Expert Reviews – South Africa

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Where Big Five safaris are big business, there’s a wealth of choice
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Glorious images of elephants, rhinos, lions, leopards and buffalo parading through pristine bush are central to South Africa’s popular image. So it comes as a surprise to some first-time visitors that, in reality, the proportion of this complex nation given over to national parks and reserves is rather small compared to other parts of southern and East Africa safari belt.

Of the pockets of protected bushland dotted along South Africa’s Indian Ocean coastline and in the region between Johannesburg and Gaborone, many are small, with carefully stocked and managed wildlife populations. While these offer rewarding wildlife-watching, they lack some of the atmosphere and cachet of a true wilderness. I have to admit that some South African game drives can feel a bit like bus trips and the hotel-style accommodation found in some parks and reserves just feels commercial and tame. Kruger National Park, South Africa’s flagship conservation area, is gigantic, and I love it for its wild, sprawling landscapes roamed by masses of animals and birds. But parts of Kruger are so popular that some write it off as a traffic jam zone.

I’m happy to put these reservations aside, because where South Africa really wins is in the quality of its infrastructure. Most of its parks and reserves are easily and efficiently accessible by air, road or both. Some are geared up for self-drive visitors, others require you to book into a lodge and use its facilities, but they’re all good at what they do. If you’re looking for a luxury wilderness camping safari, you may prefer Botswana, Zambia or Tanzania. But if you’re in the market for a luxury lodge-based safari, with expert, conservation-savvy guides, superb cuisine and chic surroundings, South Africa can certainly deliver. It’s home to some of the most comfortable and attractive lodges I’ve ever seen.

South Africa – southern star
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I’ve been in and out of South Africa regularly since I was five years old. The more I visit this huge complicated country, the more passionately I come to love it. It isn’t perfect – nowhere is – but in many ways it comes close, as a wildlife destination as in other ways. Clipping off the tail end of Africa, from east coast to the west, it has an astonishing array of geology and flora, creating one of the richest wildlife habitats on the planet. Land soars from sea level up through the lowveld, climbs the escarpment at the end of Africa’s Great Rift Valley to the heights of the Drakensberg mountains, passing rolling highveld savannah and the Kalahari Desert en route. There are baobabs and cloud forests filled with cycads, deserts that burst into bloom in spring, and strange bulbous succulent halfmen march across the rocky slopes. The Western Cape is a global floral kingdom all on its own.
The country has 299 species of mammal and around 850 species of bird, of which around 50 are endemic – found only in South Africa. Headlined by Kruger National Park, there are numerous national and private parks, from Hluhluwe-Umfolozi to Addo or Pilanesberg and Madikwe that provide magnificent, world-class gameviewing. And the largesse continues offshore. There are coral reefs in the sub-tropical waters of northern KwaZulu-Natal while whales breed in the chillier seas off the Cape Peninsula to the south. Between the two, the annual sardine run spawns a fishy wildlife spectacle to rival the Serengeti’s great wildebeest migration.

There are a couple of negatives so let’s deal with them first. You won’t see chimpanzees and gorillas in the wild. And if you are really going for the rough, tough bush experience you may find South Africa a little too civilized. But those, truthfully, are the only negatives I can think of. Some people may be put off by the negative press on South African crime but they are wrong. You need to be careful, but most people in the country are welcoming and friendly.

On the positive side, not only is this a stunning country scenically, with huge variety and glorious wildlife, but it has the best transport and tourism infrastructure in Africa, and the quality of the lodges and tour operators are some of the best in the world. Prices vary hugely but it is also one of the few places left in Africa where it is possible to do a safari on a budget with really good self-drive options, plenty of very affordable self-catering and camping, or cheaper hotels and b&bs near the park boundaries. Park fees are currently also nowhere near the levels of those in Kenya and Tanzania. The final massive plus is that there are a number of superb Big Five reserves in malaria-free areas, cutting out the need for pills with nasty side effects.

A world in one country
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South Africa’s astounding array of landscapes – from semi-desert to savanna and snow-capped mountain to coral reef – means it offers a greater variety of wildlife experience than any other African country. There are surely few other places where, for example, you can see hippo, leopard and humpback whale within a single day – as I have done at Cape Vidal, on the Zululand coast.
At the same time, however, South Africa bears a greater human imprint than any other safari destination, with many of its wilderness areas having been severely reduced or heavily modified by development, and those that remain now under careful management. This can make a safari feel tamer than in less developed countries to the north. The Kruger, South Africa’s flagship national park, is a case in point: its undeniably superb wildlife experience is, for many, spoiled by its tar roads, boundary fences and souvenir shops.

The well-developed infrastructure is great news for the independent traveller, though, who can use the excellent tourist facilities and transport network to chart an inexpensive self-drive course around the country. And there are many remote corners of the country, from the Richtersveld or Kalagadi Transfrontier Park, where you can find yourself almost completely alone. Those in search of top-end safari pampering, meanwhile, will find exclusive retreats that compete with any in Africa for style, comfort and guiding.

Furthermore, while the likes of the Kruger offer classic big-game country, South Africa is about much more than just the Big Five. Among my most memorable African wildlife experiences have been watching lammergeyers on the thermals of the Drakensberg and loggerhead turtles on the beaches of Kosi Bay. Some of the country’s smallest parks are among its most rewarding.

A final plus, especially for families: South Africa is the only safari destination that offers a malaria-free Big Five experience – although not in the Kruger.

South Africa is rightly celebrated for its magnificent natural beauty and excellent choice of parks
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South Africa has a wonderful range of landscapes, a near-perfect climate, and the choice of destinations, activities and itineraries is virtually inexhaustible. Aside from its beautiful coastline and cosmopolitan cities – both of which I think should be a mandatory addition to any South African safari – the country is home to just about every African animal imaginable in a staggering variety of habitats. There are more than 20 formal parks managed by South African National Parks; countless game and nature reserves run by regional conservation bodies; and dozens of privately-run game reserves, which now feature in every province and have been instrumental in restocking game that once occurred naturally across South Africa. In almost all, knowledgeable guides will take you on game-drives and walking or night safaris, some offer activities like cycling or canoeing, while others have opportunities for close encounters with animals such as elephant or cheetah.

The benefit of living in South Africa as I do is that I can visit these places leisurely and thoroughly; maybe just a couple on one trip and with a few days in each to fully appreciate what they have to offer. The overseas visitor doesn’t always have that luxury of time, and the vast choice of where to go is bewildering. It’s no surprise that Kruger and its neighbouring private reserves are so popular; easy to get there, virtually guaranteed wildlife sightings, and a superb choice of accommodation. But there are numerous other parks and reserves that also fit this bill, while others have particularly unique environments, rarer or more unusual species, are better known for birds or trees, or feature other things to do, or absolutely nothing to do depending on your preference, then the usual racing around in a vehicle looking for the Big Five. It’s not a case of South Africa meeting your expectations as a safari destination – it will do that – but I would advise careful planning for a safari that exactly suits.

An array of animals
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Of all the African countries people visit on safari trips, South Africa is probably the easiest to travel around. Infrastructure is excellent, accommodation for every budget is abundant and wildlife-watching opportunities stretch far beyond the Big Five. Elephant lion, leopard, rhino and buffalo are present, of course, and can be viewed in numerous parks including Addo, Pilanesberg, Hluhluwe-iMfolozi and Kruger. As with every aspect of visiting South Africa though, the best thing for animal lovers is the sheer diversity. Whether you're seeking ultra-luxurious lodges, a rough-and-ready camping experience or anything in between, you'll find it available somewhere. Self-drive safaris abound, but everywhere that you find the option to seek out animals on your own, you'll also find guided drives on offer. And for those looking for something different to the usual safari photos, there are whales, sharks, seals and turtles off-shore, raptors to be found in the skies and in the Western Cape, even a couple of penguin colonies to admire. It was in South Africa that I saw my first rhino, that I witnessed the adorable sight of an infant elephant trying to trumpet us away, that I watched meerkats playing in the dust and that I saw a zebra chase a hyena through the undergrowth. For these – and so many other reasons – I chose to make South Africa my home.

South Africa: World-class Safaris
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South Africa is one of my favourite places to go on safari, with all the necessary ingredients for a wildlife experience that will begin your enduring love affair with the continent.

Primary among these ingredients is the wildlife. Nowhere else in Africa is it easier to see (and draw near to) the continent’s charismatic mega-fauna – if you don’t see elephant, lion, leopard, cheetah, buffalo, giraffe, rhino and zebra on safari in South Africa, you’re either extremely unlucky or you picked the wrong corner of the country to visit. On a recent three-week visit, I saw more than 60 lions, 54 rhinos, nearly 10 leopards and the same number of wild dogs. And I wasn’t even on safari every day.

Another essential ingredient for a memorable safari is the beauty of the landscapes you’ll encounter. From the Wild Coast to the endless horizons of the Kalahari and the Karoo, with a detour to the high peaks of the Drakensberg en route, South Africa is staggeringly beautiful. There is classic African terrain of bushveld and thorny woodlands, the red-rock fortresses of the Waterberg, the beautiful drama of Table Mountain, the sand dunes of Kgalagadi, the great rivers and converging international frontiers of Mapungubwe.

Perhaps just as importantly, South Africa makes the safari easy. The infrastructure here is first-rate, from world-class lodges, exclusive and extravagant, to park-run rest camps replete with campgrounds, bungalows and restaurants. Guided walks, wildlife drives, night drives, 4WD wilderness trails and all manner of other activities are all designed to get you out into the African wild, to get up close and personal with its wildlife, and to learn from expert guides along the way.

There may be moments when you long for a wilderness experience more easily found in Namibia, Tanzania or Botswana. But if this is your first time on safari, South Africa might just be the best of them all.

Average Expert Rating

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

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