The lesser-known safari destination that's not to be missed

Photo Essay: Sabi Sands Game Reserve, South Africa

Culture By Photo by BB
Shots from four days of an August safari.

anzania and Kenya get the lion’s share of attention by travelers in search of the African Adventures promised by The Ghost in the Darkness Planet Earth. It turns out that witnessing a million wildebeest migrating from the southern Serengeti to Kenya’s Masa Mara reserve, as well as the gang of predators that tail them, looks just as incredible in the flesh as it does in HD. But to assume it’s the only real way to take in the circle of life on this great continent is a rookie mistake.

What South Africa’s Sabi Sands game reserve lacks in scale it makes up for in access and intimacy. The 65,000-hectare area is formed by coalition of smaller private reserves and shares a non-fenced boundary with Kruger National Park. Its name comes from the Sabi and Sand Rivers which flow through the area. They are the lifelines responsible for the rich array of wildlife found in the reserve, especially during high season.

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Leaving the summery shores of the U.S. or Europe for a vacation in the chilly Southern Hemisphere might seem daft on the surface, but the cooler, drier months of May through August are the prime time for a Safari. The search for water concentrates animals in greater numbers, while thinning vegetation makes them easier to spot.

Notable perks come with visiting private reserves like Sabi Sands rather than national parks, which are open to the public. For one, drivers are allowed to go off-road in pursuit of noteworthy animals tracked off of the reserve’s main paths, so they aren’t limited to seeing only the critters that strut out in the open. Far fewer people are also allowed in the reserve, ensuring the hours on the game drive don’t feel like a petting zoo.

Though roughly a dozen lodges operate inside the Sabi Sands reserve, the daily schedule for all of their guests follows a similar pattern, punctuated by two game drives a day. Drives are scheduled around the rising and the setting of the sun, when animals are most active. Each drive is led by an expert guide and his tracker, who follow any prints they spot. The brutality of early wakeup calls is mitigated somewhat by a coffee break in the morning, where there’s always the option to add South Africa’s take on Baileys, known as Amarula; and evening rides are far more palatable, usually ending with a cocktail at sunset — a sacred safari tradition known as “sundowners”. It’s a fitting end to days rife with inspiring wildlife and big country. Spend a few days in Sabi Sands and you’ll quickly learn that in this case, less is definitely more.