Going on a safari is a must-do for any visitor to South Africa, whether you’re just traveling or living there as an expat. The wildlife is simply too spectacular to forgo this wonderful opportunity to view it up close, without any fences and in its natural habitat. While South Africa has much more to offer as a travel destination – it is one of the most diverse countries in terms of climate, landscapes, and people – game viewing trips into the bush are one of its most popular tourist attractions.
However, booking a game lodge for your first safari can be quite daunting. How to pick from the many places on offer? Where should one go first? Is it safe everywhere, and how about malaria? Where can you find the best deals?
First off, Africa travelers should understand that vacationing here isn’t cheap. The range of offerings is of course vast and covers anything from camping to five star luxury game lodges with personal butlers. If you are adventurous enough to head into the bush with your car, trailer, and rooftop tent, your reward will be a decent price (and many good stories to tell). However, make sure you plan such trips far in advance, as some game reserves place strict limits on the number of tourists allowed, making it quite difficult to secure a spot. You should also know that camping in the public parks such as Kruger National Park is popular and therefore more often than not crowded. For the most spectacular game viewing, your best bet is an all-inclusive lodge in a private game reserve, which typically includes two game drives per day at anywhere from ZAR 1,500 to ZAR 4,000 and upwards per person per night, with varying discounts for children. Some of the lodges that are not fenced in may not allow children under the age of twelve, so it is best to make specific inquiries.
Almost every first-time visitor is eager to see “The Big Five” – lion, buffalo, elephant, rhino, and leopard, and they can be found in many of the game reserves. However, Big Five lodges are typically the most expensive, and while it is thrilling to get to see the Big Five, it is by no means guaranteed. In fact, the leopard is the most elusive of all animals, and with a recent increase in rhino poaching and trafficking these majestic animals are also turning into more of a rarity, because some parks are starting to keep them separate and hidden, obscuring their whereabouts to potential rhino-horn hunters. Most repeat travelers will agree that any safari, whether it is in Big Five territory or not, is a deeply satisfying experience, and some of the more scenic routes do not touch on the Big Five.
While malaria is not a huge problem in South Africa, there are certain areas that are classified as low-to-medium risk malaria spots, especially in the summer months from October to May. Kruger Park is one of those areas, and if you travel there outside of June and July, you are advised to take malaria prophylaxis. The same is true for the Kwa-Zulu Natal coast towards Mozambique, including Sodwana Bay and St. Lucia Wetlands. If you are at all worried about it, and especially if you’re a first-time visitor who has never been on safari, your best bet is to make your booking in a malaria-free game reserve, such as Madikwe in the Northwest Province or Welgevonden in the Waterberg area (which is not as well-known as Madikwe or Kruger Park but boasts some of the most scenic landscapes in South Africa). Also malaria-free year-round is anything in the Eastern Cape, an area very popular with tourists who like to combine a safari with a visit to Cape Town or the Garden Route. One popular destination in the Eastern Cape is Addo Elephant Park, known for its beautiful scenery as well as one of the highest concentrations of elephants in South Africa. Picking one of these game reserves will not only assure you a worry-free vacation but also help narrow down the myriad choices and streamline your search.
Most game lodges have their own website and it’s possible to contact them directly for inquiries and bookings, but it is often more convenient (and occasionally cheaper) to go through an online travel agent such as Bushbreaks. There you will find the information well organized so that you can narrow down your search by criteria such as Big Five or malaria-free, and you will be advised of any current specials. mtbeds and roomsforafrica also offer a vast selection but focus on last-minute deals.
No matter where you end up going on safari, chances are that it will be an unforgettable experience. Each game lodge is unique in its own way, and especially the smaller ones (sleeping as few as ten people at a time) will give you an amount of individual attention and pampering that is unsurpassed anywhere else in the world. Chances are you will want to come back again and again once you’ve experienced the adventure of an African safari.
By Sine Thieme, an American repat just returned from a three-year assignment in Johannesburg with her husband an four children, where she loved the weather, the people, going on safari, and the fact that you never quite knew when exactly 'just now' would be.