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National Parks in South Africa

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Country: South Africa / World Region: Africa

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      15.04.2009 15:04
      Very helpful



      I must save up and get back out there!!

      South Africa has numerous National Parks and Game Reserves; I've visited many of them, and here are a few of my favourites.

      --Table Mountain National Park, Western Cape--
      Despite the urbanisation of this province in and around Cape Town, there is still plenty of nature to see during a visit. Table Mountain is in fact part of a National Park extending all the way south down the Cape Peninsula along the Twelve Apostles Mountains to the Cape of Good Hope.

      The Cape is the smallest of the planet's six Floral Kingdoms, meaning it has its own, unique plants found nowhere else in the world, making it a botanist's dream. The 'fynbos', as the plants are locally known, is extremely diverse - according to Wikipedia, the Cape has 'almost 1 in 5 of all plant species in Africa' - and over 6,000 are not found anywhere else. Even for non-botanists, these low-lying and drought-tolerant plants, which include ericas, succulents and proteas are beautiful to behold and very different from any other landscape you're likely to see.

      Aside from the plants, it is well worth taking the cable-car up Table Mountain for the spectacular views, and spending a day exploring the Peninsula (including the Cape of Good Hope) by car - the coastal roads are stunning, and you may spot dolphins, and even whales in season. The National Park doesn't have any big game, but you may be lucky enough to spot ostrich, small antelope ('bok') such as steenbok and klipspringer and larger antelope including eland and red hartebeest; of particular interest is the graceful bontebok, which is not found outside the Cape. For avid hikers, there are lots of trails. Definitely visit Boulders Beach on your way back to Cape Town, home of a large colony of Jackass Penguins (named for the males' donkey-like bray - the noise level is astounding from such a small bird!).

      --De Hoop Nature Reserve, Western Cape--
      Further along South Africa's south coast 'Garden Route' lies De Hoop Nature Reserve. It's a bit of a schlep to get to (I got lost on all the dirt tracks!) and is only a small reserve (by SA standards - it's still 34,000 hectares) but the dunes here are beautiful! Still in the Cape, this is another example of the fynbos ecosystem with concurrent small game - go here before you visit any big game reserves otherwise you may be disappointed by 'only' seeing antelope. De Hoop offers a good opportunity to see the Cape Mountain Zebra; found only in the Cape, this is the smallest zebra species and has a different stripe pattern and herd make-up to the Burchell's zebra that you normally see in documentaries. The reserve is also a good birding location, and an excellent spot to whale-watch in season. Personally I just loved the lack of other visitors, the enormous dunes, and walking along the beach paddling in the tidal pools.

      --Tsitsikamma National Park, Eastern Cape--
      Further still along the Garden Route you reach the Tsitsikamma NP. This is not a wildlife viewing location; the Park preserves the mouth of Storms River - complete with excellent suspension footbridge, beautiful coastal views and lots of hiking trails, including the 5-day Otter Trail. Tsitsikamma is slap-bang on the tourist-trail, so can get quite busy but is worth a peek. Nearby is the famous Bloukrans Bridge for those of a more adrenaline-requiring nature (it has one of the highest bungee jumps in the world). You can stay in the Park, or visit as a day-trip from Plettenberg Bay, Knysna or Port Elizabeth.

      --Addo Elephant National Park, Eastern Cape--
      One of the first National Parks my family visited when we lived in SA, this reserve holds a special place in my heart as the first one where our car was surrounded by elephants, and I counted 97 from one viewpoint! Currently a reasonable size at 164,000ha, plans have long been afoot to create a giant park linking the current reserve to nearby private reserves, all the way to the marine reserve on the south coast. This would be a major achievement for conservation.

      Addo is the first of the reserves I've described that contains the 'Big Five'. Considered by hunters to be the most dangerous animals to hunt (and not kill with the first shot), these are now the official tick-list for any safari-goer, constituting: lion, leopard, elephant, rhino (white or black will do) and African buffalo. Personally, I would advise anyone going on their first safari to really not get hung up on the Big Five and rather just enjoy whatever you see. Yes, the Big Five are amazing, but single mindedly pursuing them (and only them) means you miss out on all the other incredible animals Africa has to offer - even dung beetles are interesting when you learn about them (particularly if a ranger lets you hold one - they're unbelievably strong and push up against your fingers!). To be honest, despite the claims, you are unlikely to see the big cats, particularly leopard, in the Eastern Cape because they are at very low densities here - if cats are an absolute necessity for the success of your safari, you need to go to Kruger (see below).

      In addition to the Big Five, Addo has spotted hyaena (the baddies of 'The Lion King', in reality they have a fascinating matriarchal clan hierarchy and are efficient hunters - and I adore their whooping call), lots of antelope of varying sizes, hippos, warthog and other small mammals, plenty of birds, and spectacular mountain scenery. Well worth a visit - even just for the 'dung beetles have right of way' signs (no driving over elephant dung - the dung beetles in it are doing a marvellous job cleaning up after the 450 or so pachyderms). You can never guarantee on safari, but you'd be seriously unlucky not to spot an elephant in this reserve (although my parents almost managed it on one visit).

      [As an aside, I haven't visited the nearby Mountain Zebra National Park, but have heard good things about it and it's on my list of places to visit.]

      --Augrabies Falls National Park, Northern Cape --
      Set right up in the north of western SA, 120km west of Upington and really in the sticks, lies Augrabies Falls National Park. If you're in the area, this reserve is worth a visit for the pure weirdness of the lunar-like, rocky desert landscape. It's likely to be boiling hot (our car thermometer hit 50oC during our visit). Don't be fooled by the hype talking about giant waterfalls; you only see this when the Orange River is in flood and, if it is in flood, you'd be pretty stupid standing looking at the Fall given it has previously washed away the viewing bridge during flood season. Instead you'll see a rather tame waterfall pouring down a rock gorge, but I was more than captivated by all the bright blue lizards, the dassies (rock hyraxes - they look like giant guinea pigs but are closely related to elephants) and the bizarre landscape.

      [It would also be well worth visiting the nearby Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (formerly the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park), where orange desert sand meets open vistas and hardly any people. I haven't been yet but it's top on my list, and has been reviewed by another dooyoo-er.]

      -- The Drakensberg Mountains, KwaZulu-Natal/Free State --
      This spectacular mountain range runs for over 600 miles, forming the border between South Africa and the 'mountain kingdom' of Lesotho, which is entirely surrounded by South Africa, and between the provinces of KwaZulu-Natal and the Free State. Translated as 'Dragon's Mountains' there are several reserves in the Drakensberg, including the Golden Gate National Park and the Royal Natal National Park both of which are worth a visit if you like impressive mountain scenery, hiking, birding or horse riding. Giant's Castle (a range that looks like a giant asleep on his back) is fun to see, and the Amphitheatre, a spectacular 4km long, almost-sheer 3000m-high rock face, is incredible and definitely worth viewing. Many parts of the Drakensberg also have beautiful San (bushman) cave art.

      -- iSimangaliso Wetland Park (formerly Greater St Lucia Wetlands) - KwaZulu-Natal --
      This was SA's first World Heritage Site and is a vast expanse of protected land containing beautiful coastline (with deserted golden beaches), endangered coastal forest habitat, and the St Lucia lakes network which flows to the sea via four large lakes and a vast estuary. Although you can, in theory, spot rhino and elephant here, St Lucia is more about the water - great snorkelling, world-class diving, excellent river and sea fishing, and relaxed canoeing and boat trips through the lake system. The area has excellent birding; in particular, you can see the world's only vegetarian vulture here, the palm nut vulture! This is also the place to spot crocodiles and hippos; hopefully not too up-close and personal.

      -- Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park - KwaZulu-Natal --
      Hours of fun can be had trying to correctly pronounce Hluhluwe the Zulu way, and this is a reserve definitely worth a visit if you're in KwaZulu-Natal. At 96,000ha it's fairly large and is one of SA's oldest reserves, credited with pretty much single-handedly saving the white rhino. HUP is a Big Five reserve and also has a good-sized African wild dog population (when they're not escaping) - this is a beautiful endangered canid species that lives in packs like wolves but is more slenderly built; interestingly, each dog has an individual pattern of their brown, black and white colouring that can be used to ID them. You'll be lucky to spot wild dogs or leopards when self-driving but I've seen both on a number of occasions in this reserve - in fact, this was the first park I saw all of the Big Five in one day when doing conservation work :)

      Aside from the Big Five and wild dogs, HUP has a multitude of the usual antelope suspects, such as impala, kudu, nyala, blue wildebeest, waterbuck, eland, reedbuck, duiker, and suni, as well as zebra, giraffe (always a delight to see), spotted hyaena, warthogs, hippos, crocs, baboons and vervet monkeys. Birding is also excellent here, and the hilly scenery is beautiful.

      -- Pilanesberg Game Reserve - North-West Province --
      This is a great reserve that's a bit of a locals' secret. It has the Big Five, although as usual leopard are a bit elusive, in addition to African wild dogs, cheetah, spotted hyaena, tonnes of antelope, hippos and crocs. Being in North-West province it borders two habitat types, enabling the survival of more desert-adapted species, including SA's national symbol, the springbok, the graceful gemsbok (oryx) and sable antelope, the odd-looking red hartebeest and the slightly mangy but interesting brown hyaena. Birding is also excellent, and the scenery is beautiful - the reserve is set in the crater of an extinct volcano.

      Pilanesberg is just a couple of hours' drive from Jo'burg/Pretoria so we used to visit it for weekend breaks from the City, and it's one of my favourite reserves for sheer affordability, ease of access and lack of crowds.

      [As an aside, there is an excellent private game reserve in North-West Province called Madikwe. As it's not a National Park, you can only visit it if you are staying at one of the lodges in the reserve, so I'll write a separate review on it. Suffice to say it's beautiful, has the Big Five, is one of the best places in SA to see African wild dogs and is also one of my favourite reserves.]

      -- Kruger National Park - Northern Province --
      Finally, we come to Kruger, the big Daddy of SA's game reserves at around 2million hectares; approximately the same size as the entire of Wales! To us Brits it's on an unimaginable scale, and it has further protected land in the many private game reserves along its western border. In addition, plans have been in process for many years to join up adjacent reserves in Mozambique and Zimbabwe to form a transfrontier peace park of epic proportions.

      If you're self-driving Kruger give yourself plenty of time - it's vast and, as with all game reserves, you don't see any game if you zoom through; usually driving at 15-20mph is ideal. Kruger does get very busy, but it is so large that you can always find side roads you have all to yourself. Being so big, Kruger contains many different ecosystems and the habitat, and wildlife living in it, changes as you drive from south to north, so it's worth planning your camps linearly up the reserve - in addition most tourists stay in the south so you have more park to yourself up north, although the habitat here is less forgiving so animal densities are a bit lower.

      Kruger is definite Big Five country and you'd be fairly unlucky if you stayed my recommended 3-4 days and did not see elephant, rhino, buffalo and lion - leopard are always a whole lot trickier but Kruger is your best chance at them in SA! In addition you may see cheetah, wild dog, spotted hyaena and you'll definitely see plenty of the other usual antelope, giraffe and smaller mammals - there are 145 mammal species in the park, so get a good guide book and get ticking!

      If you've got a bit more cash to splash, then staying in one of the adjacent private game reserves is a great option. Here you have luxury accommodation and will be taken out on a safari vehicle by an experienced ranger. Unfortunately you'll be sharing your game vehicle with others, so can't decide to sit and watch something only you're interested in, but the pluses are that the rangers are incredible at spotting wildlife you won't even have begun to notice, they are full of info about the fauna and flora, and that they can off-road to get really up-close to the Big Five.

      -- Conclusion --
      As you can probably tell by now, South Africa has a wide diversity of reserves with varying flora and fauna, offering lots to see and do for the visitor. Most of the National Parks have accommodation (it's usually basic but decent) in addition to visitors' centres (with souvenir shops, restaurants and, most importantly, toilets) and sometimes even petrol stations. Park entrance and accommodation prices vary according to popularity, room style, season and the current exchange rate, so I haven't included them here - you can find out about this, and other further information, for any National Park you're interested in at www.sanparks.org. Non-National Parks don't have a centralised website, but their individual websites are easy to locate by googling; feel free to message me if you have any problems locating them, or any questions on these reserves and I'll do my best to help.

      Thanks for reading; and sorry about the length of the review. I meant to write a short overview, but kept thinking of yet more reserves I loved, until it ended up a bit of an epic!


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      • More +
        22.04.2003 19:21
        Very helpful



        First of all this review is a again a translation of my review on the german dooyoo site. Due to the fact that I'm german there are propably a lot errors. Please send me an Email if you find one and I will corect it. But now read and enjoy. The former Kalahari Gemsbok Park is not very easy to reach but everybody how makes this detour in to north-western part of south Africa while be highly rewarded. Very important at least in the main reason is to book the accommodation in one of the state owned camps ahead. It is a bit easier if you are travelling with a tent. At least when we have been there it would have be no problem at all. But I was told that in the south African holiday season even therefore you will need a reservation. There are three camps inside of the park. There is directly behind the entrance gates Camp Twee Rivieren so called because it is at the confluence of the two Rivers Nossob and Auob. Both normally haven’t got water above the surface. Then there is camp Mata Mata on the border to Namibia which can’t be crossed there and there is camp Nossob on the river Nossob which is further north then the other camps. The speed limit in the park is 50 km/h but everybody how speeds with 50 km/h through the park while neither see it’s beauty nor see a lot of animals. Despite that this also takes away the chance for the following cars for a successful sighting Like the other nationalparks in the southern part of Africa, the gate will be opened around sunrise and closed around sunset. If you plan to drive from one camp to another you should allow enough time for it. A drive from Twee Rivieren (or Entrance Gate) to Nossob takes at least 4 hours, between Twee Rivieren and Mata Mata at least 3 hours and between Mata Mata and Nossob at least 5 hours. If you stop on the way more often to watch the animals, what is normally the reason for visiting the park, you should plan the whole day for the trip. If you ar
        e faster you still have the opportunity to look at the park around the new camp. Basically there are two main routes. One from Twee Rivieren always along the River Nossob via Camp Nossob up to the northern Namibian Border at Unions End. As the name im plies that is really the end, there is no way to cross the border. The other route runs along the other river the River Auob from Twee Rivieren to Camp Mata Mata. Both main routes which are the best chances to spot animals are connected at two points, that gives the opportunity for two different laps from Twee Rivieren one short and one long lap always coming back to Twee Rivieren. One the connecting roads there is even less traffic, which is nowhere to bad. But the chance to see animals is although less. Nevertheless I took a nice picture from a Cap Cobra on one of this roads (luckily I was inside of my car). Despite this I have seen quite a number of Oryx Antelope (which means in Afrikaans Gemsbok the reason for the old name of the park) and a few wildebeest. The real highlight of the tour was that I have seen three times in two days the famous Kalahari lions. One of the basics for spotting animals is drive slowly, if you see a car standing approach slowly and look what to see. Very important avoid heavy breaking or speeding up. That make animals run away. If you leave a sighting leave slowly that the animals are not disturbed, the next one while appreciate it. Even if in your opinion it was now interesting sight, maybe it is for the next. Although don’t only look for the big animals, sometimes you get the chance to see the little fellers (for example desert running mouse). Sometimes it happens that only while you are watching one animal you recognise that other around. Next important thing is only leave the car where it is allowed and even there only after checking if it is save. Otherwise you will be next big spot (“ have you seen this cute lion eating the stupid tourist̶
        1;). If it does happen, never ever run if you are not 100% sure you make it back in to the car. Nearly every animal is faster then you and you trigger the animal to run if you do. On the other hand you have got a good chance to slowly walk to safety. Even if you are not as lucky with the animals then we have been, the landscape of the Kalahari is really beautiful an sunrise and sunset one of the best nature spectacle of the world. Before driving to the park you should fill up your supplies. You can buy everything important at the camps but the prize’s are much above the common south African prizes. Important although if you want to it in the restaurant at the camp you need to book your diner at lunch time, but it is really good. At the end something about getting to the park. I was coming from Upington and the first 220 km are on a good tarmac road where the greatest danger are the to long straight parts where you easily loose concentration. Even if it doesn’t look like there will be a another bend. The last 60 km are a challenge for driver and car ( at least when I have been there in the end of 2000), I seldom drove on such a bad sand road and belief me I had a lot of bad roads in south Africa and Namibia. You get direct from the so called corrugated iron (it really look like) into the next pothole. If you are driving to fast you easily loose the control and if that would not be enough you have to watch for what is crossing the street. If you may have an accident on this road don’t think that there will be immediate help. It is the main road to the park but astonishingly little traffic on the road. The bad road is recognisable in the number of visitors in the park (luckily). When we have been there in low season, we have hardly seen another car outsight of the camps. The only good thing about the approaching road.


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