National Parks in South Africa
South Africa National Parks or Game Reserve? A the land of abundance when it comes to natural beauty, the destination is the third most biologically diverse country in the world, which means there's a national parks to suit every preference.
From the country's arid deserts to lush coastal forests, majestic mountains and bushveld, SAN Parks manages a system of conservation areas that fully represent the indigenous fauna, flora and landscapes of SA. With a total of 20 national parks, 14 of which offer overnight accommodation to tourists, there're plenty of wild places to choose from, whether visitors want to see the Big Five, rare succulents or bizarre rock formations. Each park was proclaimed to protect something unique - fauna or flora.
The famed flagship of SAN-parks is the Kruger National Park, the first national park to be established and now host to one million visitors a year. Stretching for 350km north to south along the country's eastern border with Mozambique, Kruger is world renowned for its rich and diverse wildlife. It is a natural paradise, offering wildlife enthusiasts encounters with 150 different mammals and over 500 species of birds. Kruger is iconic Big Five animals territory, yet there's so much more to enjoy after spotting lion, elephant, rhino, buffalo and elusive leopard. Endangered wild dogs can be seen in the south, cheetah and zebra on the plains and giraffe in the wooded areas. In the far north of the reserve there are also archaeological and historical sites like Masorini and Thulamela, which give insight into the lives of ancient iron-age cultures.
Twelve main restcamps, five bushveld camps and two bush lodges offer a variety of accommodation within the park - from camping and self-catering to luxury. Ultra-luxury private lodges have also recently been established in concession areas inside the Kruger parks boarders. For adventurers with off-road vehicles there's the five-day Lebombo 4x4 overland trail and seven wilderness trails offer the ultimate intimate bush experience, while day walks are conducted from all the main camps. Night drives offer glimpses of unusual nocturnal animals, and birders can enjoy good sightings from numerous well-positioned hides. For golfers, there's the nine-hole Skukuza course, where a game can be played amidst grazing impala and other resident wildlife.
In the heart of the Waterberg mountains in Limpopo Province is Marakele National Park, home to ancient cycads, rare yellowwood and cedar trees and the world's largest breeding colony of Cape vultures. Situated on the transition zone between the dry west and moist east of the country, Marakele boasts an unusual mix of the parks bird and animal life. It is also home to the Big Five in malaria-free conditions - and is just 250km north of Johannesburg.
Nestled along the Vaal River near Kimberley is Vaalbos National Park, named after the camphor bush that prevails there. This is raptor country and the park also serves as a breeding centre for endangered species such as roan and sable. The unusual tsessebe and red hartebeest are also resident in this park that conserves a unique area where Karoo, Kalahari thornveld and grassveld meet. Sporting a thundering waterfall, Augrabies Falls National Park on the banks of the Gariep River (previously Orange River) in the Northern Cape is a place of extreme contrasts. A river runs through it, yet the surrounding landscape is arid, desolate and reminiscent of the surface of the moon. Here klipspringers can be seen atop rocky outcrops and rock hyraxes soak up the hot sun around the waterfall. Whitewater rafting down the river is a popular activity here.
Mountain Zebra game reserve near Cradock in the Eastern Cape province was proclaimed to save the Cape Mountain Zebra, which faced extinction in the early 20th century. Now boasting healthy numbers, the zebra share the parks habitat with rhino, buffalo and numerous antelope species that graze the beautiful plains and deep valleys of the area. Similarly, in the Western Cape, Bontebok National Park is a sanctuary for these striking animals that used to roam these coastal plains in droves. Cape Mountain Zebra live alongside bontebok and are joined by grey rhebok, red hartebeest and Cape grysbok - making for unusual antelope sightings.
Golden Gate Highlands National Park in the Free State province is breathtakingly beautiful. Here sculpted sandstone cliffs tower above meandering streams and rare bearded vultures and bald ibises nest on cliff ledges. This highland region is home to zebra, oribi, eland and numerous other antelope. There are various walks and trails on the parks ground, and nature photographers will be enthralled by the colours and textures of the sandstone rock faces. Unusual rock shapes and the world's richest desert flora give the Richtersveld National Park its unique and primeval atmosphere. Situated in the far west of the country, this surreal landscape is the turf of off-road adventurers and those who love wide horizons, stark rock deserts and clear starry nights.
Desert lovers will also find food for the soul in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in the remote north of the country. Straddling the border with Botswana, this unique park boasts all the creatures of the Kalahari Desert - from gemsbok to meerkats - and will enchant visitors with its shimmering sandscapes and red dunes. This is a place of intense silence, wide skies and hot days. Karoo National Park has a similar air of antiquity. Once an inland lake and stomping ground for dinosaurs, this arid park is littered with fossils - and boasts the Karoo Fossil Braille Trail, depicting the geology and palaeontology of the Great Karoo. This remote park near Beaufort West protects the endangered riverine rabbit, and offers 4x4 enthusiasts the opportunity to negotiate a challenging trail.
Along the western seaboard is a parks boarders that's the polar opposite to Karoo and Kgalagadi. West Coast reserve is a watery wonderland of sea and sand, with wetlands in between. This is paradise for birders who can spot penguins, gannets, cormorants and flamingoes along with thousands of waterbirds and waders as they feed in Langebaan lagoon. Migratory birds from the Arctic Circle also visit the area. Just inland from the west coast is Namaqua National Park, where wild daisies dance in the September sun - carpeting the countryside in sweeps of red, yellow and orange and transforming the area into a floral fantasyland. This is a unique natural flower show stretching from horizon to horizon, courtesy of the quirky Namaqualand daisy.
Further south is the country's only urban reserve and one of just two in the world: Cape Peninsula National Park. Incorporating various sections of the city of Cape Town, as well as Table Mountain and the Cape of Good Hope, this unusual patchwork park protects the Cape floral kingdom, commonly known as fynbos. One of only six floral kingdoms in the world, the park is home to 2 285 different plants of which 90 occur nowhere else on earth. For botanists, this is paradise found.
Further along the Cape coast at the southernmost tip of Africa is Agulhas National Park. While shipwrecks pepper the coastal waters, on land there is incredible plant diversity totalling 2 000 indigenous species. Wetlands nearby protect the endangered Cape platanna and the micro frog and rare sea birds, such as the Damara tern and African black oystercatcher, can be seen circling overhead. Further east along the Cape coast, lies the languid Knysna Lakes National Park, declared to protect the unique lake system and the delicate and rare Knysna seahorse. Dominated by the imposing Knysna Heads, the area offers endless marine and land-based activities for visitors to enjoy. Of course this is also the place to dine on fresh oysters from the estuary, at any one of numerous specialized eateries.
The emerald green Knysna Loerie (Knysna Turaco) is the trump card of Wilderness game reserve, and if you listen carefully you'll hear its distinctive call from the forest. Five kingfisher species also frequent the lakes and wetlands in the parks boarders, which is just 300km west of Port Elizabeth. Tsitsikamma National Park, or 'the place of clear water', is a combined marine and forest park protecting offshore reefs and virgin coastal forest. It's a magical place of deep ravines, cool rivers, misty forests and a magnificent rugged coastline, all of which can be experienced on the famous Otter Trail, a hike that winds along the coast to Nature's Valley. Conveniently situated just 200km west of PE, this magical park is a year-round destination for walkers, hikers and nature lovers. Many adventure activities, such as blackwater tubing and scuba-diving, are offered in and around the park.
If it's elephants you are after, there's nowhere in the African continent to match Addo Elephant National Park, just east of PE. Here you are guaranteed a personal encounter with a pachyderm. This evocative park is possibly the most diverse on earth as it includes five of the seven vegetation types in the country - and all the birds and animals to go with them. There are coastal forests, dunefields, marine islands, a section of arid Karoo, and rolling hills of cycads and proteas. Addo is touted as a Big Seven park, boasting the Big Five terrestrial animals as well as whales and great white sharks. It's also a malaria-free area. So if it's diversity you're after, there's nowhere else comparable to Addo.
If you love the great outdoors, bright blue skies and the warm African sun, SA national parks together offer all of Africa in one country. There's everything you could imagine, and then some. Choosing just one park to visit could be difficult…
- Eastern Province
- Free State
- Limpopo Province
- Northern Cape
- North West Province
- Western Province
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