How to experience the thrill of an African safari while traveling on a budget.
The four wheel drive bounds along the dirt path, dodging potholes and boulders along the way. We all jolt around in our seats, but the crisp winter air blowing through the windowless vehicle keeps us cool and calm.
Suddenly, the driver slows down the car and comes to a stop. There is no sound except the rustle of branches as we all wait in anticipation to see what our guide is seeing. The long, checkered neck of a giraffe sways gracefully between trees as we all whisper excitedly and snap our cameras.
15 minutes later the same scenario happens, only this time we’re watching a herd of zebra graze in a field. Next, we’re staring at a glassy pond, waiting for the tiny ears of a massive hippo to break the surface. Then, we’re observing a charismatic bull elephant lumber around the car, coming scarily close a few times.
The thrill of being on an African safari is hard to describe. When you see these magnificent creatures up close, you sit like a statue and make minimal noise to avoid startling them even though your mind is screaming with joy and your heart is about to explode out of your chest.
It is truly surreal to go on a game drive out in the African wilderness. It’s a humbling experience I think everyone should have. Nothing intensifies your respect for nature and minimizes your worry about your own meager human problems like watching buffalo, lions and rhinos live their simplistic yet stunning lives.
Before visiting South Africa, I did extensive research on safaris. Going on an African safari has always been a dream of mine, so when I finally booked the flight to South Africa I felt nothing short of ecstatic.
The most important factor in my safari research was, of course, the cost. How do I do an African safari cheaply? I wanted the real safari experience, but I didn’t want to spend a fortune. I knew it must be possible to do an African safari on a budget without sacrificing quality.
After two months in South Africa, talking to locals and tourists alike, and doing two safaris myself, I’ve gathered some insight into safaris and how to make them affordable.
In this article, I’ll first highlight general tips for researching and planning budget safaris. I’ll then write a bit about my own safari experience, mainly because I can give lots of details for anyone interested in maybe booking with one of the companies I used.
Keep in mind, I am focusing on South Africa because that is where I was traveling. I can’t say much for other African countries, though I’ve heard from other travelers that Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Rwanda, and Kenya are great places to do safaris.
(All the prices are South African Rand converted into USD, so the exact cost may vary depending on the exchange range).
How to do an African safari on a budget
Types of Safaris
There are a few different types of safaris that cater to different budgets. Of course, there is a long list of luxury lodges that offer packages including accommodation, food and game drives. These are far too expensive, so I ruled them out straight away in my own research.
But if you are willing to dish out a bit of money on an epic adventure, a multi-day safari is a great opportunity to do that. The absolute cheapest two day safaris in South Africa I could find are listed on Get Your Guide. The cheapest two day safari experience is $140 at Aquila Game Reserve. This one is crazy cheap, though you need at least two participants to sign up.
There are other multi-day safaris on Get Your Guide for anywhere between $200 and $500, which is still pretty affordable for a few days of African wilderness and outstanding customer service.
Most of these tours are based around Cape Town and the Garden Route but if none of these fit your needs, just search for game reserves near your location and visit the websites to see what tours they offer.
Most of the most expensive game drives are priced that way because they pick you up from Cape Town and drop you off afterwards, which of course adds to the costs but is convenient if you don’t have a car. If you do have a car, you can always contact the game reserve and ask what the price would be to drive yourself to the park.
Full Day or Half Day Game Drives
I recommend a one day game drive for those who really want to save money. If you are renting a car in South Africa, you can drive yourself to and from the game reserve to save the cost of getting picked up and dropped off again. If you don’t have a car, make sure transfers are available before you book your safari.
Most game reserves are very accommodating and want their guests to have a good experience. If you have any questions about transportation or where to get picked up, just call the staff and they are usually willing to fit your needs.
Most full day or half day game drives consist of a 3-4 hour drive through the area with a guide who is very knowledgeable about the animals. Some guides will ask for tips and some won’t, but always be respectful and listen carefully when they are speaking because they are very educated and experienced in terms of safety and animal behavior.
Usually a one day safari includes lunch or dinner, and in my experience the food has always been delicious. Make sure to always pack raincoats and warm jackets in case of weather change, though game drives often provide blankets. You should always be inside the vehicle so no need to worry about your footwear.
Get Your Guide also has lots of safari and wildlife themed day trips, some for less than $100. I found my first safari on here, the Aquila Game Reserve full day safari experience for $177. It was only “full day” because they drove us to and from Cape Town which was 2 hours each way, but I didn’t have a car at the time so it was perfect.
The second day safari I did was Schotia Game Reserve near Port Elizabeth which cost roughly $100. It was cheaper because we drove ourselves for most of the way, and we got a discount because we paid in cash.
Looking for single day game drives can sometimes be challenging because many private game reserves require a one night stay. If it isn’t clear on their website, which is often the case, just call or email and ask if they offer one day safaris without accommodation.
Self Drive Safari
Another great way to save money on a safari is to drive yourself through the park. Saving money and having flexibility is the greatest perk of driving yourself, whereas lack of knowledge about animals is the biggest downside.
Some people who have done self drive safaris say they had trouble finding animals on their own, so they just follow other vehicles. This method works, though if lots of people are doing this at the same time it can get crowded when everyone stops to view animals.
Addo Elephant Park near Port Elizabeth is home to over 600 elephants around 20 lions, and it’s a very popular place to drive your own car for very cheap. The entrance fee is only about $18 per adult, and you are almost guaranteed to see lots of elephants.
There is also a self-drive option at Kruger National Park, the biggest game reserve in South Africa and one of the biggest on the whole African continent. All you have to do is pay the $25 entrance fee, and you are free to roam around.
The park is so big that you may want more than one day to see it all. You can camp if you’re brave enough, or there are tons of accommodation options in the park. There are two hostels on the southern border of the park where you can rent a dorm bed for Kruger Inn Backpackers ($11 per night) and Kruger African Bush Backpackers ($13 per night.)
Located in the northeast corner of the country, Kruger National Park is over 7,000 square miles (roughly the same size as Wales) and stretches into Mozambique. Because of its size, this is the closest you can get to actual wilderness in South Africa.
I learned that it’s extremely rare, even impossible to see wild animals just roaming around in South Africa. The country is so developed that most of the land is owned by someone, therefore most wild animals are kept in private game reserves.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing because it means that someone is looking after the animals and making sure their basic needs are met. Most game reserves are spacious and full of greenery, and none of the animals are held in captivity (sometimes lions are kept in a separate, fenced off area to prevent them from eating everything else in the park. Old and sickly or injured animals are let into the lions’ domain to keep the circle of life going. If you thought I could write this article without a Lion King reference, think again).
Safari Tour Companies
Sometimes even budget travelers like to have someone else organize tours for them. Planning a safari can be overwhelming, especially if it’s your first one and you don’t really know what you’re looking for. I’ll recommend a couple tour companies that help travelers organize safaris for those who want extra assistance.
Lots of travelers in South Africa use Baz Bus to get around the country. This popular backpacker bus company also offers Kruger National Park tours, which can be convenient for someone already traveling with Baz Bus around South Africa.
A few other reliable tour companies in Cape Town are African Budget Safaris located in Hout Bay, and Detour Africa located on Long Street. Lots of travelers start their trip in Cape Town so hopefully these tour companies can help you guys out.
My Safari Experiences
As I previously mentioned, I did two safaris during my time in South Africa. Both were day trips that cost under $200, and both were SO WORTH IT.
Safari from Cape Town: Aquila Game Reserve
The first safari I did was at Aquila Game Reserve, and you can find the exact tour I booked here. I was picked up in a private van from my hostel in Cape Town and driven to the game reserve, located about 2 hours from Cape Town in the Karoo Region of the Western Cape.
After arriving at Aquila and sipping on a welcome drink, we had a delicious buffet lunch and some time to relax at the rustic yet modern lodge. Then we all hopped into our game drive vehicles, met our driver and guide, and set off driving through the park.
Within the first few minutes we saw the stationary bodies of a few massive hippos in a lake, which I initially thought were rocks. Our guide told us that hippos’ jaws can open to almost 180 degrees, and that hippos kill more humans than any other wild animal (except mosquitoes). So never swim in a body of water unless you’re positive that there’s no hippos present.
We also saw lots of black rhinos, including a baby. He looked like he hadn’t learned what to do with that little horn thing growing on his face yet.
We also saw a pride of lions lazing away in the afternoon sun. They were kept in a separate enclosure, as I described earlier in the article.
Other animals in the park that we saw include ostriches, giraffes, zebras, springboks, and elands which are the largest species of antelope. Elands are majestic creatures known for their horns that twist at the base. Paintings of Elands are commonly found in the Drakensberg Mountains as part of the ancient rock art of the San People who used to live in South African lands roughly 4,000 years ago.
The game drive lasted for about 3 hours before we were driven back to Cape Town. The only downside was that our car was big and crowded, so sometimes it was hard to see the animals through all the people in the car.
But I still recommend this day trip to anyone staying in Cape Town who doesn’t have their own transport. It’s a great way to escape the city and see lots of incredible animals. Aquila Game Reserve takes conservation, anti-poaching and animal rehabilitation very seriously. Read more about their conservation efforts here.
Safari from Port Elizabeth: Schotia Safaris
The second safari I did was a day trip from Port Elizabeth. We were actually staying in Jeffrey’s Bay, the surf capital of South Africa, and found Schotia to be one of the closest game reserves in the area. Here is the link to the safari we booked.
After contacting the company, they told us they didn’t offer transfers from Jeffrey’s Bay. We drove one hour to Port Elizabeth, parked our car at a gas station, and our guide picked us up from there.
We paid in cash to get a discount, then enjoyed tea, coffee and cookies before the start of the game drive. There were only 6 people in our car, so it was a much less crowded experience than the Aquila safari.
Schotia is the oldest game reserve in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, and their experience showed. Though the game park was huge, we drove around for hours and managed to see everything we wanted to. Antelopes, buffalo, warthogs, wildebeest, elephants, giraffes and exotic looking birds all graced our presence, and we got pretty close to an absolutely terrifying Nile Crocodile with emerald green eyes.
This game drive was a bit longer than the other one, so we could sit and watch animals for a bit longer which was amazing. We followed two black rhinos around for a bit and watched them roll in the mud. We saw a baby buffalo scratching his belly on a log, and we watched an elephant gorge himself on leaves from an Acacia tree.
The highlight of the game drive was visiting the lions, a young male and female couple and an old, weathered but wise looking male. They were pretty lazy, just lying around and occasionally walking around and licking each other. But their lack of movement allowed me to zoom in with my camera and take some stunning portraits of these giant cats.
We had dinner in a massive lapa (traditional South African building with a thatched roof), and drove back to the reception in the dark. It was spooky but super cool to see some animals in the dark, and we got a ride back to our car in Port Elizabeth afterwards.
This article turned out to be longer than I expected, but I got very excited writing about all the details of the safaris I experienced in South Africa. Any traveler visiting Africa shouldn’t miss out on the opportunity to see the unique wildlife, even all you frugal budget travelers out there.
Some things are worth spending a little money on, and a safari is one of them. Luckily, a safari can be done on a budget, and I hope this article was helpful. If not, I hope you at least enjoyed the animal photos!
To read about my other South African adventures, check out: