Which is the Best Safari Lodge in South Africa?

Table of Contents

And if you don’t have time to read the whole article… skip to our recap! Which is the best safari lodge in South Africa for you?

Introduction

A safari in Africa is an experience like no other: a chance to get up close and personal with wild animals in their natural habitat. Trying to identify which is the best safari lodge in South Africa is like asking how long is a piece of string. The fact is that safari animals are wild, which means that there are times when you may see everything, and times when you could go back to the same lodge and see absolutely nothing.

Additionally, with so many Safari Parks/National Parks/Game Reserves in Southern Africa (let alone the rest of the continent!), deciding where to go can feel really overwhelming. Well, if you are struggling with which one to choose, then this is the blog post for you.

It’s important to ask first what makes a good safari lodge?

Through a mix of planning and accident, we have now been to nearly 15 safari parks in Southern and East Africa, so we’ve somehow become inadvertent experts! We’re focusing on Southern Africa in this post. We’ll talk you through the whole process of choosing the best safari park to visit, and then the difficult decision of picking the best safari accommodation in South Africa.

We’ll also talk you through some of the best safari parks in the rest of Southern Africa, which absolutely deserve their time in the spotlight and shouldn’t be overlooked.

This article may contain affiliate links. There is no additional cost to you and they are often discounted, but we may receive a small commission if you use them to book.

Emma and Murray, a white, brunette couple in their 30s are cuddling by a safari truck. Emma is standing on the vehicle and Murray has his arm around her waist. They are looking at each other and laughing - both are wearing hoodies and jeans
One of many safaris for us!

What’s the difference between a Safari Park a National Park and Game Reserve?

National Parks

A National Park, just like those in the UK/USA are owned by the government and open to the public (subject to applicable fees). Some in Africa have main roads running through them, so you can entirely self-drive them.

You can usually stay within National Parks, and there will often be options to suit all budgets, which makes for a less exclusive and more affordable holiday, however you may find that you are sometimes either fighting over viewing spots of the animals, or else driving for a while before you find anything in a large National Park

Game Reserves vs Safari Parks

A Game Reserve is not owned by the government, but by a private individual or company. You need to stay there to be able to enter and view the animals inside the reserve. You usually can’t self-drive, but need to hire a guide and/or ranger, but some will include the game drives as part of your stay. This makes them, as a general rule, more expensive, but more exclusive with perhaps more chance of finding animals and having the viewing all to yourself.

A Safari Park is an overarching name for all Game Parks, including National Parks and Game Reserves.

Antelopes and Zebra standing by a watering hole in Etosha. The landscape behind the water is very barren but there is one tree, which looks dead
One of the many waterholes in Etosha

What to expect on Safari

Is a safari right for you? Likely, it is! Safaris are amazing experiences for everyone, but here’s some things you need to know before you go:

  • A safari park is not a zoo. The animals are completely wild and roam completely free, often through large, unenclosed areas. This means you might not spot every animal on your drive, in fact you may not spot any at all! Wild animal encounters can never be guaranteed so it’s best to keep your expectations low, to avoid disappointment.
  • Every animal is interesting. Everyone wants to see a lion on their first safari, or perhaps a leopard or a huge herd of elephants. You might see one or all of those things, but if you see none, remember that the zebras, birds, antelope and other animals that might not seem as exotic are also fascinating creatures vital to the ecosystem! A good safari guide will tell you about every animal so that you can enjoy learning, no matter what you see
  • There might be some early starts. Safari animals are usually most active around dawn and dusk, so this is when drives tend to go out. Therefore you might be up at 4am some days for the best chance of a sighting! Don’t worry though, you can usually get an early night.
  • It can get cold in the bush! Yes, it can get cold in South Africa, especially when you are driving through the bush in an open air vehicle. It’s best to take layers and cover up, especially for sunset drives, where the temperature can drop suddenly.
  • You need to listen to your guides. They are there to keep you and the animals safe. If they say be quiet, do it. If they tell you to keep your arms inside the vehicle – again, listen to them. They know the landscape and the wildlife best.

Packing list for a safari in South Africa

Our suggested packing list is below:

  • Neutral clothing – don’t pack any brightly coloured or vibrant clothing. Khaki, grey, beige, black, brown etc. is best for a safari, so you will not seem frightening or intimidating to the animals. Make sure to take layers for the evening.
  • A good camera with telephoto lens and binoculars – these are both optional but will give you a great experience. You should be able to see more and get much better pictures since you can’t always go very close to the animals
  • Natural bug spray and suncream. Safari parks are delicate ecosystems, so it’s really important to respect the nature by avoiding harsh chemicals that can be harmful to the animals. We use Incognito bug spray, which is all natural and we think it’s better than any other traditional spray. They also have a reef-safe sunscreen and bug repellent combo, though any will be OK for suncream as long as they don’t contain the chemicals listed on savethereef.org. Remember ‘reef safe’ is not a protected term, so anyone can use it even if they are not reef safe. You need to check the chemicals to be sure.
  • Great travel insurance we use SafetyWing for our travel insurance and they’re great! We like them because their wording is really clear and it’s easy to use. They cover safaris as standard too. You can check the prices using their calculator below.

Before you choose the best safari lodge in South Africa, you need to choose the best safari park…

Of course, there are absolutely masses of safari parks in South Africa, and they all offer something different. We’ll walk you through a few we’ve really enjoyed, and a few we wouldn’t recommend.

1. Kruger National Park

Nearest International Airport? Johannesburg
What makes it unique: A vast area with a huge density of animals, and the opportunity to self drive
Recommended for: A mix of animals, potential for leopards
Our rating: 3 out of 5

A huge herd of elephants coming out of the trees next to our truck. They are peeking out of the bushes.
More elephants!

Standing over 19,000km2 (roughly the size of Fiji!) Kruger is one of Africa’s biggest National Parks, with certainly one of its biggest reputations. This is for good reason, as it has a huge density of animals, even given the vast area it spans, and you can drive yourself through it, meaning you can really take your time and, if you so wish, explore every corner of the park.

Personally, we actually found it a bit too vast! The chances of sightings are naturally lowered when you are self-driving, and the area is large (which makes it all the more special when you do spot something). We were unlucky, in that we did not have any up close and personal experiences with animals at all, and were also really hoping to see a leopard (we had been told this was our best chance) and didn’t manage to see any over 3 different game drives.

That being said, everybody else we have spoken to seems to have seen leopards in Kruger, so this could just be us! We recommend taking at least one game drive with the park, as the 4x4s they use can get off the roads into the areas where the animals were last spotted, and the guides communicate with each other via radio to try to find the Big Five for you. We would recommend to anyone going to Kruger to try to combine this with another National Park, just in case you are unlucky with sightings.

A shot of the river with several hippos. One is standing up and drinking, the others are staying in the water keeping cool.
Seeing more hippos than we’ve ever seen before!

Accommodation in Kruger National Park

You have quite a few choices of accommodation in Kruger. Since it’s a National Park, you aren’t as restricted.

Best budget accommodation in Kruger: Shoe Guest House – this place is so quirky we actually love it! It’s shaped like a shoe, which you definitely have to see to believe (click the link if you’re not sure what I mean!). The decor is super sweet, but simplistic. The accommodation is moving in an eco-friendly direction and going completely solar, which we love! You need to organise safaris separately, as they are not provided by the accommodation, but you can also choose to self-drive. In terms of quirkiness, this may be the best safari lodge in South Africa.

Best mid-range accommodation in Kruger: In our opinion, Le Lechere Guest House is amazing value for money on a mid-range budget. This family run hotel is a beautiful setting with everything you could need for a few days in Kruger.

Best luxury accommodation in Kruger: to be honest, there are so many luxury accommodations we really love in Kruger, but for unique stays, we have to recommend Kruger Shalati – Train on the Bridge and Garden Suites. Here you can actually stay in an old train carriage on a bridge. It’s amazing! Really different.

If none of those is taking your fancy, see what else is available by using our tool below:

2. Pilanesburg National Park

Nearest International Airport? Johannesburg or Pilanesburg
What makes it unique: Mankwe Dam, as well as a density of animals in a small space
Recommended for: Elephants and lions
Our rating: 4 out of 5

A huge bull elephant, with one tusk shorter than the other. He is extremely wrinky and is in musth.
A huge bull elephant in Pilanesburg

Pilanesburg is a good park to combine with Kruger. Despite the name, it’s actually a private game reserve, so you do need to stay there to take a safari with them and it is fenced off to protect the animals. It’s very small (in relative terms, the animals still have plenty of space), but they have over 7000 animals, so you have a very good chance of spotting the Big Five.

What makes this park special is the inclusion of Mankwe Dam, which provides a very good chance of a close sighting – such a large body of water is very appealing to the animals, particularly in low season, and you can see a good diversity of species, no matter the time of day.

Accommodation in Pilanesburg

Since Pilanesburg is a private game reserve, there is not really much in the way of budget accommodation within the park itself. For midrange accommodation, we recommend The Kingdom Resort. It’s a simple place, but well located, clean and comfortable.

For luxury accommodation in Pilanesburg, you have plenty of options! Perhaps the best lodge in Pilanesburg is the gorgeous Shepherds Tree Game Reserve, which has an incredible spa and offers morning and evening game drives as part of its accommodation package. If that’s out of budget, we also love Tambuti Lodge, a beautiful and traditional style 4*, where you can choose from outdoor and indoor showers! We love a rustic stay. As a second alternative, you also have the stunning Black Rhino Game Lodge, where you can eat in a traditional boma, and view wildlife all night from the waterhole viewing deck.

Check what’s available here.

3. Shamwari Game Reserve

Closest International Airport? Gqeberha (Port Elizabeth) or Cape Town
What makes it unique: luxury accommodation and up close experiences
Recommended for: Elephants and lions
Our rating: 5 out of 5

An upscale hotel room with large bay windows and a huge double bed
The rooms at Shamwari!

Shamwari is a luxury Game Reserve and it is stunning. All of the accommodation here is second to none, and the guides are excellent. Through radio communications, each ranger ensures a safe distance between each vehicle out in the park at any given time, meaning space for the animals and a great chance of seeing their natural behaviour at its best (for example, we were able to see lions mating in Shamwari thanks to this technique).

We were able to get extremely close to a large herd of elephants, simply by driving nearby and waiting. The privacy of the reserve means the guides are not on as much of a time limit, so the experience is really yours to take your time over and you do not need to rush if you get to a good spot.

There are also several beautiful viewpoints throughout the park, aimed at showcasing sunset from the best possible angle, and the camp can organise traditional African braais for you in these spots for a unique dining experience. We would recommend this to those who have the budget as the perfect luxury safari experience, great for honeymooners, who want something extra with their game drives.

An adult male lion with a thick mane pursuing a female lion. They are in mating season and have just left the bushes.
Lions about to mate in Shamwari

Accommodation in Shamwari

Shamwari has its own accommodation, which can be booked by contacting them directly. What’s great about Shamwari is that they have all different kinds of accommodation, be it for couples (Long Lee Manor), adventurers (Explorer Camp), families (Riverdene) or luxury travellers (Bayethe, Eagle’s Crag, Sindile and Sarili). If we had to pick one, we’d stay in Eagle’s Crag for the plunge pool, but they’re all amazing!

4. Sanbona Wildlife Reserve

Closest International Airport? Cape Town
What makes it unique: unique luxury accommodation and its conservation appeal
Recommended for: Elephants and conservation of unique species
Our rating: 5 out of 5

Sanbona prides itself on a mix of diverse flora and fauna, and unique luxury. The lodges are all tented camps, and they’re set out in the wilderness, so it’s a super beautiful place to stay for a night. Conservation is of the utmost importance in Sanbona, as they have some of South Africa’s most biodiverse nature.

Sanbona is also home to some incredible San People cave art, which is thousands of years old.

Accommodation in Sanbona

Sanbona is another one that is its own accommodation and they have three beautiful options for you to choose from, each very different in style.

Dwyka Tented Lodge is super unique. The setting, in the middle of a ravine, back by rock formations is gorgeous, and the rooms are all fixed luxury tents. It’s extremely romantic and remote.

Gondwana family lodge is a sweet and quirky farmhouse style lodge with traditional South African touches. It’s perfect for families, as the name suggests and has it’s own stunning outdoor pool area.

Finally, Tilney Manor is a more slick homestead style lodge. The mountain views and Manor house style are to die for!

Check which one is available for your dates below.

5. Madikwe Game Reserve

Closest International Airport? Johannesburg or Gaborone (Botswana)
What makes it unique: diverse landscape on the edge of the Kalahari desert
Recommended for: all of the big 5, best for families and groups
Our rating: 4 out of 5

Madikwe is a large park with a variety of different lodges within it. Being right on the border of Botswana, it has a really unique position, and you can find some very rare animals here, such as the rare African painted wild dogs. The landscape is really varying, and is a mix of desert and mountains, making it the perfect place for those who worry about getting bored easily!

They also offer a range of family safaris and cater really well to young guests. The only thing that accommodation doesn’t come cheap in Madikwe, so it’s probably not one for budget travellers!

Accommodation in Madikwe

In terms of value for money, the best in Madikwe is Buffalo Ridge Safari Lodge. Like every other lodge in Madikwe, it’s 5*, and really beautiful, but it’s usually much better priced than its high end luxury competitors!

Motswiri Private Safari Lodge would be our choice for mid-range, because of its absolutely gorgeous setting and the chance to eat your meals in a traditional boma around a firepit.

If ultra luxury is your thing, the choice for you is Madikwe Hills Private Game Lodge. This may indeed be the best safari lodge in South Africa. Each room has its own private deck with a plunge pool and panoramic views of the African savannah.

Check what’s available for your dates here.

Where to avoid

We do not recommend Addo Elephant Park, as Addo offers elephant riding. This has long been recognised in wildlife conservation as a cruel practice, which involves brutal training to tame the animals. We do not endorse it and would recommend to avoid these parks and any others that offer hands on activities, such as riding and feeding safari animals.

If you want to venture outside of South Africa…

Here are some other incredible parks and reserves we would highly recommend.

1. Etosha National Park

Where is it? Namibia
What makes it unique: Watering hole experiences
Recommended for: A diversity of animals
Our rating: 5 out of 5
Our Favourite Lodge: Eagle Tented Lodge and Spa

A family of elephants, including adolescents and babies, playing in a manmade watering hole. The landscape behind them is very barren, with a few dishes in the background
A beautiful family of elephants in Etosha National Park

Etosha National Park is in the middle of Namibia, and as such, it’s very difficult for natural water sources to reach the park in plentiful enough supply to satisfy the animals, especially in dry season. Etosha has overcome that with an ingenious system, in that (in addition to the few natural springs that occur in the park) they have strategically drilled their own watering holes dotted around the park. This both helps the animals and boosts their tourism, as there is an increased chance to see game and rare wildlife in known places that would not otherwise have existed.

Etosha also offers the unique experience at some of their camps, such as Okaukuejo, of floodlit waterholes, where you can see animals up close and personal at night without needing a game drive. Patience is key here and as the park says itself, the animals at the waterholes can change every day and even every hour, so you can never guarantee where you will get the best experience, but overall, they do offer a better chance to see animals, notably in the dry season.

If you’re thinking of visiting Namibia, we have a full itinerary and destination guide too!

A night shot of a watering hole in a very rocky area. There are two rhinos drinking, one is an adult, one a baby. You can see them illuminated against the background.
Rhinos at night in Etosha

2. Chobe National Park

Where is it? Botswana
What makes it unique: River cruise experience
Recommended for: Hippos, elephants, water buffalo
Our rating: 4 out of 5
Our Favourite Lodge in Chobe: Chobe Safari Lodge

Two large bull elephants standing on opposite banks of a small stream. They are touching trunks and are about to start fighting each other. The landscape is green and verdant and there are rolling hills behind them covered in bushes
Two bull elephants about to fight in Chobe

We had heard somewhat mixed reviews about Chobe – in our opinion, this just really goes to show that you cannot predict these parks, and you never know what you will get on any given day! From a personal perspective, we had an amazing time in Chobe. The game drives are fun, and the guides very knowledgeable – we saw lions very close here and also a lot of hippos in and out of the water, which was fascinating.

The highlight for us was the sunset river cruise – we were told by our guide that the best one to do was the 3 hour sunset river cruise, which is 450 Botswanan Pula (about £25/$30) and he was not wrong. We saw so many elephants we lost count, including two males fighting, water buffalo, more hippos in and out of the water, and even a few African Fish Eagles. As with any experience in these parks, experiences can vary wildly, but you certainly have a great chance to see as much as possible at sunset, and the setting on the boat makes for very unique pictures.

We recommend this if you’re looking to do something a bit different with your safari.

Emma, a white brunette, is sitting on the edge of a boat wearing a strappy top and shorts. Just behind her on a river bank is an adult hippo, walking on the ground.
Chobe sunset cruise – hippo spotting!

3. Hwange National Park

Where is it? Zimbabwe
What makes it unique: Varied terrain, also Hwange Painted Dog Conservation Centre
Recommended for: A mix of animals
Our rating: 4 out of 5
Our favourite lodge in Hwange: Hwange Safari Lodge

4 buffalo, most of whom are grazing, one of whom is looking at the camera. He has huge curved horns and seems interested.
Surrounded by buffalo

Hwange (pronounced Wang- Gee) is an interesting National Park – it is set up off a main road, so you can actually drive through parts of it yourself and have a good chance of seeing animals before you have even entered the gates. There are lots of different areas, including wooded groves, where we got really close to elephants (within an arm’s length!), and wide open plains, where we saw literally hundreds of buffalo, a couple of lions and even more elephants.

They also have areas where they are really used to seeing cheetahs and leopards, so the guides know exactly where to take you to give you the best chance of a sighting – sadly we were not lucky there. Overall, this park is a bit of an all-rounder, and a great one to start with if it’s your first safari – you have a good chance to see a few of the Big Five, and the guides will do their best to get you to all of them.

Just outside the park is the Hwange Painted Dog Conservation Project, which we recommend visiting. This project aims to showcase the endangered African Wild ‘Painted’ Dog and their decline to near extinction. The animals themselves are beautiful and the centre does a good job of highlighting the dangers of poaching in an easily-digestible way (also suitable for children). Though the project aims to rehabilitate all animals it takes in, occasionally there are those that cannot be rehabilitated due to the pack nature of wild dogs. This is sad to see, but the team there are very open to questions and extremely respectful in their approach to the animals.

An adult male elephant with large tusks is walking towards the camera and he is within arms' reach. It is a night shot and you can see his shadow clearly.
Our incredibly close elephant encounter at the campsite

We also had a very unique experience at Hwange, as the campsite we stayed at (Tuskers Camp Ivory Lodge) had a ‘salt lick’ just behind it, set up with a viewing deck. Elephants came through all night to lick residual salt from the ground and got so close to the viewing deck we could have touched them (though obviously we didn’t, as this would have been very dangeorus).

They were totally unfazed by us – it was nothing short of amazing! The campsite said we could stay and sleep out there if we wanted to, but it did get a bit chilly. This was truly a bucket-list-worthy moment for us, so we would recommend Hwange to anyone because of it (notably this campsite).

7. Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary

Where is it? Eswatini
What makes it unique: adventure activities, and the opportunity to walk and cycle through the park
Recommended for: Endangered species (not the Big Five)
Our rating: 3 out of 5
Book Mlilwane here

A group of 6 waterbuck standing looking alert. A few are looking at the camera, others are looking the other way. They all have thick fur on their necks and one of them has long horns.
Waterbuck in Mlilwane

The Royal Family in Eswatini have set up a series of safari parks to help tourists get the most out of their country and Mlilwane is the first of these. It’s an inventive set up, and helps showcase the best of their animals and scenery. Mlilwane is a reserve for endangered antelope species, such as Red Heart Beast and Roan Antelopes, and hunting is completely banned within the park – there are no natural predators (except a couple of crocodiles) so you can walk and cycle freely within the park with no danger.

The guides are some of the most knowledgeable we have had, and know the animals inside and out. It is certainly interesting to see so many unique types of antelope up close, and it was fascinating to see how calm they were with no predators nearby. The scenery is also beautiful, which is a great incentive to visit.

A baby zebra who looks very young. His stripes have just developed and he is looking at the ground and looks a little nervous like he might run away
The cutest baby zebra ever

This is not really a typical safari park, as it doesn’t have any of the Big 5. The area is more of an adventure park and endangered species conservation area, we actually really enjoyed ourselves! It’s a little like Centreparks in the UK, so there is plenty to do – you can hike, cycle or ask a guide to take you out on one of their horses to see the animals, which is really fun.

The accommodation is nice too, they have self-catering rondavels or beehives, but beware that some of the areas do not have electricity at all, so check before you book. They are doing fantastic things with conservation and have grown the numbers of Roan Antelope in particular vastly in the last few years. We would definitely recommend visiting Mlilwane, but if you are hoping to spot the Big Five, it’s best to do it in conjunction with another park in Eswatini or South Africa.

8. Mkhaya Game Reserve

Where is it? Eswatini
What makes it unique: a good chance to spot rhinos and their 24 hour package
Recommended for: Rhino-spotting
Our rating: 4 out of 5
Book Mkhaya here

A mother and very young baby rhino wallowing in mud. The baby is stomping in the mud and playing and the mother is watching us a little warily staying protective. The landscape is very green behind them and it is rainy season so there are lots of clouds.
A mother and baby rhino in Mkhaya

Mkhaya Game Reserve is a very interesting National Park Experience. You can book several different types of stay with them, but we highly recommend the full 24-hour experience. This is a dinner, bed and breakfast package, which includes a 3 game drives, a guided walk and your accommodation. It’s very slick and they are very well set up to give you the perfect experience and best chance of animal sightings within that time.

Rhinos are the only one of the Big Five you can see at Mkhaya, but they also have several antelopes and giraffes (the smaller number of animals available to see if the only reason we have rated this 4 instead of 5, as the experience is otherwise amazing).

You first drive to the co-ordinates they give you at either 4pm or 10am, and are picked up by their rangers and taken to the National Park with just an overnight bag. Your 24 hour package starts once over the river, as they begin game-driving straight away. You then are shown your accommodation (which is a rustic, barefoot luxury, electricity-free cottage with no walls or windows! It’s actually very lovely and well set-up despite this and is quite high end) and taken to dinner, which is cooked and arranged by the chefs – they can cater to dietary requirements, but tell them in advance.

The next day, you have a game walk (more to learn about the different types of fauna in the park, but still a chance to see animals) and then a drive. We were extremely lucky with this and ended up seeing heaps of rhinos (including two very young calves) in total both walking and driving, which made the experience quite spectacular for us.

An adult female rhino framed in a tangle of tree branches. She is staring intimidatingly at the camera and has a huge nasal horn. She looks like she is about to charge and there is another rhino grazing peacefully behind her.
We thought this rhino might charge!

If you are truly interested in rhinos, then this is the park for you, but bear in mind the restrictions of no electricity, the unpredictability of the animals and the lack of variety of other species.

9. Hlane Royal National Park

Where is it? Eswatini
What makes it unique: separated areas for rhinos, lions and elephants
Recommended for: Rhinos and Lions
Our rating: 4 out of 5
Book Hlane National Park here.

3 giraffes are standing looking straight at the camera. They look as though they have just been startled and one is hiding behind a bush
3 startled giraffes

Hlane is the biggest and oldest of the National Parks in Eswatini and the country takes great pride in it. They have a good set up, in that they have several gated areas through the park to help separate the animals and give them the best chance of thriving naturally – one is for lions and black rhino (a slightly larger area), as well as several species of antelopes, and the second for white rhinos and a couple of elephants.

You can take walking safaris in the second area, as well as game drives, and game drives only in the second area (for obvious reasons). Both are interesting in their own way, and the guides are truly excellent – very knowledgeable and good at spotting the animals. Again, a lot of their accommodation is electricity-free, so make sure you know what you have booked before confirming.

This is a good all-rounder – good as a beginner’s safari, but bear in mind it is unlikely to see all of the Big Five here, they rarely spot leopards and buffalo.

Overall, each park has something different to offer, so it really depends where you are in the continent and what you are looking to experience.

Recap – which is the best safari lodge in South Africa for you?

Still don’t know which one to choose?

Drop us a message or arrange a consultation with us here.

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    Written by Emma

    Emma

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