With so many incredible national parks and game reserves on offer, South Africa is an animal and adventure lover’s paradise. Here are some of the top places to experience its stunning wildlife: from evening game drives to spot the Big Five to early morning nature walks and whale watching.
Kruger National Park (Mpumalanga and Limpopo)
Covering multiple ecosystems and 2 million hectares, this world-renowned national park is not only one of the largest game reserves in the country, it is the best place to spot the Big Five (elephant, lion, rhinoceros, leopard and buffalo) in all of South Africa. Whether it's guided wilderness walks or mountain biking, there's plenty to do!
What you’ll see: A huge number of species including 147 mammals, 2000 plants, 53 fishes, 34 amphibians, 118 reptiles and 517 birds.
When to go: From June to October (late winter and early spring), water is concentrated in a few places, making game spotting easier.
How to get there: The easiest way to get to the park is via a flight from Johannesburg. Flights operate daily and it takes only 90 minutes to an airstrip just near the many lodges surrounding the park. Even if you are short on time, this is perhaps the one park in this list that you should not miss. Or if you have more time to spend, see if you can get there via a 6-hour drive that is not only cheaper than flying but also an adventure in itself.
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (Northern Cape)
At over 3.6 million hectares, the Kgalagadi spans the Kalahari regions of South Africa and Botswana to form one of the largest conservation areas in the world. With its breathtaking sunsets and rugged landscapes, this is iconic Africa and a true wilderness.
What you’ll see: Black-maned Kalahari lion, gemsbok, leopard, blue wildebeest, giraffe, brown hyena, eland, aardvark, bat-eared fox, pangolin and meerkat as well as traditional Kalahari desert communities.
When to go: March to May when the wet season gives way to mild and clear days are perfect for game viewing, while the weather is less harsh from May to August.
How to get there: Fly in from Cape Town or the closer option of Johannesburg into Upington airport and rent a car from Upington for a three-hour drive to the park. The roads are not in great condition all the way though, and you might have to look for a car with a high clearance for safety.
iSimangaliso Wetland Park (KwaZulu-Natal)
Meaning ‘miracle’ or ‘wonder’, the 332,000-hectare wide iSimangaliso is home to Africa’s largest estuarine system, beaches that stretch from Maphelane to Mozambique and eight distinct and interdependent ecosystems. In addition to game drives and hiking trails, this park offers the chance to go snorkeling, scuba diving, kayaking and whale watching.
What you’ll see: The largest congregation of crocodiles and hippopotamuses in South Africa, leatherback and loggerhead turtles who come here to breed, 1200 fish species, 526 bird species and 110 butterfly species.
When to go: November to March is turtle nesting season, while June to August is best for birdwatching.
How to get there: The park is 275 kilometers to the north of Durban. If you cannot find a direct flight to Durban, look for one to Johannesburg and take a connecting flight there. From Durban, it’s only a three hour drive to the park.
Sabi Sands Game Reserve (Mpumalanga)
An unfenced border with Kruger gives this 65,000ha private reserve access the same stunning array of wildlife. If your idea of roughing it out involves having somewhere luxurious to retire to at the end of the day, you’ll be pleased to know that Sabi Sands has some of the country’s best safari lodges.
What you’ll see: The Big Five and other mammals including the giraffe, zebra and cheetah, more than 500 bird species and over 330 species of native trees.
When to go: Any time. Although as with Kruger, game spotting is easier from June to October.
How to get there: The reserve is closer to the airport at Johannesburg than Cape Town and travellers generally tend to take one of the scheduled flights to the Mpumalanga International Airport, followed by a rental car from the airport. Travellers can also explore the Federal Air Sabi Sands shuttle service for a direct flight from Johannesburg to Sabi Sands directly, but these flights only operate twice a day and their schedule could vary depending on the weather conditions.
Mapungubwe National Park (Limpopo)
This UNESCO World Heritage site sits in the humid Limpopo River Valley bordering Zimbabwe and Botswana. Spanning more than 28,000ha, the park is home to abundant wildlife and archaeological treasures.
What you’ll see: Stunning sandstone hills that glow at sunset, woodlands, riverine forest and baobab trees, more than 400 species of birds and mammals such as the rare white rhino, elephant, giraffe, eland and gemsbok.
When to go: The animals gather around water sources from the onset of winter in May till September.
How to get there: Closer to Johannesburg in the north than Cape Town in the south, this park is best accessed via a 3-hour drive from the nearby domestic airport of Polokwane, or for those with time on their hands, a 6 hour drive from the Johannesburg Airport.
Addo Elephant National Park (Eastern Cape)
Declared a national park in 1931 to protect the 11 Addo elephants that had survived centuries of hunting, this 180,000ha wilderness is just under an hour’s drive from Port Elizabeth. There are now more than 600 elephants in South Africa’s third-largest national park as well as a host of other wildlife, including the idiosyncratic meerkat.
What you’ll see: The Big Seven – the Big Five plus the southern right whale and great white shark that can be spotted off the Algoa Bay coast. Also look out for wildlife such as the black rhino, spotted hyena, buffalo, rare flightless dung beetle, warthog and antelope species such as kudu, eland, red hartebeest and bushbuck.
When to go: June to September (winter) are best for game viewing although the nights can be cold. Visit any time from October to April (summer) for bursts of bright foliage and newborn animals.
How to get there: The park is closer to Cape Town than Johannesburg and travellers generally drive from Cape Town to the park for a week long road trip. For the time-pressed traveller, there is another option to take a connecting flight to Port Elizabeth Airport and then drive from there using a rented car.
Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park (KwaZulu-Natal)
Created to protect Africa’s dwindling population of white rhino, this 96,000ha park was established in 1895, which makes it the oldest game reserve in South Africa. Located in a stunning mountainous region north of Durban, the park's smaller size makes game viewing even more accessible.
What you’ll see: The Big Five, giraffe, zebra, cheetah, wild dog, large numbers of impala and 300 species of birds.
When to go: Any time. October to April (summer) is lush in vegetation and great for spotting of migratory birds. Birthing season is November to January. From May to September (winter), animals gather at the water sources to beat the dry season.
How to get there: A 7-8-hour drive from Johannesburg will take you to this park. Or to reduce travel time, take a flight from Johannesburg to King Shaka Airport in Durban, from where the drive would take just 3 hours.
These are just a sample of South Africa's incredible national parks where you can experience being in the wild. With so much to see and do, what are you waiting for?
With so many incredible national parks and game reserves on offer, South Africa is an animal and adventure lover’s paradise.
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Best time to visit
The best time to visit would be in the dry season between May to September when animals congregate around waterholes and rivers.
There are extensive and inexpensive bus networks in urban areas, including Cape Town, Durban, Pretoria and Johannesburg. Shared taxis are also available around cities, to the suburbs and to neighbouring towns.
The South African Rand. It would be best to bring American dollars to convert into local currency.
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