So sorry mate, I missed this question completely.
We specifically wanted to find and photograph leopards so we chose to go in winter when trees lose their leaves, thus making for better game viewing, also winter is kind of like Sydney/Brisbane winter, so it is not too bad at all.
We (well mostly I) organised the whole trip ourselves. There is NO chance I would shack up with a photo tour or private game reserve (both ridiculously expensive and I rather do my own thing anyway than be at the mercy of other people in a group and have to compromise anything. If I want to stay with an animal for two hours, I will do that and I don't care about other people in a group, so I don't go in a group! We knew where we wanted to go so I planned the itinerary, booked things via e-mail and phone calls, direct with the lodges etc. Organised car hire through Avis in South Africa, flights from here, got very very cheap flights.
I hired a Toyota Fortuner for our first leg of the trip (about the size of a Hilux) and a Nissan Pathfinder for the second part in the Drakensberg Mountains. You have no idea how many people preached about getting the smallest and cheapest rental cars. However, there are a number of reasons for me picking the largest (within reason) for our driving around.
1) People drive fast and somewhat aggressively and on average I was doing 130-140 km/h on the freeways, as were most people. However, overall I was most impressed with South Africans since I don't mind driving fast and with confidence so I was easily able to merge in with the locals. There are far less morons on the roads there (I was most surprised) than here in Australia! The ONLY, and I mean ONLY idiots hogging the right lanes and not doing anywhere near the speed limit were the cabbies. The local cabs are mostly like a Hiace van type thing and they cram way too many people into them. They are a law unto themselves, the idiots. No point getting into arguments with them as many people carry firearms and they will just shoot you for no reason. A flash of high beams once and if they did't get out of the way I'd just go around them giving them an evil stare. LOL The one thing I was most worried about on the roads is if we were to hit a stray animal for example a goat, sheep or cattle. They have NO FENCES in many places so animals wonder onto freeways, well, quite freely! Literally speaking.
2) While most drivers were pretty good and polite (another surprise) I still prefer a larger vehicle in case of a fender bender. And you can't put a price on your safety, or perceived safety due to being in a larger vehicle and also considering the possibility of hitting a stray farm animal. Had a close call with a herd of goats once on an onramp, luckily I was able to quickly slow down and avoid any mishap. Those freaking things just go nuts....
3) Elephants, elephants and elephants. They are one of the most dangerous animals and could easily crush a small vehicle. Having a larger one, again, gives a sense of comfort. But nothing can prepare better than understanding some elephant behaviour basics and identifying a situation that could escalate quickly. So we gave every bull elephant a wide berth, especially on the roads, if they were near the road or walking along it. We just stayed at a very safe distance, turned and went another way. Those things don't play games and could easily turn and attack a car, or cars. Once a crowd of onlookers gather (and mostly they park allover the road so giving very little -or NO- opportunities to manoeuvre your vehicle out of a situation, you have no chance to get away and put yourself and those in your car into a potentially life threatening situation. Again, what is your safety worth?
4) The grass in the parks is tall in places, even in winter when we went. A small car would have given us probably 50% less viewing opportunities so while I still would prefer to be as close to the ground to photograph, I would rather have the visibility over the tall grass edges. There were many little cars and many little cars full of people trying to see over tall grasses. Quite amusing to witness.
We just had one friend helping out locally. He is a professional guide who knows my fiancee from her previous visit. An Irishman with a top-notch reputation from customers. We hired him for one day (of two) at Pilanesberg NP and two days (out of five) at Kruger NP. His local knowledge was invaluable. Fortunately, with my local birding experience I was able to contribute loads of finds too (including the three Pearl-spotted Owlets for the entire trip among other species). David from Khakiweed Photographic Safaris is himself a keen photographer so he never moaned about (especially) me asking him to stop, go back a little to get a glimpse of something (mostly some bird LOL). At AUD 350.00 per day he was the best value!
I believe that having years of experience here meant I was easily able to transfer my observation skills to that locality. A pair of African Painted Snipes topped off the Kruger experience on our last day, just as we drove across the small bridge over the Crocodile River. Man, if I had no observation skills I would have missed them for sure.
The most fun is the research part in the preparation, and well before we departed I knew exactly what we were meant to find and where (including nesting Martial Eagles at Kruger NP) and the smaller of the two Bushbaby species at our lodge just outside of Kruger. I am advised, that Bushbabies are notoriously difficult to photograph as they are very shy and god, they jump around the trees at night like little maniacs.
With regards to park access, Kruger cost more to pay day by day than to get a Wild Card (which is like an annual national park pass) then we still had to pay and pre-book every day's visit. It is also about three and a half times more expensive if you are a foreign visitor than if you are an SA residents (bastards!). The Wild Card does allow access to most NPs in SA, but not Pilanesberg, as it is not a South Africa National Parks (SANPARKS) facility. Kruger is popular and they cap car numbers every day. We stayed outside the park so we had to queue every morning to get in. There were two queues, one for pre-booked vehicles (guaranteed entry for the day) and one for ad-hoc arrivals (NO GUARANTEE OF ENTRY!).
We had no issues with photographing and using big lenses in the national parks, you can only exit the vehicles (in Kruger and Pilanesberg) in designated areas due to safety reasons (animals, not people).
In Cape Town we photographed at a place called Intaka Island and that is very safe. Then at Simonstown (Jackass Penguin colony) and at the Cape of Good Hope and in Kirstenbosch Botanic Gardens and at Strandfontein Sewage Treatment Plant. All were very, very safe, although someone one of our Cape Town photography friends knew were robbed of their gear at the car park of Kirstenbosch BG. So there IS a lot of crime, one just needs to be vigilant to minimise the risks. With Giants Castle Vulture Hide, I booked 18 months in advance (and paid!!). It is best visited in winter when the Lammergeiers are breeding and need food to supplement their diet and feed their chicks. The hide gets booked out about 12 months ahead of time and they give you a bucket of bones for the vultures. Next time, I will call them about two months ahead to start organising a bigger meal, such as a dead cow or impala or something other to keep vultures in place all day, as we had small bones and the White-necked Ravens and a resident Jackal Buzzard were stealing them.
Send me a message or e-mail if you need any more info. We are planning a pilot trip to run a small instructional photo tour (maximum six photographers) to SA in 2020. A loosely planned itinerary is to fly in, then do Pilanesberg for three days and Kruger for five then come home.