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10 smaller private game reserves in South Africa

Caroline Hurry

Contributor

Smaller private reserves offer the best opportunities for close encounters of the wild kind with off-road game drives, sundowners, walks, exclusivity, and top-notch accommodation. Here are 10 favourites.

Best whale and penguin sightings

From Cape Town, hire a car and view the Atlantic and Indian Oceans from Table Mountain or Cape Point. Smell the roses in Kirstenbosch Gardens or swim with endangered African penguins at Boulders Beach, using Tintswalo at Boulders Boutique Villa as a base. Wind your way up the whale coast towards Hermanus, Overburg, Walker Bay, and Gansbaai, for awesome Southern Right and jagged-toothed shark viewing.

Boulders Beach

Photographer: Sergey Uryadnikov

Best Fynbos Foot Safari

Gondwana Game Reserve on the Garden Route offers guided walking safaris for up to eight guests. Expert trail guides reveal the 11000-hectare reserve’s unique biodiversity, eco systems, Big Five, and multiple antelope species in a fynbos-covered landscape. Covering up to 20km over two days, the wilderness trail takes bush walkers on exclusive, remote footpaths to three unfenced tented camp locations, where guests spend the night. Kits and supplies are sent ahead and a chef prepares meals on site.

Godwana Fynbos walk

gondwanagr.co.za

Best prehistoric reserve in the Karoo

If geological ages spiraled back like a staircase, Massospondylus fossils would lie on the lowest steps beneath Koi San flintheads and rock paintings, like forgotten toys from Earth’s lost childhood. At Samara you can walk over fossilized dinosaur footprints, fondle 250 million-year-old Dicynodont vertebrae; and track cheetah, lion, elephant, giraffe, antelope, and 225 bird species.

Check out the only known Khoi-San painting of a cheetah or sleep under the stars. Fly camping in which guests explore the 70,000-acre wilderness on foot before spending the night in a mobile tent, is a throwback to when early pioneers set up camp in big game country with just a fly sheet for protection.

Samara Fly Camping

samara.co.za

Best for families and volunteerism:

Five eco-systems merge at Shamwari, favoured by Brad Pitt and John Travolta. Wildlife specialist Dr Johan Joubert, and his staff heal injured creatures at the Rehabilitation Centre before returning them to the wilderness. Here, surrogate Jersey cows suckle orphaned wildebeest, buffalo or zebra calves.

Volunteers are welcome at the Born Free Foundation, which nurtures lions and leopards rescued from circuses and other abusive environments. When not cosseting his “kitty cats”, Shamwari’s Animal Care Manager, Glen Vena, teaches children why lions must never be castrated – “their manes fall off” – and how to blow a kudu horn, the original vuvuzela, now ubiquitous at every football match.  

Shamwari Private Game Reserve

shamwari.com

Best place to see leopards

Riverine luxuriance at Sabi Sabi lends itself to libidinous leopards that entrance with their seductive beauty. The 15000-hectare Sabi Sands Reserve, with Africa’s highest concentration of leopards, is a part of the two-million-hectare Kruger National Park. Sabi Sabi’s high success rates in thriving leopard cubs is also due to available water sources, habitat management, “rules of engagement” on safari, river structures, and a pristine natural environment that allows for an abundance of prey. My own sightings involved two leopards mating within metres of a basking crocodile and three lions demolishing a kudu carcass. You don’t get wilder than that! 

Sabi Sabi - Little Bush Camp

sabisabi.com

Best guided safari walks

Observing fauna and flora at ground level is like wandering through a wildlife documentary in which you are part of the larger panorama. From the use of crocodile pooh as an internal contraceptive to calcium-rich hyena droppings that help harden tortoise shells, you’ll discover101 uses for dung and which shrubs you can use as loo paper or a toothbrush. Africa on Foot in the Klaserie Private Nature Reserve specialises in walking safaris. Experienced rangers with rifles cut reassuring swathes through Big Five territory and explain traditional folklore. From the wooden balcony of an Nthambo Tree Camp stilted chalet, you can watch lightning skitter along the distant Drakensberg range or tiptoe with pounding heart to watch an elephant feeding off an Amarula tree. 

Cape Sugarbird on a King Protea

Photographer: Gideon Malherbe

Best tree house in Big Five country

Go out on a limb. Bark up the right tree at Tinyeleti, a triple-decker forest ship in the Lion Sands Reserve that offers the ultimate “Me Tarzan, You Jane” experience. Become one with the savannah from your lofty perch under a celestial canopy as the chortle-barks of grazing hippo and hooting spotted owls punctuate the Sabie River’s murmuring lullaby. A resident genet will likely clean the last morsels from your dinner plates. Your ranger drops you off before sunset with your provisions and picks you up the next day. 

South African Safari

Best wild dog spotting with your children

There are two large packs of African wild dogs among 60 other mammal species in the 75 000ha Madikwe Reserve bordering Botswana. At Tau Game Lodge, painted dogs‒ fewer than 3 600 remain in the world ‒ drink from the central watering hole at sundown, before embarking on the evening hunt, trailed by hyena and assorted scavengers. Tau’s live webcam lets armchair game spotters log-in to view the passing parade from anywhere while the lodge’s family-friendly philosophy – children go on game drives and guided nature walks - adds to the sense of kinship with the wilderness. 

Wild dogs on safari. South Africa

Photographer: NozarIsReal

Best tented camp for Zulu Dancing

The wonder of Thanda Tented Camp, 260km north of Durban, is that sightings of elephant, lion, rhino, and buffalo are guaranteed within the 14 000-hectare private game reserve, although leopards seem more elusive. Thanda’s 15 tents bring safari chic to the savannah with polished wooden floors, private sun decks, and canvas bathrooms, yet retain that early 20th-century unplugged explorer vibe with starlit showers, and solar power for a sense of full wilderness immersion. Expect enthusiastic Zulu dancing, in the evenings. Hyena, giraffe, warthog, zebra, antelope, vultures, crows, bateleur and martial eagles are ubiquitous.

Traditional zulu dancing in Durban, South Africa

Photographer: Selim kaya photography

Best place to stalk game with Bushmen

Craving something drier? The thirsty Central Kalahari Reserve in Botswana, an area of 52,800 km2 is home to rare black-maned lion, brown hyena, and some of the last Bushmen on earth, several now employed by Deception Valley Lodge. A transcendental walk with the rare San people will trigger your primitive roots as you learn how to sew a loincloth using acacia thorn and fibres, spark fires with sticks, turn ostrich egg shells into water coolers, or sharpen poison darts.

Black-maned lion, Kalahari, South Africa

Photographer: JMx Images

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