South Africa is home to arguably some of the most majestic wildlife the world has to offer. Added to this, our national parks don’t just boast incredible landscapes, fauna, flora and activities, but also have a rich historical legacy.
Addo Elephant National Park: Eastern Cape
The third largest national park in South Africa was established in 1931 to protect the last remaining elephants in the region. Over the years it has expanded to include a diverse wildlife population including lions, leopards, rhinos, buffalos, and hyenas.
It also lays claim to the fact that it is the only national park in the world to boast the title of “Home to the Big 7” – including the Southern Right Whale and Great White Shark in the Addo Marine Protected Area.
Top 3 highlights:
- The park has one of the highest concentrations of African elephants in the world, with a population of over 700 elephants to view from the comfort of one’s own vehicle or on a guided game drive.
- The two-day Alexandria hiking trail traverses the contrast of desert-like dunes with spectacular untouched beaches and lush indigenous forest.
- Addo Elephant National Park has one of the largest populations of flightless dung beetles. Guests are cautioned not to drive over elephant dung as it is used by the dung beetle for food and reproduction. An elephant can eat as much as 300kg of food per day, which translates to about 100kg of dung. One dung pad can contain as many as 30 beetles, and they play a vital role in composting the park.
Mountain Zebra National Park: Eastern Cape
It was proclaimed a national park in 1937 for the purpose of protecting a remnant population of the Cape Mountain Zebra. At the time, it was estimated that fewer than 100 Cape Mountain Zebra survived in South Africa. There are now well over 1 000 of these animals in the park.
Over the years, it has grown beyond a “species park” to focus on conserving the biodiversity of the region, re-introducing cheetah, lion, brown hyena, buffalo and black rhino to the area.
Top 3 highlights
- Mountain Zebra National Park is the only national park which offers a cheetah tracking activity. It sees guests going out in the morning on a game drive with an armed field guide, who tracks one of the collared cheetah’s whereabouts with a telemetry device. Once a strong signal is found, guests go out on foot to within a few metres of a cheetah in its natural environment.
- The park is rich in cultural heritage. A guided tour of the San cave paintings can be booked at reception. The San people painted animals such as eland, baboon, hartebeest, and what appears to be a cheetah at the site. A human figure is also depicted at a small natural shelter, which would have been used by the San people, and can be found near the paintings.
- What is now the Doornhoek Guest House was constructed in 1838, one of the first permanent farmhouses in the area. The farm became a part of the park in 1964 and the building was declared a national monument in 1986. It has since been restored as a guest house. In September 2013 it burnt down due to an electrical fault. It was refurbished in 2015, with the original-style yellowwood floors and ceilings reinstated. It is popular with those who want a tranquil family getaway overlooking a lake, with spectacular stargazing vistas at night.
Augrabies Falls National Park: Northern Cape
The Augrabies Falls National Park is located in the Northern Cape, approximately 120km west of Upington and 40km west of Kakamas, along the southern edge of the Kalahari and the eastern border of Namibia.
The park encompasses approximately 51 113 hectares, with the Orange River forming the northern border. It marks the place where the Orange River changes from a wide, slow-flowing river traversing sandy soil to a fast-flowing, narrow river cutting through ancient granite.
The mighty Orange River in the eastern parts of Augrabies Falls National Park forms a system of braided channels before cascading down an abyss approximately 90 metres high, with a 56-metre freefall. Downstream from the falls the river flows through a narrow gorge forming a linear oasis through the otherwise barren landscape. This sight and sound of the water convey a sense of power not easily forgotten. Its name, Augrabies, is aptly derived from the Khoi word Aukoerebis which means ‘the place of great noise.’
The park offers a sanctuary to far more than just the waterfalls – diverse plant life, invertebrates, reptiles, fish, birds, and mammals call this home.
Top 3 highlights:
- The spectacular falls can be seen from viewpoints overlooking the waterfalls and with walkways from reception.
- Game viewing can be done at leisure using your own vehicle along either the Hartmann’s Loop or the Quiver Loop.
- A variety of hiking trails, like the Klipspringer trail gives you the opportunity to explore this stunning park from a closer viewpoint and in your own time.
Golden Gate Highlands National Park: Free State
The 33 000 hectare national park protects the much-endangered grassland biome as less than 2% is protected in the country. Golden Gate also protects a national strategic water area by protecting a part of the Maluti Drakensberg complex that falls within the park boundaries. This major catchment area is the birthplace of the Vaal and Orange River systems, which together produce up to 50% of South Africa’s water supply.
Top 3 highlights
- The grassland biome is home to a myriad of plant and bird species found nowhere else in the country. The vegetation supports healthy populations of herbivores, including Eland, Black Wildebeest, Red Hartebeest, Blesbok, Zebra, Grey Rheebuck, Mount Reedbuck, and Springbok. The park has no dangerous animals, which means that guests get to see the large antelope on game drives or on foot on a range of hiking trails.
- An unforgettable cultural experience awaits visitors at the Basotho Cultural Village located within the park. Here authentic Basotho homes across the eras have been lovingly reconstructed as part of an outdoor museum experience. Guides entertain visitors with stories and explanations of the Basotho cultural systems through the ages and how these affected the development of the different homes. Guests get to understand the materials used for making the homes and clothing; and even get to taste the traditional food and drink of the Basotho.
- The park has an interesting dinosaur heritage that is of international significance. The fossils, footprints, and a unique dinosaur nest with eggs and embryos intact have rocked the international palaeontological world. Even the rock formations are of global interest and attract equal attention to the ancient history of this area. For these reasons, a dinosaur interpretation centre has been built in the Golden Gate Highlands National Park. Exhibits are being designed and built and it is anticipated that the centre will be open to the public by October 2024.
Mapungubwe National Park: Limpopo
The park was established in 1995 and covers an area of over 28 000 hectares. It protects the historical site of Mapungubwe Hill, which was the capital of the Kingdom of Mapungubwe, as well as the wildlife and riverine forests along the Limpopo River. Mapungubwe Hill was the site of a community dating back to the Iron Age.
Top 3 highlights
- It is one of the few places in Africa that has both meerkats and Nile crocodiles.
- Mapungubwe National Park is renowned for its scenic landscape, with sandstone formations, woodlands, riverine forest, and baobab trees.
- The Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is protected and conserved as it shows the history and culture of the first indigenous kingdom in Southern Africa that existed between 900 and 1300 AD. The kingdom was rich and powerful, trading gold, ivory, and other commodities with other countries through the East African ports. The kingdom also had a complex social and political structure, with a sacred king who was separated from the commoners. The kingdom collapsed due to climate change, which made the land less fertile and unable to support a large population. The Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape preserves the archaeological remains of the palace sites, the settlements, and the artifacts that reveal the life and achievements of this ancient civilization.
Kruger National Park: Mpumalanga & Limpopo
Kruger National Park, which is 127 years old, is characterised by combinations of savannah, thornveld, and woodland eco-zones. Arguably one of the most known parks, it offers a wildlife experience that ranks with the best in Africa, boasting large African mammals and is nearly 2 million hectares in size.
Its density of permanent game is unrivalled, with hundreds of different species: 507 birds, 336 trees, 147 mammals, 114 reptiles, 49 fish, and 34 amphibians. The far north of the park is the wildest and most difficult area to access and because of this, it has alluring qualities for the true adventurer.
Activities on offer range from morning game drives, sunset drives, night drives, bush braais, guided walks, 4 x 4 adventure and echo trails, mountain bike trails, backpacking trails, and birding.
Top 3 highlights
- The big five – buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion and rhino.
- The little five – buffalo weaver, elephant shrew, leopard tortoise, ant lion, rhino beetle.
- Natural and cultural features include the Letaba Elephant Museum (inside Letaba Rest Camp), Masorini Ruins and Mount Tshikumbu Interpretation Site (near Phalaborwa Gate), Phabeni Interpretive Centre which includes the Albasini Ruins (near Phabeni Gate), Stevenson Hamilton Memorial Library (found inside Skukuza Rest Camp) Thulamela Ruins, and the Rabelais Interpretation Hut (near Orpen Rest Camp).
Did you know? The Kruger National Park is home to the “Birding Big Six” – ground hornbill, Kori Bustard, Lappet–face Vulture, Martial Eagle, Pel’s Fishing Owl and Saddle bill stork.
Garden Route National Park: Western and Eastern Cape
Along the South Coast of South Africa, between George and Port Elizabeth lies one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline in the world, home to the Garden Route National Park. It encompasses the world renowned Tsitsikamma, Wilderness and Knysna areas, a variety of mountain catchments, indigenous forests and fynbos areas, all valued for their diverse natural and cultural heritage.