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A Guide to National Parks vs Game Reserves

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For many, the chance to go on safari and spot large wild animals, especially the Big Five, in the African wilderness is the opportunity to realise a lifelong dream and is an experience that few will ever forget. Yet there are many factors to consider before choosing the perfect safari that corresponds most closely with your expectations. One of the most important questions many don’t consider is of national parks vs game reserves. Both kinds have specific advantages and disadvantages that can lead you to the best safari experience. Here are some of the things you need to think about before making this important decision.

1. National Parks

The Tarangire giant Baobab tree
Zebras, Imapala, Baobab tree at the Tarangire National Park
Various animals grazing in the grassland of Mikumi National Park
Giraffe and Zebra grazing in the grassland of Mikumi National Park
Hippopotamus in the Katavi National Park
Hippopotamus walking in the Katuma river in Katavi National Park
Safari in Kruger National Park
A tourist captures a shot of a couple of Elephants in the National Park

National parks are the most accessible way of seeing the African bush and the animals that inhabit it, both in terms of practicality and budgetary considerations. They are open to the public and usually have a well organised system of management, a network of maintained roads and trails and a range of accommodation options. Often, it is possible to drive in just for the day in any regular vehicle for a real chance of spotting some of Africa’s iconic wildlife.

For those who wish to stay for longer, accommodation options can range from simple campsites to luxury bungalows and everything in between. However, it is this very accessibility that can make the national parks very crowded, especially at certain popular times of the year. At the worst times, visitors can find themselves in a cavalcade of vehicles all crowded around one lonely and presumably quite bewildered animal and this can detract somewhat from the authenticity of the whole experience.

National parks are most suitable for people with budgetary limitations or for those who enjoy a degree of autonomy to drive themselves and to self-cater. They are probably less suitable for people hoping for a more exclusive experience.

Highlights

  • A variety of accommodation available at prices ranging from budget to luxury
  • Proper roads or well-maintained tracks accessible to all vehicles
  • Allows self-driving safaris
  • Offers self-catering options
  • Often set up many years ago so they occupy the best locations
  • Often much bigger in size than private reserves

Lowlights

  • Can become busy: crowds and even traffic jams are possible.
  • Must stick to established roads and tracks.
  • Wildlife sightings can be fleeting.
  • Must share sightings with many other cars.
  • A safari must stick to opening and closing hours of the park.

If you are looking forward to visiting a national park in South Africa, you might one to check out our list of best national parks in South Africa.  

2. Game Reserves

For those who are willing to pay significantly more for a more personal experience where everything is taken care of, a game reserve can be a fantastic option. Since game reserves are privately owned and run, the number of cars allowed into the wildlife areas at any one time are normally limited to two or three, giving a much more private and authentic feel. Furthermore, the rules about sticking to the roads that apply in national parks are not in force and cars are allowed to leave the roads and head into the bush in search of animals. This can lead to some close encounters with wildlife undisturbed by a procession of cars filled with camera-toting tourists. However, self-driving is usually not allowed and guides are mandatory.

Since park operating hours are also not an issue, safaris can take place at any time of day – or night. A night safari can be a truly memorable experience and is the only way to see some of the nocturnal animals, like the African Leopard, that are active after the sun goes down. At the end of any safari, participants can look forward to an excellent meal with five-star service prepared in the gorgeous surroundings of the lodge. For those who have no intention of giving up on any level of comfort, this can be the only way to visit the bush.

This option is perfect for those who are looking for a personal, authentic experience with close encounters with wildlife far from the tourist masses and who are willing to pay the significant extra cost. It could also be the right option for someone looking for a once-in-a-lifetime experience for a special occasion like a honeymoon, with no expense spared. It is probably not the right option for someone with limited finances or for those who would enjoy the freedom of a self-drive, self-catering safari.

Highlights

  • Not crowded
  • National park rules do not apply, can drive into the bush away from roads
  • Can have closer, more intimate encounters with wildlife
  • Offers a luxury, all-inclusive service and high-end accommodations
  • More exclusive and unique experience guaranteed
  • No operating hours – allows night safaris to spot nocturnal animals
  • Includes knowledgeable guides
  • Guests on reserves can also go inside adjoining national parks, providing the best of both worlds

Lowlights

  • More expensive
  • Usually only two or three cars allowed at a time – so may have to wait turn
  • No self-drive option
  • Reserves often small compared to national parks
  • Sometimes animals are imported and are not even native to the area

Note: While most game reserves are located outside of the national park, usually on the borders, there are also some located on concessions within the borders of a national park. For example, Kruger National Park has private reserves both inside and outside of its borders. Private reserves on concessions inside national parks may still be subject to some of the rules of the national park such as those concerning off-road driving and night drives. This should be checked when booking, for there is no point in paying a significant extra if it doesn’t include the extra perks. 

Please check out our list of private game reserves near Cape Town, if your stay in South Africa is limited.

Things to consider

  • Are you concerned about saving money? A national park will offer the best options for budget friendly safaris.
  • Do you want close, intimate encounters with wildlife or are you happy to share with lots of other cars? A safari on a private reserve will allow you to get closer to the animals and away from the crowds.
  • Do you want to self-drive? Self-driving is usually only possible in national parks – on private reserves, a guide is mandatory.
  • Do you want five-star all-inclusive service or do you prefer to self-cater? Private reserves specialise in luxury safaris where every last detail is taken care of for you. While this is possible in national parks too, there is also the option to self-cater.
  • Are you interested in night safaris? These are usually only possible on private reserves.

There are many positive aspects as well as a few drawbacks associated with either type of safari. Both kinds can be equally as enjoyable although in different ways. For this reason, it is essential to be aware of the differences and to think about the advantages and disadvantages of national parks vs game reserves before choosing which one is most suitable for you to ensure you have the safari experience you always dreamed of. If you're looking for more information about the wildlife animals in South Africa, check out this article by NTripping. 

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