There’s no denying that South Africa is awash with amazing wildlife experiences – from classic Kruger self-drive holidays to luxury Eastern Cape safaris at Shamwari… and pretty much everything in between.
However, there’s also no denying that collecting stamps in your passport holds a certain charm.
So, here’s an idea – how about crossing the border into one of our neighbouring countries and enjoying an unforgettable safari experience while you’re there?
You will be amazed at the array of options available to you.
To help you kickstart the planning process, here are our five top SADC game reserve picks:
Etosha National Park, Namibia
Etosha National Park was named for the massive salt pan that makes up the majority of the park’s 22 270km² and can be seen from space. While this may seem like the least ideal sort of terrain to enjoy good game viewing, quite the opposite is true. During the dry winter months, animals flock to the scattered watering holes, almost guaranteeing spectacular wildlife sightings.
Where: North western Namibia, about 415km from Windhoek.
Wildlife: The park is home to 114 mammal species and four of the Big 5 (you will be missing out on seeing the buffalo during a visit to the park). Large herds of zebra and springbok roam across the vast expanses, intermingling with regal Oryx and elephants. With an abundance of antelope species, there’s no shortage of food for predators and the park is well-known for magnificent lion sightings. Keep an eye out for rare black-faced impala around the Dolomite camp.
Birdlife: About 340 bird species have been recorded in Etosha National Park, of which almost a third are migratory. The summer rains transform the barren winter land into an oasis of new life, drawing a variety of species – from flamboyant pink flamingos to Rüppel’s Parrot. With 35 raptor species and 8 different kinds of owl, those who love birds of prey are also sure to be delighted.
Best seasons to go: Winter is best for wildlife sightings, as animals gather at watering holes and vegetation becomes sparse. Summer is, however, a treat for bird watchers, as the abundance of water draws migratory birds from all over Africa. Just be prepared for some intense heat and the niggling presence of mosquitos and bugs – remember to ask your doctor about Malaria precautions before going.
Accommodation types: Etosha has six official rest camps, offering a range of accommodation options – from luxurious lodges to understated campsites. Onkoshi and Dolomite cater to the luxury market, while Namutoni is located within a former German fort, offering a unique overnight experience. Okaukeujo and Halali offer different chalet options, as well as camping. Both offer viewing points over floodlit watering holes at night. Olifantsrus is the newest camp in the park and is exclusively aimed at camping.
More info: Visit the Etosha National Park website.
Chobe National Park, Botswana
With the mighty Chobe river forming the northern boundary, it’s no surprise that this park has one of the highest concentrations of game in sub-Saharan Africa.
Where: Northern Botswana. The little town of Kasane, sandwiched between the borders of Botswana, Zambia, Namibia and Zimbabwe, forms the gateway to Chobe National Park. If you’re planning on doing a self-drive safari, factor in that the distance from Gaborone to Kasane is 925km.
Wildlife: First off, Chobe is home to the largest concentration of elephants in Africa, so if you have a soft spot for these gentle giants, what are you waiting for? Apart from the +/- 50 000 elephants, the park also boasts buffalo herds of biblical proportions and exceptionally large prides of lion. African wild dogs, sable antelope and roan antelope are some of the rarer species you may spot in the riverine woodland, while crocodiles and hippos are a dime a dozen in the marshes and rivers. Finally, keep your eyes peeled for the puku and the Chobe bushbuck, two small antelope species that are endemic to the area.
Birdlife: If you’re a keen birder and just haven’t managed to tick the illusive Pel’s Fishing Owl off your life list, it’s probably time you headed up to Chobe. While you’re there, set about finding as many of the 450 odd species that have been identified throughout the park – some, like the African Fish Eagle may be seen various times a day, while others, like the Narina Trogon could be considered a very lucky sighting.
Best seasons to go: Summer – Once again, if birding is your thing, December to March are the best months to visit. The abundance of water draws amazing species from far and wide.
Spring – If your trip is all about getting great wildlife sightings, August – October is the very best time to go. This is especially true for the central Savuti region, where you may even be lucky enough to witness the area’s legendary zebra migration.
More info: Visit the Chobe National Park website.
At 14 650km², Hwange is the largest game reserve in Zimbabwe, offering the best game viewing opportunities in the country. It sprang to worldwide public attention in July 2015 when Cecil, one of its most famous lion residents, was killed illegally by an American hunter.
Where: North eastern Zimbabwe, bordering Botswana. It’s located about an hour’s drive from the majestic Victoria Falls and 340km from the city of Bulawayo.
Wildlife: With its mix of woodland and savanna vegetation, Hwange offers diverse and satisfying game viewing. The park boasts one of the largest – if not the largest - populations of African wild dog on the continent. It is also home to the big 5, as well as some rarer species such as sable antelope, cheetah and eland.
Birdlife: More than 400 bird species have been identified within the park, making it quite the Southern African birding hotspot. However, it’s the huge population of more than 50 raptor species that makes it especially notable.
Best seasons to go: Winter – The dry months of July to October offer the best game viewing, as vegetation is less dense and animals gather around highly visible, man-made waterholes throughout the park.
Autumn/Spring – March to May and August to October offer wonderfully mild weather and also fewer crowds than the mid-winter peak season.
Summer – December through February can make for rather uncomfortable visits with heavy rains and intense heat.
Accommodation types: Hwange offers a range of camps, lodges and concessions. The three camps run by the Zimbabwe Parks & Wildlife Authority are the most accessible, diverse and affordable. Known as Main Camp, Sinametella and Robins Camp, they all have chalets, cottages and camping/caravanning facilities.
More info: Visit the Zimbabwe Parks & Wildlife Authority website for more details.
Hlane Royal National Park, Swaziland
Considered to be the flagship of the three Big Game Parks in Swaziland, Hlane was named by King Sobhuza II and is now held in a trust for the nation by King Mswati III.
Where: North eastern Swaziland, close to the Mozambique border. It’s located about 104km from Mbabane and only 125km from the Oshoek Border Post.
Wildlife: Hlane is home to some of the most beautiful lions in Southern Africa. Because the park is so small, they are kept in a smaller fenced off area within the park to keep the herbivore/predator balance healthy at all times. You can also expect to see plenty of elephant, giraffe, warthogs and a huge variety of antelope. Cheetahs were also recently reintroduced, but tend to shy away from attention.
Birdlife: With similar vegetation and climate to southern Kruger, you can expect to see the usual suspects among bushveld birds. What makes the park a highlight on any birder’s checklist, however, is the fact that it has the highest density of nesting white-backed vultures in Africa.
Best seasons to go: Summers tend to be extremely hot, while winters are just a little too cold for comfort. So, we suggest heading to Hlane either in Autumn (March – May) or Spring (August – October). Game viewing will be especially good during autumn, as vegetation starts waning, while spring is fantastic for birding.
Accommodation types: Hlane has two camps – Ndlovu and Bhubesi. Ndlovu offers self-catering cottages and camping, as well as Wisteria Village B&B style accommodation. Bhubesi is home to six self-catering stone cottages in a private, riverine setting.
More info: Visit the Big Game Parks website.
Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique
Located in the very heart of oft-tumultous Mozambique, Gorongosa is often overlooked by travellers due to safety fears. However, if you’re of the braver kind and in the mood for adventure, you will be rewarded ten-fold with a visit to this remote patch of wilderness at the southern end of the Great Rift Valley. Plus, you will also get to experience, first-hand, one of the greatest wildlife restoration projects of our time, as a 20-year public-private partnership has seen it restored to its pre-civil war glory. A must-visit on any nature-lover’s list.
Where: Central Mozambique. It’s located about 487km from Vilanculos, its closest larger city.
Wildlife: Often referred to as the Serengeti of the south, you can expect to see large herds of antelope, wildebeest, Crawshay’s zebra and elephant roaming the savannas and hippos and elephants afloat in the rivers. With the choicest snacks on offer, lions roam throughout the park, trailed by hyenas and jackals. Being a biodiversity hotspot, it is also home to some fascinating diminutive species, such as the Mount Gorongosa Pygmy Chameleon, the Gorongosa spiny crustacean and the Mount Gorongosa Katydid.
Birdlife: The park has an astounding diversity of birdlife and it’s not unusual to record up to 150 different species during a single day of game driving. However, the species of all bird species in the park, is the endemic Green-headed Oriole. Found only on Mount Gorongosa, this specific species is distinguishable by the white panel on its wings and tops the life list of many-a birder.
Best seasons to go: Summer – no-go! Due to heavy rains and flooding, the park is closed to visitors between mid-December and mid-April.
Autumn – The abundance of water draws migratory birds from far and wide, making it a spectacular season for birding. This is also when pythons choose to breed, which means you may be lucky enough to spot one of these gargantuan crossing a road in search of a mate.
Winter – The dry months make for great game viewing, as waterholes become hives of activity. As pans start shrinking, water birds are also driven to compete for their prey, leading to magnificent displays from pelicans, fish eagles and a variety of herons.
Spring and early summer – It’s the season of new life and you can expect to get a good dose of cuteness all round.
Accommodation types: Gorongosa offers a variety of accommodation types – from the luxury Montebelo Lodge to rustic camping experiences.
More info: Visit the Gorongosa website.