Wow, I just have to start this post off by saying how amazing this trip was. South Africa is such a magical place and Sabi Sands is unlike anywhere I’ve ever been. It is absolutely in my top 5 favorite trips without a doubt. Going on a safari was a major bucket list item I never truly thought I would experience in this lifetime. I’ve shared this before, but I never left the country until I was 27 and back then I was definitely on a budget. I always thought safaris were for British millionaires and celebrities. I’m still in shock that I was able to go myself and it really wasn’t outrageously expensive. It definitely helps a lot if you’re able to be flexible with your travel plans, but going on a safari is certainly more attainable than it has been in the past.
Sabi Sands Travel Guide
I chose Sabi Sands because after lots of research it appealed to me more than Kruger National Park. Although there is no barrier between the two, it seemed more real, natural, and less touristy. After speaking with the owner of Dulini, I found out that my conclusions were true. I learned that poaching is still very much an issue in Kruger National Park–but not Sabi Sands. Sabi Sands is a private game reserve, meaning it’s not open to the public. The only people that can enter are those staying in the lodges or guests of the few privately owned homes on the grounds. Obviously the people that work there can be there too, but you get what I’m saying. So all of the owners of the lodges come together with one mission: preservation. By staying in the lodges, all guests are contributing directly to the conservation of the animals in Sabi Sands because this union of lodges works together to keep Sabi Sands safe from poachers.
See more gorgeous wildlife photos in my safari photo diary.
The animals live their lives and we simply observe. There’s no tagging, testing, or anything like that done. Many of the trackers and guides do kind of keep track of the animals’ behavior and characteristics just by simply seeing them regularly. In fact, our two guides, Isaac and Dynamos, were arguing over which leopard we saw one day. They needed to see the left side of her face because they identify the leopards by how many dots they have along their whiskers. Pretty cool!
What to Know
Communicating & Spending
Everyone in Sabi Sands speaks English, so you’re good to go there. Our guides did talk to each other in their native language, but you’ll have no issues communicating with anyone in Sabi Sands if you speak English. As far as spending goes, everything is included in the lodge fees when you book your accommodations beside one thing: tips. Things are a little pricier in the bush compared to Cape Town and Joburg. An average tip for your guides is about $30/day each; for butlers, $20/day each; and then you can choose to give an extra $10-$20/day for the rest of the staff. We did all the tipping at checkout.
So before I went to Sabi Sands, the only real idea I had of African wildlife was what I saw on TV. Lion King comes to mind. But in fact, the terrain is not large open fields, watering holes, and big, lush trees; it’s covered in dead-looking trees that we drive over to get around, making it really hard to see anything far away. There’s lots of place for the animals to hang out without being seen. We didn’t see much green the entire time we were there. Granted, it wasn’t the wet season, but it did rain once and it filled up a river that had been dry since 2010. Anyway, it’s called “the bush” for a reason and it’s not the prettiest terrain I’ve ever seen.
There are a few options for getting to Sabi Sands from either Cape Town or Joburg. First of all, you can of course drive there. It is far and not always super safe, so this would not be my recommendation, but if you’re a seasoned traveler and know what you’re doing, you’d probably be fine. If you’re flying, you can either take a commercial flight into Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport and drive the almost two hours to Sabi Sands, or you can fly in style–and privately–directly into Sabi Sands via the Ulusaba Airstrip, a short safari ride away from the lodges. Can you guess which one I did?
Of course you can. I flew with Federal Airlines and had an incredibly luxurious experience. To me, luxury isn’t only about nice things; it’s about convenience, safety, and impeccable service. Federal Airlines goes above and beyond to provide all of these things. One of the awesome perks is the Federal Airlines lounge at O.R. Tambo airport in Johannesburg. First of all, you don’t even have to go to the actual airport. The lounge is in its own building on the other side of the airstrip. That’s right: no security, no lines, and no gross, hard seats. The beautiful lounge was not only very comfortable, but they also served food and drinks – all free of charge.
The flight itself was super short. We were in the air for about an hour or so. Once we landed, we were picked up by Isaac, our guide who took us around on all our safaris during our time at Dulini. It was so amazing because it was like we had our own little private mini safari. We saw impalas, wildebeests, and even giraffes!
Safety is obviously a huge concern when you’re out in the wild with animals who could literally kill you in an instant if they wanted to. But that’s the thing: they don’t want to. They literally couldn’t care less that we’re there watching them. In fact, most of the animals in Sabi Sands today have grown up seeing these vehicles their entire lives. They know we’re not there to hurt them, they don’t smell food when they smell our scent near them, and we’re not competing with them to get their food. So because of this, we aren’t a threat to them. They basically see us as they see a tree: just a part of the bush that doesn’t concern them.
I’ll be honest, I was terrified on my first game drive. I had no idea what to expect and I just didn’t want to be that ONE person that gets attacked. But after seeing the lions for the first time and how nonchalant they were when they saw us, I was instantly put at ease. They were not interested in us at all. I will say that I had no idea how close we’d get. It truly is amazing to witness in person.
It’s also important to note that there are several vaccines recommended for South Africa. Personally, I got Hepatitis A, Measles, and Typhoid. I also got Malaria tablets (doxycycline). I definitely think I would have been fine without any of these, but we decided to play it safe since it was Ryan’s first big trip like this.
What to Pack
I read tons of travel guides expressing the importance of covering yourself head to toe out there in the bush. To be honest, I’m not sure why that would be necessary. I didn’t get bit by bugs during any game drives and although the sun was strong, I’d rather be in shorts and short sleeves in the heat rather than leggings and a jacket. I wrote a post about my outfits here, so if you’re interested, take a look.
The essentials are sunglasses and a hat. SPF and bug spray are provided, but if you want to be extra prepared you can bring your own. Other than that, just bring what you’d normally bring for an outdoorsy vacation. Oh, you will also need some adapters if you’re coming from the US. They use type D, M or N. Kind of weird they have this many different outlets, but whatever.
Where to Stay
There are a few lodges to choose from in Sabi Sands, but I very highly recommend Dulini. It was beautiful and luxurious, and the staff was extremely accommodating, kind, warm, and welcoming. I was even lucky enough to meet the owner and he made my experience that much more special. I have a full review of my stay here, including photos of the room, which is your own private 1,000 sqft house. It was beyond incredible!
What to Eat & Drink/What to Do
Well, you don’t leave your lodge in Sabi Sands besides when you go on a game drive, which is included in your stay. All meals and alcohol are included as well. I will say that the food at Dulini was outstanding. Breakfast had a menu and you could order pretty much anything you could ever want. I got an omelette most days. Lunch was always a fixed menu, but I got special treatment since I told them I’m a vegetarian. I am pretty picky and I actually loved everything the chefs prepared for me, especially the chickpea salad I had one day and the quinoa sliders! Finally, dinner has 2 options for each course. I had things like burrata Caprese and butternut squash soup, while Ryan enjoyed springbock antelope. The food really was phenomenal!
If you’re going on a safari in South Africa, Sabi Sands is no doubt the best choice. Aside from the wonderful animal preservation mission of the lodges in the area, it’s also safer, private, has more of a community feel, and offers an opportunity for some amazing wildlife sightings. I couldn’t be happier with my experience there and I would love nothing more than to go back one say!
Have you ever been to Sabi Sands?
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Photos by Ryan Carpenter.