Top 5 Big 5 Safari destinations in South Africa
South Africa has no shortage of stunning destinations, landscapes, National Parks, and reserves to visit, discover, and explore – Each one as beautiful, unique, and exciting as the next.
From the nearly 2 million hectares of unrivalled African wilderness of the renowned Kruger National Park (South Africa’s Flagship National Park), the astounding tropical bushland and coastline of KwaZulu-Natal, the star-studded skies of the arid Karoo desert, the vast Green Kalahari of the Northern Cape, and the world-famous champagne-coloured savannah teeming with incredible wildlife and birdlife species, to majestic mountains, cascading waterfalls, pristine National Parks, game reserves, conservation areas, and private safari loges, discovering, exploring, and experiencing South Africa’s amazing variety of remarkable, diverse, and one-of-a-kind landscapes and wilderness regions is truly unparalleled and should undoubtedly be right at the top of EVERYONE’S travel bucket-list.
There are few things that can compare to embarking on a remarkable, riveting, and exhilarating Big 5 Safari adventure in the vast, wild, and untamed South African wilderness, so be sure to enjoy every single second of this unbelievable experience!
Here are our top 5 Big 5 safari destinations in South Africa.
#1 Kruger National Park: Home of Africa’s Big 5 | South Africa
South African tourism has a secret weapon – the Kruger National Park! Deemed one of the greatest National Parks in the world, the Kruger National Park is not only the second largest park in Africa, but South Africa’s flagship National Park. The pristine wilderness within the Kruger Park is spread across an impressive 2 million hectares of unspoiled African bushveld that stretches for 352 kilometres across the provinces of Mpumalanga and Limpopo in the far north-eastern corner of South Africa.
As the oldest, largest, and most established park, the Kruger National Park is home to the highest population density of Big 5 in South Africa. It is one of the very few places in the world where you are able to see every member of the African Big 5 in one place in their natural habitat.
The Kruger Park is believed to support the world’s largest population of white rhino (one of the mighty members of the Big 5), roughly estimated at 8,000, despite the rapid increase in poaching activity. Black rhino, on the other hand, are extremely rare and seldom seen. However, if you do happen to catch a glimpse of this remarkable animal (regardless of how brief it may be), you can count yourself incredibly lucky. In addition to being home to the largest population of white rhino, the Kruger National Park also boasts the largest wild concentration of leopards anywhere in the world.
The Kruger National Park’s superior Big 5 status has undoubtedly made it a staple destination on any safari-goer’s bucket-list, whether they’re a beginner or a seasoned traveller to Africa.
Besides the highly sought-after African Big 5, the Kruger National Park is also known for its vast diversity of wildlife and birdlife species as well as its spectacular sightings of several endangered or ‘rarely seen’ wildlife species, including the sable, roan antelope, cheetah, and African wild dog. In fact, the Kruger Park’s African wild dogs are one of the few populations of this endangered species left in the world. Its unfenced neighbour, the Sabi Sand Game Reserve, shares the park’s prolific abundance of wildlife.
Lying in the heart of the Lowveld, the Kruger Park offers an unparalleled African safari and wildlife experience that’s unlike anything you’ve experienced before. It’s no surprise that wildlife and nature lovers travel from all around the world to witness the unspoiled natural beauty and untamed wilderness of the Kruger National Park first-hand. If going on an authentic African safari in the Kruger National Park is not on your bucket-list, you better add it right away – trust us, you won’t be disappointed in the slightest!
- When is The Best Time to Visit the Kruger National Park: May to September (Dry Season in The Kruger Park)
**BONUS: Check out our ‘Kruger National Park’, ‘Why you should go on a Kruger Park Safari’, and ‘Best Time to go to the Kruger National Park’ blogs for absolutely everything you want, need, and absolutely must know about South Africa’s flagship National Park.
#2 Sabi Sand Game Reserve: Extraordinary Leopard-Rich Lands | South Africa
A jewel within the Greater Kruger National Park! The spectacular Sabi Sand Game Reserve is one of the most sensational must-visit safari destinations and premier private game reserves in South Africa. It is also one of the oldest and most beloved wildernesses in the country. Considered the birthplace of sustainable wildlife tourism in Southern Africa, the notorious Sabi Sand Game Reserve boasts 65,000 hectares of vast untamed wilderness and shares a 50km/30mi unfenced border with the world-renowned Kruger National Park (South Africa’s flagship National Park). This allows wildlife to roam freely between the reserves, ensuring an unforgettable and unmatched African safari and wildlife experience.
Boasting one of the richest game populations in the country, Sabi Sand Game Reserve is home to some of the most diverse and unique wildlife species in Africa. While the remarkable Sabi Sands is regarded as one of the top reserves to witness up-close sightings of the renowned African Big 5 in their natural habitat, it isn’t deemed the most extraordinary ‘Leopard-Rich Lands’ in Africa for nothing. One could say its claim to Big 5 fame, drawing wildlife enthusiasts from all around the world, is the fact that the iconic Sabi Sands Game Reserve not only boasts the most magnificent leopard sightings and encounters in the country, but is home to the highest concentration of leopards in both South Africa and Africa as a whole. Famously known as the most elusive member of the African Big 5, lucky for you, in this revered Greater Kruger National Park reserve, you’ll find that they are not all that elusive at all – in fact, they are seemingly everywhere and are often seen in plain view and have even been known to hunt in the presence of safari vehicles – even jumping right on top of these vehicles from time to time. It truly has to be seen to be believed!
Besides its world-renowned leopard sightings as well as enjoying glorious up-close encounters of the iconic African Big 5, visitors can look forward to seeing a vast diversity of other game when exploring the varied landscapes of the Sabi Sands. Other popular wildlife species that freely roam the Sabi Sands’ terrain include, giraffe, hippos, zebras, wildebeest, cheetah, aardvark, African wild cats, hyenas, jackals, Cape porcupines, pangolins, and a wide array of antelope and plains game, to mention merely a few. In addition, several endangered species have slowly been reintroduced into the area over the last few decades, one of the most notable being the beloved African wild dog. The vast, varied, and vibrant vegetation of the Sabi Sands Reserve truly provides a pristine wilderness haven for an abundance of magnificent wildlife species – big and small – especially white rhino, reedbuck, cheetah, eland, sable antelope, nyala, and hyena.
Hold on! We’re not done yet! Beyond its top Big 5 safari status and wildly diverse and abundant wildlife species, the Sabi Sand Game Reserve is one of the most highly sought-after birding destination for passionate bird watchers from around the world. Boasting over 300 bird species, this premium birding hotspot is home to several curiously named species, some of which include the widow finch, buntings, cisticolas, mannikins, wydahs, and eremomelas. Other notable bird species avid birders should look out for when visiting the Sabi Sands include the Red-billed oxpecker, the Comb duck, and the purple heron. In addition, The Southern Ground Hornbill Project has also been doing some very successful conservation work here.
One of the great things about the iconic Sabi Sand Game Reserve is the fact that it is regarded as one of the top year-round wildlife and safari destinations in Africa. What’s more, together with the highest leopard concentration in South Africa, Sabi Sand’s Big 5 territory boasts many award-winning luxury lodges, resorts, and camps – catering to all kinds of travellers. Whether you’re travelling solo, with your partner or a bunch of your nature and wildlife loving friends and family, or even as loved-up honeymooners (Africa is regarded as one of the top honeymoon destinations in the world after all), the incredible Sabi Sands Game Reserve has something for absolutely everyone to enjoy – making for a truly unbelievable and unforgettable African safari getaway.
- When is The Best Time to Visit the Sabi Sands Game Reserve: We recommend you visit during the dry season from May to September.
**BONUS: Check out our ‘Sabi Sand Game Reserve’ blog for everything you need to know about this extraordinary wilderness region.
#3 Madikwe Game Reserve | South Africa
Deemed as somewhat of an African safari hidden gem, the expansive Madikwe Game Reserve is the fifth largest game reserve in the country and lies in South Africa’s North West Province, bordering Botswana and the Kalahari Desert. With diverse landscapes, including bushveld, grasslands, and rocky slopes, the area is a pristine location for Big 5 safaris. Boasting an extensive and gloriously diverse wildlife population, Madikwe Game Reserve is not only home to all the members of Africa’s highly sought-after Big 5, with encounters almost guaranteed on any visit, but also gives wildlife enthusiasts the incredible opportunity to witness several endangered animals, especially African wild dogs, as well as enjoy exceptional sightings of various wildlife species, including the elusive cheetah, brown hyena, aardwolf, elephants, giraffes, hippos, lions, and zebras (to mention merely a few), all of which are a common sight within the reserve. In total, the reserve is said to shelter approximately 10,000 mammals and 350 bird species.
In addition to its wild, untamed, and unapologetic natural beauty, and abundance of wildlife species, Madikwe Game Reserve is regarded as one of Africa’s most sought-after wildlife and Big 5 safari destinations as well as one of the continents best conservation areas.
Beyond preserving wildlife, one of the many things that sets this remarkable game reserve apart is its unwavering dedication to community upliftment. Madikwe is not only a massive champion of social investment and responsible tourism in the region, but plays a major role in economically uplifting the various communities within the area.
- When is The Best Time to Visit Madikwe Game Reserve: Plan your visit around May to September for the best wildlife viewing.
#4 Timbavati Game Reserve | South Africa
A piece of unspoiled Africa, the renowned Timbavati Game Reserve forms part of the Greater Kruger National Park and offers wildlife enthusiasts from all around the world some of the best game viewing and Big 5 encounters in all of Africa.
Located in the heart of the Lowveld region of South Africa, Timbavati Game Reserve shares an unfenced border with the Kruger National Park – this allows wildlife to migrate and roam freely between the reserves, ensuring high-quality, exciting, and exceptional sightings and an unbelievable and unforgettable African safari and wildlife experience in every way possible.
When it comes to birdlife & wildlife sightings & encounters – Timbavati Game Reserve is truly unmatched. Home to the Timbavati ‘Magnificent 7’, which includes the lion, leopard (Timbavati Reserve boasts a large leopard population), elephant, rhino, African wild dog, buffalo, and cheetah, Timbavati Game Reserve has loudly and proudly established itself as one of the top and most highly sought-after African wildlife and Big 5 safari destinations in Africa and South Africa for local and global wildlife lovers alike.
On average, Timbavati is home to approximately 40 species of mammals, including various endangered animals, such as the Honey Badger, Bat, Oxpecker, and the Ground Hornbill. An abundance of plains game like kudu, giraffe, wildebeest, and waterbuck (to mention merely a few) can frequently be spotted, as well as several fascinating nocturnal species such as Porcupine, Serval, Genet, and Civet, amongst many others, when embarking on an exciting Timbavati Game Reserve night drive safari adventure.
Where not done yet – oh no! In fact you’re not going to want to miss this next part!
Undoubtedly one of Timbavati’s top wildlife highlights is its white lions! Timbavati Game Reserve is home to one of nature’s most magnificent wildlife species, the remarkable, rare, and highly endangered white lion. White lions are indigenous to the Timbavati Game Reserve, with the earliest records of white lion sightings in this region dating back to 1938. Born with a crème-coloured – snow white coat, and ice blue eyes, the sheer beauty of this extraordinary animal is beyond captivating.
**Interesting Fact: While the magnificent white lion has been the target of countless trophy hunters and poachers over the last few decades, several anti-poaching organisations and wildlife protection initiatives have made it their mission to preserve and protect this beloved species. In fact, The Global White Lion Protection Trust (GWLPT) reintroduced white lions into their natural habitat in 2009, and they have been breeding successfully ever since.
Here’s another interesting fact – Due to the continuous hunting and poaching efforts of these rare and remarkable white lions, as well as their endangered status and small numbers, white lion offspring have been known to be born by ‘normal coloured’ lion parents. This phenomenon is known as Leucism. This has resulted in a ‘new’ very pale species of lion (as they carry the pure white lion gene) which can frequently be spotted roaming the vast Timbavati Game Reserve.
- When is The Best Time to Visit Timbavati Game Reserve: We recommend you visit during the dry season from May to September.
**BONUS: Check out our ‘Timbavati Game Reserve’ blog for everything you need to know about this incredible South African game reserve.
#5 Hluhluwe iMfolozi-Park: The Gateway to Natal’s wild Wonders | South Africa
The village of Hluhluwe (roughly pronounced shloo-shloo-wee) lies within the heart of Zululand on South Africa’s east coast. Surrounded by bright sugarcane fields and pineapple plantations, the village is located near the banks of the Hluhluwe River and acts as the gateway to Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park. Covering approximately 96,000 hectares of forested, mountainous, and rippling savannah landscapes, Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park is renowned for being one of the top Big 5 safari destinations in Africa.
This National Park in the heart of Zululand not only boasts the largest population of white rhino on the globe, but it is also home to an incredible and diverse variety of birdlife and wildlife species. In addition to over 350 bird species, visitors to Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park can expect excellent and exciting sightings of the highly acclaimed African Big 5, wildebeest, cheetah, hyena, and giraffe (to mention merely a few), as well as carefree crocodiles, hefty hippos, and an array of fish which can be found in the park’s lakes deeper inland.
Game aside, Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park is also renowned for its remarkable conservation efforts and initiatives. The Emdoneni Cat Rehabilitation Project for example feeds and cares for threatened African cats, creating the perfect opportunity for visitors to interact with cheetah, serval, caracal, and various African wildcats.
While many know Hluhluwe to be a Big 5 reserve, few people are aware that Hluhluwe is, in fact, a small town located in the north of Durban in central Kwa-Zulu Natal. Its prime location acts as a gateway to several great areas and destinations, such as Lake St. Lucia, iSimangaliso Wetland Park, various private game reserves, and of course Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park.
The unspoilt beaches of St Lucia, Cape Vidal, and Sodwana Bay are all easily accessed from Hluhluwe. The surf is popular for diving, snorkelling, canoeing, surfing, body boarding, and fishing. Dolphins are frequent visitors to the bays and can be seen frolicking in the waves while the humpback whales make their slow, annual migration to the warm Mozambique waters. It’s all this and so much more that makes the impeccable Hluhluwe a destination that should be at the top of every traveller and wildlife enthusiast’s bucket-list.
- When is The Best Time to Visit Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park: May to September is a great time to visit Hluhluwe iMfolozi-Park.