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How to Choose the Best Safari Destination in South Africa

South Africa is a dream destination for many wildlife lovers, as it offers a variety of safari experiences, from classic game drives to walking safaris and luxury lodges to self-drive adventures. With so many options, how do you choose the best safari destination in South Africa?

Here are some factors to consider and some of the most popular regions and parks to explore.

Your budget

South Africa has a wide range of safari options, depending on the type of accommodation, transportation, and activities you prefer. Generally speaking, the more exclusive and remote the safari destination, the more expensive it will be. 

For example, staying at a private game reserve or a luxury lodge will cost more than staying at a national park or a guest house. Similarly, flying to your safari destination will cost more than driving there.

A giraffe walking in the african savannah of Limpopo Province, South Africa.
A giraffe walking in the african savannah of Limpopo Province, South Africa.

If you’re on a tight budget, you can still enjoy a great safari experience in South Africa by choosing one of the many national parks that allow self-drive safaris, such as Kruger National Park, Addo Elephant National Park, or Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park.

Herd of elephants in Addo Elephant National Park, South Africa.
Herd of elephants in Addo Elephant National Park, South Africa.

These parks have affordable accommodation options, such as campsites, chalets, or rondavels (round huts), and you can drive yourself around the park in your own or rented car. You can also book guided game drives or walks at an extra cost if you wish.

If you have a bigger budget, you can opt for a luxury South African safari at one of the many private game reserves or luxury lodges that offer more exclusivity, comfort, and service.

Cheetah with her cubs in the Kruger National Park, South Africa.
Cheetah with her cubs in the Kruger National Park, South Africa.

These safari destinations usually include all meals, drinks, and activities in their rates, and you can enjoy off-road driving, night drives, bush walks, and other special experiences that are not allowed in national parks. 

Some of the best private game reserves and luxury lodges in South Africa are Londolozi Private Game Reserve, Singita Lebombo Lodge, Phinda Private Game Reserve, and Cheetah Plains Luxury Lodge in Kruger National Park.

Pangolin in Phinda Private Game Reserve, South Africa.
Pangolin in Phinda Private Game Reserve, South Africa.

Madikwe Game Reserve and Kwandwe Private Game Reserve are in malaria-free areas. Sabi Sand Game Reserve and Timbavati Private Nature Reserve are next to Kruger National Park.

Your time

How long do you have for your safari trip? How long do you want to spend traveling to your safari? How much time do you want to spend at each destination on your South African safari

If you’re short on time, you’ll want to choose a safari destination that’s close to a major city or airport, such as Johannesburg or Cape Town. This way, you can minimize your travel time and maximize your safari time.

Lion in the Kruger National Park, South Africa.
Lion in the Kruger National Park, South Africa.

For example, you can fly from Johannesburg to Hoedspruit or Skukuza airports and arrive for your safari in Kruger National Park within an hour. Alternatively, you can drive from Johannesburg to Pilanesberg National Park or Madikwe Game Reserve in about three hours.

From Cape Town, you can drive to Addo Elephant National Park or Garden Route National Park in about eight hours.

Elephants in Addo Elephant National Park, South Africa.
Elephants in Addo Elephant National Park, South Africa.

If time isn’t a concern, choose a safari destination that’s further away or combine multiple safari destinations in one trip. This way, you can experience different landscapes, ecosystems, and wildlife species in South Africa. 

For example, you can fly from Johannesburg to Upington and drive to Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park on the border with Botswana. Known for its arid landscapes and plentiful predators, such as lions, leopards, cheetahs, and hyenas, the park is a superb safari destination.

Stunning Oryx in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.
Stunning Oryx in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.

Alternatively, you can fly from Johannesburg to Durban and drive to Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park or St Lucia Wetland Park on the east coast.

Your season

When do you want to visit South Africa? What kind of weather do you prefer? How important is wildlife viewing for you?

The best time to visit South Africa for a wildlife safari is from May to September. During these winter months, the east of the country (where the main parks are located) experiences it’s dry season. 

Rhino in South Africa.
Rhino in South Africa.

Wildlife is easier to spot during the dry season because vegetation thins, and animals gather around waterholes and rivers. The weather’s great, with little to no rain and sunny days. However, it can get cold at night and in the mornings, especially in open vehicles, so you’ll need warm clothing.

Nyala in the Kruger National Park, South Africa.
Nyala in the Kruger National Park, South Africa.

The dry season is also the low season for tourism in South Africa, which means that the parks are less crowded and the prices are lower, except for Kruger National Park during school holidays. You can enjoy more privacy and tranquility in your safari experience, as well as better availability and flexibility.

Leopard in Sabi Sands Game Reserve, South Africa.
Leopard in Sabi Sands Game Reserve, South Africa.

If you’re planning on visiting South Africa during the dry season, you might miss out on some other attractions and activities. For example, Cape Town and the Western Cape have their rainy season in winter (June to August), which means that the weather is cold and wet for beach and general holiday activities.

Penguin colony at Boulders Beach, Cape Town.
Penguin colony at Boulders Beach, Cape Town.

The scenery also becomes dry and brown in many parts of the country during the dry season.

The wet season in South Africa runs from October to April. During these summer months, the east of the country (where the main parks are located) experiences it’s wet season. 

Crocodile in Mabula Game Reserve, South Africa.
Crocodile in Mabula Game Reserve, South Africa.

Wildlife viewing can be more challenging during the wet season because the vegetation is thicker and greener, and animals are more dispersed. The weather is also unpredictable, with hot and humid days and short afternoon showers or thunderstorms.

African wild dog in Madikwe Game Reserve, South Africa.
African wild dog in Madikwe Game Reserve, South Africa.

However, the wet season also has its advantages. It’s the best time for birding safaris in South Africa, as many migratory birds arrive and many resident birds breed. The scenery also becomes lush and green after the rains, creating a beautiful contrast with the blue skies.

Collared sunbird in the Kruger National Park, South Africa.
Collared sunbird in the Kruger National Park, South Africa.

The wet season is also a good time to visit Cape Town and the Western Cape, as they have their dry summer months from November to March. The weather is warm and sunny, perfect for beach and general holiday activities. The wildlife viewing in the Cape Region parks is good year-round.

Camps Bay Beach in Cape Town.
Camps Bay Beach in Cape Town.

Ultimately, there is no bad time to visit South Africa for a safari. Each season has its pros and cons. Choose the best time for you depending on what kind of safari you’re after. 

Your interests

What kind of safari activities do you want to do? What wildlife do you want to see? What kind of scenery do you enjoy? 

There’s a wide range of safari activities, from classic game drives to more adventurous options, such as walking safaris, canoeing safaris, hot-air balloon safaris, and elephant safaris.

Elephant drinking water in the Kruger National Park, South Africa.
Elephant drinking water in the Kruger National Park, South Africa.

Depending on your preferences and fitness level, you can choose a safari destination that offers the activities that suit you best.

For example, if you want to walk among the animals with a professional guide, you can try Pafuri Walking Safaris in Kruger National Park, or if you want to paddle along scenic streams and spot wildlife along the banks, you can try canoeing safaris in iSimangaliso Wetland Park.

Rhino in iSimangaliso Wetland Park, South Africa.
Rhino in iSimangaliso Wetland Park, South Africa.

South Africa hosts a diverse range of wildlife species, from the famous Big Five (lion, leopard, buffalo, rhino, and elephant) to the lesser-known Little Five (elephant shrew, buffalo weaver, leopard tortoise, rhino beetle, and ant lion) and many more.

Buffalo in Mabula Game Reserve, South Africa.
Buffalo in Mabula Game Reserve, South Africa.

Depending on your wildlife wishlist, you can choose a safari destination that has a high chance of spotting the animals you want to see.

For example, if you want to go on a Big Five safari in South Africa, you can go to Kruger National Park or one of its adjacent private game reserves, or if you want to see cheetahs, you can go to Samara Karoo Private Reserve or Cheetah Plains Luxury Lodge.

Cheetah cubs in the Kruger National Park, South Africa.
Cheetah cubs in the Kruger National Park, South Africa.

South Africa boasts a stunning range of scenery, from arid deserts and semi-deserts to lush forests and wetlands and rugged mountains and plateaus to sandy beaches and rocky coasts. 

Depending on what you’re after, you can choose a safari destination that showcases the beauty and diversity of South Africa’s landscapes.

Ostriches in Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.
Ostriches in Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.

For example, if you want to see the arid scenery and abundant predators of the Kalahari Desert, you can go to Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, or if you want to see the scenic Panorama Route and its natural wonders, such as Blyde River Canyon and God’s Window, you can go to Kruger National Park.

Conclusion

Choosing the best safari destination in South Africa can be an overwhelming task. There are so many factors to consider and so many options to choose from. However, by taking into account your budget, time, season, and interests, you can narrow down your choices and find the safari destination that suits you best.

Whether you want to go on a Big Five safari in Kruger National Park, explore the scenic Panorama Route, enjoy a luxury safari lodge, or experience a walking safari, South Africa has something for everyone.


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