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South Africa is a country famed for its endless horizons and spectacular natural beauty. The country's charismatic Big Five animals and breathtaking landscapes are huge draw cards for international tourists, not to mention a source of pride for locals too.
Most of these landscapes and animals reside within areas known as game reserves or national parks. These spaces are generally well marketed by the tourism industry and is often the main reason why people travel to South Africa. Places like the Kruger National Park hardly need any introductions. However, there is one type of wild space that most people don't even know exists, and that is the wilderness area.
What is a wilderness area?
A wilderness area is a space where Nature has been left completely undisturbed. The land is as it always has been. That means no farming, no buildings, no roads - no development of any kind. Whilst it is possible to visit wilderness areas, their typically vast expanses, isolated locations and lack of infrastructure usually means these areas are void of people, too.
A national park or game reserve is different to a wilderness area. Although also focused on protecting the natural environment, national parks are developed by conservation bodies and focus on promoting ecotourism. They typically have a network of roads and visitor facilities like picnic areas, bathroom facilities and overnight accommodation to facilitate tourists.
You'd be amazed at the diversity and wealth of experiences on offer in South Africa's national parks. Think you know them all? We'd guess there are some on this list that would surprise you.
Although the first wilderness area (inside the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve) was designated in 1959, formal legislation to protect wilderness areas was only implemented in 2003. Today, South Africa has 28 designated wilderness areas spread across the country, making up a total of 2.6 million ha.
Why are wilderness areas important?
Without visiting a wilderness area for yourself, its easy to assume the importance of this kind of area is purely conservation. After all, any human activity, no matter how small, inevitably has an effect on the landscape.
Of course you're correct, in that conservation is a goal of a wilderness area. An area void of any kind of development is an opportunity for the wild - that's all the living fauna and flora, and the complex ecological processes and flows that exist between them and that support human life on Earth, to continue unchecked. Intact. Unchanged. Some breathing room for Nature in a world that increasingly pushes her around and kicks her out.
But have the privilege of spending a few days in a wilderness area and you will quickly realize that the value of wilderness is much deeper than this.
Wilderness areas offer space for mankind to reconnect with Nature and with himself in a way that is not possible elsewhere. Being in the wilderness, sleeping under a night sky undiluted by city glare, and walking it on foot in the day is a life-changing experience. The inherent spiritual value and transformational power of wilderness was a driving force for the pioneering work of the late Dr. Ian Player, who was instrumental in the zoning of the first wilderness area in South Africa.
Years before the first wilderness area was proclaimed, Dr. Player was discovering the significance of wilderness for himself. In 1950 he pioneered a canoe trail from Pietermaritzburg to Durban, in KwaZulu-Natal, a trail which was to become the Dusi Canoe Marathon. Paddling alone for six days on the river, he realized the reality of this thing called wilderness, and its value to man. In his own words; "It was on this trip that I realized that value of the environment of solitude and the need for modern man to have a period away from the crowd".
Reflecting on his life's work in an interview in 2012, Dr. Player explains in his own words what wilderness means to him:
"Wilderness is for me salvation. I started the Wilderness Leadership School and we’ve now had 60, 000 to-70, thousand people who have gone into the wilderness and come out deeply moved. You are not human if you aren’t changed by the wilderness. It is because of this fact that I have fought for wilderness areas as opposed to just National Parks. In a wilderness area you can’t go in by motorcar. You go on foot, on a horse or in a canoe. There’s a big difference between a canoe and a motorboat. In a canoe you can hear everything … and our psyche resonates with it."
Some of South Africa's wilderness areas
The iMfolozi Wilderness Area, inside the southern section of the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve is South Africa's oldest wilderness area and home to the Big 5. It also has the prestige of being central to Dr. Ian Player's extremely successful Project Rhino, which brought the white rhino back from the brink of extinction. Further, it is possible to visit the iMfolozi wilderness area on a guided trail with the Wilderness Leadership School, founded by Dr. Player with the vision of reconnecting people with wilderness.
The Mkhomazi Wilderness Area is a large area in the southern section of the Drakensberg Mountains, although separated from the main escarpment. With caves offering overnight shelter, this wilderness area is perfect for a wild, isolated hike and the opportunity to view high-altitude birds, plants and animals like black wildebeest and baboons in the grasslands and ravines.
The Cederberg Wilderness Area, close to Clanwilliam in the Western Cape, is well-known for its dramatic rock formations and San art. It is the perfect wilderness area for those wanting to experience the unique fynbos vegetation of the area as well as view rare flora and fauna like the Clanwilliam cedar, or the Cape mountain zebra. There is also fantastic rock climbing in its orange mountains.
Extend your stay in the Cederberg area, and explore the home of Rooibos, learn about organic farming or enjoy a romantic farm getaway.
Groendal Wilderness Area is close to Uitenhage in the Eastern Cape, and is very accessible from Port Elizabeth. South Africa's third largest wilderness area, it has a number of marked and unmarked hiking trails through a series of kloofs and around Groendal Dam.
Tewate Wilderness Area in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park is accessed via the Eastern Shores Section of the park and is the only wilderness area in South Africa to include a coastal stretch.
Another KwaZulu-Natal wilderness area, Ntendeka Wilderness Area can be found along the R618 between Nongoma and Vryheid. This small wilderness area is home to an incredible forest with rare birds and trees, and a variety of smaller game.
Wolkberg Wilderness Area near Tzaneen in the Limpopo province is particularly rich in bird life and visitors should be on the look out for hamerkops, bat hawks, lilac-breasted rollers, the black-collared as well as pied barbets, pearl-breasted swallows and the gorgeous crested francolin.
Visiting a wilderness area
Wilderness areas offer the most raw, untouched and incomparable experience with Nature that it is possible to experience in South Africa, or the world for that matter. Anyone wishing to explore these areas must enter them on foot and take in everything that they will need for survival.
When visiting a wilderness area, the overriding principle is to leave no trace. That means no cutting pathways or clearing campsites, and obviously no littering. But it goes even further. When you leave, it must be as if you were never there. Thinking about lighting a campfire? How about first laying down a bed of sand so that the coals won't scorch the ground, or char the rocks?
Access to South Africa's wilderness areas differs from place to place. Some wilderness areas, such as the iMfolozi Wilderness Area, are situated within game reserves and require users to be accompanied by a guide, while others are safe to traverse unaided and may only require that users sign a hiker's registry.
Interested in exploring one of the oldest wilderness areas in South Africa on a guided wilderness trail?
A guided wilderness trail is an incredible experience, and with guides taking care of the worry, guests are free to focus on the experience. Guided trails are not always offered in all of the country's wilderness areas however. For those setting out on their own, there are certain safety considerations to keep in mind that will reduce your risk of getting into a dangerous situation. Unfortunately too, criminal activities have been recorded in some areas so be sure to consult with park management for current risks and recommendations.
- Always sign hiking registers where applicable, and make sure someone knows where you are going and when 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.
- If you are self-guiding a trail, make sure you have a cell phone with fully charged battery and the reserve's emergency contact number programmed in. But, to really experience the wilderness, keep it turned off! 🙂
- 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 food, water and warm clothing even if the day starts out sunny and clear.
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Shout out to the custodians of South Africa's wilderness areas
South Africa is not immune to the wealth of factors threatening biodiversity throughout the world; a growing human population, climate change, habitat loss and illegal poaching are among some of the major threats to the natural environment. Conservation of South Africa's rich and varied plant and animal diversity is of utmost importance, and the network of protected national parks and wilderness areas throughout the biomes of South Africa go a long way towards protecting its rich natural heritage.
The country's national conservation agency, SANParks, and the smaller provincial bodies including Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife (KwaZulu-Natal) and CapeNature (Western Cape) have their work cut out for them. Together, they are custodians of some of the world's most incredible parks and wilderness areas. Probably the most famous is the two million ha Kruger National Park, South Africa's oldest and largest national park and internationally recognized as one of the top 10 wild places in Africa. Close on its heels is the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, South Africa's first proclaimed World Heritage Site recognized for its unbelievable species and habitat diversity and sheer natural beauty with its Tewate Wilderness Area, the only one in South Africa to include terrestrial and marine habitats. South Africa is also home to the Cape Floral region, the smallest of the world's six floral regions but its most diverse with over 9500 species!
Of course, these are only a few examples of the natural gems of which South Africa abounds. With such a rich natural heritage and largely intact megafauna - the big animals like rhino, elephant, buffalo and lion, not to mention the countless smaller species, South Africa has plenty to be proud about, but this would be nothing without the tireless conservation efforts of our different agencies.