How to choose a South African Safari // Pilanesberg

Where to go on safari in South Africa?

Firstly, in South Africa, "safaris" are called game drives. Safari is a very Western term but they can be used interchangeably. If you want to go on safari in South Africa, there are countless options. Kruger is by far the largest and most popular safari destination in South Africa. The park covers 19,485 km² (~12,107 miles²) so it's pretty expansive. Although I've been to Kruger many times and had great experiences each time, there are countless other game parks in South Africa that are just as incredible and highly rated. Check here for a list of the best game reserves in South Africa.

How to chose a safari destination.

  • Location: Location is key. For instance, if you are staying in Cape Town, Kruger is about an 18-hour drive or 2-hour plane ride away. Luckily, there are equally fantastic parks near Cape Town such as Gondwana Game Reserve. If you are staying in Pretoria or Jo'burg, Pilanesberg is close by. In Port Elizabeth, the famous Addo Elephant Park is within driving distance. However, if distance isn't an issue, travel to your heart's content.
  • Price: Price varies greatly within each South African game park. Depending on how long you stay, the quality of the accommodation, the rating of the game park, amenities, etc.
  • Self-driving tour vs. guided tour: Self-driving is the cheapest option as you take your own car into the parks (after paying a small National Park fee) and drive around searching for animals yourself. You are not allowed to leave your car except at designated rest-stops (they have bathrooms, look-out points, curio shops, etc.). Self-driving tours are nice because they are cheaper and you can set your own pace. A guided tour is a bit more pricey because you are paying for an experienced guide to drive you around in (usually) an open-top vehicle and teach you about the wildlife. This option is nice because the guides know the park intimately and know where to find the animals. They also communicate with other guides via walkie-talkie when they spot an animal so you rarely miss a sighting.
  • Big 5: The Big 5 represent the animals that were traditionally hardest to hunt on foot, but now the Big 5 is used as a way to draw in tourists. The Big 5 are the Loin, Leopard, Rhinoceros, Elephant, and Cape Buffalo. It's considered a great accomplishment if you see all of the Big 5 on your safari (leopards are generally the most elusive). Game parks boast about having all of the Big 5, but they might also increase the cost if they do.
  • Private v. Public Reserves: Public game parks are government owned and managed, such as Kruger National Park. Private game parks are just that, privately funded. Private game reserves are often less crowded. They usually boast more luxury accommodation, and they tend to offer extra activities such as bush walks and night drives, like my stay at nThambo Tree Camp. Basically, less strict rules with a heftier price tag. 

When to go on safari?

Picking when to go on safari can be tricky. There are pros and cons to each season. For reference, winter in South Africa is approximately May to August and Summer is approximately November to February. Dry season usually coincides with winter and rainy season usually coincides with summer, but that can change, especially in Cape Town which tends to be the opposite. 

Dry season offers less greenery which means there is less vegetation obstructing your view of the animals. Dry season also means less water so the animals are forced to congregate around limited watering holes. Another benefit of dry season is fewer mosquitoes and other bugs. However, since it coincides with winter, dry season can be quite cold, especially on early-morning or night drives. Despite how it may seem, rainy season has its benefits too. In rainy season is you are more likely to see young, baby animals, as that is the breeding season.

Malaria medication?

Malaria is a mosquito-borne disease that can cause flu-like symptoms and is deadly. Fortunately, there are medications you can take to prevent malaria and if caught early enough, malaria is curable. Depending on where you travel within South Africa, you may or may not need malaria prophylaxis (anti-malaria medication). Always speak to a medical professional before travelling to a known malaria area, take your prophylaxis exactly as the doctor prescribes, and use mosquito repellent and wear long, loose-fitting clothing as an extra precaution.

This map shows the malaria areas in South Africa. Chemoprophylaxis = malaria prophylaxis.

Where is Pilanesberg?

Pilanesberg National Park is the place I chose to take my dad for his first South African safari. It's close to Pretoria (just under a 2-hour drive) and it is highly rated among South African game parks. Pilanesberg has the Big 5 and it's in a malaria-free area.

Where to stay in Pilanesberg.

Pilanesberg has many options for accommodation. Everything from self-catered tent grounds, to all-inclusive lodges, chalets, and safari tents. My dad and I chose to stay in Tented Adventures, an all-inclusive "glamping" experience. We stayed one night and our package included dinner the day we arrived, and breakfast the day we left (including wine and gin & tonics at dinner). We also got to go on two game drives, one the evening of our first day and one early morning drive the day we left. Unfortunately, our game drive vehicle was closed-top, which is not common, but we still saw a ton of animals and I saw my first leopard! The whole experience cost 1,730 rand per person.

Game viewing in Pilanesberg.

We saw tons of awesome animals on our two game drives. We saw 4 of the Big 5 and I even saw my first leopard! That bugger has been evading me for years. We also saw lions far out in the distance, but we could hear them roaring from miles away. We discovered some lions hanging out on the road, but unfortunately, a ton of other tourists got there first so we only got to see the lions through a herd of cars. That is an example of why private game reserves might be a bit better. Otherwise, it was a great game drive! 

A leopard, I swear!


If you have any other tips or advice for picking the perfect South African safari, leave them in the comments!


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