Johannesburg is the main city, and O.R. Tambo International, the main airport at which visitors to South Africa land. Most safaris to the Kruger Park – and longer safaris through Southern and to East Africa – depart and/or end in Johannesburg.
When you think about a South African safari, you automatically think Kruger National Park, and that makes sense. To get a true African safari experience in South Africa, the iconic Kruger Park is the best place to go. Nowhere else in South Africa comes near its vastness and variety of fauna and wildlife.
However, we do realise that sometimes time and/or budget constraints mean that the trip (it’s about a 5-hour drive) is just not possible. Fret not, that doesn’t mean that you have to miss out on an incredible safari experience.
Here, we’ve listed our four favourite Big Five game reserves within easy driving distance of Johannesburg, making day trips possible. We do recommend trying to stay at least one night, though, to experience the African bush at night.
- Pilanesberg National Park
- Dinokeng Game Reserve
- Welgevonden Game Reserve
- Mabula Private Game Reserve
The largest Big Five reserve within easy driving distance of Johannesburg (2 to 3 hours) is the Pilanesberg National Park, a 550 km2 area. It’s situated in a transition ecological zone, between the dry Kalahari region and the wet Lowveld region, giving it diverse habitats and, therefore, wildlife.
At the Mankwe Dam, you can sit for hours watching as the animals – giraffe, a variety of buck, wildebeest, zebra and more – come down to drink. If you’re really lucky, you could even catch a glimpse of one of the big cats. There’s also a bird hide, for the bird lovers, from where you can watch some of the 360 bird species who live here.
What Pilanesberg offers
- Game drives: Set off as the sun rises or sets (when most animals are active, before/after the heat of the day) and spot an abundance of game – if you’re lucky, all of the Big Five. Trained rangers take you on these trips and you’ll be amazed at their skill in finding camouflaged wildlife.
- Night drives: Many animals are nocturnal, making a night drive an incredible experience as you drive through the bush under the vast star-spattered African sky listening to the night sounds and looking for eyes shining in the spotlights.
- Walking safaris: Experience the bush first hand – smell the dust, see the animal tracks and scat, listen to the birds chirping and the insects singing.
- Hot air ballooning: Want to do it with a birds-eye view? Take a gentle float above it all at dawn, followed by a full breakfast on land – being a bird is hungry work!
Accommodation at Pilanesberg
Accommodation at Pilanesberg tends toward the pricey side, with many high-end, luxury lodges within the reserve.
If you're not keen to try and organise your trip to Pilanesberg on your own, let us do it. We offersome great trips to Pilanesberg.
It would be remiss of us not to mention Sun City when talking about Pilanesberg. Situated on the reserve’s border, this monument to glitz and glamour was the entertainment mecca during the 80’s and 90’s. It includes the architectural wonder of ‘The Palace of the Lost City’.
With four hotels, a golf course, casinos, theatres, beautifully manicured gardens, a ‘beach’, with waves and a plethora of activities, it’s quite a sight to behold.
Just half an hour North of Pretoria (about an hour from Johannesburg), Dinokeng Game Reserve is the closest game park to Johannesburg that is home to the Big Five, making it the perfect place if your time is extremely limited.
In the early 2000’s, the Gauteng Government and 170 landowners in the area started developing plans to turn the 200 km2 area into a game reserve. In 2008, construction of the 200 km perimeter fence began and then the landowners dismantled the individual property’s fences and the wild animals were introduced.
In September 2011, the reserve was officially opened and, with the introduction of a herd of black rhino in 2018, it earned itself the accolade of a Big Five reserve.
What Dinokeng offers
- Guided game drives: Open safari vehicles with knowledgeable guides is the best way to see any reserve. The guides know how to look and where to look, in order to see as much game as possible.
- Bush walks: Want to get up close and personal with the African bush? A guided bush walk is for you. Bush walks are done in small groups with two trained guides and you get to see the small things like the tiny dung beetles doing what they do best, that you might miss on a drive.
- Hot air ballooning: You can’t get much more romantic than a hot air balloon trip as dawn breaks over the bush.
- Self-drive safaris (suitable for sedan vehicles): Dinokeng is close enough for a day trip and has 140 km of driveable track through beautiful bush. We’d recommend at least one night, though, to experience the fabulousness that is the African bush at night.
- Picnic sites: Note these are not fenced which means you’re getting a true bush encounter while you enjoy your meal.
- Bird hide: Located next to a wetland, the MarSu Lombert Bird Hide is a twitcher’s paradise.
Accommodation at Dinokeng
Dinokeng offers accommodation to suit every budget and taste: from camp and caravan sites to tented camps, self-catering chalets and all the way up to luxury lodges.
Two-and-a-half hours’ drive from Johannesburg, Welgevonden Game Reserve is located in the beautiful Waterberg in the Limpopo province. It’s 370 km2 of pristine wilderness and is home not only to the Big Five but many other animals including buck, cheetah, zebra, giraffe and hyena.
This reserve is exclusive, with restricted numbers of people allowed in the reserve and accommodated at the luxury lodges within it (most have a maximum capacity of ten), meaning that it’s not overcrowded. It does, however, reflect in the pricing, but it’s totally worth it!
What Welgevonden offers
- Game drives: Qualified guides who are skilled trackers take guests on morning, sunset and night drives. Most accommodation includes these game drives in the price.
- Walking safaris: Bush walks with trained guides are offered to experience the bush first-hand.
- Stargazing: The African night sky is an absolute treat. At Welgevonden, two of the staff are qualified 'Sky Rangers’ and, with an 8-inch telescope, you can marvel at, and learn all about, all things celestial.
- San paintings: The area was inhabited by the San people about 2 000 years ago and there are two well-preserved rock paintings in Welgevonden. Book a guided tour and learn about the culture of these ancient people.
- Horseback trails: Explore the area on horseback with a guide.
Accommodation at Welgevonden
As mentioned above, Welgevonden is an exclusive reserve, and its accommodation and prices reflect that.
Accommodation ranges from self-catering to fully catered, in small, high-end, luxurious lodges. It’s expensive, but if you can possibly squeeze it into your budget, it’s an absolute treat!
Last, but no means least, Mabula Private Game Reserve, just two-and-a-half hours’ drive from Johannesburg, also in the Limpopo province, is 120 km2 of beautiful bush filled with a wide array of animals.
The reserve boasts 60 mammals, 300 bird species, the Big Five and loads of insects and reptiles, due to its varied habitat and fauna.
What Mabula offers
- Game drives: Twice daily game drives with knowledgeable guides to spot the creatures during their active time at dusk and daybreak.
- Quad bike safaris: Again, guided, but you get to drive your own quad bike through the bush while game viewing.
- Horseback safaris: Want the quieter, more natural version? Mabula offers guided horse rides.
- Hot air ballooning: Even quieter, and from above, the only noise you’ll hear, while floating gently above Mabula at daybreak, is the whoosh of the flame every now and again, keeping you up.
Accommodation at Mabula
Accommodation at Mabula is in lodge rooms – airy and light thatched suites with huge windows and luxurious furnishings – or the exclusive villa, which accommodates ten people.
The villa is ideal for small groups wanting an exclusive, self-designed safari experience: your host will meet with you to design the perfect daily schedule and the in-house butler, chef and housekeeper will ensure that your safari experience is top-notch.
Need to find a safari departing from Johannesburg?
If you're in Johannesburg or headed that way, check out our list of upcoming safari departures from Joburg here, or you can browse our full list of tours starting or ending in Joburg here.
The best budget sleeps in Johannesburg
We recently published a post on budget accommodation in Johannesburg, which will give you some excellent up-to-date options if you need to spend a night or two in the bustling ‘City of Gold’.
One thing we’re absolutely sure of is that nothing beats a safari in South Africa so get hold of one of our knowledgeable travel consultants and book your dream safari now!