If you are planning to go on Safari in South Africa, you’ve probably realized that you will need to decide if you are going to a national park, or a private game reserve. Seeing that you have landed on this post, you’ve probably decided to visit one of the private game reserves in South Africa.
The distinction between a visit to a national park and a private game reserve is almost incomparable. Here’s what you can expect from private game reserves in South Africa:
- Luxurious bush-style accommodations that provide supreme privacy and luxury;
- Unfenced accommodations that make the most of the bushveld surrounds;
- Incredible game-watching opportunities;
- Visitors are taken by Shangaan trackers and armed rangers within close distance of animals;
- Trackers provide a running commentary on anything from giraffe mating habits to the family history of a partridge;
- Animals in private reserves, (particularly Sabi Sand), have become so accustomed to being approached by vehicles that they almost completely ignore them. You can follow a leopard for a few feet without it even looking back.
- Two-way radios between rangers, many of whom are permitted to travel on each other’s land, ensure good sightings.
- Prices are generally comparable to those of five-star hotels, and so is the service.
- In most cases, the wine and dining are world-class, with dinner frequently served under the stars in a traditional boma, where guests can swap stories of the day over drinks around the campfire.
At most of these private game reserves, you can expect to see the big five: lions, elephants, buffaloes, leopards, and rhinos.
In no particular order, the top private game reserves in South Africa that offer unforgettable experiences in truly spectacular settings, are:
Sabi Sands, Kruger National Park, Mpumalanga
The legendary Sabi Sands Game Reserve, located in the Kruger National Park’s southwestern section, is a remarkable wildlife haven. This exclusive private game reserve is one of the most prestigious in South Africa, with prices to match. Sabi Sands is well-known for the high frequency of leopard and lion sightings within its boundaries, and your chances of seeing all five of the Big Five during your visit are excellent. The reserve provides luxurious accommodation in a variety of lodges, ensuring an unforgettable safari experience.
Kapama Game Reserve, Limpopo Province
The vast Kapama Private Game Reserve is located between the Kruger National Park and the lush landscape of the Blyde River Canyon. The reserve’s unspoiled bush supports an abundance of wildlife, including dozens of mammal species such as elephant, buffalo, lion, leopard, and rhinoceros – the “Big Five.” Visitors can see these magnificent animals in their natural habitat on daily guided game drives and nature walks.
The reserve has four upscale lodges and luxurious sleep-out tent accommodation, some of which are on the banks of the Klaserie and Kapama rivers.
Madikwe Game Reserve, North West Province
Madikwe Game Reserve, located on the Botswana border in North West Province, is South Africa’s fifth-largest reserve. The reserve covers 185,000 acres.
Its diverse range of habitats includes seasonal wetlands and Kalahari bushveld. It is home to an incredible variety of wildlife, including the Big Five.
Madikwe is best known for its endangered African wild dogs. The park is home to three packs, all of which are relatively accustomed to safari vehicles, allowing for rare, up-close encounters.
There is a wide range of accommodation available, ranging from eco-lodges such as Mosetlha Bush Camp to the fabulously luxurious Royal Madikwe Lodge. Madikwe allows self-drive safaris, but day visitors are not permitted. It is also malaria-free.
Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve, Kwazulu Natal
Hluhluwe is best known for its success in preventing the extinction of the white rhino. A breeding program has succeeded in increasing the population from 150 in the 1930s to over 1,500 today. The reserve is also home to dozens of mammal species, including elephant, giraffe, warthog, and impala.
Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve, located north of Durban and 18 miles / 25 kilometers west of the coastal town of St Lucia, is an important conservation area in the heart of Zululand. Hluhluwe and iMfolozi are two of Africa’s oldest game reserves, dating back to the late 1800s. They cover a combined area of about 1,000 square kilometers and are linked by a corridor of state-owned land (390 sq miles).
One of the best ways to explore the region is to hike the acclaimed Wilderness Trail at iMfolozi. These bush walks, which are accompanied by armed rangers who act as guides, can last three to five days. To reduce the environmental impact of visitors, visitor numbers are strictly limited, so booking ahead is essential.
Hluhluwe-iMfolozi offers a full range of safaris, with accommodations ranging from hilltop camps and traditional rondavels to luxury lodges.
Mala Mala Game Reserve, Kruger National Park, Mpumalanga
Mala Mala Game Reserve caters to those with deep pockets and those seeking a more tranquil stay. It offers some of Africa’s most reliable leopard watching.
Mala Mala is located within the Sabi Sands Game Reserve and has exclusive traversing rights over 50 square miles/130 square kilometers of prime wildlife territory.
The major difference between Mala Mala and the Kruger National Park, for example, is that game drives are conducted in 4×4 vehicles with knowledgeable guides who can take you off-road for special sightings. This means you will not only see more game, but you will also learn about animal behavior and how different species integrate into their environment.
Mala Mala provides some of the most exclusive wildlife experiences in the region. It also offers upscale lodging at three camp locations, complete with pools, spas, and tennis courts.
Ulusaba Private Game Reserve, Kruger National Park, Mpumalanga
Although Sir Richard Branson’s Ulusaba Private Game Reserve is technically part of Sabi Sands, its exclusivity distinguishes it as a destination unto itself.
The reserve covers 33,300 acres of the larger reserve’s remote western sector, and with only two lodges (each with 20 rooms and suites), you’re unlikely to see anyone else on your daily game drives.
Rock Lodge sits 800 feet above the plains on top of a granite koppie, while Safari Lodge sits on the banks of a dry riverbed beneath a canopy of ancient trees. Private plunge pools, spa treatments, and gourmet cuisine are available at both.
Ulusaba is home to 300 bird species in addition to the Big and Little Five. Day trips to Blyde River Canyon are also available.
Manyeleti Game Reserve, Mpumalanga
Manyeleti’s name means “Place of the Stars” in Shangaan.
Manyeleti Game Reserve is an excellent choice for those who prefer to take the road less traveled. It is located deep in Mpumalanga’s safari heartland and shares unfenced borders with the Timbavati and Sabi Sands private reserves. However, because it is less known than its more famous neighbors, it receives far fewer visitors.
With only three lodges spread across 56,800 acres of pristine bush, you’re almost guaranteed to have the park to yourself. There are no crowds, no noise, and no light pollution. Choose between the colonial-era, five-star luxury of Tintswalo Safari Lodge and an authentic Hemingway-style safari experience in one of the Honeyguide Tented Camps. Both offer guided game drives and walking safaris.
Shamwari Game Reserve, Eastern Cape
The Shamwari Game Reserve is the best-known for offering an all-inclusive ‘Big Five’ game viewing experience. Located to the east of Addo Elephant National Park, it is in a hilly and wooded terrain. At Shamwari, more than 26 species of game have been reintroduced, including elephants, lions, leopards, rhinos, buffalo, giraffes, and zebras.
The reserve is only accessible to overnight guests. Accommodation is provided in a variety of manor houses, exclusive lodges, and luxury tented camps that offer chic, contemporary comfort with colonial-inspired styling.
Lalibela Game Reserve, Eastern Cape
Lalibela Game Reserve, located to the east of Shamwari, is a smaller and more intimate luxury safari destination. The reserve is 25,900 acres in size and includes vast swaths of savannah grassland. Thanks to abundant grazing, there are large herds of game, including zebra, impala, wildebeest, and Africa’s largest antelope, the eland. These animals provide food for a plethora of predators. Lalibela is home to leopards, cheetahs, hyenas, and free-roaming lions. The other four members of the Big Five are also represented.
There are five lodges to choose from. The cuisine is a highlight, with an emphasis on regional recipes and ingredients. All meals and drinks are included in the nightly rate, as well as a morning and afternoon game drive.
Aquila Game Reserve, Western Cape
The biodiverse habitat at Aquila Game Reserve, located in the Hex River Valley, ensures plenty of variety for the avid wildlife watcher. Since its inception in the late 1990s, (when it was home to a variety of antelope species), the reserve has grown significantly and now supports all the Big Five and other wildlife such as wildebeest, giraffe, and zebra.
The Aquila game reserve is about two hours drive from Cape Town.
There are several safari options available, including horseback riding and quad biking. The reserve offers stylish lodge and rustic cottage accommodations, as well as a large restaurant, an outdoor pool, and a luxurious spa.
Kariega Game Reserve, Eastern Cape
The Kariega Game Reserve is an excellent malaria-free safari destination. Twice-daily guided game drives provide opportunities to see all five of the Big Five, as well as a wide variety of other animals and birds.
Two rivers that run through the 10,000-acre property provide opportunities for unique experiences such as fishing and canoeing. River cruises are especially rewarding for birders, as kingfishers, herons, and African fish eagles are frequently seen.
The reserve is only 15 minutes from Kenton-on-golden Sea’s beaches, giving you the best of both worlds.
Choose between five magnificent lodges, including the extravagant Settlers Drift tented camp and the family-friendly Main Lodge or The Homestead.
The reserve also provides an interactive children’s activity and education program.
Tswalu Kalahari Reserve, Northern Cape
Tswalu Kalahari Reserve, located in the transition zone between the arid savannah and the mighty Kalahari Desert, is home to a plethora of unusual desert-adapted species such as gemsbok and springbok. It also serves as a safe haven for South Africa’s lesser-known predators.
Once you are there, look for cheetahs, aardwolves, African wild dogs, and a variety of smaller felines. The reserve is home to 80 mammal species and 240 different bird species. Best of all, with only two family-friendly camps (Tarkuni and The Motse), you’ll be sharing the experience with no more than 28 other people.
All reservations include a private guide, vehicle, and tracker.
Aside from guided game drives, there are San rock art tours, helicopter safaris, and walking safaris with troops of habituated meerkats.
Thula Thula Private Game Reserve, Kwazulu Natal
Thula Thula Private Game Reserve, located in the heart of Zululand, is home to rhinos, buffalo, leopards, and hippos. You can also tour the reserve’s rehabilitation center for orphaned and injured wildlife or visit a traditional Zulu village.
Thula Thula’s fine French and South African fusion cuisine is a highlight, with dining experiences ranging from Zulu feasts in the boma to Champagne picnics in the bush. The Elephant Safari Lodge and the Luxury Tented Camp are the two options for lodging.