South Africa Safari: Private Game Reserve or Kruger?

One of the must-try experiences in South Africa (or Africa in general) is the safari game drive. The Kruger National Park is one of the largest game reserves in Africa with a number of diverse animal and bird species roaming in their natural habitat.

Other than visiting or staying at the Kruger National Park, another way to experience the safari is to opt for a private game reserve adjoining Kruger – such as Sabi Sands, Timbavati, Thornybush etc.

The leopard is one of the "Big 5".
The leopard is one of the “Big 5”.
This is just part of the entire Kruger National Park.
This is just part of the entire Kruger National Park.

Kruger National Park is huge – it can reached via three different airports – and as you could see from the map, the private game reserves are private land located at the side of the National Park. These reserves are usually unfenced and animals could roam from the park to the private land.

There are several accommodation options at the private game reserves such as Sabi Sands, Timbavati etc. Most of the lodges are quite luxurious, offer full board meals and are inclusive of 2 safari game drives per day. There are a mix of lodges and camps at Kruger National Park, as well as safari game driver options. Visitors at Kruger National Park could also self drive in the park.

Given that the private reserves do not need to follow the rules and guidelines of the National Park, they are able to provide a slightly more intimate game drive experience at the safari.

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The hyena’s breakfast.

#1: Private game drive vehicle could go off-road once they confirm there is an animal sighting.

The various rangers who are working under the same game reserve are wired via walkie-talkie. Once there is a sighting, the location would communicated via radio to other rangers. The rangers could then drive into the bushes (and tearing past some branches along the way) to get a lot closer to the animal for better sighting and photography opportunity.

At Kruger National Park, vehicles cannot go off road.

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On the Land Rover at a private game drive

#2: Ranger-tracker system at private game drives maximise number of sightings within the stipulated time.

It is immensely difficult for the untrained eyes to spot animals amongst the same foliage in the vast safari. This is why I do not recommend self-drive at Kruger because we are highly likely to miss out on some sightings as well as information snippets on these animals.

In the private game drive that I went to, we had 6 guests in a open top Land Rover, as well as a ranger and tracker. The ranger drives the vehicle and is very knowledgeable on the animals in Kruger. The tracker sits at the front of the vehicle and keep a watchful eye on the foot prints as trails that are likely to lead to the animals. Sometimes, the tracker would walk on his own to identify the exact position of the animal before communicating to the ranger.

A corpse of a warthog hanging on the tree. This animal was being caught and hung on the tree by a leopard.
A corpse of a warthog hanging on the tree. This animal was being caught and hung on the tree by a leopard. We would have totally missed this if it was not highlighted by the ranger.

#3 There is a limit on numbers of vehicle at one location at a time. 

I read that at Kruger once there is a sighting, there could a queue of vehicle at the location. At private game reserve, there is a system whereby at each location, there could be a maximum number of vehicles at one time. As a result, there would be less likely of a situation where a Land Rover hog the prime spot and deprives others of a chance of the sighting.

A Land Rover being swamped by an entire herd of African buffaloes!
A Land Rover being swamped by an entire herd of African buffaloes!
Mother and baby elephants
Mother and baby elephants

I thoroughly enjoyed all five game drives that I went through during my stay at a private game reserve in Timbavati. Not once did I feel bored in the drive because there was so much to see and learn.

While the private game reserves tend to be more expensive, it is an experience not to be missed. In fact, if you have time to spare, you could plan a safari experience in the private reserve, and spend another few days in Kruger National Park.

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