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Sabi Sand Game Reserve, South Africa


After our stopover in Johannesburg, which was featured here two weeks ago, Judy and I continued our journey north-eastward to Kruger National Park and the private game reserves to the west of it. It’s an easy journey as Airlink flies daily from both Johannesburg and Cape Town direct to Skukuza, a small private airport inside the national park.


The airport also serves the southern section of the adjacent Sabi Sand game reserve, which is where we were headed. (Note that other sections are served by different airports as these parks and reserves are huge – Sabi Sand is 65,000 hectares; Kruger Park is 30 times larger!)


It’s a one-hour flight from Joburg and the delightful Skukuza Airport makes you feel as though you’re already in the bush the moment you arrive. After collecting your luggage you take your pre-arranged transfer in an off-road vehicle to the lodge of your choice.


Exiting Kruger National Park and heading for Sabi Sand.

It’s important to know the difference between the national parks and the private game reserves, in terms of the options they offer. If you are staying at one of the private lodges you are free to go into Kruger National Park, but the reverse does not apply; no day visitors are allowed in the game reserves.

On the other hand you can day-visit, self-drive and camp in the national park, but not so in the game reserves, where you must stay at one of the many well-appointed lodges that can be found in each reserve.


In the reserves the guides and rangers are allowed to drive off-road and follow wildlife into the bush, something that is strictly forbidden in Kruger National Park. Nor must you drive after dark in the national park and you can be fined if you do, whereas night drives are offered by the private lodges.

Sabi Sand shares a border with the national park, a 50-kilometre unfenced boundary across which wildlife is free to wander. The Sabie and Sand Rivers run through the reserve, adding a further dimension to the biodiversity of the area.

I’m not recommending one over the other, each has its own advantages and the wildlife is prolific in both, but if you are on a tight budget you may prefer the state-sponsored national park rather than the more expensive private lodges. Skukuza Airport is conveniently situated for Kruger Park’s Skukuza Main Camp, where a wide range of accommodation is available from campsites to bungalows to guest houses.

I should also mention the option of driving from Johannesburg if you have sufficient time to spare. Travelling via the N12 and N4, it’s a journey of approximately 480 kilometres that will take you about six hours to the southern park gates depending on traffic and rest stops. Add about another hour to your lodge or campsite and you can see that with this option you are writing off the first day.

There are three entry gates to Sabi Sand – Shaws, Newington and Gowrie, with the latter being for the northern part of the reserve and farther away. All are open from 5am to 10pm and are illustrated on the map below. There is an entry fee of ZAR340 (about US$19) per vehicle and ZAR154 per person.


Fees for entry to Kruger National Park vary but the basic fee for overseas visitors is ZAR460 per person per day. For those driving who plan to visit Limpopo National Park in Mozambique as well, you can cross directly from Kruger, but bear in mind you are crossing an international border and must meet the border requirements detailed here.

It is quite common to see abundant wildlife while being transferred to your lodge, as we did with the selection below.


On the second day we saw this magnificent male lion and followed him into the bush for several hundred metres.


He was striding along so purposefully we were curious about where he was going. We soon discovered where his interest lay, as the following photos reveal.


The lion may be king but in Sabi Sand he is outnumbered by the leopard, at least in terms of sightings. The spotted feline is seen so frequently here that one becomes almost blasé about the sightings. All wild animals become used to safari vehicles to a certain extent, but the leopard is breathtakingly indifferent, walking right past your vehicle without so much as an upward glance.


Of the two rhino species in Africa, the black rhino is “critically endangered” with only around 5,000 remaining in South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, and Kenya.


White rhino, pictured here, are classified as “near threatened”. There are now around 20,000 living across Africa, yet the increase in poaching levels is once again threatening these populations. Decades of poaching has decimated both species as unscrupulous traders and profiteers continue to meet an insatiable demand in Asia for the illusory medicinal benefits of ground rhino horn.


The subspecies western black rhino and northern white rhino are now extinct in the wild. The only TWO remaining northern white rhino live at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. Both are female and the future of this subspecies now lies in the development of in vitro fertilisation techniques and stem cell technology, costly and complicated procedures that have never before been attempted in rhinos.

The “black” and “white” names are misnomers since both species are grey in colour and “white” is a mistranslation of the Afrikaans-German word for wide. That is a reference to the white rhino’s distinctive wide mouth, the only appreciable difference between the two species.


The so-called Big Five – elephant, buffalo, rhino, lion and leopard – can all be seen in Sabi Sand together with giraffe, zebra, impala, kudu, hyena and many more, including the relatively rare African wild dog.


The African wild dog.

After a day spotting these inspirational creatures in their natural habitat, everyone looks forward to a sundowner and their dinner, which may be a social get-together with other guests around a large table, or a more intimate braai or barbecue.


In recent years many parks and reserves, lodges and tour companies have implemented measures to achieve sustainable tourism in wilderness areas. Some have even contributed resources to the increasing number of anti-poaching patrols designed to protect the rhino. But it doesn’t end there, the elephant is at risk too. Although some limited ivory trade remains legal, the World Wildlife Fund estimates that at least 20,000 African elephants are illegally killed for their tusks every year.


Visitors who shoot only with cameras are very welcome in the parks and reserves. Here they can learn more about the issues facing Africa’s wildlife and how they can become involved, directly or indirectly, if they so wish.

Photos © Judy Barford

Map © Sabi Sand Nature Reserve   


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