How to select the best game park for your safari in South Africa?

Text and photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
All photographs taken into the wild in South Africa

For many, a safari is a dream trip, often a once in a lifetime experience. This is why it is important to select the type of safari and game park carefully to avoid any disappointment. South Africa is one of the best countries in the world to observe wildlife in beautiful and varied landscapes showcased in its two main types of parks: government-run parks and private game reserves. The offer is so vast and prices so high that we have put together some thoughts in order to help you select the safari that is the most adapted to you.

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To make it pertinent, we regrouped our guidelines around different themes:

As well as several insider’s tips for you to make the most of your safari with the main section here.

Your philosophy

The philosophy of the safari is the most important aspect to select the type of safari and game park properly.

  • Is your nickname the spotter? Do you know a lot about animal behaviour? And are you really good at multitasking?

Then your ideal safari is a self-driving adventure in one of the South African National parks (SANParks) or KZN Parks (government-run parks in the province of KwaZulu-Natal).

The thrill of being only you and your party in your car living unique experiences in the wild is merely irreplaceable: vultures feeding on a carcass, detecting the white tip of a long tail hanging from a branch leading to this leopard in the tree, observing these two lions mating, feeling unease when a close-by teenage elephant blocks the road trying to impress you, not really knowing what to do when vervet monkeys are getting very interested in your snacks…

Only government-run parks allow self-driving on their roads or dirt roads (most national parks are drivable with regular cars, and a 4×4 may be needed only for some specific dirt roads within the park).

If this magical moment of being alone on a road observing animals certainly does happen depending on your skills, the park and time of the year, most of the time the easiest way of spotting wildlife in government-run parks is to look for traffic jams and hectic parking situations with cell phones and cameras hanging out of the windows… Unfortunately, do not expect a courteous behaviour from visitors of the park, nor professionals taking groups through…

Game drives with safari guides in 4×4 vehicles are also offered in all government-run parks. It is a great way of experiencing a guided drive to make sure your spotting skills are at their best. In order to set your expectations right, remember that safari guides are government workers on the clock. If some are truly passionate, this is the exception more than the rule (speeding in the park or shortening a spotting opportunity to get back on time, and not being very active at spotting unfortunately occur).

During my very first drives through Kruger National Park, I did not know how to look deep into the bush. It is with time on game drives with rangers that I have learnt. On the other hand, Marcella is a spotter: a track along the road, a moving branch, a slightly darker spot in the bush, an alarm from a bird signalling a nearby predator… nothing escapes her senses. Our safari configuration is clear: I drive, she spots! Being without a ranger means that you will have to drive, spot, and take photos: multitasking and team work are essential!

  • Do you like being taken care of, learning about animal behaviour, making sure you see the most instead of wondering if your car will make it on this hectic trail?

Then your ideal safari takes place in a private game reserve.

It all starts with the very personal service when meeting your safari guide, discussing about the wildlife you wish to see in and your other interests (birding, photography, conservation, geology…).

Rangers in private game reserves tend to be very passionate and knowledgeable about the animal kingdom. This means that not only do they love sharing their knowledge making the drive a thrilling interactive adventure, they also do not work on the clock: when you see something, you will have time to enjoy the viewing as much as you like.

Safari guides are in touch with each other by radio while on a drive to maximize the chances of spotting wildlife, all the more that going off road is permitted. Communication is key as policies limit the number of cars at a sighting to not disturb wildlife too much. In &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve for instance, the number of 4×4’s allowed close to a cheetah will also depend on how old the animal is in order to not put pressure on a mother with cubs, or to not impress a teenage animal.

Sensitive to photography, and often photographers themselves, safari guides also know how to position the vehicle to optimize the framing and the light for your shots.

  • Insider’s Tip!

We do believe that to get the best experience, it is preferred to go with the safari guides or rangers who work in the park as they know it like the back of their hand, instead of going with an outside tour operator that will take you through the park with a 4×4.

Your comfort

This goes from self-catering with your own vehicle (RV or 4×4 geared up with a tent on the roof) or renting safari tents in government-run parks to staying in luxurious lodges with private swimming pools, delicious food served in a dream-like setting with a very personal service in private game reserves.

In terms of comfort, your best bet in government-run parks is to self-cater in rented safari tents. The safari tents are comfortable and comprise a deck, a cooking facility, beds and a bathroom, and these self-catering units are very well equipped and maintained. Cooking by your safari tent and seeing this cute bush baby sneak in to steal a mango peel, chasing away these monkeys interested in your food, listening to a warthog family taking refuge by the tents, or noticing the glimpse of a hyena passing by attracted by the smell of your braai (“barbecue” in South African) is a thrilling experience!

Government-run parks also offer 4-star accommodation like the Hill Top in Hluhluwe but unfortunately, only the price is 4 stars: badly managed, run down, and with a service that oscillates between nonchalance and pure rudeness (from booking staff, to waiters and safari guides)…

Private game reserves focus on your comfort from the moment you enter the park. The accommodation, food, and service are simply second to none. Of course, there are various levels in luxury and prices, but overall private game reserves do set the example in South Africa. To get a better feel for what to expect, make sure to follow us as this specific article will be published soon.


If national parks used to lead the conservation efforts, these times are long gone. It is in the 1960’s that white rhinos were saved from extinction by Ian Player in Imfolozi KZN Park. Today, some national parks have lost the whole of their rhino population to poachers. Causes are many: corruption, lack of funding, badly managed draughts…

At the moment, private game reserves are leading the way: buying farm land to convert it back into wildlife habitat, involving local communities in the conservation efforts, providing job opportunities (one of the only ways to put an end to poaching), leading scientific research, investing to protect their animals, thinking out of the box to raise funds against poaching, etc. Forced to operate with a sustainable business plan, some private game reserves seem to have found a way to conserve wildlife for the long term (and this is mostly funded by very expensive experiences paid by their (overseas) visitors).


Unfortunately, corruption is common in government-run parks. Even a regional ranger in charge of fighting poaching got caught by field rangers in Kruger Park with a couple of rhino horns under his arms. Others get bribed to disclose the location of rhinos to poachers. Of course, the few rotten apples are the ones making the news, and most of the guides and rangers are honest people doing a great job.

Corruption also exists in private game parks. The best in class run very frequent checks on all of their staff, ensuring that they are not under a big financial pressure or that a life event could have them turn.

Private game reserves are not all the same. Beware! Unethical practices are common in some of them: for instance, rangers will kill a piece of game to offer it to the lions to ensure that guests will have their perfect photo before breakfast.

Interference with wildlife should be kept to a minimum: reserves advertising for cub petting or walks with lions should be avoided at all costs (often these young lions end up in the bone trade or canned hunting industry afterwards, and you walking them is just a way of exploiting them even more).

  • Insider’s Tip: How to make sure you select an ethical game reserve?

Check its website thoroughly and make sure the game reserve you are considering is involved in national and international conservation projects with recognised organisations. Also ensure that local communities are taken into account as well as land issues as they are paramount to a sustainable approach.

If you are going through a travel agent, ask for the names of the game reserves you will visit, and check them out. Voice your concerns about ethics and ask for data.


Be aware of malaria risk in some of the parks. Inquire about the mosquito situation based on the season when you visit.

The Hluhluwe Imfolozi region in KZN is a low risk malaria area. We visited in January when we hardly had any mosquitoes because of the dry season. Mosquito repellents were sufficient and we did not take the anti-malaria pills.

The African tick bite fever is also frequent: make sure you check yourself for ticks after walking in the bush. If it is usually not a serious illness, it is very uncomfortable.

Area & landscape

South Africa presents such varied landscapes that the parks and reserves can be very different: the desert-like Karoo, the iSimangaliso Wetlands with its abundant birdlife and coral reef, the hilly Hluhluwe Imfolozi area, the smaller Mkuze Park, the sand forest of Tembe Elephant park, the vast Kruger region… Obviously, wildlife will differ based on the ecosystem.

Our personal preference is the Hluhluwe Imfolozi region with its rolling hills, winding rivers and great wildlife spotting: the Hluhluwe Imfolozi KZN Park and the neighbouring &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve.


In the spring time (late September till late December), young animals add a huge cuteness factor to your safari!

Also consider that in the dry season (May till September), animals can be easier to spot as they gather by water holes and the fact that vegetation is less dense.

Be ready, as it can get cold especially for the sunrise game drives.


Private game reserves follow all-inclusive schemes with sunrise and sunset game drives, bush walks, and all food and drinks included. Adding this all up in a national park with a 4-star accommodation will be cheaper, but not by that much and for a quality and service that are a lot lower (believe us, we have experienced both!).

If you are short on time, spend the money on a private game reserve. Especially if this is your first safari, you will gain a lot of knowledge about animal behaviour, drinking habits, if they prefer sun or shade, how to look into the bush and what to look for, all will come in handy if you wish to experience the self-drives in national parks later during your trip.

Choose a vast reserve with various ecosystems in order to spend a minimum of two nights, even though three is preferred as no game drive is the same. This way, you will experience the rhythm of the bush.

We strongly believe that nature and wildlife should be enjoyed by all and not only the wealthiest. After several years of corruption and of funds for the parks being cut under the Zuma government, we have seen facilities in the natioanl parks degenerate. However with Ramaphosa realising the tourism potential of South Africa we have lately seen a positive reverse in this trend, with new game driving vehicles and improved facilities in the National Parks. Therefore we do recommend you to visit the National Parks as well as a Private Game Reserve as specific private game reserves are doing an outstanding job both in the conservation and hospitality fields, clearly setting the example. Indulge yourself and explore the amazing wildlife of South Africa!

Insider’s Tips to make the most of your safari

  • Don’t go only for the Big 5!

“In one hour we saw the Big 5, so we left the park”… Really? This is such a waste: parks are full of wildlife, way beyond the Big 5. For the record, the reason for the Big 5 is that these large mammals were the hardest to shoot by big-game hunters as they are particularly ferocious when cornered and injured. Today, it is a marketing motto as elephants for instance are plentiful in South Africa.

  • As a reminder, here are the Big 5:
  1. Buffalos,
  2. Elephants,
  3. Leopards,
  4. Lions,
  5. Rhinoceros.

If you like crossing it off the bucket list, here are a few challenging ones that will enhance your safari experience and make you a real spotter!

  • The Ugly 5
  1. Hyena,
  2. Marabou stork,
  3. Vulture,
  4. Warthog,
  5. Wildebeest.
  • The Little 5
  1. Ant lion,
  2. Buffalo weaver,
  3. Elephant shrew,
  4. Leopard tortoise,
  5. Rhino beetle.
Leopard tortoise
  • The Shy 5
  1. But for the meerkat, the others of nocturnal animals making it a real challenge to spot and even more to photograph:
  2. Aardvark,
  3. Aardwolf,
  4. Bat-eared fox,
  5. Rhino beetle.
  • Our own personal list of the colourful flying 5
  1. European roller,
  2. Bee eater,
  3. Malachite kingfisher,
  4. Melba finch,
  5. Barbet.
  • Take it in!

African landscapes are magical. The sound of the bush, the smells, the sunsets, the warm wind on your skin, and starry nights…

Travel tips:

  • This article was put together after an extensive research trip in South Africa visiting Mkhuze National Park, Karoo National Park, iSimangaliso Wetland Park, Kosi Bay Nature Reserve, Tsitsikamma National Park, Kruger National Park, Hluhluwe Imfolozi, Tembe Elephant Park, Mafikeng Game Reserve and &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve.
  • All photos were taken in the wild, by us. Feel free to reach out should you want a print.
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! Here is a short tutorial to download it.

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For more safari-inspired articles, click on these images:

Part of this article was published in the Beyond Boundaries e-magazine by Xtreme Adventure:

Cover - Big 5 & Top 8 - Beyond Boundaries

48 thoughts on “How to select the best game park for your safari in South Africa?

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    • Hi Ophelie, yes, it is very special. All the more special that you never really know what you will spot. And while many people focus only on the Big 5, there so much more to it and as you rightly point it out, just the landscapes are incredible.

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