Safaris: Places to Explore

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Sabi Sands Game Reserve

This is the most famous and exclusive of South Africa's private reserves. Collectively owned and managed, the 153,000-acre reserve near Kruger is home to dozens of private lodges, including the world-famous MalaMala and Londolozi. The Sabi Sands fully deserves its exalted reputation, boasting perhaps the highest game density of any private reserve in southern Africa.

Although not all lodges own vast tracts of land, the majority have traversing rights over most of the reserve. With an average of 20 vehicles (from different camps) watching for game and communicating by radio, you're bound to see an enormous amount of game and almost certainly the Big Five, and since only three vehicles are allowed at a sighting at a time, you can be assured of a grandstand seat. The Sabi Sands is the best area for leopard sightings. It's a memorable experience to see this beautiful, powerful, and often elusive cat—the most successful of all feline predators—padding purposefully through the bush at night, illuminated in your ranger's spotlight. There are many lion prides, and occasionally the increasingly rare wild dogs will migrate from Kruger to den in the Sabi Sands. You'll also see white rhinos, zebras, giraffes, wildebeests, most of the antelope species, plus birds galore.

If you can afford it, a splurge on a Kruger SKI ("spend the kids' inheritance") vacation could be the experience of a lifetime. Staying for two or three nights (try for three) at a private game lodge combines superb accommodations, service, and food with equally excellent game-viewing. Exclusivity on game drives (most lodges put only six people in a vehicle, along with a dedicated ranger and tracker) almost guarantees sightings of the Big Five. Words like "elegance," "luxury," and "privacy" are overused when describing the accommodations, but each lodge is unique. One place might have chalets done in modern chic, another lodges with a colonial feel, and a third open-air safari tents whose proximity to the bush makes up for what they lack in plushness. At all of them you'll be treated like royalty, with whom you may well rub shoulders.

Many accommodations have air-conditioning, minibars, room safes, ceiling fans, and luxurious en suite bathrooms. If mainline phone reception is available, there are room telephones. Cell-phone reception is patchy (depending on the area), but never take your cell phone on a game drive (or at least keep it turned off) to avoid disturbing the animals and annoying fellow passengers. All camps have radio telephones in case you need to make contact with the outside world. Chartered flights to and from the camps on shared private airstrips are available, or lodges will collect you from Hoedspruit airport or KMIA.

The daily program at each lodge rarely deviates from a pattern, starting with tea, coffee, and muffins or rusks (Boer biscuits) before an early-morning game drive (usually starting at dawn, later in winter). You return to the lodge around 10 am, at which point you dine on a full English breakfast or brunch. You can then choose to go on a bush walk with an armed ranger, where you learn about some of the minutiae of the bush (including the Little Five), although you could also happen on giraffes, antelopes, or any one of the Big Five. But don't worry—you'll be well briefed in advance on what you should do if you come face-to-face with, say, a lion. The rest of the day, until the late-afternoon game drive, is spent at leisure—reading up on the bush in the camp library, snoozing, or swimming. A sumptuous afternoon tea is served at 3:30 or 4 before you head back into the bush for your night drive. During the drive, your ranger will find a peaceful spot for sundowners (cocktails), and you can sip the drink of your choice and nibble snacks as you watch one of Africa's spectacular sunsets. As darkness falls, your ranger will switch on the spotlight so you can spy nocturnal animals: lions, leopards, jackals, porcupines, servals (wildcats), civets, and the enchanting little bush babies. You'll return to the lodge around 7:30, in time to freshen up before a three- or five-course dinner in an open-air boma around a blazing fire. Often the camp staff entertains after dinner with local songs and dances—an unforgettable experience. Children under 12 are not allowed at some of the camps; others have great kids' programs (though children under five or six are not allowed to take part in any activities involving wild animals).

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Fodor's The Complete Guide to African Safaris

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