The Best Game Parks And Private Reserves In South Africa

Recommended locations for your chosen flavour of South Africa safari

Best South Africa Game Parks For...

There can be few experiences on earth more satisfying than listening to the roar of a distant lion as the sun rises on an African morning.

South Africa has long been regarded as one of the world’s great safari destinations. The diversity of landscapes, from jungly swamps to searing semi-deserts, is without equal and the wealth of wildlife simply extraordinary.

In South Africa you can watch lions hunt, elephants trumpet, flamingos turn a blue lake pink, whales breach, penguins waddle and rhinos plod through the woodland like great prehistoric beasts.

In South Africa there are infinite ways to enjoy this wildlife and the soul-stirring landscapes they live within. You can walk with highly trained guides in the bush searching for the tiny creatures that keep the ecosystem ticking. You can paddle kayaks down lilly-fringed waterways in search of hippos. You can sit quietly in a bird hide waiting for a colorful ball of feathers to reveal itself. You can ride mountain bikes over savannah plains or learn from experts about conservation in South Africa today.

And, of course, you can climb into a jeep and set out on a pulse-racing safari in search of the legendary Big Five.

In the following pages we introduce you to some of South Africa’s best national parks and reserves, and show you how to create your perfect South African safari. Saddle up for the ride, this is the thrill of a lifetime!

So you're ready to go, but do you know where to go? See the following recommendations for South Africa's best best game parks and private reserves.

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South Africa's Top Safari Regions

Best For Seeing The Big Five

For many, safari in Africa is synonymous with seeing the Big Five: lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, and buffalo. Originally coined by big game hunters to describe the most challenging quarry, these days the phrase is more about appreciating the wild and bagging perfect photos rather than skins and trophies. South Africa is one of the few places you can see the Big Five at a single location, and any of the following places would be a good bet:

Sabi Sands Game Reserve

This 65,000 hectare reserve is, in many respects, the finest chunk of wildlife-filled wilderness in southern Africa and is prime Big Five territory.

Madikwe Game Reserve

A state-run reserve with an air of tranquillity that is obviously appreciated by the wildlife. Most of the Big Five are easily seen, with rhinos a real speciality.

Eastern Cape Game Reserves

The reserves here are more compact than elsewhere, but what they lack in scale they make up for in abundance of wildlife -- including all the Big Five.

Timbavati Game Reserve

Timbavati is known for its high-quality guides, a wide range of safari activities, superb lodges, and a rare population of white lions.

Pilanesberg National Park

Its proximity to Johannesburg and highly developed facilities make this a convenient (if busy) safari destination. But the Big Five are here, and the park is especially good for rhino and elephant.

Best For Birdwatching

The Big Five might steal all the safari limelight, but with ecosystems ranging from marine to forest to savannah, South Africa is also a world-class bird watching destination. If you’re more into birding than game spotting, or if you’ve already been there and got the Big Five t-shirt, the following reserves could be for you:

Hluhluwe Game Reserve

With soaring hills and mountains that are home to 350 species of birds, including an abundance of raptors and a colony of the southern bald ibis, Hluhluwe – iMfolozi National Park is a birding paradise.

Kruger National Park

Kruger, South Africa’s safari heavyweight, is home to much more than big game and its varied habitats support more than 500 bird species.

Welgevonden Game Reserve

Welgevonden is home to the world’s largest colony of Cape vultures, along with the African harrier hawk, jackal buzzard, several eagle species, and more.

Kariega Game Reserve

Kariega’s tidal estuaries and coastal habitats are home to over 600 species of birds including the African crowned eagle, kingfisher, crowned hornbill, and Cape longclaw.

Best For Photo Safaris

You’ll get some incredible snaps on any safari. But if you have a keener interest in photography you may be better off on a specialist trip. You’ll be travelling with fellow photographers, so the others will be as keen as you are on capturing the perfect shot. Your vehicles may also have specialist equipment, such as sliding camera mounts, bucket seats, lighting and a dedicated photographic ranger. For the best photo safaris, have a look at some of the following locations:

Madikwe

Madikwe is a great mid-range reserve that offers some of the benefits of a private reserve without the price tag. There are no self-drive safaris allowed here, so photographers will get the undisturbed wildlife all to themselves.

Welgevonden

Contained within the Waterberg Biosphere Reserve, Welgevonden has space, solitude and abundant wildlife - almost purpose-made for wildlife photography.

Pumba Game Reserve

Pumba has all the Big Five as well cheetah, hippo, 300-odd bird species and a population of rare white lions.

Kruger National Park

One of the great parks of Africa, Kruger and the surrounding private reserves are home to all of southern Africa’s iconic mammal species and many of the private reserves offer top quality specialised photo safaris.

Best For Game Drives

The game drive is the safari centrepiece. You and your fellow passengers will climb aboard a sturdy 4X4 with your ranger-guide and head out to track down some of that iconic wildlife. There are daytime drives (usually leaving pre-dawn), night drives, and true off-road trips. For some of the best and most varied game drives, take a look at the following:

Sabi Sands

With unfenced reserves adjacent to Kruger, the wildlife slips effortlessly around the ecosystem while world-class wildlife guides ensure that you’re always in the right place at the right time.

Madikwe

No self-drive safaris are allowed here, so game drives get the entire place to themselves. With the complete Big Five collection, plus plenty of bird life and populations of wild dogs and the unusual brown hyena, Madikwe is an undisputed chart-topper.

Phinda

High-end Phinda is one of the very best places for a short safari and you’re almost guaranteed to see all the flagship animals, plus the lightning-fast cheetah.

Timbavati

This magical private reserve borders the main Kruger park and, with no fences to block access, Timbavati is home to all the main mammal and bird species that Kruger is famed for.

Best For Family Safaris

Last but certainly not least: younger travellers in tow? Safari can be an incredible formative experience for kids, but it pays to seek out the parks and operators with dedicated family-friendly facilities and activities. Here are a few of the best:

Madikwe 

Unlike many nominal ‘child friendly’ reserves, Madikwe makes a concerted effort to provide specifically family-oriented facilities and activities, ranging from kids’ clubs and toddler care to specially trained guides to bring the safari experience alive for all ages.

Waterberg

Waterberg offers malaria-free game viewing within easy driving distance of Johannesburg -- perfect for families who don’t want the hassle of flying to Kruger, or the drive to Madikwe.

Pilanesberg

Nearly all lodges and resorts in Pilanesberg National Park welcome children -- but some have gone above and beyond to cater specifically for family groups with kids of all ages.

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