Once you’ve decided when to go, the next question to consider when planning your South Africa safari experience is where to stay. But before you get to the question of lodges, it’s wise to first decide between a National Park and a game/nature reserve, each of which comes with its own benefits and trade-offs.
National Parks are huge. Take Kruger National Park, for example. This government-protected landmass, which is larger than Switzerland (and double the size of Puerto Rico), has six distinct ecosystems in and of itself. The benefit? You can witness large animal herds as they migrate. However, due to its size, it’s necessary to ensure you’re visiting the specific regions of the park that have the most wildlife.
Game reserves, on the other hand, are owner-controlled, fenced-in plots of land that are smaller than National Parks—although still large enough to allow animals to roam (Karongwe Reserve, for example, which is in Limpopo, South Africa spans 21,000 acres). Because reserves operate as a single entity, your safari guide will be in constant communication with other guides about wildlife whereabouts to ensure optimal game viewing.
Journy can help you decide which experience is best for you based on your budget, length of stay, interests, and more. Also, keep in mind that many properties won’t accept bookings from individuals—the best safari lodges have loyal partnerships with safari operators and agents, which can also mean some of the better deals.
To kick off your African safari planning (or just daydreaming), we’ve compiled a list of the best safari lodges.
If you’re thinking about a 2021 trip, don’t delay. Due to pent-up demand, all signs point to a massive spike in African safari travel post-Covid, primarily due to the fact that it’s naturally suited to social distancing (there’s nowhere more remote than the African bush). To properly plan your bucket list safari trip—arguably one of the best vacation experiences in the world— you need to allocate upwards of one year, which makes now the perfect time to get started.
The four lodges under the Lion Sands umbrella all straddle the Sabi Sands Game Reserve and the greater Kruger National Park. It’s the only private reserve with access to the Sabi River, which is known for its record number of leopard sightings, as well as the other four animals that comprise the Big Five (lions, buffalos, African elephants, and rhinos). During your stay at any of the following lodges, you’ll have the option (at an additional cost) to spend the night sleeping under the stars at one of the Lion Sands treehouses.
This spacious, 18-room lodge is divided between eight luxury suites, six superior luxury suites, and four river suites equipped with private plunge pools. Visiting when it’s colder out? Not to worry; there’s fireplaces, too. Each accommodation comes with a private wooden viewing deck that overlooks the Sabi River (don’t be surprised if you see wildlife before even leaving your room). All suites are air conditioned and come with king-sized beds and grand, en-suite bathrooms—with superior luxury suites and river suites also boasting outdoor showers. There’s ample communal areas as well, all of which are connected by wooden boardwalks.
Of the four Lion Sands lodges, Ivory has the most distinct design dominated by swaths of ivory and black colors, floor-to-ceiling glass walls, and chic free-standing bathtubs. It’s on the smaller side, with eight one-bedroom villas and one two-bedroom villa, each of which comes with a spacious bedroom(s) connected to living areas via a sun deck. Privacy is prioritized at Ivory, with each villa close to 70 feet away from the next. If you’re looking for a dose of R&R, look no further than the onsite spa treatments with natural and ethically-formulated Africology products.
Located on the Kruger National Park side of the Lion Sands Game Reserve, Tinga Lodge is outfitted with nine suites and one two-bedroom villa complete with all the modern amenities you’d expect: minbar, spacious bedrooms, infinity pools or plunge pools, air conditioning, private lounge areas, and more. With expansive double windows in the baths and shower area, Tinga Lodge offers unobstructed views of the Sabi River.
Like Tinga, Narina Lodge is located on the Kruger National Park side of Lion Sands. What sets this lodge apart from the rest is its stilted architectural style, which lends the effect of the lodge seamlessly blending into the trees along the banks of the river. The nine thatched suites come with en suite bathrooms, double vanities, outdoor showers, large free-standing tubs, private viewing decks, and plunge pools. The communal lounge, bar, wine cellar, and library are located in the main building, which connects to the suites by way of raised wooden walkways.
Along the southern border of Kruger National Park (near Crocodile River) lies the Grand Kruger Lodge and Spa. Nestled in a Wildlife Sanctuary, it is home to a variety of animals that freely roam the property, from giraffes to wildebeests, zebras to baboons, and even vervet monkeys. Guests can choose between suites and chalets, all of which are decorated in African-style décor and outfitted with air conditioning, ceiling fans, laundry facilities, free Wifi, and more.
Want to spend one day seeing game and three days relaxing at the beach, or the entire time seeing game? What about a combination of luxury safari lodges and more rustic tents? Self-drives, walking safaris, or or private safaris by Jeep? Journy can help you mix and match to your heart’s content to accommodate anything you’re looking for.
Garden Route Game Lodge is conveniently located just 3.5 hours from Cape Town, which makes it the perfect choice for travelers combining a bigger city experience with a safari. This family-owned (and family-friendly!) lodge sits at the entrance to South Africa’s Garden Route Coast, with the magnificent Langeberg mountain range in the background. The surrounding private game reserve is home to a range of animals, including lions, white rhinos, giraffes, elephants, buffalos, cheetahs, and antelopes. Lodging options include eight luxury suites, 16 lodge rooms, and 18 private chalets.
This intimate lodge is nestled in the Drakensberg Mountain Range, one of South Africa’s most breathtaking natural wonders. Enveloping the lodge are soaring Quinine trees, which make Forest Camp a haven for bird-lovers. The lodge is set on the same property as the Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, which guests have access to as part of their stay in order to foster a better understanding of the conservation issues facing South Africa. In addition to the two-hour tour of the centre, your stay at one of the 10 luxury chalets includes daily game drives on the reserve, morning bush walks, and three meals. Expect to see vervet monkeys, baboons, and Samango monkeys on the property.
Sweni Lodge falls under the Singita umbrella, a conservation and ecotourism company that has been operating in the southeastern reaches of Kruger National Park—on the border between South Africa and Mozambique—for close to 30 years. Its Sweni Lodge features seven spacious suites (including a new family option) nestled under a canopy of trees and surrounded by 33,000 acres of wilderness. The design is distinctly contemporary, with floor-to-ceiling glass doors that open onto sprawling wooden decks, outdoor daybeds so you can fall asleep under the stars, outdoor showers that overlook the river, and open floor plans dotted with bold splashes of vibrant color.
The second of Singita’s two lodges in Kruger National Park is Lebombo, which is perched on a cliff overlooking the N’Wanetsi River. Its 13 contemporary suites offer prime viewing of the diverse game that roam the property—both from inside (courtesy of the glass-lined walls) and outside (on the elevated wooden decks). The lofted style of the building, which lends the impression that the suites are floating between the river and the sky, was inspired by the surrounding eagles nests. While it’s tempting to remain secluded in your room, we suggest venturing out to the communal roof terrace, multimedia room, library, kitchen, espresso bar, and all-day bar/deli.
Ngala Safari Lodge boasts exclusive traversing rights on 36,000 acres of land in Kruger National Park, which means guests enjoy unobstructed (and up-close) views of elephants, buffalos, rhinos, lions, leopards, spotted hyenas, giraffes, and more. The 20 thatched cottages—including three family-friendly options with connecting rooms—come with private verandas and floor-to-ceiling glass windows. In the communal area, you’ll find a swimming pool and sundeck under a canopy of mopane and tamboti trees. Included in your stay are twice-daily game drives, bush walks, rhino notching conservation experiences, and the option to splurge for a night or two on a Ngala Treehouse experience.
Boulders Lodge is one of three accommodations under the Singita umbrella in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve. In addition to its safari-style design (think glass-walled suites, fireplaces, private decks, outdoor showers, and heated pools), Boulders is known for its award-winning, temperature-controlled wine cellar. Enjoy personalized tastings as you gaze over 45,000 acres of pristine wilderness. Not in the mood for wine? Head to the Copper bar for freshly-pressed juices, espressos, and cocktails.
Also helmed by Singita, Ebony Lodge in Sabi Sand Game Reserve draws inspiration from the old-world charm of safari camps with natural toned fibers, polished wood, and a tented bush lodge style. The 12 luxury suites (including several family-friendly options) each have their own private plunge pool, outdoor decks that suspend above the riverbank, and walls made entirely of glass for unparalleled views.
Designed for exclusive use, this private farmhouse was the former home of Singita’s founder, Luke Bailes. It features six double, en-suite cottages, ample lawn space, state-of-the-art wellness facilities, covered verandas, active waterholes, an expansive swimming pool, outdoor boma (animal enclosures), and a full staff to ensure your stay in nothing short of perfect. Another big perk? A stocked wine cellar with some enviable South African vintages.
Not sure if South Africa is right for you? Check out our full guide for information on Kenya, Rwanda, Botswana, Tanzania, Namibia, and other safari destinations throughout the continent.