When did you last see the Big Five? Although some of your overseas friends may think you have lions roaming your back garden, the reality is most South Africans don’t have Kruger National Park on their doorstep. In fact, many locals believe a lot of planning – and money – is required to see some of Africa’s most coveted creatures.
To show you that a Big Five experience is more accessible than you think, we’ve handpicked a selection of parks and reserves, all within reasonably short drives from a major city. Although not fully inclusive, the following spots have been chosen for their accessibility, quality and, of course, the presence of those fearsome five: lion, elephant, Cape buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros. Just remember: a game reserve isn’t a national park, so don’t expect a miniature Kruger.
Take a drive to these two top reserves within a few hours of Joburg.
Imagine being able to say you encountered the Big Five while driving around the crater of an extinct volcano with a dam at its centre. That’s what you get at Pilanesberg Game Reserve. Since it’s Sun City’s neighbour, you can combine fun family activities with a journey through 55 000 hectares of wilderness. Incorporating a number of luxury lodges, you have the chance to see the Big 5 with everything from elephantback safaris to guided game drives and hiking trails, or you can visit for the day and navigate the reserve in your own vehicle.
From Pretoria, take the N4 to Rustenburg. Turn right onto the R565 to Pilanesberg.
Day visits from R65 a person and R20 a vehicle. Accommodation is from R750 at Black Rhino Lodge to R4 280 for two people sharing a night at Kwa Maritane Bush Lodge. Tel 014-555-1600, email@example.com, www.pilanesberggamereserve.com.
Of the smaller reserves, Mabula Game Reserve, at just 12 000 hectares, still packs a punch. Here in the foothills of the Waterberg Mountain Range you’ll come across hippo, African python and Nile crocodile in addition to the Big Five. Overnight guests can choose from activities that include horse and night safaris, bush walks, snake demonstrations, archery, spa treatments and hot-air-balloon safaris.
Take N1 towards Pretoria and turn onto Pietersburg highway to Bela Bela. Take the Codrington off-ramp, turn left at yield sign and proceed for about 5 km before turning right at the T-junction. Go left at the garage and pass the Forever Resorts Aventura to the traffic circle. Turn left onto the Thabazimbi/Rooiberg road for 34 km. Turn right onto Rooiberg Road and follow the signs.
These four game reserves are worth a drive from the city.
Although not open to day-trippers, Kariega Game Reserve, 140 kilometres from Port Elizabeth, offers an unusual game-viewing experience by canoe or boat on the Bushman’s River. Walking on the predator-free, eastern River Lodge section is a popular activity and game drives tend to be personalised with small groups of guests.
From Port Elizabeth, take the N2 to Grahamstown and turn right onto the R72 to Kenton-On-Sea. Then take the R343 and look for signs after 14 km.
At Addo Elephant National Park there’s no need for luxury lodges, ranger-guided safaris and fancy chefs. In fact, if you’re in the park for a day trip, why not have one of the local hop-on guides join you in your vehicle? Apart from seeing the Big Five, including herds of up to 100 elephant, Addo offers excellent bird-watching. South Africa’s thirdlargest national park covers 180 000 hectares and a wide diversity of landscapes, fauna and flora, making it one of the best game-viewing experiences near a major city.
Take the N2 towards Grahamstown. Turn left at the sign to Motherwell and Addo Elephant National Park. Turn left at the top of the off-ramp and follow this road until you see the park entrance on the right.
Day visitors pay a conservation fee of R38 for South African residents (unless you have a Wild Card). Accommodation is from R175 (camping) to R2 760 (guesthouse) a person a night sharing. Tel 042-233-8600, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.sanparks.org/parks/addo.
Only an hour from Port Elizabeth, Lalibela’s entire population of animals is free-roaming as there are no public roads cutting through the 7 500 hectares of savanna, fynbos and acacia woodland. An excellent children’s programme allows kids to explore the reserve with their own ranger and vehicle, giving mom and dad some peace and quiet. Night drives give you the chance to spot the elusive bat-eared fox, aardvark, black-backed jackal and aardwolf. Day trips are not available.
Take the N2 towards Grahamstown. About 13 km after crossing the Bushman’s River look for a sign to Lalibela.
A mere 40 minutes from Port Elizabeth’s airport, and neighbouring Addo, Amakhala Game Reserve is one of the more luxurious options for catching the Big Five as well as the more elusive hyena and bat-eared fox. Many of the animals have been introduced into the area as part of Amakhala’s efforts to re-establish the flora and fauna found here generations ago. The reserve offers six-hour safaris for day visitors, which includes a river cruise.
Take the N2 towards Grahamstown. After about 73 km look for signs to the reserve.
Day visitors pay R980 a person (includes a game drive, river cruise and lunch). Overnight rates are from R1 750 at Quartermain’s Camp to R4 180 at the Bush Lodge. Specials available. Tel 046-636-2750, email@example.com, www.amakhala.co.za.
You’ll have to drive for a little longer than two hours to see the Big Five near Durban.
The oldest proclaimed park in Africa, Hluhluwe-Umfolozi, is one of the only state-run parks in KwaZulu-Natal. In addition to black rhino, it has the largest white rhino population in the world, making it well worth the three-hour drive. Despite covering 96 000 hectares of hilly geography you can expect to see a variety of animals, even if you visit for just a day. Game-viewing options for visitors include self-drive, guided game drives and walks, as well as boat trips on Hluhluwe Dam. A number of lodges and camps cater for a range of budgets.
From Durban take the N2 north for 220 km and turn left onto the R618 west.
Day visitors can choose between a three-hour game drive at R200 a person or a seven-hour option at R500 a person. Daily conservation fees of R110 an adult and R55 a child apply (unless you have a Wild Card) and overnight rates are from R480 a twosleeper unit a night. Tel 035- 562-0848 or 033-845-1000, email bookings@kznwildlife. com, www.kznwildlife.com.
If you are looking for luxury then head to Phinda Private Game Reserve. Not open to day visitors, this reserve is home to the Big Five as well as antelope, nyala and 415 bird species. It’s also well known to be an excellent place to spot cheetah. The landscape is a mix of woodlands, grassland, wetland, forest and mountains. Take it all in from a canoe bobbing along the Mzinene River.
Follow the N2 from Durban and take the Phinda off-ramp and turn right onto a bridge. At the T-junction turn left onto gravel road, cross a railway line and turn immediately right.
Full-board from R3 995 a person a night. Tel 035-562-0271, www.phinda.com.
Often thought to be on the wrong side of the country to easily catch the Big Five, this isn’t true, as there are several opportunities for a malaria-free safari in the Western Cape. The N1 is your road to Cape Town’s Big Five reserves. If you were feeling ambitious, you could tick off a number of bucket-list items in one go as you pass through the winelands to get to the reserves.
Aquila Private Game Reserve made headlines in 2011 when poachers struck, killing several rhinos. Security has since been increased, with one recent visitor commenting that the four remaining white rhinos are very impressive, but appear to be under 24-hour armed guard. So you’ll feel paparazzi-like when snapping your photos of these animals and their bodyguards. Aquila is a family-friendly option with quad-biking and horse-riding safaris and attracts a number of day visitors. Although sold as free-roaming, seasoned game viewers may find the reserve has some zoo-like qualities, with buffalo being herded to watering holes and the seven lion kept in a separate smaller enclosure. But this does mean you’ll easily spot most of the Big Five, a good option if you don’t have much time.
Travel 130 km from Cape Town on the N1 to Touws River, turn left onto the R46 to Ceres and look for Aquila on your left.
Day trips are R1 300 a person (include drinks, game drive and lunch). Overnight rates start from R2 095 a person a night sharing and include two game drives and three meals. Tel 0861-7373-783, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.aquilasafari.com.
Inverdoorn Game Reserve and Safari Lodge, two-anda- half hours’ drive from Cape Town, is located near Ceres. At 10 000 hectares and with more than 1 200 animals, it’s a reasonably priced option for a day trip to see the Big Five. Some visitors have expressed disappointment at the confined nature of the game drives, where fences make it appear as if the animals are on display as you pass, but if you have only a little time to spare it’s worth it. Predators are kept in separate enclosures, meaning you’re bound to see each of the Big Five. Once you’ve ticked these animals off your list, you can also get up close to cheetah at the reserve’s cheetah rehabilitation programme.
From Cape Town take the N1 to Worcestor, turn left onto the R43, then right onto the R46 to Ceres. Continue through the town until you see a sign for the R355 to Calvinia and Sutherland. Turn onto the R355 dirt road and drive for 6 km before turning right onto the R356. Drive for 7,4 km until you reach a fork in the road. Take the left split and continue until you see Inverdoorn on your left.
For those with a strong aversion to long trips, the closest Big Five reserve to Cape Town is Fairy Glen, located an hour from the Mother City just past Worcester at the foot of the Brandwacht Mountains. Visitors to Cape Town’s only free-roaming Big Five private game reserve have the chance to see animals among fynbos and proteas unique to the Western Cape. Because of its close proximity to Cape Town, Fairy Glen’s organised day safari is very popular among day-trippers, but for those wanting to avoid the security of a 4×4, guided horseback tours are available in the game reserve, which touts itself as ‘Cape Town’s only free-roaming Big Five safari’.
Take the N1 from Cape Town to Worcester. In Worcester, turn left onto Brandwacht Road, following the signs to Fairy Glen. If Brandwacht Road is closed take the N1 to Worcester.
Go past the Shell Ultra City on your left and take the next off-ramp left. You will pass through two circles and get to a stop street. Turn right here and follow the signs to Fairy Glen.
Day trips start from R1 225 a person and include breakfast and a buffet lunch. Overnight rates start from R1 850 a person a night sharing and include dinner, lunch, breakfast and a game drive. Kids between five and 12 years receive discounted rates. Tel 086-1244-348, email@example.com, www.fairyglen.co.za.
Keep in mind that if you have only a day to spend looking for the Big Five, you may not find them, and don’t expect the same experience as a multi-day safari would offer. If you can, make the time and spend a little longer on your journey. Would you explore Angkor Wat, the Amazon, or the wild streets of New York in only one day?
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Tags: Addo Elephant National Park, Amakhala Game Reserve, Aquila Private Game Reserve, Big Five, Fairy Glen, Hluhluwe Dam, Hluhluwe-Umfolozi, Inverdoorn Game Reserve and Safari Lodge, Kariega Game Reserve, Lalibela Game Reserve, Mabula Game Reserve, Phinda Private Game Reserve, Pilanesberg Game Reserve