Public vs Private Game Reserves

To safari in a public reserve – such as the Kruger National Park proper – or to safari in a privately owned territory – such as Londolozi Game Reserve or Royal Malewane? That is the question!

And it’s one of the most important decisions you’ll make in the lead up to your African trip. Most travellers are motivated to fly half way across the world to Africa for one thing: wildlife and, if you want to get into specifics, the Big 5. There are two pivotal reasons why, in general, game drives in a private reserve are associated with better wildlife sightings than those in a public park. In order to fully explain the difference between the two experiences, I’m going to need you to fire up your imaginations and come with me on a short excursion to Africa. Here we go… you’re no longer starring at your PC at your desk or consulting your phone or tablet between meetings. No. You’re on a game drive and let me tell you the weather is just grand!

You spot the pride of lions just off one of the tarred roads and within 15 minutes you’ve already taken 115 photos but if you’re honest, the lions’ lethargic behaviour is not conducive to good photographs. No one ever tells you that lions are lazy. But it’s true. During the heat of the midday these apex predators usually go in search of shade and – finding it – the pride retires for a few hours. Witnessing these graceful cats in their natural habitat is always a privilege wherever and however you are afforded the opportunity but, as keen as you are, you grow tired of watching the slothenly habits of the pride.


Things start to change as the sun begins to sink towards the horizon. Motivated by the approaching evening and the call of their hunger, the pride slowly stands, stretching. If you pay close attention you may notice one of the lioness’ ears perk up at the sound of nearby herd of impala. This is what you’ve been waiting for! As your excitement peaks, you realise that you’ve got a problem… you’re in a public park which means you need to get back to the gate before the park closes for the day and seeing as you’re a good hour from the exit, you need to start making tracks. Perhaps you can afford another five minutes with these cats – the same cats that you’ve flown half way across the world to see – but, soon, the risk of missing the cut off time becomes too great and you’re forced to bid farewell to the pride as they begin to move, with purpose, into the wilderness.


The same disappointment does not affront you in a private reserve. Stereotypically, game drives in privately owned territories begin before sunrise and continue well after sunset. More often than not, the most action between predators and prey takes place during these windows of the day. The freedom to explore the wilderness during these twilight hours enhances guests’ game viewing experience, granting them a front row seat to Africa’s dramas from a leopard waiting patiently for a warthog to leave its burrow to a trio of lionesses ambushing a buffalo calf.

Freedom to leave earlier and stay out later is not the only benefit of choosing a privately owned camp for your safari. One of the major advantages is that rangers are permitted to drive off road if a sighting warrants it. In order to fully grasp how pivotal this is to your game viewing, allow me to paint another scenario… It’s a warm July afternoon, there’s a pleasant breeze that cuts through the lowveld heat. You find yourself in a contented silence and your mind drifts to the herd of elephants at the dam that you had the joy of watching for over an hour and you wonder whether anything that follows will be able to top that special encounter. As the thought crosses your mind the ranger follows the road around a right bend and there, quite unexpectedly, is a male leopard trotting along the left parallel of the burnt orange road. Reaching for your camera, you only just manage to frame the leopard in your viewfinder before the magnificent cat decides to change direction, heading into a thicket. The ranger pulls up to the point where the leopard left the road and you manage to catch one last glimpse of his tail – or was it a sliver of his lower back? – and then he disappears into the dense foliage.

You’re thrilled! Seeing a leopard in the wild is the reason you wanted to go on a safari in the first place and now you’ve done it! But you can’t help wish that, just this once, the ranger could leave the road and go in search of your favourite cat. After all, he’s right there! You try to subdue your disappointment by telling yourself that the rules are there for a reason and that if everyone were allowed to do as they pleased there would be complete chaos. There is, however, a solution to your craving for longer and more intimate encounters with the Big 5: a private reserve.


Let’s rewind the scene and play back it right up until the point where the leopard makes a turn and heads off road. The only difference between the scene painted in the first rendition of the story and this one is that now you’re in a private game reserve. The ranger gives the leopard some space and then follows, keeping a respectful distance without ever losing sight of the leopard. After crashing through some dense scrubs, the thicket opens up into a circular clearing and then stops, raising its head ever so slightly to the evening air before letting off a sequence of gruff calls. You can’t believe your luck and, since you’re making a habit of being in the right place at the right time – it’s about to get better… There’s a termite mound about 20 metres off and your ranger whispers that the leopard might use it as a vantage point. True to this prediction, the male heads directly to it, climbing to the pinnacle of the mound and then making himself real comfy. The odds are in your favour because just when you think it can’t get any better, a soft orange hue of the setting the sun drenches the landscape, accentuating the already gold coat of the leopard. And here, in this magic moment, you take a second to give yourself a pat on the back – figuratively that is – for choosing a private reserve. And, yes, it may be more expensive but it has afforded you an experience that cannot be measured in monetary terms.

So there you are. Those are two of many reasons why safaris in private reserves are renowned for giving guests rare insights into the dynamics of the African wilderness. There are plenty of other benefits that come with choosing a private lodge such as the refined luxury and exquisite food – don’t get me started on the food! – but those are topics for another day.

Ok, imaginations utilised, you may resume your PC starring, tablet scrolling and phone fidgeting. I hope that – even if it’s just one more time today – your mind drifts back to Africa and the way the fading sun felt on your skin as you watched that glorious leopard survey his territory.

Iconic Africa enjoys fantastic relationships with Africa’s premium Private Luxury reserves, contact us now and let us tailor your Iconic African experience.

If you are wanting to learn more about African safaris, maybe read our blog post about the difference between game reserves and national parks.

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