Planning a safari but not sure where to start? Here’s everything you need to consider before your big trip.
For many people, going on Safari is a once in a lifetime bucket-list experience. But with over 10,000 safari lodges and camps in Africa, how do you decide where to spend this unique experience?
Private game reserve or national park?
The first question is: should you go to a private game reserve or a national park? If you haven’t been on safari before, I would recommend going to a private game reserve for a few reasons. The biggest reason is that vehicles are able to go off road. This is not allowed at the majority of national parks. This is a good thing is because it allows guests to get much closer to the animals – and to get better photos!
The second reason is that most guests who stay a couple of days at a private game reserve will see The Big Five – if their reserve has them. This is because the reserve knows exactly which animals are there and watch them every day, meaning they have a better idea of where the animals were sighted the day before, where they tend to go, habits etc.
The third reason is that private game reserve options do tend to be a bit more luxurious. Personally, I am a bit past staying in a tent for a week (unless it is glamping!), and I’ve come to find that I like my holidays to consist of a comfortable bed and glass of wine in the evening! This is usually on offer at a private game reserve.
So, once you have decided to visit a Private Game Reserve, how do you choose which one to go to? Here are some key questions to help you make the right choice:
Which country should I visit in Africa?
The main countries in Africa for traditionally seeing The Big Five safari are Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa. Botswana and Zambia are also options but they do not necessarily have the same variety and abundance of game as the other three.
Whilst Kenya and Tanzania are both fantastic in their own way, if it is your first time going on safari, I would recommend starting with South Africa. South Africa can be less daunting for first time visitors to Africa as the first language is English and it tends to be more convenient to travellers from other countries. Also, South Africa has quite a few private game reserves that are in non-malaria areas. This is a big bonus as anti-malarials are not cheap, have to be taken for some time and can have side effects. South Africa has a huge variety of other great things to do on holiday – from the fantastic restaurants of Cape Town to the wine region to whale watching and much more.
Another plus is that citizens from many countries (including Hong Kong) can visit South Africa without obtaining a visa. However, do check for your country and the allowed time period (30 days for Hong Kong citizens).
How does the Private Game Reserve Treat its animals?
I don’t know about you but I am not keen to go on safari unless I know the animals are treated well. Luckily, I am not alone in this preference so it has become a point of pride for many private game reserves to outline how it treats its animals. The first place to look is the website for the private game reserve. Do they have an area devoted to conservation? If they do, what type of content is inside? Do they explain their policies around protection and re-introduction of animals? How about breeding? How do they track their animals within the reserve? And what controls are in place? How do they incorporate conservation into their offer?
A great example of providing clear evidence of the right policies and practices when it comes to conservation and protection of animals is Kwandwe Private Game Reserve. Kwandwe is about two-hours north of Port Elizabeth in South Africa. Kwandwe has re-introduced many species into its 22,000-hectare reserve. It offers guests the opportunity to spend a morning or afternoon learning about how they protect their rhinos. This covers the issue of poachers and goes through how Kwandwe manages the protection of this endangered species. If this is of special interest to you, it also offers a four-day safari that allows guests to be a part of its rhino-darting and notching programme.
How does the Private Game Reserve work with its local community?
Most private game reserves have neighbours who, in relative terms, often have very little materially (compared to the reserve owners and guests). So I feel it is critical to understand how a private game reserve works with its community, to ensure that the money tourists spend has a positive impact on the local surroundings too. Again, if a private game reserve doesn’t have a section about this on their website, I would be a bit concerned and would email them to ask the question. If you are working with a tour operator or agent, do ask them to only show you options that have clear programmes – with itemised financials – of how they work with their community.
The better private game reserves will offer their guests the chance to experience how they work with the local community first hand. These reserves will often encourage guests to get involved with a local community centre funded by the reserve, or volunteer nearby to do activities like gardening, singing with the elderly, or playing sport with kids.
If a private game reserve is particularly committed to getting tourists on board with the sustainable aspect, they will spell out exactly how much of your bill goes to the local community. The list will not just showcase the service it provides the community with, but the support it gives by hiring members of that community and then helping them with things like onsite childcare for staff members.
What are my chances of seeing The Big Five?
The majority of private game reserves in South Africa will have The Big Five – lion, elephant, rhino, leopard and buffalo. If you stay at least two days in a private game reserve there is generally a high chance to seeing all five. The biggest question mark is always around the elusive leopard! The leopard may well be near you, but they can be very difficult to see!
How much do I want to spend?
Private Game Reserves are not cheap. However, the costs tend to include everything from guides to transport to meals and drinks. Much depends on the time of year, number of people sharing a room etc but the bottom end tends to be about USD$400 per day, per person. Do remember that when I write “bottom end” I am talking about the bottom end of luxury – these will still be very nice properties.
Top private game reserve safaris in Africa for….
- Best for tree-top accommodation:
For glamping taken to a whole new level, Lion Sands offers gorgeous tree houses in the middle of Kruger National Park.
- Best for a honeymoon:
For environmentally friendly luxury, Sabi Sabi in South Africa offers an earth lodge, an eco spa and a deep, egg-shaped bath (as well as day and night safaris).
- Best for photography:
Kicheche in the Masai Mara is part owned by well known wildlife photographer, Paul Goldstein. All the drivers are trained in photography and many of them are great photographers themselves. Kicheche is also a conservation champion, working very closely with the local community – and the safari experience is premium.
- Best for Hollywood views:
Angama Mara. The film Out of Africa was actually filmed on this site! It is perched on the edge of the escarpment overlooking the whole of the Maasai Mara, so the views are fabulous (as is the property).
- Best for elephant conservation:
Thula Thula was the home of late bestselling author and conservationist, Lawrence Anthony. His second book, The Elephant Whisperer, tells the story of the rescue of the Thula Thula elephants. His wife continues to run this luxury safari reserve and honours his meaningful work.
- Best for Cheetah Conservation
Sanctuary Kusini is the only permanent camp in the Serengeti’s remote south. The camp is actively involved in the Serengeti Cheetah Project which monitors the Cheetahs in the area.
- Best for solo travellers
On the North Side of Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park is Tena Tena. This luxury reserve has just six tents – small camps are normally more comfortable for solo travellers as it is very easy to meet and mingle with other travellers. Best of all Tena Tena does not charge a single supplement.
- Best for general wildlife conservation:
Thanda Safari is a Big Five private game reserve offering award-winning safari experiences with opportunities to spend the day with the conservation team to track and monitor the Big Five whilst learning all about their ecology, the threats to the species, behavioural and feeding patterns and much more.
- Best for an award winning experience:
If you are going to go higher end, I would highly recommend where I ended up: Kwandwe Private Game Reserve. It won the Best Safari Experience in the 2018 award by the Safari Guild, a network of safari tour operators – and it really does tick all the boxes.
Top Safari Tips:
- Pack light. I would normally never recommend this but the majority of private game reserves offer a daily washing service, so yesterday’s clothes will be back and clean after you finish today’s game drive!
- Bring a small bean bag for your camera. These are perfect to balance on the side of a vehicle and get a steady base for a crisper photo.
- If you’re only taking your phone, check out smart phone clips. These are very reasonably priced small lenses that can be clipped on to a phone to turn your camera into a decent quality zoom lens!
- Pack layers and, despite the fashion cliche, bring zip on/zip off trousers. The temperature on safari fluctuates massively throughout the day. Early morning game drives can be very cold – but by 10am with the sun up, you may be very warm.
Getting to South Africa
Johannesburg is the main international airport in South Africa although there are also direct flights to Cape Town. Cathay and South African each have daily direct flights from Hong Kong to Johannesburg – 13.5 hours. Cathay flies directly to Cape Town from Hong Kong three-days a week – 14.5 hours. The nearest airport to Kwandwe is the domestic airport, Port Elizabeth (about a two-hour transfer by car).
All photos courtesy of Amanda O’Brien