The Wildest Animal Encounter in South Africa
Staring Down a Roaring Lion (private game reserves in Mpumalanga, Limpopo Province, the North-West, and Botswana): Tourists are notoriously hungry for shots of big cats, and if you spend 2 nights at one of the top private game reserves, you will certainly get close to lions and leopards, often on the first drive. If you're lucky, you'll get close enough that your vehicle will shudder from the noise that erupts from the king of the jungle's gut.
Waiting for a Leopard to Finish Its Dinner (private game reserves, the North-West, Mpumalanga, and KwaZulu-Natal): Holing up in your room while a leopard gnaws its dinner outside your door might happen at any of the private game-reserve lodges that are set in the bush. Animals roam freely in this environment, and if dinner happens to be on your patio, celebrate the fact that you're not it and plunder the minibar.
Stalking a Rhino on Foot (Kruger National Park, Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Reserve): Tracking rhino is no mean feat: They can smell humans up to 800m (2,624 ft.) away. Being on foot, with only the sounds of the bush and your beating heart as you crouch just meters from an animal as large as a tank, is unbeatable. For the best rhino-tracking experience, stay at Royal Malewane lodge, in the Thornybush game reserve adjoining Kruger. You will almost definitely track white rhino on the Bushman, Wolhuter, and Napi trails run by Kruger National Park, and the Umfolozi trails run by Hluhluwe-Umfolozi.
Swimming with Penguins (Boulders Beach, Cape Town): This is a beautiful place to swim; large boulders create natural swimming pools shared by the only land-breeding colony of jackass penguins. Watch them waddle and dive through the crystal-clear waters, which are slightly warmer than the Atlantic seaboard side -- cold comfort, given how icy that is.
Eyeballing a Great White Shark (Cape Town, Hermanus, and Mossel Bay, Western Cape): Forget tawdry images of razor-toothed monsters chomping at metal bars -- this is a riveting, myth-dispelling opportunity to get up close and personal with one of Earth's most ancient creatures, viewing great white sharks in their natural habitat: Geyser Rock, the preferred winter breeding ground for 60,000 Cape fur seal. Most South African shark-cage diving companies adhere to a strict code of conduct, and many are involved in eco-research aimed at helping to save the endangered great white. Nowhere else on the planet can you get to the sharks with so little effort. (A tamer experience, with gentle ragged-tooth sharks at Cape Town's aquarium, lets scuba divers literally swim with the fishes.)
Watching Rare Turtles Nest (Zululand, KwaZulu-Natal): In November and December, the female leatherback and loggerhead turtles leave the safety of the sea at night to lay their eggs above the high-tide mark on the northern beaches of KwaZulu-Natal. Two months later, hatchlings scramble out of their nests and make a run for the ocean. Only one or two out of every thousand survive to maturity and return to the exact same beach where they were born to produce the next generation.
Avoiding a Territorial Hippo (Victoria Falls, Okavango Delta, Zululand, KwaZulu Natal): The upper reaches of the Zambezi and the Okavango Delta's watery channels are best explored by gliding along in a canoe (for the most authentic African safari, sign up for the 3-day Kanana Mokoro Trail and camp out on islands in the Delta), but you're more than likely to meet a hippo this way. Always treat them with respect -- despite a relatively docile appearance, they are Africa's most dangerous mammal and are responsible for more deaths than crocodiles or lions.
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.