Countless travelers planning their first visit to South Africa reach out to me for advice, telling me they want to "do Cape Town and add on a quick safari nearby." That’s much easier said than done: what most of them don't realize is that the terrain near Cape Town doesn't lend itself to game reserves, and most properties in the vicinity that claim to offer wildlife viewing within an hour or two of the city are little more than glorified zoos. For the authentic Big Five experience, your best bet is undoubtedly flying to Kruger National Park, in the country's northeastern reaches, and checking into one of the continent’s top safari lodges. But if time is tight and you want to stay local, here are your three best options for a proper luxury safari experience within a short drive of Cape Town—listed in order of distance from the city.
Sanbona Wildlife Reserve
There are three lodges and a campsite at Sanbona, a four-hour drive from Cape Town. The unique Klein Karoo semi-desert setting makes for a scenic backdrop for viewing the Big Five (lion, buffalo, rhino, elephant, leopard). You can stay in suites at two of the lodges, but opt for a luxury tent at Dwyka Tented Lodge for a unique experience.
Garden Route Game Lodge
The Garden Route is one of South Africa's most beautiful drives, and this reserve lies right alongside it. If you're willing to make the four-hour drive twice in one day, or if you just want a quick stop along a road trip farther east, there are day-trip game-viewing options available. Tip: For an overnight visit, book a Waterhole View Bush Chalet for a high chance of spotting buffalos and zebra between game drives.
Gondwana Private Game Reserve
At just under five hours from Cape Town (including a long and particularly bumpy stretch along a dirt road), Gondwana might just be pushing your limits for how far you'll want to drive—but as soon as you arrive and take in the views over the pool, you'll be glad you came. The scenery, made up of hills cloaked in vegetation unique to this part of South Africa, is breathtaking, and while the game viewing can feel a bit sparse at times in the sprawling 26,000-acre reserve, you can always count on a beautiful vista to keep your attention between lion and rhino sightings. Families should spring for the luxury bush villas, with two or three bedrooms and a massive dining and living area.