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Sabi Sand or Imfolozi-Hluhluwe??

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2 adults/3 teens headed to S. Africa for our first safari!

We are looking for a nice safari experience for about 7-8 days. Not self-drive or self-catering. We have a reasonable budget, but not looking for super high end accommodations. Only friends we know who have previously been to S. Africa recommended Sabi Sand, which sounded good. However, we would also like to spend some time at the beach. After much research, I think we would very much enjoy the Elephant Coast/ isimangaliso wetlands area because it wouldn't just be beach, but more wildlife as well. But. This is not close to Sabi Sand and it looks like we would have to fly from Sabi Sand back to JNB then to the Elephant Coast area (what airport?). This seems like it would take a full day and is a lot of airline tickets to buy for 5 people. Does anyone know if this can be done on a direct flight from Sabi Sand area and if so, approximate cost? We could rent a car and do all the driving ourselves, but that seems like a lot of time in the car, which the kids do not enjoy.

Then I started thinking does it make more sense to go to the safari/game drive part in KWZ? It looks like Imfolozi-Hluhluwe would be the best option. But how does this compare to Sabi Sand? Can anyone who has been to both provide me with some comparisons? We don't have a list of "must see" animals, the kids will be happy as long as we see many, but I don't want to sacrifice the experience just to save some money/time on air travel.

As for isimangaliso, where should we stay? I'm sort of intrigued by staying within the park. Thonga Beach Lodge looks amazing, but maybe too pricey for 5? Would love thoughts on best places to stay in this area. I wouldn't be opposed to having a rental car for the 2nd portion of the trip and doing more self-drive activities.

Any input/advice would be greatly appreciated!

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    Hello, you should get lots of advice here, here is my two cents:

    We went to Hluhluwe-Imfolozi last September as a change from two trips to Sabi Sands. We were greatly disappointed in the animal sightings! H-I is largely self-drive, and Sabi Sands is expensive, but at Sabi you get an incredibly intimate animal experience. Plus, it is very close to Kruger, which we adore, but you don't mention going there.

    St. Lucia is a lovely town, an easy drive north from Durban, which is where you would fly into. However, our one day drive from there up through Isimangaliso was a day with howling wind so we could not enjoy the beach. Didn't even stick a toe in the Indian Ocean. Plus, very little animal activity.

    My research also seemed to show a nice animal experience at Hluhluwe, perhaps we were unlucky in our time of year, but we were very disappointed. We did enjoy our stay at Hilltop in the park though. I think you could just stay in St. Lucia (Lodge Afrique was GREAT) and drive an hour or two up to the park, I forget the distance.

    Maybe we've been spoiled by Kruger. There are so many animals around the Lower Sabie camp we barely even slow down for giraffe.

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    As above, Hluhlwe-Imfolozi is a national park, so self drive. We loved it, but I don't think it's what you are looking for. There are three reserves you might consider:
    1 - Phinda. It is large, well-established and owned by one of the largest safari companies in S Africa. You will have a great experience, at very high cost. You will have to weigh the value yourself.
    2 - Tembe Elephant Park is now a community owned park that is just lovely. They have upgraded since I was there in 2011 and expanded their lodge. It is very reasonably priced and I love it that it is community owned.
    3 - Zululand Rhino Reserve is very special to me. It is only 11 years old, but is now a "big five" reserve and currently has lion and cheetah cubs. We did a rhino conservation outing there (we stayed at Rhino River Lodge, but there are other camps) and it was one of the greatest days of my life. Geez - I still get this goofy smile on my face! Rhino River Lodge is very affordable and I love the guides we had last June. The rhino outing for the five of you would be less expensive than 1 night at Phinda - including all-inclusive accommodations (probably a few nights!). I love it there - we've been twice.

    All of the above are easily combined with beach. Rocktail Bay for an exclusive experience or St Lucia for fun.

    It all depends on what type of experience you want and what your budget is.

    We love St Lucia. The horseback safaris, kayaking with hippos and the gorgeous game drives to Cape Vidal (lovely beach!) were right up my alley. Snorkel, fishing, scuba..... We were only there 2 nights and could have spent many more. So fun. Oh yeah, beach, too!

    Another option is do the beaches, dining and activities in Cape Town and then visit one of the reserves around Kruger (Sabi Sands the most famous and costly). It's a pretty easy flight, so I would not eliminate it. There are so many lodge options in every price range, though they start triple the price of Tembe or ZZR.

    Your other option could be the area around Addo near Port Elizabeth. There are private reserves and great lodges. Then the beaches and surfing of Jeffrey's Bay or other nearby areas. Addo is the second largest national park in SA, and includes some excellent in park lodges.

    Personally, I love KwaZulu Natal. We love it so much we might retire to there! So much to do, and fantastic wildlife viewing opportunities. Oh, and the Indian Ocean.

    Come back with more questions! Have fun planning.

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    Hi Points to Africa!
    There are lots of possibilities to pursue but knowing when you'd like to travel would help especially if you want to spend time enjoying a beach location. Do you have a timeframe in mind?
    Africa Direct USA

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    Thanks for all of this great advice so far. We are thinking this trip will be late March/early April 2016 during the kids' break from school. The more I read, and the more advice I get, I'm thinking 3 nights in Sabi then 4 nights near St. Lucia area would suit us well. Does that seem reasonable?

    Can someone comment on if we could fly directly between the 2 locations?

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    There are no direct flights - you'd have to fly through JNB. We drive from Sabi Sand to St Lucia through Swaziland. Easy drive (as long as you don't miss the turn because someone took the road sign to use as siding on their house, true story) and can be done in one long day. We stayed at the Royal Swazi in Mbabane, the capitol, to split it up and for my husband to play a very early round of good golf before we go. Not many people visit Swaziland!! Great addition to any passport. If you decide to fly, check into flights to Richards Bay. Durban is much further. Retiring to KwaZulu Natal is the perfect location for us - a day's drive to Kruger is important, along with being near/on the ocean.

    I think SS and St. Lucia is a good option - just did Kruger/St Lucia/Rhino River Lodge last summer and it was almost perfect. I always need more time, but that's normal for any vacation.

    Any way you can add a few nights? That's a long flight for just a week. It takes me two days to get there and a full day to get home (east coast, USA). Check for possible flight times and if you can do it in one day.

    Have fun planning!

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    Hi PointsToAfrica!

    Yes, there are no direct flights. You have to go thru JNB to get to St Lucia area from Sabi Sand. You could fly to either Richards Bay or Durban which is a little further - about a 2 hour drive.

    Unless your budget requires you to drive from Sabi Sand to St Lucia, my personal recommendation is that you don't do it. It can be done through Swaziland but it is about 10 hours and that's a long drive with teens. Perhaps if it were just me and my husband, it would be fine but not with my teen boys! LOL. You could break up the drive by staying overnight but, in my view, you are now extending the trip due to a long transfer and you should consider the cost of petrol (sold by the litre and much more money than here btw), car hire, lodging etc. If your heart is set on being in Sabi Sand and you can fly, you should.

    You could also revisit the idea of staying 3-4 nights at Phinda. It's a lot closer to St Lucia area and means no long transfers and more time either to be in the bush or on the beach! While the concentration of leopards isn't like what you would get in Sabi, they are there. Very strong sightings of a dominant male there currently. Phinda is a great family place as well. With its 7 different ecosystems and one of the only sand floor forests in the world, it is an amazing destination. We loved it. We were there in 2009 with our boys (17 and 12 at the time) and we took my husband's parents. We stayed 4 nights in Forest and 4 at Vlei. We spent a day at Sodwana Bay - lucky enough to secure one of only 6 permits to drive on the beach, a stretch of 300+km of untouched coastline. The dunes were amazing. So huge! We also did a cruise in the St Lucia wetlands. The bird sightings were incredible and the hippos were entertaining, although we did have excellent hippo sightings at Phinda! We also visited the local village and creche (nursery school) that Phinda supports which is always eye-opening for our kids. We brought gifts of reading books and some sweets. Our photos of our trip are amazing as both my husband and son are excellent photographers. If you are interested in seeing them, please email me and I will send you the link.

    As far as beach lodging in St Lucia area, I would suggest you look at Makakatana Bay Lodge.

    No matter what you decide, it will be an amazing trip! There is nothing as moving as seeing the bush through the eyes of your children.

    Africa Direct USA

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    Christabir, we also spent 2 nights at Tembe and drove through Swaziland, overnighting at the Hlane national park. While it was a nice people experience, we just felt that there wasn't enough animal activity to go that far out of our way. And it was a LOT of driving and a lot of potholes! I keep thinking maybe we just hit a bad weather period, although there just didn't seem to be the density of animals at Tembe that there is in Sabi Sands.

    We had trouble deciding between the drive up through Swaziland to Kruger or just flying Durban to Nelspruit. The drive was interesting if exhausting, and the food at Hlane was yummy, but I don't think we'd do it again.

    PointsToAfrica, I also will be interested on where your home is. Which side of the road do you drive on?

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    I forgot about the Skuzuza Airport reopening!! Check for flights to/from there for Sabi Sand. It's likely the nearest airport. Airlink is the carrier. They might have convenient flight times in/out to JNB. Then a connection through JNB to Richards Bay.

    gigib - we didn't only go to Tembe. We were in KZN for 10 days or so. It wasn't out of our way, it was our destination. Also when I checked, flying after the AM game drive couldn't get us to Richards Bay the same day, so driving took the same amount of time and, in my view, flying since 9/11 is much more aggravating than it needs to be. The roads were better last year, but some construction delays around the sugar cane mills. Ah - infrastructure spending! What a concept! We had one of our top five game drives at Tembe - lion cubs being introduced to the pride and a charging black rhino (plus hundreds of running ellies!) - so like I always say, you never know what's aroung the next corner on safari. I think it's an incredible value. I could stay there for almost a week for what Phinda costs for one night (no exaggeration!). I've had terrible viewing luck while spending a lot more money in Sabi Sand. But if I only had three nights, I'd bet on SS over anywhere else. I could never spend 10-21 nights on safari if I was incurring the costs of Phinda or Kirkmans or Mala Mala every night. I choose to go more often, for as many nights as possible and more inexpensively. But $100/night for one of my top five game drives? Priceless. And the people were pretty special. The only jobs in that area are from Tembe, so I felt it important to support them. The mass marketed lodges don't need my money.

    PointsTA- Thonga and Rocktail are the two all-inclusives in iSimangaliso. Very remote, but you are totally taken care of. If you want to, you can rent a condo in St Lucia (very reasonable!) right off the main drag and near St Lucia Lake, maybe a little view, within walking distance of many restaurants, shops and activities. Even a pool. There are some three bedroom/2 bath units. It will give you a functional kitchen if you want to keep drinks and snacks around and maybe breakfast or lunch. All utensils/pots are included and housekeeping even does the cleanup!! We enjoy the South African tradition of braai - barbeque - it really is an obsession there, and we grilled often. The supermarket is right in town. That might save a little money to spend on airfare from Sabi Sand! Lately I have preferred having some way of eating in without doing takeout - as an option, not a necessity. There are some very nice restaurants in St Lucia, and most activities will arrange transportation. The condos have "concierge service" to help arrange activities, including game drives to Hluhluwe-Imfolozi. Don't miss the drive to Cape Vidal, and give yourself more time than you think.

    The Rand just hit 11.8/USD today. It might be an all time high. If not, it's the highest for a very long time.

    I'm watching Invictus.

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    Thank you for all these great replies. I got a price for Thonga and WOW is all I can say.

    Based on all this feedback, here is what I'm thinking:

    3 nights in SS. Fly to Richards Bay (or Durban if necessary)and 2 or 3 nights somewhere near St. Lucia. I like the condo idea as by this point in trips my kids are sick of going out all the time. Also looked at Afrique Lodge which looks nice, any thoughts? Would probably rent a car for this part. After that, 2-3 nights at Thonga to end on a very relaxed high note. Not sure I would want to stay there the whole 5 nights we would be in the general area even if it wasn't so expensive, as there are activities that we want to do that would seem far away from there.

    We are coming from the US, but we have lots of experience driving all around Ireland on the "wrong" side of the road!

    The exact number of nights will depend on what flights I end up being able to book, but we have a total of 12 days to dedicate to this trip. How does the break out above seem? Good allocation of the time?

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    The day going from SS to Richards Bay or Durban may be a bit tricky. You'd check out of the lodge after the morning drive, probably around 10, then it's at least a couple of hours to the airport at Nelspruit.

    In a quick look at Kayak, if you fly to Richards Bay you have to stop in JNB. Flying to Durban, there is one afternoon nonstop that leaves Nelspruit (MQP) at 3 and arrives Durban at 4. The afternoon flight to Richards Bay gets in at 6 but leaves MQP at 1:30.

    Driving in the dark is not a good idea, there are people and animals walking along the roads and the speed limit is pretty high. Google shows a bit over 2 hours from King Shaka airport in Durban to St. Lucia. There are some nice beach areas in between for an overnight stop.

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    PTA - We stayed at Ndiza. It was perfect for us. I don't think they have accommodations that hold five and it's in a bit of a remote spot, so not walkable to restaurants. Most lodges in St Lucia are self catering (have a kitchen) and many provide breakfast. I wouldn't walk outside of town at night - they have hippos that come by to eat at night. Hippos are dangerous and it's just not safe. Really, no joke! They don't suggest walking around at night beyond McKensie St. Wait until you hear from the Sabi Sand lodges. WOW in bold caps!!

    I'm a safari girl, so that is not enough time on safari for me. You can go to the beach in many places on the planet, but where else can you see lions, rhinos and elephants?

    If you arrive to JNB in the morning, you can catch a scheduled charter to whatever lodge you are staying, or for a little less cost (not as much as you'd think) you can fly to KMIA, MQP or Skukuza and get a transfer to camp. It's so fun to land on a runway in the middle of nowhere! I don't have a lot of trouble with jet lag in that direction, so we like to get right into it. When you decide on a lodge in SS, they might be very helpful with options to reach them. For most of our trips, we have left late from jfk (after work and school), arrive in our European layover, hang out all day and get on our overnight flight to JNB that arrives in the AM. Then fly, in your case, to SS. There are direct flights from Atlanta and jfk. On the way home, you leave in the evening, land in Europe in the morning and can arrive back in jfk by 11AM to recover and get back to work/school the next day.

    gigib - for all of those reasons, we choose to drive.

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    Some viewing for us SA junkies:

    They have live drives from the Sabi Sands twice a day, morning and afternoon, local time. I'm watching now from here in California, it's 8:20 am here, 6:20 pm there, they've just stopped by a lovely leopard.

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