Visiting South Africa and not going on a safari is like visiting France and not drinking wine. The numerous national parks and game reserves on offer are an integral part of the overall South African experience, and are woven into the very fabric of the country’s history, culture, contemporary politics and socioeconomic development.
But with so many stunning and game rich destinations to choose from in South Africa, how to decide which are best suited to your needs? Well, for those seeking a more intimate and exclusive safari experience away from the crowds and the tar roads, here is a rundown of five of the best private game reserves that South Africa has to offer.
Compared to nearby local family favourite Pilanesberg National Park, Madikwe remains a relatively unknown entity. But this is a large part of the reserve’s appeal, as is its malaria-free status and proximity to the major transport hubs of Johannesburg (3.5 hours away by car) and Pretoria (3 hours by car). Madikwe is currently the fifth largest reserve in South Africa. As well as an abundance of the Big 5, Madikwe has also developed a reputation as being the best place in South Africa to see African wild dogs. The picturesque reserve has a number of exclusive luxury lodges (both 4 star and 5 star), most of which also form an important part of the reserve’s pioneering approach to local community development.
Welgevonden roughly translates as ‘well-found’, and this is certainly an apt name for this particularly exclusive reserve in the heart of Limpopo Province’s diverse Waterberg ecosystem. Like Madikwe, Welgevonden is close to Johannesburg and Pretoria and completely malaria-free. The reserve is home to more than 50 species of mammal (including one of the largest populations of white rhino of any of Africa’s private reserves) and close to 300 bird species. No private vehicles are allowed in Welgevonden and most of the reserve’s exclusively 5 star lodges are restricted to a maximum number of ten guests, all of which makes for a particularly intimate bush experience. Welgevonden’s lodges are among the most luxurious, secluded and sustainable to be found anywhere in South Africa.
Shamwari is one of the most successful private conservation companies in the whole of southern Africa and the longest-standing stalwart of the Eastern Cape’s malaria-free private game reserves. With easy travel connections to and from the city of Port Elizabeth just a little over an hour away, it can also easily be worked into the itinerary for those road-tripping their way up the popular and picturesque Garden Route. The reserve’s five luxury lodges each have their own unique style to cater for all tastes, from the colonial splendour of Long Lee Manor to the understated modern chic of Eagle’s Crag, as well as a couple of more family-friendly options. The wildlife is abundant, and you can also visit the reserve’s wildlife rehabilitation centre and two unique Born Free Sanctuaries.
Found in the heart of the Frontier Country region of the Eastern Cape, Kwandwe boasts some of the most picturesque landscapes of any of South Africa’s private game reserves, characterized by handsome rolling hills and deep valleys around the beautiful banks of the Great Fish River. With just four award-winning five star lodges in 22,000 hectares of land, Kwandwe has one of the highest land to guest ratios in South Africa. The reserve is one of the newer editions to the increasing list of game reserves in the Eastern Cape, but the area has a rich history and cultural heritage, as evinced by a number of the reserve’s staff, many of whom were born within the current boundaries of Kwandwe . The food, service, design and views at all of the lodges are spectacular. And again, it’s malaria-free.
Pioneered by local landowners in the 1950s and bordering Kruger National Park, this 65,000 hectare reserve is one of the oldest and best-known private reserves in South Africa. Sabi Sands enjoys the rich biodiversity and almost unparalleled density of game of Kruger, but without the crowds. Particularly well known for its leopard sightings, Sabi Sands is home to all of the Big 5 and so much more besides. Many of the lodges here take the word “luxury” to a whole new level, with some of the best offerings to be found anywhere in Africa. In fact, two of the reserve’s lodges recently made it onto Conde Nast’s list of 10 top hotels and resorts in the entire world. Another of Sabi Sands draw cards is that the rangers are allowed to drive off road in pursuit of sightings, a rare treat in South African game reserves.
Robert Bernatzeder is Managing Director at Biggestleaf Travel.