South Africa is home to some of the world's biggest and oldest game reserves, with national parks such as Hluhluwe-Imfolozi and Kruger and renowned private reserves like Shamwari and the Tswalu-Kalahari. Safaris usually mean game drives, but there are more unique options: a hot air balloon over the Pilanesberg National Park, a light aircraft above Kruger National Park, or a cruise with hippos in Isimangaliso Wetland Park. Whether you are a budget backpacker, a romantic couple, a family of exuberant kids, a crazy adventurer, or a stressed-out executive, there is a safari for you.

With 19 national parks and countless private reserves available in South Africa, choosing one or two to explore can be challenging. One way to help in the decision-making is to look at the different provinces, each with its unique vegetation and associated wildlife. Consider visiting the Northern Cape, the desert land of the Bushmen; the malaria-free Eastern Cape, with its stunning coastline; Limpopo, famous for its "upside-down" baobab trees, or Mpumalanga, with waterfalls, wetlands, forests, and savannah. 

You may want to stay inside a province's corresponding national park in affordable self-catering accommodation, as these parks span vast areas and offer great game-viewing. Alternatively, you might choose to stay in one of the smaller, private reserves with high-end luxury lodges. Meanwhile, combining your safari with other South African activities and attractions in the region is in your best interest, like in this 10-day wildlife road trip.   

If you're wondering what the best time of the year to go on safari is, it's possible to go in any month, as each season has its advantages and each province has its weather. Take a look at the suggestions below for some of the best game reserves in South Africa and their differences to choose your best option.  

Limpopo & Mpumalanga Provinces

Kruger National Park 

Self-drive is an option in Kruger National Park
A self-drive safari is an option in Kruger National Park

As the biggest game reserve in the country, Kruger National Park has it all. Its landscape of savannah, riverine thicket, and forests, provides habitat for Big Five game (lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephants, and African buffalo) and much more. And while the lusher southern section of the park has higher concentrations of game, there are more tourists here. And though wildlife viewing experiences at Kruger are superb, they're not as exclusive as in the private reserves.

There are affordable options, including day passes, self-drive safaris, and simple self-catering accommodation. As referenced in this Cape Town & Kruger itinerary, there are also top-class private lodges in the park, such as the Lukimbi Safari Lodge. Read The 5 Best Safari Lodges in Kruger National Park for more.

How to visit: Enjoy the park as part of a tour where transport, accommodation, safaris, and meals are taken care of, or drive to a private lodge and then appreciate being looked after. Alternatively, the more intrepid traveler might prefer to sign up for a self-drive safari on a day pass or overnight in self-catering park accommodations. 

How to get there:  

  1. Fly from OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg to Skukuza Airport (50 minutes). Hire a car and drive to Kruger Gate (20 minutes).
  2. Drive 211 miles (340 km) from OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg to Kruger National Park (6 hours). 

Quick Facts:

  • Malaria-risk area
  • Entry fees: $28
  • Self-catering cabins: $161-$510
  • Guided walks and drives: $23-$48
  • Guided and self-drive safaris are available
  • Big Five sightings
  • Can use a two-wheel-drive vehicle
  • Day-pass available
  • Winter is the best time for safaris (May to August)
  • Self-catering park accommodation and luxury lodges 
  • Many other tourists in the reserve
  • Drive from Johannesburg (6 hours)
  • Fly and drive from Johannesburg (2 hours)
  • Biggest game reserve in South Africa

Greater Kruger National Park

White lion at Timbavati Private Game Reserve
White lion at Timbavati Private Game Reserve

If you're looking for a more exclusive getaway without encountering many other tourists, consider the network of private reserves which are part of the Greater Kruger National Park. Wildlife moves freely without any fences between reserves, enabling excellent game-viewing. Internationally-renowned private game reserves include Sabi Sand and MalaMala (famous for leopards), Manyeleti (off-the-beaten-track), Timbavati (white lions), Klaserie (African ground hornbill conservation), and Balule (elephant and buffalo herds gather around the Olifants River).

Stay in a private luxury lodge like the Royal Malewane, as noted in this article, and feel like royalty. All-inclusive rates cover meals, professional guides, children's entertainment, and luxury accommodation with spas, gyms, pools, private decks, and superb settings. 

How to visit: Choose one of the numerous private game reserves, and then choose your luxury lodge (or vice versa). Drive there yourself, park your car and let the lodge take care of you. 

How to get there:  

  1. Fly from OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg to one of the three airports near Kruger (1 hour). Hire a car and drive to Kruger National Park (Phalaborwa Airport: 1.5 mi/2.7 km, Hoedspruit Eastgate Airport: 42 mi/67 km, and Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport: 26 mi/42.5 km). 
  2. Most private reserves have airstrips, and you can arrange a transfer from the airport to the lodge.
  3. Drive 211 miles (340 km) from OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg to Kruger National Park (6 hours). 

Quick facts:

  • Malaria-risk area
  • Greater Kruger National Park is a network of private game reserves linked to the core Kruger National Park
  • Lodge prices: $125-$2175 for two people sharing
  • All-inclusive packages
  • Big Five sightings
  • Excellent game-viewing with professional guides
  • Focus on seclusion and privacy
  • Top-class, small, exclusive lodges
  • All the benefits of Kruger National Park and more
  • No day passes; no entry fee
  • No self-drive allowed
  • Fly from Johannesburg (1 hour)
  • Drive from Johannesburg (6 hours)

Mapungubwe National Park   

Crowned crane at Mapungubwe National Park
Crowned crane at Mapungubwe National Park

Mapungubwe National Park in the far north offers impressive game-viewing, including the Big Five, 456 bird species, and 17 species of bats, where wildlife can move freely across borders between South Africa, Botswana, and Zimbabwe. You'll encounter astonishing baobab trees in this scenic landscape, with the largest tree having an impressive circumference of 1,220 feet (31 m).

A UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its rich archaeology, the park is home to the remains of a thriving 11th-century kingdom that traded with the east, as well as San (Bushmen) rock paintings. A medieval golden rhino is one of the famous artifacts. This is a premier destination for you if you are a wildlife enthusiast with history and/or archaeology interests. 

How to visit: Various types of accommodation can be booked inside the park. This includes a luxury lodge, campsites, and an authentic solar-powered, fenceless wilderness camp. The park is divided into eastern and western sections, separated by private lands. You have to drive outside the park to reach the accommodation.  

How to get there

  1. Fly from OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg to the Polokwane International Airport and hire a car to drive 124 miles (200 km) to the park.
  2. Drive 330 miles (531 km) from OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg to Mapungubwe National Park (6 hours).    

Quick facts:

  • Malaria-risk area
  • Tented camps and cabins: $89-$335
  • Guided safaris and walks: $16-$20
  • A 4-wheel drive or high clearance vehicle is recommended
  • Only a third of the park is suitable for 2-wheel drive vehicles
  • No gas station, provisions, or cash machines in the park
  • The closest shop for food and fuel is 43.5 miles (70 km) away 

Northwest Province

Pilanesberg National Park 

Take a hot air balloon safari
Take a hot-air balloon safari

Pilanesberg National Park is the fourth largest game reserve in South Africa and is highly accessible. It is situated in a malaria-free transition zone between the dry Kalahari and the wet Lowveld (low-lying subtropical climate). This means there is a wide range of wildlife offering exciting game viewing. Think Big Five, African wild dogs, roan, tsessebe, and sable antelope, as well as over 360 bird species. Many Stone Age and Iron Age archaeological sites are found around the reserve. Consider a different approach to safaris and gently glide over the park in a hot-air balloon, with panoramic views of herds of antelope, buffalo, and elephants below you. 

How to visit:  This reserve is well suited to families with child-friendly accommodation ranging from self-catering camping and chalets to inclusive luxury lodges that cater to all ages of children. The luxury lodges provide 5-star service, guided game drives, high-class dining, bush tennis courts, pools, seclusion, and total relaxation. All-inclusive safaris range from one to five days.

How to get there:

  1. Drive 108 miles (174 km) from OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg to Pilanesberg National Park (2.5 hours). There are five different entry gates.
  2. Take a chartered flight from OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg to the Pilanesberg International Airport inside the park, and arrange for collection by your lodge.

Quick facts:

  • Malaria-free
  • Big Five sightings
  • Self-catering tented camps and chalets from $38 per person sharing
  • Entire lodge with five chalets from $942 per person sharing 
  • Luxury lodge (inclusive) from $162 per person sharing
  • Day visitors allowed
  • Entry fee:  $7 per adult and $3 per vehicle
  • Hot air balloon: $380 per person
  • 4-wheel drive vehicle recommended for best game viewing
  • Gates close at 6 pm in winter and 7 pm in summer
  • Short of time? Take a one-day safari from Johannesburg  

Madikwe Game Reserve 

African wild dog at Madikwe Game Reserve
African wild dog at Madikwe Game Reserve

Madikwe Game Reserve, the fifth largest game reserve in South Africa, is a little-known hidden gem offering unique safari experiences in a vast wilderness near the Kalahari Desert. Madikwe is committed to both conservation and community upliftment, with the park run as a partnership between the provincial Parks Board, the local community, and private businesses. With no day visitors, you see few other vehicles. Encounter the Big Five and rare African wild dogs, Kalahari gemsbok, the brown hyena, and the aardwolf (earth wolf), a tiny insect-eating hyena. 

How to visit:  Choose from 20 accommodations, ranging from five-star luxury to family lodges and affordable eco-camps. Drive to the game reserve or visit as part of an all-inclusive travel package. Once at Madikwe, safaris are organized by the reserve, with no self-drive safaris allowed. Check in for at least three days and two nights to get a good viewing.

How to get there:

  1. Take a shuttle flight with Federal Airlines (operates daily) from OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg to the Madikwe private airstrip (1 hour).
  2. Arrange a chartered flight with your lodge.
  3. Drive 223 miles (360 km) to the reserve from OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg (4.5 hours). High clearance vehicles are recommended as some roads in the reserve are gravel. 

Quick facts:

  • Malaria-free
  • 20 lodges to choose from
  • Lodge prices: $339-$860 + $10 conservation fee per night per person sharing  
  • Entry fee: $15 per person
  • All-inclusive luxury accommodation 
  • Guided game drives are part of the lodge package 
  • No self-drive safaris allowed
  • No day visitors allowed
  • 1-hour flight from Johannesburg
  • 4.5-hour drive from Johannesburg 
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Customize your trip with help from a local travel specialist.

Kwazulu-Natal 

Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park 

White rhino and buffalo
White rhino and buffalo having a mud bath 

Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park, the oldest proclaimed game reserve in Africa, was founded in 1895. It is famous for its wildlife, beautiful scenery, and for saving the white rhino from near extinction. Take a unique "bush and boating" safari to see the Big Five and possibly cheetah and rare wild dogs. Then glide across the waters of the nearby World Heritage Isimangaliso Wetland Park, spotting hippos, Nile crocodiles, and countless water birds.

Combine your trip with a stay on the coast like in this 10-day snorkeling, kayaking, scuba diving, and turtle-watching tour in the nearby Indian Ocean

How to visit: This is a self-drive park, but guided safaris are also available, ensuring spectacular sightings. The park has a range of accommodations, from budget rondavels (traditional round huts) to chalets and safari tents providing affordable, standard accommodation. The only private luxury lodge in the park, Rhino Ridge offers all-inclusive accommodation packages.

How to get there:

  1. Drive 155 miles (249 km) to the park from King Shaka International Airport in Durban (4.5 hours).
  2. Drive 332 miles (535 km) to the park from OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg (7 hours). 

Quick facts:

  • Malaria is low risk except in the wet season (September to May)
  • Accommodation in self-catering park facilities from $37 per person sharing
  • All-inclusive accommodation in Rhino Ridge private lodge from $195 per person sharing
  • Day visitors are allowed
  • Entry fee: $15, plus $15 conservation fee 
  • Game drives from $26 per person
  • Guided walks from $32 per person
  • 4-wheel drive is required for self-drive safaris 

Phinda Private Game Reserve 

The bliss of a walking safari
The bliss of a walking safari

Although Phinda Private Game Reserve is smaller than the national parks, its 115 square miles (185 sq km) offer ample game viewing. It is home to many species due to its various ecosystems (grasslands, savannah, forests, wetlands, and riverine). The reserve prides itself on high-quality guiding, allowing you to see the Big Five and the world's fastest land animal, the cheetah, the rare endangered black rhino, the curious-looking pangolin, and the elusive tiny Suni antelope, rarely seen elsewhere. With 436 bird species, it's a birder's delight.

How to visit: Indulge yourself in one of the six magnificent luxury lodges, each with unique characteristics. Choose a suite, a cottage, or rent out an entire villa. All the lodges are in memorable settings and beautifully appointed. With massive glass windows, in private settings, you will feel you are out there with the animals, sleeping in the trees!  

Include other activities near Phinda, such as Zulu village tours and community visits. Take a trip to the Maputaland coast, famous for its enormous leatherback and loggerhead turtles. Go scuba diving and snorkeling in coral reefs, or take an ocean safari to see humpback and southern right whales.

How to get there:

  1. Fly from King Shaka International Airport in Durban and Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport to Phinda's private airstrip.  
  2. Fly on a chartered flight as part of a travel package.
  3. Drive from King Shaka International Airport in Durban (3.5 hours) or OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg (7 hours) on good tarred roads. 

Quick facts:

  • Malaria is low risk except in the wet season (September to May)
  • High-quality guiding
  • All-inclusive packages at six luxury lodges
  • Rates: $326-$905 per person sharing
  • No day visitors allowed
  • Close to the Indian Ocean with beach activities 
  • Chartered flights from Kruger National Park
  • Private airstrip

Eastern Cape Province

Addo Elephant Park 

Low vegetation provides good game-viewing
Low vegetation provides good game-viewing 

The largest park in the Eastern Province, Addo Elephant National Park, has the most spectacular elephant viewing in the world. The Greater Addo Elephant Park, an amalgamation of private reserves with the core reserve, extends to the coast, offering the Big Five and whales, dolphins, and sharks. The low vegetation in the park makes it easy to spot game, with its large populations of black rhino and Cape buffalo and more than 300 bird species. However, the elephants will captivate your attention when you see them up close, doing the elephant shamble right next to your car. 

How to visit: The roads are easy to navigate in a 2x4 vehicle, making self-drive an option. Choose from the wide range of self-catering park accommodation such as chalets, cottages, tented camps, guest-houses, rondavels, and two private luxury lodges inside Addo, which offer inclusive packages. There are many private lodges outside the park in the vicinity of Addo. Consider this South Africa road trip of the Garden Route with a night in Addo.

How to get there:

  1. Fly to Port Elizabeth Airport (1.5 hours from Cape Town) and rent a car.  
  2. Drive 39 miles (63 km) from Port Elizabeth Airport to Addo Elephant National Park (55 minutes). 

Quick facts:

  • Malaria-free 
  • Suitable for family, self-drive holidays
  • You will see lots of elephants!
  • Wide range of self-catering park accommodation from $30-$92 per person sharing
  • All-inclusive packages at two private luxury lodges in the park
  • Lodge rates: $326-$905 per person sharing 
  • Day visitors allowed
  • Entry fee: $23 per day per person
  • Close to the Garden Route with ocean activities
  • A 55-minute drive from Port Elizabeth Airport 

Shamwari Game Reserve 

Sindile Shamwari
Suite at the Sindile Shamwari Lodge 

Shamwari Game Reserve, one of the best-known private reserves in the Eastern Cape, is home to the Big Five and has wildlife viewing almost on par with the Greater Kruger National Park. Look out for white and black rhinos, lions, cheetahs, leopards, and many other large and small creatures.

How to visit: This is a world-class reserve. Choose from seven five-star lodges or glamp (glamorous camping) in the explorer safari camp. You will indulge from morning to night, with beautiful accommodation, out-of-this-world dining, and many activities to choose from. Although self-drive safaris are not permitted, the guided tours at Shamwari offer another level of game-viewing. Professional guides track the wildlife and give you a detailed understanding of the ecology. 

How to get there:

  1. Fly to Port Elizabeth Airport (1.5 hours from Cape Town) and hire a car to drive to Shamwari (47 miles). 
  2. Arrange with Shamwari for a driver or self-drive from Port Elizabeth Airport. 
  3. Take a chartered flight with your tour company to the private landing strip at Shamwari. 

Quick facts:

  • Malaria-free area
  • Seven luxury lodges
  • One safari camp
  • Inclusive packages from $423-$560 per person sharing
  • Daily conservation levy: $6 per person
  • High-quality professional guides
  • A 45-minute drive from Port Elizabeth Airport
  • Chartered flights to a private airstrip in Shamwari

Northern Cape

Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park 

Meerkat in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park
Meerkat in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park

The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is a vast landscape on the edge of the Kalahari Desert. This remote ecosystem, with red sands punctuated by camel thorn trees, is home to hardy desert wildlife such as gemsbok, springbok, eland, blue wildebeest, and large black-maned lions and leopards. On the smaller side are the engaging little meerkats. As it only has two of the Big Five, it will suit returning visitors, who value the photographic landscape and predator sightings. 

How to visit: It is rugged out there: a real explorer experience, where you bring your wood, water, and food. Only 4WD vehicles are allowed, and put away your cell phone because there is no reception. The wide range of accommodation includes three traditional rest camps (cottages, chalets, and campsites) and six wilderness camps. For greater comfort, stay at the !Xaus (pronounced "kaus") Lodge, a community-owned rustic lodge set in the isolated splendor of the park. 

How to get there:

  1. Fly to Upington: 1 hour and 20 minutes from Cape Town or OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, hire a car and drive to the park.  
  2. Chartered flights may land at the private airstrip in the reserve.
  3. Drive 158 miles (255 km) from Upington or 561 miles (904 km) from OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg. If you have a 2x4, you can park it at the entrance and take a transfer to the !Xaus Lodge. Guests with 4WD vehicles may drive into the park. 
  4. You may request the lodge to provide you with a vehicle transfer from Upington to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.

Quick facts:

  • Malaria-free area
  • One of the most remote game reserves in South Africa
  • Reserve is owned by the indigenous and community-run 
  • 4WD vehicle required for self-drive safaris
  • 2WD vehicles can drive to the entrance only
  • Daily conservation levy: $26 per person sharing
  • Park accommodation (cabins, tented camps, chalet) from $36 to $78 per person sharing 
  • Rustic lodge (inclusive packages) from $280 per person sharing 

Tswalu-Kalahari Game Reserve

Cape foxes in the Tswalu-Kalahari Game Reserve
Cape foxes in the Tswalu-Kalahari Game Reserve

The Tswalu-Kalahari Game Reserve is the largest private game reserve in South Africa. This reserve is for safari connoisseurs rather than beginners. It is home to four of the Big Five, no elephants, as well as critically endangered wild dogs, a large lion population, cheetah, rhino, and the smaller side of life such as bat-eared fox, Cape fox, the Kalahari kangaroo (spring hare), meerkats, and many antelope (oryx, eland, roan, and sable antelope and gnus).   Like the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, it is vast and remote, but the accommodation is a notch higher with two top-class luxury lodges, the Motse (read about it here) and Tarkuni.

How to visit: Choose from two small exclusive lodges, and you will find seclusion, world-class facilities, and excellent service. This is an all-inclusive safari package with guided safaris, bush walks, tracking, horse-riding, specialist safaris, and fine dining.   

How to get there:

  1. Fly to the reserve's private airstrip on a charter flight as part of a tour package.
  2. Fly with a scheduled charter service from OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg or Cape Town International Airport.
  3. Fly to Upington and drive 130 miles (210 km) to the reserve.

Quick facts:

  • Malaria-free area
  • The largest private game reserve in South Africa
  • Very remote and secluded
  • Top-level luxury 
  • All-inclusive packages from $1,921 per person sharing
  • Private or scheduled charter flights are available

Additional Considerations 

When should you visit?

You can go on safari anytime as the sun always shines bright in South Africa! However, prices and experiences differ from season to season. Summer safaris take place during northern hemisphere winters, and winter safaris in northern summers. The eastern side of South Africa receives its rainfall in summer (October to April), while the drier western side receives rainfall in winter (May to September). The peak season for safaris is in the cooler winter months (May to September) as well as in holiday periods from December 15 to January 7. 

Average temperature highs in winter are 79°F (26°C), with chilly nights. Summer temperatures can go up to 100°F (38°C), particularly in the western provinces.

Winter safaris in the eastern provinces of Limpopo, Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal, and Eastern Cape mean drier vegetation and more visibility. The animals gather at water points, meaning better game viewing and avoiding high summer temperatures and humidity. The risk of malaria in winter is low, even in malaria zones. Meanwhile, the advantages of summer safaris in the eastern provinces are the beauty of the lush vegetation, the dramatic afternoon thunderstorms, and the lower prices. Each season has its beauty. 

In summer, the malaria risk is high in Limpopo, Mpumalanga, and KwaZulu-Natal, and you will need to take preventative medication. The Northern Cape Province is an arid area, so the little winter rainfall is unlikely to affect your safari, but the temperatures will be cooler and more pleasant. It is very hot in this province in summer. 

Where should you stay?

Should you stay in a private all-inclusive lodge or self-catering park accommodation? The park accommodation tends to be traditional and comfortable, but it is not five-star. Most of this accommodation is self-catering with restaurants in some parks. Most national parks allow self-drive safaris with the option of booking professional guides and tours. 

Private luxury lodges are all-inclusive with high-end service catering to your every need. These are usually situated in smaller private reserves and provide professional guiding and some off-road driving, enhancing your game viewing. Private lodges in the Greater Kruger National Park have full access to the vast Kruger National Park. In the Northern Cape, even the private reserves are enormous. 

Another consideration is whether you want to stay inside a national park or nearby. Many private lodges lay outside the national parks, which means driving to the park each day. Staying in the park or a linked private game reserve like the Greater Kruger National Park means getting away from it all.

How can you keep the costs down?

Safaris are expensive, but there are ways to keep the prices down. Visit during the off-peak summer period (November to March) and avoid the Christmas season (mid-December to mid-January) as this means lower prices. Prices are slightly lower during spring (September-October) and fall (April-May).

Internal flights to small towns in South Africa are expensive. A cheaper alternative is to rent a car and drive to the park. Self-catering accommodation and self-drive are less costly than staying in all-inclusive luxury lodges. 

Map

Map of How to Choose the Best Safari in South Africa
Map of How to Choose the Best Safari in South Africa