The first thing foreigners seem to ask us about South Africa is how to “go on safari”; right after they (immigration officers included) are astounded at the fact that our white skin is paler than they expected for Africans; and where were we really born (yes, in South Africa!). We’re so used to it that we barely seem to notice anymore that a good old family game drive is glamorously being referred to as a “safari” and that the rugged game park is casually confused with being a big zoo.
So, to clear things up, here are 10 simple ways that us local South Africans like to go on safari (a game drive!) in the wild (a game reserve that is wild and free!):
1. Choosing the game reserve
Every school holiday, there are bound to be a bunch of South African families heading over to one of a vast number game reserves to be found all over the country. There are a few huge National Parks (run by SANPARKS) like the Kruger National Park in Mpumalanga and Limpopo, the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in the Northern Cape or the Addo Elephant Park in the Eastern Cape. There are also plenty of smaller reserves to choose from (both national and private).
2. Scoping out the landscape
A land of contrasts, South Africa boasts arid deserts, lush forests, sprawling hi-veld and low-veld, lofty mountain ranges, sandy beaches lined with tropical vegetation, sparse Karoo bush and Cape fynbos, scenic winelands and bustling cities, too. Choosing a park includes understanding the landscape and what it has on offer.
The Mountain Zebra National Park, for example, will give you glimpse of the endangered Cape mountain zebra, cheetahs and Cape buffalo, whereas the arid Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park offers views of gemsbok, bat-eared foxes and springbok herds that may be next to impossible to see further south.
3. Planning around the weather
South Africa’s gorgeous subtropical climate boasts four seasons (for instance, summer from December to February is hot and humid on the east coast with impressive thunder showers to cool us down on most afternoons and clear evenings). The weather differs slightly around the country depending on the landscape and the altitude.
It is best to take all of these factors into account when choosing the park, the month to visit, the packing list and the mode of transport. For example, the Western Cape winters are brutal (wet and cold) so if you’re visiting in June, then it is a great time to go up north and enjoy the cooler months there; with thirsty game heading to the shrinking waterholes and less long grass for them to hide behind along the way.
4. Mode of transport
The locals generally choose to drive their own vehicle around the game reserves to save on costs and to have the freedom to explore at their own pace. Parks may require 4×4 access (four-wheel drive capabilities) or higher-clearance vehicles to cope with the roads and provide a quality viewing experience.
Most popular national parks provide tarred roads (on main routes) that allow smaller vehicles easy access, however, it is best to research this beforehand in case. Bear in mind that in places with long grass (especially in summer), higher vehicles generally provide a much better view of the wildlife.
5. Camping, “Glamping” or Luxury?
There are a range of choices for accommodation, depending on which park you visit. Camping is popular for most South Africans (or one of my personal favourites, “glamping” like at the amazing Nselweni Bush Camp in iMfolozi-Hluhluwe Park). All camps are generally self-catering except for a few hotels and luxury bush lodges at the private reserves; but there are usually restaurants or tea rooms nearby for emergencies.
The type of accommodation does not affect insect-related precautions and one can expect to encounter all manner of creepy-crawlies in the wild – be brave and please don’t kill anything (rather remove or relocate things, or call a trusty game ranger to assist you).