A safari in South Africa, and particularly in the Greater Kruger, is a once in a lifetime experience for many. You might spend months or even YEARS saving for your getaway, and even longer planning it. There are so many factors that come into matching your wants and needs with a lodge, so here are my absolute ‘non negotiables’ – the Top 3 factors that I think make or break a safari.
Though this sounds like a TOTAL no brainer, all guides are not actually created equal. Plus, each lodge has different ideas about what makes a good guide. You’ll find some that are purely focused on the Big 5, which is understandable as they receive the most marketing (and bring in the most tips if the ranger can find them), and others that are more holistically focused on a wider experience. There are some lodges that have student programs, and even these differ – for example, one lodge might only employ ‘junior guides’ after they’ve had a year or more experience, whereas others have deals with ranger training programs that they give them 6-12 months experience as a working ranger once their course is completed etc. There are just so many different factors that make a ‘good’ guide, so let me break it down a little more.
It is a common assumption that all game rangers are amazing – and actually, most are – but it really pays to check out the details on who will be making or breaking your safari experience. For example – What level FGASA are they? Do they hold any SKS qualifications (Special Knowledge and Skills)? How long have they been in the industry? And so on.
As mentioned above, some lodges only employ seasoned guides, and some have student programs where guides who are newly qualified work there for 6-12 months to get experience.
I am not at all saying that a new guide won’t be as great as a seasoned one or vice versa – but obviously the higher level FGASA they are, the longer they have been involved in the industry… These are things to be thinking about.
FGASA levels are like the ‘steps up the game ranger career’. I know that they are looking at changing the official names, so don’t pay too much attention here, but for example you’ve got FGASA Level 1, 2, and 3. You then have Back Up Trails Guide and Lead Trails Guide. Further to this, you’ve got SKS – Dangerous Game, Wild Flowers, Birds etc…
To officially work at a lodge, you only need FGASA 1 and maybe Back Up Trails depending on the lodge. So as you can see, there is a lot higher one can go than this. For example – There are only a really small handful of guides that I will trust to walk with out in the wild. And by walk, I don’t mean a quick bushwalk in between breakfast and lunch – I mean focusing on approaching and watching wildlife on foot – once in a lifetime experience! There are others that I really wouldn’t trust to do this with. You can read an in depth example of this here.
There will be an in depth post coming soon where we will explore what to look for when choosing a lodge based on the game ranger, so keep an eye out for further info.
THE LOCATION OF THE LODGE
Rates start at around R2,200 per person per night and can go all the way up to R22,000+ per person per night with tonnes of options in between at the Greater Kruger lodges, so it is really important to have a close look at WHY there is such a huge difference. Mostly, any agent or any ranger or anyone who has been on safari will tell you that you are paying extra for LUXURY. The animals really don’t know (or care, haha!) if you’re spending $200 or $2000 per night – they have the ENTIRE Greater Kruger (and KNP!) to call home. So, when choosing a lodge based purely on the opportunity to have good sightings, there are two major factors.
One of the most important aspects that will define your game viewing experience is a traversing area. A traversing area is where the lodge can drive on a safari. So, generally speaking, the larger a traversing area is, the wider variety of habitats it can hold, and this the wider variety of species can call it home. This will enable you to have a more varied game viewing experience, as different animals like different terrains.
Plus, if you’re staying for more than 2 nights, it’ll give you plenty of new areas to explore.
With regards to traversing areas, you’ll find that most lodges have traversing areas that they share with other lodges. They sort of interlap. So a lodge might have, say, 7000ha of traversing space, but they might share this with anywhere from 3 – 10 lodges. This can affect things too, because if you’re in a traversing area that has a tonne of other lodges, your ranger may be able to communicate with the other rangers out on drive to see who has found what where (animal wise!) – but this is a double edged sword, as this might take away from the ‘wild’ feeling of actually finding animals on your own, or you may find you bump into more other vehicles/people than you’d like.
Some lodges also have private land where only they traverse, which makes for a really wild experience.
For a safari of more than 2 nights, I would say 4,000 – 6,000+ is ideal.
Another really important aspect when choosing a lodge based on game viewing is not only whether the traversing area holds water sources, but also whether the lodge itself has any of these attractions. You spend down time at the lodge in between the game drives and for meals (usually having 3-4 hours free time) so it really helps to have a lodge that either overlooks a waterhole, or overlooks a dry (or wet in rainy season) riverbed (or both!!) that will allow you to spot and watch game without even leaving the lodge. If it does overlook a waterhole – is there a spotlight? IF so – is there only a stationary one that overlooks the water, or is there perhaps a roaming one for you to use at night time to search for nocturnal animals? SO MANY THINGS TO THINK ABOUT!
I think that many rangers and camp managers would agree with me when I say that probably THE MOST important factor that will make or break your safari experience is what you EXPECT from it. If you EXPECT to see the Big 5 numerous times over, AND at least 3 hunts and kills, you WILL be dissapointed. I don’t mean to sound negative – I just have enough experience to tell you that the BEST way to experience a safari is to go with an open mind. What you see depends entirely on what nature wants you to see – but, there are things (like the above points) that you can do to maximize your chances of having a good game viewing experience.
The best approach is to look at your safari like a ‘who knows’ game. Who knows what you’ll see on drive today? Who knows what might creep past the lodge at night? Who knows which bird you might find in a tree? Who knows how many species you’ll come across? Etc. And to be EXCITED for it all. Yes, I understand that many people want to see the Big 5 and only the Big 5, and this is mainly because they have been marketed the best over and over again. Let me tell you though – as majestic as each and every one of the members of the ‘Big 5’ club are, there are SO MANY other species just as worthy of the excitement felt when you see them. So go forth, intrepid safari lover, and seize whatever the day throws at you for ULTIMATE enjoyment and satisfaction!
Got a question? Want to share your top factors when choosing a lodge?
Throw me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org – I’d love to hear from you!