Going on a safari in South Africa is an unforgettable travel experience and therefore listed high on many people’s bucket lists. The word safari derives from the Swahili language, meaning “journey”. In other words, you will embark on a journey for a memorable encounter with the african bush and observe the majestic and mysterious world of the animal kingdom in their natural habitat.South Africa has over 20 national parks, and even if not all parks have an abundance of wildlife (some parks are more about nature and landmarks), there are still plenty of parks available for a game viewing safari.

lion walking towards the camera

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Most of the game parks are easy accessible with a well maintained road system and have very comfortable accommodation and facilities. Also the fees for the parks are very affordable for many people’s budgets making South Africa a great destination for going on a safari.

National parks versus private game parks

Although very different from one another, safaris can be done in either a national or private game park. The main difference is the price, where private game parks range from pretty affordable to very luxurious, national parks are still affordable. Accommodation and facilities in private parks can be top-notch and they’ll have the best rangers and guides working for them. Further, since their land is privately owned or taken as a concession they basically can go off-road to get closer to the animals. Since their parks are smaller, they have a better idea where to find the animals and you’ll have more of a chance to get up close and personal to take that awesome photo which you will able to upload to facebook soon enough making your friends and family back home green with envy. Just keep in mind, the more you pay, the more you may well get as far as animal viewing goes.

elephants crossing road in game park with people looking on from safari vehicles
Elephants crossing in Kruger National Park

But in this article I will only talk about safaris in a national park in South Africa.

Important things to know before starting your safari

You have booked your African safari and in order to fully prepare you have been watching lot’s of documentaries on National Geographic and Animal Planet. Now you think you know what to expect since you have seen a leopard stalking and killing a warthog, a pride of lions attacking a herd of buffalos and a cheetah chasing an impala through the open grass fields on TV. All spectacular images and this is what you want and expect to see on a safari, but you must keep in mind that the makers of the documentary have spent months on end in the field taking hours and hours of film to make a 20 minute nature movie. It is possible to see some of it, but the chances are small.

leopard standing on a big rock looking away from the camera
Leopard on the rocks in Kruger National Park

A game park is not a zoo, so animals can be hard to find. Many parks are huge, Kruger National Park for example is 20 000 square kilometres, to put this in prospective it is the size of Israel, and animals roam around freely. Animals are also experts in camouflaging themselves in the abundant vegetation.

So going on a safari means you will have to look for animals, and when you finally find one hiding behind or in a tree, the reward is that much better. See it as a game on your journey. Also, don’t expect to see all the animals that you would like to see during your first trip, it may take a few safaris to see your first leopard, but isn’t this the joy of it all? And an extra reason to come back to Africa for more.

Everything in Africa bites, but the safari bug is the worst of all – Brian Jackman

Animal viewing

Here are some tips to increase your game viewing chances, but there is still no guarantees:

  • Consider the season you will be travelling in, game viewing is best done during the dry season, which in South Africa for most of the country is from May to October (Cape Town area has its dry season from October to April). The grass is low and the land is dry, meaning animals can be seen better through the vegetation and tend to gather around rivers and watering holes.
giraffe heard walking past waterhole with one bending down to drink
Giraffe herd
  • Most animals rest during the hot hours of the day and hide from the sun in the shade under or behind trees and thickets. Animals will be laying down in the grass for a few hours. This makes them much harder to see. They will be more active during the early hours of the morning or the late afternoon, when also the temperatures are much cooler. Lions tend to look for the warm tarred road in the early morning, especially during the cooler season. When you get out early, you might find a group enjoying the sunshine while blocking your way.
buffalo looking straight at the camera
Buffalo in Kruger National Park
  • Most predators hunt during the night, so your best chance of seeing them active will be at dusk or dawn. The gates in the parks open at sunrise and close at sunset. Make sure you are at the gate at sunrise and your changes of seeing any predator will increase, no guarantee though.
  • Don’t just focus on the more popular animals, like the famous Big 5 (elephant, rhino, leopard, lion and buffalo). They are very exciting animals to watch. However some will be difficult to see, like the leopard. Don’t pass the smaller and less interesting animals in your search of the Big 5, enjoy the smaller ones as well. It makes animal viewing so much more exciting and rewarding if you do manage to find the big ones in the end. And also try to enjoy nature and scenery. Kruger Park offers a lot to any visitor.

Read here for some additional information about the African Elephant

mother elephant protecting calf
Elephant protecting her calf in Addo National Park

Self drives or guided tours

Due to the fact that many parks have a good road system, self drive safaris are very doable with a 2WD vehicle. The advantage is that you can go at your own pace and stay longer at the animals you love to see.

With a guided tour, there is a slightly higher chance of seeing animals. The guides have an idea where the animals might be and are sometimes in contact with other park guides over the radio if someone has spotted something interesting. But there is never a guarantee for a sighting. The guides are also well accustomed to game spotting and know what to look for. It is incredible what they can spot at times.

Driving at a low-speed staring in to the bush for hours can be very tiring during a self drive. If you don’t like the idea of this, consider a guided tour. The best option in my personal opinion would be to do both, drive around for a few hours with your own vehicle and take a guided tour in the morning or evening.

baboon mother holding baby
Baboon mother and baby in Kruger National Park

Night drives

Some animals that you can see resting during the day are more active at night, but there is a whole list of animals that are only visible at night. They hide in holes or burrows during the daytime and come out at night which makes it very hard to see them during the day (though exceptions always possible). Examples are the aardvark, porcupine, bushbaby, genet and civet cat and brown hyena. Most of them are solitary animals and therefore much harder to spot. Consider booking a night or sunset drive with the park as self drives after sunset are not allowed.

Night drives can be considered much more a lucky draw than day drives. During a night drive, the guide will shine a spotlight to search for animals, the reflective eyes of the animals are usually the first thing you’ll see. But all this can be very tiring for the passengers as visibility is limited making animals much harder to find which can be disappointing. However, you can also be very lucky as well and locate a hunting leopard or see some of the other smaller nocturnal animals.

zebra standing on an open plain with green grass growing through after a veld fire
Zebra in Golden Gate Highlands National Park

Rules and Regulations

Before entering the parks, always check their rules and regulations. Some of them will apply for all the parks, others are specific to the park you visit. These rules and regulations are there for your own safety as well as the animals’ safety, so respect them. Here is a list of some major rules valid for most parks:

  • Respect the maximum speed limit. They can vary in the different parks, so check upfront. When you get caught speeding, you will get fined. Kruger even has speed cops around. Driving slowly makes it easier to spot animals and makes it also easier to stop when an animal jumps out of the bushes and runs across the road, and they do.
  • Respect the gate times and make sure you leave the park on time. Most parks will fine you for being late. Make sure you buy a map at the entrance and plan your day. Some parks like Kruger are huge and due to the speed limit you cannot cover big distances. One can think that 200 km is not a lot in a whole day, but driving slowly, observing and taking pictures of animals mostly takes more time than thought. Don’t let yourself be surprised by this and make sure you don’t have to rush and speed at the end to get to the gate before closing time.
  • At all times remain and stay seated in your vehicle. You are not allowed to get out and walk around. Some of the parks have specially designed areas or picnic spots were you can get out. This will be clearly signposted.
  • Do not feed wild animals. This also means that when having lunch at a picnic area, don’t leave your litter and food lying around, it will attract animals you would not want to encounter when not sitting in your vehicle.
  • Do not shout, make noise or wave to attract animals. This will only disturb them and make them move away. Respect the distance of an animal, don’t get too close. If you don’t have a lot of experience with game viewing, it will be difficult to know when an animal is annoyed and might become dangerous. This applies especially to elephants.
  • Driving off-road is not allowed, every vehicle must stay on the designated roads.
rhino hiding behind a bush looking at the camera
Rhino hiding behind the bush in Pilanesberg National Park

Accommodation in the parks

Accommodation and facilities are very good in many of the parks. It is a bonus if you can stay inside the game park, as during the night, you might be able to hear the sounds of nature. What is more amazing than to be woken up by the thrilling roar of a lion, the giggling sound of a hyena or the howling of a jackal. Some accommodation can have a water hole which is lit during the night where you can sit and observe in peace and quiet the animals that may come to drink, while sipping a nice cold beer yourself.

When intending to lodge overnight in a park, make sure to book in time. Some of the parks, like Kruger and Addo Elephant are very popular with both tourists and South African residents. The same goes for camping, it is always safer to book in advance.

2 zebra crossing a road in a game park one is looking at the camera
Zebra crossing in Pilanesberg National Park

Below is a List of interesting parks with an abundance of wildlife and beautiful surroundings we can highly recommend visiting during your safari in South Africa.

Additional information can be found on the official website of Sanparks or Pilanesberg.

Kruger National Park
Kgalagadi Transfrontier National Park
Pilanesberg National Park
Addo Elephant National Park
Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve
Golden Gate Highlands National Park –
Karoo National Park

A safari in South Africa can be one of your most rewarding travel experiences on the african continent and is worthwhile doing. The various parks are beautiful and have a large variety and diversity of wildlife and vegetation.

How was your experience game viewing in South Africa? Did you enjoy it? Which parks did you visit?

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