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South Africa is a great place for first-time safari-goers to get their feet wet. There are plenty of options, from small private reserves like Shamwari Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape to large national parks like Kruger National Park, just a few hours from Johannesburg.
Kruger National Park. A visit to Kruger, one of the world's great game parks, may rank among the best experiences of your life. With its amazing diversity of scenery, trees, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals, Kruger is a place to safari at your own pace, choosing from among upscale private camps or simple campsites.
Sabi Sands Game Reserve. The most famous and exclusive of South Africa's private reserves, this 153,000-acre park is home to dozens of private lodges, including the world-famous MalaMala and Londolozi. With perhaps the highest game density of any private reserve in southern Africa, the Sabi Sands fully deserves its exalted reputation.
KwaZulu-Natal Parks. Zululand's Hluhluwe-Imfolozi is tiny—less than 6% of Kruger's size—but delivers the Big Five plus all the plains game. It has one of the most biologically diverse habitats on earth, a unique mix of forest, woodland, savanna, and grassland that includes about 1,250 species of plants and trees—more than you'll find in some entire countries. Mkuze and Ithala are even smaller but well worth a visit, and if you're looking for the ultimate in luxury, then stay at Phinda or Thanda private reserves.
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. National parks in two countries—Botswana's Gemsbok National Park and South Africa's Kalahari Gemsbok National Park—together are known as Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, one of the world's largest conservation areas, spanning more than 38,000 square km (14,670 square mi). Its stark, desolate beauty shelters huge black-maned Kalahari lions among other predators and provides brilliant birding, especially birds of prey.