South Africa’s Top Malaria-Free Big Five Safari Destinations
Malaria is the biggest health concern of many visitors planning a safari to Africa. Particularly prevalent in low-lying areas during the rainy season, this mosquito-borne disease is present in most tropical safari destinations, from the Serengeti and Masai Mara to Luangwa and Kruger. Adults can do much to reduce the risk through the use of prophylactic drugs, insect repellents and physical barriers such as mosquito nets. But families that include pregnant women or young children are often advised against visiting any destination where malaria is found. It’s a restriction that limits one’s choice of safari destinations, but fortunately, it doesn’t rule out South Africa, where several excellent malaria-free reserves are inhabited by a wide variety of iconic wildlife, including the so-called Big Five.
Madikwe Game Reserve
Our first choice malaria-free safari destination, Madikwe extends across 290 square miles of semi-arid Kalahari bush in North West Province, 4-5 hours’ drive from Johannesburg. A rare modern conservation success story, it was forged from unproductive ranchland in 1991, then stocked with 8,000 individual animals spanning 28 species. Today, you are very likely to see lion, cheetah, elephant and both types of rhino over the course of a safari. The endangered African wild dog is also quite common, but buffalo and leopard are relatively scarce. Although it is not a private reserve, Madikwe operates much like one, being closed to self-drivers and day visitors, and serviced by 20-odd upmarket lodges that specialize in packages inclusive of expertly guided game drives in open 4x4s.
Pilanesberg Game Reserve
The populist equivalent to Madikwe, the 210-square-mile Pilanesberg Game Reserve also lies in North West Province, but it caters more to self-drive and budget safaris. It has a scenic setting within a collapsed volcanic crater, and all the Big Five are present, with elephant and white rhino being especially common. Official guided 4×4 night drives offer the best chance of encountering lion, leopard and other nocturnal predators. Being only two hours’ drive from Johannesburg, and adjacent to the famous Sun City hotel complex, Pilanesberg can get very busy over weekends and school holidays, so avoid these crunch periods.
Dinokeng Game Reserve
South Africa’s smallest province, Gauteng – home to Johannesburg, Pretoria, and Soweto – crams 15 million people into an area smaller than the Kruger National Park. Despite this, it also now hosts Dinokeng Game Reserve, which provides 100 square miles of free-roaming space to the Big Five and other reintroduced wildlife. Guided game drives out of Dinokeng’s concession lodges are open to day visitors and come with a decent chance of seeing lion, elephant, white rhino, giraffe, zebra and various antelope. Stay overnight and the bush feel is enhanced by the calls of jackals, nightjars and occasionally lions, despite being only one hour’s drive from O.R. Tambo International Airport, sub-equatorial Africa’s busiest flight hub.
Welgevonden Game Reserve
Created in 1993 by an association of like-minded landowners, this scenic private reserve forms part of the UNESCO Waterberg Biosphere Reserve. It is a great first-time safari destination, since guided game drives place a strong emphasis on looking for elephants, buffalo, white rhino, lion and cheetah, as well as the more elusive leopard and black rhino.
Lapalala Wilderness Area
Also part of the UNESCO Waterberg Biosphere Reserve, Lapalala protects a magnificent 185-square-mile montane wilderness incised by the Lephalale River Gorge. Founded in 1981 as a wilderness school and breeding center for rare mammals, it now doubles as an exclusive ecotourist destination aimed mainly at repeat safarigoers seeking a holistic bush experience, rather than first-timers wanting to tick off the Big Five (all of which are present). Lapalala is also of great cultural interest thanks to its wealth of prehistoric rock art and archaeological sites.
Sanbona Wildlife Reserve
For Cape Town-based visitors, the closest free-roaming populations of the Big Five are found in Sanbona, which also ranks as the Western Cape’s largest private reserve. Protecting a magnificently austere Karoo landscape towered over by burnished cliffs of buckled rock strata, Sanbona supports comparatively low wildlife densities, but the wilderness setting compensates, and game viewing can be truly excellent. It is one of the few places where the recessive ‘white lion’ gene is prevalent.
Addo Elephant National Park
Created in 1921 to protect the continent’s most southerly elephant population, Addo has since grown to become South Africa’s most biodiverse national park, embracing five of the country’s seven terrestrial biomes. An attractive feature in terms of itinerary planning is that Addo lies less than an hour’s drive inland of Gqeberha (formerly Port Elizabeth), which makes it the perfect add-on to a self-drive road trip from Cape Town along the Garden Route. The park’s super-habituated elephant herds offer a thrilling opportunity to watch interaction close up. But all the Big Five are present, and while you’d be lucky indeed to glimpse a leopard, we had excellent sightings of lion, black rhino and buffalo on our most recent visit. Other wildlife includes the majestic spiral-horned greater kudu antelope, colonies of meerkat and ground squirrel, and the flightless dung beetle, an endangered endemic often seen rolling the balls of dung in which it lays its eggs.
Shamwari Private Game Reserve
Probably the most world’s prestigious malaria-free safari destination, Shamwari is regularly voted as Africa’s Leading Conservation Company at the World Travel Awards, and it has hosted such celebrities as Brad Pitt, Tiger Woods and John Travolta. Lodges that offer the last word in luxury safari chic are complemented by a wonderful landscape of thicketed slopes and grassy savanna separated by the sweeping oxbows of the Bushman’s River. Lion, elephant, white rhino, buffalo and more than a dozen antelope species might be seen anywhere in Shamwari, and game drives north of the river offer possibly your best chance in South Africa of encountering black rhino. A pair of Big Cat Rescue and Education Centers designed in collaboration with the Born Free Foundation host rescued lions and leopards from around the world.
Kwandwe Private Game Reserve
Rehabilitated from degraded farmland in the 1990s, Kwandwe is a vast reserve whose pristine feel is enhanced by a low guest-to-land ratio and sparkling Karoo night skies. The semi-arid climate is offset by the perennial Great Fish River, which courses through the reserve for 30km. Elephant, buffalo, white rhino, black rhino, lion and cheetah are almost certain over the course of a three-night stay, but leopards are more elusive. The reserve’s isiXhosa name means ‘Place of the Blue Crane’, and South Africa’s striking national bird is indeed very common here.
Samara Private Game Reserve
The Eastern Cape’s largest private Big Five reserve, Samara hosts no more than 26 guests across two small lodges on any given night, guaranteeing a high level of exclusivity. Management is dedicated to restoring degraded Karoo scrub through the eradication of exotics, replanting of indigenous species, and reintroduction of endemic ungulates such as Cape Mountain zebra, black wildebeest, gemsbok and springbok. Game drives emphasize a broad conservation ethic, and the armed guides often disembark to track giraffe, white rhino and cheetah on foot. Night drives are very rewarding, with springhares hopping about like miniaturized kangaroos, and an above-average chance of spotting the super-elusive aardvark.