The insider advice on this page is from two of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for South Africa: Nina Wennersten and Dan Saperstein of Hippo Creek Safaris.
As a young girl growing up in the Bronx, Nina Wennersten spent as much time as she could at the nearby zoo dreaming of the day she would travel to Africa. Her dream became a reality nearly 40 years ago, and she founded Hippo Creek Safaris not long thereafter. Today, Nina is as passionate about Africa as she was at the beginning, and her love of the continent is shared by her son and business partner, Dan Saperstein. The two know that most travelers will only take one safari during their lives, and they work tirelessly, drawing on their decades of knowledge and vast network of connections, to ensure that each trip really is the trip of a lifetime. They are always on call and will do whatever is required to make sure that you return home having had an unforgettable safari. Nina was also included in Perrin’s People, Wendy’s award-winning list of top travel specialists, which was published annually in Condé Nast Traveler magazine from 2000 to 2013.
What to See and Do
Sleeping out under the stars! You have the safety of a raised platform to keep you from becoming a lion’s meal but can enjoy the starry spectacle of the African sky accompanied by a chorus of wildlife in the distance—a night you’ll remember forever. You can do this at the spectacular treehouses on Lion Sands’ private game reserve within the Sabi Sands, or at Tswalu’s private game reserve in the Kalahari region of South Africa.
Many travelers on safari in South Africa make a side trip to see Victoria Falls (there are daily nonstop flights from Johannesburg). But think twice about visiting the falls from October through December if you are hoping to see the amazing spectacle of torrents washing over the precipice: Pre-rainy season, the falls can become a trickle and your disappointment immense.
Most underrated place
People still believe that Johannesburg is dangerous and should be avoided, but the truth is that it has amazing restaurants, galleries, shops, theaters, and museums, and the visit to Soweto is worth the trip alone. There is also a burgeoning street-art scene, which a specialist guide can bring to life as you explore this urban landscape. Come and experience this terrific city, reborn and revitalized.
Most underrated activity
Biking around the gently rolling hills and gorgeous countryside of the Cape Winelands. It’s an easy ride, broken up by visits to small shops, excellent wineries and restaurants, and the best way to get the true feel of life in South Africa.
Most overrated activity
Self-driving on the Garden Route is not really the ideal use of one’s limited vacation time when in South Africa. There are too many other things to see and do that are unique to this region to spend your time on a scenic drive.
Best for thrill-seekers
Get out on the water to paddleboard or surf along the picturesque Cape Peninsula, or kayak among the southern right whales in Walker Bay, a two-hour drive from Cape Town. If you’re really an adrenaline junkie, go down in a shark cage for an up-close-and-personal look at great whites.
Dried meat (typically beef) called biltong, which is served everywhere—even on game drives—and is South Africa’s national obsession.
Best spot for a sundowner
Thornybush Private Game Reserve, which is part of the Greater Kruger Area, has some of the most dramatic sunset views in the region. As your afternoon game drive comes to a close with the sun beginning to set, your guide will find the perfect spot with views of this marvelous reserve and the incredible Drakensburg mountain range in the distance, obscuring the last rays of light.
Camps and Lodges
Best-value safari camps
There are too many lodges and camps in too many price ranges to choose just one or even a few. Deals abound in the safari world, and even the most luxurious lodges offer free nights for guests on extended stay; at midpriced properties, discounts mount if you stay a few nights in various camps owned by the same company. Specials and values change throughout the year, so it’s important to use a travel specialist, as they’re always aware of the best values for each traveler’s particular itinerary and budget.
Safari camps worth the splurge
With significant renovations recently taking place at some of the top camps, it’s a toss-up between Kruger Park’s Royal Malewane Lodge (and their fabulous new extension, The Farmstead), the Singita properties in private reserves adjacent to Kruger, and the incredible (and also recently updated) Lion Sands Ivory Lodge. From the moment you arrive until to the final wave good-bye, these high-end lodges offer absolutely perfect rooms, service, food, game viewing, and other activities, all in stunning surroundings.
Best camps for families
With its own pool, chef, and plenty of puzzles, games, and coloring books, Royal Malewane Africa House is a six-bedroom home that neither you nor your children will ever want to leave. Doctors usually won’t prescribe antimalarial medications to children under six, so malaria-free Morukuru, with three completely private villas of varying sizes in the Madikwe Game Reserve, is an ideal spot for families with young children and those who prefer not to take antimalarials. Phinda Mountain Lodge has a specialized children’s program, and Singita’s Castleton offers families the ultimate in luxury and privacy. With a complete renovation featuring new family suites constructed in 2019, Tswalu’s Motse Lodge now appeals to families looking for an upscale, malaria-free adventure in the unique Kalahari environment found here.
September is glorious in South Africa. The winter chill has left, and spring is on its way. The grasses that grew high after the rainy season have been chomped down, leaving the animals in full view. Cape Town is warming up, and the rains have more or less gone for good. Whales can be seen off the coast, the vineyards are green, and safaris are spectacular throughout the parks and reserves. Not too hot, not too cold. Enjoy heaven on earth.
If you can’t take the heat (up to 90 degrees on a three-hour game drive), then avoid December, January, and February, which are the hottest months of the year. The good news is that almost all the camps and lodges have air-conditioned rooms (unfortunately, there’s not much they can do about the temperature outside).
Mistaking a farm for a true game park or reserve. Some South Africans eager to cash in on the safari trade have fenced their farmlands, brought in some wildlife, and promote their formerly cultivated fields as safari destinations. They’re most definitely not. In fact, you can probably experience the same thing at a “safari” park near your home. One of the clues that you’re having a faux safari is the absence of any big cats or elephants. To be certain that your experience is the real deal, work with a travel specialist.
Sasol Bird Guide: If you are into birding, this guide is one of the best for Southern Africa, and it saves you the weight and space of carrying the full book with you.
Opera Mini: A Web browser that compresses all data so you can still keep up with the world at a decent speed while on the slower Wi-Fi/cellular connections in the bush.
TripIt Pro: You can refer to all of your flight info even without an Internet connection, and get notifications and updates once you connect.
Nothing impresses friends and family at home more than when you show them a photo of the elephant that charged your vehicle. Real charges rarely happen, as the guides can read their behavioral cues and know very well the difference between an elephant’s blustery mock charge and the very dangerous real thing. Young bull elephants love to show off their strength with great verve—ears outstretched, trunk held high and trumpeting a warning, and all of it coming straight at you. Have your camera ready for this heart-stopping display when you’re near a herd. You’re in no danger, but the folks back home will be none the wiser. I see it on your wall now.
Sitting on the outdoor cliffside terrace at the 11-room Birkenhead House hotel, overlooking Walker Bay as the southern right whales breach just yards from shore. The stunning combination of the property, the bay, the gulls, the beach, and the whales are a vision that will remain with you forever—with or without a photograph.