South Africa safaris for first-timers: 8 things to know before you book

South Africa, Safari in Kruger National Park - African Elephants
Get your camera charged and ready, safari vehicles make all stops, especially when the roads are blocked © WitR / Shutterstock

A lifelong dream for many, a safari in South Africa can take as many forms as the multitude of creatures you encounter in the wild.

From a remote escape in a bush camp to a luxurious idyll, the range of experiences can suit all tastes and budgets. And just like a giraffe picking and choosing amongst the canopy of leaves for the perfect snack, you'll be rewarded for taking the time to create a safari that's perfect for you.

Get ready for the adventure of a lifetime and also be prepared. As things continue to shift with travel restrictions, make sure to check the latest travel alerts from the US State Department. From there, here's everything else you need to know prior to your South African safari to make the most of your expedition. 

A man and woman, both wielding huge camera lenses, stand in the back of an open-topped 4WD safari vehicle; a guide is at the wheel, and the sun is setting behind them all.
If you're hugely into photography, you might want to consider having your own guide and a private safari vehicle © Tetra Images / Getty Images

1. When to go

For wildlife watching, winter (June to September) is ideal as many trees and shrubs are leafless, which aids spotting. Limited food and water also means that animals are out in the open more often foraging, hunting or grabbing a drink at a waterhole. South Africa's summer (December to February) sees the countryside at its most lush, but animals can be lost in dense shadows. Most common at this time are holidaymakers from Europe, who come in herds for the hot temps.

Cheetah lying on back with fly flying above mouth in Kruger National Park.
While there will be plenty of early mornings on safari in South Africa, the wildlife will keep you awake © Neil Burton / 500px

2. Choosing a National Park

South Africa has over 600 parks and reserves. You can find one offering any kind of experience you want, from utter desolation, to verdant savannah rich with life in all forms. You can join guided safaris, set out on your own or find serenity at a campsite far from others. They also cater to travelers on all budgets which makes them both affordable but also often crowded in parts. Most have good roads you can tour in your own rental car. For your first safari, two parks stand out:

Kruger National Park 
The national park for safaris. Yes parts can get crowded, but given that it's the size of Wales, you can easily escape to a remote corner. Every iconic – and not-so-iconic – African animal is found here. You can stay in the park in everything from isolated campsites to bungalows and cottages in busy compounds, with prices that are some of the best value on the continent. Staying in the surrounding towns like Nelspruit, which have hotels, hostels and resorts for every budget, may be tempting, but they make accessing the early morning wildlife drives (the highlight of the day) difficult; the commute and park-gate traffic can eat into the best part of viewing time.

Hluhluwe-iMfolozi 
Combines lush scenery with all the expected wildlife. Located in the heart of Zululand, the famous culture of the namesake tribe is prevalent. Beaches along the nearby Elephant Coast are among South Africa's finest, so you can see wildlife and go for a dip. The park is especially noted for its network of hiking trails that include multi-day itineraries and camping deep in the bush.


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A beautiful leopard walks across the top of a huge tree branch; the background is a clear blue sky.
There is probably no better place on the planet to have leopard encounters than the Sabi Sand Game Reserve © Hedrus / Shutterstock

3. Choosing a private reserve

There is only one real reason why you may not choose a private wildlife reserve: cost. These are not places for people on a tight budget, with prices reaching thousands of dollars per person per day. But for people who want the ultimate safari-experience, a lodge in a private reserve offers:

Close proximity to wildlife
Not only do you avoid long drives before your safari starts but that bump you hear in the night may be an elephant looking in your window. Unlike most of the government camps, lodges here are rarely ever fenced. And when on wildlife drives, guides are usually permitted to leave the reserve's dirt tracks and head directly to sightings in the bush instead of having to watch from afar (as is the case in the national parks). Sabi Sand Game Reserve, which adjoins Kruger National Park, is widely considered to be the best place in Africa for spotting animals.

Word class safari guides
Guides working at private reserves are at the top of their game. They read the animal footprints on the dirt each morning like a newspaper and have the best chance of finding you the most incredible wildlife encounters. In the highest-end reserves, guides wear ear-piece radios and communicate with each other to let them know where any key sightings are taking place.

A large herd of buffalo walk towards the camera on a dusty savannah.
If you'd rather follow the herds than the crowds, a private reserve may be for you © MHGALLERY / Getty Images

Fewer crowds
Safari jeeps in the park may hold up to 15 guests, while those in private reserves tend to max out at six. At some high-end lodges it might actually just be your party in the vehicle. The fewer the people, the more individual time the guide has to give you; you'll also have more say in how long you stay at individual sightings. Most reserves also set a strict rule of no more than three vehicles at any one sighting, whereas there may be dozens of them in the parks.

Luxury 
Some of the private reserve lodges are merely comfortable but others, such as Singita Boulders and Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge in Sabi Sand are the retreats of the rich and famous.

Customization
Since you're staying amidst the wildlife, you can easily create your own menu of activities on the fly, such as guided walks through the bush or tours that focus on particular species. At Samara Private Game Reserve in a verdant valley amidst desert in the Eastern Cape, there are treks to track cheetahs on foot. One way to save on the costs of a private reserve is to spend just a few nights at one at the start of your trip. Take advantage of the talented guides and abundance of wildlife to see a lot of animals quickly and learn a lot about South Africa's wildlife. Then, with your wildlife urges somewhat sated, try a completely different experience in a national park, where you can concentrate more on appreciating the rhythms of life and natural beauty.

A park ranger safari guide sits in the driver seat of an empty 4WD wildlife drive vehicle; behind him are three rows of empty seats beneath a canvas canopy (there are no doors or sides to the vehicle).
Whether in the national park or a private reserve, professional guides add greatly to the safari experience © Michael Heffernan / Lonely Planet

4. Use a guide

The first time your guide shows you easily-missed leopard tracks crossing your path, you'll be glad you're not wandering aimlessly on your own. Although guides can keep you safe from marauding lions, their great value is simply in explaining the vast complexities and subtleties of the African bush. Animals carry the colours they do so they will be easy to miss.

In private reserves guides are usually part of the price but in a national park you may be tempted to go DIY. You may get lucky (like we did in Kruger one day and have several prides of lions wander past), but as a novice you'll simply miss much. And when there are not big animals about, good guides will bring the bush to life, showing you smaller species, insects and even vegetation that has fascinating properties.

A bright green chameleon walks across the tyre tracks of a vehicle on a sand road in the park.
If you're not solely focused on the Big Five, you'll find plenty of pint-sized treasures © Emma Shaw / Lonely Planet

5. Don't be a 'Big Five' cliché

Sure, it’s great – and a reason to go – to see lions, leopards, elephants, Cape buffaloes and rhinos. And you'll see the phrase (which was coined by white hunters in the 1920s to validate their self-proclaimed bravery) on everything from businesses to buses. But there are obviously far more critters out there: zebras, hippos and giraffes are just a few and the list goes on. Read up on the animals you're likely to see and make a list of the less famous ones and try to spot those. You can't appreciate the beguiling ugliness of a warthog until you've seen one; a herd of twitchy impalas reminds you that danger can lurk anywhere amidst the pastoral beauty.

An alternative safari in Southern Africa

6. Drive or fly

You can fly straight into Kruger National Park, connecting from Cape Town or Johannesburg. If you're pressed for time this is essential for having plenty of safari time. Most other parks and reserves are equally well served by local flights and you can work out itineraries where resorts or lodges handle all your transfers. But if you can afford the time, driving in South Africa is rewarding. Outside of parks and reserves there are wine regions, spectacular natural beauty and all manner of interesting small towns and cultural attractions. As an example, from Johannesburg you can reach Kruger or Sabi Sand in a full day of driving or you can break the journey at Pilgrim's Rest, a charmer of an 1880s gold-rush town that hasn't been over-restored.

A man is staring directly into the camera's lens with a huge pair of black binoculars.
Bringing your own set of decent binoculars can make an ordinary wildlife sighting extraordinary © Jonathan Gregson / Lonely Planet

7. Bring the right stuff

Dawn safaris during the winter in and around Kruger can be surprisingly cold; layers (even gloves and a warm hat) can be shed as the sun and temp goes up. Binoculars are an obvious choice and don't expect your lodge or guides to provide them. A compact pair will let you see that big cat skulking in the distance. Don't count on wi-fi in the bush, so a good book about the land and life around you is essential.

8. Just relax

Besides shivering in the cold dawn air you should be ready to simply chill out. Guides will be doing their best to hit a checklist of animals but this doesn't always happen. Take time to appreciate the land around you, the beauty of a deserted waterhole reflecting the vast African sky or the sounds of a bird far in the distance. Don't fret about picking off a checklist of critters and certainly don't spend all your time hunting for them through a tiny viewfinder. Get out of your vehicle and simply revel in the quiet. Sometimes the most magical moment on safari is when you see nothing at all.

This article was originally published in 2012.

This article was first published on March 23, 2012 and updated on October 5, 2021

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