I’ve done what my English teacher always banged on about. I’ve written the article before this introduction.
But it is not clear-cut. I am a keen skier. So every time I ski, I like to re-evaluate where to go: between Val D’Isere or St Anton? Or between Verbier and Zermatt? They are all excellent choices. It is the same with Sabi Sands or Timbavati… But I am someone who likes to consider all the angles. So if you are THAT sort of person, this article was written for you.
Oh dear – here it goes… This is the crux and it is almost impossible to answer. This is because both reserves are close to each other, have similar vegetation and open borders with the Kruger. (So that the wildlife moves in and out of these reserves and the Kruger.)
Both have the Big Five including leopards that are very comfortable with game-viewing vehicles. (This is not the case for most game reserves as leopards are usually shy and elusive.) Neither reserve is the ideal terrain for cheetahs which are more likely to be seen elsewhere.
Lion sightings are probably more plentiful in the Sabi Sands whereas I have had amazing luck seeing wild dog in the Timbavati on several occasions.
In both reserves you are highly likely to spot the majority of wildlife that you want to see during a three night stay. But given the open borders, nothing is guaranteed. But the Sabi Sands probably has more vehicles out in the field (see Wilderness next) and this can help with sightings.
Winner: Sabi Sands by an edge
Sense of Wilderness
The Timbavati is more remote and thus has a much greater sense of wilderness. Though there are villages nearby, you are much less aware of them. Plus it is surrounded on three sides by the Kruger so as you travel into the Timbavati, you feel you are away from the world.
The vehicle density is less, especially compared to the Western and Northern Sabi Sands. Yes, sometimes vehicle density is a good thing as it helps with animal sightings. But overall most people want to see fewer vehicles and have a greater sense of wilderness and exclusivity.
Choice of Accommodation
In the Sabi Sands, you have a choice between expensive, eye-wateringly expensive, and sell-your-own-grandmother expensive. The Timbavati also has an increasing number of top-end lodges but it also has a wider spread of game lodges to suit a more moderate budget. (Though there are virtually no inexpensive lodges left.) It also has a wider variety of game lodges. From traditional thatched lodges to tented camps, from exclusive-use camps to walking safari fly-camps.
Quality of Guiding
The trouble continues, so I won’t spend long. The quality of guiding is a very personal, subjective, consideration. For example a ranger may have a degree in botany and go into wonderful detail about the ecology. And then the guest declares that he talks too much!
Broadly I would say that the guiding is of a very high standard in both reserves. But perhaps the average Sabi Sands range tends to talk more, and explain more, (not always the same thing!) This is generally what you want on safari.
But it varies extensively from ranger to ranger, so I am going to shut up now!
Winner: Sabi Sands? But difficult to tell
The accessibility gap between the two reserves has narrowed in recent years. Nowadays both game reserves are connected to Cape Town and Johannesburg with direct flights to nearby airports. So for many itineraries there is no difference in connectability.
But the Sabi Sands is closer to Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport (KMIA). KMIA services other destinations such as Vilanculos in Mozambique, Livingstone at Victoria Falls, Phinda and Durban. And you can connect via Johannesburg and arrive there on a late afternoon.
This advantage is not a slam dunk though. Some connections arrive and depart at times which mean that you’d miss a game drive to make the connection. Not good. This can sometimes, but not always, be offset by a charter flight from the lodge, but only in the mornings.
So – if you have time – we recommend adding a night at a country lodge close by. You get the full safari experience and then take a scenic panorama tour via the Blyde River Canyon. However, then the small advantage of Sabi Sabi disappears…
Winner: Sabi Sands, unless you stay another night
Exclusivity & Brand Name
If you are looking for the crème de la crème and brand-name bragging rights, then Sabi Sands is your man (or women). It contains virtually all the brand names that the Conde Nast reader will have heard of: Singita, Londolozi, Mala Mala, Lion Sands and so on.
Let’s face it – if you say you are on safari in the Sabi Sands, your friends will be more likely to have heard of it than the Timbavati.
And that’s 100% fine. But remember it’s like designer clothing. The extra you pay for the designer handbag is mainly for the brand name, not just the quality of the leather. Same with game lodges.
Winner: Sabi Sands
Value for Money
Which brings me neatly to my final category: value for money. All game lodges in these premium game reserves are expensive. The price is supporting the game-management of a private game reserve. This is an immensely expensive operation, especially with the current drastic need to protect against poaching.
But if you have read the blog so far and are relatively neutral about Sabi Sands versus Timbavati, you will get more ‘bang for your buck’ in the Timbavati.
The exact same game lodge, staff, rangers would command a noticeable price premium if it was in the Sabi Sands, because of the brand.
Now brand has a value to most people, but if value for money has greater importance for you, then Timbavati has the edge.
Sabi Sands AND Timbavati – Staying at Both?
Many clients ask to stay in both reserves. That is perfectly possible, and could be ideal for people who fundamentally like ‘new’ and to be on the move. But the terrain and the game-viewing is not fundamentally different. They are both part of the greater Kruger.
So if you have the time – at least 5 nights – for your safari, I would rather suggest that you stay 3 nights in either the Sabi Sands or the Timbavati (you choose!) and then 2 to 3 nights in a completely different game reserve
Sabi Sands versus Timbavati – Conclusion
My aim in writing this blog is to help you make the choice. Or feel comfortable with the choice you have already made.
The bottom line is that both reserves are an excellent choice, probably among the very best in Southern Africa.
But don’t believe the hype that says one reserve is way better than the other.
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