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game drive in Pilanesberg National Park, South Africa, near Johannesburg
Lane Nieset/Pilanesberg game drive

Tented safari lodges sure are a sight to see, but not everyone is ready to cut 100 percent loose from civilization and roam free with the African wildlife. Still, anyone can explore Africa’s safari scene — and return to their hotel room come nightfall for a night of R&R before the next day’s adventures set in. Here are three ways to ease into the safari scene, before you consider a deeper dive on round two.

Cruise on a river safari.
Zambia’s wet season spans November through March, and that’s the best season for bird watchers to embark on a river safari on the mighty Zambezi River. Zambia is home to more than 750 different bird species that you won’t have any trouble spotting straight from your boat. Jet boat tours from Livingstone (near Victoria Falls) typically last around three hours, winding their way through the river’s smaller channels and past tiny islands where hippos are often spotted playing in the water. You’re guaranteed to see a bunch of fluttering beauties in the trees from the comfort of the boat. If you’re lucky, you may also spot an elephant onshore.


Set off on a game drive.
If you’re stopping in Johannesburg, the Pilanesberg National Park is about a three-hour drive away, located next to the mega Sun City Resort complex. Set in an extinct crater, the park is home to the “big five”: lions, elephants, leopards, rhinos, and buffalo. The best time to spot them is during the winter months from October through July when they’re feeding and mating.


If you’re not ready to live in the wild, you can admire everything from afield by taking a safari in the sky, via hot air balloon. Or you can go the more traditional route and start with a single game drive through the bush at dawn or dusk. Guides are great at explaining the park’s history and how (and where) to spot certain animals, and the drive will essentially be a crash course into the land of safaris. You’ll quickly learn about how the animals behave in their natural habitat. Leopards and lions are the most difficult to spot, but you’ll most likely come across elephants and hoards of zebras crossing the path.

Visit a Reserve
Ready to get personal with South Africa’s majestic creatures after your game drive? An hour from Pilanesberg National Park is another reserve, Ukutula, where visitors can learn more about lions — and get up close with the assistance of guides, including interacting with cubs and walking with full-grown lions in the bush. If cheetahs are more your speed, Mukuni Big Five Safaris, a quick drive from Victoria Falls in Zambia, offers walks with cheetahs and lions as well as elephant rides. Guides go over everything you need to know about cheetahs in the wild and how to properly approach and pet one — the cats, as it turns out, actually have temperaments more like dogs. Then it’s your turn to let the cheetah guide the way on a 30-minute bush walk.

Pilanesberg National Park, Johannesburg, South Africa, at sunset
Lane Nieset/Pilanesberg National Park
Ukutula preserve, South Africa
Lane Nieset/Ukutula
Mukuni preserve, South Africa
Lane Nieset/Mukuni

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