Where to Spend Your First Safari
by Leon van Wyk
To give advice on where to spend one’s first safari is a little like giving advice on what car to buy, or what drink to order from the bar! Different people have different preferences, depending on a large number of factors, including, but not limited to, budget, age, health, wish-list, etc. Some people are much more adventurous than others, while for some, ease of access and political stability of countries might be the most important issues to consider before planning a destination.
For a typical family of four, eager to see good wildlife, some beautiful scenery and experience some good hospitality, I would not hesitate to recommend South Africa as a destination. I would suggest spending a few days in Cape Town and the surrounding area at the beginning of the trip. Not only is Cape Town one of the most beautiful cities in the world, but it also offers good cultural experiences, has some beautiful boutique hotels and an abundance of really great restaurants. For those interested in wine, a couple of days spent exploring the premier wine region of Africa would be memorable and enjoyable.
For a first game-viewing safari destination, one would not need to look much further than the privately-owned game reserves bordering the western side of the Kruger National Park. The Sabi Sand Wildtuin is justifiably the most popular of the private reserves in the region, and I would recommend spending a minimum of three, but preferably four, nights in one of the camps or lodges within the Sabi Sand. There are many to choose from, and this could be influenced by budget, personal preference, recommendations from friends or many other factors. By choosing a camp or lodge that has established a great reputation, looking at websites or online brochures and having an idea of what to expect, the average first-time safari-goer would not only not be disappointed, but would probably be “blown away” by an awesome experience.
View of the Drakensberg Mountains at sunset in the Sabi Sand Game reserve. Image by Daniella Kueck.
Situated to the west of the southern half of the Kruger National Park, and with open boundaries between the privately-owned land and the national park, the Sabi Sand is effectively about 3% of the size of the Greater Kruger. So-named because of the two perennial rivers, the Sabi River and the Sand River, which run through this land, game viewing in the Sabi Sand is of a consistently high standard. Many people who are on their first safari have high hopes of seeing Africa’s iconic “Big Five” – elephant, rhinoceros, buffalo, lion and leopard – and in the Sabi Sand, they stand a very good chance of seeing all of these during a 3- or 4-day stay. Other high-profile animals such as giraffe, zebra, hyena, hippopotamus and crocodile are also likely to be seen, which would delight almost all safari novices.
Hippo cow and calf on the bank of the Sand River. Image by Leon van Wyk.
Game drives and guided walks in the Sabi Sand are conducted by qualified guides and trackers. Most of the wildlife that is encountered is well used to seeing game drive vehicles, and is therefore habituated, allowing for quality viewing at close quarters. The Sabi Sand is particularly famous for its healthy population of relaxed leopards. Anyone seeing a leopard in the wild for the first time is likely to be enthralled by the experience, and totally captivated by the beauty of the animal.
Picture taken whilst on drive in the Sabi Sands. Image by Leon van Wyk.
It is not only the game viewing that makes the Sabi Sand lodges highly appealing. Accommodation is very comfortable (in some cases luxurious), food is scrumptious, and guests are often treated to entertaining performances (singing and dancing) by local staff in their traditional garb. South African hospitality seldom disappoints, and throughout the Sabi Sand, one can expect to experience this at a very high level.
For a first ever safari, I believe that four days in the Sabi Sand would be a really good choice. It would not be necessary to experience a number of different lodges or camps, although if the safari is extended to 5 or 6 days, it might be worth trying out two camps. Usually first-time safari-goers will be “bitten by the bug” and will vow to return. Many do so time and time again, and often for longer stays. Some return to the first camp they visited, others try something new. As safari novices graduate over the years into safari veterans, one would hope they become more and more adventurous or discerning in where they choose to go. East Africa for the Great Migration, Rwanda for gorillas, Madagascar for lemurs and incredible biodiversity, or The Republic of Congo for something extremely remote…. the list goes on and on. But for a safe, easy and memorable destination, in a country that is developed and has superb infrastructure, offers incredible variety and beauty, South Africa has got to be very high on the list of destinations for your first safari. You will not regret your choice!
Picture of a female leopard and her 8 month old young male cub taken in the Sabi Sands. Image by Dylan Brandt.