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October 04, 2007

How to have a great safari at an affordable price

My recent series of articles about South Africa has raised many questions amongst its readers. Surely a safari in South Africa is a ‘trip of a lifetime’? Fantastically expensive? Only for real adventure types? The truth is, despite the adventure spin that I put on it, going on safari in South Africa can be relatively cheap, and achievable without an elephant gun and a degree in the study dangerous beasts. So, as many people have asked, here’s a beginners guide to having an affordable but excellent safari.

Which country?

Quick answer: South Africa.

Each of the five main southern African countries has its own slightly different wildlife and tourism infrastructure, offering something a little different to the others. The best developed of these, and of most interest for a first-time safari (or a family trip) is South Africa. Years of political isolation encouraged the further development of an already excellent internal tourism market. For over a hundred years the government and the people have taken pride in and enjoyed a large network of state run national parks. These parks offer an ideal combination: some of the world’s best wildlife and environments, along with brilliantly designed, professionally run and affordable accomodation. There are three major parks boards: SANParks (countrywide), Kwa-Zulu Natal Parks Board, and Cape Nature. Each of these provides efficient booking services (we recommend booking through email, and then confirming and paying a deposit on the phone).

Alongside these many great parks, South Africa also has many private game reserves. Foreign tourists are usually booked into these at great expense. Although they may offer luxury, the much cheaper national parks give a far superior wildlife experience – if you know what to look for.

Of the South African parks, the massive Kruger Park is the best first-time destination, followed by Hluluwe-Umfolozi in KZN. The Kgalagadi (Kalahari) Transfrontier Park stradling the Botswana border offers a very different but also very special desert wildlife experience. South Africa has the additional advantage of the Indian Ocean, making it possible to combine a safari (for example in KZN) with a beach holiday (the KZN coast). Guest houses, booked when you arrive, are the best option for coastal accomodation.

I will write about the other southern African countries soon.

Park fees

There is a daily rate for every visitor to the national parks. This is usually under £10. Compared to the cost of visiting a zoo in the UK, that’s a bargain. The cost can be reduced further by buying an annual membership. SANParks (for the Kruger) offers the WildCard (I think that is around £100 for a family for a year).

What accomodation?

Quick answer: self catering cottages in South African national parks (£20 to £125 per cottage per night).

The national parks in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia provide ‘rest camps’ of various sizes, with a range of reasonably priced accomodation. The rest camps have shops, restaurants, museums, swimming pools etc. Accomodation options are:

  • Camping with own tent (usually excellent, with good ablutions) – very, very cheap.
  • Pre-assembled walk-in tents.
  • Rondavels (small round cottages) with modern bathroom and kitchen – from £20 per cottage per night.
  • Guest houses (larger cottages with a lounge, kitchen and several bedrooms).
  • Rentmeister donor cottages (big luxury cottages with own grounds, sleeping 8-9 people) – around £125 per cottage per night.

Barbecues (braiis) are provided everywher. Linen and kitchen utensils are included. The bigger cottages may also have a cleaner (who can do laundry and car washing for extra). In the Kruger Park, further options are available. Especially good are the much smaller ‘bush camps’, often with only 10-15 well equipped medium sized cottages. The ‘bush camps’ simply offer a very peaceful and natural experience without shops and restaurants. When staying in a bush camp, you must take in all of the food that you require. Many of the parks now also offer a range of wildreness trails, along which participants are guided over several days walking or cycling, and camping out over-night.

Outside of the national parks, South Africa must also be commended for its thousands of excellent guest houses – they are everywhere, and almost always offer a high standard at a low cost.


The air fare from the UK is the single biggest expense. Avoid British Airways, for the usual reasons, but also because by flying on SAA the largest share of your tourism £££s goes into the SA economy. Plus, the food is better. Expect to pay around £700 to fly direct, less to go on a long indirect flight.

Once in southern Africa, there is a good network of internal flights. The SAA subsidiaries SA Express and SA Airlink fly from Jo’burg to towns near to national parks. A recent one-way flight for two adults and a child to Phalaborwa on the edge of the Kruger cost us only £60. A recent return flight from Jo’burg to Cape Town on the BA subsidiary Comair cost me £100 (but required booking by phone).

On the ground a car will be essential. In SA you can make-do with an ordinary hatchback or saloon (get air-con), for around £150 a week from any of the major hire companies. These will usually have a limited mileage agreement, but that is fine if you are just pottering around a national park. Cars can be collected from the airports near to the parks. For game viewing, a taller vehicle is better. We recently hired a Honda CRV 4×4 (a soft-roader) over 10 days for £250 from National Alamo – this was perfect. Book online.

There are also several companies that specialise in hiring out fully equipped safari 4×4s and camper vans. I’m really not convinced that such a huge expense is necessary. A serious 4×4 is only needed for very remote locations like the Richtersveld (not recommended unless you are really experienced). And camper vans are rendered obsolete by the great range of camping and cheap accomodation available.


Once inside a South African national park, there is a great range of activities on offer, either DIY or organised by the park staff. Here are some options:

  • Inside the camp – there’s always lots of wildlife to see, including birds and often animals – plus most camps have view points allowing you to watch animals in rivers and water holes.
  • Swimming – the bigger camps have swimming pools.
  • Restaurants and cafes, often with views.
  • Museums and displays – the elephant museum at Letaba is the best.
  • Self-drive – just potter about in your own vehicle on the park roads looking for wildlife.
  • Picnic sites – in the Kruger there are several picnic spots in which you can get out, wander around, and make your own food. They usually have gas-skottles for hire cheaply.
  • Official game drives – with a trained guide – at the larger Kruger Camps, these take place in un-attractively large trucks (around £7 per person), the bush camps use smaller Hilux based vehicles.
  • Morning drives.
  • Sunset drives.
  • Night drives – using powerful searchlights to see night time animals and activities – good chance of leopard in the Kruger Park – the bush camps use smaller vehicles.
  • Guided walks – in small groups with a trained guide, expect to get close to dangerous wild animals (around £10 per person).
  • Cycling – increasingly popular guided tours.
  • Canoing and boat trips – in some parks.
  • Specialist drives, looking at trees, birds, stars.
  • Sitting by the cottage resting.

What is there to eat?

South Africa has great food. Rest camps have cafes and in the evenings good restaurants, usually with game meat and classic african dishes (bobotie, poitje stew), and often as unlimited buffets. Prices are reasonable, expect three course for under £10.

But eating in restaurants is missing the point. SA is the land of the braai (barbecue). Every cottage has a kitchen and a braai stand. Buy meat in the camp shop (often game meat, or the best imaginable beef). Cook it on the braai whilst drinking good cheap wine or Castle beer. Relax and eat outside, watching the sunset. That’s it.

When to go?

For the Kruger Park, on the north eastern lowveld (low country), the dry season is during our summer. It’s cooler, but still mild. Most importantly, the bush is less thick, so it is easier to see the animals. They may also be more concentrated around rivers and water holes. August is particularly good. Further into the centre of the country, on the highveld, the dry season is accompanied by cold (sometimes freezing). Cape Town is often windy and wet, but warmer for swimming at Christmas. The west coast reverses the rain patterns, with rain during our summer bringing our spectacular wild flower fields.

Surely there are problems?

Yes, but not really many. I’ve had worse illnesses on holiday in the UK, and never experience crime in SA (and i’ve been to Cape Town and Jo’burg). Here’s a list of the more likely problems:

  • Dehydration – this is a real danger, and the one that has come closest to hurting me. Drink bottled water constantly. Watch out for salty tap water (I once collapsed with heat exhaustion after drinking salty water at the Makgadigadi Pans).
  • Road accidents – South African driving standards are appalling. This has proved to be a major threat to tourists, however, there is a low speed limit inside the parks, which is actively policed.
  • Bee and wasp stings – be prepared, carry Waspeze.
  • Malaria – in the wet season (Christmas) use Lariam or another powerful anti-malarial, otherwise the Kruger and much of western and central SA is fine.
  • Hepatitis – my mother had a bout of this after visiting Botswana, possibly caused by contaminated salad. Be choosy. Only eat uncooked food in places that you really trust.

Are the animals dangerous?

No, not at all. If you follow the rules and respect the animals you will have no problems. Unlike Botswana, SA camps have sturdy fences. If you get out of your car to photograph an elephant bull, expect to get trampled.