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Game plan

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South Africa's game reserves offer an almost bewildering choice of experiences. Local travel expert Caroline Hurry offers some top tips to managing your time


Enjoy your South African safari in style . It's a long journey to Cape Town or Johannesburg and worth some investment, and some research, to make the most of your experience, as there are a great many game reserves and a lot of possible ways to see them.

 

Smaller private reserves in the Cape, KwaZulu Natal, in or around the massive Kruger Park – Lion Sands, Sabi Sands, Kapama, Timbavati – offer better opportunities for close encounters of the wild kind. You can drive yourself there by all means – most visitors to South Africa prefer self-drive holidays – but all the lodges recommended here provide 4X4 off-road game drives with a ranger, sundowners, guided walks, a bush spa, exclusivity, privacy and top-notch accommodation.

 

Best riding safaris

 

Ant's Nest (pictued left) in the Waterberg region (waterberg.net) of the Limpopo Province offers guided rides for all ages to allow greater access to the wildlife via open plains to woodlands. The area is malaria-free, so great for families. In the Kalahari. try Tswalu Kalahari Reserve, the country's largest private game reserve, with top quality horses and instruction for all ages and levels. It's also malaria-free.

 

Best for sleeping under the stars

 

Go out on a limb. Tinyeleti (pictured left), one of two 'forest ships' – Chalkley is also popular – in Lion Sands, part of the vast Kruger National Park, offers the ultimate 'Me Tarzan, You Jane' fantasy in Big Five territory. Your ranger drops you off before sunset with all your provisions and picks you up the following day.

 

Become one with the savannah from your lofty perch under a celestial canopy as the chortle-barks of grazing hippo and the high-pitched hoot of a Scops owl punctuate the Sabi River's murmuring lullaby. A waning moon will illuminate the naked, white torsos of knobthorns stripped by elephants. Expect a resident genet to help clean the last morsels from your dinner plates.

 

Best for families

 

Five ecosystems merge at malaria-free Shamwari (shamwari.com) in the Eastern Cape, favoured by families. Wildlife specialist Dr Johan Joubert and his staff heal injured creatures at the park before returning them to the bush. Volunteers are also welcome at the Born Free Foundation here, which nurtures once-abused lions and leopards in their natural habitat. When not cosseting his 'kitty cats', animal care manager Glen Vena teaches children why lions must never be castrated ("their manes fall off") and how to blow a kudu horn, the original vuvuzela. Further north, Madikwe is a popular choice for those who don't want to take anti-malarial medication; there's a good chance of seeing the Big Five and the reserve has a thriving population of rare wild dogs.

 

Best place to see wild dogs

 

With fewer than 3,600 in the world, you're more likely to encounter wild dogs in Madikwe (madikwe.com), against South Africa's border with Botswana, than anywhere else. These 'painted dogs' are to be found splashing in the Marico River at sundown, before embarking on the evening hunt, trailed by hyena and assorted scavengers. The owners of Jaci's Lodge say their child-friendly philosophy – children go on game drives and guided nature walks – makes them a hit with families. Volunteering conservation projects include rhino notching and wild dog collaring.

 

Best for safari and city

 

From Cape Town, hire a car. View the Atlantic and Indian Oceans from the Rhodes Memorial, Table Mountain or Cape Point. Smell the roses in Kirstenbosch Gardens or swim with the penguins at Boulders Beach before winding up the Garden Route via the Cape winelands to enjoy a Big Five safari at Kariega Game Reserve, with two rivers and rich biodiversity. Alternatively, head up the whale coast for Hermanus, Overburg, Walker Bay, and Gansbaai, the best places for viewing Southern Right whales and jagged-toothed sharks.

 

Best for luxury

 

Kruger and Sabi Sands have the biggest abundance of high-end lodges and camps. Expect bush spas, private plunge pools, hamman-sized bathrooms with outdoor rainforest showers, gourmet food, crisp white linen, fine silverware and guided walks with highly knowledgeable rangers or trackers offering superb game drives day and night. Places to stay include Singita (Boulders Lodge, pictured above, and Ebony Lodge); the extraordinary Earth Lodge at Sabi Sabi; Royal Malewane in the Kruger, where the top suites have private plunge pools; Ivory Lodge at Lion Sands, or the 1933 Villa, ideal for extended family or groups. At &Beyond's Ngala Private Game Reserve, stay under canvas in style at the Ngala Tented Camp. Or live out your Karen Blixen fantasies at Mala Mala's adults-only Rattray Camp, all colonial-style leather sofas, cut-glass crystal and (a bit less Blixen), private heated plunge pools. 

Best (and only) place to take a night-time elephant safari Camp Jabulani, a Relais & Chateaux camp in the Kapama Game Reserve near the Kruger, has its own herd of rescue elephants which take guests on safaris to spot the Big Five (below). There's a wonderful sense of peace, game viewing from the back of a gentle elephant, with no motor noise. Evening safaris finish with sundowners and canapes in the bush. Or take a night elephant-back safari, the only opportunity in the world, the camp says; guides pick out animals with spotlights, or switch off the lights so you can gaze at the Milky Way. Afterwards, you can even put your elephant to bed (campjabulani.com).

 

Best for the Big Five

 

In KwaZulu-Natal, Phinda's proximity to stunning coastal reserves makes it the perfect place to mix beach and bush. The Varty family restored this 56,800-acre reserve into a living tapestry of woodland, grassland, wetland, and rare sand forest, home to cheetah, black rhino, and 415 species of bird. On guided walks, you'll learn which plants you can use as a toothbrush, and what to do should you meet a lion. (Hint: Don't run, or you're dinner.) There are numerous volunteering opportunities here: rhino tracking, elephant population monitoring and hyena research. Or for almost guaranteed sightings, Mala Mala, bordering the Kruger, offers miles of pristine lowveld wilderness and a rich concentration of game (pictured above; malamala.com).

 

Best place to see leopards

 

Riverine luxuriance at Londolozi (Londolozi.com), a private reserve bordering the vast Kruger National Park, lends itself to libidinous leopards that enchant with their seductive beauty. Here, I saw two mating within metres of a basking crocodile and three lion demolishing a kudu carcass. You don't get wilder than that. This 15,000-hectare Sabi Sands reserve, with the highest concentration of leopards in Africa, harks back to the colonial 1920s – when co-founder Charles Varty hacked through buffalo thorn, hunted lion, skinned kudu, and dispatched puff adders – but with all today's mod cons, obviously. Stay at Tree Camp, cradled by 1,000-year-old leadwoods overlooking the Sand River.

 

Best for prehistoric relics

 

Walk over rocky dinosaur footprints up to the only known Bushman painting of a cheetah at Samara (samara.co.za) in the Karoo, where you can fondle the vertebrae of a 250 million-year-old dicynodont or get up close with two of nine cheetah. At Bushman's Kloof in the Cedarberg Mountains, there are daily tours to see the rock art left by bushmen who lived here for millennia and used painting as a way of expressing their spiritual culture.

WAY TO GO

Aardvark Safaris – Tel: 020 8150 7216 / Aardvarksafaris.com;

Abercrombie & Kent – Tel: 01242 858 133 / abercrombiekent.com;

Bushbaby Travel – Tel: 0845 1244455 / Bushbaby.travel;

Cazenove & Lloyd – Tel: 020 3740 1393 / cazlloyd.com;

Definitive Africa – Tel: 0161 929 5151 / definitive-africa.com;

Expert Africa – Tel: 020 8232 9777 / expertafrica.com;

Destination South Africa – Tel: 01509 618 800 / ItisSouthAfrica.co.uk;

Jacada Travel – Tel: 020 3131 5279 / jacadatravel.com;

Real Africa – Tel: 01603 283 517 / realafrica.co.uk;

Rainbow Tours – Tel: 020 7666 1250 / rainbowtours.co.uk;

Safari Consultants – Tel: 01787 888 590 / safari-consultants.com;

Wildlife & Wilderness – Tel: 0845 00 44 599 / wildlifewilderness.com;

Wildlife Worldwide – Tel: 01962 302 086 / wildlifeworldwide.com

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