Sabi Sands is a luxury private game reserve with guided drives and 5-star lodges. Kruger is a government-run self-driving adventure. What gets our pick between Sabi Sands vs Kruger for the best South Africa safari experience?
The slow driving along empty roads, the parched shrub-scattered earth hiding elusive animals – even the 4 am starts make us feel like we’re embarking on something exciting. Spotting the Big 5 on a self-drive safari in Kruger National Park is a fantastic experience. Catching a paw up a tree or a rhino butt disappearing into the bushes provides a rush that only a self-drive safari can deliver. It’s both rewarding and energising.
Sabi Sands offers a completely different take on the safari experience. Guided drives are hosted by trained rangers who know the environment and the animals. They take you to the best spots – hand delivering incredible wildlife scenes, giving you information about the animals and spoiling you with champagne for sundowners. After the game drive, you’re whisked back to luxury accommodation for a top-notch dinner and cocktails by the campfire. Days are spent, not driving yourself around, but lazing by the pool as herds of elephants saunter past.
So, which is better? The thrill of a self-drive Kruger safari with the added excitement of knowing you’ve spotted something fantastic using your own devices, or the luxury of being driven around by professionals while relaxing in elegant surroundings.
Here’s our breakdown of Sabi Sands vs Kruger.
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SABI SANDS PRIVATE GAME RESERVE
Kruger National Park is a 19,485 km² safari park. Within its borders is Sabi Sands, a 65,000-hectare private reserve that was established by a group of landowners in 1934. Today, 6 of the original founding families still own all the land that comprises Sabi Sands Private Game Reserve. They work together to maintain the park and, since its inception, no fences have been built between each other or Kruger itself.
Because it was previously agricultural land, Sabi Sands is blessed with a good source of permanent watering holes. But not only are large herds of animals regularly seen congregating around predictable locations, it’s also one of the best places in the world to spot leopards.
With a strong focus on conservation, Sabi Sands boasts some of the highest density of big game in South Africa. The wildlife is well habituated to the area and, free from the distractions of large tourist numbers, extraordinary close encounters are common.
SABI SANDS OR KRUGER / WILDLIFE SPOTTING
When it comes to wildlife spotting, there are distinct advantages to a guided safari at Sabi Sands over self-driving in Kruger.
Firstly, all the rangers are in radio contact with each other, sharing information about sightings on their game drives. So, if one of the rangers from a different lodge spots something interesting, they will let all the other vehicles know and between them, co-ordinate an impromptu viewing schedule.
It’s not just every man for themselves, the rangers limit how many vehicles are at each particular viewing. This careful approach minimises the impact on the animals and allows them to gradually become accustomed to the vehicles, to such an extent that they will use them as cover to stalk their prey.
Secondly, unlike in Kruger, the vehicles in Sabi Sands can go off-road. This often involves a mad dash into the bush to get much closer to the action and is particularly important for leopards, who are often found tucked behind river banks and in deep shrub.
Another advantage is that the ranger and spotter take time to share their knowledge, so you can get a far greater understanding of the area, the animals and their behaviour.
In contrast, game spotting on a self-drive safari in Kruger means sticking to the roads. Getting closer to animals is much harder, often involving peering through bushes or waiting for them to approach the car.
While we had some excellent up-close sightings in Kruger, nothing compared to our Sabi Sands experience of parking beside a pair of mating leopards before driving off to follow a wild-dog hunt.
SABI SANDS OR KRUGER / PASSENGER OR DRIVER
While game spotting on your own in Kruger is more difficult than in Sabi Sands, this also provides one of the main benefits. The thrill of the challenge.
For independent travellers, a self-drive Kruger safari is an adventure. As soon as the gates open you can be on your way, spending the entire day driving around spotting animals. Not being limited to 2 drives a day means the only thing you need to worry about is getting back to camp before sunset.
There’s not much to help you except for the maps in the government camps, detailing the location of the most recent sightings. After that, you’re on your own.
So, when you’ve been driving around all day, following your own directions and creating your own schedule, it is much more of an achievement when you do come across something. When Mark yells out that he might have seen something, and we pull over and wait, camera poised, it’s a magical moment that’s never replicated on a guided tour.
SABI SANDS OR KRUGER / ACCOMMODATION & FACILITIES
There’s no doubt about it, Sabi Sands offers luxury safari accommodation and exceptional service to match. There are a number of private camps in Sabi Sands, each offering a full-service stay. All meals – breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner – is included as well as 2 game drives a day.
We stayed at Nkorho Bush Lodge and it was an exceptional experience. The rooms are swish and comfortable, and the pool overlooks an open plain with elephants and giraffes regularly passing by. The staff are very welcoming and the rangers highly knowledgeable on the animals and park, ensuring guests have a complete safari experience.
Sabi Sands is a very relaxing way to safari. With the all the effort of the game drives taken care of for you, and with incredible wildlife viewing almost guaranteed, you can spend the majority of the day lazing by the pool.
In contrast, accommodation within Kruger is in Government Rest Camps; basic accommodation housing the masses. While it’s perfectly functional you feel more like part of a process than a guest.
There isn’t a lot to do in the camps during the day and the environment is not particularly relaxing, so your best option is to stay out all day searching for wildlife. However, the camps in Kruger are very well stocked for necessities so you can easily grab some supplies to make your own lunch and have a full day out in the park.
SABI SANDS OR KRUGER / COSTS
Comparing the costs of Sabi Sands versus Kruger is the obvious big difference. Sabi Sands is high-end luxury safari, whereas the government camps in Kruger are very basic. This difference is well and truly felt in the costs.
As an example, a 1-night stay for 2 people at Nkorho Lodge including all meals and 2 game drives was R10,600 (about US$700). A 1-night stay for 2 people at a Kruger government camp was R1,300 (about US$ 80). Obviously, in Kruger, you have the additional cost of park fees, meals, booze, snacks and petrol which roughly doubles the price.
This still makes Sabi Sands about 4 to 5 times the price of a self-drive in Kruger. For the budget conscious traveller, this is a no-brainer. Kruger is an excellent place to have an amazing safari experience with the added benefit of being far more rewarding when you spot something great.
But if Sabi Sands is within your budget, and you’re worried about it being a waste of money, fear not. For the beautiful relaxing environment, incredible game drives, the added bonus of getting a deeper understanding of the animals and a stress-free experience, Sabi Sands is an exceptionally good way to spend your money.
SABI SANDS OR KRUGER / OUR RECOMMENDATIONS
Sabi Sands vs Kruger self-drive both offer an excellent safari experience. We were fortunate enough to have great animal sightings in both locations, seeing the big 5 every day.
The cost and style of accommodation in Sabi Sands would usually send us looking the other way. We don’t like spending a lot on luxury accommodation, particularly if the main attraction of the location is outside the hotel. Glamorous surroundings and high-end service do little to excite us unless there’s something more tangible in the offering.
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At Sabi Sands, there is something more tangible. Trained rangers, who understand the animals and the environment, can take vehicles off road and get up-close to fascinating wildlife interactions. The resulting safari experience is far more intense.
This is particularly important for seeing leopards, and we were fortunate enough to see one leopard eating its kill from the previous night, another using the jeep as cover for a hunt and a pair mating right beside the car.
In Kruger, we saw a paw, up a tree, in the distance, through binoculars.
So, our recommendation is to go to Sabi Sands, one of our top experiences in South Africa.
But two days is more than enough to enjoy all that it has to offer. If you have longer (and you should try to make sure you do) spend a couple of days self-driving in Kruger and you will get a different yet still amazing experience.
As one of our favourite places to visit for winter sun, great hiking and incredible wildlife opportunities, we’ve been to South Africa several times. Here’s some more reading you might find useful.
How to design your own South Africa itinerary
10 reasons to visit the magnificent Drakensberg Mountains
Hiking to the stunning Tugela Falls
Hiking to the top of the Tugela Gorge
27 incredible African safari animals and where to see them
10 tips for seeing the most animals on a self-drive Kruger safari
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