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From when to go to where to sleep out under the stars, here is everything you need to know about South African safaris

Many travellers want to incorporate a bush experience into their South African holidays. It truly is one of the great delights the country has to offer. But how do you plan your bush trip? What kind of safari holiday suits you? And where should you go? Here’s some guidance to help you on your way.

Where to go?

The Kruger National Park is the crown jewel of South Africa’s game reserves. It’s huge, well-maintained and rich with game, including the Big Five: lions, leopards, buffalo, elephants and rhinos.

The accommodation in the Kruger itself tends to be fairly simple, mostly geared towards self-driving holiday makers. If you want something more upscale, there are several smaller private game reserves sharing unfenced borders with the Kruger National Park. Here you can experience real luxury in the bush – fine dining by candlelight under the stars, a plunge pool to take the heat off after a dusty game drive, a private outdoor shower – and still have access to the game and the landscape of the Kruger.

Prophylactic malaria medication is recommended for the Kruger National Park and surrounds. If you are travelling with young children, you might want to opt for a park that is in a malaria-free area, such as Pilanesberg, which is quite accessible from Johannesburg and you can combine your bush trip with a visit to Sun City. Other malaria-free options include Madikwe, just South of the Botswana border, or the famous Addo Elephant National Park in the Eastern Cape.

When to go?

Winter (May to October) is best for game sightings. The grass is low, so you can see well, and the weather is pleasantly cool. In the rainy summer season, it can get very hot (over 30 degrees) but you are treated to beautiful lush bush, lots of baby animals and good bird-watching.

Self-drive or private lodge?

A private game lodge usually includes the whole deal – accommodation, meals, and two game drives a day in open 4×4 vehicles led by experienced rangers and trackers. The staff know their stuff – checking spoor, tracking, game spotting – and are in radio contact with colleagues, so you are bound to get good sightings as well as the benefit of their extensive bush knowledge and anecdotes. It’s a beautiful experience – you are open to the sounds, smells and sights of the bush, and it’s absolutely thrilling being up close to the animals with not even a window between you.

Driving yourself gives you total flexibility to come and go as you please, which is especially handy if you have children with you. It’s also significantly cheaper to stay in self-catering accommodation than in a full-service private lodge in somewhere like the Kruger National Park.

Looking for something special?

Just drinking your morning coffee while watching the hornbills looking for their breakfast bugs is a completely magical experience. But if you want to add something extra special to your bush experience, try these:

● Sleep under the stars
Guests at Tanda Tula Safari Camp, in the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve, have the option of sleeping in the Star Bed on a private sleep-out deck. Built up high in the branches of a lead wood tree, it offers a 360-degree view over the Greater Kruger National Park. It’s an extraordinary experience watching the sun set and the stars come out in their millions accompanied by the soundtrack of the bush and its animals. Sleep in comfort and safety under a feather duvet and mosquito net beneath the open sky and wake with the birds and animals at sunrise.

● Hot air ballooning
The most tranquil game-viewing imaginable is from a hot air balloon, floating gently over the bush. You get a different perspective on the landscape and on the herds of elephant, buffalo and antelope below you. Ballooning can be arranged at some parks (it’s not allowed at the Kruger Park) and lodges, including Pilanesberg National Park and in the Bela Bela area. For a daytrip from Joburg, there’s a Balloon safari at Cradle of Humankind.

● Horseback safaris
As far as a zebra is concerned, a horse is just another herbivore, so when you’re on horseback, you can get right up close to game without them taking fright. Ask at your lodge, they might be able to organise something close by.

● Bushwalks
A bushwalk in the company of an armed guide is offered at some lodges as an alternative to a game drive. Walking in the bush is quite different to driving through it. You are slower and closer to the ground, so you experience the animal tracks, the insects, the bird calls, the smells. Your senses are alive every little thing, and a good guide brings the bush to life. Just remember, never get out of your vehicle in the bush, don’t walk unaccompanied, and always follow your guide’s instructions.

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