By Spencer Spellman, on March 26, 2014

Storybook South Africa safari

Cruising down the two-lane road, our eyes peeled to the windows, we came to a screeching halt. “Oh snap, that’s a family of giraffes crossing the road,” I yelled out loud. The situation seemed primed for a “Why did the giraffe cross the road” joke. No, there hadn’t been a zoo-break at the local zoo, and no, we weren’t in Jurassic Park. This was South Africa, and we were in one of the largest game reserves in the entire world: Kruger National Park.

When I look at my visit to South Africa a few years ago, I look back at it with fond memories. It was the first long-term (two months) trip of my life. It included a circle around South Africa, from Pretoria to Johannesburg to Soweto, the township in which Nelson Mandela spent many years of his life. To say the least, it was a life-changing experience for me.

But one of the most transformative experiences for me was the weekend driving through the plains of Kruger National Park. I had grown up on an farm, learning many lessons (such as how you never should pee on an electric fence), and observing animals in what seemed like their natural habitats. Boy, was I wrong. At Kruger National Park I observed some of the world’s most magnificent animals roaming a natural area that covers 7,580 square miles. Over the course of several hours I saw every representative of the Big Five: Lions, African elephants, Cape buffalo, leopards, and rhinoceros.

  • Spier Wine Farm

  • Motswari Private Game Reserve

  • African Pride Melrose Arch

But since Kruger National Park is comparable in size to some countries (Wales and Israel, to name a few), you really do need a long weekend for the best experience. It’s no half-day or one-day trip. To maximize your time, I’d recommend spending your visit in the game-rich southern and central regions of the park. The southern region is lion country, but also features the largest rhino population, while the central region is abundant with other members of the Big Five, as well as zebras, giraffes, wildebeests, sables, cheetahs, and many others.

Before you go off to book your first South African safari, here are some tips I’d like to share.

1. Don’t miss South Africa’s smaller reserves. The Rhino & Lion Nature Reserve, located northwest of Johannesburg, is one such reserve. The place is ideal for a day trip, and there’s no doubt you’ll see wildlife. Just make sure you visit these smaller spots before you visit Kruger, since just about all of the smaller places pale in comparison.

2. Do a self-drive through Kruger National Park. Kruger National Park is considered one of Africa’s best reserves for a self-drive, since the roads are maintained better than they are in many of Africa’s game reserves. You don’t need four-wheel drive to see the Big Five here, which can’t be said for all of Africa’s game reserves.

Viewfinder Tip: Only get out of your car in designated areas when doing a self-drive through a game reserve.

3. Pay close attention when driving in protected areas. That means staying on marked roads and getting out of your car only in designated areas. I’ve seen someone get out of his car near a pack of wildebeests, which resulted in something of a mini stampede. Luckily, no one was injured. Use common sense, and if it’s that important to get a close-up of wildlife, then bring binoculars or a better lens. 

4. Bring freezer bags and/or shower caps to keep electronics safe. A beautiful day on a safari can easily turn into a dust or rain storm. Protect your camera, lenses, binoculars, phone, and other electronics with bags or other methods of keeping water and particles out. 

5. Stay within Kruger National Park at a safari camp for the full experience. These aren’t the same kind of camps you went to during summers as a kid; you don’t sleep in bunk-bed dorms and sit around a fire singing, “Kumbaya.” Many of the safari camps in Africa feature a luxury tented experience, also known as “Glamping.” Two of my favorites: Motswari Private Game Reserve and Hamiltons Tented Camp, both of which include game drives and meals in the rate.

What would your storybook Africa itinerary involve?