Best Safaris in South Africa: Our Complete Guide
Safaris in South Africa are an all-time bucket list classic. It boasts incredible opportunities to see wildlife and allows safari-goers the chance to immerse themselves in a diverse wilderness.
It’s no surprise that you’ll find some of the world’s best safaris in South Africa. This extraordinary country has built up a well-established industry thanks to its captivating wildlife and enthralling scenery. For many years, the country’s safari parks and game reserves have been the pride of the nation.
Now they are scattered with the finest luxury lodges, carefully integrated into the landscape and designed to conserve the wildlife around them. This magical combination is what makes a safari in South Africa a great destination for a family adventure, unforgettable honeymoon, or multi-generational vacation.
The abundance and variation of wildlife in the private game reserves and national parks are the stuff that safari dreams are made of. While each of South Africa’s safari parks has something different to offer, you will find the Big Five in all of them. See lions, elephants, rhinos, buffalos, and leopards on walking, horseback, or driving safaris, by day and night.
Besides game drives, you will also have opportunities for:
- Rich bird-watching experiences
- Photography safaris
- Conservation initiatives
- Cook-outs (Braai) in the bush
- Sleeping under the stars
- History lessons
- Cave exploring
And many many more adventures for every age group!
When’s The Best Time to Go on Safari in South Africa?
The best time for a safari in South Africa is during its winter months, from June to September. This is when the game reserves and safari parks are drier, and the animals will concentrate around water sources making them easier to spot in the shorter vegetation. The cooler weather also makes for a more pleasant game drive experience. Although keep in mind South Africa's winter temperatures still hover between 70 and 80 degrees.
The only exception to this rule is for safaris on the Eastern Cape, which has a slightly different weather pattern. In the summer months (November, December, and January), the Eastern Cape has less rain than other parts of South Africa so is less humid. The summer is also a great time to visit Cape Town and The Winelands if you would like to combine them into your South Africa safari tour.
Top Tip: South Africa is in the southern hemisphere, so their seasons are opposite to ours in the US. Keep this in mind when booking your trip so you don’t safari during their hottest months! But don’t worry, here at Scott Dunn, we keep it in mind for you.
The Best Safaris in The South African Wilds
Safaris are plentiful in this region, but which one (or two) should you choose? Here are our 5 best safari recommendations that you’re sure to love!
Our African Destination Manager, Harriet Whitmarsh, has shared her 5 top South African safari vacation destinations so you can decide which experience will fulfil your wildest safari dreams.
Safari in Kruger
Kruger National Park is consistently voted one of the places to go for the best safari in South Africa – especially for your first safari adventure. At 7,720 square miles, the vast wilderness is the size of a small country and it’s the oldest and largest safari park in South Africa.
Its size and expanse allow animals to follow ancient migration routes between South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique. And, although Kruger National Park is government-owned, it borders a selection of private game reserves, which the animals move freely between providing excellent game viewing opportunities.
Beyond the Big Five, you will find 130 different mammal species, more than 500 bird species, and hundreds of different types of flora and fauna. The density and variety of animals there provide an archetypal safari experience year-round, but the best time for safari in the Kruger is between June and September.
This is when the weather is drier and animals tend to seek out watering holes, making them easier to find and offering a more intense viewing experience. Our Africa and Safari Specialist Rachel McGuire was greeted at her private game lodge by 25 thirsty elephants having a drink when she recently visited the Kruger! This is nature at its fullest.
The Kruger is also about luxury, offering up some of the best private game lodges in South Africa. Although they are the height of luxury, they are also relaxingly casual. You don’t need to worry about airs and graces or dressing up for dinner.
Itineraries to Kruger National Park and around:
- Exceptional South Africa & Mozambique
- Extraordinary South Africa
- Epic South Africa
- Limitless South Africa and Antarctica
Safari in Eastern Cape
Its proximity to Cape Town and the Garden Route makes adding the Eastern Cape to your South Africa safari tour a no-brainer, plus its malaria-free. The landscape is very different from the Kruger, as its much greener and defined by Karoo vegetation, varied succulents, and low scrub bushes. Private game reserves are remote and luxurious, with rivers and watering holes acting as a honeypot for the wildlife and providing excellent viewing opportunities. In the Eastern Cape, you can spot the Big Five on game drives, river cruises, walking safaris, and even on horseback.
Because of its coastal location, this area has a slightly different climate from other safari destinations. The winter months, from June to August, are still the best time of year for South African safari in general, but the Eastern Cape in the summer (November to January) isn’t as humid as other parts of the country. So, if you’re combining a safari with a stay in Cape Town, then South Africa’s summer is a great time to soak it all up.
Safari in Madikwe and Northwest
Just a hop, skip, and short flight from Johannesburg and you’ll find yourself in malaria-free Madikwe – another ideal place to experience the best safari in South Africa. Madikwe is one of South Africa’s least-known game reserves and is somewhat of a hidden treasure.
Sitting just outside the Kalahari, close to the Botswana border, the 290 square mile Madikwe Private Game Reserve is home to a thrilling mix of familiar faces – the Big Five, impala, zebras, giraffes, and more – and rarer encounters with the likes of the African wild dog and cape vulture. The landscape packs a serious punch too, bringing together clay-thorn bushveld, savannah grassland, and riverine forest showing the real wonders of the African landscape in one place.
Because Madikwe is a private reserve, not only are there no day-tripper crowds but your guide can drive off-road for up-close animal sightings and take you on exhilarating night drives. Hosting some of the best safaris in Southern Africa for families, many of the lodges offer customized activities for children that include treasure hunts, animal tracking, and bug hunting – they’ll really get the chance to feel like a mini ranger.
Also in the northwest of the country, you’ll find Marakele National Park – home to the largest colonies of the cape vulture, along with lion, rhino, buffalo, and elephant. This is another epic landscape that lends itself to boat cruises, hiking, and many wildlife conservation programs.
Safari in Kalahari
Perched on the edge of the monumental Kalahari Desert, The Kalahari Gemsbok National Park is a vast land of rolling yellow grass dunes and basins of ancient rivers, framed by the famous red Kalahari savannahs. This region is best known for its black-maned lions, but its wildlife is bountiful and you’re also likely to experience the endangered pangolin and black rhino, as well as colonies of meerkats.
The park was initially set up in the 1930s to protect the animals from poachers. Now it maintains a wide array of animals, preserving the habitat by restricting the number of vehicles in each reserve at a time.
This is the place to choose for a seriously exclusive safari experience and is popular amongst some of our most discerning clientele. It’s also an excellent destination to choose if you want to explore multiple South African safari parks; the unusual animals offer something a bit distinctive to the Kruger, Madikwe, or Eastern Cape game reserves. Activities in the Kalahari are just as extraordinary, with private helicopter rides over the plains and star gazing in the remote wilderness being up there among the best.
Itineraries to The Kalahari Reserve:
As far as a luxury safari in South Africa goes, it doesn’t get much more exciting than KwaZulu-Natal. Set on the dramatic Elephant Coast, it stretches from the striking turquoise Indian Ocean in the southeast to the majestic Drakensberg Mountains in the northwest. Aside from some of the best safari in South Africa, where you can see the Big Five, there are many other amazing areas to discover.
The Drakensburg Mountains can be explored by foot, horseback, or helicopter. There are battlefields, which are steeped with history, where stories of Zulu and Boer legends are told. Plus, the nearby beaches offer turtle nesting adventures and scuba diving ocean safaris. KwaZulu-Natal is also famous for having some of the best land-based whale watching in the world – a unique experience that leaves wildlife untouched by passing boats.