Flanking the western section of Kruger Park and covering over 150,000 hectares (370,500 acres) are South Africa's most famous private game reserves, owned by groups of freehold landowners and concession-holders with traversing rights. Because most of the fences that separated the private reserves from Kruger have been taken down, animals are, to some extent, able to follow natural migratory routes, and you will find as many species in these reserves as you will in Kruger. Unless you're staying at a luxury lodge in a private concession, that is where the similarity ends.
The difference between a visit to a Kruger Park rest camp and a private lodge is so big as to be almost incomparable. Not only do the luxurious accommodations afford supreme privacy and luxury, with unfenced accommodations that make the most of the bushveld surrounds, but visitors are taken in open-topped and elevated Land Rovers to within spitting distance of animals by Shangaan trackers and armed rangers, who give a running commentary on anything from the mating habits of giraffe to the family history of a particular lion. Animals in these reserves, particularly Sabi Sand, are so used to being approached by vehicles that they almost totally ignore them. You can trail a leopard at a few feet without it so much as glancing backward. Two-way radios between rangers, many of whom are allowed to traverse on each other's land, ensure good sightings, although these can be somewhat marred when three or sometimes four vehicles (the maximum lodges allow) converge on the same spot.
The 2- to 4-hour game drives take place in the morning and again in the late afternoon and evening, with stops in the bush for a hot drink and snack in the morning (particularly in winter) and cocktails in the evening. It can be bitterly cold in the winter, and you may want to opt instead for an escorted walk after breakfast -- another service included in the rate.
In addition to pursuing animals off-road through the African bush, these private reserves offer unfenced accommodations of luxuriously high standards. Equally high-end is the cuisine. As all meals are included in the rate, this is certainly not the time to go on a diet. Breakfasts feature a selection of cereals and fresh fruit, yogurt, and freshly baked bread and muffins. Hot breakfasts are cooked to order and usually comprise eggs, sausage, bacon, and tomato, or omelets. A few lodges offer such variations as eggs Benedict or eggs Florentine. Lunch is the lightest meal, usually a buffet with interesting salads and predictable cold meats. Breakfasts are served late (after the morning game drive, which usually ends btw. 9 and 10am), so some lodges prefer to skip lunch altogether and serve a high tea at 3pm, with quiches, sandwiches, and cakes. From there, you depart on a 3- to 4-hour evening game drive, traveling with a spotlight once it's dark, tracking nocturnal creatures on the move. You will more than likely be expected to dine with your game-drive companions (if this is a problem, alert the staff in advance, and alternative arrangements will be made). Dinners feature grilled or roasted meat, giving visitors an opportunity to taste at least one species spotted earlier that day -- kudu, springbok, impala, and warthog are particularly popular. Lodges cater to dietary requirements but require advance warning, as supplies take time to arrive in the bush. If you're a vegetarian or keep kosher, notify the lodges prior to your arrival. Almost every lodge rotates dinners from their dining room to the ever-popular open-air boma (an open-air enclosure lit with a large fire), and some even offer surprise bush dinners, with a game drive concluding at a serene spot where tables have been set up under trees or in a riverbed.
The drawback to all this? A hefty price tag. If you've come to South Africa 0to see big game, however, it's definitely worth delving a little deeper into your savings and spending at least 2 nights in a private game reserve, preferably 3. Prices (which are often quoted in U.S. dollars and include all meals, game drives, bush walks, and most of your bar bill) do vary considerably (from season to season, for example), and it is possible to find more affordable options. Alternatively, some of the private concessions within Kruger -- notably Rhino Walking Safaris and Shishangani -- offer a near-comparable wildlife experience at a far lower price.
Note: If you're self-driving, you'll pay an admission fee at the entrance gates of some of the private reserves. Not all accept credit cards, so carry cash. The fee at Timbavati, for example, is R80 per car and R100 per adult entering the reserve; Sabi Sand is R80 per vehicle. You may also have to pay a small fee at the lodge.
Wish You Were Here -- It's 5am. The phone rings. It's the lodge manager. He politely asks how you slept, then requests that you not leave your room as planned. There has been a leopard kill meters from your chalet. He apologizes for the inconvenience and informs you that an armed ranger will be along shortly to escort you to the dining room for coffee before you depart on your early-morning game drive. This seldom happens, but every so often it does. Lodges in private reserves are not fenced off from predators, so you are advised to exercise extreme caution -- under no circumstances are guests of any age to walk about unaccompanied after dark.
Getting There -- The closest international airport is in Johannesburg, from where it's a 5- to 7-hour drive to this region, depending on which route you choose (the Panorama, Lowveld, or Letaba routes). Alternatively, you can fly directly from Johannesburg, Cape Town, or Durban. All camps and lodges will organize pickups from any of these airports, as well as arrange transfers by air or land to or from competitors.
Kidding Around -- Bear in mind that many camps and lodges do not welcome children; over and above a concern for other guests' peace is the belief that the bush holds too many inherent dangers, not least of which is the ever-present threat of malaria. Even if they are allowed, young children may not go on game drives or dine in the outdoor boma, and you will have to sign an additional indemnity form. Two private Kruger lodgings that actively encourage children, with separate child-friendly programs, are Londolozi and Makalali.
Where to Stay & Dine -- Increasingly, visitors to Africa's safari meccas are placing a premium on sophisticated luxury and designer bush experiences that enhance the traditional game-viewing phenomenon; you can expect to find some of the finest lodges in the world in the private lodges within and abutting Kruger. Because lodges and camps need adequate warning to stock up on fresh produce (remember, all meals are included in the rates below), transfers need to be prearranged; special dietary requirements also need to be sorted well in advance. And because many are extremely popular, booking ahead is essential. Although winter is the best time to view game, many lodges experience a seasonal drop-off and reduce prices from May to August -- some by as much as 50%.
Choosing Your Private Reserve
Besides the new concessions within the Kruger, you'll need to consider the three major private reserves that border one another and Kruger's southern and central section. They are, from south to north, Sabi Sand, Manyeleti, and Timbavati. None of these reserves is fenced off from the others or Kruger, which allows a seamless migration of animals through an area roughly the size of Massachusetts -- and growing bigger every year. Each of these three reserves features the Big 5 (lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos, and buffaloes), as does Thornybush, a relatively small reserve almost surrounded by Timbavati, but currently still fenced. Another private reserve in the region worth considering is Makalali, a large buffalo-free reserve that lies within striking distance of Kruger's central Phalaborwa Gate.
Each private reserve usually has a number of luxury lodges or camps that share traversing rights on land, thereby increasing the range of their vehicles. Many also report major sightings to the other reserves. In fact, with a cumulative 6 hours of every day spent tracking game, you will almost certainly see four of the Big 5 during a 3-night stay (the most elusive beast being leopards). Bear in mind that you will enjoy yourself a great deal more (and irritate your ranger less) if you spread your focus to include an interest in the myriad species that make up life in the bush.
Sabi Sand, a 66,000-hectare (163,020-acre) reserve that encompasses the southern lowveld, enjoys a reputation for being the most game-rich area in the country, and most guests leave having sighted all of the Big 5. It's hardly surprising, then, that this has become known as the continent's most exclusive reserve, with the largest number of luxury camps, including such legendary properties as MalaMala, Londolozi, and Singita. Not only does Singita offer top-notch game-viewing, but it is also regularly voted Best Destination/Hotel in the World/Africa, a distinction it has earned every year since opening. The standards of service and sophistication of the accommodations at Singita are incomparable, and your game experience is with the most attentive and knowledgeable guides on the continent.
During the apartheid era, when black people were not allowed to vacation in Kruger, Manyeleti -- the region just north of Sabi Sand -- was considered "their" reserve, and a visit to the original Manyeleti Rest Camp makes the most basic Kruger camp look like a luxury option. Officially, it's actually still a poorly run 23,000-hectare (56,810-acre) public reserve (administered by the Limpopo provincial government), within which private companies operate a few key concessions. Its border with Kruger Park is unfenced, so animals can roam freely between the reserves. While other lodges -- such as the luxurious Tintswalo (tel. 011/464-1208 or 015/793-9013; www.tintswalo.co.za) -- have opened their doors in the Manyeleti, the rates are comparable to Sabi Sands. Hence, the good-value Honeyguide remains the recommended choice, particularly if you're keen on a more authentic bush experience. (Note that operators in Manyeleti are restricted in the areas in which they may drive off-road in pursuit of game.)
Timbavati, the 65,000-hectare (160,500-acre) reserve alongside Kruger's central section, first became famous for the white lions that resided here. (Unfortunately, all were captured and taken to the Johannesburg zoo to "protect" them; though the recessive gene that causes white pigmentation still occasionally shows through in cubs born in Timbavati, none have survived to adulthood in recent years.) Timbavati offers a comparable game experience to the much-vaunted Sabi Sand, but the vegetation is less arresting, and rhinos are relatively scarce. Animals are almost as habituated to vehicles here as at Sabi Sand, and you can get within a few feet of large predators. The main reason to choose Timbavati over Sabi Sand is that it has far fewer camps and fewer people, and the rates are generally friendlier -- particularly at Umlani, one of the most authentic bush experiences in the area.
Bordered in the north and west by Timbavati, the 14,000-hectare (34,580-acre) Thornybush game reserve is currently still a fenced reserve, thereby curtailing animal migration. It boasts a high percentage of lions, but the thicket-type vegetation is not always as conducive to sightings of varied species. The best reason to choose this reserve is Royal Malewane, a lodge that offers unbelievably luxurious accommodations and superb style; suites are on par with Singita, but at a slightly reduced price.
Kapama is an "island" Big 5 reserve. As such, it's entirely fenced and included predominantly for those interested in an elephant-back safari. The growth in this kind of safari has not been without controversy, as human-habituated elephants require extensive feeding and sensitive care, and should not be sourced just to feed the tourist interest in riding them. That's why we recommend Kapama's Camp Jabulani, a winner in the Leading Eco Retreat category in 2008. In addition to Jabulani, an orphaned elephant calf that owner Lente Roode nursed back to health, there are 12 Zimbabwean elephants that were tagged for their meat by war veterans before Roode stepped in and rescued them.
If you're not hung up on ticking off the Big 5, consider the Makalali conservancy. Farther north, cut off from Kruger, it extends over 10,000 hectares (24,700 acres) and has lions, leopards, rhinos, and elephants. For some, the absence of buffaloes (due to foot-and-mouth regulations) is not a great loss -- they provide as much viewing excitement as a herd of cows. The area is also of geological interest, with quartz rock crystals strewn throughout the area. Note: Visitors with limited time or those unwilling to risk malaria may want to consider the 40,000-hectare (98,800-acre) Welgevonden and 35,382-hectare (87,394-acre) Lapalala reserves, only a 3-hour drive north of Johannesburg. If you are planning a second visit to South Africa or are keen on combining a visit to one of the above reserves with one that has a totally contrasting biome, the other Big 5 private reserves worth considering are Madikwe, which covers more biomes than Kruger, thereby offering a greater variety of species, and Tswalu Kalahari Reserve, a beautiful desert reserve and the largest private reserve in southern Africa. KwaZulu-Natal's Big 5 reserves include Phinda and Mkuze Falls, with subtropical vegetation and abundant birdlife. Whatever you do, don't miss the reserves in Botswana's Okavango Delta -- the "original Eden".
Gomo Gomo Game Lodge (www.gomogomo.co.za) is not going to be featured in the pages of a glossy design mag anytime soon, but it's worth a mention for the good-value rate alone: R2,960 double during the winter months and R3,400 during the summer -- excellent, given that this includes all game activities (two drives and a bush walk daily) and all your meals. The game-viewing is excellent -- there's every chance you'll see the same amount of game as someone staying at Royal Malewane, at a fraction of the price. The lodge comprises nine units; make sure to book one of the four safari tents rather than the thatched rondawels, and ask for one that is river-facing. Decor is functional, but you're here for the bush experience, which is exceptional.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.