Wildlife for the first time visitor to South Africa
South Africa is one of the top wildlife destinations in the world and most first time visitors have this in mind as the top “to-do” experience. The big question is to decide the best options to fit in with their itinerary. These are our suggestions.
For the first time visitor, there are 3 choices, based on time and location. You should allocate at least 3 days for this amazing experience.
If you are arriving and departing from Johannesburg, then a trip to the Kruger Park in Mpumalanga is a must. Although not malaria free, Kruger Park is the flagship of the wildlife on offer in South Africa and has some excellent, affordable self-catering options as well as luxury accommodation. The rest camps all have restaurants, should you wish not to self-cater and shops for basic supplies.
There are also many private wildlife concessions that operate around the Kruger Park, offering a range of luxury options. These concessions have no fences between them and the park and animals roam freely between them. If you are short of time, then fly from the Oliver Tambo airport in Johannesburg to Nelspruit, and hire a vehicle. If you have an extra day, then drive the Panorama Route either from Johannesburg or from Nelspruit.
If you are in Johannesburg or Pretoria, and are very short of time, then the Pilansberg National Park is a great choice. This smaller park has the big 5, all free roaming, and plenty of other mammals as well. It is only 2.5 hours from Johannesburg, and is very close to Sun City with all its entertainment.
If you have just completed the Garden Route, and especially if you are short of time, then visit the game parks in the Eastern Cape around Port Elizabeth. The Eastern Cape nature reserves also have the advantage of being malaria free. You will certainly see the big 5 and maybe even the big 6 when the whales are visiting.
The Kruger National Park covers nearly 2 million hectares and is unrivalled in its diversity of nature. It is a world leader in advanced environmental management techniques and policies. The world-renowned Kruger National Park offers a wildlife experience that ranks with the best in Africa. Kruger is home to an impressive number of species: 336 trees, 49 fish, 34 amphibians, 114 reptiles, 507 birds and 147 mammals.
It is very easy to self drive the park. The road network is excellent, and maps are available. Speak to the camp managers and find out what has been seen and the best routes to take for the day. You can also arrange a night drive from the rest camps, to see the nocturnal inhabitants of the park.
The slightly cooler southern section of the park, accessed through the Malelane Gate, offers the excellent Berg en Dal Camp. The northern section of the park is much hotter, and the Pafuri Camp is known for its birdlife.
It does not really matter which camp you stay in, but you should study the map as the speed limit of 40 km makes travel much slower than expected. For a shorter trip, stay in one or two camps only. The Park is over 400 km from north to south and with all the roads criss crossing, we are talking thousands of km. In our experience, Kruger has always been a great wildlife experience and is really easy for a complete novice to navigate.
The park has a number of accommodation options for the tourist from chalets in all the rest camps to private lodges and camping. The rest camp restaurants offer meals and basics in food, wood and ice.
See the Kruger Park website for details.
Sabi Sands Private Game Reserve
The Sabi Sands Game Reserve is perhaps the most exclusive private game reserve in South Africa. The experience at Sabi Sands is like none other: 65 000 ha of unrestricted lowveld bush with prime game-viewing opportunities, coupled with some of South Africa’s most celebrated private game lodges to make your stay one of the most memorable you’re likely to have. Animals in Kruger Park and Sabi Sands are free to roam between the reserves.
There are more than ten private game lodges within the Sabi Sands Game Reserve. Each one offers something unique and special to the visitor, but most of all, they all offer an excellent opportunity to get up close and personal with Africa’s famous big-five. The reserve is well known for being one of Africa’s best leopard conservancies, and offers you that once in a lifetime chance to see the majestic cat in its natural habitat.
Sabi Sands has private landing strips which can be reached directly from Oliver Tambo airport and is also close to the Skukuza airport. For those travelling by road, there are three entry gates into the Sabi Sand Reserve – Shaws Gate, Newington Gate and Gowrie Gate. Please note, Shaws Gate and Newington Gate are a five-and-a- half hour drive from Johannesburg. Gowrie Gate is a seven hour drive from Johannesburg.
For all the information on the reserve and its lodges, see the website.
Once you arrive in Nelspruit, and you have the time, you can first drive the Panorama Route, where you will be enthralled with the scenery that is completely different from the Cape and Garden Route.
Expect waterfalls, gorges, potholes, passes, forests, historic towns and much more. Places like God’s Window, Pilgrims Rest and Long Tom Pass have given tourists wonderful memories of this part of the country.
Along this route, you will be able to exit to any of the nearby Kruger entrance gates (indicated by blue dots on the map).
Below is a detailed map of the route, and you can also read this detailed route description.
Find out everything about Nelspruit and the area on ShowMe Nelspruit.
The Pilanesberg National Park is one of the largest game reserves in South Africa at 55000 ha. It is situated in an ancient volcano crater – which it shares with the Sun City Casino and Hotel Resort and the Palace of the Lost City and is within easy driving distance from Johannesburg, only 170 km away.
The reserve features the Big 5 – elephant, buffalo, lion, leopard and rhino, but it is also home to almost every mammal species found in Southern Africa. See what bird species can be found in the Pilanesberg area.
A private concessionary company, Game Tracker Adventures, offers game drives, hot-air balloon and elephant back safaris in the Park.
There are several lodges and resorts in and around the perimeter of the reserve, and then there is also Sun City!
Getting there: From JHB take the R511 to Hartbeespoort Dam, continuing through the tunnel under the dam. Head west in the direction of Rustenburg, turning off right onto the R556 just outside of Hartbeespoort which will take you to the reserve. For more info, visit the website.
The Eastern Cape has steadily built up a reputation of being an excellent wildlife experience – all within easy reach of Port Elizabeth. For those driving the Garden Route, and wanting to spend more time with wildlife, rather than travelling, the area is a clever choice.
There are 5 reserves within 149 km of Port Elizabeth offering choices from the more affordable to 5 star luxury. There is little over 32 km between the Addo Elephant Park, Shamwari and Lalibela! Kwandwe takes one through historic Grahamstown, host for 2 weeks in June/July to the biggest culture festival in S.A. Kariega is in the pretty coastal area of Kenton on Sea.
Addo Elephant National Park
Conveniently close to Port Elizabeth, Addo Elephant National Park offers the most affordable wildlife viewing in the Eastern Cape and is the only park in the world that’s home to the Big Seven.
The Addo Elephant Park started life as a project to save the last of the elephant population in this region and has continued to grow, now incorporating over 180 000 ha from the semi-desert Karoo in the north around Darlington Dam, over the rugged Zuurberg Mountains, through the Sundays River Valley to the coast between the Sundays River mouth and Bushman’s river mouth to become the third largest park in South Africa.
This wildlife sanctuary, in a malaria free area, protects five biomes and all of the Big Seven – lion, rhino, elephant, buffalo, leopard, southern right whales and the great white shark as well as many other species like hyena, zebra and a wide variety of antelope and smaller animals.
Driving around the park is very rewarding – the elephant are best seen from mid morning when they come out of the bush to cool down around the dams, especially at Hapoor Dam, where you can spend hours watching their antics.
Other activities in the Park
- Horse riding, either in the area with big game or in the scenic Zuurberg region
- A network of hiking trails, including the Alexandria Hiking Trail, a 36 km, two-day circular trail, and a number of other trails
- The 45km Bedrogfontein 4 x 4 trail between Kabouga and Darlington areas of the park with breathtaking views and rock art paintings – the route is only suitable for vehicles with 4×4 and low range facilities
- Bird watching at the SASOL Red Bishop Bird Hide which is located opposite the waterhole in the main rest camp, offering watchers a view of red bishops, weavers, herons, coots and terrapins. The main game area boasts a list of 170 bird species, while the expanded park may contain as many as 450 species in a diversity of habitats
- The PPC Discovery Trail is a short walk through the valley thicket where you can learn more about the plants and animals of this region. The first loop is suitable for visually-impaired and wheelchair-bound visitors; a picnic and braai area is situated near the waterhole in the main camp. The waterhole is floodlit at night.
The gate at the southern end of the park is only 56 km from Port Elizabeth and the northern gate is 156 km from Port Elizabeth. The road network is excellent and sedans can easily drive them.
If you are short of time, this is a wonderful day trip, with spectacular scenery and offering so much to do and see. Be sure to leave early so you can get to the dams not later than 11h00. It is advisable to pack a picnic as there are numerous picnic spots in the park. Maps of the various roads through the park are available at reception.
Addo is also ideal as a 1 day visit en route to Shamwari, Lalibela and Kwandwe further north.
Take the N2 travelling towards Grahamstown and then take the R335/Motherwell/Markman exit/offramp. Turn left onto the R335 and travel for about 40kms through the town of Addo and then another 15kms to the entrance to the park or take the R342 off the N2 (after 58 kms) and drive to Patterson.
Shamwari Private Game Reserve
Shamwari, only 74 km from Port Elizabeth, is a beautiful 25 000 ha game reserve and is easily one of the most recognisable game reserve names thanks to a seemingly steady stream of royalty and celebrity visitors over the years. Shamwari’s reputation as a superb game reserve and luxury destination precedes it, and the numerous annual awards the reserve has won over the years give it an edge few others can compete with.
Shamwari has it all – it teems with game and birds and the Big 5 are back. Where silence once reigned, the roar of lion again disturbs the night, and herds of elephant once again roam the interior of the Eastern Cape on Shamwari among other reserves.
Activities on Shamwari include game drives, guided walks and ‘relaxation retreats’ at four of the seven lodges.
There are seven 5-star graded lodges on Shamwari, each distinct in style and offering unique safari lodge experiences and atmospheres. Weddings, events and conferences are catered for, and Shamwari is a very popular wedding destination. For more info and bookings visit the Website.
Getting there: Take the N2 from Port Elizabeth to Grahamstown, turn left on to the R342 after 58km. Shamwari is a further 14km. Follow the signs.
Lalibela Private Game Reserve
Lalibela Game Reserve an excellent choice for a Big 5 game experience in a malaria free environment for anyone travelling the famous Garden Route. Only 90 km and 1 hour’s drive on the N2 between Port Elizabeth and Grahamstown, the 7,500 ha reserve is made up of valley bushveld, savannah grassland, fynbos, riverine forest and acacia woodland, all coming together to make Lalibela the ideal home for the Big 5 in Southern Africa. All the animals, including the predators, roam freely throughout the entire reserve.
Game drives in an open vehicle with an experienced game ranger bring you face to face with a multitude of game species, from the two lion prides, the mighty elephant, rhino and buffalo to tiny blue duiker and rock hyrax. Lalibela is also home to cheetah, hyena, hippo, giraffe, zebra, warthog and numerous species of antelope, such as eland, kudu, bushbuck and wildebeest. On thrilling night drives under the vast African sky, rangers search for the elusive bat-eared fox, aardvark, black-backed jackal, aardwolf and the curious spring hare.
Have you dreamed of a bush wedding? Lalibela have made it easy with their wedding package, tailor made to your desires, for an unforgettable day.
Check out time at Lalibela allows for guests to fly out of PE and connect with international flights from either Cape Town or Johannesburg, which depart in the evenings.
Transfers can be arranged between Port Elizabeth Airport & hotels and Lalibela. See our Website.
Lalibela is 90km from the Port Elizabeth Airport and the drive takes about 1 hour: Take the N2 highway out of Port Elizabeth in the direction of Grahamstown. After about 51 km you will come to a large “spaghetti” junction. Follow the signs for N2 Grahamstown. Drive along the N2 until you cross the Bushman’s River. Exactly 13 km later you will see the large Lalibela sign on your left hand side.
Kwandwe Private Game Reserve
Kwandwe Private Game Reserve is a malaria-free Big 5 luxury game reserve situated just north of Grahamstown and 149 km from Port Elizabeth, in the Eastern Cape interior – also known as Frontier Country.
Besides the standard game drives common to all game reserves, Kwandwe offers a number of ‘Specialist Safaris’. These include ‘Frontiers at Kwandwe’, ‘Carnivore Research at Kwandwe’, photographic safaris and ‘Rhino Capture and Research’. The lush bush on the Reserve and the Great Fish River also make it a bird-watcher’s paradise with many diverse species to be seen from the Blue Crane to Fish Eagles and many bush species.
Animals that can be seen include the Big 5 – Elephant, Rhino, Buffalo, Lion and Leopard – as well as Cheetah, Kudu, Springbok, Eland, Red Hartebeest, Giraffe, Black wildebeest and Gemsbok to name but a few of the many species found on the densely populated Reserve.
Accommodations are luxurious and Kwandwe is a member of Chateau and Relais. A particularly luxurious options is a sole-use private villa with own ranger/host, butler, chef, tracker and 4X4 vehicle – for those who want things strictly private. There is also a landing strip on Kwandwe. Visit the Website for details.
Getting there: From Grahamstown take the R400 north-west, turning right on to the R344 after 15km. Kwandwe is a further 16kms – follow the signs.
Kariega Private Game Reserve
Kariega Game Reserve is a malaria free Big 5 game reserve in the Eastern Province of South Africa. It is just 10 minutes off the beautiful garden route coastline, near Kenton on Sea, 140 km north of Port Elizabeth or a mere 45 km south of Grahamstown.
Kariega is a family-owned and operated private game reserve stretching across 9,000 hectares of pristine wilderness, and is home to some of the richest biodiversity in southern Africa, as well as the picturesque Kariega and Bushman’s Rivers.
Incorporating luxury safari lodge accommodation, spectacular vistas and magnificent Big 5 game viewing, Kariega Game Reserve offers the ultimate in authentic African safari holidays.
Experience close up viewing of the Big 5 – lion, elephant, rhino, leopard and buffalo – as well as multitudes of other African wildlife from the comfort of an open game drive vehicle, or take in the unique eco-systems of the rivers during a tranquil boat cruise.
Kariega is on the R343 accessed from the R72 between Port Elizabeth and East London or from the N2 between Port Elizabeth and Grahamstown. Website.