Lions and Cheetahs. Leopards and Elephants. Rhinos, Hippos, Buffalos, Zebras, Giraffes and more. You’ve seen it on Nat Geo or Discovery and you’ve most likely said “someday, I want to do that.” But, safaris are pricey adventures, right? Google “Safari Africa” or “Safari South Africa” and seeing packages for a week costing over $10,000 USD, you’d soon be led to believe that you’d have to seriously break the bank in order to witness these gorgeous creatures completely in their element. Not so. Leave it up to us to find a less expensive way of getting it done. Here’s the nitty gritty on where best to find the Big 5 (Lion, Leopard, Black Rhino, Elephant, Buffalo) in Southern Africa and doing it on the cheap.
Head here if you’re dying to see ark-loads of Black Rhino, Zebra and Giraffe, but unless you can time it just right and arrive during the dry season, your chances of seeing much else are slim unless you’ve got the patience of a, excuse the pun, hungry Lion. The park costs $20/day/person plus a $10 fee for car entry. The camps are pricey too at over $30/ night each just for camping. Whether you like it or not, you’re on the budget clock while here. Fortunately, all of the camps have pools which somehow manage to make you forget the heat and the diminishing bank account.
This is Elephant central and boasts the highest concentration of Elephants in the world. There is also a large population of Lion and Leopard. Plus, it’s cheap to be here ($20 single entry per car, just like the USA!), camping is only $20/site and firewood and a camp attendant to make your fire are included. The only downside is that police corruption in Zim is rampant so outside of the park; you can pay some bribes or follow our advice to avoid paying bribes ever again.
Kruger (South Africa)
In our opinion as well as many others, Kruger is the ultimate. It’s the size of New Jersey, and has it all, especially an abundance of wildlife. Elephants your thing? Go to the Olifants camp. Lions? Satara Camp and drive the S100. Buffalo? Between Letaba camp and Satara. Rhino. South of Satara. Leopard? Ugh, good luck. They’re sneaky little buggers and are uber-hard to spot. The downside? It’s pricey at $24/day/person just to be in the park, plus a $10 vehicle fee. Camping is at $15/night/person which is reasonable. If you don’t have time for all of these parks and need one option, Kruger is it.
Okavango Delta (Botswana)
Being the largest inland delta in the world, Okavango wins the award for uniqueness. The other parks for the most part have the same flora, but this is a whole different world. It’s Hippo and Elephant central due to the abundance of water. Floating along on a mokoro (dug-out canoe) with a guide, the trips are relatively affordable if you use the Okavango Polers Trust, not to mention the proceeds go back to the community rather than the Profit & Loss statement of some rich dude. It’s $180 USD for the mokoro, including lodging, and you can fill it with as many as six people. Bring or find friends to make it less expensive!
Johannesburg tends to be the biggest hub for those dreaming of safaris due to its close proximity to Hwange and Kruger. But Windhoek is best to start with Etosha National Park and work clockwise through Okavango, Hwange and finishing in Kruger. We started in Cape Town due to flight availability and drove the extra forever to cross into Namibia. There were some cool sights along the way though so definitely worth it.
Getting Around and Shelter
Rent a car and hit the hard highway. This is cheapest from South Africa and will be around $45/day for an economy class. Or you can buy/sell or do a buyback scheme (which we did through DriveAfrica.co.za. So far so good but we haven’t sold it back to them yet so stay tuned on whether there is a ringing endorsement or not.) Bring or buy a tent. Buy food. All of the camps have a grill or “braai” as they say here. If you’ve got a little more in the budget, then all of the parks have places to stay from mid-range of $30/night/person to the ultra-deluxe $500/night palaces. The packages are really for those who can’t be bothered waking up on their own before sunrise, eating some oatmeal, slugging down a coffee and heading for the gate. Or, that can’t be bothered to drive themselves. It’s up to you, but I’d much rather go on six Safari Drives for as long as I’d like for $500 rather than one 2-hour Safari Drive with a driver. Plus, going on Safari is mostly a matter of luck and timing, just like fishing. You won’t see a thing unless you’re out there like bait.
Alternates and Add-ons
Between Okavango Delta and Hwange, if you have time, you must stop at Victoria Falls. Try crossing into Zambia first to see the Livingstone side of things. Plus, Livingstone is an awesome little town where you can unwind for several days if not weeks. You can then do day trips to Chobe Nat’l Park in Botswana which we hear is amazing but were unable to make it. If you’ve got the budget, then enjoy the Mukuni Big 5 Game Reserve: Lion and Cheetah Experience. They are a conservation that rescues injured or nearly-poached wildlife, rehabilitates them and releases into the wild on their 80,000 ha reserve. To be fair, this domesticates the Lions and Cheetahs, but as they said, “once the animals are released into our reserve and breed, their cubs never come into human contact.” In the meantime, you can play and walk with them, a close encounter that we truly enjoyed. From there, cross to Victoria Falls City in Zimbabwe for viewing the falls on the other side before continuing south to Hwange.