Expert Reviews – South Africa

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Wonderful Wildlife without Wilderness
Overall rating

It’s extremely difficult to write an impartial review of the safari experience in your homeland. But I’ll give it a shot… From a purely wildlife viewing perspective, I would rank the country amongst the best in Africa. After-all there is nowhere else on the continent to rival places like Kruger and the Sabi Sands for the high probability of seeing all of the Big Five with unerring accuracy while on safari. I also would go on to say that the Sabi Sands boasts the best big cat viewing – especially for leopards – of anywhere on the entire African safari circuit; and the Kruger has more well-habituated wildlife than you can poke the proverbial stick at; while the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park in Kwazulu-Natal is home to the highest density of black and white rhinos remaining on the continent.

If it’s wildlife you are after, then South Africa will not disappoint. The country has the added bonus of also offering a number of excellent malaria-free parks and private reserves for families and expecting mothers to choose from, providing them piece of mind and ensuring that their safari experience won’t end in disaster.

On the flip side, to say the ‘wilderness vibe’ is lacking would be an understatement. Many of the private game reserves are fenced off from each other and intensively managed as small closed ecosystems rather than huge expanses of wild Africa. The infrastructure in many South African national parks has also been developed to the extent where paved roads, extremely habituated animals and even the odd traffic jam severely detract from the wilderness experience and also compromise the scenic beauty of certain protected areas. South Africa delivers on the wildlife-front, but not the wilderness vibe. This is a country to visit if you’re after the Big Five and want to get up close and personal with the usually illusive charismatic cats. But, if its wilderness and wildest Africa you’re after, then I would suggest that you’d be better off choosing a safari destination north of the border.

Wild Africa tamed
Overall rating

Ever since I first stepped foot on South African soil in 1996 no other place feels more like home than coming back to South Africa. Everything about this place sings to my soul.

South Africa is truly one of the most exciting and beautiful countries you could ever wish to visit. A rich history, diverse cultures, abundant wildlife, mesmerising landscapes and sophisticated cities – it has it all; plus more. For anyone who’s never stepped foot on the African continent, it’s the perfect first-time safari choice. The country abounds with well-run national parks and private game reserves, most with excellent infrastructure and many of which are malaria free. What I like most is that no matter which South African city you head to, there’s a good chance you’ll find a park or reserve nearby. From Johannesburg, compact Pilanesberg Game Reserve is only a couple of hours’ drive north-west of the city. If you’re heading to Nelspruit, it’s a mere stone’s throw from South Africa’s most famous national park – Kruger, while the closest park to Durban is Hluhluwe-Umfolozi. From Port Elizabeth you can enjoy malaria-free game viewing at Greater Addo Elephant National Park or Shamwari Private Game Reserve and from Cape Town you can do a day trip to Aquila Private Game Reserve.

But there’s much more to South Africa than wildlife and game parks. From discovering the San rock art paintings in the Drakensberg Mountains and touring the Cradle of Humankind near Johannesburg – one of the richest hominid fossil sites in the world – to staying in a traditional village of the Ndebele, Zulu or Xhosa people and taking a township tour of Soweto – the granddaddy of South Africa’s townships – to indulging in the epicurean pleasures of the Cape Winelands and exploring it’s vibrant cosmopolitan cities there are many ways to get under the skin of this fascinating country. This is why after more than 20 years spent living, working and travelling around South Africa, I still find myself bowing to her beauty and mystery.

The most varied and reasonably priced safari country
Overall rating

Far more populous than other safari destinations further north, South Africa has had to take a different approach to its game areas. The country’s national parks and wildlife areas are almost all fenced around their perimeters, which I’ve found can spoil the wilderness vibe a little, especially if you’re used to the more natural spaces in East Africa or Botswana. But I’ve always found the infrastructure of South Africa’s parks is second to none, and the accommodation here is by far the most varied and reasonably priced of Africa’s safari countries.

Parks in South Africa are mostly available to self-drivers, and hire cars are inexpensive and plentiful. Self-driving is exciting, flexible and cheap, which makes the South African park system a big drawcard for independent travellers. I’ll never forget my first Kruger visit, in which I came up against a stroppy white rhino in my tiny Hyundai Getz within a few minutes of driving through the gate!

I highly recommend South Africa as a safari destination, and I’m glad that since the World Cup the country’s beauty has been more visible on the world stage. It’s hard to generalize about safari-ing here though; South Africa has more variety of parks and reserves than most; and classic African savannah is only one type of habitat here; there are swamps and wetlands down in KwaZulu-Natal, rocky mountains in Lesotho and arid deserts in the Cape that are a world away from the waving grasses and acacia trees many people imagine when they think of a safari experience.

The World in One Country
Overall rating

That’s how the Rainbow Nation likes to sell itself, and it’s true. From the Kruger to the Kalahari this spectacular country offers a world of different habitats to explore. First and foremost is the lowveld country of the far northeast. This is where the Kruger, South Africa’s biggest national park stretches away towards Mozambique. Think of a wilderness the size of Israel and you’ll understand why it is home to more species than any other park in Africa. Among them are lions, wild dogs, sable antelopes and the legendary Kruger elephant bulls with tusks that almost touch the ground.

For a more exclusive lowveld experience you should choose one of the private big five wildlife reserves that lie up against the Kruger’s western boundary. Among the best known are Londolozi, MalaMala, Singita and Ulusaba. Cheap they are not, but each one comes with top-of-the-range guiding and some of the most luxurious lodges on the planet.

Unique to South Africa are malaria-free game parks such as Madikwe, and the Addo Elephant Park; and if you are thinking about a beach-and-bush safari you could combine the Hluhluwe, Umfolozi and Phinda game reserves of KwaZulu Natal with a relaxing stay beside the Indian Ocean at somewhere like Rocktail Bay Lodge. Or, better still, combine a safari in the Kruger or the Sabi Sands with a short flight across the Mozambique border and a barefoot beach lodge in the Benguerra archipelago.

South Africa, a rainbow country of diversity
Overall rating

South Africa is my home. I’ve been guiding and photographing in this amazing country for 20 years, and I don’t feel I will ever exhaust it. The depth and variety of wildlife places is staggering. There is no way you could fit it all in a single safari. You won’t see the vast open places with thousands of heads that is so mind-blowing in East Africa, but there are probably more parks and reserves in this one country than in the whole of East Africa. South Africa is your best choice for a self-drive safari. Good roads, self-catering accommodation and good value for money make it easy for those that prefer an independent holiday. I love Kruger Park with its amazing diversity of habitats and species, but for fantastic photo opportunities of the big five (including the elusive leopard), the private reserves of Sabi Sands are hard to beat. The lush Zululand parks, which offer great sightings of black and white rhino, have a very different feel. Many small parks, each with a different appeal, dot this beautiful province. One of my favourites is Mkhuze Game Reserve, where I love to spend time in one of the excellent hides waiting for animals to come and drink. A trip out to the remote desert of Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is probably not the ideal first safari, but it is a great reason to come back. Wildlife densities are lower here, but there is something magic about seeing one of the big cats walking in solitude through this stark environment. South Africa is the land of variety and it is easy to combine a safari with other attractions like beautiful mountains and beaches, vibrant city life and historical wine farms. A safari in one of the Eastern Cape’s private reserves like Shamwari or Kwandwe, is a great addition to any holiday in the Cape.

Safari in South Africa
Overall rating

In contrast to other Southern African countries, the thing that South Africa offers in safari is variety. There are a plethora of parks, and many (especially Kruger) have excellent facilities and infrastructure meaning that an organised, or self-drive, tour is easy. There is also variety in the type of park from the rocky landscapes of Augrabies, the mountains of Royal Natal, and the wetlands of Greater St Lucia, to the wilderness of Richtersveld, the wildlife-rich volcanic remnants of Pilanesberg and the enormous expanses of Kruger. And that barely scratches the surface of a country which has an enormous number of protected areas. Blessed with a great diversity of landscapes and flora, the setting is often as impressive as the range of animals in South Africa.

The fly in/out safari is very possible, especially along the border of Kruger where private camps have helicopters which go spotting, radio back to camp and guests are then ferried out in luxury vehicles to the exact location of wildlife of their choice. It doesn’t get much easier than that.

Kruger, despite the huge number of visitors is big enough to absorb them and offers great opportunity to see wildlife due to the number of animals (elephants are almost in plague proportions) and the excellent infrastructure. A small number of parks offer walking safaris and these are a great way to break the shackles and walk on the animal’s own turf.

Big 5 for Beginners
Overall rating

With excellent infrastructure, roads and transport links, good value for money, beautiful landscapes, low malaria risk and an abundance of the Big 5, South Africa is the perfect destination for first-time safari goers and self-drivers, and for those on a tighter budget or timeframe.

The famous and vast Kruger National Park, the small and family-friendly Pilanesberg (both of which can be explored without a 4x4) and the exclusive Madikwe Private Game Reserve are all teeming with big game, including a number of rarer species such as African wild dogs and black rhino, and are within an easy couple of hours drive of Johannesburg; in the Eastern Cape, you could visit a few different parks or reserves within the same day if you were so inclined. You might still have time to nip down to the coast and see sharks, seals and whales too.

The variety of different ecosystems and climate zones to be found right across South Africa is staggering. There are the pristine and unspoilt beaches of the Wild Coast, the jagged peaks of the Drakensberg mountain range, the strange and haunting semi-desert of the Karoo, the beautiful rolling hills of the wine country and Cape Town’s iconic bay presided over by Table Mountain. Each of these areas is home to its own array of interesting wildlife and birdlife, and you’ll never be far away from a few top-notch dining and accommodation options too.

South Africa’s national parks can get very busy during holiday periods and are all fenced due to the legacy of hunting and what is sometimes known as “apartheid conservation”, so I’ve never had quite had that same feeling of “real” wilderness that I have in, say, Zambia or Tanzania. But even if you’re only here for a couple of weeks your overall experience will probably be far more diverse. I’ve been here for most of the past seven years and still only seen a fraction of what this country has to offer.

Safaris for Beginners and Connoisseurs
Overall rating

South Africa's main drawcard is the accessibility and convenience of its wildlife-watching opportunities. Not only are the Big Five here, in environments from Kruger's bushveld to Pilanesberg's extinct volcano crater, but you can see them from a hire car on tarred roads. Many of South Africa's well-organised national parks also offer one-off guided drives (and walks) - great ways to pick up tracking tips. Affordability is another winning factor. With good roads generally leading to the parks' gates (and sometimes beyond), it's easy to see wildlife areas by car or a guided day trip, without having to join a long safari or procure a 4WD.

South Africa also has a greater variety of landscapes than most African countries. You can see wildlife with backdrops of Kalahari sands, Drakensberg peaks, Indian Ocean lagoons, riverine forests, baobab-studded plains and Namakwa's spring wildflowers. These diverse environments offer a broad menu of activities, from shark-cage diving to tasting grapes in the Cape Winelands, allowing you to mix safaris with other experiences. All in all, while safari buffs and survivalists will find plenty to get excited about in South Africa, it also appeals to those searching for an introduction to the joys of wildlife watching. The accommodation in the parks and reserves is similarly broad, ranging from wilderness camps to comfy chalets.

The dilemma for most visitors to South Africa is that the only opportunities to see serious wildlife around must-visit Cape Town are at small private reserves; the closest major wildlife park, Addo Elephant National Park, is 800km away. Up north, meanwhile, the veld is scattered with parks and reserves such as Kruger. This means some careful planning is needed, and perhaps an international flight to Johannesburg followed by a wildlife-watching foray and an onward flight to the Cape.

A World In One Country
Overall rating

Marketing hype is best taken with a generous pinch of salt, but a strong element of truth underlies South Africa’s favourite tourist catchphrase: a World in One Country. This is a country of immense variety, so much so that even after 25 years of regular exploration, I have a healthy ‘wish list’ of sites I’ve yet to visit. Also, as the strongest and largest economy on the continent, South Africa boasts the finest tourist facilities and best transport infrastructure anywhere in Africa, making it very easy to get around – albeit in less of a wilderness atmosphere than is associated with other parts of Africa.

The country’s top natural attraction is the Greater Kruger region, where the vast Kruger National Park is ideal for affordable DIY safaris, while abutting private reserves such as MalaMala and Singita offer perhaps the best (and the costliest) Big Five viewing on the continent, with the world’s most habituated leopards and largest concentration of rhinos being among the local specialities. Other superb outdoor destinations include the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Parks, whose desert landscapes recall Namibia, the smaller Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve, and the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where marine giants such as whales and green turtles can be seen alongside the likes of elephant and rhino.

For hikers, the green footslopes of the craggy uKhahlamba-Drakensberg – which runs for hundreds of kilometres along the Lesotho border – are known for their spectacular mountain scenery ad a peerless profusion of prehistoric rock art. Highlights of a stunning 2,500km coastline include the legendary Garden Route the whale-watching nirvana of Hermanus, and the West Coast National Park, Then there is the ‘Mother City’, lovely Cape Town, one of the world’s most alluring metropolises, nestled prettily below Table mountain, and offering easy access to the celebrated Cape Winelands and spring wildflowers of Namaqualand. And even the oft-derided city of Johannesburg, the country’s largest, is worth visiting for to see the UNESCO-certified Cradle of Humankind, which provides fascinating insight into our evolutionary past, and the chilling but unforgettable Apartheid Museum.

Excellent infrastructure and easy access to the Big Five
Overall rating

South Africa doesn’t deliver what you might imagine to be a quintessential safari experience, and you won’t see huge herds of game wandering vast, open grasslands as you might do in East Africa. The best wildlife viewing here takes place in thicker woodland, or ‘bushveld’ as the locals call it, which lacks far-reaching views and makes the animals more difficult to spot.

The jewel in the crown is Kruger National Park, where you have an excellent chance to see the Big Five and other large mammals. The country’s other parks don’t have as concentrated a population of wildlife but many outstrip Kruger for natural beauty, including the semi-desert landscapes of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, famous for its raptors, and the soft hills and floodplains of the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi game reserve, home to large groups of elephant and buffalo.

Many of South Africa's parks and reserves are family friendly and easy accessibility and good roads in several of the parks make it one of the best places in Africa for self-drive safaris.

Most of all, South Africa offers visitors the chance to combine a safari with a multitude of other wildlife watching opportunities and outdoor pursuits and enjoy cosmopolitan cities with well-developed tourist infrastructure at either end.

The Continent in a Country
Overall rating

Without a shadow of doubt, South Africa is one of the most exciting countries in the world in which to travel. This of course is no great secret and tourism here has boomed since the dark days of Apartheid came to an end some twenty years ago. The country received another massive boost in popularity after hosting the 2010 football World Cup.

Today, the country is known for so many things that it can be hard to remember that this is a Grade A safari destination. The wildlife viewing in South Africa is some of the best in Africa. Give yourself a few days in a park like Kruger and you’re almost guaranteed to see all the Big Five as well as a notebook full of less glamorous, but equally interesting animals. The tourist infrastructure here is as good as it gets in Africa. You can self-drive and DIY, be pampered in a luxury lodge in a private conservancy or set out into the nations remoter corners for a sense of adventure. However you want to travel South Africa satisfies.

And when the safari gets too much there’s thousands of kilometres of varied and largely pristine beaches where you can surf perfect waves, paddle in the shallows and dive with Great White sharks. There are blooming meadows of wild flowers in the desert, fascinating go-slow mining towns, mountain hiking, adrenaline sports a-plenty, easy living in the wine growing regions and a cauldron of peoples and ethnic groups to get too know. And if all that weren’t enough then there’s still Cape Town, which is hands down one of the most beautiful cities on this planet.

Despite all these positive vibes though there are a few minus points. Firstly, many parks and reserves have a definite lack of wilderness bush appeal. At the most popular parks in particular there can be man-made intrusions in the bush, traffic jams of safari vehicles and even nicely surfaced roads. All this can be a little off putting for those who hoped they’d be immersed in undiluted wilderness. And then there’s the crime problem. It’s nowhere near as bad as made out (and the tales of Joburg being the worlds most ‘dangerous’ city are just silly), but in bigger towns and cities it’s certainly true that you do need to keep your wits about you.

Overlooking these two points though and it’s hard to think of a country that rewards on so many levels as South Africa.

Diverse, polished safari destination
Overall rating

South Africa is a sensationally beautiful country, from its wildlife-rich bush, tropical beaches and cool cities to its rugged mountains and dusty deserts. I’ve been living in SA for three years now and it’s clear I’ll never run out of new places to visit.

For safari, it’s often the country I recommend for first-timers – mainly because in places like the Sabi Sands and the Kruger National Park, you are almost guaranteed to see the Big Five – and more – in 24 hours.

The great thing about SA is that there’s a safari park within driving distance of pretty much every tourism destination: Addo Elephant Park is at the end of the Garden Route; Hluhluwe–iMfolozi game reserve is three hours from Durban; Aquila is under two hours from Cape Town (though it has to be said, the reserves around Cape Town are the least impressive). There are more unusual safari reserves, too – Tswalu Kalahari is right in the north of the country, a huge semi-desert reserve with just one luxury lodge and a private villa, black-maned lions, wild dogs and habituated meerkats.

There’s a blend of budget and uber-luxury accommodation and loads of family-friendly lodges and malaria-free reserves. Plus, it’s easy to drive (South Africans love a road trip), which means no expensive light-aircraft flights.

It’s difficult to really feel like you’re in ‘the wild’ in SA, because it’s far more developed and densely populated than other Southern African countries. But that doesn’t make having a leopard stroll nonchalantly past your vehicle any less thrilling.

A great country for your first ever safari.
Overall rating

South Africa is a brilliant, easy introduction to Africa – a fantastic destination for your first ever safari. It is an efficient, well developed country with good tourist infrastructure, impressive service levels, and a great variety of accommodation, from budget backpacker to five-star luxury. It can be good value compared to some of the pricier safari destinations elsewhere in Africa.

The joy of South Africa is the variety of destinations on offer. The private reserves in the Greater Kruger Area offer a wonderful first safari experience, with the Big 5 almost guaranteed. Indeed, Sabi Sands is probably the best place in all of Africa to see leopard.

In addition, you have beautiful Cape Town, the glorious Winelands, the Garden Route, Drakensberg mountains and the cultural offerings of Johannesburg. So, you can easily combine very different holiday experiences. Cheap internal flights connect the major cities, so it is simple, for example to hop down to Cape Town after your safari.

From a wildlife point of view, South Africa has it all. It ticks the Big 5 check list, as there are still good populations of rhino – although of course poaching is an issue. In addition, there is a huge variety of antelope species, smaller carnivores, the most amazing array of birdlife as well as whales, dolphins and sharks. South Africa is also home to the world's richest floral kingdom, which produces dazzling displays on the west coast during “flower season” (August / September).

Crime is perceived to be a deterrent, but as a Brit who chose to move here in 2011, realistically the tourist destinations are far from the crime areas (although of course, as in any country where there are vast disparities in wealth, you have to take normal precautions).

Safari aficionados decry South Africa as perhaps being too managed and too “developed” – lacking true wilderness. However, if you want to tick off the Big 5, have close encounters with the big cats and combine wildlife with beaches, fine food and vibrant cities – South Africa is a winning combination.

Average Expert Rating

  • 4.3/5
  • Wildlife
  • Scenery
  • Bush Vibe
  • Birding

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  • 4 star 13
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