Watching wild animals, dangerous and untamed, in their natural, untouched habitat brings about a deeply satisfying communion with nature. It's why we South Africans crave the bush. Much of this has to do with sheer size. South Africa has some of the largest tracts of wilderness on the continent, and as political relations in the region have stabilized, this rich heritage has expanded even farther, with fences between South Africa and parks in neighboring Mozambique and Zimbabwe falling away to create one of the largest conservation areas in the world, unfettered by the constraints of human borders. This is where you will find an unprecedented number of lodges offering unparalleled wildlife experiences in some of the most perfect (and ever more luxurious) settings known to man -- particularly those able to pay top dollar.
The areas richest in big game (and luxury lodges) are the landlocked provinces of Limpopo and its southern neighbor, Mpumalanga, which together form the northeastern corner of South Africa and share one of the continent's most famous game reserves, Kruger National Park. Most people come to this region seeking the romance of untamed Africa, a place where vast plains of bush savanna and thicket teem with game, rivers are swollen with lumbering hippos and lurking crocodiles, dense indigenous jungles shroud twittering birds, horizons shimmer with heat, and the nights are lit only by stars and crackling campfires. This you will find -- and more. Here lies the Escarpment, carpeted in a mosaic of indigenous and plantation forest and offering breathtaking drives and views; the spectacular Blyde River Canyon, largest in South Africa; the lush subtropical gardens of the legendary Rain Queen; Stone Age sites that recall the rich indigenous precolonial cultures; and boomtowns that tell of Mpumalanga's short but turbulent gold rush.
But the primary destination in the region remains Kruger National Park, one of Africa's greatest wildlife sanctuaries, and the private game reserves that surround it. Kruger's budget facilities and well-maintained roads make this the most affordable safari experience in Africa, accessible to independent travelers on even extremely limited budgets. By contrast, the exclusive private game reserves that run along the park's western unfenced border, as well as the selection of recently created private concessions within the Kruger, are reputed to hold the most luxurious safari lodges and camps on the continent, and it's true. Aside from the chi-chi accommodation, cuisine, and service standards, the game-viewing -- in open-topped vehicles that are driven off-road by knowledgeable guides -- is superlative. Spend a few nights at any one of them, and you are virtually guaranteed truly close-up encounters with the Big 5, an experience that comes highly recommended, despite the steep price tag.
Kruger National Park and its surrounding reserves are the best internationally known destinations, but visitors should also be aware of the Big 5 game reserves that lie north of Johannesburg, and enjoy the additional benefit of being malaria free: The Waterberg Mountain region and Madikwe are both within easy driving distance of Jo'burg yet are more off the beaten track than their more famous cousins in the east. Madikwe, in particular, has a wonderfully varied terrain that supports what has been dubbed the Magnificent 7: In addition to sightings of the Big 5, you stand an excellent chance of seeing cheetahs and wild dogs, Africa's most endangered predator; and most of the privately owned and managed lodges and camps here offer rates that are a far better value than those surrounding Kruger, making this arguably the best-value luxury safari destination in South Africa.