With world famous national parks like Kruger National Park and Addo Elephant Park, there are plenty of reasons to head to South Africa for a wildlife holiday.
Sightings of the Big 5 are common, but South Africa is also home to large populations of equally special animals like wild dogs, serval cats, honey badgers and penguins. Yes, you read that right: penguins.
South Africa makes an excellent first-time safari destination, thanks to the ease of getting around and plentiful tourist attractions beyond wildlife. From the major cities of Johannesburg and Cape Town to the incredible landscapes of the Garden Route and Drakensburg, South Africa offers a whole host of cultural experiences, a fascinating history and natural wonders that make for an incredible vacation.
There are various different types of wildlife holiday in South Africa. Base yourself near Cape Town to go wildlife spotting along Cape Point (that’s where the penguins are!) In the national parks, head out on a self-drive safari to be in complete control of your animal sightings or stay at an all-inclusive safari camp to be escorted by highly trained guides in jeeps. But for the ultimate safari experience in South Africa, choose a private nature reserves for off-roading opportunities, bush dinners and sundowners in the wild. Whichever you choose, you’re in for a treat.
This South Africa wildlife guide shares the best places to visit, the best time of year to go, where to stay and more.
South Africa National Parks, Game Reserves & Wildlife Destinations
Despite being a fantastic safari destination, South Africa’s wildlife isn’t confined to its national parks and private nature reserves. Discover the best places to see wildlife in South Africa right here.
Kruger National Park
Kruger is South Africa’s best known safari destination. It’s home to all the big 5, as well as rarer species like wild dogs and pangolins. Sharing unfenced borders with Kruger, private nature reserves like Sabi Sands, Manyeleti and Timbavati offer the chance to drive off-road for close-up sightings, walking safaris with highly trained guides and bush dinners for an unforgettable treat.
Addo Elephant Park
With the largest population of elephants in South Africa, Addo Elephant Park certainly lives up to its name. But there’s plenty more to see at this national park located close to Port Elizabeth. From meerkats and warthogs to brown hyenas and a recently introduced lion family, Addo is an ideal safari destination of travellers along the Garden Route who are short on time.
Kgalagadi Transfontier Park
The word ‘Kgalagadi’ means ‘a waterless place’ in Tswana, making it a fitting name for the arid landscapes of the Kgalagai Transfrontier Park. Wildlife sightings of predators and prey are concentrated around the dry riverbeds of the Auob and Nossob rivers. Your chances of seeing large families of meerkats, ground squirrels as well as majestic black-maned lions are excellent here.
Marakele National Park
The Marakele National Park is a truly unique place to see wildlife in South Africa. The Waterberg Mountains provide an impressive backdrop from which to observe the world’s largest colony of Cape Vultures as they ride thermals generated by the cliffs. Though it is home to the Big 5, Marakele’s biggest draw is its spectacular views and relaxing bush experience.
Mapungubwe National Park
Located in the northern tip of South Africa, close to the borders of Botswana and Zimbabwe, Mapungubwe National Park is home to many species of big game, though sightings of large predators can be rare. Mapungubwe has plenty of interest for history buffs, being the site of Southern Africa’s first ancient African Kingdom established around 1200 AD.
Hluhluwe Imfolozi park is known for being one of the oldest nature reserves in Africa, as well as the place that brought white rhinos back from the edge of extinction due to conservation efforts dating back to the 1950s. Today, it is home to the largest population of white rhinoceros in the world at around 1,600. Lucky visitors can also spot the rest of the big 5 plus cheetah, jackal and giraffe.
Table Mountain NP
Table Mountain National Park isn’t just worth visiting for the views from its namesake. Hidden among the craggy rock crevices, you can spot dassies or rock hyraxes. Despite their rodent-like features, these stout furry creatures are the closest living relative to elephants. Spreading out over the Cape Peninsula, the National Park is also home to a large colony of African penguins at Boulders Beach.
Garden Route National Park
The Garden Route National Park is a beautiful stretch of coastline running along South Africa’s southern border. It combines the three previously distinct National Parks of Knysna, Tsitsikamma and Wilderness. Although other parts of South Africa may be better known for wildlife, the Garden Route is still a worthy destination on its own as the home to wildcats, zebras, antelopes, baboons and monkeys.
South Africa’s coastline stretches from the Atlantic in the west to the tropical waters of the Indian Ocean in the east. The waters around South Africa are therefore some of the most biodiverse in the world, attracting marine life from fish, seals and sea birds to whales, dolphins and over 100 species of shark. Head out on a sea safari to see them all, or simply observe from the safety of a beautiful beach.
When to go to South Africa
Being such a vast country, the weather in each part of South Africa can be as varied as its landscapes. Generally, the safari destinations of South Africa enjoy mild temperatures and plenty of sun year-round. That said, you’ll still need to keep prices, lodge availability and game viewing in mind when choosing your travel dates.
In South Africa’s winter and spring months, there is very little rain. This is excellent for game viewing as the vegetation is sparse, making it difficult for animals to hide out of sight behind bushes. The lack of rainfall also means water sources are limited, so you may find predators and prey animals congregate around waterholes in time for your visit. Temperatures are mild during the day but can drop down as low as 6°C/42°F at night, so wrap up warm!
The shoulder months of March, April and October offer a good balance of temperate weather, reduced crowds, reasonable prices and wildlife viewing.
As South Africa’s summer spans the northern hemisphere’s winter, the months between November and February can be very hot and humid. It can also get especially crowded in National Parks during the school holidays in December. As this is the wettest time of year, you may be nervous ofstorms during game drives. However, if you do see any rain, it tends to be short afternoon showers that won’t interfere with your trip. The rains also make the vegetation beautifully lush and green, but this can make it more difficult to spot wildlife.
Where to Stay in South Africa: Safari Lodges & Camps
There is an unrivalled choice of hotels, lodges and camps spread across South Africa to choose from. Options range from luxury all-inclusive safari lodges in private nature reserves to adventure camps in national parks and of course B&Bs and hotels in gateway towns and cities. The ones listed below are just a selection of what is available, but make sure you head to our favourite safari lodges in South Africa for even more accommodation inspiration.
Kruger National Park & Private Nature Reserves
How to Travel in South Africa
A country the size of South Africa can be a daunting one to travel across, but with excellent transport links between the main cities and safari areas, it really couldn’t be easier!
Shared minibuses like Ashtons connect Johannesburg to Hoedspruit – though many other routes are available – for a great value transfer. If you’d rather be in complete control of your own itinerary, it’s easy and relatively cheap to hire a car. However, journeys by road can be long and uninteresting.
Safari tours are available from various companies offering the chance to be guided and transported across the country without even having to think. But for the most magical experience, opt for a fly-in safari to maximise your time on safari, whilst also giving you incredible views over the plains as you transfer.
Things to do in South Africa
Though your focus of a visit to South Africa may be the wildlife, it’s hard to ignore the many other attractions and things to do in South Africa beyond a safari.