How Much Do You Tip Safari Guides In South Africa How to Choose a South Africa Safari

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How to Choose a South Africa Safari

So, you have made an important decision and decided to have a vacation in South Africa. It will be great. Cape Town is amazing, the beaches of the Cape Peninsula are beautiful (and often almost empty), the food is amazing, the wine is even better, and the Garden Route is a traveler’s dream.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. The Big Five play a big part in every South African holiday, but trying to choose a safari can certainly be hair-pulling and teeth-grinding. South Africa’s safari market is ridiculously saturated (mainly because it’s ridiculously lucrative) and there are so many options that it can be hard to know where to start.

The good news is that there are all kinds of safaris out there – something for every budget and for everyone (except maybe those who don’t like animals). Whether you’re a backpacker or an investment banker, this could be the ideal solution. It’s just a matter of knowing what’s out there and what the jargon actually means.

I hope this pocket guide will set you on the right path to the perfect South African trip:

WHERE TO GO ON A TOUR IN SOUTH AFRICA:

First, you need to decide where to go:

1. There are no decent, ethical game reserves near Cape Town. Point.

I used to work for a great safari operator in South Africa and I can’t forget the times they asked me about a safari near Cape Town. It’s just not possible. Yes, if you Google “safari near Cape Town” you’ll come up with a bunch of hits claiming to be Big Five game reserves a few hours outside of Cape Town, but don’t listen to a word of it. Wild animals really need space, probably at least 5,000 hectares, and none of the “game reserves” near Cape Town offer that kind of room to roam. If these reserves are indeed home to the Big Five, that probably means a few lions, usually within some sort of reserve, a few elephants, and some depressed giraffes. Basically, they are nothing more than glorified zoos. They are unethical and certainly fail to provide any real safari experience. When your safari vehicle stops less than a meter away, you can feel very sorry for the two overweight lions in a large cage that can’t even lift their heads. I have seen it and I am very hurt.

2. If you want a real bush safari experience, you should head north.

Understandably, many holidaymakers in South Africa prefer to fly into Cape Town, bypassing the legendary slums of Johannesburg. However, the area north of Johannesburg is not only very beautiful (Blyde River Canyon, God’s Window, etc.), but undoubtedly the best safari in South Africa is in the Kruger National Park or the Madikwe Game Reserve. These reserves are huge – the Kruger covers more than 2 million hectares, the size of Wales – and they feel really, really wild. Madikwe is less visited and perfect for travelers who want to do something different. It hugs the border with Botswana, covering a massive 76,000 hectares – compare that to the 3,000-hectare “reserve” near Cape Town. It also has the advantage of being completely free from malaria. Both Kruger and Madikwe are great for a truly thrilling safari. If you’re a wildlife enthusiast, it’s worth a trip north, and you can see whole herds of animals doing what the wild animals do – not just a lone rhino at a man-made watering hole.

3. The Eastern Cape can be a great deal.  

Sometimes it is impossible to climb north. If time is tight or you’re traveling with the whole family, you can opt for a malaria-free Eastern Cape safari. However, there are many options, some better than others. As always, the bigger the game reserve, the more authentic the safari experience. Unfortunately, the Eastern Cape curse seems to be paying through the nose for every hectare.

Kwandwe and Shamwari (location for the BBC’s Safari School) both cover more than 20,000 hectares and are both the most expensive options. Despite its size, I still found Shamvari too bland and spoiled by its commercialism. There are a lot of semi-detached houses in the reserve, so you will often encounter other vehicles, and the animals can be found mainly by rations between the rangers, not by bushtracking. I saw the Big Five but didn’t get the big feeling.

Some of the smaller reserves in the Eastern Cape can actually offer a much warmer and more memorable safari experience. Bukela in the Bushman Reserve is a family lodge with game machines on the 8,000 hectare Amakhala Game Reserve. There’s a real sense of community here, and you get a sense of living remotely in the bush, even if it’s lower than the wild plains.

Pumbaa (6,500 hectares) is another small but lovely reserve and Karie (7,500) offers really reasonably priced accommodation along with horse riding along the beach at Kenton-by-Sea.

Addo Elephant Park is definitely not to be missed as you can see dozens of elephants around waterholes and crossing rivers. Although technically a Big Five sanctuary, Addo is all about elephants, and if you really want to see lions, you have to combine it with another sanctuary. You can stay outside Addo in one of the beautiful hotels in the Sundays River Valley, surrounded by citrus groves and ostriches, and drive to the park for the day. Alternatively, all hotels and guesthouses in the area offer game drives to Addo with an experienced guide for an additional fee.

WHERE TO STAY IN SOUTH AFRICA:

Next, you need to choose what type of accommodation you are looking for. Here are some tips about lodges and holiday camps, as well as what is and isn’t included:

Individual Game Reserves: Think glossy brochures, impeccable service, chocolates on the pillow and G&Ts at sunset. Private game reserves provide a full safari experience – one morning and one evening game drive (usually in an open-top vehicle, with stops for morning coffee and sunset cocktails) and all meals are included in the price. So while the rates may seem steep, you can take solace in the fact that you won’t spend much while you’re there (unless you’re into vintage wines).

You will find many exclusive reserves in Sabi Sands, Timbavati, Thornybush, also known as the Big Kruger. Basically, these reserves are still part of Kruger, but privately owned. There are no barriers between the lands belonging to these reserves and the public part of the Kruger National Park, so animals can roam freely between public and private. What’s really important is that, while game wardens can go off-road in private game reserves and track animals through the bush, all game drives in the Kruger community must stick strictly to the roads.

Holiday camps: These are the other end of the scale. South African National Park-run holiday camps are affordable options in the public areas of Kruger, Addo Elephant and other national parks.

Prices start really low (a little over a tenner) and you can choose between camping, caravanning or any of the accommodation types available. These range from 10-person log cabins to 2-person jungle huts, some with bathrooms and some without, but almost all with their own braai (South African barbecue) set up outside. There is always some kind of on-site shop, so you can stock up on boerewors for dinner. If you love to camp or get up close to the great outdoors, you’ll love it (I know I do!).

At Safari, it’s all about self-driving. You get up early and drive around the road network in hopes of encountering wildlife while driving, and it feels like you’ve just happened upon a herd of elephants in your car. It may not be off-roading, but it’s great in other ways. A word of advice: If you are planning a camping trip, book very early as they fill up very quickly – sometimes YEARS in advance.

Of course, you can always mix and match. Why not stay in a simple forest hut for a few nights before moving on to a private game reserve for luxury and exclusive game drives. It can get you the best of both safari worlds…and you won’t burn a hole in your pocket at Fish River Canyon!

Fingers crossed this information will get you closer to the right trip for you. South Africa is simply amazing and however you choose it, you are sure to have an amazing experience.

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