Update: Kruger National Park was affected by flooding in January 2012. Most of the camps are now open, but some access roads within the park and picnic spots remain closed. Take a look at the latest updates and get in touch with the park if you're planning a trip there.
A lifelong dream for many, a South African safari can take as many forms as the multitude of creatures you encounter in the wild. From a remote escape in a bush camp to a luxurious idyll, the range of experiences can suit all tastes and budgets. And just like a giraffe picking and choosing amongst the canopy of leaves for the perfect snack, you'll be rewarded for taking the time to create a safari that's perfect for you. Here are 8 tips to plan and enjoy the best trip:
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. Surrounding the park are towns like Nelspruit which have hotels, hostels and resorts for every budget. The downside is that early morning safaris become very early owing to commutes into the park that can take an hour or more.
- Hluhluwe-iMfolozi. 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 are two main reasons not to choose a private wildlife reserve: cost and too much comfort. These are not places for people on a tight budget, nor are they places for travellers who want to live frills-free – at some private lodges ‘roughing it’ means the champagne served post-safari comes without fresh strawberries. 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. Sabi Sand, which adjoins Kruger National Park, is widely considered to be the best place in Africa for spotting animals.
- Fewer crowds. Safari jeeps may hold only six people compared to a dozen or more in big parks, guides will be able to give you individual attention and when, say, a pride with lion cubs is spotted there won't be a feeding frenzy of jeeps.
- Luxury. Some of the private reserve lodges are merely comfortable but others, such as Ulusaba in Sabi Sand are the retreats of the famous, such as the owner Richard Branson, and feature every amenity.
- Customisation. 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.
4. Use a guide
The first time your guide shows you easily-missed leopard tracks crossing your path, you'll be glad you're not wandering aimlessly on your own. Although guides can keep you safe from marauding lions, their great value is simply in explaining the vast complexities and subtleties of the African bush. Animals carry the colours they do so they will be easy to miss. In private reserves guides are usually part of the price but in a national park you may be tempted to go DIY. You may get lucky (like we did in Kruger one day and have several prides of lions wander past), but as a novice you'll simply miss much.
5. Don't be a 'Big Five' cliché
Sure, it’s great – and a reason to go – to see lions, leopards, elephants, Cape buffaloes and rhinos. And you'll see the phrase (which was coined by white hunters in the 1920s to validate their self-proclaimed bravery) on everything from businesses to buses. But there are obviously far more critters out there: zebras, hippos and giraffes are just a few and the list goes on. Read up on the animals you're likely to see and make a list of the less famous ones and try to spot those. You can't appreciate the beguiling ugliness of a warthog until you've seen one; a herd of twitchy impalas reminds you that danger can lurk anywhere amidst the pastoral beauty.
6. Drive or fly
You can fly close to Kruger park, connecting from Cape Town or Johannesburg. If you're pressed for time this is essential for having plenty of safari time. Most other parks and reserves are equally well served by local flights and you can work out itineraries where resorts or lodges handle all your transfers. But if you can afford the time, driving in South Africa is rewarding. Outside of parks and reserves there are wine regions, spectacular natural beauty and all manner of interesting small towns and cultural attractions. As an example, from Johannesburg you can reach Kruger or Sabi Sand in a full day of driving or you can break the journey at Pilgrim's Rest, a charmer of an 1880s gold-rush town that hasn't been over-restored.
7. Bring the right stuff
Dawn safaris during the winter in and around Kruger can be surprisingly cold; layers (even gloves and a warm hat) can be shed as the sun and temp goes up. Binoculars are an obvious choice and don't expect your lodge or guides to provide them. A compact pair will let you see that big cat skulking in the distance. Don't count on wi-fi in the bush, so a good book about the land and life around you is essential.
8. Just relax
Besides shivering in the cold dawn air you should be ready to simply chill out. Guides will be doing their best to hit a checklist of animals but this doesn't always happen. Take time to appreciate the land around you, the beauty of a deserted waterhole reflecting the vast African sky or the sounds of a bird far in the distance. Don't fret about picking off a checklist of critters and certainly don't spend all your time hunting for them through a tiny viewfinder. Get out of your vehicle and simply revel in the quiet. Sometimes the most magical moment on safari is when you see nothing at all.
Get the full details on planning safaris and more in Lonely Planet's South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland travel guide.