No other African country has as rich a variety of parks, reserves and wilderness areas as South Africa. Literally hundreds of game reserves and state forests pepper the terrain, creating a bewildering but enticing breadth of choice. While there are dozens of unsung treasures among these, the big destinations amount to some two dozen parks geared towards protecting the country’s wildlife and wilderness areas.
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With a few exceptions, these fall under Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife (033 845 1000, www.kznwildlife.com), which controls most of the public reserves in KwaZulu-Natal, and South African National Parks (012 428 9111, www.sanparks.org), which covers the rest of the country. In addition to the state-run parks there are private reserves, frequently abutting onto them and sharing the same wildlife population.
Only some national parks are game reserves. While most people come for South Africa’s superb wildlife, don’t let the Big Five (buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion and rhino) blinker you into missing out on the marvellous wilderness areas that take in dramatic landscapes and less publicized animal life. There are parks protecting marine and coastal areas, wetlands, endangered species, forests, deserts and mountains, usually with the added attraction of assorted animals, birds, insects, reptiles or marine mammals – South Africa is one of the top destinations in the world for land-based whale watching.
If you had to choose just one of the country’s top three parks, Kruger, stretching up the east flank of Mpumalanga and Limpopo Province, would lead the pack for its sheer size (it’s larger than Wales and roughly the size of Massachusetts), its range of animals, its varied lowveld habitats and unbeatable game-viewing opportunities. After Kruger, the Tsitsikamma in the Western Cape attracts large numbers of visitors for its ancient forests, cliff-faced oceans and the dramatic Storms River Mouth as well as its Otter Trail, South Africa’s most popular hike. For epic mountain landscapes, nowhere in the country can touch the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg Park, which takes in a series of reserves on the KwaZulu-Natal border with Lesotho and offers gentle hikes along watercourses as well as ambitious mountaineering for serious climbers.
The unchallenged status of Kruger as the place for packing in elephants, lions and casts of thousands of animals tends to put the KwaZulu-Natal parks in the shade, quite undeservedly. As well as offering the best places in the world for seeing rhino, these parks feel less developed than Kruger, and often provide superior accommodation at comparable prices. Both Kruger and KwaZulu-Natal parks offer guided wildlife trails and night drives, a popular way to catch sight of the elusive denizens that creep around after dark.
Also worth a mention is the Addo Elephant National Park in the Eastern Cape, which has become Big Five country and is being expanded – the only such major game reserve in the southern half of the country. Addo has a lot more in its favour as well: it has the most diverse landscape of any reserve in the country; it is a day’s drive from Cape Town; and it is the only major game reserve in the country that is malaria-free.
Accommodation at national parks includes campsites (expect to pay R150–200 per tent); safari tents at some of the Kruger and KwaZulu-Natal restcamps (clusters of accommodation, including chalets, safari tents and campsites, in game reserves, from R260 per tent); one-room huts with shared washing and cooking facilities (from R500); one-room en-suite bungalows with shared cooking facilities (from R700); and self-contained cottages with private bath or shower and cooking facilities (from R750). For groups of four there are self-contained family cottages with private bath and kitchen. In national parks accommodation (excluding campsites) you’re supplied with bedding, towels, a fridge and basic cooking utensils. Some restcamps have a shop selling supplies for picnics or braais, as well as a restaurant.
The ultimate wildlife accommodation is in the private game reserves, most of which are around the Kruger National Park. Here you pay big bucks for accommodation, which is almost always luxurious, in large en-suite walk-in tents, or small thatched rondavels, or – in the larger and most expensive lodges – plush rooms with air conditioning. A couple of places have “bush-showers” (a hoisted bucket of hot water with a shower nozzle attached) behind reed screens but open to the sky – one of the great treats of the bush is taking a shower under the southern sky. Some chalets or tents have gaslights or lanterns in the absence of electricity. Food is usually good and plentiful, and vegetarians can be catered for. Expect to pay upwards of R2000, rising to several times that amount at the most fashionable spots. It’s worth remembering that, high as these prices are, all your meals and game drives are included, and as numbers are strictly limited, you get an exclusive experience of the bush in return.
Spotting game takes skill and experience. It’s easier than you’d think to mistake a rhino for a large boulder, or to miss the king of the beasts in the tall grass – African game has, after all, evolved with camouflage in mind. Don’t expect the volume of animals you get in wildlife documentaries: what you see is always a matter of luck, patience and skill. If you’re new to the African bush and its wildlife, consider shelling out for at least two nights at one of the luxurious lodges on a private reserve (for example, those abutting Kruger); they’re staffed by well-informed rangers who lead game-viewing outings in open-topped 4WDs.
The section on Kruger National Park gives more advice on how to go about spotting game and how to enjoy and understand what you do see – whether it’s a brightly coloured lizard in a rest camp, head-butting giraffes at a waterhole or dust-kicking rhinos. Numerous books are available that can enhance your visit to a game reserve – especially if you plan a self-drive safari.
The least expensive way of experiencing a game park is by renting a car and driving around a national park, taking advantage of the self-catering and camping facilities. You’ll have the thrill of spotting game yourself and at your own pace rather than relying on a ranger, and for people with children a self-drive safari is the principal way to see a game reserve, as most of the upmarket lodges don’t admit under-12s. The one real disadvantage of self-driving is that you can end up jostling with other cars to get a view, especially when it comes to lion-watching. Also, you may not know what animal signs to look for, and unless you travel in a minibus or 4WD vehicle you’re unlikely to be high enough off the ground to be able to see across the veld.
The KwaZulu-Natal game reserves – foremost among them Hluhluwe-Imfolozi, Mkhuze and Ithala – offer rewarding opportunities for self-drive touring. The same applies to the Pilanesberg Game Reserve in North West Province, while the remote Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park that stretches across the border into Botswana promises truly exciting wilderness driving. You might choose to cover a route that combines the substantial Kruger National Park with the more intimate reserves of KwaZulu-Natal province.
If you plan to self-drive, consider investing in good animal and bird field guides, and a decent pair of binoculars – one pair per person is recommended if you want to keep your relationships on a friendly footing. Finally, whether you’re cooking or not, it’s worth taking a flask for tea and a cool bag to keep water cold.
It’s possible to book places on a safari excursion – such packages are often organized by backpackers’ lodges located near reserves, and occasionally by hotels and B&Bs. On the downside, these don’t give you the experience of waking up in the wild, and entail spending considerably more time on the road than if you were based inside a reserve. But during South African school holidays, when Kruger, for example, is booked to capacity, you may have no other option.
Mostly, you get what you pay for as regards game-viewing packages. Be wary of any cheap deals on “safari farms” in the vicinity of Kruger. These are generally fine if you want to see animals in what are essentially huge zoos and make an acceptable overnight stop en route to Kruger, but are no substitute for a real wilderness experience – sooner or later you hit fences and gates on your game drive. Some of the better places in this category are listed in the relevant chapters.
Safaris on private reserves
If you choose well, the ultimate South African game experience has to be in a private reserve. You can relax while your game-viewing activities are organized, and because you spend time in a small group you get a stronger sense of the wild than you ever could at one of the big Kruger restcamps. Best of all, you get the benefit of knowledgeable rangers, who can explain the terrain and small-scale wildlife as they drive you around looking for game.
Privately run safari lodges in concessions inside Kruger and some other national parks, such as Addo, operate along similar lines. The smaller private reserves accommodate between ten and sixteen guests; larger camps often cater to two or three times as many people, and resemble hotels in the bush. Many safari lodges have their own waterholes, overlooked by the bar, from which you can watch animals drinking. Nowhere are the private reserves more developed than along the west flank of the Kruger, where you’ll find the top-dollar prestigious lodges as well as some places offering more bang for fewer bucks.
A typical day at a private camp or lodge starts at dawn for tea or coffee followed by guided game viewing on foot, or driving. After a mid-morning brunch/breakfast, there’s the chance to spend time on a viewing platform or in a hide, quietly watching the passing scene. Late-afternoon game viewing is a repeat of early morning but culminates with sundowners as the light fades, and often turns into a night drive with spotlights out looking for nocturnal creatures.
Prices, which include accommodation, meals and all game activities, vary widely. The ultra-expensive camps offer more luxury and social cachet, but not necessarily better game viewing. You might find the cheaper camps in the same areas more to your taste, their plainer and wilder atmosphere more in keeping with the bush.