The EA guide to South Africa safaris
South Africa is a dream destination for safari aficionados and first-timers alike. The attraction is simple: vast and magnificent landscapes, and an incredible variety of game, including the Big Five (South Africa is home to the largest remaining population of rhinos), abundant bird life and every iconic African animal on your checklist. It offers unforgettable safari experiences for travellers wanting to stay in authentic bush camps right or über-luxurious lodges. Young or old, families, couples, solo travellers or groups of friends, there is something for everyone.
South Africa boasts several safari destinations, but the most famous is undoubtedly Kruger National Park and its surrounding territory. And for good reason. Here, in one of the world’s most-loved safari destinations, you’ll relish seeing the Big Five, as well as cheetah, wild dog and many other species in the wild.
There’s a myriad of private reserves bordering the Kruger for holidaymakers seeking a luxury South Africa safari. Fewer vehicles and tourists mean that you can enjoy a more intimate bush experience, more off-roading on your safari holiday adventure and, as a result, more up-close wildlife viewing opportunities.
Other Big Five reserves include Madikwe Game Reserve just a few hours from Johannesburg, and Pilanesberg National Park (both in the malaria-free safari area of the North West Province), iSimangaliso Wetland Park, Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve, and Addo Elephant National Park.
With two-thirds of South Africa surrounded by coastline, the country’s extraordinary marine wildlife can add an entirely different element to your safari holiday. Instead of “just” seeing the Big Five (lion, leopard, black or white rhino, African elephant and Cape buffalo), you can add Southern Right whales and Great White sharks to the list and go for the “Big Seven”.
Whether you’re planning a romantic getaway, a solo trip or a fun South African family holiday, a safari in this spellbinding country will stay with you forever.
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The best time to safari in South Africa
Because South Africa is so massive, the climate varies from region to region. Therefore, the best time to visit will depend on where you want to go and what you want to see. In general, however, if you’re going on a South Africa safari, the best time for game-viewing is during the dry winter and spring months (May to early October). This weather applies to places like Kruger National Park, Madikwe Game Reserve, Pilanesberg National Park and KwaZulu-Natal.
Wildlife in South Africa
There are more than 200 species of mammals in South Africa, with large numbers of Africa’s iconic mammals calling the bushveld and savannah regions home. There are numerous reserves and private game lodges where you can see the Big Five, but there are so many other fantastic animals to look out for as well, including canine carnivores such as wild dog, hyena, jackal and bat-eared fox and feline carnivores like caracal, African wild cat and the rare black-footed cat. Plus there are loads of different antelope, from the little duiker to the gemsbok, springbok, impala and the large kudu and sable antelope, as well as cheetah, giraffe, zebra, warthog, baboon, vervet monkey and even crocs. South Africa is a fantastic bird-watching destination too, without around 840 species on the national checklist. Marine wildlife is also incredible. You can check out the penguin colony at Cape Town’s Boulders Beach; go shark diving in a cage at Gansbaai, Simon’s Town or Mossel Bay; watch turtles nesting in iSimangaliso Wetland Park; or visit the clifftop town of Hermanus – the greatest place on the planet for a spot of land-based whale-watching.
Greater Kruger National Park
Everybody’s heard of Kruger National Park, the largest game reserve in South Africa and one of the world’s biggest wildlife sanctuaries. It’s located in one of the most ecologically diverse regions of Southern Africa, with six different ecosystems supporting the enormous array of animals that so many people travel here to see.
The government-run Kruger National Park (KNP) is part of the Greater Kruger National Park (GKNP), which also encompasses a series of private game reserves and concessions. In total, they cover just under two million spectacular hectares, with a no-fence policy allowing wildlife to roam freely across the entire area. Because it’s such a massive area, the habitats differ enormously and therefore attract different animals, so while some areas are renowned for elephants, others may be famous for leopard sightings. Whatever you dream of seeing, for a luxury safari experience it’s these private game reserves in the Greater Kruger National Park that you really want to visit. As well as mind-blowing scenery and a chance to see the Big Five and a huge array of other wild animals and birds, they offer something more: exclusivity, incredible accessibility, expert guides and exquisite accommodation. You’ll have a far more “up-close-and-personal” experience of the African bush, as well as the chance to take part in unforgettable activities, such as walking safaris and al fresco bush dinners under star-studded African skies.
Our favourite private game reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park is Sabi Sand Private Game Reserve, which incorporates private game reserves such as MalaMala, Lion Sands, Savanna Private Game Reserve, Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve, Londolozi Private Game Reserve, Singita Game Reserve, Djuma Game Reserve, Ulusaba Private Game Reserve and Dulini Private Reserve, to name but a few. Timbavati Private Game Reserve, which includes the Motswari Game Reserve, Ngala Game Reserve, Tanda Tula Game Reserve and Umlani Game Reserve, is another favourite. There’s everything from affordable owner-run bush camps to über-luxurious safari lodges – whatever you choose to stay, the experience is sure to be immersive, exclusive, hugely rewarding and totally unforgettable.
The Kruger is generally considered to be a year-round destination, but there are two different seasons offering two different wildlife-viewing experiences. Winter is also the dry season, and runs from May to September. This is the best time for viewing wildlife as vegetation is sparse and the bush is more “open”, making the animals much easier to spot.
November to April is the “green season”, when summer rains transform the landscape. Everything is lush and green, and it’s a great time for bird watching and seeing newborns, as this is also the calving season.
Malaria-free Madikwe Game Reserve
In the far north of South Africa, bordering Botswana, you’ll find the fantastic Madikwe Game Reserve, the fifth-largest game reserve in South Africa. To get there, you’ll need to take a 45-minute flight north from Johannesburg or drive for four-to-six hours, it all depends on the safari accommodation you choose. And the accommodation options here are glorious: they’re mostly four- and five-star luxury private game lodges and are of the highest standard.
Opened in 1991, this lesser-known reserve is relatively “young”, but has had great success with its conservation initiatives and is rapidly gaining in popularity to rival South Africa’s best safari locations. The reason? It’s a family-friendly, malaria-free safari destination featuring 75,000 incredible hectares of wilderness that teem with wildlife. Madikwe has a unique location, within a transition zone between the Kalahari thornveld and the Lowveld bushveld. This broad mix of habitats supports abundant wildlife – it’s home to 66 mammal species, including the Big Five, black and white rhino, cheetah, zebra, gemsbok, eland, sable and predators such as wild dog and hyena. These predators are often spotted hunting on the open grasslands, thanks to the success of one of the world’s largest wildlife translocation exercises, Operation Phoenix, which reintroduced more than 8,000 animals of 28 species over a period of seven years. There are also more than 350 bird species, from the rare crimson-breasted shrike to raptors, finches and the lilac-breasted roller, often considered one of the most beautiful birds in the world.
It’s generally mild to hot in Madikwe Game Reserve; summers are very hot, but winter nights can be cold. The best time to visit Madikwe Game Reserve is between March and November, when temperatures are lower. It generally rains from October to April, with the highest rainfall expected between November and February. Daytime temperatures are hot and humid, with an average temperature of 31C. The winter months of May to September are dry and cold, with temperatures around 22C in the daytime and dropping as low as 2C at night
The Garden Route & Eastern Cape
Drive along South Africa’s famous Garden Route, from sun-drenched Port Elizabeth to cosmopolitan Cape Town. This is a magnificent stretch of coastline boasting a heady mix of ancient forests, secluded artists’ communities, craft centres, mountain hideaways and perfect spots for a beach holiday. Self-drive holidays in South Africa let you explore the Garden Route, stopping along the way to explore Tsitsikamma Forest, the beaches of Plettenburg Bay, Knysna lagoon and the ostrich capital of the world, Oudtshoorn. Alternatively, take the lesser-known Route 62 that meanders between Cape Town, Oudtshoorn and Port Elizabeth. This inland road will take you through stunning plains, mountain passes and tiny towns where the people are friendly, the landscapes impressive and the activities endless.
The Eastern Cape is the malaria-free safari area at the end of the Garden Route, so it’s the ultimate all-rounder South Africa safari holiday destination. Whether you take the Garden Route or Route 62, you’ll come out at Port Elizabeth and from there, head to the Eastern Cape’s wildlife safari reserves and national parks. This region is the homeland of the Xhosa-speaking people and birthplace of Nelson Mandela. It offers brilliant malaria-free, Big Five safari holidays for all ages, with accommodation ranging from family-friendly camps to remote luxury retreats.
The Garden Route boasts a year-round climate, but it can rain at any time. Expect the hottest temperatures from November to April, the biggest crowds during the Christmas school holidays (for a beach holiday, aim for February to April), and great whale-watching from July to October.
Other amazing natural wonders
Breathtaking nature stretches out in every direction in South Africa. Make the quintessential safari holiday complete with time spent in some lesser-known areas that will make your jaw drop and your heart sing. There’s the magic of the Drakensberg mountains, where dramatic jagged peaks rise to 3,500 metres at their highest point, making them the highest mountain range in Southern Africa and appropriately called “Barrier of Spears” in local Zulu language. Between 35,000 and 40,000 San Bushman rock paintings can be found in this area of spectacular natural beauty.
Running along the eastern edge of the foothills of the Drakensberg mountains is the Panorama Route, a scenic road that, as the name suggests, offers mind-blowing views. It connects several natural landmarks, all centred around the Blyde River Canyon, the third-largest canyon in the world and one of the most beautiful places in South Africa. From the wonderfully named God’s Window lookout, the view is sublime: an epic mountain area with canyons, rock formations, waterfalls and the world’s largest green canyon. And on a clear day you can see across to the famous Kruger National Park and beyond to the Lebombo Mountains in the distance. The Panorama Route is on the way to Kruger National Park, so it’s easily incorporated into any South Africa safari holiday.
Other don’t-miss natural wonders in South Africa include Namaqua National Park, about 495 kilometres north of Cape Town, where rains can transform the landscape and create a dazzling carpet of millions of spring wildflowers; and the spectacular Tsitsikamma National Park, part of the Garden Route National Park. Here you can walk through ancient forests, kayak on the rivers, hike epic South Africa trails or simply relax on remote beaches.
Undeniably one of the world’s most beautiful and cosmopolitan cities, Cape Town has something for everyone. This spectacular city retains a strong colonial character, with its beautiful buildings and manicured gardens nestling beneath Table Mountain, the iconic natural wonder that rises more than 1,055 metres above Cape Town. A visit to the top is a must for any first-time visitor. Cape Town boasts endless stunning beaches, a vibrant waterfront, a creative city centre and an extraordinary gastronomy scene. There are important historical sites to explore, such as Robben Island, the District Six museum and the Bo-Kaap region – the city’s Cape Malay quarter famous for its colourful houses. Another must while you’re in Cape Town is to take the scenic Cape Peninsula drive. This famous road trip features breathtaking scenery that encompasses oceans, mountains and vineyards. Starting in Cape Town, you can stop along the way to see the colourful beach huts at Muizenberg and the penguins at Boulder’s Beach, before making it to the most south-western point of the African continent, the Cape of Good Hope. Finally, you’ll take one of the most beautiful drives in the world, to Chapman’s Peak. Time things right and you could do this trip all in one day, starting out on the Indian Ocean but ending with a sunset view over the Atlantic.
As Cape Town’s winter rains fall from June to August, most people prefer to visit during the dry summer months. The hottest – and most popular – months are between December and February, but this is also when the fierce south-easterly wind also blows hardest. For calmer breezes and fewer crowds, late January to late April is a good time to visit, while July onwards is a good time to visit if you want to see Southern Right whales – you can view them from the coastline.
Cape Winelands escapes
Situated an easy drive east of Cape Town, the Cape Winelands is home to some of the most prestigious wineries on the planet. It’s also an incredibly beautiful part of the world, all mountains, fertile green valleys and historic towns and villages where fantastic restaurants, museums, art galleries and boutique hotels await, usually housed in gabled Cape Dutch buildings steeped in history. The Winelands encompasses several regions, each with its own wine route. The most famous town is Stellenbosch, synonymous because it has the oldest wine route in the country. Franschhoek (the “French corner”) is one of the most beautiful wine valleys in the world. It also boasts a rich history and vibrant village atmosphere, with a long street bustling with cafés, restaurants, artist studios and boutique shops. Lesser-known yet equally rewarding towns include Wellington and Paarl. The Winelands are the perfect spot for a romantic finale after a South African safari honeymoon.
South Africa’s largest city, commonly known as Jo’burg or Jozi, is a fascinating and completely underestimated city. The energy here, particularly in the inner city which is currently undergoing an exciting rejuvenation, is electric. Areas that were once no-go zones are being transformed into thriving hubs for designers, chefs, musicians, activists – and tourists. There are fantastic creative and cultural experiences at every turn, and the city positively buzzes with food, art and fashion.
The “don’t-miss” list here is long and fabulous: Jo’burg is home to endless art galleries, museums and public artworks, with fascinating inner-city street art walks letting you see highlights from this scene. There are also breweries, restaurants and brilliant marketplaces where you can shop and eat, such as the 1Fox Precinct in the former mining district of Ferreirastown; the famous Maboneng Precinct, a creative hub and place of inspiration located on the eastern edge of Joburg’s central business district; and Neighbourgoods Market in Braamfontein, a central suburb of Johannesburg. This tantalising addition to Jozi’s thriving food market scene will have your mouth watering from the moment you set foot through the door.
Everyone should take the time to visit the Apartheid Museum, close to downtown Johannesburg, which illustrates the rise and fall of apartheid that plagued the country from 1948 until 1994; while a visit to a local township, such as the world-famous Soweto, will give a fascinating glimpse into a city that’s been shaped by its past.
This is just a taste of the myriad things on offer in the “Place of Gold” (the translation of Johannesburg’s Zulu name, eGoli). It shouldn’t just be treated as a quick stopover en route to a safari – this revitalised city is an outstanding and worthwhile stop on any luxury South Africa tour.
When it comes to the best times to travel to Johannesburg, think of it a bit like Brisbane: the hottest, wettest, busiest and most expensive time to travel is during the summer holidays (December and January), and in fact the best times to visit are from March to May and September to November, when the days are cooler, drier and sunnier than in the summer.
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