For as long as I can remember, “take a safari” has been on my bucket list, so when an opportunity finally presented itself, Daryle & I jumped on it. Only after the trip, did I realize just how much there was to know when choosing an African adventure. In an effort to help you make your once-in-a-lifetime trip just the one you imagine, I want to share some things we learned during our time in Africa.

I didn’t realize that safaris came in so many varieties and the first big thing I didn’t know was that there are two main types of areas where safaris happen – on private reserves and in national parks. There are significant differences between the two and of course pros and cons to each.

During our three months in Africa, we were lucky enough to experience safaris in both types of areas, so I now have a much better idea of what I’d want to know if I was choosing my once-in-a-lifetime safari. First, I’d like to give a quick overview of two very different safaris we took – one in each type of area – and then I’ll summarize the pros and cons of each.

Our experience in a Private Game Reserve – Our first safari was on a private reserve in South Africa. This was an easy intro as the trip came as an all-inclusive package deal with food, 2 game drives a day, expert guides and the opportunity to schedule additional guided day tours to local sites and animal encounters. All we had to take care of was flights and transportation to the lodge, which the lodge was happy to arrange. We quickly saw 4 of the Big 5, frequently with no other vehicles around. The reserve we’d selected was relatively small and fenced, rather than one that bordered a national park with free flow of animals between, so we did realize after a few days that we were seeing the same three elephants and family of cheetahs, but the close-up views and uncrowded perfect photo ops made it hard to complain. On our first game drive, our guide was able to identify the likely location of a leopard – notoriously hard to spot – in the bushes nearby, based only on the call of a bird. He then took our Land Cruiser off-trail to follow her as she hunkered down in some thick brush. We happily watched for some time as she lay there in the dappled sunlight keeping an eye on everything.

Our experience in a National Park – Our second safari was in Chobe National Park in Botswana. The first thing we noticed that set this experience apart from our first safari was the sheer number and diversity of animals we saw. From almost the moment we set out, we were able to see crocodiles, Cape buffalo, hippos, several species of antelope and dozens of birds, frequently all at the same time. We didn’t see as many of the big 5, and no cats, but we saw a much greater variety of more common animals, which were still all new to us and much larger herds of animals such as Cape buffalo and elephants. At one point, we watched completely entranced as a herd of about 20 elephants of all sizes emerged from the woods and ambled down to the water’s edge for a drink.

The Advantages of Private Game Reserves

A more personalized experience. Our guide would frequently ask our small group what we wanted to see on that particular drive and then tailor the route to our desires. We were also treated to a stop on each morning game drive where we could get out of the Land Cruiser and stretch our legs while our guide brewed fresh coffee. During these stops, there were no other people in sight and we felt like we were out in the bush on our own. We had the same experience one evening while we enjoyed a beer and sunset from a hilltop with a view to the horizon.

The ability to drive off the main roads. This is possibly the most important difference. The ability to travel off-road tracking animals greatly enhances your chances of seeing certain animals, particularly large cats, as in our experience with the leopard and of getting a more close-up view. Our experience with the leopard was almost magical, she passed so close to us we could almost have touched her, we were the only vehicle there and she didn’t seem bothered by our presence in the least. Seeing such a magnificent animal at such close range was breath-taking – not to mention great for photos.

A relaxed, uncrowded feel. Private reserves usually limit the number of vehicles that gather at a wildlife sighting to 2 or 3, creating a more peaceful feel and reducing the likelihood of other people and vehicles in your photos – not to mention being less likely to stress the animals or change their behavior. Many times we found ourselves alone watching the elephants tearing small trees apart for dinner or a cheetah perched on a low branch surveying the plains. I’ve read accounts of people having amazing one-on-one encounters on self-drive safaris in national parks as well, but the opposite is quite common, with hundreds of vehicles trapped in a “lion jam” jockeying for position to get a brief glimpse of a faraway cat.

Professionally guided game drives. Vehicles are driven by professional guides, usually with a tracker on board. These guides and trackers are not only knowledgeable about where to find the animals you are looking for, but also about their behaviors, which keeps you safer and also lets you learn more about what you are seeing. These guides also are frequently in radio contact with one another and can alert each other to sightings increasing your chances of seeing more elusive species. National parks do frequently also offer guided game drives, so this is not exclusive to private reserves.

Night drive options. Private reserves are more likely than national parks to offer night game drives, good for spotting big cats and nocturnal species like aardvark, aardwolves and civets.

The Strengths of National Parks

A variety of options for varied budgets. National parks tend to have more self-catering lodging options in a variety of price ranges. You can still find luxury lodges and camps, but that is not the only option. You can also often opt to drive your own car throughout the Park – see next bullet. It’s important to note that not all private reserves are outrageously expensive, but they seem to be inclined that direction.

The ability to self-drive. Again, this option can save you some money. You can usually still opt for guided drives with a professional guide which will enhance your chances of seeing the animals you are after, but you can select drives on a more a la carte basis, so you can enjoy a combination of guided and self-drive. When you self-drive you can choose your routes, aren’t limited to a set length of time and you don’t have to negotiate with other guests or your guide in order to be allowed to sit and watch a particular animal for hours if you like.

Greater habitat and animal diversity. Generally, because national parks cover more area, there is greater habitat, and therefore animal, diversity than on a private reserve. Your chances of seeing more animals and larger groups of these animals is higher. For example, in Chobe, we saw several herds of 10-20 elephants, while our private reserve only had three on the property. We also saw a herd of Cape buffalo so large, we had to wait fifteen minutes for them all to cross the road, engulfing our vehicle in the meantime. National parks are excellent for general wildlife viewing, you’ll likely see far more relatively common animals like giraffes, zebras, antelope, birds and baboons than in a private reserve. However, you may be less likely to see the shy and stealthy predators, like lions, leopards and hyena.

How to make your decision

Goals – A national park experience is excellent for the unmistakable and overwhelming feeling of being immersed in Africa, with giraffe and zebra around every corner, but if you have a list of animals you are counting on seeing, especially if it includes leopards and lions, your chances are likely better on a private reserve. 

Budget – You can make your money stretch farther in a national park with less expensive accommodation options and the freedom of self-driving. I think it’s important to think of a safari as a once-in-a-lifetime trip though and to keep in mind that a bit of a splurge is probably called for – you will most likely only so this once and you will remember it forever, so don’t skimp. However, you can likely make your adventure last longer and stretch your money farther in a national park.

Time – If you have a lot of time to scour the corners of at national park, you will undoubtedly have a number of priceless moments all to yourself, but if you have just a few days as many of us do, you may be able to make more of your time on a private reserve or at the very least by investing in a few guided game drives.

My recommendation

I believe the ideal is to split your time between a private reserve and national park. For instance, if you have 5 days, spend 3 at a reserve and 2 at a national park. Because we started at a private reserve and I’d already seen all the “big” animals I’d wanted to see, when we went on our national park safari later, I enjoyed it just as much, if not more, but for different reasons. I wasn’t fixated on locating certain animals, so I was thrilled with every bird, rodent or mammal we saw and just reveled in the experience of being in Africa. However, I’m not sure I would have been this satisfied if I hadn’t already seen the leopard and rhinos at the reserve.

private game reserve vs national park