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Best Safari in South Africa based on: Popularity, Affordability, Seeing Big 5, Best Lodges

Updated: Nov 3, 2022

What constitutes the best safari depends on the holiday goer’s personal preferences. A few may want a safari that offers the best lodges; some may want a safari that includes Africa’s Big Five; and others may want both! To ascertain the traveler’s preferred safari, this article will offer a breakdown of the best safaris into the following categories:

  • The most popular safaris in South Africa

  • The most affordable safaris in South Africa

  • Best safaris in South Africa to see the Big 5

  • South Africa Safaris that offer the best lodges

Best safaris in South Africa based on popularity

An authentic South African safari is essentially the act of viewing wildlife in the wilderness (also referred to as a game reserve or game park). The most popular safaris are usually based on specific game reserves in South Africa and what they have to offer. Below is a list of the most popular game reserves/ parks in South Africa and what makes these safaris desirable.

  • Kruger National Park

The Kruger National Park is frequented by locals and internationals alike due to the following factors: its’ diverse and abundant wildlife species; an assortment of private game reserves and lodges within the park to choose from; its sheer enormity (one of the largest game reserves in Africa) that allows for ample meandering in search of Africa’s Big Five.

  • Sabi Sand Game Reserve

The Sabi Sand Game Reserve is considered the pinnacle safari destination in South Africa, located in the southwestern corner of the Kruger National Park. Within the Sabi Sand are several private game reserves that are home to some of the best luxury lodges in South Africa where Big Five sightings are almost guaranteed.

  • Phinda Private Game Reserve

Phinda Private Game Reserve is another destination that is popular among both locals and internationals. This reserve is also known as the ‘Seven Worlds of Wonder’ because of its seven distinct habitats that make for extraordinary safari game drives, while seeking the Big Five. With conservation at its core, a major draw card is that visitors can also take part in unique safari activities such as rhino dehorning, or elephant and pangolin conservation.

  • Shamwari Private Game Reserve

In partnership with UK-based wildlife charity, ‘The Born Free Foundation’, Shamwari provides sanctuary for Africa’s big cats that have been rescued from captivity. This is a malaria-free Big Five safari destination in the Eastern Cape that also forms part of South Africa’s iconic Garden Route. Visiting the various sanctuaries on the reserve is in addition to the standard Big Five Safari experience and offers a unique educational platform for those interested in the welfare of Africa’s wildlife.

  • Hluhluwe Imfolozi Game Reserve

Hluhluwe Imfolozi is one of the oldest game reserves in Africa and the place where the white rhino was saved from almost going extinct. It is also here where the renowned Wilderness Trails take place, that see brave and adventurous travelers walking three to five days through Big Five territory and sleeping under the stars.

Best safaris in South Africa based on affordability

The most popular safaris in South Africa are not always the most affordable, and that is why it is good to know the places you can go to that will allow you to experience the standard safari experience at more affordable rates. These reserves are also home to the Big Five with lodge or camp accommodation.

  • Tembe Elephant Park

One of the most affordable safari destinations in South Africa is Tembe Elephant Park. The park is owned and managed by the local community and receives generous donor funding, which enables their unbeatable rates. The standard safari package offers en-suite tent accommodation, all meals, and two safari game drives daily within the park; it is also believed that some of the largest elephants in Africa roam here!

  • Garden Route Game Lodge Private Game Reserve

3.5 hours from Cape Town is the family-friendly and malaria-free Garden Route Game Lodge. This lodge is situated on a private game reserve and guests can expect comfortable accommodation, delicious meals, and safari game drives in open Landrovers. The Garden Route is an epic road trip in South Africa that can be planned around this affordable Big Five Safari.

  • Pilanesberg National Park

This unique safari destination is situated inside the crater of an extinct volcano! The reserve offers a variety of accommodation types that vary from budget to luxury. A standard safari package at a middle-range lodge in this location will cost around GBP150 per person sharing per night; inclusive of your 2 game drives daily, meals and accommodation. It is also a one-hour drive from South Africa’s well-known holiday resort, Sun City.

  • Manyoni Private Game Reserve

Compared to well-known reserves like Phinda Private Game Reserve, Manyoni offers visitors the chance to experience authentic Africa at a fraction of the cost; for this very reason, this reserve is frequented by South African wildlife enthusiasts. Private game lodges and open-vehicle safaris are on offer, but instead of paying rates of R9000 per night, visitors can embark on a luxurious safari for around R3500 per night.

  • Amakhala Game Reserve

Like the Pilanesberg and Manyoni, Amakhala has a selection of lodges that vary in cost. These safaris are conducted in a malaria-free, Big Five Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape and packages can be purchased at around R3500 per person per night in the low season.

For more information on standard safari package rates in South Africa please read our article, ‘Cost breakdown of budget, middle range and luxury safaris in South Africa’.

Which safaris in South Africa are the best for seeing the Big 5?

One thing about wildlife and the wilderness that it inhabits, is that it holds no prejudice. Visitors entering a Big Five National Park for the day may stumble upon incredible leopard sightings, while those staying in a private game reserve for two nights may miss that opportunity. There are no guarantees on an authentic African safari. However, there are certain locations in South Africa that are renowned for Big Five sightings: a result of favourable geographical terrain, as well as having a successful infrastructure in place that monitors the movement of the Big Five animal species.

  • Lion Sands Game Reserve

This is the only private game reserve in South Africa that is stretched across both the Sabi Sands Game Reserve and the Kruger National Park. The 10000 hectares of wilderness is home to a hugely dense and diverse concentration of wildlife and sightings of the Big Five are frequent, partly due to the location of the reserve and the excellent guiding expertise by Lion Sands game rangers.

  • Londolozi Game Reserve

Situated in the heart of the Sabi Sand Game Reserve lies one of South Africa’s first private game reserves, the luxurious Londolozi. Having operated for nearly 100 years, this family-run business is synonymous with their leopard sightings – also known as ‘the legendary Leopards of Londolozi’. It is also a common occurrence to be lying in one of their outdoor baths while a herd of elephants saunter past. These are Big Five sightings like none other and Londolozi have built their camps to blend in with the natural and wild surroundings of the Sabi Sand Game Reserve.

  • The Kruger National Park

Along with being the most popular safari destination, this is one of the best places in South Africa to encounter the Big Five. Private lodges are a plenty and heading out on daily game drives with professional guides will give you ample opportunity to tick those animals off the list!

  • Timbavati Private Nature Reserve

The Timbavati can be found to the north of the Sabi Sand Game Reserve and on the western border of the Kruger National Park. This region forms part of the Greater Kruger National Park, which came into being when the fences between these privately owned conservation areas and the Kruger were dropped to encourage natural migration of animal species. With exceptional Big Five sightings, the Timbavati is also known for its populations of white-lion and this is possibly the only reserve in the world where these white-lions occur naturally in the wild.

  • Phinda Private Game Reserve

KwaZulu-Natal is home to some of the best Big Five Game Reserves in the country, which are probably the lesser-known reserves when compared to the likes of the Kruger and Sabi Sands Games Reserves. Phinda Private Game Reserve is a three-hour drive from Durban’s King Shaka International Airport and safari game drives are conducted by professionally trained rangers. Big Five sightings are common, and the reserve is also renowned for its’ cheetah and black rhino sightings.

Which safaris in South Africa offer the best lodges

The safari experience has most certainly evolved over the last couple of decades, and visitors can now look forward to luxury five-star accommodation in the middle of the wilderness. In our opinion, it is the combination of warm hospitality, attention to detail, unique design, lodge location and the quality of the safari activities that culminate in a lodge being cream off the crop! Below are five lodges we have selected that embody these attributes:

  • Singita Ebony Lodge

Singita is synonymous with the term ‘safari’, and many travelers who are planning to embark on an African safari would have come across this exclusive and luxury private game reserve in the Sabi Sand. The founding lodge of this reserve is Singita Ebony Lodge, which offers 12 luxurious suites with exquisite river views in one of the best wildlife locations in Africa. A family-friendly lodge, Singita Ebony offers a high-end, fully-inclusive safari experience.

  • Lion Sands Narina Lodge

Lion Sands Narina Lodge, in the sought-after Kruger National Park, is made up on 9 thatched suites on the banks of the Sabie River. This lodge blends beautifully into nature with its wooden, African style aesthetic and guests can enjoy the great outdoors with their own plunge pool and outdoor shower on a private, secluded deck leading out from the bedroom. The rangers at Narina Lodge are among the best and activities such as bush walks, wildlife lectures, star gazing and local community experiences are on offer. An on-site spa also offers a range of treatments for those wishing to take full advantage of their retreat into the wilderness!

  • &Beyond Phinda Rock Lodge

As mentioned earlier, Phinda Private Game Reserve is home to six luxury lodges, which all fall under the renowned &Beyond Collection. Among these lodges is the unique, Phinda Rock Lodge, that has been built into a cliff face, hovering above the valley below. With only six suites to choose from, Rock Lodge has become the perfect destination for romantic getaways. Limited vehicles are allowed at wildlife sightings, which ensures an exclusive safari experience.

  • Rhino Sands Safari Camp

Not the most expensive of the luxury lodges, but five-star nonetheless, is Rhino Sands Safari Camp in the Manyoni Private Game Reserve. Tented suites within a riverine forest have create a supremely peaceful setting, each with their own private plunge pool. The staff are very friendly and professional and ensure every need is met during your stay, with riveting morning and evening game drives that bring close-up sightings of Africa’s Big Five.

  • Royal Malewane

To finish off our list of five best lodges in South Arica, we will leave you with Royal Malewane situated in the Thornybush Private Game Reserve (Greater Kruger National Park). Over and above their luxury suites, guests can opt to stay in one of the Royal Suites, which comes with your own private butler, chef, wildlife guide and open safari vehicle – available for exclusive use. This beautiful lodge was voted #3 in the Conde Nast Traveler 2020 Readers Choice Awards.

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