There’s a lot more to this diverse country than Kruger National Park. Philip Briggs unveils the country’s top 10 hidden highlights for the wildlife lover
t’s not exactly breaking news that South Africa’s vast Kruger National Park is one of the world’s most alluring safari destinations. Less well known, however, is that Kruger serves as the flagship for a network of protected areas, including 18 other national parks, more than 100 provincially managed reserves and countless municipal and private sanctuaries. Some of these are, like Kruger, archetypal Big Five safari destinations. Others were created to safeguard niche environments or endemic species threatened with extinction. Collectively, they encompass almost every conceivable habitat: sun-baked desert dunes, windswept montane moorland, coral reefs alive with colourful fish, cloud forest bursting with birdsong, rivers and lakes, grassland and savannah, beaches and flowering fynbos. There’s no doubt that every one of South Africa’s reserves has some ecological value — but here are 10 of the very finest all visitors should consider including on their itinerary.
Pilanesberg Game Reserve
In a nutshell Set in an extinct volcanic crater about 200km north of Johannesburg, this scenic, malaria-free reserve’s savannah habitat supports the Big Five and much else.
Highlights There is good general wildlife viewing on tarred roads that are well suited to self-drive safaris, where elephant, white rhino, giraffe, plains zebra, greater kudu and impala are all common. With a bit of luck, you’ll see lion, leopard, cheetah and black rhino, too.
Specials Guided night tours in an open 4WD provide an opportunity to catch a glimpse of nocturnal rarities such as brown hyena and aardwolf. There is a bird checklist of more than 360 species, which includes western dry-country endemics such as crimson-breasted shrike and shaft-tailed whydah at the eastern limit of their range.
TA tip Only two and a half hours’ drive from Joburg, Pilanesberg is a useful itinerary filler if you have a couple of spare nights there. It’s also a popular weekend break with locals, so try to visit on weekdays.
Addo Elephant National Park
In a nutshell Created in 1921 to protect the continent’s most southerly elephant population, Addo has since grown to become South Africa’s most biodiverse national park. It embraces five of the country’s seven terrestrial biomes, ranging from montane forest to the euphorbia-studded badlands of the Karoo.
Highlights Its relaxed elephants offer thrilling opportunities to watch interactions up close. A recent programme of reintroductions means that all the Big Five are present, along with large antelope such as greater kudu, common eland and red hartebeest, and smaller mammals such as the meerkat and ground squirrel. The marine sector offers fine whale watching.
Specials The core park is dominated by the spekboom plant (or ‘bacon tree’), a localised, thorny succulent whose waxy leaves taste like cured meat. The endangered flightless dung beetle is endemic to the park.
TA tip Less than an hour’s drive from Port Elizabeth, Addo is the south coast’s premier Big Five safari destination, and is ideally located for rounding off a road trip from Cape Town along the Garden Route.
Augrabies Falls National Park
In a nutshell Little-known Augrabies — a name derived from a Khoi phrase meaning Place of Great Noise — protects a brooding lunar boulderscape, where the Orange River (the country’s largest waterway) tumbles 56m into a spectacular 18km-long canyon.
Highlights An enthralling self-guided day trail runs from above the falls to a 100m-high gneissic exfoliation dome known as Moon Rock. En route, you might well encounter giraffe and various antelope such as the rock-leaping klipspringer. Rock hyrax are common. A floral highlight is the quiver tree, a distinctive giant aloe whose tubular branches were once used by local hunter-gatherers to make arrows.
Specials Cape flat lizards sun themselves on rocks overlooking the waterfall. Night drives offer a chance to see nocturnal predators such as bat-eared fox and caracal.
TA tip Don’t miss out on the Augrabies Rush, an exciting half-day rafting trip taking in several rapids graded one to three — sufficiently tame that novices can propel themselves safely in two-person canoes, but challenging enough to be a genuine adventure.
Table Mountain National Park
In a nutshell True, the majestic flat-topped monolith that overlooks Cape Town could scarcely be less obscure. But Table Mountain also lends its name to a piecemeal national park that protects some of the most glorious scenery, flora and fauna in South Africa.
Highlights The stupendously scenic cable-car ascent from the City Bowl to Table Mountain’s 1067m summit is rightly regarded as a must-do by most visitors to Cape Town. Better for wildlife both marine and terrestrial is the southerly Cape of Good Hope, where Cape fur seals and dolphins frolic offshore of the windswept cliffs of Cape Point.
Specials The Cape of Good Hope sector reputedly harbours more plant species than the entire British Isles. It’s also good for fynbos-endemic wildlife such as bontebok, Cape mountain zebra and the Cape sugarbird.
TA tip An enclave of Table Mountain National Park is situated near historic Simon’s Town. The aptly named Boulders Beach hosts a delightful breeding colony of African penguins, whose indifference to human visitors only enhances their inherently comic appeal.
De Hoop Nature Reserve
In a nutshell A paradise for ramblers and mountain bikers, De Hoop protects the world’s largest remaining block of coastal fynbos (a habitat unique to the Western Cape) and associated terrestrial and marine wildlife.
Highlights A network of hiking and biking trails, ranging from two hours to five days in duration, runs through coastal scenery inhabited by Cape mountain zebra, eland and 260 bird species. The dune field at Koppie Alleen is a great vantage point for viewing some of the 120 southern right whales that mate and calve in the marine sector in the second half of the year.
Specials Fynbos endemics include the stunning king protea (South Africa’s national flower), bontebok (a type of antelope) and colourful birds such as orange-breasted sunbird and Cape sugarbird. De Hoop is an important breeding site for the endangered Cape vulture and black oystercatcher.
TA tip At nearby Cape Agulhas, the most southerly point in Africa, the country’s second-oldest lighthouse stands sentinel over a treacherous reef that was responsible for many shipwrecks over the centuries.
Madikwe Game Reserve
In a nutshell Established on the Botswana border in 1991, 750sq-km Madikwe comprises a tract of former ranchland, where some of the 8000 individual animals have been introduced to create South Africa’s top malaria-free safari destination.
Highlights Excellent general wildlife viewing. Of the Big Five, lion, elephant and black rhino are commonly seen, and buffalo and leopard are present but more elusive. Common grazers include white rhino, giraffe, plains zebra, greater kudu, springbok, red hartebeest and tsessebe.
Specials Madikwe is South Africa’s most reliable location for the endangered African wild dog. The shy brown hyena and bizarre aardwolf are frequently encountered on night drives. The southern pied babbler, crimson-breasted shrike and other birds associated with the western Kalahari biome are conspicuous.
TA tip Madikwe hosts a controlled number of exclusive bush camps, such as Jaci’s Lodges, offering guided game drives conducted by knowledgeable guides in open 4WDs, making it an excellent malaria-free alternative to the private reserves that border Kruger.
Mountain Zebra National Park
In a nutshell Perched on the mountainous edge of the Karoo, this oft-neglected sanctuary was proclaimed in 1937 to protect the last viable herd of the then-endangered Cape mountain zebra. Its varied fauna also includes a dozen antelope species and three of the Big Five, following the introduction of lion in 2013.
Highlights A network of game-viewing roads and hiking tracks offer access to craggy peaks above which Verreaux’s eagle and jackal buzzard soar. Eland and mountain reedbuck graze grassy slopes, and tangled valleys offer refuge to black rhino and buffalo.
Specials A fine place to see several species unique to South Africa, the park supports around 700 Cape mountain zebra, along with significant populations of black wildebeest, blesbok and grey rhebok. Endemic birds include the orange-breasted rockjumper and ground woodpecker.
TA tip A recently implemented cheetah-tracking excursion offers the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to approach the world’s fastest terrestrial animal on foot.
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park
In a nutshell South Africa’s second-largest and most remote national park, nestled up against the border with Namibia and Botswana, protects a fragile, uncompromising and devastatingly beautiful landscape of tall red dunes and relentless blue skies, bounded by the dry Auob and Nossob watercourses.
Highlights The wooded channels are punctuated by permanent waterholes that attract plentiful wildlife: lion, cheetah and leopard along with smaller predators such as black-backed jackal, bat-eared fox and the captivating meerkat (or suricate).
Specials The rapier-horned gemsbok and springbok are abundant. Bird-wise, it’s the best place in the country for raptors and dry-country specials, most notably the sociable weaver, whose massive communal nests perch scruffily on the treetops.
TA tip Visit in spring (August or September) when nearby Namaqualand explodes into a riot of wildflower displays.
Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve
In a nutshell Established in 1895 to protect dwindling populations of black and white rhino, Hluhluwe-Imfolozi is the top Big Five destination in KwaZulu-Natal, extending over 960sq km of rolling hills that formerly served as the royal hunting ground of King Shaka.
Highlights It is classic Big Five territory, with elephant and buffalo being particularly conspicuous. Also prominent are giraffe, zebra, impala, nyala, greater kudu, warthog and vervet monkeys.
Specials Hluhluwe supports the world’s densest rhino population. White rhino might be encountered several times on any given game drive. Black rhino are scarcer and more secretive, but still observed with some frequency.
TA tip Best booked well in advance, the guided overnight wilderness trails run through a 300sq-km sector. The area is closed to vehicular traffic, and visitors are offered a thrilling and surprisingly affordable opportunity to experience Africa at its rawest. Failing that, join one of the two-hour game walks conducted daily from the rest camps.
iSimangaliso Wetland Park
In a nutshell A UNESCO World Heritage Site that follows a largely unspoilt 200km stretch of the KwaZulu-Natal coast, from the St Lucia Estuary to the Mozambican border. iSimangaliso incorporates five separate Ramsar wetland sites into its boundaries, and supports a higher count of terrestrial and marine vertebrate species than any other African conservation area.
Highlights St Lucia town, with its jungle-swathed streets frequented by bushbuck, warthog and raucous trumpeter hornbills, is the base for boat trips looking for hippo in the eponymous estuary, or out to sea in search of dolphins and whales. Terrestrial wildlife is most prolific in the Mkhuze sector, which supports all of the Big Five as well as giraffe, cheetah, white rhino and the localised nyala antelope.
Specials The beaches north of St Lucia form South Africa’s most important breeding site for marine turtles, while the world’s southernmost coral reefs, off Sodwana Bay, offer sensational diving opportunities. A remarkable tally of 525 bird species include South Africa’s only breeding population of palm-nut vultures and several range-restricted sand forest specials.
TA tip Kosi Bay, abutting the Mozambican border, is a labyrinthine estuarine wetland whose mouth contains a rocky reef that offers unusually calm snorkelling conditions, and harbours 150 marine fish species.