Adventure GuideSouth Africa

South African national parks: How to choose

If there’s one thing that attracts visitors to South Africa it’s our national parks. And it’s not very hard to see why. The phenomenal network of protected areas is a fantastic way for visitors to get up close to the country’s rich natural heritage. But one thing most people don’t realise is just how many parks we’ve got! There are literally hundreds! From national parks to wilderness areas, nature conservancies and provincial reserves.

So how do you go about choosing which protected area to visit? Well that all comes down to taste I guess, so to help you discover and decide which park might be right for you, we’ve created this list of our favourite protected areas in South Africa and split them into categories: Best for Big Five game viewingBest for breathtaking landscapesBest for mountains and hikingBest for floral diversityBest for waterscapes,  Best for beaches and Best for forests.

There are obviously may more options that these, but if you’re planning a visit and looking for a park that best suits you, this will be a good start and help to point you in the right direction.

 

Best for Big Five game viewing

The Kruger National Park is the jewel of South Africa’s big game parks. Almost 2 million hectares (19633 km²) in size and proclaimed in 1898, Kruger draws the majority of international tourist traffic and with good reason. A park of this size covers a range of habitat diversities and allows for the rhythms of nature to continue relatively uninterrupted. The game sightings here are incredible, but the density of visitors can detract from the experience slightly, especially in the park’s busier south.

Kruger National Park Lion
A young lion find his way through the Kruger National Park.
elephant road crossing kruger national park
Elephant crossings are always a spectacle in the Kruger National Park.

If you want to beat the crowds (and the risk of malaria!) but still have unparalleled game viewing experiences, KwaZulu-Natal’s Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve is a great choice and one of our favorites. With the distinction of being one of the continent’s oldest protected areas and a key player in bringing the white rhino back from extinction in the 1960s, it has a special place in South Africa’s conservation hall of fame. An added bonus is the chance to explore the iMfolozi wilderness area on a guided walking trail – highly recommended!

Trailists iMfolozi Wilderness Trail.
Trailists on the iMfolozi Wilderness Trail.

Best for breathtaking landscapes

Although also a big game reserve, in our opinion the landscapes in Ithala Game Reserve alone make it worth the visit. Bordered by the Phongolo River to the north, the landscape varies from 1400 m amsl to 400 m in a series of mountains and cliffs that give way to the river valley. This park is also rare in that visitors are encouraged to get out and explore the park on self-guided walking trails, and a variety of benches and viewpoints scattered at the best vantage points throughout the park make for some pleasant hours of reflection. The roads in Ithala Game Reserve are quite challenging for ordinary road cars, so a 4×4 is preferable.

Jill Ithala Game Reserve
Jill checking out yet another amazing view over Ithala Game Reserve.

Of course, the Karoo is an obvious choice when it comes to great landscapes. The harshness of life here combine with dramatic scenery and vivid colours in the most spectacular way. Spend time in the Mountain Zebra National Park, check out nearby Camdeboo National Park’s Valley of Desolation or stay for a few days in the Tankwa Karoo National Park to experience the day’s changing light over this unusual landscape.

Karoo Storm from Mountain Zebra National Park
Watching a Karoo storm from the Mountain Zebra National Park.

Best for mountains and hiking

The Great Escarpment gives rise to a number of well-known mountain features on South Africa’s central plateau, such as the Wolkberg Mountains, and scenic Blyde River Canyon, but reaches its highest altitude in the Drakensberg mountains. Ranging from 2000 m to 3482 m amsl, the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg is a World Heritage Site and offers unparalleled hiking opportunities. It is an important watershed and the source of many of the country’s biggest rivers, and home to unique, high-altitude fauna and flora as well as many sites of cultural significance.

Giant's Castle National Park
Giant’s Castle in all it’s glory.

The uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park is divided geographically into three main regions, the southern, northern and central berg, each home to a number of provincial parks (for example, the popular Giants Castle in the central berg or Royal Natal in the northern berg). It also includes a total of 117 765 ha of wilderness area, broken down into the Mkhomazi, Mlambonja, Mdedelo and Mzimkhulu wilderness areas.

Royal Natal National Park
Pick your peak – Royal Natal National Park.

Best for floral diversity

The Cape Floral Kingdom is the smallest of all the world’s floral kingdoms, yet it is home to thousands of plant species, many of which are endemic, meaning they occur here and nowhere else. Fynbos is a characteristic vegetation type within this kingdom and includes proteas, ericas, restios (reeds) and geophyte bulbs. Table Mountain National Park is the best park to view this fascinating floral diversity, as it is home to a number of environments that range in altitude from the coast right to the top of Table Mountain’s 1085 m. As well as enjoying the natural beauty of the area, visitors to the park can tick off some of Cape Town’s biggest tourist attractions at the same time – Cape Point, Table Mountain and the penguin colony at Boulders Beach.

Table Mountain hike from Platteklip
Exploring the slopes of Table Mountain.
The vegetation along Cape Point is as much of an attraction as the landscape itself.

For those especially interested in South Africa’s floral diversity, a visit to Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden in Cape Town is a fantastic day’s outing and showcases plants from a range of the country’s biomes in one location, with special focus on fynbos of course 🙂

Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden tour
Visitors on a walking tour explore the floral beauty of the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden.

Best for waterscapes

Enclosed waters, such as lakes and estuaries in particular, are vitally important in creating habitat diversity and support a unique range of water-associated birds, plants, animals and invertebrates. What is more, few things can be as soothing as watching the setting sun reflect off the water while an African fish eagle calls overhead.

South Africa is home to some unique and incredibly important water systems scattered around the country’s coastline. Possibly the most breathtaking are KwaZulu-Natal’s Lake St Lucia, and Kosi Bay. Both of these are enclosed within the iSimangaliso Wetland Park which is also home to the Tewate wilderness area, the only one in the country to combine marine and terrestrial wilderness.

Kosi Bay Lakes
The Kosi Lakes are the jewel of the Elephant Coast.

Lake St Lucia and Kosi Bay are similar in that they are both a series of huge interconnected lakes that open to the sea at the mouth. The entire length of Lake St Lucia can be defined as an estuary however, as salty sea water has mixed with freshwater along its entire length, while sea water penetration in the Kosi system is limited to the lower reaches. Home to hippos, crocodiles and a number of water-associated birds like pelicans and flamingos, not to mention the fish and invertebrates under the surface, these water systems are not only beautiful but also intensely African.

kosi bay lake channel
Jill exploring the Kosi Lakes channels by boat.

Visitors can spend their time bird watching, fishing and boating or enjoying the unspoiled coastline in the area. Lake St Lucia also offers big game viewing in the Eastern and Western Shores sections of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. Guests to the area are simply spoiled for choice with all of the different ways they can experience the park, and our list of twelve ways to experience St Lucia is just a start!

Western Shores iSimangaliso Wetland Park
Bevan checking out Lake St Lucia from the boardwalks in the Western Shores Section of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park.

Another great water destination is the West Coast National Park, where Langebaan Lagoon offers fantastic birding opportunities, not to mention beautiful sunsets and a dazzling wildflower display in spring (August-October). Also in the Western Cape, the Knysna Lakes section of the Garden Route National Park is worth a visit for its natural beauty and the wealth of tourist attractions in the area.

West Coast National Park Lagebaan Lagoon
Exploring the in the Geelbek region of Langebaan Lagoon.

Best for beaches

South Africa is blessed with an incredible coastline that is hugely varied along its length. That makes it hard to pick a top spot. In an attempt to choose our favorite, we could only narrow it down to a list of 40 of the best beaches!

The northeast coastline is hot and sub-tropical, with long sandy beaches, sweeping bays, warm blue water and rocky reefs. The Coastal Forest section of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park (accessible by 4×4 only) is home to some incredible, empty beaches, and Sodwana Bay offers the best blue-water diving in the country!

Jill at Lala Nek
The beaches of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park are like nothing on earth.

Moving into the Eastern Cape the coastline is broken by towering cliffs, steep gorges and huge river mouths which make for some epic holiday photographs. Mangrove-lined estuaries, grassy hills and a wild, rocky coastline await visitors here. The best way to explore it is to spend time in some of the Wild Coast reserves in the Eastern Cape, like the Double Mouth Nature Reserve near Morgan Bay where some hidden treasures await.

Bevan hiking Double Mouth
Bevan hiking through the Double Mouth Nature Reserve.

Continuing further south-west and into the Western Cape the coastline changes again. The picturesque Garden Route is aptly named – fine sand beaches, verdant coastal mountains and plenty of sinuous river mouths and coastal lakes. The Garden Route National Park is a great one to check out. Of course if you are a serious hiker, don’t forget that the iconic Otter Trail can be booked through the Garden Route National Park too.

Goukamma Nature Reserve
The inviting coastline of the Goukamma Nature Reserve.

Towards Cape Town cold, nutrient-rich water supports towering beds of kelp, the coastline is scented by fynbos and Cape fur seals frolic in the waves. The Cape of Good Hope section of the Table Mountain National Park is a great one for exploring the coastline. Look out for a variety of coastal birds as well as troops of baboons foraging along the shoreline. Head to Cape Point and take your photo on South Africa’s most south-western tip, before taking the funicular to a viewing platform on Cape Point lighthouse and scanning the horizon for ghost ships

Cape Fur Seal on Dyer Island Overberg
A Cape fur seal sunbathes on the rocks.

South Africa’s west coast receives little rainfall. With a harsh semi-desert environment and cold coastal waters, this is a land of contrasts. The beaches of the west coast are the perfect destination to escape the busyness of modern life and offer a chance to relax and enjoy a slower pace for a while. Visit the far north-west Namaqua National Park to really get away from it all, or the West Coast National Park, closer to Cape Town.

Clearly with such a diverse coastline and so many incredible places, we are hard-pressed to pick a favorite!…

West Coast National Park
Tsaarsbank Beach in the West Coast National Park.

Best for forests

If dry landscapes or beaches aren’t your thing, check out the indigenous forests in South Africa. Some of the best places to get your fix of green are among the giant yellowwoods of the Garden Route National Park‘s Knysna Lakes section (where forest elephants still roam free), or on the hunt for endemic plants, birds and mammals in KwaZulu-Natal’s forest parks. Be sure to look out for Green Barbets and oNgoye red squirrels in the Ongoye Forest! Other special birds in KwaZulu-Natal’s forest reserves include the Delegorgues Pigeon, Brown Robin, Yellowstreaked Bulbul and the Olive Woodpecker, among others. Also in KwaZulu-Natal, take a walk in the last ancient indigenous fig forest in Africa, in uMkhuze Game Reserve. The Hogsback State Forest in the Eastern Cape is also a must for outdoor enthusiasts.

Thomas 4x4 Ongoye Forest
Our 4×4 Thomas adventures through the Ongoye Forest Reserve.
DIe Walle Forest Knysna
One of the best ways to relax in the Die Walle Forest near Knysna.

SANParks, EKZNW, CapeNature, ECPTA, MTPA: Booking your stay

South Africa has protected parks in each of its nine provinces. These parks fall under the mandate of a number of conservation management bodies. As a general rule, the biggest reserves in all provinces are managed by South African National Parks (SANParks), the national conservation body, with the exception of KwaZulu-Natal whose parks are managed almost exclusively by Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife (EKZNW). The smaller reserves in the Western Cape, Eastern Cape and Mpumalanga provinces are managed by provincial conservation bodies.

Bookings for individual reserves are made with their parent conservation body, and can be done online or by phoning their central reservations number, listed on the website:

Thomas Kruger camp
Settling in for the night at Shingwedzi Camp in the Kruger National Park.

Top tips for visiting South African national parks

Now that you’ve narrowed down your list of destinations to explore, here’s a short list of ways to make the most of your time in South African national parks.

On the hunt for animals, set your clock by the sun

Birds and animals are most active in the early mornings and late afternoons. By the time the sun reaches its midday zenith, everyone has found a shady spot for a snooze! If you are hoping to experience rewarding sightings, follow Nature’s example and plan your game drives around these periods of peak activity, and avoid the heat of the day.

elephant sunset
Around sunrise and sunset are the best times to be in the bush. Hluhluwe iMfolozi Game Reserve.

Come prepared

It doesn’t take too much for a lion to look like a patch of grass, or a rhino to become a large rock. Even elephants blend into the background far more easily than an animal of their size should be able to! In a game reserve, a good pair of field binoculars will make all the difference, as do field guides and identification books. Similarly, comfortable hiking shoes, warm clothing or sufficient sun protection can turn your day in the mountains or on the beach right around.

Oh, and no matter your outing, don’t forget snacks. Plenty of snacks… 🙂

Its all in your attitude

Don’t only look out for the big ticks – the Big Five or once-in-a-lifetime type game sightings. If you are only interested in the big stuff you’ll miss out on the myriad of smaller treasures that make up the tapestry of nature. Look out for these too and not only will you gain a greater appreciation for the intricacies of the area, but you’ll feel like you’ve had the best day out for having spotted them.

Dung beetles perform a huge roll in the bush.
Dung beetles may be small but they are invaluable to the ecosystem.

Save on entry fees and buy a loyalty card

Planning to visit a few parks in a short space of time? Sign up for a loyalty program and get unlimited entry into 80+ South African national parks and reserves (SANParks) or the parks and reserves in KwaZulu-Natal. Find out more about SANParks’ Wild Card program here and EKZNW’s (KwaZulu-Natal’s parks) Rhino Card here.

Safety first

As with anything in life, visiting South Africa’s parks and wilderness areas comes with inherent risks – getting injured whilst undertaking an activity like diving or hiking, or from an encounter with an animal. Unfortunately in some areas, criminal activity is a risk too. By taking a few sensible precautions, you can greatly reduce the chance of anything like this happening however.

We’d suggest:

  • Always sign hiking registers where applicable, and make sure someone knows where you are going and what time you expect to be back.
  • Never hike alone. Groups of 4+ are recommended in case of injury and in areas where criminal activity has happened before. Also, do not bring visible valuables with you, like expensive cameras or cash that will make you a target.
  • Make sure you have a cell phone with fully charged battery and the reserve’s emergency contact number programmed in.
  • Respect any wild animal you may encounter, and always keep a decent distance from it so that it will not feel threatened. Watch out for snakes that may be well-camouflaged on the path. Always hike with heavy boots and a walking stick.
  • Be sensible with respect to your physical ability, and the weather conditions on the day. Do not take unnecessary chances. Remember that in the mountains, weather conditions can change rapidly. Always carry enough snacks, water and warm clothing even if the day starts out sunny and clear.

Let us know which parks and reserves are your favourite by leaving a comment below!

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