Sabi Sands Game Reserve in Kruger, South Africa

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Zebra in Savannah, Sabi Sands, Kruger National Park, South Africa

One of Africa’s great safari and wildlife destinations is Kruger National Park in South Africa. World renowned, certainly, but did you know that there are two distinct parts to it? Technically, there is Kruger and then there is Sabi Sands Game Reserve – both of which are generally considered overall as Kruger National Park. They are adjacent to each other, sharing a 50 kilometre/30 mile fence-less border, so the wildlife roams freely in this huge natural environment. Sabi Sands, which sits to the west, has the same relatively thick vegetation consisting of woodland savanna, as does Kruger.

A little history about Sabi Sands
Much of the area of what now is the Sabi Sands Game Reserve used to be agricultural land. There were cattle farms which needed a reliable source of water. To provide this water, many boreholes were drilled, providing a steady supply. Even after being established as Sabi Sands Game Reserve, these waterholes were kept intact and still function as a water source. Providing an abundance of water throughout the year (seasonal influences are not much of a factor) Sabi Sands is a very popular place for large herds of animals.

It was in 1934 that former landowners created the Sabi Sands Private Game Reserve. Of these pioneers, six families still own land here.

Hippo Charging Out of a Waterhole, Sabi Sands, Kruger National Park, South Africa
Hippo charging out of a waterhole, Sabi Sands

The differences between Kruger and Sabi Sands
Kruger Park is open to the general public and offers accommodation at government-run, self-catering units with some restaurants and small stores at which to buy provisions. It is also possible to take a self-drive safari here, so there are gas stations! One important rule – whether on a guided safari or in your own vehicle – you must stay on the roads. If the accommodation is too basic for your needs within the park, there are lodges and hotels of a higher quality just outside the park’s perimeter.

Sabi Sands, on the other hand, is made up of private game lodges, each with its own territory (but again no fences). However, people are generally not allowed into Sabi Sands unless either staying there or invited. Your accommodation choices here are more upscale lodges or luxury tented camps of which some are ultra luxurious and others quite affordable. They all include meals, game drives, and optional walking safaris with, I emphasize, a local wildlife expert.  Depending on which lodge you choose, drinks, laundry services, and transfers to/from the lodge and nearest airport may also be included. Sabi Sands is marketed as a high-end luxury reserve. However, there are one or two budget options within Sabi Sands.

In regards to game viewing, the safari experience will be similar in both regions, as most private game reserves are connected to public Kruger. However, what makes the safari from Sabi Sands so much more interesting and exciting is that vehicles from private lodges can go “off road,” driving at will into the bush in order to get up close and personal with the animals. So, for example, when spotting a leopard, your guide is allowed to follow it into the bush. I emphasize that there are no fences so vehicles can roam anywhere within Sabi Sands. You are also not allowed to drive around the reserve on your own. This guarantees the park’s exclusivity. Although no self-drives are offered in Sabi Sands, you will be led by highly experienced trackers/guides who know everything about the game reserve – enhancing your safari experience.

Game Viewing in Open Vehicles in the Sabi Sands, Kruger National Park, South Africa
Game viewing in open vehicles in Sabi Sands

How is it that the animals don’t run away or hide from safari vehicles?
Sabi Sands is particularly well known for its amazing leopard sightings. It is the most elusive animal of the Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo, and rhinoceros), and is frequently spotted when going on a game drive in a private reserve. With the highest concentration of leopard in the world, it is not unusual to get really close to these beautiful animals.

You might wonder how it’s possible to get so close to animals without chasing them away. Being so accustomed to the constant game drive vehicles in their territory following them and not harming them in any way, the animals are not concerned about them. This allows you to view all aspects of an animal’s life, including the hunt, kills, mating, and other very interesting behaviour.

However, the following apocryphal story will emphasize that these beasts are not to be messed around with. I heard this tale of woe on one safari I undertook here. It seems a group of visitors were being driven around the bush when the guide/driver stopped the vehicle and advised he was just stepping out for a smoke. After some considerable time, he did not reappear. More time went by and no guide. The passengers in the vehicle decided eventually they would attempt to drive it back to the lodge which they somehow managed. The guide was never seen again.

Leopard Cub Resting in Sabi Sands Nature Reserve, Kruger National Park, South Africa
A nearby leopard cub resting in Sabi Sands Nature Reserve

Sabi’s Lodges
Although there are no boundaries for game drives, there are exceptions. The Singita and Londolozi lodges, for example, are large properties that don’t offer traversing rights – where guests of one reserve are allowed to enter the property of another on game drives. The same applies to the Mala Mala Lodge which used to be part of Sabi Sands but now operates as an independent reserve.

Something to possibly consider when choosing a lodge is river frontage, which is a plus because it attracts animals. While waterholes have the same effect, a river is also a scenic feature and provides an opportunity to see elephants in the water.

Here is a brief summary of a few of the main upscale lodges to be found in Sabi Sands.

Leopard Hills: Leopard Hills is an upscale, small property in a big traversing block with access to river frontage. Each suite is luxurious and comes complete with its own sundeck and rock plunge pool, offering superb views of the African bushveld. I once stayed there and had a unique experience. One morning, I opened the door of my lodge to find myself looking straight into the eyes of an enormous elephant. I very quickly shut my door and telephoned the main lodge to explain I might not be able to have breakfast that morning due to this animal. I was advised to sit tight and someone would “remove” the elephant. Remove it? Well, what happened was an employee simply walked up fairly close to the elephant and waved his arms around like sails on a windmill, at which the elephant slowly but surely ambled off and breakfast was had.

Suggested Itinerary:
3-Day Leopard Hills Private Game Reserve

Leopard Hills Open Air Verandah, Sabi Sands, Kruger National Park, South Africa
Open-air verandah at Leopard Hills Private Game Reserve

Lion Sands: Lion Sands is an upscale lodge and a large property without any traversing rights. It is very exclusive and offers a wide river frontage.

Suggested Itineraries:
3-Day Lion Sands Sabi Sands – Ivory Lodge
3-Day Lion Sands Sabi Sands – River Lodge

Lion Sands River Lodge - Private Viewing Deck, Sabi Sands, Kruger National Park, South Africa
Private viewing deck at Lion Sands River Lodge

Mala Mala Game Reserve: Independent from Sabi Sands but neighbouring the same area without fences, this is by far, the biggest property in the Sabi Sands area with the most extended river access.

Suggested Itinerary:
3-Day Mala Mala Main Camp

Mala Mala - Suite, Sabi Sands, Kruger National Park, South Africa
Suite at Mala Mala Game Reserve

Sabi Sabi: Sabi Sabi consists of four uniquely individual safari lodges – Selati Camp, Bush Lodge, Little Bush Camp, and Earth Lodge. The only moderately-priced lodge is the Little Bush Camp, perfect for those with a more modest budget. It is a large property with limited traversing to one small property and limited river frontage.

Suggested Itineraries:
3-Day Sabi Sabi Game Reserve – Bush Lodge
3-Day Sabi Sabi Game Reserve – Earth Lodge
3-Day Sabi Sabi Game Reserve – Little Bush Camp

Sabi Sabi Bush Lodge - Deck, Sabi Sands, Kruger National Park, South Africa
Lounge Deck at Sabi Sabi Bush Lodge

Singita: Singita Game Reserve is a luxurious, large property not offering traversing rights. Very exclusive with river frontage, it rests on the wildlife-rich banks of Sand River. It has outdoor showers, designer bathrooms, heated plunge pools, and large viewing deck areas.

Suggested Itineraries:
3-Day Singita Game Reserve – Boulders Lodge
3-Day Singita Game Reserve – Ebony Lodge

Singita Boulders - Suite Bathroom, Sabi Sands, Kruger National Park, South Africa
Suite at Singita Boulders Lodge

So, for that unique, ultimate, and fulfilling safari on your South Africa vacation, do consider staying in Sabi Sands in Kruger National Park. You will never forget the experience!

Related Articles:
How to Choose a South African Game Lodge
The Remarkable Kruger National Park in South Africa