Best Kruger Game Reserves to visit for Wildlife
Safari and Wildlife
Tessa Winkelman Travel Writer and Content Creator
Safari and Wildlife
05/30/2024
22 min
0

6 Best Kruger Game Reserves and Concessions

05/30/2024
22 min
0

The Kruger Game Reserves neighboring Kruger National Park in South Africa are renowned for hosting Africa's most iconic wildlife species. Greater Kruger Park is a prime destination for African safaris, where lions, hyenas, leopards, cheetahs, wild dogs, and numerous elephants thrive as the dominant large mammals. For those in search of an exclusive safari experience, private game reserves provide the ideal setting. With fewer crowds and outstanding hospitality, these protected wildlife areas committed to conservation, offer a truly unique Kruger safari adventure. Visiting a Private Game Reserve in Kruger not only ensures exciting wildlife encounters. It is also a chance to support conservation efforts and local communities.

Kruger Game Reserves have incredible Leopard sightings

In this article, we'll explore the Best Kruger Game Reserves and Concessions in or near Kruger National Park South Africa, each boasting its unique charm and wildlife encounters.

Opting for Kruger Private Game Reserves instead of the Kruger National Park is ideal for photography enthusiasts and those seeking a more exclusive experience. The main advantage is a more personalized wildlife experience. This includes limited vehicles at animal sightings, fewer passengers per vehicle, and a wider range of safari activities such as night drives, walking safaris, and horseback riding. Private reserves near Kruger also provide fine dining experiences and ethical off-road driving for closer wildlife encounters without disturbing the animals or harm nature. Other pro's are star bed sleep out adventures and private swimming pools.

Here are the 6 best Kruger Game Reserves and Kruger concessions, including where to stay and why these private game reserves are special.

1. Makuleke Contractual Park, a Kruger Private Concession

Reasons to visit Limpopo South Africa

The 265 km2 Makuleke Contractual Park is a concession inside Kruger National Park, in the Pafuri Triangle which is flanked by two great rivers; the Limpopo River and the Luvuvhu River.

Southern Africa's Premier Transfrontier Area

The Limpopo River had its origin in the Angolan highlands more than 65 million years ago, and the Luvuvhu River carved its path through the sandstones of the region, shaping the majestic Lanner Gorge over millions of years. The meeting point at Crook’s Corner within the Makuleke Concession in Kruger, forms a junction of three countries and a unique ecological zone, acting as a natural pathway for wildlife moving through The Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park stretching south into Kruger National Park, north into Zimbabwe, and east into Mozambique.

The Magic of Makuleke Concession in Kruger

Makuleke Concession Kruger Park

The Makuleke Concession is not accessible to ordinary day-tourists visiting the Kruger National Park, which is why it offers an exclusive and authentic experience for guests spending a few nights inside this magical concession. Pafuri is a remote area that has to be explored at a leisurely pace. You don’t go here to tick off the big five animals, although leopards, elephants, and other species like impala, nyala, and warthog still grace its landscapes. Lion, rhino, and cheetah are more rare in this northern tip of the Kruger Park.

Fever Tree Forest Pafuri

Apart from Lanner Gorge and Crook’s Corner, The Makuleke Concession offers captivating landscapes that remain largely undiscovered, boasting a biodiversity that stands out from any other, including the iconic Fever Tree Forest and ancient Baobabs.

Baobab in Kruger National Park Limpopo

Renowned for its exceptional birding opportunities, Pafuri hosts rare bird species that can’t be found elsewhere in the country like the Racket-tailed Roller and the Arnot's Chat.

Arnots Chat on birding safari in Pafuri

Other birds difficult to spot, but present in the area, are the Pel's fishing owl, Crowned Hornbill, and Tambourine Dove, making it a haven for bird enthusiasts.

Pafuri Walking & Game Drives

Pafuri Walking Safaris Kruger Park

The most immersive way to explore the diverse landscapes, birdlife and wildlife of Pafuri is through a combination of walking safaris and game drives. Pafuri Walking safaris by RETURN Africa offer a close-up encounter with nature, allowing you to observe the smaller details and tracks while feeling the pulse of the wilderness beneath your feet. On the other hand, game drives provide a broader perspective, covering more ground and offering opportunities to spot larger animals from a safe distance.

Makuleke Community

Makuleke community in Pafuri Kruger

In addition to its remarkable landscape and biodiversity, the Makuleke Contract Park holds a fascinating history. The Makuleke community used to live in this area, but they were forced to leave in 1968 because of the Apartheid. The government took their land in 1969 and moved about 1500 of the Makuleke people to the south in order to add their tribal land to Kruger National Park. Fortunately, the Makuleke community got their land back in 1998 and since then they started to develop tourism in the area.

local guides from Makuleke community in Pafuri

As part of their arrangement, the lodges inside Pafuri hire local people of the Makuleke community and contribute a concession fee to support community development initiatives. 99% of people working in Makuleke Concession are locals. It shows how tourism can help community development.

Where to stay in the Makuleke Private Concession?

Makuleke Concession Accommodation

There are only a few lodges in Pafuri: RETURN Africa's Nkula Trails Camp, Pafuri Camp, Baobab Hill House, and Rare Earth's Pel's Post and The Outpost Lodge. Each lodge or tented camp offers different experiences and are worth visiting.

Pafuri Luxury Tented Camp provides comfortable luxury tented accommodation along the Luvuvhu River with beautiful views of wildlife, Nkulu Trails Camp offers a unique bush experience, and Rare Earth's lodges offer exclusive and personalized stays with modern rooms and stunning views over Pafuri.

Trails Camp Pafuri Walking by Return Africa

Within the Makuleke Concession in Kruger Park, aspiring nature enthusiasts can also participate in safari guide courses and birding courses offered by Ecotraining, which is also a unique way to explore the area.

2. Thornybush Nature Reserve, a private Kruger Game Reserve

Thornybush Nature Reserve Greater Kruger

Thornybush Nature Reserve, also known as Thornybush Game Reserve, covers 15,000 hectares in the Greater Kruger area near Hoedspruit, Limpopo. It shares a 22-kilometer unfenced border with the Kruger National Park, allowing animals to move freely between the reserve and the park.

Thornybush Game Reserve is home to more than the Big Five

Wildlife Thornybush Nature Reserve Kruger

Thornybush Nature Reserve is home to the Big Five and a variety of other African wildlife species. Its consistently pleasant climate makes it an ideal destination for a Kruger safari year-round. The game drives in Thornybush provide exceptional sightings, which some may attribute to luck, but I believe it was the expertise of our guide and tracker, along with seamless communication among guides via radio, that ensured our success.

Thornybush Guide and Tracker on Game Drive

We were fortunate to witness the Big Five, including multiple leopards and elephant herds. I appreciated the attention given to animal tracks and the thorough explanations provided by our guide and tracker.

Leopards drinking in Thornybush Greater Kruger

One of my favorite sightings in Thornybush Private Game Reserve were two leopards, a mother and a son, drinking at the dam and a large pride of lions walking straight towards where we parked the vehicle as well as a observing a large herd of elephants with two babies. The puff adder crossing the road and the Leopard Tortoise were also very cool to see.

The wonderful scenery and beautiful trees of Thornybush

Thornybush Nature Reserve

In addition to the wildlife, I also enjoyed the scenery, although we didn’t see many of the vast open plains Thornybush is famous for. This South Africa game reserve is dotted with various trees, with the Marula Tree, Jackalberry Tree, and Leadwood Tree being the three most common big species. From Thornybush Game Reserve you also have amazing views of the Drakensberg mountain range in the distance.

Perfectly located and accessible Kruger Game Reserve

Thornybush airstrip

Thornybush Game Reserve is conveniently located near Hoedspruit, which is known as the gateway to Kruger Park and the Panorama Route. The reserve has two landing strips, making it easily accessible. Thornybush in Greater Kruger ranks among my top favorite game reserves in South Africa, and I would love to return.

Thornybush and its Dedication to Conservation

Conservation Thornybush Game Reserve Kruger

Thornybush prioritizes nature conservation through various research projects focused on the wildlife in the area. This dedication is evident in their successful initiatives, including being the first reserve to receive a relocated elephant herd and playing a role in lion translocation, both from Kruger National Park. Their commitment extends to anti-poaching efforts, with Thornybush being the first in the Lowveld to implement rhino horn treatments.

Lion in Thornybush Game Reserve Kruger

Thornybush Private Game Reserve has even captured a rare event: the first recording of a white wildebeest born naturally in the wild. Their dedication to research and conservation has been documented in wildlife documentaries aired on Animal Planet as well.

By granting visitors access to this incredible environment, Thornybush fosters appreciation for the wilderness while funding further conservation efforts. The reserve effectively balances responsible tourism with wildlife preservation, enabling guests to experience the wonders of Africa while actively supporting its protection.

Where to stay in Thornybush Game Reserve in Greater Kruger?

Thornybush Safari Lodges

Thornybush Game Reserve offers a variety of lodges to choose from. Some of these lodges are part of the Thornybush Collection, strategically distributed throughout the reserve to ensure that every area of the region is equally enjoyed and appreciated but Thornybush Nature Reserve also hosts other independently operated lodges, like Shumbalala Game Lodge.

Thornybush Game Lodge by Thornybush Collection

We stayed at Thornybush Game Lodge, also referred to as the main lodge of Thornybush Collection. Thornybush Game Lodge holds historical significance as one of the earliest commercial camps in South Africa, playing a pivotal role in establishing Thornybush Nature Reserve as a globally recognized game-viewing destination within the Greater Kruger Park.

After a recent renovation, the lodge received a modern update while preserving its timeless safari allure. The interior design features a harmonious blend of textures and tones, incorporating elements such as wood, steel, leather, and rattan, accentuated by subtle splashes of neutral hues and vibrant greenery. I thoroughly enjoyed the ambiance created by these design choices.

Thornybush Safari Lodge

The main area boasts stunning views of the sandy riverbed where we saw elephants, giraffes and buffalo passing by. Each room in Thornybush Safari Lodge is meticulously designed for privacy and adorned with stylish décor, featuring large windows above the bath and expansive sliding doors leading to the deck, providing guests with breathtaking vistas of the riverbed and potential wildlife sightings.

Thornybush Safari Packages

Like many private game reserves in South Africa, Thornybush operates as an eco-tourism destination, with funding primarily sourced from upscale private commercial game lodges within the reserve. Curious what Thornybush Nature Reserve has to offer you? Check out the Thornybush safari packages.

3. Jock Concession in Kruger National Park

Private Concession Kruger National Park Limpopo

In the Southern-West part of Kruger National Park, halfway in between Skukuza and Malelane, you can find the 6.000 ha Jock Concession.

The First Private Concession in Kruger National Park

First Concession in Kruger Park

The Jock Concession is the very first privately owned and operated concession in Kruger National Park, named after the beloved African tale ‘Jock of the Bushveld’ by Sir Percy FitzPatrick, a South African Classic written during South Africa’s first gold rush era.

Located in the Heart of Kruger

Lots of Leopard in Kruger Game Reserves and Concessions

Jock is nestled in the original heart of Kruger National Park, still renowned as the premier spot for Big Five game viewing in Kruger, offering guests high chances of wildlife sightings and nature experiences.

The Windmill lion pride is home to the concession, same as several elephant herds. During our 2-night stay, we saw all of the Big Five, as well as plains game like zebra, antelope, wildebeest, and several birds, including an owl. We had some special leopard sightings along the dry river bed, two during the day and one on our night drive. We also saw the two lions from the image below mating. Jock is definitely a magical private spot within the Kruger National Park.

Lions in Kruger Park Jock Safari Lodge

It's not only about wildlife... The Jock concession adorns numerous protected tree species such as the Leadwood tree, previously plundered for its excellent firewood qualities, and now more practically used as nesting areas for larger bird species such as eagles. The concession also features the meeting point of two rivers: the Mitomeni (called 'jackalberry Tree' in Shangaan) and Biyamiti (known in Shangaan as 'Place of many Trees'). Most of the time, the riverbeds are dry, so it’s possible to drive inside the riverbeds in search of animals, which also gives an extra dimension to your game drives. If you self-drive through Kruger National Park, you can't drive in these riverbeds and you need to stay on designated roads.

Magical views from 'Madiba Rock'

Madiba Rock Kruger National Park Jock Concession

Apart from rivers and bush veld, The western part of Kruger, and for that reason also Jock concession, consists of granitic soils. These granite domes of southwestern Kruger are among the oldest rocks in the world, dating back 3.5 million years. During one of the game drives, we drove to a viewpoint on top of the rocks, locally known as ‘Madiba Rock’, to admire the beautiful surroundings while having a drink.

Jock of the Bushveld Kruger

A perfect coffee break on your morning game drive, and 'Jock of the Bushveld' is always present.

Jock Wildlife Rangers combat Rhino Poaching

Jock Wildlife Rangers combat Rhino Poaching

Jock Safari Lodge is recognized as one of the leading conservation areas within Kruger National Park. Working in partnership with SANParks and the Caleo Foundation, the Jock Wildlife Ranger team is dedicated to preserving this land for future generations to enjoy. They also actively combat rhino poaching. The establishment of the Jock Environmental Monitoring Unit (JEMU) in January 2016 further emphasizes their commitment to conservation efforts. Every visitor to the concession automatically contributes to conservation initiatives.

Where to stay in Jock concession in Kruger Park?

Accommodation Jock Concession Kruger National Park

Within the Jock concession, there are two lodges available: the main lodge, Jock Safari Lodge, and the exclusive-use Fitzpatrick's Lodge, designed for families and groups.

Jock Safari Lodge Kruger Park South Africa

Jock Safari Lodge features up to 12 luxurious suites positioned along the riverbed, each with its private deck, sala, and plunge pool. Lodge amenities include a pool, boutique shop, relaxation retreat with a sauna, and outdoor boma dining area. Guests can partake in two daily game drives in open safari vehicles, ensuring a genuine intimate African safari adventure.

4. Manyeleti Private Game Reserve in Kruger

Manyeleti, the Big 5 private game reserve, meaning ‘place of stars’ in the local Shangaan language, covers an area of 23,000 hectares and borders Kruger National Park, Sabi Sands Game Reserve, and the Timbavati Game Reserve. Accessible by car or plane, the entrance to Manyeleti Game Reserve is near Kruger National Park's Orpen Gate.

Established in 1963, Manyeleti became a game reserve managed by the Mpumalanga Provincial Government. Notably, during Apartheid, it stood as the sole game reserve in the country welcoming individuals classified as non-white due to its location within Gazankulu, a former black homeland.

Lesser-known Jewel of Greater Kruger

wildlife viewing in Manyeleti Game Reserve South Africa

Manyeleti Game Reserve is renowned for its lion population and provides excellent chances to see leopards and other Big Five animals. As there are no fences between Kruger Park and the Private Game Reserves within Greater Kruger, wildlife can roam freely. With just six safari lodges, Manyeleti attracts fewer visitors than other reserves like Timbavati or Sabi Sand, which can add to a more exclusive safari experience in South Africa.

Productive Kruger Game-viewing area in Greater Kruger

Despite the absence of perennial rivers, Manyeleti thrives due to its abundance of natural pans, wallows, and dams, alongside a diverse landscape of grasslands and dense thickets. This combination has rendered it one of the most productive game-viewing areas in the Greater Kruger region.

The grassy plains and mixed woodland provide diverse habitats for numerous animal species found in Manyeleti. During the hot summer months, these habitats offer excellent grazing, browsing, and shade for a wide variety of antelope, as well as zebra, giraffe, buffalo, ostrich, and sable.

For bird enthusiasts, it offers the chance to observe rare species such as the Kori Bustard, barn owl, bearded woodpecker, thick-billed cuckoo, and numerous large raptors.

wildlife viewing in the Greater Kruger Area of Limpopo

Predators flourish in Manyeleti due to the ample herbivore population, which includes lions, leopards, cheetahs, and spotted hyenas. The reserve also hosts smaller carnivores like servals, caracals, mongooses, and genets. With the allowance of ethical off-roading and a commitment to maintaining low vehicle numbers, Manyeleti ensures a pristine environment while providing the expertise of dedicated guides.

Where to stay in Manyeleti Game Reserve in Kruger?

Tintswalo Safari Lodge Manyeleti Game Reserve

There are six lodges in Manyeleti Nature Reserve in South Africa, including tented camps, lodges, bush camps, self-catering accommodations, and exclusive-use villas. These options cater to different preferences and budgets, ranging from luxurious to more rustic experiences.

Manyeleti Safari Packages

Whether you're looking for a fully guided Kruger safari package or prefer more independence, Manyeleti has something to offer for everyone seeking to immerse yourself in the beauty of the African bush and encounter its wildlife. Find interesting Kruger safari packages for Manyeleti Private Game Reserve on SafariBookings.com.

5. Klaserie Private Nature Reserve, Greater Kruger

More than 50 years ago, 36 farm owners joined forces to establish the Klaserie Private Nature Reserve (KPNR), spanning 60,000 hectares. They aimed to safeguard the diverse wildlife and plant life in this stunning region of South Africa's Lowveld. The Klaserie Nature Reserve is one of the more northern reserves connected to the Kruger National Park. Located around 520 kilometers northeast of Johannesburg, the Klaserie Private Nature Reserve is part of the Greater Kruger area, with Hoedspruit Eastgate Airport being the nearest airport.

As one of South Africa's largest privately owned South Africa game reserves, the Klaserie Nature Reserve offers abundant opportunities for wildlife encounters and nature experiences.

The Klaserie Nature Reserve offers breathtaking landscapes and remarkable wildlife sightings. Known for its large herds of buffalo and healthy populations of lions, elephants, and other members of the Big 5, visitors can anticipate exciting encounters with endangered species like the African wild dog, Southern ground hornbill, and white lion.

The reserve's diverse habitats, ranging from grassy plains to wooded areas along the Klaserie River, provide ideal conditions for a wide variety of wildlife. With its unfenced borders adjoining Kruger National Park and Timbavati, animals have ample space to roam freely. The Klaserie is renowned for its thriving wild dog groups.

Conservation Efforts of Greater Kruger's Klaserie

Wild Dog Conservation Klaserie Game Reserve Kruger

The Klaserie Private Nature Reserve is dedicated to preserving biodiversity and protecting endangered species like wild dogs, rhinos, and southern ground hornbills. Through conservation efforts and educational programs like the Children’s Environmental Training Program (CET), the reserve emphasizes the importance of environmental stewardship and works tirelessly to combat poaching, ensuring a sustainable future for generations to come.

Where to stay in Klaserie Nature Reserve Kruger?

If you want to visit Klaserie, I recommend a minimum of 2 to 4 night stay in one or two different lodges within the Klaserie Game Reserve to fully appreciate the beauty and wildlife of the Klaserie. Have a look at SafariBookings for affordable safari packages in Klaserie Private Nature Reserve.

In Klaserie, you'll discover a diverse range of safari lodges catering to various preferences, from cozy bush camps and immersive walking trails to opulent game lodges. What sets Klaserie apart is its serene and secluded atmosphere, offering guests a tranquil and unhurried Kruger safari experience. With low guest numbers and intimate lodges, visitors can expect personalized attention and a sense of exclusivity throughout their stay.

6. Sabi Sand Game Reserve Kruger

Big Five wildlife viewing in Limpopo Province South Africa

The Sabi Sands Game Reserve in Kruger is globally renowned for its exceptional wildlife viewing experiences, particularly for its impressive sightings of the Big 5, including magnificent leopards and lions. It's widely regarded as one of Africa's best places to see leopards, as these elusive big cats have become accustomed to safari vehicles, with some lodges even hosting resident leopards.

Collection of exclusive Kruger Game Reserves

Officially known as Sabi Sand Wildtuin, this reserve is situated adjacent to Kruger National Park in Mpumalanga, South Africa. It consists of several high-end exclusive Kruger Private Game Reserves, such as Buffelshoek, Djuma, Elephant Plains, Cheetah Plains, Simbambili, Sabi Sabi, Idube, and Leopard Hills, with Londolozi, MalaMala Game Reserve, and Singita being the largest and most popular among them.

The reserve's name originates from the Sabie River, marking its southern border, and the Sand River that flows through its landscape. Covering an extensive area of 65,000 hectares, Sabi Sand shares a boundary of 50 km (31 mi) with Kruger National Park to the east. The rivers not only provide water but also create the riverine vegetation that supports diverse wildlife habitats.

In addition to vast grasslands and woodland savannah, the reserve boasts thousands of plant species, offering a rich food source for herbivores and omnivores. Birdwatchers will delight in spotting over 300 bird species throughout the area.

Elephant Close Up in Manyeleti Game Reserve Limpopo

One advantage of the reserve is its experienced field guides, who can venture off-road during safari game drives, ensuring close-up animal sightings while practicing sensitive driving techniques. Visitors may encounter a variety of wildlife, including lions, hyenas, leopards, antelope species, elephants, white rhinos, giraffes, warthogs, and hippos in or around the Sabi and Sand rivers.

Thanks to ongoing conservation efforts, including rigorous anti-poaching measures, the Sabi Sand Nature Reserve has earned international acclaim for its collaborative approach to protecting endangered species.

Where to stay in Sabi Sands Game Reserve Kruger?

The accommodations in Sabi Sand Game Reserve are all about luxury. The Sabi Sands Nature Reserve is known as one of the best game reserves in South Africa and has some of the best luxury 5-star Safari Lodges you can find. They're fancy and top-notch, designed to give guests the best safari experience possible. You'll find everything from elegant camps to big private houses, cozy retreats, and lodges perfect for families. They offer great hospitality, fancy rooms, and delicious African food, making your Kruger trip truly special. Are you interested in visiting Sabi Sands? Check these affordable safari deals in Sabi Sands Private Game Reserve.

Plan your safari in Greater Kruger

If you plan a safari in Kruger South Africa, I highly recommend combining a minimum of two Greater Kruger Game Reserves. Depending on your time, you can also opt for a few days self-drive in Kruger National Park and a 4-6 day safari in a private game reserve in Kruger, to experience the best of both worlds.

Find affordable deals to plan your Safari in Kruger, South Africa.

Top Concessions and Private Game Reserves for Safari in Kruger

Baobabs in Pafuri

In summary, here are my 6 best Kruger Game Reserves and Concessions to choose from:

  1.  Makuleke Contractual Park (Pafuri), a Kruger Concession
  2.  Thornybush Nature Reserve, a private Kruger Game Reserve
  3.  Jock Concession in Kruger National Park
  4.  Manyeleti Private Game Reserve Kruger
  5.  Klaserie Private Nature Reserve in Greater Kruger
  6.  Sabi Sand Game Reserve in Kruger

Whether you seek the intimate luxury of a private reserve or a concession in the vast wilderness of Kruger National Park itself, get ready to be amazed by Africa's incredible wild nature. Other well-known reserves in Greater Kruger are Kapama Private Game Reserve, Makalali Private Game Reserve, Timbavati Private Nature Reserve, and Balule Private Game Reserve.

Which private game reserves in Kruger Park would you choose for your (first) safari in South Africa and how many days? Let me know in the comments.

I hope this list of my 6 favorite Kruger Game Reserves and Concessions helped you plan your safari in Kruger Park.

If you found this interesting, you may also like to read 13 reasons to visit Limpopo or what to wear on safari in Africa.

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