Safari Specifics: FAQ

What are the safari options available? -- Wildlife viewing and interaction is the reason most set their sights on southern Africa, which has resulted in a number of ways to experience the bush. You can opt for a self-drive safari in a national park, fly straight to a luxurious lodge in a private game reserve, or -- best of all -- combine the two. The more adventurous take their chances on a specialist safari and go on foot, horseback, bike, canoe, or even the back of an elephant. If you're keen to walk the wilderness accompanied by an experienced, armed game ranger, consider the trails in Umfolozi (Imfolozi) -- 30,000 hectares (74,100 acres) of pristine bush and savanna (with no roads or paths other than those created by animals), rated by experienced hikers as South Africa's best. The most popular trail is the 2-night Short Wilderness Trail. Trails are run from mid-February to mid-November, afford an authentic wilderness experience, and introduce walkers to the broad diversity of fauna, flora, and ecological habitats that characterize KwaZulu-Natal. Alternatively, the walking safaris in Kruger National Park, which offers a choice of seven separate wilderness trails, are also highly recommended. Some Eastern Cape Reserves, such as Samara and Blaauwbosch, also offer "walk and stalk" opportunities, where you can track cheetah on foot (though these are short walks, not trails). For game-spotting on horseback, book a horseback-riding trail in the Delta. Families can saddle up in the malaria-free Waterberg. Other Botswana highlights include cycling safaris in Tuli, quad-bike safaris at Jack's Camp in the Makgadikgadi Pans, and mokoro (dugout canoe) safaris in the Okavango Delta -- the traditional way to get around its waterways, unhindered by buzzing motors or gas fumes. If you've always had a soft spot for the pachyderm, you can now mount your very own elephant and go tracking in almost all the game-viewing regions, but the best experiences are in Abu Camp in the delta and Camp Jabulani near Kruger.

Which country should I focus on? -- South Africa has the best-managed national parks in Africa, as well as some of the most luxurious private reserves; but if you're looking for the original untamed Eden, nothing beats Botswana, particularly the Okavango Delta. This is largely due to a government policy aimed at low-density, high-cost tourism. So be warned: Little here comes cheap. Until the land grab and economic crisis is resolved in Zimbabwe, visiting there should be restricted to Victoria Falls, which is close to the Botswana/Zambian border.

How do I get around between reserves? -- In South Africa, most of the reserves are concentrated around Kruger, or north of Johannesburg. You can reach them by flying directly to Johannesburg or Cape Town, then catching a connecting flight to an airport in or near the reserves, or even directly to the reserves. You can also opt for the 4- to 5-hour drive (or longer, if you include the Blyde River Canyon) from Johannesburg to the Kruger; the scenery is pleasant, and there are fabulous lodging options in the forests and farms along the way. Madikwe and Welgevonden are even closer -- 3- and 2 1/2-hour drives, respectively; camps here will arrange to meet you at Johannesburg's airport and whisk you straight to the bush.

To reach KwaZulu-Natal's reserves, most of which are in the northeast of the province in an area called Zululand, fly from Johannesburg or Cape Town to Durban or Richard's Bay airport. The closest reserve is 30 minutes away, while the biggest, Hluhluwe-Umfolozi, is an easy 3-hour drive from Durban airport (2 hr. from Richard's Bay).

Port Elizabeth is the airport closest to the Eastern Cape reserves; most are a mere 20- to 90-minutes' drive away. The best of these are comparable with the top reserves in the country, though vegetation is not as lush and trees aren't as plentiful as in the north or KZN. Best of all, they are malaria free. Visiting one is the ideal start or end point of a road trip along the Garden Route to or from Cape Town, a wonderfully scenic drive with great choices in lodgings and activities.

From South Africa, you'll have to fly via Johannesburg to get to Botswana's reserves and camps, most of which are accessible by charter flight from Maun or Kasane.

What should I do if I'm on a budget? -- By far the best budget option is to rent a car and drive yourself around the reserves, concentrating on the national parks (such as Kruger) and/or the provincial reserves (such as Hluhluwe-Umfolozi). The roads in these reserves are in good condition, so you won't need a four-wheel-drive. There are a number of advantages besides cost: You can set your own pace, take in more than one environment (many visitors, for instance, combine a trip to Kruger with a KwaZulu-Natal reserve trip), and bring the kids (many private game reserves don't accept children). Kruger accommodations are usually in semiserviced rondawels (pronounced "ron-da-villes") -- round, thatch-roof cottages with basic en-suite bathrooms that offer excellent value for the money (R575 per night; there are also standing tents from R285 at some camps). Cheaper units won't have their own kitchen, but all feature a fridge, tea-making facilities, and a barbecue area. Linens and towels are also provided. The more expensive units will have the added advantage of better views or more privacy. Most rest camps have a shop selling supplies, including such basics as dishwashing liquid, wood, fire-lighters, tinned foods, frozen meat, toiletries, and aspirin; you can also purchase field guides here. Most also have a restaurant serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Try to combine this with at least 2 nights in a private reserve (for reasons discussed below). The best-value Big 5 options close to Kruger are Gomo Gomo, Arasutha, and Umlani Bushcamps -- all charge less than R5,000 for two, including all game activities and all meals. For those prepared to "rough it," Mosetlha Bush Camp in Madikwe offers one of the most authentic safari experiences for the staggeringly good-value rate of R3,370 for two. The best-value Big 5 private reserve option in KwaZulu-Natal is currently Phinda Forest Lodge in the Phinda Private Game Reserve (R3,295-R5,985 all-inclusive), which offers luxury award-winning accommodation, a diverse ecosystem from sand forest to ilala palm veld and bush savannah, excellent game-viewing, and great cuisine. The only budget option in the delta is Oddballs, the base lodge from which mokoro (pole-propelled canoe) camping trips are made, but I'd plunder savings and upgrade to Xakanaxa Camp or Khwai Tented Camp.

Do I need to visit a private reserve? -- The best reason to visit a private reserve is that you are guaranteed to see more animals, and you will learn more about the intricacies of the bush. Visitors are taken for game drives in an open-topped vehicle by an armed and knowledgeable ranger, usually helped by a tracker, and in radio communication with other vehicles. Sightings are excellent on game drives (at least two of the Big 5 in one drive), and it's great to have your questions answered without having to flip through a book. In certain reserves, such as Sabi Sand, Timbavati, Thornybush, and Phinda, rangers are allowed to drive off-road, taking you almost within touching distance of animals (note that this is not possible in private concessions within National Parks). A typical day starts with a 3-hour, early-morning game drive, during which eight guests (or fewer at the more expensive lodges) are accompanied by a game ranger and tracker. A large cooked breakfast follows, possibly in the bush. A guided walk generally takes place before lunch, and afternoons are spent relaxing at the pool or on a viewing deck. Night drives take place during the sunset/early-evening hours, when drinks (sundowners) are served in the bush. The last hour or so is spent driving with a spotlight. Night drives can be incredibly dull (it's pitch black) or totally exhilarating, when nocturnal predators stalk and kill prey -- a rare but privileged sighting. Dinners are large, often served buffet style under the stars by firelight.

What's the difference between private reserves? Should I visit more than one? -- It's definitely worth combining reserves, moving to new landscapes that support different species. If this is your first time, it's worth choosing a Big 5 reserve -- the presence of lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, and buffalo usually means a great concentration of other species as well. The Big 5 reserves flanking Kruger (Sabi Sands, Manyeleti, Timbavati) and the new concessions inside the Kruger are your best bet in South Africa -- there are no fences between them and Kruger, creating a massive wilderness area where game moves freely. Sabi Sands is the private reserve that has the highest concentration of both game and luxury lodges. Another Big 5 reserve worth considering is Madikwe in the North-West, where a number of excellent new lodges have opened in the past couple of years. The Eastern Cape reserves are malaria free, and many offer top-quality game-viewing, though the landscape is not as arresting as the bushveld up north. Most desirable are Kwandwe and Shamwari, both an easy drive from Port Elizabeth, while less expensive options can be found in a multitude of smaller reserves. Lovely Samara, deep in the Karoo, and the extremely reasonable Blaauwbosch on its fringes are also well worth a visit, especially for those who love cheetah and would like to track them on foot (note that Samara doesn't have elephant).

The race for a genuine Big 5 safari experience in the Western Cape has been heating up, but none of the current options afford the authentic wilderness experience you'll get in the Eastern Cape, around Kruger, or in KwaZulu-Natal. These Western Cape "mini" reserves do have some or all of the Big 5 on the property, but the lions and/or elephants are often not free roaming and the reserves themselves are small. The accommodations can be lovely, and the experience is very satisfying for newcomers to the scene, but it's still best to travel farther, if you can. The current exception to the rule is Sanbona, about 3 hours from Cape Town, a 54,000-hectare (133,380-acre) reserve in the Karoo, which has the wide-open spaces and quality game-viewing expected on an authentic safari. It bears repeating, though, that this is not bushveld country. For those who can't get farther than the Garden Route, consider Buffelsdrift, near Oudtshoorn. They don't have big cats, but it's an excellent deal. Those desperate to see the Big 5 near Cape Town itself, no matter what, can opt for a day trip (or longer stay) at Aquila (it's less than 2 hr. from the city); the lions are in a separate area, but at least you can be guaranteed a sighting.

Although the reserves surrounding Kruger are typical of the African bush and savanna, the Okavango Delta in flood offers a lush landscape that attracts an incredible variety of bird life (not to mention a dense concentration of game). It's a must on any safari itinerary. Then there are the desert reserves such as Tswalu, Kgaligadi Transfrontier Park, and Makgadigadi Pans. With huge horizons and stark landscapes, these support species that have adapted to harsh conditions, such as cheetahs and gemsboks (oryx). By contrast, KwaZulu-Natal's semitropical climate creates a more junglelike environment -- it's beautiful, but spotting animals is a little more difficult in dense foliation -- and visitors can combine a safari with diving and snorkeling excursions. Zululand reserves include a variety of terrain, from sand, swamp, and mangrove forests to savannah, bush, and veld. As a result, it offers a range of flora and fauna endemic to these particular ecosystems.

I've heard that malaria medication can have side effects, and I want to take my children. Are there malaria-free reserves worth visiting? -- The best malaria-free Big 5 reserve is Makweti, but it's also worth looking at the options in Welgevonden, a pretty reserve very close to Johannesburg with numerous lodges, as well as the reserves in the Western and Eastern Cape. Staff and programs are often geared specifically for children in malaria-free reserves (Lalibela and River Bend are best in Eastern Cape, and Jaci's Safari Lodge is best in Makweti).

I've decided on the private reserve. How should I choose my lodge or camp? -- It's worth mentioning that some of the larger lodges simply feel like plush hotels. Budget permitting, select a private lodge that takes no more than 18 guests per camp -- this means you'll be ensured very personal service and the peace and quiet to absorb your surroundings. Privacy is paramount -- units are usually set far apart, often with such luxuries as private plunge pools. If, however, you want to get a real feel for the bush, consider tented bush camps, where such essentials as hot water and en-suite bathrooms are standard features, but canvas walls allow the sounds of the bush to connect you with the outdoors. If you don't mind living out of a suitcase, moving from camp to camp is the ideal way to see different environments as well as plentiful game. And nowhere does it get as good as Botswana.

If I'm visiting a private reserve, do I still need to include a national park or provincial reserve in my itinerary? -- Not necessarily. A private reserve should deliver all that you expect in terms of flora and fauna interaction and experience. In a national park or provincial reserve, you are, after all, in a closed vehicle, on demarcated roads which you can't leave, and you're not trained to spot animals in the bush. These reserves can also become very crowded, especially during school holidays, when queues are known to form around game sightings. With limited time, a private reserve is the best option, but for a more extended stay, a national park, perhaps with a trail, is an excellent option. Outside school holidays, you may enjoy sightings in the Kruger in total solitude -- a privilege you'll seldom have in a private reserve, where other guests are usually onboard, and another vehicle is on the way as soon as an animal is spotted.

When's the best time to go on safari? -- The dry winter months (June-Oct, particularly Oct) are considered best. That's when the vegetation has died back and animals are easier to see, concentrated around the diminishing sources of water. Unless it was a particularly wet summer, the malaria risk is also considerably lower. But spring and summer bring their own benefits: Many animals have young (there's nothing quite as delightful as a baby giraffe), the vegetation is lush and often flowering, and colorful migrant birds adorn the trees. It is more difficult to spot animals in spring and summer, however, and you'll almost definitely need to spend time in a private reserve if you want to be assured of seeing big game.

How long do I need to spend on safari? -- To honestly say you've experienced the bush, you'll need a minimum of 3 nights and 3 full days at one lodge -- preferably 4 to 5, split over two destinations.

How safe am I on safari? -- You are undertaking a journey through a landscape where wild animals abound, but if you behave sensibly, the risk posed by wild animals is minimal. Malaria is also a serious threat -- potentially fatal.

I've heard that walking safaris are the best way to experience the bush. Is this true? -- In a sense, yes. Guided by an armed and knowledgeable ranger, you will see many things that people in cars blindly cruise by, and the experience of spotting a rhino just yards away on foot is unforgettable. The emphasis, however, is not on tracking game (no ranger would take you within striking distance of a big cat) as much as it is on understanding the intricacies of the relationships in the bush, communing with nature, and learning about the medicinal use of indigenous plants. The ranger is armed, so there is no real danger (though a ranger was recently trampled to death by an elephant in Hluhluwe-Umfolozi, so be aware that these seemingly gentle giants need to be treated with the utmost respect). The wilderness trails in Kruger and Hluhluwe reserves enjoy an unblemished safety record for visitors.

What should I pack? -- Pack light, particularly if you are taking a charter plane to Botswana, which currently allows only one soft-sided bag weighing 10kg (22 lb.). Choose colors that blend in with the bush: Gray, brown/beige, and khaki are best. Loose cotton clothing tends to be the most comfortable and protects your limbs from mosquitoes. If you intend to walk, you'll need long pants to protect you from prickly vegetation and ticks, as well as comfortable hiking boots. A warm sweater, a coat, long pants, a scarf, and gloves are recommended during evening game drives in winter (May-Aug); you'll also need warm sleepwear. A fitted broad-brimmed hat, swimwear, good sunglasses, and sunscreen are essential in summer. Though many lodges supply insect repellent, pack your own, as well as every other malaria precaution. And, of course, don't forget binoculars and a camera (ideally, with high magnification lens, zooming to 300x or more). If you're not using a digital camera, bring plenty of film, though you can usually purchase more at the camp. If you bring a video camera, pack a 12-volt adapter for charging the batteries (keep in mind, however, that electricity isn't always supplied on safaris).

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.