Big cats for a small price: a budget-friendly safari in South Africa

Wildlife spotting isn’t the only thing to savour on a bestselling, budget-friendly South African safari itinerary with Newmarket Holidays, finds Josie Klein

I’m hurtling along a dirt track in a nine-seat 4×4, with binoculars bouncing around my neck and my eyes firmly peeled. Our tour guide, Janko, is driving pedal to the metal after receiving a call on his radio tipping him off about the location of some big cats. I hold my breath as we race across the park to the fabled spot.

South Africa’s Welgevonden Game Reserve is home to every member of the ‘big five’ – a term originally describing the animals hardest to hunt but now used as a conservationist catch-all for lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and buffalo – while giraffes and zebras are particularly abundant.

This is our first game drive of the trip, and the anticipation is palpable among those in the vehicle.

We stop suddenly, sending a cloud of dust into the air, and look out across the sandy plain. As the dust settles, we spy a pair of cheetahs strolling between bushes before sitting down to groom their spotted fur. While we excitedly grab our cameras, two rhinos lumber into view, marking our first big-five sighting of the trip.

Minutes later, our guides encourage us to get out of the vehicle to stretch our legs. “But we just saw some cheetahs!”, we protest, hesitant to risk a close encounter.

However, the guides don’t seem fazed, so we jump out and take the opportunity to snack on some beefy biltong – keeping one eye out for predators that might also want a bite.

Safari lodge

Welgevonden game drive complete, we head to our base for the week: the 100,000-acre Sebatana Private Reserve, sold exclusively in the UK through Newmarket Holidays.

This trip is the escorted tour specialist’s first fam trip since the pandemic, showcasing its bestselling safari holiday and marking its new partnership with Hays Travel, with 11 out of our group of 14 coming from the agency.

The rustic lodgings at the 14‑room Elephant Lodge provide a tranquil sanctuary close to the national parks in the area, which are all easily accessible.

Yet the wildlife sightings aren’t confined to the reserves. When I step onto the lodge’s terrace, I come face-to-face with a herd of impala grazing on a grassy spot just two metres from my bedroom door.

I sit to watch as they slowly munch their way along the tree-lined fence surrounding the lodge.

After they’ve moved on, I don my swimming costume and make a beeline for the pool, gasping as I plunge into the cool water – a welcome relief from the African sun.

Traditional South African food

As the sun slips over the horizon, my group heads for a traditional cultural evening, an optional extra on the itinerary.

After a hearty meal of traditional mieliepap – a type of corn porridge we dig into with our hands – a troupe of dancers jive into the open space in front of us and perform two drum-banging routines, pulling up each and every person to the dance floor.

We don’t possess much natural rhythm, but the entertainers more than make up for it with incredible moves, charisma and charm.

The next day, we rise early and drive for more than three hours to the Pilanesberg Game Reserve, where we hope to spot more bucket‑list wildlife. Within a few minutes of crossing the threshold, an agent shrieks with delight as she spots an elephant snacking on shrubs.

We also receive word of a lion sighting, and to our delight get to see the big cat lazing in long grass. The group agrees – the six-hour round trip was well worth it.

A game drive in our local Sebatana reserve proves fruitful too. Around mid-morning, just as we’re all feeling rather peckish, we arrive at Kudu Rock where we are treated to a champagne brunch with southern African delicacies – including kudu antelope. As we sip fizz, a herd of zebras simultaneously sip from a watering hole below, their tails flicking to and fro.

Seeing the ‘big five’ in South Africa

The last day sees our luck continue. We take our final game drive in the Kaingo Game Reserve, desperate to see a leopard and buffalo to complete our big-five checklist.

As if to order, a buffalo appears right in front of our vehicle, bringing us to a skidding stop, its white horns glinting in the sunlight. “Number four!”, we cheer, but quickly quieten – this beast seems to have been in a recent scuffle, staring back at us with a blood-stained cheek and eye.

We round off the tour with a fireside South African wine tasting and a glass of Amarula, a creamy local liqueur, while feasting on kudu, corn and salad. Sparks flicker into the night and I feel the warmth on my cheeks as we raise a toast to the chefs and reflect on the trip.

The elusive leopard deprived us of a big-five full house – but that’s all the more reason to look forward to a return.

Book it

Newmarket Holidays’ seven-night On Safari in South Africa – Elephant Lodge escorted tour itinerary costs from £2,275, including flights, full‑board accommodation, five game drives, a wine tasting and champagne brunch, plus a visit to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg.

Agents’ view

Jess Adamson, Hays Travel, Chester-le-Street
“The morning safaris were fantastic as we got the chance to see lots of animals before it got too hot for them, and then we had time to relax by the pool with a cocktail in the afternoons, so the itinerary allows for the best of both worlds.

The cultural evening was my favourite part – the dancers were incredible. It was an optional extra, so advise customers to add it on as it’s not to be missed.”

Laura Gallagher, Hays Travel, Norwich Tesco
“I had never been on a safari before, and this is a great one for beginners, as none of the game drives are more than a few hours, so it isn’t overwhelming. The itinerary was quite quiet on a couple of the days, but there were optional excursions that are worth doing, as you get more opportunities to see the animals, which is what it’s all about.

The food at Elephant Lodge was amazing and it was fun to try lots of different types of meats we wouldn’t normally get in the UK.”

Clare Harrington, Hays Travel, Tees and Wear
“The guides totally made the trip. Dana and Janko had clearly studied for years and were fantastic at sharing information while driving along. I thought the trip was going to be a lot more intense, but there was a surprising amount of time to relax, which made it far more enjoyable as we weren’t tired all the time. The value for money is exceptional.”

Ask the operator

Claire Hodgkin, regional sales manager, Newmarket Holidays
“The Sebatana Reserve is exclusive to us. We offer both the four-star Elephant Lodge and the five-star Rhino Lodge, which are next door to each other. We have 17 itineraries in Africa and multi-centre options where customers can combine a safari with a beach extension.

If agents have clients who are interested in a safari but worried about the budget, our Sebatana Reserve properties offer an affordable option, plus they can upgrade to include four extra activities plus drinks. This is a great way to introduce customers to safari holidays and keep them coming back for more.”

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