South Africa wildlife vacations guide
2 minute summary
What we rate & what we don't
Our best & worst of SOUTH AFRICA WILDLIFE vacations
Wildlife on a budget
Wildlife vacations don’t have to be wildly expensive. There are budget safaris out there and volunteering is a great way to gain access to wilderness. If you have time, overland trips that take in lots of wildlife spots are great value. And don’t overlook tailor made vacations. A good tour operator works with what you can afford and still makes it as wild and wonderful as possible.
iSimangaliso Wetland Park
A wetland dream if ever there was one. On KwaZulu Natal’s east coast this, South Africa’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, is where land meets sea, elephants meet pelicans, hippos meet flamingoes, crocs inhabit creeks and over 500 species birds of every colour swoop around merrily as if they are the kings of these spectacular terrains. Canoeing here is a must. In fact just being here is a must.
South Africa is world renowned for the Big Five, but there are some serious big players along its coastlines too, with whale watching from both sea and shore around Hermanus June-Nov and also off KwaZulu-Natal ‘s coast June-July and Sep-Oct. There are penguins on Boulders Beach and dolphins all year round especially when the phenomenal sardine migration occurs along the south coast in June-July.
South Africa wildlife vacations wouldn’t happen without leading charities that ensure wildlife is kept were it should be: in the wild. Responsible tour operators usually promote favourites such as WWF, Care for the Wild International, Born Free and the World Cetacean Alliance. All do amazing work, particularly in lobbying governments for change and, they also need your change, when you can spare it.
Kruger National Park
Worldwide fame doesn’t come easy, but Kruger has earned its stripes albeit with conservation hardships along the way. With nearly 20,000km² and nine entrance gates, it is one of the greatest collection of Big Five habitats. Nearly half of the country’s white and black rhino populations are in Kruger, although poaching is an issue. You can camp here or stay in an eco lodge, and you can also self-drive.
Addo Elephant National Park
What ‘s wonderful about Addo is not only its vast population of elephants but the fact that it is also a coastal park, protecting natural idylls of Bird and St. Croix islands, home to penguins, seals and breeding grounds for whales. Basically, that’s the biggest land and sea mammals in once place, if you time your visit right. Although rhino, lion, buffalo, zebra and leopard are not to be sniffed at either.
When done responsibly, volunteering in South Africa can be one of the most rewarding and memorable vacations ever, and the most popular projects are those that rescue primates. They are hard work though, and far from simply coo-ing and cuddling, as you prepare these neglected or orphaned animals for life back in the wild. Perfect for the young conservationists in your life with projects welcoming family volunteers.
Wild & chic
South Africa really does know how to host in style when you are going in search of wildlife, with luxury camping, eco lodges, fine dining, balloon rides over the bush, fine wines and guided hikes with sundowners at the end of the day just a few of the treats on offer. Although there are plenty of budget ways to see wildlife, and we celebrate these too, South Africa tour operators have perfected the art of seeing the wild in style.
Superb, eye opening documentaries such as Blackfish have exposed the ghastly backstage action that goes into capturing cetaceans and getting them to perform – from wailing mothers separated from their babies to keepers being injured and even killed. Say NO to the circus and see them in the wild. There is no shortage of wild opportunities in South Africa. See our Dolphin watching and swimming guide for more details.
Wildlife sanctuaries are not always what you think with some reserves allowing you to walk with lions or cuddle cubs. Habituating wild animals is never a good plan, but even worse, some cubs are then ‘canned’ for trophy hunters when they get too big to play with. You will never be told that of course, with the ‘conservation’ word being bandied about at every opportunity. When really the word should be ‘con’.
Not uncommon in SA, and of course they are tempting. But there are many issues here and we believe that this not an ethical means of conserving elephants. Across Asia, where thousands of elephants have been “retired” from working, there is an unfortunate need to maintain them in captivity for now. Africa has no such cultural tradition; tourists should not encourage the keeping of elephants in captivity.
Ticking off the Big Five
The Big Five are definitely worth seeing. No-one is ever disappointed by a rhino. Or an elephant, or a lion, but we do think there is much, much more to a South African wildlife vacation than just ticking boxes and having a selfie with an ele. Look up for birdlife, go exploring the marine life and, importantly, support the communities that have been custodians of these creatures for centuries.