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.
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.
In this article I will only talk about safaris in a national park in South Africa. I you are wondering if South Africa is safe to travel, first read this about safety 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.
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 worst of all – Brian Jackman “
Here are some tips to increase your game viewing chances, but there is still no guarantee:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 and you will go home with amazing photos.
Read here for some additional information about the African Elephant
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.
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.
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.
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.
A List of interesting parks with an abundance of wildlife and beautiful surroundings we can 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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Hi Kieu, thanks so much! I totally love safaris and I always take way too many pictures. To see all these animals in the wild is just amazing. I keep on coming back to Africa for more 🙂
I mainly travel in the southern part of Africa, but I’ve been once to the Serengeti, and that park is just wonderful. It’s huge and so wide open. I remember we kept on seeing lions everywhere.
Try Southern Africa next time, you won’t regret it 😉
This makes me want to go on a safari asap! I’m not particularly an animal fan, but they look absolutely incredible in the wild X
It is so rewarding to see animals in the wild. It is so different than seeing them in a zoo. So if you have a chance, do a safari. But beware, once you get bitten by the safari bug, it’s difficult to get rid of it 🙂
Thanks a lot. Maybe a good reason to go back on day, it’ll be worth it 😉
Love the article guys. Some real practical advice for Safari Newbies. The only thing I would add to your article is there are also lots of private game reserves in South Africa where you don’t have to go through the hassle of protecting yourself against malaria. I would also concur with your recommendation that people try both the self-drive and guided tours as it does demonstrate the advantages of taking a guided tour especially when you want to try and see the more elusive animals such as our beautiful Leopards.
I love this! Makes me miss Africa, we did the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater. I want to go to South Africa too:) I can never get enough of the big cats- roar!
Roar loud is indeed what you hear a lot on a safari 🙂 So this means you should go and do more safaris in South Africa!! 🙂
Very cool post. In south Africa we only went to the Kruger NP, but we are just arriving from a 8 day safari in Namibia, Botswana ending in Vic Falls. And we loved it. Feel free to have a look 🙂
What an experience it must be to see these amazing animals in the wild. My kids would love this they get excited at zoo’s let alone in the wild
There is nothing better than seeing wild animals in their natural habitat 🙂
I have never been to South Africa, but to go on a safari and see animals in the wild would be my top priority there. I went on a safari only once, in India, and we did see a tiger although so far away we could hardly make out its shape! So I totally hear you when you say you should pick the right time of the day and be patient….
Yes indeed, you have to pick the right time of day and be patient. On the other hand, most animals don’t have watches, so it’s pretty much luck of the draw as they come and go as they please, in the wild. Seeing a pride of about 6 lions dining on a zebra not more than 2 metres away from my vehicle in The Kruger Park was maybe one of my best highlights when it comes to game viewing 🙂
We have done both the private game park and the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve – we didn’t get to spot nearly the number of animals you have here, or the quality, usually darting behind the bushes like a Where’s Wally game!! We did it all in a standard hire car though which was great as we could go at our own pace but then we did get quite scarily caught in a bush fire -we advised the rangers at the gate who pretty much couldn’t care less but we knew cars went in before us!! Checking out more of your Africa series now, a place I have fallen in love with!
Seeing animals really close by is by luck of the draw, sometimes you are lucky to see lot’s of wildlife really close by. Other times you will see them behind a bush. But that’s all part of the game 🙂
About the bush fires, they are quite common and nature needs fire to regenerate. After a fire you see everything becoming really green, especially after some rain. That’s probably why the rangers seemed not to care 😉
Really great tips to listen to, especially since a safari is a once in a lifetime experience. I think the private game park concept is interesting. How regulated are their tour practices, do you know?
I have not visited many private parks, we mostly tend to go to the national parks. The private parks are more about the global experience, the lodges, the food and the wildlife. I guess most of them have good tour practices, it’s just because they have a smaller area, it’s easier to spot certain animals, like a leopard for example. It’s basically just what you prefer, it’s all small scale and some people prefer that.
We self-drove and I really think we enjoyed it more that way. I’m sure we missed some stuff, because we didn’t have a guide with a walkie-talkie, but I think we saw plenty. I can’t wait to go back!
In the end it’s all about the experience, no matter how many animals you saw. I’m glad you liked it and might plan a trip back to Africa 🙂
Loved looking at the pictures, so can’t wait to go ourselves! Really useful to know all the practical information you mention here – will refer back to this once we plan our trip 🙂
This makes me want to go on safari again! Your photos are stunning, love the wildcats especially! Roar!
I am completely freaked out by safaris! Lol.
Have done Pilanesburg, which was closest to our 2 nights stay in Sun City near Jo’burg. Fortunately, we saw most of the sought after animals, except the leopard. Great tips here and nice that you have added rules and regulations!
Safari is totally on my bucket list. Great tips! I will have your post in mind when this dream comes true:D
Besides the tips and suggestions, your post has some amazing pictures. It has got me researching for a trip right now
Wow! I love your photos and this guide is so interesting and helpful. I learnt so much! Now I want to go on a safari even more!