The quarter century since the democratic elections of 1994 has witnessed a remarkable blossoming of private reserves in South Africa. Most famous, and justifiably so, is the cluster of five-star ‘Big Five’ properties — Londolozi, Sabi Sabi, Singita and so on — protected within the classic bushveld of Sabi Sands Game Reserve on the eastern border of the Kruger National Park. But the country boasts dozens upon dozens of other less lauded private reserves, all of which offer all-inclusive guided safari packages to visitors who prefer not to take the self-drive approach.
Philip Briggs has recently visited most of the country’s top private reserves in the course of researching a new Rough Guide to the Game Parks of South Africa, and we asked him to pick 15 properties that particularly stood out, be it for the quality of the game viewing, for the spectacular scenery, for protecting a unique or rare ecosystem, for offering good value for money, or for a combination of the above. (Above image credit: Woofit, Shutterstock, all images in the printed feature by Ariadne Van Zandbergen)
South Africa’s most crowded province, Gauteng crams around 15 million people into an area smaller than the Kruger Park, yet remarkably it also hosts a thoroughly worthwhile 230-square-kilometre game reserve that contains all the Big Five. Dinokeng is divided into a self-drive sector traversed by 140km of dirt roads, and a patchwork of concessions serviced by lodges offering guided drives that come with a decent chance of seeing lion, elephant, white rhino, giraffe, zebra and various antelope. Kruger it isn’t, but Dinokeng feels as authentically ‘bush’ as one could reasonably expect given its location, especially after dark when the air resonates with the calls of jackals, nightjars and occasionally lions. Only an hour’s drive north of Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo Airport, it is at once a great itinerary filler and an excellent overnight alternative to staying in the city itself.
2 Sibuya Game Reserve
One of the country’s most scenic and tranquil reserves, Sibuya is accessible only by boat along the Kariega River inland of Kenton-On-Sea. The reserve protects 10km of gorgeous forest-fringed riverfront hemmed in by steep hills clad with prehistoric-looking euphorbias and cycads. It offers arguably the best birding anywhere in the Eastern Cape, with the water-associated African finfoot, half-collared kingfisher, forest-dwelling Knysna turaco and crowned eagle among the most alluring of almost 400 species recorded. All the Big Five are present, and elephants are often seen crossing the river, but lions are confined to a large fenced enclosure due to a municipal restriction forbidding them access to a public waterway.
The largest conservation area in North West Province, malaria-free Madikwe isn’t strictly speaking a private reserve, but it operates along much the same lines. Roughly 20 exclusive all-inclusive lodges are scattered around its 760 square kilometres and there are no facilities for self-drivers, which means it seldom gets crowded. Wildlife viewing ranks with the very best in South Africa. Lion, cheetah, spotted hyena, elephant and white rhino are seen by most visitors, and it is also good for black rhino, cheetah and the endangered wild dog. For birders, conspicuous species associated with the western Kalahari biome include pied babbler, barred wren-warbler and crimson-breasted shrike.
4 Pongola Game Reserve
This budget-friendly property in northern KwaZulu-Natal is bisected by the Pongola River, a lushly scenic waterway that exudes a tropical African atmosphere and supports a thrilling diversity of wildlife as it flows towards Pongolapoort Dam. Guided activities include heart-stopping white rhino tracking excursions on foot, and enjoyable boat trips in search of the crocodiles that sunbathe on the river’s sandbanks and the hippos that wallow in the lake shallows. A profusion of water-associated birds includes large flocks of spur-winged goose, white-faced duck and glossy ibis. Pongola isn’t so strong when it comes to conventional game drives, but a self-drive excursion into the provincially-managed Phongolo Nature Reserve, with which it shares a partially open border, is recommended.
5 Zimanga Private Game Reserve
This hilly reserve in northern KwaZulu-Natal ranks among Africa’s most rewarding destinations for serious wildlife photographers. A network of nine sunken hides includes the semi-submerged Lagoon Hide (ideal for capturing aquatic birds in action), the mornings-only Scavenger Hide (where large flocks of squabbling vultures interact sporadically with jackals and hyenas) and a pair of perfectly-lit overnight hides that might attract any or all of the Big Five on any given vigil. Other highlights include the opportunity to photograph free-roaming cheetah on foot, and boat excursions on a customised vessel designed for low-angle photography.
6 Makuleke Contractual Park
Also known as the Pafuri Triangle, this atmospheric wedge of tropical bush, bounded by the Luvuvhu and Limpopo Rivers, was annexed to the Kruger National Park in 1969, only for ownership to be restored to the expelled Makuleke community in 1998 in the wake of a successful land claim. The land and wildlife are still contracted to the national park, but public access is all but restricted to guided game drives operated by a pair of private lodges set on land leased from the community. Elephant and buffalo aside, this isn’t prime Big Five territory, but the tropical ecology and compelling wilderness aura set it apart from almost anywhere else in South Africa. Highlights include Lanner Gorge, the lush fever-tree forest at Crooks Corner, some superlative birding and access to the hilltop ruins at Thulamela, a 16th-century stone-wall village reminiscent of Great Zimbabwe.
7 MalaMala Game Reserve
Safari real estate doesn’t come any more prime than MalaMala. Often lumped in with Sabi Sand, which encloses it on three sides, this autonomous reserve shares an unfenced 19km eastern border with Kruger and is flowed through by the forest-fringed Sand River for 20km. MalaMala pioneered the upmarket photographic safari experience back in the 1960s, and while its five-star accommodation is today matched by several other lodges in Greater Kruger, the game viewing remains peerless, thanks primarily to the low guest-to-land ratio (just three small lodges with exclusive traversing rights to 133 square kilometres of bush) but also to the engaged guiding style and policy of not cramming vehicles full with guests. Leopards are the specialty at MalaMala — we’ve yet to miss out on this normally elusive cat on any given game drive — but all the Big Five are likely to be seen over the course of a two-to three-night stay, and there’s a fair chance of cheetah and African wild dog.
8 Sanbona Wildlife Reserve
The largest private reserve in the Western Cape, 580-square-kilometre Sanbona protects a magnificently austere landscape of Karoo badlands and heath-like fynbos towered over by burnished cliffs of buckled rock strata. Its centrepiece is Bellair Dam, which provides year-round drinking water in the otherwise arid environment. Wildlife densities are comparatively low, but it is the closest reserve to Cape Town to support free-roaming populations of all the Big Five, along with giraffe, Cape mountain zebra, gemsbok, springbok and eland, and one of the few anywhere where the recessive ‘white lion’ gene is prevalent.
9 Tembe Elephant Park
Combining a high level of exclusivity with relative affordability, community-owned Tembe was established in 1983 to protect a free-ranging elephant population whose territory spanned the border between KwaZulu-Natal and Mozambique. Now fenced off, the park is home to all the Big Five, and while sightings of rhino, lion and leopards are far from guaranteed, you can be confident of seeing some of the park’s trademark hefty tuskers as well as buffalo and localised specialties such as samango monkey, nyala (below), red duiker and suni. A delightful, well-priced tented camp employs more than 50 community members and offers packages including guided game drives.
One of the largest and most pristine-feeling reserves in the Eastern Cape, Kwandwe was actually converted from degraded farmland in the 1990s, an exercise that involved taking down 2000km of fences and reintroducing 7000 individual animals historically associated with the region. The reserve has a remote feel enhanced by an unusually low guest-to-land ratio and the wide horizons and sparkling night skies typical of the semi-arid interior. The dry climate is offset by the perennial Great Fish River, which courses through the reserve for 30km. Elephant, buffalo, white rhino, black rhino, lion and cheetah are almost certain to be seen over the course of a three-night stay, but leopards are more elusive. The isiXhosa name Kwandwe translates as ‘Place of the Blue Crane’, and South Africa’s striking national bird is indeed very common here.
11 Phinda Private Game Reserve
KwaZulu-Natal’s most prestigious safari destination, Phinda is effectively a western extension of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park (a UNESCO World Heritage site) and it supports seven distinct ecosystems including a large stand of rare sand forest. Big Five game viewing is exceptional, as are guiding standards, and Phinda also tends to offer great close-up encounters with cheetah. For more specialised safarigoers, the sand forest is an important habitat for several localised species including red duiker, suni antelope, Narina trogon, Neergaard’s sunbird and green twinspot.
Assembled from eleven livestock farms in 1997, Samara is Eastern Cape’s largest private reserve at 283 square kilometres, and the least crowded, hosting a maximum of 26 guests on any given night. Historically, Samara’s primary emphasis has been the restoration of the partly-degraded Karoo scrub through the eradication of invasive exotics, replanting of indigenous species such as the carbon-sequestering spekboom, and reintroduction programme of endemic ungulates such as Cape Mountain zebra, black wildebeest, gemsbok and springbok. Following the reintroduction of elephants in 2017 and lions in 2019, Samara is now a Big Five reserve, but it tends to emphasise a broader conservation and wilderness ethic than most other such properties, and the armed guides will often disembark from the vehicle to track the likes of giraffe, white rhino and cheetah on foot. The spectacular scenery comprises sandy red plains enclosed by a horseshoe of imposing tall mountains that rise above 2000m and support plateaux of undulating golden Afromontane grassland. Night drives are very rewarding with springhares hopping about like miniaturised kangaroos, and a good chance of spotting the super-elusive aardvark, which often emerges in daylight during the chilly midwinter (July and August).
13 Welgevonden Game Reserve
This scenic and biodiverse private reserve — an important component of the UNESCO Waterberg Biosphere Reserve — extends across 360 square kilometres of ruggedly hilly terrain bordering Marakele National Park. Created in 1993 by an association of like-minded landowners, it is managed as one large conservation area with no internal fences nor any restrictions on individual lodges traversing the 430km internal road network. Game viewing is excellent, and the strong emphasis on the Big Five reflects its popularity with first-time safarigoers. It supports around 120 elephant and 60 buffalo, along with good numbers of white rhino and a small population of black rhino, though the lion and cheetah sightings do tend to attract large numbers of vehicles. Klipspringer, rock hyrax and Verreaux’s eagle are often seen on the boulder-strewn slopes, while hippos are resident in a couple of the larger dams.
14 Klaserie Private Nature Reserve
The most underpublicised and untrammelled of the private sanctuaries that share open borders with Kruger National Park, 600-square-kilometre Klaserie is named after a tributary of the Olifants that bisects the reserve from south to north. This scenic river supports a sparse green ribbon of riparian woodland, and its wide sandy bed almost invariably holds a few small pools in even the driest of conditions, when elephants dig into the sand to access clean subterranean water. Klaserie is good for general game viewing, and it supports large numbers of elephant and lion as well as some very habituated leopards. Because tourist volumes are low, and wildlife is dispersed, game drives tend to be leisurely and to focus on staying with good sightings rather than racing around to try to tick off the Big Five.
15 Lapalala Wilderness Area
The spearhead behind the campaign that led to the proclamation of UNESCO’s Waterberg Biosphere Reserve in 2001, Lapalala was founded in 1981 and subsequently served as a breeding centre for rare large mammals (notably black rhino and roan and sable antelope) and as a highly regarded wilderness school. Extending across 485 square kilometres, it protects a scenic undulating landscape dominated by a sheer sandstone gorge incised by the Lephalale River as it courses through the reserve for 23km. Following the reintroduction of two lion prides in 2019 and the concurrent opening of the first of three planned lodges, Lapalala now also doubles as a Big Five ecotourist destination, though one aimed mainly at repeat safarigoers seeking a holistic bush experience rather than first-timers wanting to tick off the Big Five. Lapalala is also of great cultural interest thanks to its wealth of prehistoric rock art and a mediaeval archaeological site that has yielded several fascinating artefacts including a unique clay rhino statue.