Whilst most safari regions in Africa are ‘malarial’, there are a few places in South Africa where you can enjoy big game viewing in malaria free comfort. Two of the best options are the private game reserves of the Eastern Cape, situated in the south of the country to the north-east of Port Elizabeth, and Madikwe Game Reserve, located to the north-west of Johannesburg, almost on the border with Botswana.
These destinations offer excellent general game viewing but, as my recent trip to both areas showed, they can also produce some rarer sightings and I can now finally say that I have seen aardvark, caracal and brown hyaena!
The Eastern Cape is home to several private game reserves, many of which purport to offer a big five experience such as the exclusive Kwandwe Reserve or beautiful Lalibela Reserve. However, big five viewing can never be guaranteed, especially as the notoriously elusive leopard can be a real challenge to see in the Eastern Cape!
Other properties in the region have their own special attractions such as the family friendly Riverbend Lodge, situated within a private concession in Addo Elephant Park. This is a haven for anyone with a fondness for these giant pachyderms, who are so habituated to the vehicles here that they will happily show off their babies at close quarters. One old girl has even acquired an unusual taste for metal, and occasionally wanders across to suck on the vehicles!
A contrasting experience to all of the other Eastern Cape reserves is Samara in the mountainous Karoo region. I would highly recommend an early morning start to drive up onto the high plateau, from where you can enjoy a silence interrupted only by birdsong and marvel at sweeping vistas below. In the afternoon, take the opportunity to track cheetah on foot.
Access to all Eastern Cape reserves is easy, either by self drive or with a road/air transfer from Port Elizabeth Airport, making it the perfect start or end to a touring holiday exploring the scenic splendours of the garden route and visiting the mother city of Cape Town.
Madikwe Game Reserve is an hour long flight (or four hour road transfer) from Johannesburg and is known as being a particularly family friendly ‘big five’ reserve which is easily combinable with the rest of South Africa, or with the beaches of Mozambique and Mauritius. Game viewing is excellent with large herds of elephants and buffalo, a very healthy lion population, and frequent sightings of more unusual species such as wild dog and brown hyaena. I was lucky to watch a brown hyaena (my first) calmly walk just a few feet from me as I was enjoying a morning coffee in the bush. Later on this year cheetah will be re-introduced into the reserve.
Children of all ages are well catered for in Madikwe with most properties offering a kiddies ‘bumble’ drive for those deemed to be too young for the normal game viewing activities (this varies from lodge to lodge but generally speaking children aged six and above are allowed on game drives at the rangers discretion). Back in camp, there is often a programme of activities to keep young minds occupied during the day.
Many of the Madikwe properties are built on a variation of a trusted ‘safari’ theme of chalet-style accommodation overlooking a water course, but there are a couple of exceptions. The Bush House, owned and run by Sue and Gordon Morrison, offers a warm and personal welcome where guests are encouraged to make themselves at home and afternoons can be spent curled up on one of the many comfortable sofas watching the elephants who frequently visit the water hole in front of camp. At the other end of the scale is the exquisite Morukuru Family, three luxurious houses which are sold exclusively and come with private staff who ensure that all guest requirements are fully catered for.
There is no denying that if you are seeking a truly remote and authentic African wilderness experience, you will need to look further afield than these malaria free regions of South Africa. But for anyone looking for a more accessible safari introduction without the need for malaria prophylactics, I felt that both regions really delivered on exceptional game-viewing and hospitality.