Still wondering what to do this summer with your holiday leave? Feel like a change from the usual annual trek to the sea? Why not visit one of South Africa’s more than 260 superb game and nature reserves? For those who wish to experience the thrill of getting up close and personal with South Africa’s stunning variety of wildlife, a true national treasure, we have selected a number of the best summer safari destinations.
By Stef Terblanche
With over 260 national and private game and nature reserves covering millions of hectares, multiple species of animals, birds and reptiles, located within a choice of stunning and vastly diverse landscapes, South Africa is arguably the world’s premier wildlife destination.
If you have never spent time in a game reserve watching the animals and other wildlife at close range in their natural habitat, you are surely missing what may be one of the most rewarding and enlightening experiences ever.
The country’s vast choice of parks and reserves include 21 parks managed by SANParks (South African National Parks), consisting of over 4,000,000 hectares (40,000 km2), covering over 3% of the total area of South Africa. These include 6 transfrontier parks and conservation areas administered jointly with neighbouring countries. And South Africa is ranked sixth out of the world’s seventeen megadiverse countries, which gives some idea of the great variety.
Living freely in these parks and reserves are over 200 mammal species including some water-based ones, 498 reptile species, 135 amphibian species (frogs), and 858 recorded bird species. In addition there is a multitude of fish, sea and river life to be found. Among these are a considerable number of rare and endangered species.
Included in this feast of wildlife are the Big Five (lion, elephant, Cape buffalo, leopard, and rhinoceros), the Little Five (elephant shrew, ant lion, rhinoceros beetle, buffalo weaver and leopard tortoise), the Marine Big Five (southern right whales, bottlenose dolphins, Cape fur seals, penguins, and the great white shark) and the Big Five Snakes (African rock python, boomslang, puff adder, Cape cobra and the black mamba).
Both national and private reserves in South Africa offer a wide range of accommodation, from camping sites, to self-catering bush camps and lodges, to tented lodge camps, rondavels, eco-bungalows and top of the range 5-star fully catered luxury lodges. South Africa is also a leader in conservation management practices, including many ecotourism initiatives. Many reserves have conservation and animal rehabilitation programmes where the public can interact with these activities.
Most, if not all of these reserves and parks have local airports or landing strips in or near them, allowing foreign tourists with limited time at their disposal to fly directly to them from any of the country’s international airports. All are easily accessible by road. And with such a vast collection of reserves and parks spread around the country, every South African lives within a short driving distance of at least one such park or reserve. Below follow a number of superb game reserves we have selected for you.
Kruger National Park
Mpumalanga and Limpopo Provinces
South Africa’s oldest and flagship game reserve, established in 1898 and covering almost 20,000 square kilometres, is managed by SANParks. It spans across two provinces, Mpumalanga in the south, and Limpopo in the north, an area roughly the size of Wales or Belgium. Together with parks in neighbouring Mozambique, the Kruger is also part of a transfrontier park.
It can be accessed through a number of gates in the north (from Polokwane via Louis Trichardt), in the centre (from Polokwane and Tshwane/Pretoria via Hazyview), and in the south (from Tshwane and Johannesburg via Mbombela/Nelspruit). The southern or central entrances are roughly four to five hour’s drive from Gauteng. At the Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport you can hire a car for the two-hour drive to the central/southern section of the park.
The park offers the full range of accommodation options, and covers the entire range of wildlife species of South Africa, including the famous Big 5. The park also has the world’s largest rhino population. These animals, birds and reptiles can be viewed via a range of options from multiple-day package tours, with guides, to self-drive one-day or longer explorations on your own. A good option for self-drivers when it comes to staying overnight, are the Kruger’s rest camps – camping or self-catering cottages.
The northern part is dryer and the bush sparser, allowing one to more easily spot the animals. But most of the animals are found in the lusher, greener south. Tarred roads criss-cross the park, especially in the south. In summer, during the rainy season, the scenery is more beautiful, but for easier game spotting the best time to visit is in the dry winter months (June to September).
The park is bordered by a number of world-renowned private game reserves like Timbavati, Sabie Sands, Mala Mala, Letaba Ranch and Londolozi. Game roam freely between these private reserves and the Kruger. These private reserves offer top-of-the-range luxury in a variety of unique accommodation options.
Spend the day watching baboons and monkeys competing with impala and zebra for a spot at the watering holes, all the while keeping a sharp eye open for lurking crocodiles, lions and cheetahs. Follow the giraffes and elephant as they lazily meander through the bush munching grass and leaves as they go along, or stop by a pack of wild dogs or hyena resting in the shade in the midday heat. Then return to camp in the late afternoon for sundowners and a traditional South African braai while watching a spectacular African sunset.
For more info: www.sanparks.org/parks/kruger/ or SANParks at Tel +27 (0)12 428 9111.
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park
This park is one of the more remote and secluded game reserves of South Africa, but still quite easily accessed by road or air from Upington (250km), Johannesburg (900km) or Cape Town (also about 900km). The park stretches across the border with Botswana, with its western section lying in South Africa. The Botswana section is by far the larger one.
This was Africa’s first formally declared transborder conservation area. Transfrontier parks or conservation areas were created as protected areas straddling international borders to facilitate the free roaming of wildlife relatively free from human interference, and restoring these areas to their erstwhile pristine wilderness beauty. Wildlife authorities on either sides of the border manage their respective sections, with excellent working interactions between them.
The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park covers a vast region of some 3.6-million hectares. Roads are pretty rough and suitable to 4WD vehicles. Rest camps are comfortable and fees are low. The park offers a vast change of scenery from most other South African reserves: desert landscapes, open grass-covered plains and red sand dunes.
With its sparse vegetation, animals tend to gather along the dry river beds, making for excellent viewing. Here you can watch, among others, blue wildebeest, springbok, eland, red hartebeest, meerkat, ground squirrels, honey badgers, the bat-eared fox, cheetah, leopard, brown and spotted hyena, and the the pride of the park, the black-maned Kalahari lion. The Nossob 4X4 Eco-Trail is a 214km one-way route between the Nossob River and the Twee Rivieren River, that allows you to really get close to nature and the animals.
For more info: www.sanparks.org/parks/kgalagadi/ or SANParks at Tel +27 (0)12 428 9111.
Camdeboo National Park
Great Karoo, Eastern Cape
Formed millions of years ago before continental drift when the Karoo was still part of the Antarctica, this park surrounds the historic Eastern Cape frontier town of Graaff-Reinet, as well as the Nqweba Dam. It has a unique Karoo landscape that includes some of the beautiful peaks of the Sneeuberg mountain range and the flat plains of the Valley of Desolation.
This part of the Karoo is also South Africa’s Jurassic Park, with many unique fossil discoveries having been made here, much of it preserved at the Kitching Fossil Exploration Centre in the Karoo village of Nieu-Bethesda. The crown jewel of the Camdeboo National Park is called the Cathedral of the Mountains, a declared national monument in the centre of the Valley of Desolation. From the viewpoints at the top you can view the sheer cliffs and precariously balanced columns of Dolerite that rise 120 metres from the valley floor, beyond which the Karoo plains stretch out endlessly.
The park also offers a vast variety of fauna and flora, with over 220 recorded species of birdlife including the majestic black eagle, 336 plants and 43 mammals. The latter includes the endangered Cape mountain zebra, kudu, and buffalo. In the park there are campsites, a tented camp, picnic sites, 4X4 trails and hiking trails.
For more info: Graaff-Reinet Tourism Office Tel: +27 (0) 49 892 4248 or email firstname.lastname@example.org; and South African National Parks at +27 (0)12 428 9111.
Pilanesberg Game Reserve
North West Province
Situated right next to the fabulous Sun City and Palace of the Lost City resort with its entertainment and gambling, the Pilanesberg game Reserve nonetheless provides a sense of isolation and serenity in an area of great natural beauty, located on an ancient volcanic crater. Within only a two-hour drive from Johannesburg or Pretoria, here you will find unspoilt bushveld, dotted with hills and intersected by rivers and streams, all of it in a malaria-free region.
Because the reserve, which covers an area of 55,000 hectares, is located in the transition zone between the dry Kalahari and wetter Lowveld vegetation, it offers a unique combination of wildlife and vegetation from both zones, including the Big 5, rare species such as the brown hyena, and some awesome bird watching. The reserve can be explored on self-drive tours of guided tours. A number of superb lodges of all types, tented camps, chalets, and other accommodation, from self-catering to top-end luxury, are available here, as well accommodation at the nearby Sun City complex.
For more info: www.pilanesbergnationalpark.org.
Mapungubwe National Park
Designated the Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape by UNESCO, this World Heritage Site in Limpopo Province near the Zimbabwean border, comprises the ancient Kingdom of Mapungubwe and the Mapungubwe National Park. It is recognised as the site of the first great South African kingdom that flourished here in the Limpopo River Valley between 1075 and 1220. Much evidence of human occupation as well as the famous little gold rhinoceros and gold bowl were discovered here. The kingdom had a gold industry, flourishing trade and advanced social systems.
The Mapungubwe National Park is administered by SANParks, and with the Tuli Block in Botswana and the Tuli Safari area in Zimbabwe, now forms part of the Limpopo-Shashe Transfrontier Conservation Area, officially known as Greater Mapungubwe Transfrontier Conservation Area. The park is home to most of the larger and smaller game found in Southern Africa.
Facilities include overnight camps with self-catering units, a restaurant, curios shop and museum. All Mapungubwe’s camps are accessible by normal sedan vehicles, but it is advisable to have a 4×4 or high clearance vehicle to better enjoy drives inside the park. There are also a number of eco-trails for 4WD vehicles.
For more info: https://www.sanparks.org/parks/mapungubwe/.
Hluhluwe Umfolozi Game Park
This game reserve in the heart of the old Zulu Kingdom is the oldest game reserve in Africa, some say. It was here where Zulu kings such as Dingiswayo and Shaka carried out their royal hunts and established the first conservation laws. The area offers beautiful natural scenery and several rivers with drinking holes and water pans where wild animals gather. It is within easy reach by road from Gauteng and Durban.
The reserve has been internationally recognised for its pioneer rhino project, which has been credited with saving the white rhino from the brink of extinction. The reserve now has the largest populations of white and black rhino in the country. The Big 5 are also found here. The full range of accommodation is available here, including basic traditional rondavels to luxury tents with a private chef. Visitors can also go on a boat tour on the dam.
For more info: https://hluhluwegamereserve.com/.
Mountain Zebra National Park
This unique park situated 12km from the picturesque Eastern Cape town of Cradock is home to some 350 Cape mountain zebra which were saved from extinction when the park was proclaimed in 1937. The Cape mountain zebra differ from the plains or Burchell’s zebra as they have narrower stripes, absence of shadow stripes and orange facial colouration.
Other animals found here include eland, black wildebeest, red hartebeest, springbok, kudu, gemsbok, mountain reedbuck, grey rhebok, African buffalo, black rhino and caracal. There are 4X4 and numerous hiking trails in the park.
iSimangaliso Wetland Park
Along the northernmost stretch of South Africa’s east coast lies the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, previously known as the Greater St. Lucia Wetland Park, another of South Africa’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It comprises a wetland system of exquisite beauty and unparalleled biodiversity. Legend has it that it was named Miracle Waters after the legendary Zulu warrior King Shaka had sent one of his subjects to the area who returned awed by what he found there.
Of this wetland park Nelson Mandela once said, “iSimangaliso must be the only place on the globe where the oldest land mammal (the rhinoceros) and the world’s biggest terrestrial mammal (the elephant) share an ecosystem with the world’s oldest fish (the coelacanth) and the world’s biggest marine mammal (the whale)”.
The park offers everything from camping to staying in luxury accommodation, kayaking, scuba diving, horse riding, game viewing with a huge variety of species, magnificent beaches, forests, rivers, lakes, engaging with local culture and much more.
Covering 332,000 hectare, iSimangaliso is South Africa’s third-largest protected area and is made up of three major lake systems, eight interlinking ecosystems spanning 3,280 km2, 700 year-old fishing traditions, most of South Africa’s remaining swamp forests, Africa’s largest estuarine system, 526 bird species and 25,000 year-old vegetated coastal dunes – among the highest in the world. Game is in abundance and lion have been reintroduced into the park.
The park is also home to the Zulu and Tsonga people who share in conserving and maintaining the park and there are a number of significant cultural heritage sites in the park, including evidence of Stone Age human activity. Perhaps the most fascinating of all are the 700-year-old fish traps at Kosi Bay, still worked daily and handed down from father to son. The park is truly one of the most beautiful places in South Africa.
For more info: https://isimangaliso.com/.
Addo Elephant Park
Reached by car in just one hour’s drive from Nelson Mandela Bay (Port Elizabeth) on the coast, this park is home to some 350 African elephants…giving the park its name. Yet there is also an amazing variety of other wildlife to be found here, including the black rhino Cape buffalo, kudu, eland, red hartebeest and springbok. Here to you find the flightless dung beetle, a species unique to the Addo region that feeds on the faeces of the elephants.
From humble beginnings the park has expanded into the third largest national park in South Africa, today conserving a wide range of biodiversity, landscapes, fauna and flora. Visits to the park can include marine eco tours, with whale watching. The park offers a range of unique accommodation options.
For more info: https://www.sanparks.org/parks/addo/.
These are just a handful of the many superb national parks, game reserves and conservation areas to be enjoyed in South Africa. There are many, many more, such as Agulhas National Park and Bontebok National Park in the Western Cape, Augrabies Falls National Park in the Northern Cape, the Garden Route National Park stretching along the Western and Eastern Cape coast, the Golden Gate Highlands National Park in the Free State, the Karoo National Park, the World Heritage Site and Natural New 7 Wonders of the World Site known as the Table Mountain Park in and around Cape Town, the Marakele National Park in the heart of Limpopo’s Waterberg Mountains, Mokala National Park 70km south-southwest of Kimberley, the Namaqua National Park on the Cape West Coast, the Tankwa Karoo National Park near Ceres, the West Coast National Park and the astonishingly remote and beautiful Ai-|Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park. In addition there are many smaller regional and private parks and reserves.
Be sure to turn a visit to any one of these parks and reserves this summer, into an experience of a lifetime. It most definitely has to be on your bucket list!