When people think of safaris in South Africa, they often think of Kruger National Park, and with good reason: Kruger is one of the oldest and largest game reserves in Africa and has been attracting visitors since the turn of the century (before that time, it served as a wild frontier inhabited by the Tsonga people).

Today, a new safari destination in South Africa is slowly but surely emerging. The Eastern Cape, a short drive from the windy city of Port Elizabeth — the area where Nelson Mandela was born — has become so popular that several discerning travelers add a stop here while chasing the popular Garden Route.

Today, several world-class safari lodges have emerged in this area that is touted as a malaria-free alternative to Kruger, and one with some thrilling, almost shoulder-to-shoulder experiences with game.

Here's what's worth the splurge — and what's not.

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Bushman Sands Golf Lodgelocated  on the banks of the genteel Bushman and New Years Rivers, is one of those understated and affordable gems on the Eastern Cape. With rooms starting at just $51 per night, the lodge offers a truly affordable alternative to some of the pricier options.

The 13-room lodge also features an 18-hole golf course, a gym and a swimming pool. It's so peaceful that at night, it seems as if you can hear the stars.

The park also contains five of South Africa’s vegetation zones called biomes, and is the only place on the continent to house the Big Seven (the rhinoceros, elephant, lion, buffalo, leopard, whale, and the great white shark).

For a fun, out-of-the-ordinary excursion, drive about an hour east of Alicedale to Grahamstown, and you can visit the oldest official letterbox in South Africa.

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One of the most luxurious lodges near Addo National Park on the Eastern Cape is Elephant Lodge & Safaris, which is surprisingly affordable with room rates starting at $141 per person, per night (includes all meals). 

There are 10 private units, each elevated on wooden decks that are spread throughout the lodge (some are in the Yellowwood Forest; others on the hillside). One of the best features of the lodge includes the large sliding glass doors that open onto the deck. Additionally, there are family suites with bunk beds for those traveling with children. There's a private landing strip on the lodge grounds for those flying straight to the property.

Splurge

Kariega Game Reserve is one of the most beautiful lodges on the Eastern Cape, and well worth the nightly rates that start at $462 per person. It was started by the Rushmere family on land once owned by 15 different farmers.

Accommodations here include the Main Lodge, Settlers Drift, River Lodge, Ukhozi, and The Homestead (which sleeps up to ten people), there's a style of lodging on this massive reserve for just about everyone. All of the lodges boast floor-to-ceiling windows that make you feel you are at one with your surroundings.

The most magical aspect about Kariega is that the game is everywhere: a leisurely boat ride on the Bushman's and Kariega Rivers (the perfect way to approach the Main Lodge), will leave you admiring weaver bird nests flanking the water. 

A daytime drive will leave you amazed at giraffes, oryx, and elephants that can gracefully surround your every direction. Night drives are the perfect opportunity to see lions and lionesses in action. In the evening, guests enjoy the throbbing ambient sounds of wildlife from hippo to elephant cries. And, if you feel the deep freeze of nighttime temperatures, you can ask for your personal fireplace to be kindled with firewood. 

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