There are wonderful experiences to be enjoyed from the wilds of South Africa’s game reserves. From the largest reserve in the country to the oldest, and everything in between, here’s our roundup of the best safari and game reserves in South Africa.
Just an hour’s drive from Port Elizabeth, this malaria-free park offers a variety of game viewing and is the third largest in South Africa. Over 600 African elephants call the park home, as well as black rhino, antelope and Cape buffalo. Visitors can book a hop-on-guide at the reception office and enjoy the luxury of a trained guide telling you all about the park from the comfort of your vehicle.
As the oldest game reserve in Africa, Hluhluwe Umfolozi should be on every traveller’s bucket list. It’s a Big Five park and visitors can view wildlife up close from the many hides overlooking watering holes. Hluhluwe Game Reserve is a self-drive park but full day, half day and shorter safaris can be booked ensuring spectacular sightings. Keep an eye out for the illusive leopard and African wild dog.
The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, in the Kalahari Desert, presents a massive ecosystem relatively free from human interference. The vast landscapes offer unique wildlife experiences that are unmatched anywhere else in the world. Expect herds of gemsbok, springbok, eland and blue wildebeest, the largest black-mane lions you’ll ever see and more. This is a self-drive park but morning and sunset safaris can be booked at a few of the camps.
The Kruger National Park (Mpumalanga and Limpopo Provinces)
The Kruger National Park is possibly the most popular safari spot in South Africa, as well one of the largest in the world. At nearly two million hectares, the park offers visitors a diverse collection of animal species, including the Big Five, as well as diverse vegetation throughout. The southern portion of the park is more lush and wooded than the drier central and northern regions, and has the largest concentrations of game. As far as safaris go, choose to self-drive (a 4×4 is recommended) or pre-book game drives via the rest camps.
Lion Sands Game Reserve has four luxury lodges set within the Sabi Sand Game Reserve and the Kruger National Park. It is part of an ecosystem which is home to the largest concentration of wild animals in the Southern Hemisphere and is essentially a safari mecca. Home to the Big Five, many other species will also be spotted, from antelope to hyena and more. Safaris take place twice a day, morning and evening, and they’re not confined to the main roads, meaning visitors will get as close to nature as possible.
Madikwe is a Big Five game reserve situated 90 kilometres north of Zeerust, against the Botswana border close to the Kalahari Desert. Covering approximately 60,000 hectares, it is the fifth largest game reserve in South Africa. The rich diversity of vegetation ensures a wide range of game and the topography offers ideal viewing opportunities. Day visitors are not allowed into the park, so the number of vehicles in the park during game drive hours is limited to the lodges’ vehicles, which makes Madikwe a very exclusive safari destination.
Mapungubwe National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has a rich history as it was once home to the first-ever South African kingdom to have truly thrived. Mapungubwe National Park is also home to a large variety of animals and there’s a lot of movement of game between the park and its bordering countries; Botswana and Zimbabwe. There are also some very large baobab trees in the park, with one having a circumference of 31-metres (1,220 ft).
Located within the Marakele National Park, Marataba is just three and a half hour’s drive from Johannesburg. The malaria-free reserve is a 23,000 hectare private enterprise at the foothills of the Waterberg Mountains. Contrasting mountain ranges, grasslands, deep valleys and red mountain rock characterise the park and all of the large game species, including the big cats and a variety of birdlife, have settled here. Visitors can book morning and evening game drives in open safari vehicles as well as water safaris on the Matlabas River, bush walks, bird watching, boma dinners and more.
Pilanesberg National Park is the fourth largest within South Africa, covering approximately 55,000 hectares. This malaria-free park is set on the eroded remnants of an alkaline volcanic crater – one of only three in the world – and only three hour’s drive from Johannesburg. Pilanesberg National Park exists in a transition zone between dry Kalahari and wet Lowveld vegetation which attracts an unbelievable variety of animals, flora and fauna that are not often found living in such close proximity to each other.
Sabi Sands Game Reserve is undoubtedly the most exclusive private game reserve in South Africa. The 65,000-hectare game reserve is located on the south-western corner of the Kruger National Park and there are no restricting fences between the two parks, meaning wildlife roam freely. Some of the most exclusive private game lodges in the country are situated in the Sabi Sands Game Reserve and the chances of seeing the Big Five while on safari is just about guaranteed. The reserve is in particular well-known for its amazing leopard sightings.
The malaria-free Shamwari Game Reserve is the Southern-most, big game, private reserve in Africa and stretches along the Bushman’s river (halfway between Port Elizabeth and Grahamstown) and forms a natural extension to the famous Garden Route. In the last 25 years, 25, 000 hectares of land has been rehabilitated and remaining wild animal species increased in numbers while species extinct to the region were reintroduced. The park boasts a healthy population of lion, cheetah and leopard, so keep an eye out for them during your visit.