A South African Safari Review:    How does it compare?

Will Bolsover

02 Mar 2015

the adventure begins

the adventure begins

South Africa often gets left off lists of "best African safaris" written by safari experts and connoisseurs; perhaps lacking the deep-bush experience or truly breathtaking scenery of other African destinations. Will Bolsover, MD of Natural World Safaris heads to South Africa to find out how its safari experience stacks up.

For years I have visited the less visited African destinations, leading trips to the lowland gorillas in CAR, the always forgotten red island of Madagascar, or I have visited the plains of East Africa or the stunningly beautiful Okavango Delta. This time however I had no excuse but to visit the renowned South Africa. 

The reason I have always avoided South Africa is for exactly the reasons that it is always praised; it is well known, has good game and quality properties; for me, this did not really get the excitement going, why would I want to visit somewhere that was so ‘easy’? Well two days in and I am finding it hard to disagree that this place has a lot to offer…

Sabi Sabi

Our first night is spent at the uniquely designed Earth Lodge. With a short drive from Skukuza airstrip – where my wife, Ciara, says even the terminal is similar to a luxury lodge! – we already get a taste for what the Kruger has to offer. Antelope are in abundance, moneys are skipping across the road and an obliging white rhino is leisurely grazing only a few metres from the roadside.

Arriving in the middle of the afternoon, Earth Lodge provides a unique concept on the African safari lodge. Made of exactly that, earth, it is a modern design with ‘bunker-like’ rooms looking out into the African bush. The food is good, the service is welcoming and the rooms provide our first taste of South African comfort (does anywhere out here not have a private plunge pool for each room?!).

We set out at 16:30 on our first game drive and I have to say, it is hard work. From the off, we are in fairly persistent rain which even our ponchos (courtesy of our lovely guide Joe) struggle to keep out. It is cold and wet and for the first hour we see nothing. I thought the game parks of South Africa were meant to be full of game? Or am I just not giving it a chance, after all…we have only been here for one hour! In all honesty, this turns out to be probably one of the most uncomfortable game drives I have ever been on, but it still delivers. By the end of the drive, we have seen a cheetah in mid hunt and a leopard feasting only a few feet away in a tree – I have to admit, some incredible wildlife! Returning to the lodge, we make our way back to our cosy room to warm up with a hot shower, followed by a hot meal, greatly deserved.

The next morning we awake at 05:30 for a quick hot drink and set out on our next game drive. We head straight for where only a few days before a lion pride had taken down an elephant. This is fairly unheard in this area having only been documented a few times, so pretty unique. We are in luck as as we approach the rotting carcass, we see the pride still at large feasting on the remains of what was once a healthy young elephant. For the next hour we sit still and watch as feline royalty tears and rips at what is left. We continue onwards seeing elephant tearing at trees and antelope grazing, again not bad for what is only a brief glimpse into this ecosystem.

What do I think so far? Whilst I have not necessarily yet seen the beauty of the East African plains or the sheer wilderness of Botswana’s Okavango Delta, South Africa does have something. I have been on what I would call two fairly average game drives which were not in stunning landscape and were not full of game, yet, I have still been privileged to see three of the big cats…a cheetah stalking its prey, and both a leopard and a pride of lions feasting on their respective preys. So if this is what average game drives provide, I wonder what a good game drive will deliver…?

Lion Sands

The second day sees us moving from the Sabi Sabi region of Sabi Sands, to the Lion Sands area and the stunning Lion Sands Ivory Lodge. With only 6 beautifully designed rooms (each with their own living room, private deck and plunge pool), this intimate property affords views over the Sabi River providing the potential of game on your doorstep every minute of the day. We enjoy a relaxing lunch on the main deck overlooking the river looked after by our own butler Solly, who is attentive to such an extent that I am never even allowed to finish my glass of water. This afternoon we set out on our first game drive, we’ll see what that has to offer. 

South Africa once again delivers. A small female leopard stalking through the bushes is a welcome treat but not quite as amusing as our second rhino sighting. We round the corner (by now it is pitch black) and here the splish splashing of a rather large creature wallowing in a handy mud pool. Our tracker shines his light in the direction of the noise and we see to our delight a hefty white rhino having the time of his life in a shallow pool of mud. This old fellow is enjoying himself so much he lets out possibly the longest rhino fart ever as he rolls onto his back whilst kicking his stumpy legs in the air like the proverbial tortoise. 

The following morning we set out bright and early hitting the bush at 06:00. We explore what is a much more scenic area with little rivulets and perfect trees with leopard perches for branches. No joy for leopard this morning but we are graced with a small pride of 9 healthy young lions as they laze around in the grassy clearing occasionally moving around to check on a nearby herd of impala. As these lions groom each other, roll around and yawn, trying to summon up the energy to maybe set off on a hunt, we leave them be to see what else we can find. Again we are in luck. Only 30 minutes later we round the corner to see not one, not two, not three, but four white rhino grazing in a clearing! The larger individual is clearly the mother with one or two of her young calves and they seem to have picked up a straggler along the way as well. This is a real treat as these frumpy beasts are not often seen in such numbers together so we spend a while just watching them as they go about their business. 

Our final game drive takes place in the evening and once again South Africa delivers, maybe my cynicism is waning. These beasts are still fairly rare within the reserve and even more shy; as he hears us approach he trots off into the bush so we navigate our way round to a clearing where we suspect he may appear. We are in luck – within a few minutes we hear the snapping of branches as our young grumpy friend rumbles out of the bushes – slightly startled by our presence (thinking he had shaken us off is tail), he casts a few glances in our direction and then trots off along the treeline and back into the bush. I have to say, this is a real treat and one what I will always remember, a fantastic sighting, out in the open and not another car in sight. 

To conclude our time in only a few of the many private concessions bordering the Kruger National Park, I have to say that my cynicism has been remedied somewhat. Yes, these parks do not stem from the rolling plains of Kenya and Tanzania or the exclusive Okavango Delta, however they provide something totally different. The parks of South Africa provide an easily accessible world class product with world class game viewing whilst staying in the lap of luxury. There are too many properties to choose from, but you can rest assured that there is something for everyone, from those honeymooners looking for some privacy and a bit of romance (Lion Sands Ivory Lodge), to families looking for their first taste of safari (Sabi Sabi Bush Lodge – equipped with its own kids classroom and playground tucked away from the rest of the lodge). 

So we end our game drives for this trip and prepare ourselves for the next leg of our journey to the white sand beaches of White Pearl Resorts on the coastline of Mozambique. Not quite as fast paced as game drives but I have to say, after a busy start to the year, I could do with a few days sunning myself!

White Pearl Resorts, Mozambique

It's an early start this morning, leaving the lovely Ivory Lodge at 06:30 with a two hour transfer to Kruger Airport where we are met by Freddie, our driver for the next stage of our journey. Freddie drives us for the next three hours across the border and into Mozambique (the border crossing is surprisingly easy, especially as we have organised our visas in advance). 

The drive from Ivory Lodge to the border is fairly scenic and makes for a pleasant few hours, whereas once we cross the border the landscape flattens out and becomes fairly non-descript. We arrive at Maputo airport, a seemingly new and very clean airport, a few hours in advance of our connecting flight and wait. At 15:30 we are ushered by the representative of White Pearl Resorts through security to our waiting helicopter! A swift 40 minute flight out of Maputo and across the floodplains and wilderness of Mozambique brings us to the coastline and the stunningly located White Pearl Resorts. 

What can I say; this place is beautiful. Located in the dunes, with sea views and pristine deserted beaches, White Pearl is a beautiful place for a spot of relaxation. Whilst it is low season at the moment it does seem to be in a state of flux with various maintenance work going on and what seems to be a skeleton staff; we are assured however that the new General Manager arrives in a few days and things will be back to normal. 

The next 36 hours is spent making the most of our location. A run along the beach, a picnic lunch consisting of grilled prawns, steak sandwiches and the odd beer makes for an extremely relaxing time. The rooms are perfectly located along the beach or alternatively along the hillside affording dramatic views of the ocean and the rolling waves. Activities here are plentiful with beach horse riding, diving, snorkelling, spa treatments and more. We don’t have enough time to sample them all, however I can say from first-hand experience that spa therapist in residence is worth her weight in gold. 

Our final evening at White Pearl is spent enjoying a private dinner looking out over the sea, a lovely way to end our time here, or so we thought. The next morning we wake and make our way to breakfast only to be ushered away from the dining area and beckoned to follow the lovely Maria who has looked after us for the last few days. We follow as directed and wind our way round the pool (one of two) and down onto the beach only to find a small table set up under a parasol with our breakfast laid out for us. Even though we have travelled extensively, I can’t remember ever having enjoyed a beach breakfast only metres from the crashing waves and miles of unpopulated beach stretching off into the distance on either side. 

With time for one final massage, we then make our way to the reception for our short heli-hop back to Maputo and our onward flight to Cape Town. White Pearl will certainly benefit from the stronger management figure (who arrived on the helicopter that we departed on) and a few loving improvements, this place is a real find and a pleasure to visit, ensuring that you really do unwind after that South African safari.

Cape Town & the Winelands

Arriving into Cape Town after a hop via Maputo and Jo’Burg we are picked up and have a short 30 minute transfer into town and our home for the next two nights, the lovely Four Rosmead. A cosy guesthouse designed in more of a boutique hotel style, this is a great place if you do not want all the frills of a hotel but want the creature comforts of a home from home. Waking in the morning we are pleasantly surprised to find the majestic Table Mountain towering above us and the city of Cape Town sprawled out below. Four Rosmead really is a great place to be based providing easy access to a number of the highlights of this energetic city.

The day starts with a healthy jog through town on a bit of an orientation trip. I make it down to the Waterfront and back with, to my surprise, not a jot of hassle. Would I go for a run in Nairobi? Not likely. Cape Town really is this laid back and easy to move around.

At lunch time we are met by our friend and local partner Steve who hosts us for the next few hours. We make our way over the mountain towards Camps Bay, a wealthy suburb of Cape Town. As we start slowly winding our way back down the opposite hillside, we see Camps Bay below with its white sand beaches and million dollar houses. I have to say that at first I am quite shocked; I have always known Cape Town to be a wealthy place, however this area is on a par with Beverley Hills. The houses are huge, most with their own private pools and dramatic ocean views. We stop for a while on the ‘main strip’ and enjoy a lazy lunch at a lovely restaurant called Blues as we watch the goings on of Camps Bay, buskers, swimmers, cyclists and more – truly a vibrant area in its own right.

The evening is spent meeting an old friend at an atmospheric beach bar and then wandering the renowned waterfront and enjoying a meal in one of its high profile restaurants. Whilst I get the attraction of the waterfront, I wouldn’t recommend too much time here; it’s fun and vibrant, however I feel you lose the soul of the city and time is best spent in other areas.

The following day we wake and make our way to our new accommodation for our last night in the city, the lovely Ellerman House. We are greeted warmly by our hosts and briefed on what is on ‘the other side of the door’…at first I think this is a bit grandiose and pompous for us, however on passing through to the other side, I get it. Ellerman House is superbly located in Bantry Bay with stunning views out over the ocean. The House itself has its own private art collection (presumed to be worth more than the house itself!), a variety of terraces to dine on, a pool heated to a welcoming 27 degrees celcius and service to die for. For one that is normally impressed by the wilderness and authenticity of somewhere, I have to say I am completely blown away. Ellerman House is sumptuous without being over the top, offers some fantastic views, exceptional service, and is the perfect place from where to explore the city or alternatively, just sit back and relax.

For our final 24hrs in South Africa we have to tear ourselves away from Ellerman House and make our way to the Spier Wine Estate for Shaun (ex-NWS) and Cristina’s wedding, a lovely personal event. The next day we wake up slightly groggy and decide to explore a bit before we catch our flight home this evening. We hire a car and make our way out to the winelands and Franschoek. Another surprise! This place is stunning! We stop at 2 or 3 wine estates all set to the backdrop of vineyards, rolling hills and dramatic mountains. A great way to end a great trip.

Final Thoughts

When I started this trip I have to say that I was both excited and concerned about what I would think of South Africa. I have always stayed away from it as I have not felt that it offers the wilderness and authenticity when it comes to wildlife viewing that other African destinations can offer. If I am honest, I do still think this to a certain extent, however it does offer other attractions in bucket loads. Whilst the wildlife may not feel as 'wild’ as in other African destinations, South Africa offers you safety and security and pretty much guaranteed high quality wildlife sightings – perfect for both honeymooners or families. The beaches of Mozambique are within easy reach and offer world class diving, pristine white sands and luxurious accommodation. Cape Town offers a vibrant city full of character, great food and welcoming people. And finally the winelands, offer world class wines, great accommodation if you want, and a fantastic break in the dramatic mountains of inland South Africa. 

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Grace W

3/3/2015 3:00 PM

Enjoying the update, especially the video of the white rhino - what a great sighting.

Charlie Gray

2/3/2015 7:45 PM

Good to hear that South Africa is delivering on the wildlife front. Any news on the birdlife? Are there any interesting migrants down there at this time of year?

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