Among South Africa’s vibrant cities and stunning natural wonders, its one-of-a-kind wildlife remains the indisputable biggest draw for travelers headed to South Africa.
Searching for gracefully powerful big cats and thundering elephants and rhinos turns a visit to South Africa into a bucket list adventure most travelers can’t wait to experience for themselves. While there are plenty of memorable safari destinations throughout Africa, South Africa safaris have long reigned supreme.
From budget-friendly self-driving safaris to Africa’s most high-end safari experiences, these ten best South Africa safari tours and destinations are among the nation’s safari highlights. Whether you’re traveling with a budget in mind or are ready for a once-in-a-lifetime luxury trip, these South Africa safari highlights are guaranteed to impress.
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South Africa Safaris
While the Serengeti in Tanzania and Masai Mara National Park in Kenya remain the most popular safari destinations in Africa, South Africa is the safari destination that is most quickly growing in popularity – and for a number of reasons. Boasting iconic safari parks like Kruger National Park, impressive game reserves like Sabi Sands with some of Africa’s most luxurious accommodations, and out-of-this-world animal experiences, it’s no wonder South Africa is such a popular safari destination.
The standout South Africa safari destination is certainly Kruger National Park and its neighboring private game reserves. Offering self-driving safaris for budget travelers within the park, and some of the most upscale safari experiences you’ll find anywhere in the neighboring game reserves, it’s both an iconic destination and an endlessly popular one that every traveler can fall in love with.
However, don’t book your trip to Kruger without considering the other incredible safari tours in South Africa. Coastal destinations like Addo Elephant National Park boast incredible diversity of wildlife, Phinda Game Reserve and its neighboring public safari park are world-renowned for birding, and northern Madikwe is a “Goldie Locks” destination offering private reserve benefits with more affordable prices.
Whether you’re looking for unique animal experiences, shorter travel times, or particularly affordable (or luxurious) safari options, there are plenty of reasons to look beyond Kruger.
How Much Does It Cost To Go on a Safari in South Africa?
Safaris are generally considered to be quite expensive vacations – but they don’t always have to be. For the most part, expect to spend more on a safari than you might on another type of vacation – safaris can cost anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars per night (or more!).
Factoring in your room, all the food you’ll be eating at your remote lodge or accommodation, plus game drives and other safari excursions, there is simply a lot to pay for when on safari.
However, safari travel on a budget is possible. Option for a national park with self-driving safari options like Kruger National Park or Pilanesberg National Park, where you won’t have to pay a guide to see the wildlife, and will only need to factor in the cost of a rental car. You can also stay at national park rest camps along the way, meaning no need to pay for expensive lodges. These safaris are different experiences, that’s for sure, though often just as memorable!
Which Safari Is Best in South Africa?
The iconic Kruger National Park and the neighboring private game reserves like Sabi Sands Game Reserve are home to nearly 150 species of mammals, including all of the Big Five Animals and even the elusive leopard, are generally considered among the best safari destination in South Africa.
Other favorite South African safaris include Phinda Game Reserve for those looking for a more off-the-beaten-path destination with similar wildlife experiences to Kruger, and luxury lodges like Sabi Sands. The neighboring Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park is a public park, offering much of the experience of Phinda without the luxury price tag.
However, there’s no one “best” safari experience in South Africa – each different park and game reserve offers such a unique experience that every traveler will find something to their liking on a South Africa safari. Whether you’re looking for a self-driving safari through Kruger or a high-end luxury experience at a plush lodge, you’ll find it here.
Best South Africa Safari Experiences
1. Kruger National Park
One of the great, iconic safari parks in Africa, Kruger National Park is South Africa’s first national park and one of the most desirable African safari destinations. Located in northeastern South Africa, this remote corner of the country is well known for offering an array of incredible safari experiences, meaning no matter the South Africa safari experience you’re looking for, you’ll find it at Kruger.
With an array of impressive wildlife – pretty much everything you’d want to see (the entire Big Five, and then some) – Kruger is a great place to come for first-time safari travelers, though even more experienced safari travelers will appreciate setting foot in this iconic destination.
Highlights of Kruger include seeing the rare leopards, rhinos, and African wild dogs, as well as more commonly-spotted animals like warthogs, zebras, elephants, lions, and giraffes. This is one of the few places on Earth you’ll be able to spot a leopard, so while sightings are rare, you might just get lucky in Kruger.
Whether you’re looking for luxury or more affordable South Africa safari tours, you’ll find great options in Kruger National Park. As a national park, you’ll find some very basic accommodations called “rest camps,” which make it a popular destination for budget-conscious travelers. For luxurious safari lodges within Kruger, the world-famous Singita offers luxury lodges on private concessions within the park.
Read More: Kruger National Park: Ultimate Travel Guide
Best Safari Tours in Kruger National Park
There is a reason Singita is so well-known as a South Africa safari tour provider: they’re simply the best. Experience a safari with Singita at Lebombo and Sweni, both located directly within the park, offering incredible game drives through the park and on the neighboring private game reserves.
Travelers looking for savings but who would like a guided drive rather than a self-driving experience can book one-day guided drives through Kruger National Park. These are quite economical and can really enhance the experience!
2. Sabi Sands Game Reserve
Bordering Kruger National Park, Sabi Sands Game Reserve is another one of the most popular destinations for a South Africa safari. While Kruger is a national park, meaning self-guided safari drives and lower-cost accommodations, neighboring Sabi Sands is a 65,000-hectare private reserve on the lands of third- and fourth-generation landowners.
The reserve boasts what many claim to be one of the largest concentrations of big game in Africa, including the Big Five and the leopard. With game drives led by experienced private guides – no self-driving here! – you’ll have the very best opportunity to spot every animal you’re looking for and more.
In terms of the experience here for travelers, Sabi Sands Game Reserve is known for having some of the most impressive and luxurious lodges in all of South Africa (and beyond). Think five-star luxury, ultimate attention to detail, and the price tags that go along with it. If you’re looking for a once-in-a-lifetime safari experience, Sabi Sands Game Reserve is the safari destination for you.
Best Safari Tours in Sabi Sands Game Reserve
A truly standout choice for a safari in Sabi Sands Game Reserve is Cheetah Plains, among the most exclusive spots for a safari experience in South Africa. This luxurious property boasts incredible private villas, each with its own hospitality team, to ensure a first-class stay for every guest, personalized to each visitor’s interests. It’s a one-of-a-kind experience.
Plan a Trip to Sabi Sands
3. Thornybush Game Reserve
Yet another one of the impressive (and high-end) game reserves located along the bounds of Kruger National Park, Thornybush is among one of the best South Africa safari destinations for wildlife spotting. Get ready to meet all the stars of Kruger National Park, and enjoy excellent opportunities to spot the more hard-to-find big cats like leopards and cheetahs.
Both white and black rhinos are found in this reserve, as well as the rare white lion that occasionally makes a visit from the neighboring Timbavati Game Reserve. Other animals you may spot include pangolins, hyenas, meerkats, civets, and more; with Thornybush’s being so well known for its incredibly dense concentration of animals, you’re sure to have some incredible wildlife experiences here.
Thornybush is also well known for incorporating walking safaris into the safari experience of guests and visitors, which is an incredible option! These more intimate, guided experiences mean you’ll have a chance to see the incredible smaller creature of the area up-close and personal – a huge highlight.
Thornybush is also home to some of the most impressive safari lodges in South Africa, including luxurious spots known for incredible game drives with world-class guides. There are quite a number of lodges to choose from, and at a range of price points, though most tend to skew luxurious and exclusive.
Best Safari Tours in Thornybush Game Reserve
Favorite safari tour experiences can be had at Shumbalala Game Lodge and Royal Malewane, both on the luxurious end of the spectrum in this impressive safari spot. In fact, Royal Malewane is considered among the most luxurious safari lodges in the world. Expect both world-class service while at the lodge and incredible game drives with excellent guides.
4. Pilanesberg National Park
Another one of South Africa’s beloved national parks offering second-to-none safari experiences and accommodations, Pilanesberg National Park in the north of the country is a very popular safari destination. Just over two hours north of Johannesburg, it’s also easily accessible, making it a favorite choice for travelers with shorter itineraries and even families who prefer a less-remote destination.
Pilanesberg has all of the Big Five you’re hoping to see and plenty more animals as well. The Big Five, antelopes, wild dogs, and an array of smaller mammals all populate this pristine safari park due to its distinct (malaria-free!) location between the Kalahari and the Lowveld, and in the area of a massive extinct volcano. Pilanesberg’s unique scenery is a welcome breath of fresh air for safari travelers tired of flat savannah.
One of the draws of a safari in Pilanesberg National Park is the ability to self-drive through the park, which can make the experience an affordable one for travelers looking for a budget safari option – rest camps and more affordable lodges make accommodations a breeze, too. However, luxury isn’t lacking, with some truly impressive lodges awaiting travelers escaping from Johannesburg for a long weekend or the safari of a lifetime.
Best Safari Tours in Pilanesberg National Park
If you’re staying at Pilanesberg but aren’t interested in a self-driving experience, don’t worry – the lodges at the park offer guided game drives with experienced guides as part of their safari tours. For a more luxurious experience, Nkala Safari Lodge is second to none, both in impressive accommodations and world-class game drives. For a more rustic “bush lodge” experience, Kwa Maritane Bush Lodge is a stand-out favorite, though you’ll by no means be roughing it!
Many visitors to Pilanesberg love the self-driving safari options, which give freedom to explore the park at your leisure. However, many visitors also book experienced guides to help them explore the park with a professional eye, as this can greatly increase your chances of seeing all the wildlife you’re looking forward to spotting.
It’s certainly recommended to explore the park with a guide for at least one day of your safari – they can also give you tips to help make the rest of your self-driving experience even better!
5. Mala Mala Game Reserve
While Mala Mala Game Reserve is technically within Sabi Sands Game Reserve, this private, exclusive game reserve is worth mentioning in its own right thanks to its world-class lodges and second-to-none South Africa safari experience. One of the area’s oldest and most-beloved game reserves, it makes for an incredible destination whether you’re planning your first safari or your tenth!
Bordering Kruger National Park, this private game reserve is home to all the wildlife you’re looking forward to seeing at Kruger, but with a fraction of the crowds. In fact, a safari experience at Mala Mala may be the most private and secluded you’ll find, as only visitors staying overnight within the park are allowed access to it. You (and the animals that reside here!) will feel like you have the place all to yourself!
Of course, the Big Five roam aplenty in Mala Mala, as well as cheetahs, leopards, and other mammals like wildebeests, wild dogs, and hyenas. The frequency of leopard spotting at Mala Mala is a highlight for many visitors.
Best Safari Tours in Mala Mala Game Reserve
One of the most impressive lodges in Mala Mala, with the most well-known safari tours, MalaMala Rattray’s Camp is an excellent choice when looking for a safari in this game reserve. Opened in 1927, this luxury lodge has a history of providing a fabulous guest experience on game drives and breathtaking freestanding suites offer seclusion and privacy, in your own stunning corner of the savannah.
6. Madikwe Game Reserve
Located along South Africa’s northern border with Botswana, Madikwe Game Reserve is perhaps the most underrated safari park in South Africa. Just a few hour’s drive from Johannesburg and just over an hour from the capital of Botswana, Gaborone, you’ll be able to easily access the reserve while still feeling like you’re a million miles away.
You thought the Big Five was impressive? In Madikwe, you’ll see the Big Seven. This includes all the animals of the classic Big Five (the lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo, and black rhinoceros) in addition to the rare African wild dog and the cheetah. It makes for one-of-a-kind wildlife experiences. No self-driving safari option here, but the guides are absolutely incredible – you’ll have a million times more luck with them than you would on your own!
In addition to the incredible wildlife at Madikwe Game Reserve, you’ll get a great mix of safari lodges to choose from, making the experience here just as luxurious or as budget-friendly as you can dream of. From rustic, off-grid camps like Mosetlha Bush Camp & Eco Lodge to high-end spots like Madikwe Hills Private Game Lodge, you’ll have a great range of choices for your South Africa safari experience at Madikwe.
Best Safari Tours in Madikwe Game Reserve
Featured among the world’s top ecolodges in Hitesh Mehta’s Authentic Ecolodges, Mosetlha Bush Camp & Eco Lodge is a family-owned and operated bush camp in the heart of Madikwe Game Reserve. With world-renowned guides and incredible opportunities to get up close and personal with wildlife, it’s no wonder that 50% of guests are return visitors.
This beloved, rustic eco camp provides visitors with an authentic wilderness experience and minimal environmental impact. This off-grid property offers just ten raised cabins with partly open sides, encouraging guests to unplug to reconnect.
7. Phinda Game Reserve
Located in eastern South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal area, right along the coastline and south of Eswatini, Phinda Game Reserve offers easily one of the very best South Africa safari experiences. Home to seven ecosystems – known as the “seven wonders of the world” – you’ll find a bit of everything here, including impressive, easily-visible wildlife, the complete Big Five, and rhino rehabilitation and conversation projects that make this one of the best places to see rare rhinos in the wild.
This game reserve is owned and operated by andBeyond, the award-winning, responsible safari brand whose presence is now throughout Africa. Phinda Game Reserve helped launch andBeyond to global recognition. At their flagship Phinda, you’ll experience their very best of the beloved andBeyond experience and feel welcomed to their pride and joy.
Despite being the flagship of such a well-known safari brand, Phinda Game Reserve still has a bit of an off-the-beaten-path vibe, especially when compared to other high-end safari spots like Thornybush and Sabi Sands. It’s a great choice for a relaxed yet luxurious safari without sacrificing wildlife experiences.
Looking to pair a safari with a beach vacation? Located close to the coast, a stay at Phinda combines perfectly with a beach getaway. The nearby iSimangaliso/Greater St Lucia Wetland Park is actually a UNESCO World Heritage-protected site, and offers pristine beaches and great snorkeling opportunities.
Best Safari Tours in Phinda Game Reserve
You really can’t go wrong with any experience at Phinda, no matter which is of the six lodges you choose from. Game drives are incredible, truly second to none, and the off-the-beaten-path luxury of the game reserve permeates no matter where you stay.
Two of the most beloved spots, offering the most distinct safari experiences at Phinda, are Phinda Mountain Lodge and Phinda Forest Lodge – nestled within totally distinct ecosystems within the reserve, they offer very different experiences. Expansive mountain views and family-friendly amenities await at Phinda Mountain Lodge, while Phinda Forest Lodge is an ecolodge par excellence with shaded cabins among the forest providing secluded luxury.
For even more privacy, choose the exclusive safari villas – The Homestead and Zuka Lodge – which offer a complete, private estate, perfect for all your family and friends to tag along and create safari memories together.
8. Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park
Just south of Phinda Game Reserve, Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park is an excellent choice if you’re looking for the unique experience of a safari in KwaZulu-Natal without Phinda exclusivity. Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park is the only national safari park in the area that is home to the Big Five animals, and much of the same beautiful and diverse landscape as Phinda.
In addition to the park’s Big Five animals and dozens of other impressive animals, it’s also home to a large population of white rhinoceroses, as the park has been home to traditional breeding grounds and an extensive preservation project.
Another wildlife highlight at Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park? The incredible bird populations. This is one of the most well-known and beloved destinations for birders on safari looking to spot unique species of eagles, herons, longclaws, and more. It’s the perfect spot to combine birding excursions with game drives.
Best Safari Tours in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park
Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park is open for self-driving safari excursions, a popular option in the park, though not the only one. Private game drives with trained guides are still generally the best safari tours, as guides have all the inside scoop about where and when to find animals. Stay at the favorite Rhino Ridge Safari Lodge for private game drives with the very best guides.
Looking for a budget safari tour? Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park might be the perfect option. It is close enough to Durban to enjoy a one-day safari excursion from Durban. Of course, staying in the park for at least a night or two means a more complete safari experience, but a safari excursion from Durban is a great option for travelers with just a short itinerary. You can also find excellent multi-day safari excursions from Durban with transportation included for a hassle-free option.
9. Addo Elephant National Park
Located along South Africa’s southern coast, Addo Elephant National Park is among the country’s largest national parks and a great choice for safaris whether you’re on your first safari or more experienced. Best known for – you guessed it – the numerous large herds of elephants, Addo Elephant National Park is also home to a rich and varied landscape. It promises incredible wildlife sightings, with much more than just elephants.
Elephants aren’t the only wildlife you’ll see here – not by far. The park is home to the Big Five, plus African wild dogs, cheetahs, hyenas, and over 13 species of antelope. The park’s coastal location also makes for an entirely unique safari, meaning you can see seals, whales, and even sharks along with the standard safari favorites.
A mix of self-driving options and some incredible luxury lodges with top-notch private game drives means a safari in Addo Elephant National Park can be just as affordable or luxurious as you’re looking for. Nearby spots to stay, Airbnb style, offer more affordable choices as well.
Best Safari Tours in Addo Elephant National Park
As with other national parks in South Africa, Addo Elephant National Park offers the option for visitors to self-drive through the park rather than hire a guide. It makes for an exciting experience and an affordable one if you’re traveling on a budget; it’s certainly one of the draws to the park. Many travelers also love to hire a safari guide for at least one day of experiencing a guided game drive – these can be a great introduction to the park and offer tips for a self-driving experience.
An andBeyond outpost exists at Addo Elephant National Park as well, offering one of the best experiences in the park – Riverbend Lodge feels perfectly old-world and classic, providing a great experience for travelers and a comfortable retreat after a day spent scouting out animals.
10. Lalibela Game Reserve
Another one of coastal South Africa’s best safari destinations, Lalibela Game Reserve offers a great mix of attractive features for travelers that makes it so special. Malaria-free, exclusive, and meaningfully conservation-focused, this Big Five game reserve isn’t as sprawling as its counterparts in the northern part of the country, though it doesn’t feel like it.
Home to five unique ecosystems within just 26,000 acres, you’ll get incredible opportunities to see unique bird species, mammals like lynx, jackals, and cheetahs, as well as all the Big Five favorites you’re expecting. With large expanses of grasslands, you’ll find great herds of zebras and wildebeests, making for incredible wildlife experiences and stunning photography.
Lalibela Game Reserve is home to six high-end lodges, making it a luxury safari destination perhaps not the best choice for budget travelers but a great option for those looking for a one-of-a-kind getaway.
Best Safari Tours in Lalibela Game Reserve
Each of the six lodges at Lalibela is incredible – you really can’t go wrong here. Tree Tops Safari Lodge makes for a unique experience if you’ve never stayed in a tented safari camp before. Mark’s Camp is a family-friendly option, while Inzolo Lodge feels particularly romantic (and exclusive) with its private chalets.
Wherever you stay in Lalibela Game Reserve, make sure to add a walking safari to your itinerary. You’ll love the experience, and the guides do an incredible job making the most of a slow journey through the incredible landscape and diverse ecosystems of the park.
Carley Rojas Avila is a bilingual New York-based travel writer, editor, content marketer, and the founder of the digital travel publications Explorers Away and Home to Havana. Carley is an expert on all things Latin America, the Caribbean, and Cuba, having lived and worked in four different countries in the region. Her writing has appeared on the Associated Press wires and in Travel + Leisure, Yahoo, MSN, Euronews, The Weather Channel, and more. When she's not writing about her travels, find her front row at a Bad Bunny concert, befriending street cats, and taste-testing every pizza in Havana.