The Eastern Cape offers excellent safari options, ranging from national parks to private reserves. Home to plentiful wildlife, including the Big Five, it is malaria-free, making it perfect for families and safari first-timers. With a stunning undeveloped coastline and scenic landscape, it makes the perfect safari destination, particularly combined with a relaxing road trip along the Garden Route.
As well as being home to the Big Five, the Eastern Cape can also lay claim to being, the only place in South Africa where you can observe the big seven – the two additions being great white shark and southern right whale, which can both be spotted off the region’s coast. But if wildlife is your thing, another big draw of this area is that it is malaria-free, adding to its popularity as a family-friendly safari destination.
Most of the Eastern Cape private reserves and national parks are within a 2-hour drive from Port Elizabeth, making it easy to add a safari to the beginning, or end, of a drive along the Garden Route. Historically, the land of the Eastern Cape was used for farming, but conservation initiatives over recent years have managed to restock the indigenous wildlife and you can now expect to see the Big Five, plenty of zebra, giraffe, hyena, hippo, cheetah, kudu and springbok.
While all the reserves are malaria-free, each has its own attributes. One of the largest and best known is Shamwari Game Reserve. This malaria-free Big Five reserve is teeming with wildlife and offers a huge variety of activities to experience, making Shamwari one of our favourites. Along with game drives, guests can visit big cat sanctuaries, wildlife rehabilitation centres, or take a walking safari, while youngsters will enjoy the chance to learn more about the conservation work of the reserve.
Stretching either side of the Great Fish River, Kwandwe Private Game Reserve is a world-class Big Five safari destination. Famed for its expert guiding, rich biodiversity, plentiful wildlife and important conservation programmes, Kwandwe offers the chance to track rhino, take a Big Game Walk, a fishing safari, or a night game drive.
A smaller alternative is Amakhala Game Reserve, noted for its beauty. This compact reserve is dissected by Bushman’s River, making it a popular choice for taking a boat safari. The river also runs through Kariega Game Reserve, along with the equally bountiful, Kariega River. This plentiful supply of water, makes both the game viewing and birding experience here outstanding.
The main advantage of staying in a private reserve is that only the vehicles of those staying within its boundaries can drive on the land. This allows you to escape the crowds and avoid the congestion of game vehicles that can occur in the national parks. Added to this, the accommodation is usually family-run, which also makes for a much more personal and intimate safari experience.
For elephant lovers, we’d recommend a trip to the Addo Elephant National Park. This was founded in 1931, when only 11 elephants, on the brink of extinction, remained in the area. Today, it proudly boasts a population of over 500. The herds are generally relaxed around vehicles, making it suitable for a self-drive safari experience. Yet while this national park has all the Big Five, sightings can be sporadic, so we would recommend combining this trip with a stay at one of the private reserves, where the game viewing is better and there are fewer other vehicles.
The coast here is totally undeveloped, giving rise to its name, the Wild Coast and we think it will appeal to those looking for an area of untouched beauty. It also has a reputation as a surfers’ paradise, so if you enjoy boarding it will also appeal. All along the coastline, pristine beaches are met by rising hills, dotted with the tribal huts of the Xhosa. This is the true homeland of Nelson Mandela and his final resting place can be found here at Qunu, where you will also find the Nelson Mandela Museum.
Although most come here for the safari experience, the interior of the Eastern Cape is also worth exploring, particularly Karoo, which offers an evocative landscape of barren, craggy mountains and endless rolling hills. It is one of our favourite places to watch the sunset and the Valley of Desolation, close to Graaff-Reinet, would be our top recommendation for experiencing this bleak, yet beautiful landscape.