Tis’ the season once again, and for South Africans this means outdoor entertaining, long school holidays – and the chance to get out into our wild backyard. If you’re looking for a getaway that’s close to home and allows you to relax, unwind, and discover new experiences, then this country’s beautiful array of national parks are a perfect (yet often overlooked) destination of choice!
South Africa’s 21 diverse national parks offer travellers an escape from the bustling, buzzing and always-connected life within the city, into the tranquillity of nature. They also showcase activities such as game viewing, bush walks, as well as several unique cultural and historical experiences.
With retail facilities, restaurants, and a selection of accommodation options, visitors can take a day trip into the extraordinary South African wilderness, or stay overnight in the more than 6 000 beds and 10 000 camping and caravan sites available through SANParks.
“Nature-based travel and experiences are a unique way to connect with the wonders of South Africa’s awe inspiring landscapes, and rich flora and fauna,” says Rey Thakhuli, GM: Media, PR and Stakeholder Relations for SANParks. “As South Africans, this is our heritage, to be enjoyed, celebrated and protected by all.”
Established to conserve our country’s unique biodiversity, protect crucial ecosystems, and encourage the appreciation of nature whilst driving the growth of our economy, South Africa’s national parks play a vital role for human well-being and sustainable development.
“Our national parks are some of the best funded on the continent, but only 25% of their budget comes from the state; the other 75% is driven by tourism” explains Guy Jennings, Wild Africa Fund’s Southern African Director. “As such the conservation work being championed by national parks is heavily dependent on income streams like entry fees, and as locals we need to take an active interest in supporting this work. By simply visiting our parks, we can help protect our iconic wildlife, as well as support local communities around parks, through tourism jobs.”
To help South Africans take advantage of the truly unique wild spaces we call our own, we’ve compiled this list of the lesser known ‘must-see’ national parks to travel to this holiday season:
- Addo Elephant National Park
The third largest game reserve in the country, Addo Elephant National Park not only offers visitors the chance to view its renowned namesake, but the full Big Five. Founded in 1931 with the purpose of protecting the remaining 11 elephants in the area, the reserve now counts more than 600 elephants as its residents. Situated close to Gqeberha in the Eastern Cape, the park boasts a range of accommodation options, including Addo rest camp with its bucket-list-worthy watering hole encounters. From game drives, hiking and 4×4 trails, to treatments at the Addo Indlovu Spa, possibilities for all types of adventure and relaxation seekers abound.
- Marakele National Park
In the heart of the Waterberg mountains, a transitional zone between the dry western and moist eastern regions of the country, Marakele is home to an incredible 800 breeding pairs of Cape vultures. Nesting in the cliffs, these vulnerable birds can be spotted by taking the trail up the mountain pass. The park also has elephants, leopards, brown hyenas and even lions. Visitors can enjoy a morning or sunset drive, embark on a bush walk, or take a dip in the sparkling blue pool at the Bontle Tented Camp. And – there’s no need for an off-road vehicle as 80km of the park’s roads are accessible by normal sedan vehicles.
- Mapungubwe National Park
Nestled against South Africa’s northern border where Zimbabwe and Botswana meet, Mapungubwe offers travellers a unique view of the confluence of the Shashe river, flowing from Botswana into Limpopo, and the Limpopo River, flowing eastward through Mozambique into the Indian Ocean. An important heritage site, the park provides visitors the opportunity to explore a land once walked by the Mapungubwe People, ancestors of the Shona people of Southern Africa. Along with eland, elephant, giraffe, leopard, zebra and the occasional sighting of lion and rhino, tourists can also see the famous Golden Rhino – a mediaeval artefact made of wood and covered in thin sheets of gold – at the local Interpretation Centre.
- Agulhas National Park
Designed for hikers, birders and those looking for a quiet and peaceful step out into nature, the Cape Agulhas national park boasts a rich diversity of flora and fauna. Situated at the southernmost tip of the country where the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean meet, this park allows visitors to explore a lighthouse built to help early explorers navigate the rough seas nearby, view the remains of ancient stone fish traps used by the Khoisan people, and discover the many shipwrecks along the Agulhas coastline. In fact, travellers to the park can still see the remains of the Meisho Maru 38 wreck on the shore, a fishing vessel that sank more than 40 years ago.
- Tankwa Karoo National Park
Boasting vast open spaces and ancient vistas at the border of the Western and Northern Cape, the Tankwa Karoo is a fragile and biologically distinct semi-desert. Aside from stargazing on clear nights, the park allows visitors to view wildlife from the comfort of their own vehicles, challenge themselves with at least two major 4×4 routes, and take in the scenic views at Gannaga Pass and Elandsberg.