A South African safari can take as many forms as the multitude of wild creatures you will encounter. From a remote bush camp escape to a luxurious private reserve, there is a range of experiences to suit all tastes and budgets. And like a giraffe picking among the canopy of leaves for the perfect snack, you will be well rewarded for taking the time to create the safari that is perfect for you.

When to go
Winter (June to September) is ideal, as many trees and shrubs are leafless which aids wildlife spotting. Limited food and water means that animals are often out foraging, hunting or drinking at waterholes. South Africa's summer (December to February) sees the countryside at its most lush, but it can be hard to see animals in the dense shadows. This time of year also means a lot of European holiday makers, who come in herds for the hot temperatures.

Choosing a national park
South Africa has more than 600 parks and reserves, ranging from utter desolation to verdant savannah. You can join guided safaris, set out on your own or find serenity at remote campsites. The parks cater to travellers on all budgets, meaning they are affordable but also often crowded. For a first safari, two parks stand out:

Kruger National Park is the national park for safaris. Every iconic – and not-so-iconic – African animal is found here. It can get crowded, but given that it is the size of Wales, it is easy to escape to a remote corner. Accommodation ranges from isolated campsites to bungalows and cottages in busy compounds, and the towns surrounding the park have hotels, hostels and resorts for every budget. However, if you stay outside the park, early morning safaris will become very early, as commuting in can take an hour or more.

Hluhluwe-iMfolozi, located in the heart of Zululand, combines lush scenery with all the expected wildlife. The park is especially noted for its network of hiking trails, which include multi-day itineraries and camping deep in the bush. Make sure you pay a visit to the beaches along the nearby Elephant Coast; they are among South Africa's finest.

Choosing a private reserve
There are two reasons not to choose a private wildlife reserve: cost and too much comfort. But for people who want the ultimate luxury safari experience, a lodge in a private reserve does have its perks.

It offers incredibly close proximity to wildlife. Not only do you avoid long drives before your safari starts, but that bump you hear in the night may well be an elephant looking in your window. Sabi Sand, which adjoins Kruger National Park, is widely considered to be the best place in Africa for spotting animals.

There are also fewer crowds. Safari jeeps on a private reserve may hold only six people compared to a dozen or more in big parks, guides will be able to give you individual attention and when, say, a pride with lion cubs is spotted, there will not be a feeding frenzy of jeeps.

At a private reserve, you can easily create your own menu of activities, such as guided walks through the bush or tours that focus on particular species. At Samara Private Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape, you can track cheetahs on foot. Plus, some of the private reserve lodges, such as Ulusaba, which is owned by Richard Branson, are the retreats of the famous and feature every amenity.

One way to save on the costs of a private reserve is to spend just a few nights at one at the start of your trip. Take advantage of the talented guides and an abundance of wildlife to see a lot of animals quickly. Then, with your wildlife urges somewhat sated, head to a national park for a completely different experience.

Use a guide
The first time a guide shows you leopard tracks crossing your path, you will be glad you are not wandering on your own. Although guides can keep you safe from marauding lions, their real value is in explaining the vast complexities and subtleties of the African bush. In private reserves, guides are usually part of the price, but in a national park you may be tempted to explore by yourself. Though you may get lucky, as a novice, it is more likely you will miss most things on your own.

Do not be a ‘Big Five’ cliché
It is exciting to see lions, leopards, elephants, Cape buffaloes and rhinos. And you will see the phrase (which was coined by white hunters in the 1920s to validate their self-proclaimed bravery) on everything from businesses to buses. But there are obviously far more creatures out there. Read up on all the animals you are likely to see, and try to spot some of the less famous ones. You cannot appreciate the beguiling ugliness of a warthog until you have seen one, and a herd of twitchy impalas reminds you that danger can lurk anywhere amid the pastoral beauty.

Drive or fly?
You can fly close to Kruger National Park, connecting from Cape Town or Johannesburg, which is great if you are pressed for time. Most other parks and reserves are also well served by local flights and you can get your resort or lodge to handle your transfers. But if you can afford the time, driving in South Africa is extremely rewarding. Outside of the parks and reserves you will find spectacular natural beauty, wine regions and all manner of interesting small towns and cultural attractions.

Bring the right gear
Dawn safaris during the winter can be surprisingly cold in and around Kruger; layers (even gloves and a warm hat) can be shed as the sun and temperature go up. Binoculars are an obvious choice – a compact pair will let you spot that big cat skulking in the distance– and you should not expect your lodge or guides to provide them. You cannot count on wi-fi in the bush, so a guidebook about the land and wildlife around you is essential.

Just relax
You should be ready to simply chill out. Take time to appreciate the beauty of a deserted waterhole reflecting the vast African sky, or the sounds of a bird far in the distance. Do not fret about checking off the Big Five, and certainly do not spend all your time hunting for them through a tiny viewfinder. Get out of your vehicle and simply revel in the quiet. Sometimes the most magical moment on safari is when you see nothing at all.

The article 'A guide to South African safaris' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.