Updated: Aug 21, 2019
If you mention your desire to do a "safari" to a South African, he may look at you puzzled for a few seconds. "Safari" does not exist in South Africa, people rather talk about "Game Viewing". If on weels it will be called "Game drive", if on foot it is called a "Game walk". Both experiences are very different and equally magic. Let me unfold each type and where to do them.
In every park, you will have the opportunity to book a "game drive" or "game walk". The usual schedule is as follow:
6am-9am: Sun rise. The most magical according to us. Starting in the dark and cold, gaze upon the sun slowly rising on the african savana. Hear the wildlife awaken. Observe the animal going to the water holes for their first drink.
9am-12am & 1pm-4pm: Day. The sun is high up in the sky. Its bite keeps all animals under the trees and bushes. This time of day is good to spot big animals such as elephants and all types of grazers. But forget about the cats and other predators who will be hiding in the shades.
4pm-7pm: Sun set. The most picture-friendly time of day. Golden hour. All animals are in activity and going for a last sip at the nearest water hole. Finishing usually with a glorious african sunset.
Picked up by a ranger in his huge Toyota Hilux, you join a group of approximately 9 to 12 people for a 3 hours long drive across the bush. Ranger being professionals of the bush will instruct you on all aspects of the local flora and fauna. Do never hesitate to ask question and show your specific interests. If you like birds for instance, notify it to your ranger so he can adapt his tour. Otherwise, most tourists only want to spot lions and rangers tend to focus on these.
Game drives are great to cover big distances. Also, rangers are all in touch via their radios. Allowing them to always be aware of the latest animal spotting and to go on site quickly.
Usually accompanied by 2 armed rangers, this experience is absolutely magical. Being on foot and clearly at the bottom at the food-chain, the rangers only bring you in areas where no predators have been recently spotted.
After a short security brief (if they have to fire their riffles, it's because you messed up!), you are being driven to a clear area. There you step out of vehicules and proceed in line (groups of usually 5 to 10 people max) towards a point of interest in total silence. During the frequent stops, one of the two rangers explains you how to identify animal tracks and dungs, how to recognize noises/smells and what smaller "invisible" animals do.
It is an unreal experience, especially at sunrise when you are in the middle of the silent bush and you can hear each species wake up one after the other.
Everywhere in SA you have the option of staying in your vehicule and drive through the park yourself.
Always beware of the security ground rules (always ask when entering a park, they may have specific rules):
no coming out of the car unless indicated so
no loud music
no wide open unattended windows (watch out for the baboons!)
no driving above 40km/h (50km/h on main tar roads)
no driving at night (usually around 6am-6pm)
These self-driven tours let you enjoy the park at your own pace. If you wish to spend a whole afternoon at the same water hole to watch the animals come and go, be free to :)
In South Africa, all animals are kept in fenced parks. Equally to keep an eye on them against poaching, but also to check on their population with rescue centres and rehabilitation centres. Yet, some of these parks are more into animal well-fare than others. For instance, there is a main difference in Private Parks and National Parks.
This category is the trickiest, so let's deal with it first. A lot of land in South Africa is still privately owned following the colonial era. These landlords have power to deal with their animals the way they want to. Hence, if you chose to visit a "private game reserve" as we call it here, ALWAYS check what kind of establishment you are dealing with. To know if this park is ethical or not: *Spoiler Alert*. The easiest way is to see if they let you interact with their wild life or not. If the animals (especially the carnivores) are left wild, you're good. If they allow you to pet them, they are doing encouraging some terrible business (please refer to the part "canned hunting").
Now, all private parks aren't bad. For example, the Hluhluwe Imfolozi in KwaZulu Natal.
South-West of the country, this park is closest to Durban (2hours drive). This park has the highest concentration of Rhinos (both white and black) in South Africa. Do not hesitate to ask your ranger for stories about them. These magnificent creatures are unfortunately highly poached (thank you chinese medicine lobby!), and an average of 1 rhino per day is killed in SA only. We can feel the tropical influence in this park. With many trees and bushes, it makes it harder to spot animals.
Rescue & Rehabilitation Centres
Even if their website is beautifully done and the previous visitors' comments are fabulous, there is one important point to check: are they using a "non-impregnating"/"non-intervening" technique? In other words, are they keeping their animals "wild". A great example is the rehabilitation centre called "Hoedspruit Endengered Species Centre" right next to the Kruger. They allow you to come pretty close from the animals, while keeping a respectful distance and limiting all human interactions. Another one closer to Joburg if you do not have time to hop to the Kruger is the Ann Van Dyk Rescue Centre.
Lion Parks and other tourist traps
tIf you dream of a picture holding a lion cub or "walking with the lions", you can find plenty of these options in South Africa. A famous one west of Joburg is the "Lion Park". Many locals and tons of tourists (mainly North and South Americans) are crazy about this amazing opportunity to have a highly-likeable instagram picture with a lion cub. DO NOT ENCOURAGE THESE PARKS! By doing so, you interfere with the nature of these wild animals. Leading them right into the canned hunting business.
What is "canned hunting"?
Trophy-hunters from all horizons (but mostly north americans, russians and some europeans) are having the best time in south africa. Even if it is strictly forbidden to hunt endangered species and great cats such as lions, some private parks will allow it against a huge amount of money. Do you remember this lion cub you had on your lap for 30 seconds for this instagram picture? Well, there he is now. Once too old to be cuddled, he usually serves in the "walking with the lions" category for a few more months, until he gets too much testosterone and begins to be a threat for the unexperienced & loud tourists visiting him. Not bringing anymore money to his owner, he is sold to a hunting game reserve. Officially, no lion can be hunted. But once again... you know... money ;)
These lions will be purchased and led into a corner of the park where they will be shot (on the first attempt if they are lucky) by some rich foreigner. Used to humans since they were cubs, they are easy target, even for the most unexperienced hunter.
Once again: check the parks you visit!
There are 19 national parks in South Africa. Full info following this link.
The main difference with private ones is that mostly, rangers do not intervene in the life of the animals. They let the natural cycle of life do its job.
The only moments they will intervene is for example in the case of the cheetahs: these animals have a low fertility level (inter-breeding issues) and they are at the bottom of the "best predator list" (they need big open areas to sprint after their preys, which is not common in bushy South Africa): Hence, the parks authorities try to exchange cheetahs in order to bring new blood in theirs. Same with antelopes, if they become too numerous and start devastating all vegetation (with a risk of not enough plants to grow back the next year), they authorise regulated hunts or transfers to other parks.
These parks are the biggest in the country, led by the Kruger National Park. Here the list of national parks we had the chance to visit and what we found special about them:
Kruger National Park
The biggest park in SA. With an incredible variety of flora, fauna and landscapes, this park is absolutely majestic. His big open spaces allow wild life to roam through big distances without meeting a fence. It also has several lodges and camp sites allow you a total immersion in nature.
Pilanesberg National Park
Our favourite! 2 hours north of Joburg, this park is located in the heart of a crater. Also home of the big 5, this park is absolutely beautiful. With lakes, great plains and many hills, it is a real pleasure to tour it.
Table Mountain National Park
Dominating city of Cape Town, Table Mountain National Park is a jewel of biodiversity. Home to many andemic species, there are no great mammals there. Meaning, you can easily hike there. You may encounter zebras, many kinds of antelopes, austriches and the legendary dassi. All of these with a breath/taking view on the peninsula.
Did you say desert? The tankwa karoo is the biggest zone without any phone signal in the entire african continent. Not everywhere, no panic! Yet, you better know about it. This rocky desert is home to the Afrika Burn festival each year. If you dream of seeing the Milky way like never before, there is your next destination.