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The 8 Best Safaris in South Africa in 2024

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Lori Zaino
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Lori Zaino

Senior Content Contributor

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Countries Visited: 58U.S. States Visited: 40

Lori is an intrepid traveler who loves creating itineraries that exude “luxe on a budget.” She’s written for CNN, NBC, The Infatuation, and more, and loves to muse about points-fueled trips to Sri Lan...
Edited by: Keri Stooksbury
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Keri Stooksbury

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There are numerous countries around Africa (and really, throughout the entire world) for a safari. But South Africa is an optimal destination if you really want to see the Big 5 (lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, and buffalo). According to the Africa Wildlife Foundation, the country comes in as sixth among the most megadiverse countries (these countries contain a large percentage of the world’s species — both flora and fauna). South Africa is also home to some of the largest populations of endangered species, like black and white rhinos.

However, narrowing down where to go with 40+ game reserves and national parks can be challenging. This article will break out all the logistics and information you need to know to plan your perfect safari in South Africa.

When To Go on a Safari in South Africa

Most visitors should pick the best time of year for a South African safari: May to September. During this dry season, many of the country’s most famous game reserves are located around Kruger and in the KwaZulu-Natal province. Besides avoiding downpours, you’ll probably see more wildlife, as many animals come out of hiding to gather in search of food and water (resources are scarce during the dry months), which means they’re easier to spot.

However, the dry season in the Western Cape is the opposite time of year, with the best times to visit between November and March.

If you plan to visit both areas, consider a shoulder-season time like October, where the rains may not yet be out in full force around Kruger and its surroundings, but you’ll still have pleasant weather in the Cape.

What To See on a Safari in South Africa

Safari elephants
Safaris are an incredible way to view South African wildlife, including the Big 5. Image Credit: Cédric Dhaenens via Unsplash

According to SANBI (South African National Biodiversity Institute), there are more than 100,000 species of animals, plants, and fungi in the country. Besides the aforementioned Big 5, visitors should look for animals like cheetahs, giraffes, zebras, wild dogs, ostriches, wildebeest, monkeys, jackals, and so much more. Plant diversity is also worth noting, as you can spot South African favorites like colorful king proteas and baobab trees.

What to look for on a safari in South Africa also depends on where you go. Certain reserves or national parks may be home to specific animal species, so look carefully at each destination to ensure you’ll see the wildlife you hope for. As always, it’s important to understand that these destinations aren’t zoos. There isn’t a guarantee you’ll see certain animals roaming about in the wild, but it’s likely in most spots on this list.

South Africa Safari Logistics

Planning a safari to South Africa isn’t as complicated as you may think. First, you’ll want to decide where to go using the destinations on this list. From there, work backward to see where you’ll need to fly and begin organizing travel to get there.

Where To Fly

If you’re looking for nonstop flights to South Africa, you have a few options, especially if you’re based in the eastern U.S. You can fly nonstop to Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport (JNB) from Atlanta (ATL) on Delta and from New York (JFK) on South African Airways, a Star Alliance partner. You can also fly to Cape Town (CPT) from Newark (EWR) on United. There are ways to maximize using your points and miles to fly to South Africa, so consider all your options before booking.

Once you’ve received South Africa, the next step is to get to your safari. If your particular safari accommodation doesn’t offer charter flights, you can fly to the gateways for parks like Kruger or Sabi Sands to airports like Hoedspruit Airport (HDS) and Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport (MQP). Skukuza Airport (SZK) is a tiny airport inside Kruger National Park. After you’ve landed in the bush, you can arrange ground transport for pickup to take you to your safari accommodation or rent a car.

Hot Tip:

Keep an eye out when flying in and out of these spots. I’ve seen lions and other wildlife dashing through the savannah during landing and takeoff at these airports.

What To Bring and What To Wear

Practicality when packing for a safari is important. Besides all the items you’d typically need on a trip away from home, bring the following on your South Africa safari adventure:

  • Khaki or natural-colored clothing
  • Hat, sunglasses, and sunblock
  • Waterproof windbreaker with a hood
  • Layers for chilly evenings
  • Camera
  • Binoculars
  • Insect repellent
  • Medication — you may not be able to get to a pharmacy easily when in the bush

Additional Tips and Precautions To Take

Families should know that small children are often not allowed on safaris. Check with your accommodation to see what ages are allowed. The minimum age is usually 8, but some spots prohibit those under 12 or 16.

Check the CDC to see what vaccines you should have before traveling to South Africa for a safari. You won’t need the yellow fever vaccine if you’re coming straight from the U.S., but you may want to consider malaria tablets, depending on your South African destination. Malaria tablets can be hard on the system, but some game reserves claim to be malaria-free. Check the area you plan to visit to see if you need malaria pills.

You should also visit the U.S. State Department’s website, which can alert you of any travel advisories and visa requirements. U.S. passport holders don’t need a visa when visiting South Africa but will need 2 consecutive empty passport pages per entry; otherwise, the country denies entry.

Here’s Where To Go on a Safari in South Africa

Consider these top national parks and game reserves when planning your South African safari.

1. Kruger National Park

Lions at Kruger
Lions at Kruger National Park. Image Credit: Diego Morales via Unsplash

Kruger National Park is one of the most popular places to visit for a South African safari. And just how big is Kruger National Park? It encompasses nearly 5 million acres (around 8,000 square miles) of bush, home to nearly 150 mammals and more than 500 bird species. The park itself is about the size of the state of New Jersey, to put things in perspective, though most say that the southern areas of the park have the best wildlife viewing.

Visitors can do self-driving tours of the park, as road conditions and signage are decent (you’ll have to pay about $6 per adult to enter one of the 9 entrance gates), but it may be best to stay at a lodge or camp that offers safaris. Expert guides know exactly where to spot the best wildlife and can also provide information about the park and its wildlife that you may not know otherwise. Going with a guide also means adhering to important safety procedures, as guides are trained in skills and situations you may not be familiar with — wild animals can be unpredictable.

The park offers affordable lodges and rest camp options, but if you’re looking for luxury, Singita’s Lebombo Lodge has a stunning clifftop location overlooking the N’wanetsi River.

Hot Tip:

If you choose the self-driving option, rent a 4×4 or taller vehicle for better animal viewing angles. For safety reasons, don’t disturb the animals in any way — approach slowly so as not to scare or spook wildlife. Never get out of your vehicle (this is only permitted at certain viewpoints or rest areas), and don’t feed animals.

2. Sabi Sands Game Reserve

Sabi Sands Game Reserve
A leopard at Sabi Sands. Image Credit: Ji Heng Lee via Unsplash

Sabi Sands Game Reserve is a private game reserve that backs right up to Kruger National Park (there’s an unfenced border between the 2 game reserves), spanning around 160,000 acres. This means that wildlife can wander and roam between the 2 parks easily, increasing your chances of spotting more animals.

While you can spot the Big 5, Sabi Sands is famous for its leopard sightings. So, if you’re dying to catch these spotted cats in action, this reserve may be right for you.

It’s also particularly apt for luxury travelers. Since day visitors aren’t allowed, you must stay in one of the lodges in Sabi Sands to access the park. While lodge rates vary, this isn’t the best spot for budget travelers. In most cases, your safari lodge can help you organize transfers to enter through one of the park’s 3 entrance gates: Shaw’s Gate, Newington Gate, or Gowrie Gate.

Plan to stay in the Ulusaba Private Game Reserve, part of the western Sabi Sands section owned by Sir Richard Branson. It’s home to Rock Lodge, an intimate safari hotel part of the Virgin Limited Edition portfolio, perched along dramatic rocks overlooking the expansive savannah.

Hot Tip:

Sabi Sands is special because guides can drive off-road to follow animals, which isn’t permitted at the nearby Kruger National Park. This means you might be able to get a closer glance at wildlife that’s not on the main roads.

3. Madikwe Game Reserve

Wild dogs Madikwe
Wild dogs roam Madikwe. Image Credit: Marlin Clark via Unsplash

The fifth-largest game reserve in Africa, Madikwe Game Reserve is a lesser-known game reserve under a 5-hour drive from Johannesburg for those ready for a road trip adventure. If you want to fly there, it’s actually best to fly into the Sir Seretse Khama International Airport (GBE) in Botswana’s capital, Gaborone, and then drive an hour to the reserve.

Madikwe Game Reserve is home to wild dogs, the famous aardwolf, and the Big 5 — featuring 66 mammal species. Do know the reserve has an electric perimeter fence to keep animals contained.

The private game reserve doesn’t allow day trippers, so if you want to take a safari here, you must book one of the lodges within the park’s premises. While many of the lodges are more luxurious, there is 1 eco bush camp and family accommodation option for those with kids. We recommend Jaci’s Tree Lodge, complete with outdoor, wood-fired hot tubs so you can soak and relax as you admire wildlife from the treetops.

Hot Tip:

Madikwe Game Reserve is known as a malaria-free area of South Africa, ideal for travelers who don’t want to deal with malaria prevention.

4. Phinda Private Game Reserve

Phinda
Phinda is a private game reserve. Image Credit: Phinda

Phinda Private Game Reserve, also known as &BEYOND Phinda, is owned by luxury safari outfitter &BEYOND (known for having some of the best safari lodges in South Africa). The reserve is home to more than 70,000 acres that encompass 7 different habitats, including 1,000 acres of African sand forest, which is rare.

Luxury travelers head to Phinda for a more intimate safari experience, as the park has limited lodges and safari vehicles. Just 6 high-end properties are located on the reserve, and visitors can expect to see the Big 5 — sometimes close up. The park also has more than 400 bird species. The sand forest section is home to the suni and the red forest duiker, both types of small antelopes that you can’t see in many other destinations.

If you’re wondering which is the best Phinda Lodge, it depends on what you’re looking for. We love the far-flung views from the Phinda Rock Lodge, where suites have private plunge pools. Those intrigued by the rarity of the sand forest may prefer the Phinda Forest Lodge, which features floor-to-ceiling glass windows so you can admire your surroundings from both outside and indoors.

5. Timbavati Private Nature Reserve

Timbavati
Zebras play at Timbavati. Image Credit: Kelley Jean Main via Unsplash

At more than 130,000 acres, this reserve lies within Kruger National Park, an unfenced area where wildlife can roam freely between the 2 parks. You can self-drive through the park or stay at one of 22 different lodges and camps within the reserve. Consider staying at Simbavati River Lodge and spot animals like elephants sipping from the lodge’s onsite watering hole as you sip your tea or coffee at breakfast from the lodge’s dining deck.

Visitors can access Timbavati Private Nature Reserve by flying into the Hoedspruit Airport (HDS) and driving through the main Timbavati Enkhulu Gate (note there’s a fee to drive in, but your accommodation may cover this if you’re staying within the park).

Besides spotting the Big 5, keep an eye out for white lions, which tend to hang out within the park’s borders. In contrast to Kruger, you can drive off-road, so Timbavati may be better for adventurers who want to get a bit closer to wildlife. Remember to follow any safety rules and suggestions during self-drives.

6. Mala Mala Game Reserve

Mala Mala Sable Camp
Mala Mala Sable Camp is a peaceful lodge for wildlife viewing. Image Credit: Mala Mala Sable Camp

This particular destination is a private game reserve located within the already private Sabi Sands Game Reserve for luxury travelers ready to splurge. Offering the utmost customization and crowd-free wildlife viewing (safaris don’t put time limits on wildlife viewing, and there are only a few lodges; therefore, there are fewer safari vehicles), this is the type of safari to take when you want to spot only animals and not other humans. The reserve claims to have the “lowest density of humans to the highest density of wildlife” per acre.

Mala Mala shares an unfenced border with Kruger National Park, and visitors can expect to see the Big 5 and beyond. Those who want even more privacy should stay at Mala Mala Sable Camp, a secluded property with suites overlooking a watering hole.

7. Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park

Meerkat
A meerkat lounges at Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. Image Credit: Ansie Potgieter via Unsplash

This national park spans 2 countries: South Africa and Botswana. It is entirely unfenced, meaning the animals can roam freely throughout the park. However, humans will need a passport if they plan to enter a gate in 1 country and leave from a gate in another country.

Visitors to Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park can expect to see animals like lions, gemsbok, springbok, wildebeest, and leopards, but not the Big 5, as the rhinos, elephants, and buffalos don’t call this spot home. Still, for those who want to get off the beaten path to enjoy the red sand dunes and endemic wildlife (including rare bird species), Kgalagadi is a valid option, especially if you’re looking for a self-drive safari destination (we suggest hiring a guide, though). While not required, a 4×4 vehicle is likely a good idea, and you will have to pay a small fee to enter the park.

This park is also ideal for budget travelers, who can find lodges that charge less than $100 per night (nearly unheard of in the safari world) at spots like the Twee Rivieren Rest Camp. The closest airport is Upington International Airport (UTN).

Hot Tip:

Safaris can be expensive, so pay with a credit card that earns you bonus points on travel, such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve, which offers 3x Chase Ultimate Reward points per dollar spent. Then, you can transfer these points to various travel partners or use them to book travel within the Chase Travel portal.

8. Addo Elephant National Park

Elephants at Addo
An elephant family that lives in Addo. Image Credit: Tobin Rogers via Unsplash

Addo Elephant National Park is a 9-hour drive from the Cape Town Airport (CPT), but for those who want to explore the Cape, it could make for an enjoyable road trip through South Africa’s Garden Route. Or, take a quick flight from Cape Town to Chief Dawid Stuurman International Airport (PLZ), just a 30-minute drive from the protected space.

The park is one of the best places in South Africa for a safari. It is home to not only the Big 5 but also the Big 7, which includes all the same animals in the Big 5, plus the southern right whale and the great white shark (in the marine section of the protected area). You may also spot large elephant herds (more than 600 elephants inhabit the park), Burchell’s zebra, and red hartebeest.

Addo offers accommodations ranging from budget to luxury. Consider Nyathi Rest Camp, where huts feature private hot tubs and gorgeous bush views. However, visitors can’t drive off-road here because this location is a national park.

Hot Tip:

Although December is an excellent time to visit Cape Town, the best time to see Addo Elephant National Park is June to September. Just know nights can get very cold (this is winter in the Cape), so pack layers.

Final Thoughts

South Africa is one of the top countries in the world for a safari, with many parks, reserves, and destinations ideal for enjoying all the flora and fauna that African nature has to offer. South Africa has something to fit your safari needs, from spotting the Big 5 to even the Big 7, self-driving your own vehicle, or taking that luxury, bucket-list safari in a private reserve.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is it safe to drive from Johannesburg to Kruger National Park?

It’s safe to drive from Johannesburg to Kruger National Park. Just take the general safety precautions you’d take on any drive. You may also prefer to fly from the OR Tambo International Airport (JNB) in Johannesburg to an airport that’s closer to Kruger, such as Hoedspruit Airport (HDS), Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport (MQP), or Skukuza Airport (SZK).

Are there any Kruger National Park safari all-inclusive packages?

Many luxury safari lodges are all-inclusive of meals, transfers, and safari excursions, including bush walks, safari drives, and other activities.

What's the best alternative South African safari destination besides Kruger?

Some South African safari destinations that aren’t Kruger include Madikwe Game Reserve and Addo Elephant National Park. You can spot the Big 5 (lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, and buffalo) in both places, as well as a variety of additional flora and fauna unique to the area.

Is South Africa the best country for a safari?

You can see wildlife in numerous destinations in South Africa, including the Big 5 in many different game reserves. However, Botswana is another destination ideal for a safari, and if you want to spot massive wildlife migrations, Tanzania’s Serengeti or Kenya’s Masai Mara are both excellent wildlife reserves to visit.

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About Lori Zaino

Lori is an intrepid traveler who loves creating itineraries that exude “luxe on a budget.” She’s written for CNN, NBC, The Infatuation, and more, and loves to muse about points-fueled trips to Sri Lanka, Sicily, and Myanmar.

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