Johannesburg is the jumping off point for some of the greatest safari experiences on earth, so we're taking a brief look at three of northern South Africa's best-loved national parks and reserves - though let's not forget that this increasingly hip and culturally fascinating city is well worth visiting in its own right. For today though, it's all about the lions...
Kruger National Park
One of the largest game reserves on the entire African continent, Kruger is the daddy of South Africa's national parks and undoubtedly one of the best places to view wildlife anywhere on earth. It's no exaggeration to say that a visit to Kruger may turn out to be one of the greatest experiences of your life.
From the Crocodile river in the south to the Limpopo river in the north, Kruger extends for 220 miles and an average of 40 miles east to west, an area of vast wilderness roughly equivalent to the size of Israel. Divided into 16 distinct eco-zones based on different types of landscape and vegetation, the park is home to more than 500 different types of bird and 147 mammals, including the Big Five (lion, elephant, cape buffalo, leopard and rhino).
The park is so enormous that visits are best planned around one main area, based on what you want to see. The southern region is relatively small, but is easily the most visited due to its accessibility from Johannesburg. Although traffic volumes are high, the game-viewing is incredible and the scenery more lush and green than further north. Skukuza rest camp is right in the centre of the best wildlife-viewing area, and is the largest and most convenient camp in Kruger, with restaurants, accommodation and car-hire facilities. Look out for fruit bats hanging under the eaves of shops and thick-tailed bush babies perched in the tree tops. Lions are frequently sighted on the approach road, and a section of the Sabie river directly opposite the camp is home to a number of hippos.
Central Kruger's reputation for the highest concentration of lions and cheetah make it almost as popular with visitors, though it does feel less crowded than the south. The area surrounding Satara rest camp is renowned for lion sightings, along with frequent spottings of giraffe, wildebeest and honey badger. The popular hill-top Olifants camp further north offers unforgettable views over rolling plains and bush, dotted with elephants, buffalo and the occasional soaring martial eagle.
The far northern region of Kruger is the most wild and least visited, and is home to the majority of Kruger's 12,000-plus elephants, though the density of the bush up here can make them difficult to spot. But if you're after more of an authentic bush experience – and don't mind staying in rustic camps with few facilities – this is definitely one of the most exciting areas of the park, if perhaps more suited to second-time visitors. Bird-lovers in particular will be rewarded with prolific sightings of giant eagle owls, African fish eagles and green pigeons in both Mopani and Shingwedzi camps, and the road between the two is one of the most scenic in all of Kruger.
The southern and central reaches of Kruger are approximately a five-hour drive from Johannesburg. Alternatively, you can fly into either Hoedspruit airport (for southern/central Kruger) or Mpumalanga airport (for southern Kruger) and hire a car from there.
Pilanesberg Game Reserve
For a Big Five experience closer to Johannesburg (a two to three hour drive) the well-stocked Pilanesberg Game Reserve offers visitors a rich wildlife-viewing experience in a dramatic natural landscape. The reserve is set in an ancient volcanic crater – one of the largest in the world – encircled by three concentric rings of hills, considered to be a unique geological phenomenon. The park has more than 10,000 animals, mainly as a result of the ambitious 'Operation Genesis' game resettlement programme of the late 1970s, which reintroduced long-since vanished species into Pilanesberg. It remains today the largest ever game translocation project ever undertaken in the world.
The biggest tourist draw in North West Province, Pilanesberg attracts a high number of day visitors – many of whom visit from the adjacent Sun City resort and casino – though it's most rewarding for those who choose to stay a few days. There are plenty of accommodation options, from luxury lodges within the park itself to hotels and camps just outside the boundaries.
Hugely popular with photographers, Pilanesberg is a particularly colourful park – due in part to its location in the overlap or 'transition zone' between the the dry Kalahari and the wetter Lowveld vegetation resulting in a diverse topography and habitats of varying hues. This variety allows for healthy populations of elephant, buffalo, white rhino, lion and leopard along with rare and endangered animals such as the black rhino and sable.
The park is easily explored in a standard hire car, and the area around the central Lake Mankwe – "the place of resting leopards" – is a good place to head for lunchtime picnics. There are also a number of under-frequented walk-in hides from which to appreciate small flocks of beautiful Amethyst Starlings swooping over the water.
Pilanesberg Game Reserve is a two to three hour drive from Johannesberg. There are four entrance gates to the reserve, the most common being Bakubung to the south and Manyane to the east. Pick up one of the excellent maps at the gates.
Madikwe Game Reserve
Still in North West Province and buffeting the border of Botswana in the far north, Madikwe Game Reserve is another of South Africa's large Big Five nature reserves established via a reintroduction of thousands of animals. Less well-known Madikwe does not generally cater to day visitors – you ideally need to be staying at one of the lodges within the park – though this makes for a far less crowded experience.
The reserve comprises vast plains of open grasslands and woodlands, bordered by the Dwarsberg Mountains in the south and punctuated with huge rocky hills. Along with 66 mammal species including cheetah, spotted hyena, plains antelopes and a flourishing population of wild dogs, the reserve is a paradise for birdwatchers. Interactive bush walks in the early morning or late afternoon will give you hours of sightings, including ostriches and secretarybirds in the open savannah, and you're almost guaranteed to see a Kori bustard – the heaviest flying bird on earth – hunting for frogs and insects on the ground.
Don't miss the shores of the Madikwe Dam at dusk when hundreds of waterbirds come to drink as the sun goes down, often joined by elephants, lions and rhinos.
Virgin Atlantic operates a daily direct flight to South Africa from London Heathrow. For a completely bespoke safari experience, visit Virgin Holidays who can organise a tailor-made holiday to your exact requirements.
Photos: header shot of giraffe family in Kruger © Mark Soskolne | Dreamstime.com, Kruger NP © Holger Karius | Dreamstime.com, Pilansberg reserve © Jan Martin Will | Dreamstime.com, Madikwe reserve © Greg Smith | Dreamstime.com.
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About the author: MaxineMaxine Sheppard
Maxine is the editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.