On safari in South Africa
Close encounters with lions, leopards and more
SABI SABI GAME RESERVE (CNN) -- For many travelers, a trip to Africa must include a safari. While Kenya and Tanzania are the most popular countries for those expeditions, a South African safari is no less spectacular.
From the safety of Land Rovers, visitors get the chance to have close encounters with the wildlife of South Africa, which is concentrated in and around Kruger National Park in the nation's northeast corner -- an area larger than the state of Vermont and about the size of Israel.
Although you could drive yourself, many visitors choose instead to go on safari with trained professionals, taking guided tours at one of the several reserves that lie outside the national park. Collectively, the reserves form the largest privately owned game-viewing area in the world. Fences separated them from Kruger National Park until recently, when they were removed to restore the animals' traditional migration routes.
The high price of staying on a game reserve
Most black South Africans can't afford the entrance fee to the national park, and few people in general can afford to stay on a game reserve, which often includes lodging, meals and several daily tours with a wildlife tracker and a guide.
But it's difficult to put a price on coming face-to-face with some of the world's most beautiful animals.
"I think what perhaps takes people aback the most is how close we can get to the animals," said Rob Jackson, who leads safaris at the Sabi Sabi Game Reserve. "The vehicles have become part of their environment. They are not tamed, I must stress, but habituated to the vehicles so they allow us to come very close."
Unlike their counterparts on East African safaris, guides in South Africa are allowed to drive off-road, and their vehicles are open. In Kenya and Tanzania, safari vehicles are closed.
Another difference is in the character of the landscape.
The South African reserve is green and covered with trees, while the land in East Africa is more stark.
"It's a different type of area. Up in Kenya, East Africa, you have your savannah. It's open grassland. You can see for miles," Jackson said.
Smaller animal groups, but more variety
There is also this to distinguish the safaris: On an East African expedition, you would see vast herds. In South Africa, you will see smaller groups, but more variety in the kinds of animals you encounter.
The animals of the South African reserve inspire tourists. But they can also be dangerous.
For example, lions have been known to kill humans in Kruger National Park. Among their victims have been refugees walking through the park on their way from Mozambique, Jackson said.
"It's actually a big problem," he said.
The lion isn't the only threat. The Cape buffalo's headgear can be vicious, and the animal has a bad attitude to go along with it. And, then there is the leopard, which is known for hanging its kill high in the trees.
On a safari, the lion, the elephant, the Cape buffalo, the rhinoceros and the leopard are known as the "Big Five." Once prized as trophies by big game hunters, they are now the animals most sought after for sightings.
In fact, so many people want a glimpse at them that Land Rovers seem to outnumber the animals. But for most visitors, sharing the experience with so many others is only a minor inconvenience during a memorable adventure.
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