Limpopo is named after the Limpopo River that flows through the province and borders Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Botswana. It’s home to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Mapungubwe, South Africa’s first kingdom. Limpopo offers stunning landscapes including the majestic Waterberg mountain range, lush forests, and breathtaking views. Kruger National Park is also part of the Limpopo Province, but there are more beautiful places to visit in Limpopo. In this Limpopo travel blog, I will share the best places to visit in Limpopo on a 3-week safari itinerary, starting and ending in Johannesburg because of the location of the OR Tambo International Airport.
South Africa is one of the most popular travel destinations in Africa, but its northernmost Limpopo province is less popular, despite the majestic landscapes and outstanding game viewing opportunities.
This Limpopo travel guide is written by travel and wildlife photographer Kim Paffen, a member of the Traveltomtom team. She is also a certified apprentice safari guide.
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1. Start of Limpopo Trip: Johannesburg
Johannesburg OR Tambo International Airport was the starting and ending point for our 3-week Limpopo itinerary. It’s located in the Kempton Park district of Johannesburg. We didn’t explore the city itself (this time) as we focused on exploring Limpopo, but this financial capital and largest city of South Africa definitely has some interesting tourist attractions, like the Apartheid Museum, Mandela House, or the guided Soweto Tour, which is very impressive.
After a long flight and late arrival time, we decided to stay conveniently close to the airport at Emerald Guest House, before starting our Limpopo itinerary. This budget-friendly guest house is located in Kempton Park, only 3 km from O.R. Tambo International Airport and offers a free reliable airport shuttle. Private parking is also available on site. The rooms are basic, but very good value for money. Breakfast is included, and Free Wi-Fi is available in public areas. They also have a garden with a swimming pool. I recommend Emerald Guesthouse if you’re looking for an affordable place to stay near Johannesburg airport. A good starting point for your Limpopo trip.
2. Welgevonden Private Game Reserve
From Johannesburg, we drove to the Waterberg Region. Our first Limpopo travel destination was Welgevonden Private Game Reserve. The route from Joburg to Welgevonden is about 250 km and is very straightforward. It took us 3,5 to 4 hours.
Welgevonden Private Game Reserve is a malaria-free reserve and is home to the big five game animals. The reserve offers one of the largest populations of white rhinos on a private reserve in Africa. It’s located in the UNESCO-listed Waterberg Biosphere Reserve and shares its borders with Marakele National Park. It covers an area of over 36,000 hectares with a mountain landscape including deep valleys, hills, and waving grasslands. The Welgevonden Private Game Reserve lies at an altitude range of 1200 - 1900 meters above sea level.
The reserve is split into two conservation areas. The first part, where the main gate is situated, is a breeding area that helps to control the numbers of certain animals to benefit biodiversity. In this part, you will only find two out of the Big 5 game animals, namely buffalo and leopards.
During our stay at Welgevonden Private Game Reserve we spotted white rhinos, even young ones, about two to three months old. We also got to see a pride of lions, many black-backed jackals, three cheetah brothers, elephants, and a male bull from up close.
A big advantage of Welgevonden is that there are not too many cars in the reserve, which gives you the feeling of being an exclusive observer of the wildlife. They also have certain rules that only a maximum number of cars is allowed at a Big Five sighting.
Where to stay at Welgevonden Private Game Reserve?
Because we spent 4 nights in Welgevonden, we stayed in two amazing and exclusive accommodations of Rare Earth Retreats: Tshwene Lodge and Ekuthuleni Lodge.
If you are looking for a luxury safari stay in a tranquil environment in the middle of the bush, you would love to stay at Tshwene lodge. This canopied hideaway is located along the rugged valley of the Taaibos River. With only 5 rooms, it’s a relatively small lodge, offering an exclusive and quiet safari experience. It’s a perfect choice for travelers who long for peace, exclusivity, and excellent game viewing in stunning surroundings.
The rooms are very spacious. In our private bathroom, we had a bathtub, and an indoor and outdoor shower. The bed was huge and very comfortable, and I absolutely loved the private view of the valley below from the large balcony of our room. A big plus was the daily housekeeping and complimentary laundry service.
The friendly staff took care of us by offering an exclusive and personal service. Our stay included 2 game drives a day, and in between, we got spoiled with lovely meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Tshwene lodge serves set meals and takes dietary requirements into account.
During our stay at Tshwene we were guided by Elias, a very knowledgeable and experienced guide. He was very attentive to fresh animal tracks, which he used to show us some amazing sightings. After the game drive you can choose to relax at the pool or enjoy a massage.
Ekuthuleni Lodge is Tshwene’s sister lodge and offers comparable high-quality standards, however, the location and feel of this lodge are different but in a good way. Ekuthuleni Lodge is located on a small hill, offering magnificent views of the savannah plains with the sight of a waterhole where several animals like elephants, zebra, rhino, and waterbuck come to drink.
The accommodation is well maintained, cozy but spacious, and clean. They offer 5 rooms, so the maximum number of guests is 10, which ensures an exclusive and personal service.
The five suites offer intimacy and privacy, each with a patio and both indoor and outdoor showers, as well as a bathtub. Even from the patio, you can enjoy the beautiful view of the plains and the present wildlife. The rooms are very spacious, beautifully decorated, and well-equipped.
Two daily safari game drives are included in your stay, conducted by professional and experienced guides. We had the privilege to have Zaan Du Plessis as our guide, a very knowledgeable female safari guide, and a warm-hearted person. She knows exactly what it means to provide a great safari experience to you as a guest and we had good laughs too. The sightings of rhino, cheetah, and several lions were absolutely amazing.
In between the safari game drives, we got spoiled with wonderful meals from chef ‘Laptop’. We enjoyed our meals in the cozy dining room or on the open-air deck with views of the Savannah plains. All delicious meals were prepared with the freshest ingredients available, and it was exactly to our taste.
The staff and service from Rare Earth are amazing and there is such attention to detail. From the minute we arrived, all our needs were taken care of. I would love to go back soon.
3. Limpokwena Nature Reserve
From Welgevonden we drove in a North-East direction to Limpokwena Nature Reserve, located near the Botswana border. In the Northern part of Limpopo, the roads are more damaged, which affects your traveling time. In total, the journey took us about 5 to 6 hours, but it was definitely worth it!
Limpokwena boasts a wide variety of flora and fauna and offers a rough landscape. North, on the Botswana border, you find the Limpopo River, and East the beautiful Mogalakwena River flowing into the Limpopo River, hence the name ‘LimpoKwena’.
Limpokwena Nature Reserve is a remote destination, far from civilization, which makes it a perfect destination to rewind and escape from the busy life. I loved this remote experience combined with splendid landscapes and pristine wilderness. Many animals can be seen such as elephants, giraffes, and a remarkable variety of birds. Although you can find big game animals in this reserve, that shouldn’t be the focus when staying here.
Where to stay at Limpokwena Nature Reserve?
Limpokwena Nature Reserve, the sister reserve of Zingela Nature Reserve, offers a small main camp with 4 chalets and a family cottage, and 4 tents on the exclusive Island Camp. The main camp is fenced and has a swimming pool.
The Island Camp is open and unfenced and lies on the banks of the Limpopo River. The island camp does not have any cellular service or Wi-Fi, but for safety, a hand-held radio is provided for emergencies. For these reasons, the Island camp is only recommended for experienced campers and permitted for children over 12 years.
All accommodations of Limpokwena Nature Reserve are self-catered, so you need to take enough food and water with you because the nearest supermarket is too far.
We had a great time camping on the remote Island Camp. We loved the views, and enjoyed the peace and nature around us! Furthermore, we had some giraffes, impala, and vervet monkeys as visitors, and we enjoyed watching the African Fish Eagle catching prey. In the morning and afternoon, we joined the guided 4x4 game drives, which are included in the price.
The tents are basic, provided with two stretchers per tent including a mattress, blankets, pillows, a small bedside table and lamp, a standing fan, and an electrical plug point for charging. There is also a fully equipped open-plan kitchen with crockery and cutlery, a large fridge, and firewood. Communal showers and flushing toilets are also available.
4. Mapesu Private Game Reserve + Mapungubwe NP
After the remote experience at Limpokwena Nature Reserve, we headed more North to Mapesu Private Game Reserve, situated adjacent to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Mapungubwe National Park. The nearest gas station is about 70 km away, at Alldays or Musina, so be prepared for that.
Mapesu Private Game Reserve is a Big 5 Game Reserve and is a partner of the Endangered Wildlife Trust's cheetah metapopulation project. They put large efforts into conservation and responsible tourism, which is one of the main reasons I wanted to visit Mapesu Private Game Reserve.
Mapesu Private Game Reserve was established in 2014 and covers an area of over 7,200 hectares. The reserve offers scenic landscapes, from sandstone formations to woodlands, and riverine forests, and includes Limpopo’s famous baobab trees.
The various ecotones on the reserve provide the perfect habitat for many mammal species like zebra, waterbuck, impala, kudu, steenbok, and more. 383 bird species have been recorded in Mapesu Private Game Reserve and over 433 species occur in the region.
Mapesu Private Game reserve also offers local activities, including a visit to the impressive Rock Art of the San (Bushmen) people, the oldest inhabitants of Southern Africa. Their ancient rock paintings and carvings are found in caves and on rock shelters and refer to spiritual beliefs, wildlife, and things that the tribes experienced thousands of years ago. Mapesu is also the best place to stay if you want to visit Mapungubwe National Park as they take you on a safari to this amazing park, only a 15-minute drive from Mapesu.
Where to stay at Mapesu Private Game Reserve?
Mapesu Private Game Reserves offers various accommodations, the luxury 4-star Mopane Bush Lodge, self-catering units, a campsite with tent rental options, and the Mapesu Wilderness Camp with luxury tents.
We stayed at the Mapesu Wilderness Camp, situated on a hillside with a 180 degrees view over the stunning Mopane bush veld. The spacious tents are provided with an ensuite bathroom with a large bathtub and outdoor shower. The tents are set apart to enjoy privacy and all have a private terrace. Inside the tent, you will find some comfortable furnishings; two chairs, a table, and a small desk. The communal area offers a large pool, a restaurant, and a bar with Free Wi-Fi. The camp area also has a swimming pool!
I would highly recommend adding Mapesu Private Game Reserve, including a visit to Mapungubwe National park, to your list of best places to visit in Limpopo, South Africa. It’s also a good base when you want to combine the northern part of South Africa, with Botswana or Zimbabwe.
5. Mapungubwe National Park
The visit to Mapungubwe National Park was incredible and enriching. The sandstone scenery and its open, expansive savannah landscape at the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe Rivers are absolutely breathtaking.
Mapungubwe National Park is set hard against the northern border of South Africa, joining Zimbabwe and Botswana. Visiting Mapungubwe National Park was one of the highlights of my trip in Limpopo.
From Mapesu Game Reserve it was only a 15 minutes drive to reach the park. You can also do a self-drive in Mapungubwe, but since Mapesu offered a safari in this national park, I loved to explore the park with a guide who knows a lot about the region and routes inside the park. Especially for a first-time visit.
6. Pafuri (Makuleke), North Kruger National Park
Our next destination was the jewel of Northern Kruger National Park, the Makuleke Concession, or Pafuri Triangle.
The Pafuri region is situated between the Limpopo and Luvuvhu Rivers in the Northern part of Kruger National Park. It covers an area of 24,000 hectares and belongs to the Makuleke community.
This area is an exclusive and the most remote and wildest part of Kruger National Park, offering a variety of vegetation, including an immense fever tree forest.
It also offers great wildlife viewing opportunities, like buffalos, large herds of elephants, and many hippos and crocs at the confluence of the Limpopo and Luvuvhu rivers at Crooks’ Corner. This area is also a hotspot for birders.
You will also find lots of baobab trees that are home to this region. Some are more than 4000 years old. Last but not least, the Pafuri region offers stunning lookout points. A sundowner at Lanner Gorge has to be on your bucket list when staying in Paruri, the Makuleke concession. Lanner Gorge is a narrow, winding gorge where the Luvuvhu River has carved its course through sandstone cliffs. It’s one of the best - if not THE BEST - sundowner spots in Africa I’ve experienced so far.
Where to stay in the Makuleke Concession of Pafuri?
The Makuleke Concession is not accessible to ordinary tourists visiting Kruger National Park because the concession has a maximum of 52 guests that can be accommodated. We stayed at Rare Earth’s luxury Outpost Lodge, which offers 12 luxury and spacious lodges overlooking the Luvuvhu valley or river.
All lodges are separately located and connected with a raised walkway offering stunning views of the Northern Kruger wilderness. The rooms with a huge bed, shower, bathtub, and lounge set are very spacious, well-decorated, and clean. The views from the large terrace are mind-blowing!
The morning and afternoon game drives are included in the stay and guided by incredibly knowledgeable rangers. We had the pleasure to spend 4 days with Ray. Our bush walks and game drives were great fun, very informative, and full of amazing landscapes, and wildlife. I wish I could have spent even more time on safari with The Outpost’s ranger Ray.
Between the game drives, we were spoiled with amazing food, served by the warm and caring staff. The Outpost Lodge offers a rich cold and hot breakfast, lunch, dinner in a cozy setting with fire, and also a high tea with savory and sweets before departing for the afternoon game drive.
One day, we were surprised with a bush breakfast after a morning game drive. It was a really nice set-up at a huge Baobab Tree, a stunning place to have your breakfast in the bush.
When we departed to our next travel destination, we even received a rich packed lunch, what a great service! I absolutely adored the stay at Rare Earth’s the Outpost Lodge from start to finish. If you would like to experience a really untouched area of the far northern Kruger National Park, visit The Outpost Lodge in Pafuri.
You will not regret it! Don’t expect to see many cats, like lions, and cheetah, but the area is simply stunning with amazing landscapes and you will definitely find those large herds of elephants.
7. North-Central Kruger National Park
After a luxury stay in the far Northern region of Kruger National Park, we did a self-drive through Kruger National Park, because the experience of a self-drive in Kruger has to be on your South Africa bucket list.
In two days we discovered the areas around Shingwedzi, Mopane, Letaba, Olifants, Satara, and Orpen. From Pafuri we drove the tar road (H1-8) towards Punda Maria and Shingwedzi. Mopane trees and elephants are common in this area. Near Shingwedzi we drove The Red Rocks Loop (S52), where you can see how water erosion has created a series of potholes pitted in the smooth, reddish stone. This is also the place where we spotted a leopard, as well as elephants and plenty of birds.
Satara is popular because of the good lion and hyena sightings and big herds of grazers in the open grasslands. Unfortunately, we didn’t see a lot of animals, possibly because of the weather that day. We saw many birds along the quiet Old Main Road (S90) to Satara and enjoyed the beautiful views over the savannah grasslands along this road.
Olifants is well known for excellent game viewing because of the 3 ecosystems that Olifants consists of, but we weren’t lucky to see much animal activity. Better luck next time, it’s nature!
We stayed in Shingwedzi Rest Camp and in Olifants Rest Camp. I loved the views of the river at Olifants Rest Camp, they are breathtaking!
8. Manyeleti Private Game Reserve
We left Kruger National Park at the Orpen Gate, in the Mpumalanga province, and followed our way to Manyeleti Private Game Reserve, the Big 5 private game reserve, meaning ‘place of stars’ in the local Shangaan language. The Manyeleti Game Reserve is easily accessible by car and plane. The access gate to Manyeleti is close to Kruger National Park's Orpen Gate.
Manyeleti covers an area of 23,000 hectares and borders Kruger National Park, Sabi Sands Game Reserve, and the Timbavati Game Reserve. As there are no fences between the national park and the private game reserves, wildlife is able to roam freely.
Manyeleti Private Game Reserve is home to a large population of lions and offers exceptional possibilities for viewing the elusive leopard. Other big 5 game animals are spotted on a regular basis as well.
This area is also home to over 300 bird species, which makes Manyeleti a great safari destination for many guests, like wildlife enthusiasts, birders, and photographers. Two great advantages of Manyeleti are that (ethical) off-roading is allowed, and the reserve is well-known for its very low vehicle density.
Where to stay at Manyeleti Private Game Reserve?
Tintswalo Safari Lodge was our home for two nights at Manyeleti Private Game Reserve. We stayed at the Baker Suite, named after Samuel and his wife Baker, one of the most important explorers of the 19th century.
The Baker suite has its own private plunge pool on a wooden deck with a view of the African bush and a full en-suite bathroom including a bathtub and an indoor and outdoor shower. This suite has a classic and romantic feel and is a perfect place to unwind; a real honeymoon suite.
When staying at the Tintswalo Safari Lodge, you don’t need to worry about anything. The staff will ensure that you will have a pleasant stay. From the welcoming at reception to the delicious food, the personal service from the butler, the safe assistant of the night guard, and the knowledge of the guides and trackers, all is top-level. I really liked their surprise of a bush breakfast in a dry riverbed after one of our morning game drives.
The Wi-Fi connection was stable and available in our room, which is a big plus for me as I also work during my stay. Also, the complimentary laundry service is an added value!
If you like to have some time to relax, you can book a massage or enjoy the nature and wildlife around the accommodation. In the main area, there’s a photo hide near the water supply where elephants often come to drink. You will also find other animals, like Nyala around the accommodation.
Long story short, the 5-star Tintswalo Safari Lodge in Manyeleti Game Reserve is an excellent place when looking for a royal and extraordinary stay in the African bush.
9. Hoedspruit via Panorama Route to Hazyview
After spending a lot of time on safari in the bush, we changed the focus to the extraordinary landscapes along the famous Panorama Route. This scenic self-drive route is located along the Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve in the Mpumalanga Province in South Africa. Because we had to end our Limpopo itinerary in Johannesburg it was a great way to add a bit of the Panorama Route to our itinerary.
Where to stay in Hoedspruit?
From Manyeleti we headed to Hoedspruit, a lovely small village located at the foot of the Klein Drakensbergen part of the Limpopo Region. Near Hoedspruit we stayed on a beautiful farm - Francine’s Farmhouse - surrounded by orange plantations with amazing mountain views. I loved their amazing curry for dinner! It’s a great and peaceful base to explore Kruger and the Panorama Route.
From there we visited Blyderivierpoort Dam, the gravity-arch dam on the Blyde River, in the lower Blyde River Canyon. If you have enough time, I would definitely recommend going there. From Hoedspruit we continued to the first and one of the most beautiful viewpoints of the Panorama Route, the Three Rondavels. Afterwards we also visited Bourke’s Luck Potholes, God’s Window, the Pinnacle, and different waterfalls. It takes about 5 to 6 hours to drive the Panorama route, including stops along the route. After driving the panorama route, we stayed in Hazyview.
Where to stay in Hazyview?
We choose to stay in a remote location near Hazyview, at Chestnut Country Lodge. This lodge is located on the foothills of the Drakensberg Mountains in the heart of the Kiepersol district and offers lovely views of the forest and surroundings. The 2 km dirt road to get there is bumpy but well worth it. Once you arrive, you will be warmly welcomed by the friendly managers and staff, and you can enjoy the peace. Due to the natural fauna and flora, you can hear and find plenty of special birds.
At the time we were visiting Chestnut Country Lodge, the lodge management was renovating most of their rooms, including the bathrooms. The rooms are very spacious, clean, and all have a private patio. You can park your car right next to the room.
A cold and hot breakfast is included in the price, and they offer an optional dinner, a 3-course set menu with large portions. During the day, you can go out to explore, or you can relax at the sparkling clean pool.
Chestnut Country Lodge - part of the African Safari Collective - is a very good option to stay, before going into the Kruger National Park or driving the Panorama Route.
10. Shalati, Skukuza, Kruger National Park
Our last safari destination was Skukuza in the Southern Region of Kruger National Park, well-known for the better predator and Big 5 sightings. We entered Kruger Park through the Paul Kruger Gate. This gate is regarded as the quickest way to reach Skukuza.
Skukuza is the number one game viewing destination in South Africa and therefore very popular amongst tourists. A popular loop around Skukuza is the route around the confluence of the Sabie and Sand Rivers (H1-2, H12 and H4-1). This route combines open grasslands, thorn thickets and riverine forests and is recommended to drive in the early morning or afternoon. You can often find lion prides, in this area there is less competition because of the large amount of game.
Where to stay in Skukuza?
Our last destination was the exclusive and luxury accommodation Shalati, situated on the old historic train bridge above the Sabi River. Shalati offers 31 rooms, including 24 carriage rooms.
Sleeping in a train wagon is a unique and exciting experience! We stayed in one of their re-envisioned carriage rooms which are spacious, beautifully designed and offer magnificent views over the bush and river below. We saw elephants, hippos, and buffalo grazing from our balcony. In the morning, we watched the sunrise from our big king-sized bed.
When it comes to game viewing, I would not skip game drives very often, but at Shalati I choose to stay around the accommodation because it’s such a lovely experience. The game drives inside the Kruger Park on the same roads that the self-drivers use, and can't tip the luxury feel around the accommodation. Knowing our trip was going to end, I preferred to relax and enjoyed the fewer wildlife sightings around the lodge.
Apart from the great rooms and atmosphere, Shalati offers a high-class dining experience. They offer an extensive breakfast, lunch, and supper. Before the game drive, they serve high tea at the bar and lounge area at the bridge, with a beautiful infinity pool overlooking the river.
Kruger’s Shalati - Train on the Bridge is a real bucket list destination and a very special place to stay inside Kruger National Park. I would definitely like to go back once! It was a perfect ending to our 3-week Limpopo itinerary. From Shalati, the train on the bridge we left Kruger National Park via de Paul Kruger Gate and made our way back to Johannesburg, via Dullstroom.
3-Week itinerary for Limpopo
Our 3-week Limpopo road trip included several luxury private game reserves, as well as mid-range and budget activities and accommodations like a self-drive safari in Kruger National Park. See below the planning of the route we covered.
- Day 1: Johannesburg
- Day 2-6: Welgevonden Private Game Reserve
- Day 6-8: Limpokwena Nature Reserve
- Day 8-10: Mapesu Private Game Reserve
- Day 10-14: Pafuri, Far Northern region of Kruger National Park
- Day 14-16: Northern and Central region of Kruger National Park
- Day 16-18: Manyeleti Private Game Reserve
- Day 19: Hoedspruit via Panorama Route to Hazyview
- Day 19-21: Shalati (Skukuza), Southern region of Kruger National Park
- Day 22: Johannesburg
This travel blog with the best places to visit in Limpopo is written by award-winning wildlife photographer Kim Paffen, part of the Traveltomtom team. A few images of this Limpopo trip are part of her Wild Heart print collection to decorate your interior.
All of the above opinions are honest, and I hope our experience and Limpopo travel tips are both useful and inspiring to you. In case you have any questions about traveling to South Africa or planning your trip to Limpopo, feel free to reach out through my Instagram @ourplanetinmylens.
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For more travel inspiration and amazing photos of Kim have a look at her other South Africa blogs, like the ultimate itinerary from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth via the Garden Route and the best places to visit in KwaZulu-Natal.
Enjoy your trip to South Africa!