Leopard licking his lips while on safari at Lions Sands River Lodge in Sabi Sand

South Africa Safari: 12 Planning Tips to Know Before You Go

Last updated Jan 13, 2023 | South Africa

South Africa has it all. It boasts a gorgeous urban city with a dramatic mountainous backdrop, world-class cuisine and wine, and the opportunity to experience some of the most wildlife-rich game reserves. The South Africa safari was the highlight of one of the most epic trips I have ever done. This experience is on a whole different level than going to a zoo and peering at a wild animal through metal bars.

Planning for a safari can be overwhelming and time-consuming. I hope to give you some guidance by sharing my 12 travel pearls to know before you go. 

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Number 1 Icon

There is a Best Time to Go

Lioness and cub by water hole

Lioness and cub by water hole

Yes, there is a best time to go! Book your trip sometime from May-early October, which coincides with the DRY MONTHS. Vegetation is sparse, which allows for easy spotting. Plus, animals tend to be concentrated around the water holes during this time, so they are a little easier to find. 

Another advantage during the dry season is fewer mosquitoes (lowered malaria risk).

It will be warm during the day and cool at night, so make sure to bring layers! 

Our South Africa safari was only one part of our epic 2-week trip to Africa. We decided to go at the end of September. This time frame overlapped with better weather in Cape Town + the best time to go on a South Africa safari. Win win. If you are struggling with ideas of what to include on your Africa trip, don’t miss my personal detailed itinerary. 

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How to Pick a Safari Lodge

Lion Sands River Lodge Fire Pit

Lion Sands River Lodge fire pit

There are many safari lodges in South Africa with different levels of comfort and all at different price points. The choices can be overwhelming especially for a first-timer. How do you sift through the long list? 

For one, consider what unique experiences the lodge has to offer. For example, we stayed at the Lion Sands River Lodge in Sabi Sand, and they provide their guests with the opportunity to sleep under the stars at the very romantic Chalkley Treehouse. Don’t miss our full review below!  

Another consideration is the safari lodge property size. The bigger the game reserve, the more bio biodiversity. For example, Kruger National Park in South Africa is huge compared to all private game reserves. Then if you look just at the private game reserves in Sabi Sand, MalaMala has a sizable property.

A very important factor to consider is if the safari lodge offers a 6-seater safari jeep. Some use 9-seaters, which means you could end up in the middle seat at some point since guests tend to rotate. Imagine it’s the day you come across those adorable little lion cubs and you’re trying to hang over someone to get a better view. No thank you. 

If you want to learn more about how to pick a safari lodge, check out my article below. 

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What a Typical Safari Day Looks Like

Lion Sands River Lodge Daily Program (1)

Lion Sands River Lodge Daily Program

If you have never been on an African safari, you may be wondering what a typical day at the lodge looks like. When we arrived at Lion Sands River Lodge, we were provided with the schedule above. Each day included two game drives. The timing of the drives coincides with when the animals are most active.  

The middle of the day is at your leisure. Breakfast is served at the first game drive and dinner after the second. Here’s an example of a typical day at Lion Sands River Lodge. 

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5 AM: WAKE UP CALL

Hearing your phone ring with your guide’s voice on the other end at 5 am was brutal, but your excitement (like a kid on the first day of grade school) drives you out of the comfort of your warm bed.

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5:30 AM: MORNING SAFARI DRIVE

Two lionesses eating a giraffe while on a safari drive at Lion Sands River Lodge

Two lionesses eating a giraffe while on a safari drive at Lion Sands River Lodge

For the next 3 hours, you will be on the adventure of a lifetime. This is not like going to the zoo. Seeing these magnificent animals in close proximity is an incredible experience that requires your presence to fully understand it; words, photos, and videos do not fully capture the moments you have out in the bush.

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8:30 AM: BREAKFAST TIME

Poached eggs benedict at Lion Sands River Lodge

Poached eggs benedict on an English muffin with hickory ham and hollandaise at Lion Sands River Lodge

Gourmet breakfast/brunch is served a-la-carte. Brunch is definitely my favorite meal! Lots of delicious choices!

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AT LEISURE

Biking while watching the wildlife at Lion Sands River Lodge

Gym time (quite the “animal” watching view!)

The rest of the day up until the afternoon safari drive is at your leisure. You can do a bush walk, get a workout in at the gym (and get in some good “animal watching”), take a nap, hang out by the pool or bar, or get a spa treatment.

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1 PM: LUNCH TIME

Peanut Chicken Bowl at Lion Sands River Lodge

Peanut chicken bowl with chicken breast, green beans, cucumber, cherry tomato, boiled egg, and peanut satay sauce

I felt like we just ate breakfast, but how can you turn down another amazing meal?

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4:30 PM: AFTERNOON/EVENING SAFARI DRIVE

Leopard just finished consuming her kill up in a tree

Leopard just finished consuming her kill up in a tree

Another exciting 3-hour adventure! You never know what wildlife you are going to come across. On one of our evening drives, we came across a leopard who had just finished chowing down on an impala up in the tree. So incredible. 

Enjoying a sundowner while on safari at Lion Sands River Lodge

Enjoying a sundowner at the end of our afternoon game drive

At the end of the drive, you celebrate yet another wonderful day out in the bush with a sundowner.

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7:30 PM: DINNER

Ostrich fillet at Lion Sands River Lodge

Ostrich fillet, bean cassoulet, butterbean puree, beetroot, fine beans, savoy cabbage, and port jus at Lion Sands River Lodge

Yet another amazing gourmet a-la-carte meal! The food was delicious and they had a decent wine list. I can easily agree that Lion Sands River Lodge is certainly known for their wonderful food and 5-star service!

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Kruger vs. Sabi Sand Game Reserve

South Africa is home to several amazing safari parks including Phinda, Madikwe, Kwandwe, Kwazulu Natal, and Kruger to name just several.

Which one to choose? 

After researching article after article, there was one park that seemed to be on everyone’s list of having one of the world’s greatest wildlife viewing experiences. The Greater Kruger Area! This massive park includes Kruger National Park + the adjacent private game reserves. 

Once this choice is narrowed down, you will then have to decide between Kruger National Park or one of the private game reserves. There are several fantastic private game reserves in the Greater Kruger Area including Thornybush, Sabi Sand, Kapama, Timbavati, Manyeleti, Klaserie, and Balule.

We picked Sabi Sand, one of the best private game reserves known for the big cats including leopards! 

To help you decide which safari location is right for you, I’ve broken down all the main differences between Kruger vs Sabi Sand.

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What to Wear & What to Bring

Wearing our safari clothes at Chobe National Park

Posing at Chobe National Park in Botswana

Before our first safari experience, I had no idea what to wear. The images of wearing all khaki, sporting a safari hat, and hanging out of the open-air jeep with binoculars immediately came to mind. 

After doing two safari experiences, one in South Africa and one in Botswana, I now know what clothes work best for this epic experience! 

Some of those planes transporting you to your safari lodge are small and have weight limits. What you pack (and not overpacking) is important! Here are the 24 items I’m glad I had on my safari experience. 

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Distance from the Airport Matters

Skukuza airport

Skukuza airport

Distance matters. When you have precious vacation time, you want to maximize every second of that safari experience. Most of the time you will be flying into little airports to get to your safari lodge. 

The distance from the airport to the lodge varies. It could be 30 minutes to a few hours from the airport.

We were in Cape Town first and flew into Skukuza Airport to get to our safari lodge, Lion Sands River Lodge, in Sabi Sand. Twenty-five minutes later and we were already on our first game drive! 

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No Travel Agent Needed

Travel agent

Courtesy of Shutterstock

Full disclosure. I have never used a travel agent. I love planning our trips and actually enjoy the process. 

However, I thought it might make more sense to go through a travel agent for a safari experience. Maybe they had better access to choice lodges? Or maybe they could bundle some package deal to save money? Or maybe they had some personal relationship where a few extra perks would be thrown in? 

I reached out to 7 different travel agents to plan a 2-week South Africa trip including a safari. They ranged from $300-$1000 more than what I could book on my own. Some offered only specific lodges (I’m guessing they receive a higher commission from certain properties?), and others offered properties in locations that did not suit our needs.

I came to the conclusion that there is no other person that cares more about your vacation than you.

Now, granted I am willing to put the hours of research in and read the first 20 pages of Google on a search and scour the TripAdvisor forums for answers. I love DIY travel! If this is not you, then by all means please book with the travel agent!

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Three Cost Ranges

I found safari lodges (specifically in Sabi Sand) had three price ranges per person per night:

  • $300-$700 USD
  • $800-$1200 USD
  • $2000+ USD for ultra-luxury lodges

Rates are all-inclusive of meals, drinks, and safari drives. Some lodges charge extra for premium drinks. Laundry and transfers may/may not be included. Some will also have a stay for 4 days and pay for 3, which can save you money. 

Remote safari lodges are not cheap as they are expensive to operate. I constructed a table of low, middle, and high-cost lodges in Sabi Sand/Timbavati while I was researching South Africa safari lodges. This is NOT meant to be a comprehensive list of all the lodges, but it will give you a general sense of price points.

The rates are PER PERSON PER NIGHT so double the cost if you are going as a pair.

Want to know how to cut down on the cost of your safari adventure? Don’t miss my article below. 

Motswari (Timbavati/Umbabat): from ZAR 4,959 ($279 USD)

Arathusa (Sabi Sand): from ZAR 7,729 ($435 USD)

Kambaku River Sands (Timbavati): from ZAR 9,834 ($553 USD)

&Beyond Ngala Safari Lodge (Timbavati):  from ZAR 10,199 ($573 USD)

Inyati (Sabi Sand): from ZAR 11,305 ($636 USD)

&Beyond Kirkman’s Kamp (Sabi Sand) from ZAR 11,434 ($643 USD)

* Timbavati properties, in general, will be cheaper than Sabi Sand 

* Exchange rates are accurate as of 10/5/22. These rates are starting rates and will vary depending on the season. 

Lion Sands (Sabi Sand): from ZAR 15,114 ($850 USD)

Londolozi Varty Camp (Sabi Sand): from ZAR 18,645 ($1049 USD)

Savanna (Sabi Sand): from ZAR 12,947 ($728 USD) 

Dulini (Sabi Sand): from ZAR 19,129 ($1076 USD)

MalaMala (Sabi Sand): from ZAR 15,730 ($885 USD)

Silvan (Sabi Sand): from ZAR 19,614 ($1104 USD)

* Exchange rates are accurate as of 10/5/22. These rates are starting rates and will vary depending on the season. 

Singita (Sabi Sand): from ZAR 32,959 ($1855 USD)

Londolozi Pioneer Camp (Sabi Sand): from ZAR 31,625 ($1780 USD) or the Private Granite Suites (Sabi Sand): from ZAR 33,495 ($1885 USD)

* Exchange rates are accurate as of 10/5/22. These rates are starting rates and will vary depending on the season. 

Number 9 Icon

What? Malaria? It Does Exist

Mosquito

Courtesy of Shutterstock: mosquito

Yes, malaria does exist!

Go to a travel clinic before your trip to discuss what antimalarial pill is right for you. We went during the dry season, so the risk was less.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are several options for malaria prophylaxis including Doxycycline, Malarone, Mefloquine, and Tafenoquine.  I usually take Malarone. I start it 1-2 days before my trip, continue to take it during the trip, and for 7 days after my trip. I tolerate it well. There’s no sun sensitivity like you get with Doxycycline or weird dreams which can happen when taking Mefloquine. The travel clinic will discuss what is the best option for you.

Be smart and use bug repellant and wear long sleeves at dusk. You want to avoid being bit in the first place!

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3-Night Minimum

This was our first safari, and I had no idea what to expect.

Would we love it or hate it?

Would I despise sitting in a jeep for 2 three-hour rides a day?

Would I get cabin fever being stuck on a lodge for multiple days in a row?

We ultimately decided on 3 nights. That means we could fly in on day 1, have 2 full-day safari experiences for days 2 and 3, and even squeeze one last morning drive on day 4 before heading out. My hope was this amount of time would give us a good taste of what a South Africa safari was all about without committing too much time.

Looking back, would I still do 3 nights?

No, I would do 4 nights and possibly even more! Or I would even consider doing 3 nights in one lodge, and then 3 nights in another like Timbavati to widen the experience. I am forever hooked. I have been bitten by the Africa bug as they say and am even considering planning a trip to Tanzania as our next destination.

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Travel Insurance Advised

Travel insurance

Travel insurance

There is always some element of risk, but if you follow the rules and listen to what your safari ranger says, the danger becomes negligible. We sat in an open jeep just feet away from lions and leopards, who took no notice of us. Don’t stand up; always stay seated. Keep voices low. Never leave your jeep.

Also, give elephants space. When we were in Botswana, a herd of elephants decided to cross the road. All the vehicles stopped to give them distance, but one of the elephants decided that the van in front of us was still too close for his liking and he acted like he was going to charge the vehicle.

With that being said, I just think it is smart to have travel insurance “just in case.” Of course, if you have it, you will likely not need it. On the flip side, if you do not have it, then that is the time when you are going to need it. 

We had never purchased travel insurance prior to this trip but since we were doing some high-risk activities (you know, like swimming in Devil’s Pool above the world’s largest waterfall and shark cage diving with great whites), we thought it was best to purchase insurance. We purchased the Explorer Plan by World Nomads Travel Insurance, which covered over 200+ activities including safari tours. $291.82 for peace of mind for 2 weeks of travel for 2 people? Worth it.

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Schedule the Safari at the End

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FIRST REASON

I definitely recommend saving the safari for the end of your trip! The first reason is so important!

If your international flight gets delayed or canceled, you may potentially miss a day or 2. When you are spending from $1000-$2000 USD per night on a lodge and only allotted several days for a safari, this is gut-wrenching.

At the end of our South Africa safari, another couple was supposed to join our group for the safari drive, but they missed their flight connection. They had only booked 2 nights, so they decided just to cancel that portion of the trip. I would have been heartbroken. Yet another reason why you should get travel insurance!

Book the safari portion at the end of your trip and go via a nonstop flight. We flew a nonstop flight from Cape Town, which took only 2.5 hours. There is a lot less risk if you are already in the country taking a quick hopper flight than if you are flying in from somewhere internationally. 

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SECOND REASON

Another reason to leave the safari for the end of your trip is that you want to save the best for last. The South Africa safari was the highlight of our nonstop 2-week trip to Africa. We started in Victoria Falls, then flew to Cape Town to explore all the best things to do in the city and South Africa wine country, and then we ended this epic trip in Sabi Sand for some relaxation and an amazing safari time. One of our best trips ever! 

Final Thoughts on the South Africa Safari

The South Africa safari will be one of the most epic experiences you have done. It surpassed my expectations! A little planning goes a long way. I hope these 12 travel pearls give you some guidance in navigating that process.

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Any other questions about our South Africa safari experience? 

Let me know in the comments below!

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