I’ve dreamed to go on a safari ever since I was a little girl. About ten years ago, visiting South Africa, this dream came true. Elephants, lions, rhinos, buffalos, cheetahs, giraffes and lots and lots of zebra, kudu, elands, wildebeest, monkey … once you had the opportunity to observe these wild animals at close range in the wild you will be blown away.
No surprise, I have done a couple more safaris since. All were outstanding. Yet looking back with a bit more experience, I realize how lucky I was that first time. Because I went with only the most basic planning and researching before my trip. Yet, there are many different ways to go on a safari and without planning, you might be in for a big disappointment.
So what different options are there?
The most important difference is whether to do a self-driving tour in a national park or to choose a private game reserve.
National parks are the less expensive option. They are under government control and day passes start around R300 per person at Kruger Park and will cost less in most other parks.
National parks allow you to drive around with your own (rental) car. No 4×4 or official guide needed. The parks usually offer a well maintained road network; although most roads will be unpaved and a bit bumpy. But you would not want to drive fast anyway as you will be on the lookout for wildlife.
Kruger Park, in the country’s north-east has likely become the most famous destination for safaris in the world. Kruger Park is however only one option out of many. South Africa has 19 national parks and somewhere around 200 private reserves.
Accommodation around national parks range from tented campsites to huts, cottages and lodges in categories from fairly basic to luxury level. However, the latter are usually private concessions and fall into the private game reserve section (see more on this below) even though they might be located within a National park.
What all these places have in common is that booking well in advance is essential as space is limited and demand is usually high.
The huge size and the abundance of wildlife in South Africa’s national parks means a good degree of likeliness to spot plenty of animals. Yet, despite the sheer size of the parks (Kruger is larger then Wales in the UK) and the relative large number of animals, wildlife encounters can often be limited and distant.
Self-driving visitors and public tours are not allowed to leave the official tracks. Animals are free roaming and at times will come close to the roads. But often, they will hide in the more remote areas with thicker vegetation. Especially in the summer months when the temperature gets high, sightings can become difficult. Driving on public roads means, most sightings will likely include zebras, kudus and eland as these move around more actively than most of the others. You could still be lucky and spot some elephants and maybe, maybe the elusive lion. But don’t count on it.
Parks also have opening times that usually align with daylight. This means they are closed when most animals will be the most active, which is around sunrise and sunset, and sometimes during the night.
Which leads to the option staying at a private game reserve.
Private game reserves
Private game reserves come with a heavier price tag but they are excellent if you want to enjoy close and more intimate wildlife encounters. Going off-road in 4×4 vehicles with a knowledgeable and well-trained ranger in areas where the chances of wildlife sightings are highest makes for an incredible experience.
Game drives in private camps are free from official park hours. They usually take place early in the morning and late afternoon, and some camps offer night drives as well. This means being on a drive when most of the animals are the most active.
That said, there is still no guarantee. Even the most experienced ranger might not be able to track down all of the Big Five during a single game drive and sometimes you all you see for a long time is plants and bushes.
To increase your chances, you should stay for at least two nights; three are even better. This will allow you to go on up to six game drives and significantly increases your chance to see all the animals you have come for.
The more exclusive reserves will restrict the number of people per vehicle, keeping free the middle seats. This allows everybody to get the best views from an outside seat. They will also keep the number of vehicles at any wildlife encounter down to a minimum of two or three. That way the area won’t get crowded and the animals will not get disturbed or scared off. However, this could mean you sometimes have to wait for a while before it’s your turn; or you need to leave a spot to allow others to get in. But usually there will be enough time to observe (and to take that incredible picture all your family and friends will be envious of).
Though it is already a trill being able to see all the different wild animals, what I have cherished most during private game drives was the incredible wealth of knowledge shared by the rangers, talking about the animals and their natural habitat.
Staying at a game reserve also means, you get a good opportunity to spot animals even when you are not on a game drive. Many reserves have positioned their lodges close to waterholes or riverbanks, where many of the animals will pass to refresh at some point of the day, or at night.
Another thrill is to spend the night in the middle of the wilderness. Although you are safely tucked away in a comfy lodge or luxury tent, the sounds of free roaming animals at night just outside of your room is an unbelievable and unforgettable experience.
Private game reserves also usually offer a lot of other activities when you are not on a game drive: Relaxing at a pool, having Spa treatments, attend workshops where you can learn more about wildlife and nature conservation, and of course as mot private lodges usually offer full board packages, there will be always different food options available throughout the day.
On the other hand, don’t forget that what makes the experience so exiting – being somewhere far away in the wild – means you might have to forgo some of the usual amenities you are used to in daily live. Wifi access might be limited or sometimes there might be no wifi at all. The same might be true for electricity.
Whether you opt for a national park or a private lodge, there are some considerations that are important for both.
Your location will determine whether you need to worry about malaria or not
There are areas in South Africa (and other parts of Africa) that present a high risk of malaria whilst other areas are low risk or completely malaria free. Choosing where you go will determine if you have to take malaria precautions or not. Whilst most parts of South Africa are actually low risk or no risk areas, this is something to be taken very seriously. So make sure you check out ahead of your stay what is required in the area you are going to visit and consult with your doctor what to do in terms of precaution.
What time of the year should you go?
South Africa is a year-round location and it should not make a huge difference when you go unless a beach holiday is part of your plans. Also worth considering, depending on where you go in the country, the rainy season will happen at different times. Kruger National Park, KwaZulu Natal, the Drakensberg Mountains and Madikwe are areas of summer rain (November to February) while the Western Cape and the Garden Route to Port Elizabeth has winter rainfall (June to August) and mostly dry summers.
You often get the advise to visit during the dry season because vegetation is less thick and thus it becomes easier to spot animals. Dry season also means animals are likely to gather around water holes more often. On the other hand, in locations where the dry season takes place in summer, higher temperatures also mean will animals hide from the sun retreating into the bushes and coming out only at night. So there is no clear rule which time of the year is better.
What to wear at a safari?
Regardless what time of the year you go, make sure to wear comfortable clothes. Sometimes, you will be allowed off the vehicle so a pair of long trousers and closed shoes (boots or sneakers) are your best option.
You will be in an open vehicle for a couple of hours so you need to protect yourself against the sun. Also don’t forget to bring a warm jacket or sweater with you. With morning drive starting at down and afternoon drives usually ending after sunset, temperatures can drop significantly even in summer. Depending on where you are (some of the reserves are close to the coastal areas along the western and eastern cape) it can also get fairly windy.
Avoid bright colours to not attract unnecessary attention. The best way is to blend in with the surroundings. Therefore, wear natural colours – khaki, green, brown or gray all will work well. If you are in malaria affected areas, avoid dark colours as these attract the Tsetse flies.
Have you already gone on a safari or are you planning one? Let me know about your experience.