South Africa boasts an array of state-run parks and reserves, but the country’s private game reserves are truly exceptional. Unlike national parks that cater to a broader audience, private game reserves offer a more exclusive and less crowded experience. Complete with luxury accommodation, delectable meals, and thrilling safari activities, these reserves provide the perfect getaway. If you’re seeking inspiration for your next adventure, here are our top picks for the best private game reserves in South Africa.
1. Sabi Sand Game Reserve (650km²)
Sabi Sand GR, South Africa’s most renowned private game reserve, shares an unfenced border with the expansive Kruger National Park. This unique feature allows the reserve to be part of a vast, self-sustainable ecosystem. With numerous intimate and luxurious lodges to choose from, Sabi Sand offers the ultimate Big Five experience, with leopards being the star attraction.
Sabi Sand Tours
2. Phinda Game Reserve (230km²)
Comparable to the well-known Sabi Sand GR in terms of wildlife viewing, Phinda GR is a must-visit. You can expect close encounters with all the iconic animals, including the awe-inspiring cheetah. Witnessing these magnificent creatures sprinting at full speed during a hunt is an unforgettable sight. Phinda takes great pride in offering top-notch guidance, ensuring that your safari experience goes beyond just spotting the Big Five.
3. MalaMala Game Reserve (133km²)
Nestled between Kruger National Park and Sabi Sand GR, MalaMala GR is part of a vast ecosystem where animals roam freely. With a limited number of properties spread across extensive wilderness, MalaMala offers unparalleled wildlife viewing away from the crowds. Exclusivity is key here, allowing you to observe habituated leopards and witness the captivating behavior of these elusive big cats. Whether you spot a mother with cubs, a lone male marking its territory, or a pair engaging in their mating rituals, MalaMala guarantees a unique experience.
Mala Mala Tours
4. Manyeleti Game Reserve (230km²)
Owned and managed by a local community, Manyeleti GR is the only game reserve in the area. It shares open borders with Kruger National Park and Timbavati Nature Reserve, offering a genuine off-the-beaten-track wilderness experience. Though wildlife densities may be lower due to the scarcity of permanent water, Manyeleti provides an opportunity to spot the Big Five and much more without the usual crowds.
5. Timbavati Nature Reserve (534km²)
With its borders open to neighboring Kruger National Park, Timbavati NR competes closely with Sabi Sand GR. However, the safari experience in Timbavati feels wilder and more rugged. The lodges are spread out across the landscape, ensuring minimal vehicle traffic. In addition to the 18 luxurious all-inclusive lodges, there are also four self-catering camps available. Keep an eye out for the unique white lions, a renowned feature of this reserve. While sightings have become rare, the possibilities of encountering one are still present.
6. Kwandwe Game Reserve (220km²)
For an exclusive safari experience, Kwandwe GR is your destination of choice. With only two small lodges spread across a vast 220km² wilderness area, encountering another vehicle during your game drive is unlikely. Kwandwe stands as one of Eastern Cape’s premier wildlife destinations, offering sightings of the entire Big Five. This reserve is particularly rewarding for rhino enthusiasts, with both the placid white rhino and elusive black rhino making appearances. Don’t miss out on the night drive in Kwandwe, as it presents an excellent opportunity to spot seldom-seen nocturnal creatures such as the aardvark or porcupine.
7. Madikwe Game Reserve (750km²)
For an alternative to the private reserves in the Greater Kruger area, the malaria-free Madikwe GR is your best bet. Located against the Botswana border, Madikwe protects a vast untamed wilderness area. Despite being state-owned, the lodges within Madikwe operate just like their privately-owned counterparts. The reserve offers exceptional game drives, allowing you to spot the Big Five and maybe even catch a glimpse of a wild dog pack with their fascinating social dynamics.
8. Shamwari Game Reserve (250km²)
Shamwari GR stands as the most popular private reserve in the Eastern Cape. While the wildlife viewing experience rivals that of the Greater Kruger area, leopard sightings may be hit-or-miss here. However, you won’t miss out on rhino sightings in Shamwari, as the grassy areas are home to a significant population of white rhinos. If you venture to the remote north of the reserve, you may even encounter the more elusive black rhino. Shamwari also offers child-friendly lodges with a special “Kids on Safari” program, making it an excellent choice for a family holiday.
9. Balule Nature Reserve (350km²)
Balule NR, an extensive protected area with open borders to Kruger National Park, is composed of various smaller properties. While the area may feel slightly crowded, the quality of wildlife viewing is unmatched. The magnificent Olifants River, a prominent feature of Balule, serves as a watering hole for countless animals, including large herds of elephants and buffalo during the Dry season.
10. Amakhala Game Reserve (72km²)
Though not the most untamed destination, Amakhala GR offers a fantastic experience. Affordable and conveniently combined with a Cape holiday, this reserve guarantees excellent wildlife viewing, with frequent sightings of four of the Big Five. Leopards may be a bit elusive here, but you might stumble upon their tracks while exploring. With a wide variety of accommodations catering to different budgets, Amakhala has something for everyone, whether you’re planning a romantic getaway or a family safari.
Visit Ratingperson to learn more about these incredible private game reserves and start planning your unforgettable South African safari!
Note: The content in this article is based on the expertise and experience of Ratingperson.