South Africa’s many safari destinations can be divided into two main categories: state-owned parks and private game reserves. National parks are open to everyone, including day visitors and self-drive safari enthusiasts. They are more affordable, and generally more crowded. On the other hand, private game reserves are typically geared towards luxury travelers. They are defined by opulent accommodations and exclusive guided game drives. Because visitor numbers are limited, you’re much more likely to have wildlife sightings all to yourself.
Sabi Sands Game Reserve, Mpumalanga
Sabi Sands is probably the most famous private game reserve in South Africa. It shares an unfenced border with Kruger National Park, allowing wildlife to come and go freely between the two. However, with no day visitors and no self-drive safaris allowed, it offers a much more exclusive experience than Kruger itself. Sabi Sands is comprised of 160,000 acres of untamed bush and is home to all of the Big Five. The Londolozi area is especially famous as one of the best places in Africa to spot leopards up close. There are many lodges to choose from at Sabi Sands, ranging from the more affordable Umkumbe Safari Lodge to seriously luxurious options like the Sabi Sabi camps and the two Singita lodges. Activities include guided game drives and thrilling walking safaris.
Ulusaba Private Game Reserve, Mpumalanga
Although Richard Branson’s Ulusaba Private Game Reserve is technically part of Sabi Sands, its sheer exclusiveness makes it stand out as a destination in its own right. It covers 33,300 acres of the larger reserve’s remote western sector, and with just two lodges (with a total of 20 rooms and suites between them) you’re unlikely to see anyone else on your daily game drives. Rock Lodge perches 800 feet above the plains on top of a granite koppie, while Safari Lodge sits beneath a canopy of ancient trees on the banks of a dry riverbed. Both spoil with private plunge pools, spa treatments, and gourmet cuisine. In addition to the Big and Little Five, Ulusaba is home to 300 bird species. Day trips to Blyde River Canyon can be arranged.
Manyeleti Game Reserve, Mpumalanga
Manyeleti Game Reserve is an excellent choice for those that prefer to take the path less traveled. Located deep in Mpumalanga’s safari heartland, it shares unfenced borders with Timbavati and Sabi Sands private reserves and Kruger National Park. However, because it’s less well-known than its iconic neighbors, it sees far fewer visitors. With just three lodges spread out across 56,800 acres of pristine bush, you’re virtually guaranteed to have the park all to yourselves. There are no crowds, no noise, and no light pollution (indeed, Manyeleti’s name means “Place of the Stars” in Shangaan). Opt for an authentic Hemingway-style safari experience in one of the Honeyguide Tented Camps or experience the colonial-era, five-star luxury of Tintswalo Safari Lodge. Both offer guided game drives and walking safaris.
Madikwe Game Reserve, North West
Situated on the Botswana border in North West Province, Madikwe Game Reserve covers 185,000 acres—making it the fifth-largest reserve in South Africa. Its broad spectrum of habitats ranges from seasonal wetlands to Kalahari bushveld and supports an incredible variety of wildlife, including the Big Five. Above all, Madikwe is famous for its endangered African wild dogs. There are three packs living in the park, all of which are relatively accustomed to safari vehicles allowing for rare close encounters. There is a wide choice of accommodation, from eco lodges like Mosetlha Bush Camp to the fabulously luxurious Royal Madikwe Lodge. Unusually, Madikwe allows self-drive safaris although day visitors are not permitted. Unlike the Mpumalanga reserves, it is also malaria-free (a big benefit for anyone traveling with kids).
Tswalu Kalahari Reserve, Northern Cape
Located in the transition zone between arid savannah and the mighty Kalahari Desert, Tswalu Kalahari Reserve is home to a bevy of unusual desert-adapted species including gemsbok and springbok. It’s also a haven for South Africa’s lesser-known predators. Keep an eye out for cheetahs, aardwolves, African wild dogs, and several of the smaller felines. In total, the reserve is home to 80 mammal species and 240 different types of bird. Best of all, with just two family-friendly camps (Tarkuni and The Motse), you’ll share the experience with a maximum of 28 guests. All bookings are assigned a private guide, vehicle, and tracker. In addition to guided game drives, you can take part in San rock art tours, helicopter safaris, and walking safaris with troops of habituated meerkats.
Kariega Game Reserve, Eastern Cape
Kariega Game Reserve is another excellent malaria-free safari destination, this time in the beautiful Eastern Cape. Twice-daily guided game drives offer the opportunity to spot all of the Big Five in addition to a wide variety of other animals and birds. Two rivers running through the 10,000-hectare property allow for unique experiences such as fishing and canoeing. River cruises are particularly rewarding for birders, with frequent sightings of kingfishers, herons, and African fish eagles. The reserve is also just 15 minutes from the golden beaches at Kenton-on-Sea, giving you the best of both worlds. Choose from five stunning lodges, including luxurious tented camp Settlers Drift and family-friendly Main Lodge or The Homestead. The reserve also offers an interactive children’s activity and education program.
Shamwari Game Reserve, Eastern Cape
Shamwari Game Reserve is an iconic private reserve located near Port Elizabeth. It encompasses five of South Africa’s seven biomes; an amazing range of habitats that allows for an exceptional diversity of wildlife including all of the Big Five and more than 275 different bird species. You can encounter the park’s residents on guided game drives and bush walks, or on dedicated photographic safaris. Conservation is central to the Shamwari ethos, and visitors are able to visit the Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre where sick, injured, and orphaned animals are treated by a professional veterinary team. The reserve is also home to Born Free’s Big Cat Sanctuaries. There are seven lodges and one explorer camp at Shamwari. Pick Riverdene for a family adventure and Bayethe Tented Lodge for a private romantic getaway.
Lalibela Game Reserve, Eastern Cape
To the east of Shamwari lies Lalibela Game Reserve, a smaller and more intimate luxury safari destination. The reserve covers 25,900 acres and incorporates vast tracts of savannah grassland. This rich grazing supports large herds of plains game including zebra, impala, wildebeest, and Africa’s largest antelope, the eland. In turn, these animals provide food for a wealth of predators. In addition to large numbers of free-ranging lions, Lalibela is home to leopards, cheetahs, hyenas, and caracals. The rest of the Big Five are also represented. There are five lodges to choose from, including luxury tented camp Tree Tops Safari Lodge and family-friendly Mark’s Camp. The cuisine is a highlight, focusing on local recipes and ingredients. Nightly rates include all meals and drinks, and a morning and afternoon game drive.
&Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve, KwaZulu-Natal
&Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve is located in between Richards Bay and the Mozambique border in verdant KwaZulu-Natal. It’s home to seven distinct ecosystems and an incredible variety of wildlife including the Big Five. Phinda is especially known for its healthy cheetah population and the ability to spot both black and white rhino; while its rare sand forest supports two special antelopes—the suni and the red duiker. The birding is also exceptional with 436 different species. In addition to twice-daily game drives, the reserve offers a range of exclusive experiences including sleeping out under the stars and tracking black rhinos on foot. The nearby coast allows for scuba and ocean safaris, and turtle hatching tours in season. There are six luxury lodges including a private villa, Phinda Homestead.
Thula Thula Private Game Reserve, KwaZulu-Natal
Further south in the heart of Zululand, Thula Thula Private Game Reserve is famous as the home of late, best-selling author Lawrence Anthony. Anthony’s enthralling story "The Elephant Whisperer" was written about Thula Thula’s resident elephant herd, and you can encounter its protagonists and their descendants on guided game drives and bush walks. Other top sightings include rhinos, buffalo, leopards and hippos. You can also pay a visit to a traditional Zulu village, or tour the reserve’s rehabilitation center for orphaned and injured wildlife. Fine French and South African fusion cuisine is a highlight of life at Thula Thula and dining experiences range from Zulu feasts in the boma to Champagne picnics in the bush. There are two accommodation options: the Elephant Safari Lodge and the Luxury Tented Camp.