How to Choose a South Africa Safari

So, you’ve made the critical decision and settled on a holiday in South Africa. It’s going to be brilliant. Cape Town is jaw-dropping, the beaches of the Cape Peninsula are beautiful (and more often than not virtually empty), the food is wonderful, the wine even better, and the Garden Route is a road-tripper’s dream.

This is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The Big Five will play a big part in every South Africa holiday, but trying to choose a safari really can be a hair-pulling, teeth-grinding affair. The South African desert safari dubai deals market is ridiculously saturated (mainly because it is ridiculously lucrative) and there are so many options that it can be difficult to know where to begin.

The good news is that there all kinds of safaris out there – something for every budget and every kind of person (except perhaps those who don’t like animals). Whether you’re a backpacker or an investment banker, there is bound to be an ideal solution. It’s just a matter of knowing what’s available and what the jargon means in real, tangible terms.

Hopefully, this pocket guide will set you on the right track to your perfect South Africa safari:


First, you’ll need to decide where to go:

1. There are no decent, ethical game reserves near Cape Town. Full stop.

I used to work for an excellent South Africa safari specialist, and I lost count of the times that I was asked about safaris near Cape Town. It just isn’t possible. Yes, if you Google ‘safari near Cape Town’, you’ll come across a number of hits claiming to be Big Five game reserves a couple of hours outside Cape Town, but don’t listen to a word of it. Truly wild animals need space, probably around 5,000 hectares as a bare minimum, and none of the “game reserves” near Cape Town offer this kind of room to roam. If these reserves are indeed home to the Big Five, it probably means a couple of lions, usually within some kind of enclosure, a few elephants and some depressed giraffes. Basically, they amount to nothing more than glorified zoos. They are unethical and certainly fail to provide any kind of authentic safari feeling. You’re likely to leave feeling very sorry for the two overweight lions in their oversized cage who can’t be bothered to even raise their heads when your safari vehicle screeches up to a halt less than a metre away. I’ve seen it and I’m sufficiently scarred.

2. If you want a real bush safari experience, you need to head north.

Understandably, many holidaymakers to South Africa would prefer to fly in and out of Cape Town, by-passing the fabled badlands of Johannesburg altogether. However, not only is the area north of Johannesburg very beautiful indeed (Blyde River Canyon, God’s Window and more) but, unquestionably, the South Africa’s best safaris are found in Kruger National Park or Madikwe Game Reserve. These reserves are huge – Kruger, at over 2 million hectares, is about the size of Wales – and they feel really, truly, authentically wild. Madikwe is less visited and perfect for travelers eager to do something different. It hugs the border with Botswana and spans a massive 76,000 hectares – compare that to the 3,000 hectare “reserves” near Cape Town. It also has the advantage of being totally malaria free. Both Kruger and Madikwe are brilliant for really exciting safaris. It’s worth making the journey north if you’re passionate about wildlife, and you’re likely to see whole herds of animals doing what wild animals do – not just a lone rhino at a man-made watering hole.

3. The Eastern Cape can be a great compromise.  

Sometimes, getting up north just isn’t possible. If time is tight or you’ve got a whole family in tow, you could opt for a safari in the malaria-free Eastern Cape. Again, there are a host of options available, some far better than others. As ever, the bigger the game reserve, the more authentic the safari experience. Unfortunately, the curse of the Eastern Cape seems to be that you pay for each hectare through the nose. 

Kwandwe and Shamwari (the setting for the BBC’s ‘Safari School’ programme) are both over 20,000 hectares and both the most expensive choices. Despite its size, I still found Shamwari fairly tame and spoilt by its own commercialism. There are just a couple too many lodges in the reserve, so you tend to come across other vehicles very regularly and the animals are found mainly by walkie-talkie contact between rangers rather than bushtracking. I saw the Big Five, but I didn’t get the big feeling.

Some of the smaller reserves in the Eastern Cape can actually provide a far warmer and more memorable safari experience. Bukela, in the Bushman’s conservancy, is a family-run lodge with game drives into the 8,000 hectare Amakhala Game Reserve. There’s a real community feeling here and you get far more sense of living remotely in the bush, even if it is low scrub rather than wild plains.

Pumba (6500 hectares) is another small but lovely reserve, and Kariega (7,500) offers some really reasonably priced accommodation as well as horse-riding along the beach at Kenton-by-Sea.  

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