For many people, an African safari is the ultimate bucketlist trip, one they spend years fantasising about (and saving for) and therefore one that requires an extensive amount of planning to perfectly execute. After experiencing a South African safari in a number of different ways, including with a private guide in the National Park, with a luxury all-inclusive safari lodge in a private reserve, and self-driving through a National Park, I thought it might be interesting to compare and contrast these various options to give you an idea of what’s available and help you decide what appeals most to you.
Kruger National Park
What we did
We spent 2.5 days doing full day drives (430am-6pm) through Kruger in an SUV with a private guide, staying 2 nights at Satara Rest Camp, a SANPark (government owned) safari camp with basic but comfortable accommodation. There were tent pitches and a variety of thatched roof rondavels available, and the rondavels had private bathrooms, decent beds, and aircon. All the SANPark camps have a restaurant, although Satara’s was not as good as others, and a shop with some basic foods, drinks, and souvenirs. Staying in these camps is relatively inexpensive and, by virtue of being inside the Kruger gates, saves a lot of driving in the morning to reach the park and also allows you to be in the park an hour earlier than the outer gates are open to the public. The camps are spread around Kruger (and all of SA’s National Parks) and Satara is situated in a big cat area, hence our choice to stay there, but there isn’t a heap of variability between the camps in terms of accommodation quality since they are all government owned.
What we saw
We saw the entire Big Five (rhino, elephants, lions, leopards, and buffalo) while in Kruger, but the lions were quite far away so it only partially counted. We also saw a huge number of zebra, giraffe, impala, various antelope, wildebeest, birds, turtles, etc.
Staying in Kruger, your only options are the SANPark camps, and they provided a reasonably inexpensive and convenient way to see animals. Despite our private guide being rather odd, we also really appreciated her expertise in taking us to areas where there would be the most animals and that she did all of the planning, navigating, and driving so we were free to just relax and look at animals out the window. It was nice, as well, to be in an enclosed SUV with aircon on the hot days.
The accommodation certainly wasn’t as fancy as a private safari lodge, although we spent hardly any time there anyway, since we left before sunrise and came back around sunset. Most importantly, we really we weren’t able to see animals quite as close as we did while in the private reserve. Kruger doesn’t allow any off-roading and the park is huge, so the guides don’t have the same tracking ability and it definitely makes a difference.
Sabi Sands Private Game Reserve
What we did
We spent 2.5 days (2 nights) at Arathusa Safari Lodge, taking 3 hour game drives in the morning and evening in an open-air Land Cruiser with 2-4 other people also staying at the lodge. We had a ranger driving the vehicle who stayed in communication with other vehicles regarding animal sightings, as well as a tracker whose sole role was to look for, well, tracks, and to listen for tell-tale sounds that would lead us to the best animals. Staying in one of these private lodges is incredibly spendy, but everything is included: your chalet, all day open bar, amazing gourmet meals, all snacks and refreshments, the game drives, bush walks, everything. Within these private reserves, you are also permitted to go off-road and the animals have grown up seeing the safari vehicles so they know that they don’t pose and threat and will let you get incredibly close. The vehicles are completely open air, so you also feel like the experience with the animals is really personal, but they just view you as one giant animal that occasionally comes around but doesn’t bother them too much.
What we saw
We saw literally everything, all the big five and at far closer range than in Kruger. Because the animals are used to the profile shape of the vehicle, you can get within spitting range of lion prides, leopards, sleeping rhinos, and elephant without them blinking an eye, which was truly unbelievable and felt so authentic. Private reserves are really concerned about the animals— their mission is to showcase them in their natural habitat without impacting their behaviour at all, and that was definitely evident in our experience. We also saw the usual zebra, giraffe, birds, impala, etc.
The chalet we stayed in was actually the nicest place I’ve ever stayed in my life, I can’t even describe the level of luxury accurately (but I’ll try): we had a private pool on a huge decking outside that was set right in the bush, animals would routinely walk right past and our pool needed to be refilled constantly because elephants kept drinking it; beds and a bathtub that also overlooked the bush; and the main lodge had dinner seating and an infinity pool set over the watering hole where animals were always walking through.. Need I go on? The meals were incredible, the all-day drinks and wine were lovely, the staff went absolutely above and beyond, and the game drives were out of this world. Sabi Sands is small enough that rangers actually know the animals personally, so we would approach a rhino and our guide could tell us amazing details about him, like that he was a 30 year old male who no longer had a territory and was blind in one eye etc. We also loved that the 3 hour morning drive and 3 hour evening drive allowed plenty of time in the afternoon for going on a bushwalk with the ranger, relaxing in the pool, and just enjoying the scenery.
Literally the only downside was the cost, but even then it was worth it for a couple days of extreme luxury. Expect to pay $1,000 per night even at the lower end of the spectrum for private reserves, but, again, it’s an experience like no other and the price includes truly everything. I’d probably recommend something like we did, where we visited the less expensive SANParks for a few days and then spent 2 days in the private reserve— we got some variety, but also didn’t go completely broke.
Addo Elephant National Park
What we did
We self-drove in our little rental sedan through Addo for about 5 hours on a single day, navigating with the park map and just choosing our route at random. It was easy enough to find our way around, and you certainly don’t need a fancy 4×4, even though most of the roads are dirt. After our drive, we stayed at a B&B in town.
What we saw
We saw probably about a hundred elephants, a dozen warthogs, heaps of zebra, a few ostriches, surprisingly few impala, but no big cats. Certainly not the same diversity of animals as in Kruger or Sabi Sands, but we saw elephants frolicking around in the mud and swimming in water holes, which was a unique and fun experience.
We were only responsible for paying the park entrance (~$25) and for our rental car, so this is the cheapest option available for safari by far. We also really liked the independence of driving ourselves and the excitement of getting close to the animals in our own car. We were free to choose our own accommodation nearby, which meant that the cost was also entirely up to us.
I’m glad we didn’t only self-drive through the parks, as we didn’t see anywhere near as much as with the private guide or the rangers, and the driver also misses out on a lot of the experience, as they are focusing on driving and navigating the potholes. It’s great having an experienced guide to identify the various specifies for you and to chart your route based on what you really want to see, as we really just made it up as we went along.
Hopefully this post provides at least some helpful information about the different safari options in South Africa and encourages you to go visit this incredible part of the world! Any questions about our experience on safari or what I’ve written here? I’ll do my best to answer in the comments below!