoy the moment.
What to Pack for a South Africa Safari
Packing for a safari can be difficult. With “safari wear” constituting an entire fashion subgenre, you might think you need an entire new wardrobe for the trip. But even though a khaki jumpsuit and fancy safari boots might look super cute on your Instagram feed, they are not essential for your safari.
That said, packing a few key items will make your safari experience much more enjoyable.
The color of your clothing is not highly important, so there’s no need to rock head-to-toe khaki—though you might want to leave your neon tracksuit at home. We recommend packing clothes that layer well and are breathable, since the weather can change dramatically in a few hours.
The early mornings and late evenings can get pretty chilly. Be sure to take a jacket to keep you warm once the sun goes down. We froze to death on our safari in Kruger National Park!
Once the sun comes out, temperatures can rise in a hurry. Be sure to take a good sunhat along to protect your head, face, and neck from sunburn.
We recommend taking SPF50 sunscreen to protect your skin from the sun’s harmful rays. Be sure to apply and reapply liberally. The African sun is intense!
You don’t want to be squinting into the sun while trying to spot a lion. We recommend taking a pair of sunglasses along on your game drives. Sam loves his polarized sunglasses.
Good Camera and Zoom Lens
For the best pictures, use a DSLR camera and a quality zoom lens. I took all my pictures on my iPhone, and none of them turned out great. Luckily, Sam used a DSLR camera and had much better luck.
One thing we wished we packed but didn’t is binoculars. Though the animals were often quite close to our jeep—including a lion who came so close that his mane brushed our tracker’s leg—sometimes we weren’t able to get right up next to them. In those instances, having a pair of binoculars would have been handy. These are Wire Cutter’s budget pick.
Since the Kruger National Park area is located in a malaria zone, it’s a good idea to apply mosquito repellent liberally in order to avoid bites.
Refillable Water Bottle
When you’re spending most of the day in the beating sun, staying hydrated is essential. The water bottle we use has a built-in filter and is more eco-friendly than disposable water bottles. We use this one.
Comfortable, Closed-Toed Shoes
To be honest, fancy safari boots are unnecessary for most game drives. I took my Merrell hiking boots to be on the safe side, but I would have been fine in regular sneakers. The only times we got out of the jeep was for sundowners and when we arrived at a lookout point. The reason I suggest closed-toed shoes is because the ground can get muddy at certain times of the year, so you might want your feet protected.
The exception, of course, is if you’re planning on doing a walking safari. In that case, a pair of good quality hiking boots would be a good idea. We haven’t actually done a walking safari yet…hopefully next time!
Flip-flops are handy for walking around your lodge or wearing to the pool (if your accommodation has one). They are lightweight, easy to pack, and allow you to air out your feet. I love my Sanuks.
A Good Book
You will likely have some downtime between game drives. Be sure to take a good book so you have something to keep you busy on those lazy afternoons. Other than, you know, napping.
Need a recommendation? Check out our list of the best books to inspire wanderlust.
You may want to bring along a small day bag on your game drives to hold your essentials for the day. I use this one.
A dip in the pool is the perfect way to cool off after a 4-hour game drive in the sunshine. Be sure to toss a swimsuit into your luggage just in case.
Do you have any more questions about your South African safari?
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Great tips guys, enjoyed reading as we’re heading to South Africa later this year.
Thanks, Garth! I hope you have a fantastic trip! 🙂