Who knew that when I sat down to put together a vision board of my life visions that included a picture portraying “safari in Africa” that 2 weeks later I would actually win tickets for the best safari in South Africa?! Sometimes dreams can become reality with the blink of an eye before we even dare to realize it. So, I surprised my friend and off we were to our very own ranger adventure! In the air we could already hear Pumba calling us!
How to plan the best Safari in South Africa?
Although this has been my dream for such a long time, the planning of this trip was everything else but ‘dreamy’. I hope this guide can provide you with a good overview as we couldn’t quite find a single helpful guide when putting together our trip. The first crucial point is the following. Despite of what everyone is saying, for the best safari in South Africa I would always recommend to do a combination of both: Kruger National Park & a private Game Reserve. Private Game Reserves are (HUGE!) private parks that keep the animals safe and allow for authentic encounters in their natural habitat.
Our entire trip turned out to be THE perfectly planned itinerary:
Arrival Day: 1 Night in Pretoria in a gorgeous AirBnB for some local vibes
3 Nights: Welgevonden Game Reserve
2 Nights: Blyde River Canyon
4 Nights: Kruger National Park
1 Night: Klaserie Private Game Reserve
1 Night: Ermelo (the route Kruger to Durban is too far to do it in one day)
3 Nights: Durban/Scottburgh
But, how to?
Well, that’s a good question. The two blonde German Girls thought ‘Well, we’ll rent a car and then lets make that road trip reality’. We had no idea what we were in for. Several locals reacted with ‘Oh you guys are driving by yourself? Just the two of you? Wow, you’re brave!’. Hmm at some stage that got us thinking. And yes, by that time it was already too late. So, we had to make the best of it. I have traveled the globe, often just by myself. But, I have never been this scared in my entire life. ZA is a beautiful country but also a dangerous country. So, when planning a road trip in ZA remember you’re not in Europe! In case your car breaks down you might actually get in real trouble. So, choose your rental company wisely and don’t save on money on the wrong end.
Besides that, enjoy! No seriously, it sounds so twisted but that’s what ZA is all about. It’s gorgeous but you always gotta be aware of where you are and what’s happening around you. Most people seem to fly close to Kruger and only do the Safari there. Since we drove all the way from Welgevonden which is north of Johannesburg we got to experience the real local vibes. The landscape had us in awe from the first moment we got to experience the true beauty of this country. Driving for thousands of km throughout our entire road trip we expected dry land and ‘endless savannah’ impressions. But, what we got instead was the beauty of palm trees and vineyards that reminded us of Tuscany rather than what we would have expected in South Africa…sheer beauty!!! I’d always recommend to do a proper road trip, you’ll be missing out otherwise!
Private Game Reserve
There’s tons of different Private Game Reserves out there. For the best safari in South Africa though I cannot recommend ‘Welgevonden Game Reserve’ enough. It’s a very hilly reserve which makes it extremely unique. Beautiful morning & sunset Game drives, secluded areas with only private ranger drives, and seeing all Big 5 within the first two days. Do I even need to say more? In the private parks you’re even allowed to get out of the car. So, get ready for sipping your morning coffee in the endless savannah while your ranger says “drink up, the lion we saw earlier is headed our way”. And, get lost in endless sundowner moments standing in the soft grass with a panoramic view of elephants, zebras, warthogs who all seem to be gathering with their friends to head to the ceremony where Rafiki is about to hold Simba over the edge of the cliff.
While Safari packages in general are very expensive I can totally recommend the one from Clifftop Exclusive Safari Hideaway. I have never experiences such a warm welcome, the huts are out of this world and the entire experience mind-blowing. The package price includes everything your heart desires, all activities, services and meals. And the chéf is a god. I cannot even put in words how wonderful his daily dish creations were. The overall experience of this place completely blew us away. Just trust me on this!!!
Kruger National Park
And of course, then there is Kruger. I cannot speak for the other National Parks. But if you asked me ‘Is Kruger worth it?’ I’d say ‘Every. Part. Of. The. Way.’. While I have to admit that our true heart-felt moments happened in Welgevonden Game Reserve I wouldn’t have missed Kruger in the world. You will have to do both since they simply cannot compare and perfectly complement each other. While the private reserves mainly offer organized ranger drives, we did Kruger self-driving. What, you can do that? Yes, you can…and it’s a hell lot of fun! Well, probably not when you’re once again close to an elephant and worried that he might crush you. But hey, what did you expect from wildlife, it’s not Disney Land.
In Kruger, on our first day, two young Simbas already walked right next to our car. Countless Pumbas were our companions every step of the way. What else is so special about Kruger? The acres over acres of land, for sure! And the number of animals. Another 10 giraffes, another Pumba family of 6, another elephant herd of 30. It’s insane and one of the most beautiful sights I ever got the honor of experiencing. The sad part: the beauty of nature is starting to feel like home very quickly so once you have to leave again it’s a true pain to actually say good-bye to all the animals again! And after this experience I am honestly torn inside if I can actually ever go to a normal zoo again! Nothing can compare to experiencing these majestic creatures in their true home where they belong!
Where do I sleep in Kruger?
As for accommodation, the way Kruger works is that you can book nights in the numerous camps they have all over the park. You want to make sure though that you book nights in nice camps. In Addition to all the off-road paths there are some proper streets connecting the main camps. We made great experiences with Crocodile’s Bridge Camp where we slept in a tent. It’s actually a great start to your entire Kruger Tour as the camp is right at one of the Kruger Gates which gives you a nice transition time if you still need to organize some things ‘in town’ with ‘available WIFI’. It came in handy for us as we desperately needed to organize another accommodation during that time.
As for the other camps, I cannot speak for all of them but we also stayed at Olifants. Driving Crocodiles to Olifants in one day is doable. Always keep in mind the speed limit and gate closing times when planning for distances in Kruger! While the location of Olifants is breathtaking we didn’t quite enjoy our stay at all, the huts are really worn down and smelly. We visited a couple of camps that I can recommend instead: Letaba Camp is a secluded camp with a nice view so you should check that one out. And yes, the SAN Parks Website is a pain but there’s no other way to book the camps so just get it over with quickly.
Negative experiences under the starry sky
After experiencing Kruger we stayed one more night at Klaserie Private Game Reserve located right next to Kruger National Park. We ended there primarily due to an accommodation we were very much looking forward to. A unique un-fenced and secluded camp in the wild for the big finale of our Best Safari in South Africa Experience. And while it was a truly magical experience I cannot recommend it from the heart…sadly. The camp itself was stunning, our last sundowner safari under the most beautiful starry sky was stunning, the overall experience though unfortunately wasn’t. The place got full 5 star ratings but I cannot ignore the things I have experienced.
If you pay a Sh*t load of money (which you very much will for every kind of safari stay) you expect a certain standard. The moment we arrived and for the duration of our stay we didn’t feel welcome at all. The food was below average (we had better food at AirBnBs for not even 1/10 of the money). The staff unfortunately was very closed off, distant and somewhat unfriendly. And the grand shocking finale: while the ranger shared a lot of wildlife knowledge with us she also was very risk-savvy and actually put us in danger on several occasions. Especially with elephants everyone advises you to keep your distance. Several times she chased the elephants that responded with clear warning signals and came very close to attacking us. It’s so sad that these negative experiences hang like a dark thick cloud over this otherwise stunning camp.
Blyde River Canyon: Short Safari Break in-between
Before Kruger, after Kruger, in-between…it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you do not miss Blyde Rive Canyon when you’re in the Kruger area. It’s located close to Phalaborwa Gate. We spent 2 Nights and had a full day to explore which was enough for our needs. If you’re into hiking you might want to spend longer here. Also, don’t miss the Blyde River Canyon Dam, it’s a nice quick trip and truly impressive.
We stayed in a lovely local AirBnB that was a traditional Chalet in the most beautiful landscape. Seriously, the surrounding area is breathtaking. Once you pass the private Gate it’s like a private Game Reserve. One night when I was sitting outside a Zebra even payed me a visit. Big, big recommendation and a nice break when you come from your first safari experience to clear your head for new impressions.
At Blyde River Canyon you can head to numerous trails and do all kinds of different hikes. Another way to explore the area is to take the Panorama Route which is a Drive-route, it’s stunning. Along the route you jump out of the car to explore the different sights (full day trip). Also, pay the little town Graskop a visit it’s a great break in-between. And, please promise me, to buy a net of Avocados and fresh Mangos from the street vendors. And if you got some extra space please bring some home for me!
Durban Coast: Unwind and enjoying the diversity
Elephants, lion king, majestic animals of the Savannah…how will you ever be able to process that? We figured, the only way we would be able to try to process something as magnificent as this experience would be by giving us a break to unwind. So, we took off and made our way down the coast to Durban. First, we thought we could do this in one day. As with so many things on this trip, we were so mistaken!!! So luckily, we split the trip up in a two day trip down from Kruger to Durban and stayed in Ermelo the night in-between.
And when I say Durban, I don’t mean Durban directly (in fact, we didn’t even visit Durban). We actually ended up down in Scottburgh which was our Mekka. Our AirBnB must have been one of the best places I have stayed at. I cannot even describe it: stunning private ‘estate’ over-looking the ocean with super healthy breakfast included and a ton of space to relax and unwind. I don’t know how often we said ‘THIS is exactly what we needed!’. So, if you’re looking for a true diverse South Africa feeling, include a trip to the coast in your best safari of south Africa experience.
The region around Durban ‘Omkamaas’ is famous for diving. I went on an amazing Shark Dive down there and while the big waves scared me like crazy…it was totally worth it. It’s a completely different world compared to the typical safari experience. You’ll get the true Hawai’i vibe with palm trees and ocean roads, it’s incredibly beautiful and definitely worth the detour! I can still feel the soft colors of the rising sun when cruising with the window down along the ocean road at 5.30 am on my way to go diving! These are the moments that truly stay with you forever!
Best Safari in South Africa Memories
When I think of South Africa what do I actually think of? I think of the wilderness and the freedom I experienced different species in. I think of incredible sunsets and starry skies I rarely get to experience. I think of Pumba families running around happily through the high grass. But mostly I think of kids, so grateful, so happy, so appreciative…playing with tires with a big smile on their faces that warms your heart with the warm light of the setting sun in the back. And finally, of course I think of the countless moments of laughter with my ‘Ranger in crime’. South Africa, it’s been an honor. Ranger Lisa, and Ranger Imke, over and out!