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20 June 2017

From its stunning coastline to its rugged mountains and forests, there really is something for everyone in South Africa… but what about safari in the Eastern Cape? How does it compare with other parts of the country, and where are the best experiences to be had? On a recent visit to South Africa, I had the very enviable task of undertaking a spot of ‘reserve hopping’ – tough gig I know, but someone had to do it!

Malaria free safari

Firstly, let me say that a safari in the Eastern Cape has a lot of points in its favour. The whole region is malaria free, making it ideal for families or those just not keen on taking anti-malarials. It is easy to get to, making it the perfect start or finish to any trip taking in Cape Town, the Winelands, and the Garden Route. It can also be a little kinder to budgets than a safari in the Kruger region, although, as with most things, budget-blowing luxury can be easily found too.

Big Five wildlife

So what about the game? Surely safari is the icing on the cake for almost any visit to South Africa? Well, in my opinion, good ‘Big Five’ safari is on offer in the Eastern Cape, but you really need to pick the right reserves and understand that safari here is a different prospect to safari in the Greater Kruger.

Unlike the reserves up by Kruger, such as the Timbavati and the Sabi Sands, the reserves in the Eastern Cape are completely fenced, meaning that game numbers and species are carefully monitored and controlled. In some reserves, the fencing and boundaries are quite apparent, as are power lines – and it is also not unusual to see the surrounding towns and villages in the distance when game driving. Most often the reserves occupy areas that were historically used for farming, which in some cases has taken a heavy toll on the land. Many long-term conservation projects have been put in place to restore these areas to their former glory, and while they are still a work in progress there has been significant and visible success.

These factors mean that a safari in the Eastern Cape is not going to offer the same ‘really wild’ feel that you would find in the Greater Kruger. That said, I had some fantastic game sightings during my trip, the scenery is beautiful, the guiding is of a high standard, and the accommodation options are great too. Moreover, having the opportunity to learn about some of the ongoing conservation work provides an extra dimension to the whole experience.

Which reserve should you choose?

When it comes to choosing a reserve for your safari, I think it’s definitely a case of bigger is better! The larger reserves obviously have greater game and predator numbers. They offer a far more authentic safari than those that are very small, where the experience leans more towards a safari park than a game reserve.

So where are my top picks? My first mention definitely goes to Kwandwe, which at 22,000 hectares offers guests a lot of land to explore. The reserve has significant levels of game – my rhino and lion sightings were particularly good here. I was also really impressed with the effort taken to use underground rather than above-ground power lines. The lodges here are stunning and my guides were top notch – I didn’t want to leave!

I would also highly recommend both Shamwari and Kariega, which are 25,000 and 10,000 hectares respectively. Shamwari is a leading figure among its contemporaries in terms of conservation and education, and it too has good numbers of game and a great selection of lodges.

Kariega, while considerably smaller than the other two of my favourites, still offers a solid safari experience – my elephant sightings here were wonderful. The vegetation in Kariega is denser, so game spotting is slightly harder. However, canoeing activities are available here too, which adds some nice variety. Kariega also has a really good range of properties to suit most budgets, so it is possible to enjoy a few days on safari without completely breaking the bank.

Kelly's verdict

Overall I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the Eastern Cape Reserves and would not hesitate to recommend a safari at any of my top picks. I would, however, urge caution to those looking for a Kruger Reserve-type experience in this region, because you will not find it. I also suspect that the seasoned safari-goer will find the Eastern Cape a little tame and underwhelming.

Personally I think the Eastern Cape is a great destination for first-timers looking to dip a toe into safari, and it makes a wonderful addition to a longer itinerary spent exploring the southern part of the country.

If you'd like any more information on a safari to South Africa's Eastern Cape, feel free to contact us on +44 (0)20 8547 2305 or send an email at [email protected]

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