Best South African Luxury Safaris - Insiders' Guide
Oh how South Africa captivates. Lions on a dusty savannah, springbok skipping across the plains, watching wildlife from a private terrace. This is a country that indulges your senses, a country famed for diversity and made special by individuality. The best South African luxury safaris inspire. Waking to exotic sounds. Inhaling the scent of the wild. Feeling that you’ve stepped into wild Africa without having to leave your comfort zone.
The best South African luxury safaris are a wondrous introduction to the wildlife and wilderness the continent has to offer. It’s not that the other countries are difficult, more that the Rainbow Nation makes it so easy for you to engage with the wilderness and come eye to eye with legendary animals. It can be malaria-free, simple to get around, and packed with unique experiences that don’t require you to go far off the beaten track. Welcome to the luxury of authentic wildlife encounters.
Safari destinations have scales of wildlife authenticity and nowhere is this better illustrated that the continent’s southernmost country. South Africa has more safari destinations than any other country. In particular, there’s a plethora of small, fenced private game reserves – these South African safari resorts that are hardly a step above a zoo. Then there are legendary destinations – Kruger especially – on a scale that humbles from every angle.
We believe that luxury is created by the wildlife experience. Look beyond the veneer of heavily advertized big-five-safari-in-three-hours style parks if you want the best South African luxury safaris. If your idea of a safari is ticking off five famous animals in two hours then we think you are missing out. That’s just not for us – we know how an authentic South African safari becomes the trip of a lifetime.
South Africa isn’t just beautiful, it is achingly beautiful.
-42nd US President Bill Clinton
The best South African luxury safaris respond to all the preconceptions. Private concessions offer decadent lodges and easy game viewing. It’s easy to combine a few days of safari with the rest of the country, like Cape Town, the Winelands and the coast. Malaria-free options make South Africa a premier choice if you’re traveling with children, while the diversity of experiences are ideal if you’re looking to convince someone to visit Africa with you; in South Africa there is so much more than safari.
Some people say that South Africa isn’t really Africa. What they really mean is that the country is more Western and developed than the rest of the continent. However, the safari experience remains wild and unscripted. The country is a fully year-round destination. A focus on private concessions means your safari won’t be crowded with other guests, even during advertized peak times. Changing weather just means there’s something different to experience and enjoy with every month of the year. Choose where to go carefully and a safari in South Africa fulfills all the dreams you have of Africa.
7 HIGHLIGHTS OF SAFARIS IN SOUTH AFRICA
The Best South African Luxury Safaris – Greater Kruger
Through the mist of dawn you spot a leopard. Besides the swimming pool you find elephants. On a nighttime drive you track lionesses and through the night your hear hyenas. Grazing antelope skip past, the rhino population is legendary, and there’s just about everything you could hope to see on a game drive. It can be a big leap to realize the dream of visiting Africa. Many people have concerns or anxieties, often struggling to convince a loved one to join the adventure. Spend half a day in the Greater Kruger and all that washes away through the brilliance of the safari experience. Spend more time and you’ll realize why Kruger is integral to all the best South Africa luxury safaris.
Habitats blend and ecosystems blur in the Greater Kruger. It’s one of Africa’s oldest and largest protected areas, covering almost 10,000 square miles in the northeast of South Africa. However, you must plan where you go carefully. The best Kruger safari is not in Kruger National Park; it’s found in intimate and authentic private concessions. Most of these unfenced concessions fringe the national park’s western boundary, offering havens for diverse and elusive wildlife; the Sabi Sands is the most famous concession in Africa. Other concessions can be found within Kruger National Park, with those to the east of Kruger creating a complementary experience.
The best lodges in South Africa are located in Greater Kruger concessions, most showcasing luxury and privacy in a destination that is justifiably popular. The Greater Kruger is one of our premier recommendations for a luxury Africa wildlife safari. Spend two to three days in a private concession and you blend the intimacy of wildlife with the opulence that the region has become known for. Spend longer and we’d recommend concessions in different areas, diversifying your encounters with the wild. Just fly in, sit back, and wait for nature’s theater to unfold on the best South African luxury safaris.
There are no lions around the runway in Cape Town. Nor elephants or giraffe, although you will encounter skipping springbok on the city’s outskirts. Nature still dominates, Table Mountain standing majestic over the cityscape, a compass point for every Cape Town vacation. White beaches nestle beneath the peak, vineyards stretch across the mountain’s back slopes, and the panoramic views are otherworldly. This isn’t a wildlife safari destination but inspired by the original meaning of safari – “journey” in Swahili – you’ll be immersed in a city of culture, color, and endearing charm.
Cape Town has always had a beautiful setting. It’s evolved into one of the world’s great city destinations. Discover Nelson Mandela’s legacy, explore a rich Jewish heritage, wander vibrant neighborhoods on the cusp of change, and sink your soul into a lively atmosphere. Or rest and relax along the water, at the refurbished V & A Waterfront or the beaches of Camps Bay and Clifton. This is Africa’s most evocative city and it’s very safe to travel here, especially in the areas you are likely to be.
Nearby destinations add further diversity to your experience. Taste your way through the sensual landscapes of a world-famous wine region, visiting the Cape Winelands for the day or immersing yourself in the flavors. Hermanus is one of the world’s ultimate whale watching destinations from July to November; it can also be visited on a Cape Town day trip.
They call Cape Town the Mother City and it’s where we have our base at Heritage Africa. It’s usually the most unmissable port of call on a South Africa tour and it’s often included in our best South African luxury safaris. We recommend the city pre- or post-safari, a change of pace and new experience after the wilderness. After stepping onto the South Africa savannah some people never want to leave the wild. Others need a vacation with more diversity, mixing inimitable urban pleasures with some of the world’s best wildlife safari experiences.
Sporadic calls illuminate the night, howling hyenas adding their tones to huffing buffalo. An elephant barges past, one of Africa’s great tuskers. Hippos blend into the landscape while the rhino population continues to enjoy a longstanding stronghold. Africa’s oldest protected area is in Kwazulu Natal (now extended to form Hluhluwe-iMfolozi National Park), along with one of the world’s greatest wetlands, iSimangaliso.
Decadence dominates in Kwazulu Natal’s private concessions and that’s what makes them options for the best South African luxury safaris. Spacious and upmarket, Phinda is where you take loved ones for a special treat. Think picnics beneath the stars as buffalo wander past (safely), lazy hours around a private pool, and an opulence that some people don’t expect from Africa. Over 50 mammal species, including the big five, fan out across the bushveld, just enough abundance to keep you entertained for two or three days.
In Africa you have space…there is a profound sense of space here, space and sky.
-Thabo Mbeki, 2nd President of South Africa
While Phinda isn’t the wildest places in Africa it is a superb choice for anyone who remains a little uneasy about going on safari. There are animals, activities, and lots of time to relax amid stunning landscapes. With a three day stay you can explore further. Taking a boat in iSimangaliso or drive in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi complements the space and seclusion that’s possible in one of South Africa’s largest private concessions. Superb Indian Ocean beaches aren’t far away either, plus the flight connections mean Kwazulu Natal can be a stop on the best South African luxury safaris.
Small private reserves dot the land in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, along with a string of lesser-known national parks. This land was never the preserve of huge animal numbers. However, the landscapes have been carefully preserved and species are being re-introduced to the land. Safari destinations are fenced here, somewhat losing their appeal. They are small and can be explored in a single day, providing snapshots with wildlife rather than the complete immersion.
We think the best safaris are multi-day affairs, but if you don’t want to journey into the wilderness and still glimpse the famous animals, the Eastern Cape has a number of options, along with beautiful beaches and transport connections to the rest of the country. All this makes it a popular region for families with young children, as well as those on a self drive vacation. Safari in the Eastern Cape can be cheaper than elsewhere in Southern Africa, something that reflects the disparity in wildlife experience.
The Best Time for Safari in South Africa
South Africa is the continent’s true all-year-around destination. Climatic variations mean the traditional “best times” for Kruger are different to those of the Cape; however we don’t subscribe to the idea of a best time for safari in South Africa. High-quality private concessions allow intimate access to wildlife, whatever the season. So even when the grass is high during the green season you can bump off trail and be just a few meters away from lions or leopards. This article on when to go on safari should help you understand how the experience is different (not better of worse) dependent on the month of year.
BEST TIME FOR SOUTH AFRICA SAFARI: 7 TIPS
Best South African Luxury Safaris
Safari in South Africa always feel luxurious. Beautiful lodges, decadent extras, a sense of opulence that is rarely interrupted. But these classic indicators of luxury can often disguise the wildlife experience, especially in small private game reserves. If we’re told that a safari can be half a day or a full day, we don’t believe it’s going to offer the kind of experience South Africa is capable of. You need multiple days to obtain the sense of intimacy and immersion; the best South African safari tours are not a race to tick animals off a list before you get dropped at the swimming pool.
This is the country that receives far more tourists than any other in Africa. 16 million came here in 2017; for perspective, Tanzania recently overtook Kenya and celebrated 1 million visitors per year. Booming tourism creates increased demand for safari – after all, it’s not an African vacation without seeing a lion and an elephant. Private game reserves dot the country, catering for this demand. Most are glorified zoos heavily promoting encounters with the big five. We prefer the places where the animals are truly wild and we know that some South Africa safari parks are not a true reflection of the experience that’s possible.
One-Day Safari Destinations Are Not the Real Safari Experience
Reserves like Aquila, Inverdoorn and Sanbona buy in animals and let them roam free inside the reserve’s fences. Wild animals require lots of land, so the approach is to have a small number of each, so visitors can see two elephants and two rhinos, but don’t witness the interaction between or within species. Buying animals costs money, so predators are kept in separate fenced areas and the lions are fed by people. This is not a true safari to us. Yes, you can see animals. But they are not truly wild and there is no genuine wilderness. They do not provide a luxury wildlife experience. And they are not where we recommend for the best South African luxury safaris – there are so many better options.
11 LUXURY SOUTH AFRICAN SAFARI EXPERIENCES
Redefining South Africa Luxury Safari
Compare the scale. Aquila is 10,000 hectares. The Greater Kruger ecosystem stretches for 20,000,000 (yes 20 million) hectares of unfenced wilderness, with completely free movement of wildlife; that’s the same size as Austria, Czech Republic and Slovakia, combined. Such incredible scale supports astonishing wildlife densities. Over half the world’s rhinos live in the Greater Kruger. We’re talking about more than a thousand leopards, more than 5000 hyena, tens of thousands of elephants and hundreds of thousands of impala. Hopefully these numbers show why the best luxury South African safaris can’t last half a day.
We believe that the luxury experience starts from an uninterrupted movement of wildlife on a grand scale. You can have a swanky hotel room anywhere in the world; but there aren’t many places where luxury accommodation is placed in the heart of such authentic wilderness. Luxury is also created by how close you get. That’s why we recommend looking beyond a Kruger National Park safari to unfenced private concessions, where the intimacy is enhanced and you’ll get a true feeling of why wildlife safari is the world’s ultimate travel experience.
The Best South Africa Family Safari
Every family is different. Just compare a herd of elephants to a pod of hippos at the same river. Then watch zebra as they rest heads on each others’ necks. Within the herds you’ll notice that some lead others and others need cajoling to come along. There are dominant voices – hoots, grunts, exhaled snorts – plus those that are silent and nervous by their surroundings. Sit by the water and you’ll come to understand how each mammal family is unique, individuals completely distinct in terms of character and behavior. Some revel in where they are; others are unsure, waiting to be convinced.
And the same is probably true of your family. The beauty of family life is shown by diverse interests and characters. But when it comes to an adventurous vacation you must often mold the experience into something that ensures everyone is confident and comfortable, while also honoring the distinctive African dreams that others may have. South Africa is the easiest place to do this. When grandparents and grandchildren can be kept happy the rest of the vacation works itself out.
9 REASONS WHY THE BEST FAMILY SAFARI IS FOUND IN SOUTH AFRICA
A Family Safari in Kruger National Park
Kruger National Park is the country’s world-famous destination and integral to the best South Africa luxury safaris. Travel here but use private unfenced concessions for a more personal family experience. You may have heard of Sabi Sands safaris. The real luxury family experience – think authentic and intimate wildlife encounters – can be found in exclusive segments of Sabi Sands, along with some lesser-known concessions elsewhere in the country. Mala Mala is perfectly situated for the free-flowing movement of wildlife past the lodge. Neighboring Londolozi also benefits from the glorious abundance along the Sand River.
Singita has two excellent locations, including Singita Lebombo, a concession on the eastern side of the Kruger ecosystem, where private family activities can play out across a vast setting. The Timbavati, north of Sabi Sands provides a contrasting wildlife safari experience, home to the opulent Royal Malewane. Look further beyond a family safari in Kruger National and we also recommend Phinda, a reserve that effortlessly accommodates varied interests through a melange of activities.
This page has in-depth information on these different Kruger destinations. Our family safari page gives you ideas of what to look for.
South Africa With Kids
With a family safari in South Africa you don’t need to worry about malaria. Travelers are advised to take anti-malarial medication from October to May (the wetter green season) when visiting northern and eastern areas of Kruger National Park. However, the Sabi Sands and South Africa’s best private concessions are in low risk malaria areas. More families travel to South Africa than any other African country. An infrastructure has been designed to support this and most families find traveling here is much easier than countries in Europe.
On the best South African luxury safaris there is space for children to run around. The wildlife attractions feel very personal, and there’s so much going on you can manage short attention spans. Furthermore, days are not taken up by laborious travel; taking a five-year-old on a game drive to see elephants is very different to taking them on a European subway. By going on safari in private concessions you’ll avoid crowds and immerse your children in a world that seems make belief if you’ve only watched the Lion King and Madagascar.
Immigration Requirements for Families Visiting South Africa
Note that South Africa has specific immigration rules for children. Parents must present their child’s full unabridged birth certificate upon arrival (or a certified copy). If this is a safari for single parents with kids then you must produce either a) an affidavit from the other parent authorising the child’s entrance into South Africa; b) the death certificate of the other parent or c) or a court order granting full parental responsibility. But once you arrive South Africa with kids isn’t complicated.
The Best Safari Lodges in South Africa
The best South African luxury safaris start with the best lodges. These have premier positions close to water, in wilderness areas uninhibited by human involvement. They create South Africa’s ultimate wildlife experiences, taking you off the road to intimate encounters with all those animals you are hoping to see. Location is everything and as you would expect, the best South Africa safari lodges are found in private concessions. We define best as those creating premium wildlife experiences.
But not all the private concessions are the same. Small differences have a major impact on your experience. Like traversing rights, guests per guide, and the nuance of where a private concession is located. There are those on the outskirts of an ecosystem, sandwiched between wilderness and urban environment. Then there are those like Mala Mala which border Kruger National Park to one side and other private concessions to the other; Singita Lemombo and Singita Sweni have a similar remote yet central location. Traversing rights are another consideration. Can other visitors enter the private concession, or is reserved exclusively for guests staying in the concession? Lodges like Londolozi and Mala Mala share traversing rights but only with each other, keeping the experience private.
This in-depth article on South Africa’s best safari lodges asks the question that many first-timers to the country have: Mala Mala vs Sabi Sabi vs Singita vs Malewane vs Londolozi vs Phinda? Okay, maybe your list of comparable lodges isn’t that long, but if you seek the best South African luxury safaris these are the names you should be looking at. All six are superb and rather than contrasting the differences, we encourage you to look at how two or more of these destinations can complement each other.
The Best South African Luxury Safaris are Private
While the prices may suggest an exclusive experience, even at South Africa’s best lodges the standard experience is not private. With Royal Malewane an exception, South Africa’s lodges place multiple people on the same safari activity, be it a walk or drive. Cheaper lodges cram their vehicles, so there are 9 or 12 on a single game drive, some of whom are sat in the middle, looking out on both sides to other people. Better South African lodges restrict this, six being an idolized number as it means everyone can sit on the side with an uninterrupted view.
Book a private safari and you have a private guide and vehicle. And for us, the very best South African luxury safaris are private. That means no interruptions, better views, and the exclusivity you might be demanding. But this isn’t simply something to be revered by honeymooning couples or families. With a private safari and guide you have greater control over each activity. The guides go where you want them to go, focusing on the animals and scenes you wish to experience, and lingering longer in places you enjoy the most.
It’s a particularly important consideration when you visit multiple safari destinations. On the first day of a safari you probably won’t care too much where you go; with every turn there will be something new to see. By the third or fourth day of the best South African luxury safaris you’re not that interested in a herd of skipping springbok, lazy buffalo or grazing zebra. These are sights witnessed countless times before, often when relaxing at the lodge. So why is the guide wasting time? When we could be looking for leopards and rhinos and that elusive cheetah that we still haven’t spotted?
With a shared game drive or game walk the guide must satisfy diverse interests and experiences. And that’s the crucial difference in understanding why the best safari in South Africa is private. It’s not just more exclusive, it’s more personal on every level. And when luxury is dictated by the wildlife experience, a private safari excels on every level.
Plan My Safari in South Africa
Dream a safari. Close your eyes and picture the experience. What animals are involved? What are you doing? What are you feeling? The best South African luxury safaris start with you. We would never give you a set itinerary to start from. Why restrict the possibility? Close your eyes and dream the safari that’s always excited your soul. Then get in touch with us. By understanding you we can create the dream South Africa safari for you.