Five days or so that includes lions and elephants
September 17, 2018 4:17 PM   Subscribe

I have an unexpected opportunity to visit South Africa in late October/early November. I have work stuff for a week and then I can stay on for up to a week and do some sightseeing. I really want to see lions and elephants in the wild. But the number of possible places and tours to do this on is overwhelming. Can anyone give some personal recommendations?

The work trip involves Durban and then Pretoria, then I'll be flying out of Johannesburg. The sightseeing will happen between when I finish up in Pretoria and leave from Johannesburg.

My preference would be to only stay for about four extra days but it could stretch to a week if necessary.

I am a woman and might be traveling on my own if I can't persuade my husband to tag along, so safety is important. I also would prefer options towards the budget end of the spectrum but I don't think I'm up for self driving (seems like it would be too dangerous).

I've looked through old metafilter questions about visiting South Africa and the general advice seems to be to just go to Cape Town. I see there are single day tours to Pilanesberg out of Johannesburg. Would you recommend I do that like the day before I leave and otherwise spend the rest of my sightseeing time in Capetown instead of doing a multi-day Safari?
posted by lollusc to Travel & Transportation around South Africa (9 answers total)
Hey! My awesome friend Dawn is a South African travel blogger and animal activist who can point you in the right direction. Her site: The Incidental Tourist.
posted by Celsius1414 at 5:46 PM on September 17, 2018

I loved Pilanesberg. I'ts very small by African reserve standards, but it has a fantastic ecology. I was there with a work colleague over a weekend. We stayed in Sun City, which is a horrifying excrescence of brash vulgarity (and consequently a lot of fun), but it's only a short drive from the park.

We hired a car, and self-drove around the park. More guided options are available. For us, it was an unforgettably wonderful experience. Sitting in a cheap Japanese car as a rhino mother and daughter sniff you from 15m away is life-affirming.

It's about a 3-hour drive each way to Jo'burg, so that makes a long day, but totally do-able.

Summary: Pilanesberg is amazing, and easy to get to. Go there!
posted by Combat Wombat at 8:41 PM on September 17, 2018

Nthing Pilanesberg. There are multiple hotels/lodges round there that offer morning and evening game drives. Don’t be tempted to do this as a day trip from Johannesburg - animals are most active in the morning and evening. Use your extra days. I did this by myself a few years ago. It was wonderful.
posted by koahiatamadl at 9:21 PM on September 17, 2018

Pilanesberg is a great choice. And I would definitely spend several days in Cape Town if you can. It’s my favourite city in the world and internal flights aren’t that expensive. My experience in Johannesburg was that I wanted to get out of the city as soon as was humanly possible. I travelled there several times as a young single woman and never felt safe.
posted by guster4lovers at 11:57 AM on September 18, 2018

I lived in South Africa for a couple years and traveled extensively on my own as a woman. I think you have to do Kruger. I've been on many different varieties of safaris in South Africa/Swaziland/Namibia and Kruger is absolutely where you should go if it's your first safari experience and you don't know when you'll be back. The density of animal life is unmatched, and it's actually possible to stay inside the park without breaking the bank at a lodge (it's definitely worth it to stay in the park if you can).

The rest camps in the public part of the park offer camping and self-catering cottages of various sizes and amenities. In general, for a basic cottage with A/C, en suite bathroom, and equipped kitchen, you're looking at around $70/night (less if you don't need the bathroom or separate bedroom). You can buy groceries at one of the camp stores and grill out on your porch, or eat at a passable-but-not-exciting restaurant (note: there are lots of different camps in Kruger that are varying levels of rustic - not all have stores or restaurants so that's something to consider). You have the option to self-drive, which I'd definitely recommend especially on your later days in the park, but the bigger camps also have ranger-led tours that you sign up for a la carte (should be $15-20 for a three hour drive - there are also walking tours available). I'd recommend one of the camps in the southern part of the park for the best chances to see all the big animals. This trip is definitely doable in 4-5 days from Johannesburg/Pretoria.
posted by exutima at 12:30 PM on September 18, 2018

Exutima, I was tending towards your suggestion, but I can't figure out if there's a way to stay at a camp in Kruger without renting a car and driving from Pretoria and then back to Johannesburg. That's the bit I'm worried about, not so much self driving in the park. I heard especially driving in and near Johannesburg is dangerous and I'm a nervous driver at the best of times.

So if I wasn't willing to do that, is there any way to actually get to my accommodation in the park if I take a DIY approach rather than booking an all inclusive tour (which all seem to stay outside the park or in private reserves).
posted by lollusc at 4:03 PM on September 18, 2018

Also I haven't seen anything as low as $70 a night. Even the basic cottages seem to be a couple of hundred (ZAR 2600 or so). It might just be my dates are so soon that this is all that's left.
posted by lollusc at 4:06 PM on September 18, 2018

Ah, gotcha on the driving. I think it's probably possible to get there without driving yourself but it'll be a hassle - Kruger's public camps are really set up for people who will self drive at least part of the time, and there's not much infrastructure for folks without a car. There are lots of public and private shuttles you can get from the Johannesburg airport that go to several of the gateway towns, but that's where it gets tricky. If you were okay staying in a guest house or hotel in one of these towns there should be plenty of options that either offer their own game drives or partner with a third party company that would pick you up and take you into the park in the mornings and evenings. If you were set on staying in the park you'd have to arrange some kind of individual taxi transfer from there (including paying the driver's entry fees, etc), and with limited connectivity and limited alternative options if the return taxi falls through, I'd spend the whole time nervous about the return pickup. Plus, if you're spending more than two nights you'd likely want to change locations in the park, which would be difficult without a car. One more option - I haven't priced this out, but what if you took the shuttle to Nelspruit or Hazyview and then rented a car there to drive into the park?

[Side note just in case you aren't totally sure you don't want to drive - the road from Johannesburg to southern Kruger is well paved and well signed and basically up to any western standard. Tourists do it all the time, and if you rent your car from the O.R. Tambo airport you're just hopping on the highway and avoid any city driving altogether. Still, it might not be a fun way to spend your vacation to be a nervous driver navigating a foreign country, especially if you aren't used to being on that side of the road.]

Regarding pricing - I was going off memory, but after checking Sanparks website, the bungalows are what I remember at R1200-R1600, while the cottages and guest houses are considerably more. Sanparks has a pretty usable search feature here. Typing in October 30 as a test, I see a R1300 bungalow in Berg-en-Dal, a R646 safari tent in Crocodile Bridge, a R1600 bungalow in Lower Sabie, a R1200 bungalow in Malelane, an R500 hut and an R1300 bungalow in Pretoriuskop, and an R600 safari tent and R1600 bungalow in Skukuza - all camps in the general southern part of Kruger. You might have better luck searching one night at a time - you probably don't want to stay in the same place more than two nights anyway, and it's easier to get what you want if you're booking short stints.

Finally, to go to the last part of your question - Cape Town is lovely and you'll have a great time there if you choose to go (that's where I lived! Hit me up if you want recommendations). It's beautiful, there's awesome hiking, nice beaches (not as nice as Durban beaches), wine country (though I never thought this would be all that fun solo), and the general city experience. But it's basically San Francisco in Africa - wonderful to visit, but to me, can't compete with the impact and awe of the wildlife experience.
posted by exutima at 8:27 PM on September 18, 2018

We used Safari Tracks for our trip to Zim and Botswana. If you want a tour operator, I can recommend them.
posted by mrfuga0 at 10:02 AM on September 19, 2018

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