Natural wildlife experiences are things you will remember forever. South Africa, and its coastal oceans, is home to an incredible array of wildlife. The wild animals are a major draw card for tourists, and a national treasure for those lucky enough to call South Africa home. Anyone can look at bored lions in a zoo, but there's nothing like sharing rugged, no-cage wildlife experiences, and South Africa is home to some of the best. Here are some once-in-a-lifetime (and responsible) ways to interact with some of the country's special wild animals in their natural habitats.
Map of South Africa's wildlife experiences.
1. Snorkel with seals in Cape Town.
Any good list has to start somewhere, so we'll kick this one off with one of our favourite wildlife experiences.
Interact with playful and inquisitive Cape Fur seals in the cool Atlantic Ocean in their environment, and on their terms. Guided trips take snorkelers to the shark-free shallows (1-5 m) surrounding Duiker Island in the Karbonkelberg marine protected area, off Hout Bay in Cape Town. This island is home to approximately 5000 wild Cape Fur seals, that just love to encounter snorkelers in the water! Summer (September - May) is the best time for seals, especially from March onward when the baby seal pups take to the water.
For more information on this and other wildlife experiences in the oceans around Cape Town, check out Animal Ocean.
2. Feed vultures in the Drakensberg.
Many vulture species are threatened or endangered in South Africa. A sighting of one of these unusual birds is therefore a treat. The best place to get an up-close view is in Giants Castle in the Drakensberg. Here, you can book a vulture hide for the day where, armed with a bucket of bones, you will be set up for the best vulture viewing (and photography opportunities) of your life. The hide is famous for sightings of the endangered Lammergeier (bearded vulture). The Lammergeier has a unique feeding method, where it drops bones from a great height, and once broken, it eats the marrow out of the smashed bones. Other raptors and vultures that frequent the hide include the Cape vulture, Verreaux's eagle and lanner falcon.
The vulture hide is only accessible by 4x4.
For more information on this and other wildlife experiences in the Drakensberg check out Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife
3. Track wild cheetah on foot in the Mountain Zebra National Park.
Join a qualified and knowledgeable SANParks guide on a drive to find one of the Mountain Zebra National Park's elusive cheetah. Once a signal is picked up from a collared individual, guests have the opportunity to get closer to the cheetah on foot. This activity is facilitated by a park ranger, who will guide the interaction and ensure the safety of the guests as well as making sure that the cheetah, who are not tame or caged, are not disturbed.
For more information on this and other wildlife experiences in the Mountain Zebra National Park, check out SAN Parks.
4. Get an aerial view of great white sharks on the hunt from the Robberg Peninsula.
Witnessing these top predators in the wild can take many forms, from the highly-controversial cage diving industry that operates on South Africa's southeast coast, to surprise encounters by surfers... There are not many places where they can be viewed from land, but the Robberg Peninsula in Plettenberg Bay offers a unique vantage point for hikers to view these impressive animals cruising the waters below. Great whites are especially plentiful in May when resident Cape Fur seal pups take to the waters around Robberg's colony. Pack a picnic and some of these day hike essentials and spend an afternoon scanning the waters below the trail.
For more information on this and other wildlife experiences around Plettenberg Bay check out Cape Nature
5. Spot the Marine Big 5 on a coastal cruise to Dyer Island.
Gansbaai is synonymous with its Great White sharks, and is home to the highest concentration of Great White sharks in the world. What you may not know, is it's also one of the best places in South Africa to view the Marine Big 5. A whale watching boat cruise from Gansbaai takes passengers past Dyer Island with its resident colony of 50 000+ Cape Fur seals and the infamous Shark Alley, the site of aerial breaching attacks by Great Whites. Whilst viewing Cape Fur seals and the endangered African penguins are a given on the cruise, there is also the chance to spot Great White sharks and a number of whale and dolphin species in the coastal waters.
For more information on boat-based wildlife experiences around Gansbaai check out Dyer Island Cruises
6. Feel the gentle rumblings of some of South Africa's biggest tuskers in Tembe Elephant Park.
It is possible to view wild elephants in a large number of game reserves and parks in South Africa, but without a doubt the best is in the Tembe Elephant Park in northern KwaZulu-Natal. Home to some of the last remaining tuskers (elephants with very long tusks) in the country, a guided game drive in this reserve gives you a true appreciation for these majestic animals. The rangers in the reserve know each animal individually and have incredible knowledge and experience in facilitating game drive interactions with their elephants.
For more information on wildlife experiences in the Tembe Elephant Park check out the Tembe Elephant Park website.
7. Dive with the prehistoric coelacanth off the coast of Sodwana Bay.
Note - This is a highly-specialized experience that is for qualified SCUBA divers only, and is a very dangerous activity.
Coelacanths are referred to as living fossils, because they are one of the most primitive living fishes found in the world. They belong to a lineage of lobe-finned fishes. Long presumed to be extinct, the coelacanth (Latimeria chalumnae) was first discovered in South Africa's coastal oceans in December 1938. The coastal canyons off of Sodwana Bay in South Africa are one of the few places in the world where coelacanths are accessible to SCUBA divers, as the proximity of the canyons to shore and their cooler water temperatures allow the coelacanths to live at shallower depths (100-120m) than elsewhere.
For more information on these underwater wildlife experiences around Sodwana Bay check out Triton Dive Lodge.
8. Overnight in a hide in the Kruger National Park.
Hides are rustic structures in game reserves that commonly overlook waterholes, or other features that attract animals. They are fantastic places to view wildlife away from your vehicle, and without disturbing the animals' natural behaviour. Spending the night in a hide is a fantastic opportunity to be as close to the African nighttime wildlife as possible. Sleeping in a relatively rustic shelter while any number of wild animals pad softly around outside is a thrilling experience. The world-famous Kruger National Park has two hides that offer basic overnight facilities. They are the Sable (approx. 10km from the Phalaborwa Gate) and Shipandani (approx. 3km south of Mopani Camp) Sleepover Hides.
For more information on this and other wildlife experiences in the Kruger National Park check out SAN Parks
9. Picnic with African penguins in the Cape.
African penguins are endemic to southern Africa. That means that they are not found anywhere else in the world. Sleek and fast in water, they are pretty comical and ungainly on land! There are a few places along the Western Cape coastline where visitors can get a close view of breeding colonies of these unique, and endangered, birds. Two of the best places are Boulders Beach and Stony Point Nature Reserve, where wooden boardwalks have been constructed through the breeding colonies. Walk quietly, and keep a sharp eye out for penguins to the left, right and even enjoying the boardwalk's shade below you. The beach at Boulders Beach is also a fantastic place for a picnic, and to enjoy the beautiful coastal scenery.
10. Witness turtles laying or hatching on KwaZulu-Natal's sandy beaches.
Loggerhead and Leatherback turtles make use of northern KwaZulu-Natal's (Cape Vidal northwards) long sandy beaches to nest. Every year starting from November, pregnant females emerge from the sea and make the strenuous trek towards the dunes to lay their eggs, and during January to March young hatchlings make the return journey back to the ocean. These are the only remaining nesting sites used by these turtles in the whole African coastline, making witnessing this natural spectacle something truly special.
For more information on this and other wildlife experiences in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park check out the iSimangaliso Wetland Park's accredited turtle tour operators
11. Encounter the Big 5 on foot in the iMfolozi Wilderness Area.
Viewing wild animals from inside a vehicle is one thing, but there's no better way to really see them than on foot. Coming face-to-snout with some of the biggest and wildest animals in Africa is an experience you will never forget, and gives you a true appreciation of what they truly are. Most national parks in South Africa offer guided game walks, but our favourite is the five-day wilderness walk in the iMfolozi Wilderness Area. Spending five full days and all the hours of the night out (with all that creeps and crawls!) in the wilderness with no tents and no modern luxuries reconnects you to nature in a way that you will not experience anywhere else.
Please note that this activity is not suitable for small children.
For more information on wilderness wildlife experiences check out the Wilderness Leadership School
12. Take in some of the best land-based whale watching on the Whale Trail.
Southern right whales spend most of their time in the chilly waters around Antarctica, but every year they migrate north to mate and calve in the waters off of the Cape. During July to November, the oceans are alive with frolicking whales that can easily be seen from land, but nowhere is better for land-based whale watching than the picturesque town of Hermanus. With over 12km of coastal hiking trails and numerous cliff-edge spots that allow you to get right up close with the whales in the water below (as close as 5m from shore!), this is the perfect place to pack a picnic and do some serious whale watching.
For more information on whale and wildlife experiences around Hermanus check out the Hermanus website.
13. Get among southern Africa's largest population of hippos on Lake St Lucia.
Lake St Lucia, in KwaZulu-Natal's iSimangaliso Wetland Park, is a place of natural wonders. It's sinuous estuary is home to the largest population of hippos and crocodiles in southern Africa. A boat-based tour on the St Lucia estuary gets you up close to these impressive animals with plenty of opportunity to observe their natural behaviour and get some great photo opportunities.
For more information on wildlife experiences on Lake St Lucia check out iSimangaliso's estuary boat cruise operators.
14. Dive with breeding aggregations of ragged tooth sharks on KwaZulu-Natal's coastline.
Note - this experience is for qualified SCUBA divers only.
Ragged tooth sharks, or raggies as they are commonly known in South Africa, look fearsome but are in fact one of the most placid sharks species you can encounter. Every year, from June to September raggies seek out caves and overhangs on KwaZulu-Natal's Aliwal Shoal to mate, and during December and January pregnant females move north to the warmer water reefs at Sodwana Bay to gestate. This means that during these months, breeding aggregations of these sharks are common sights for divers at these spots.
15. Experience the sights and sounds (and smells!) of thousands of nesting Cape gannets on Bird Island.
Bird Island, approximately 100m offshore of Lambert's Bay is one of only six breeding sites of Cape gannets worldwide, and the only one easily accessible to people via a breakwater. The island is also a roosting site for cormorants, and a favoured sunning spot for Cape fur seals. Witness the fascinating mating dance of the Cape gannets and enjoy some incredible photo opportunities while learning about the conservation of these seabirds at the interpretation centre.
For more information on this wildlife experience visit CapeNature
16. Spot a rare bird in Zululand.
The forests, thickets, open grasslands and waterways of Zululand in KwaZulu-Natal offer varied habitats for a huge diversity of birds, among them some very rare endemic "lifers". The Ongoye Forest, in particular, is a prime birding destination. It is the only place in South Africa where the green barbet occurs, and it has a number of other rare and endemic species (found there and nowhere else) too, including the eastern bronze-naped pigeon, Ongoye red squirrel, Ongoye centipede, two undescribed species of dwarf chameleon, forest green butterfly and a number of cycad species. For those wishing to do a thorough birding tour of Zululand, a number of excellent local guides are available, but the area is also well-suited to self-driving. At the worst, you'll have experienced some of the wildest and most scenic natural places in the country!
For more information on birding wildlife experiences around Zululand check out the Zululand Birding Route
17. View hundreds of roosting Cape vultures near Msikaba.
Not only do the sheer cliff faces of the Msikaba River gorge near the Mkambati Nature Reserve on the Wild Coast offer a fantastic spot to watch the sunset, but they are also home to a huge colony of Cape vultures. Enjoy the last few hours of sunlight from the vantage point while you watch these fascinating birds coming in to roost on the opposite cliff face. Don't forget to pack some binoculars for an up-close look at the birds and, of course, bring some snacks!
GPS co-ordinates for this wildlife experience: 31°18'14.5"S 29°55'32.0"E (-31.304040, 29.925560)
18. Hear whales breathe off the KwaZulu-Natal coast.
Who can describe the feeling of being close enough to a humpback whale to hear it breathe as it breaks the surface? During the months of June to the end of November, when these whales make their northwards breeding migration along the east coast, you may be lucky enough to have just such an experience for yourself. Depending on conditions on the day, humpback whales pass by whale watching boats individually, or in small breeding groups whose splashing and chaotic activities on the surface give some idea of the fierce competition between males below. A boat-based whale watching tour gets you close to these majestic animals, where you can share the water's surface with them. There is nowhere more scenic to enjoy such an experience than in the warm blue waters off the St Lucia coastline, with the Maphelane dunes towering in the distance.
For more information on whale watching in St Lucia check out Advantage Tours
19. Get up close with the sardine run along the Wild Coast.
During the winter months of June and July, huge shoals of sardines (Sardinops sagax) move from cold, nutrient-rich waters off the Western Cape northwards along South Africa's east coast on a spawning migration. All kinds of aerial and water predators such as Bryde's whales, large game fish, sharks, dolphins, penguins and gannets follow these shoals. Witnessing the sardine run from land is in itself an incredible experience, but nothing beats getting into the thick of things by boat or even more, from in the water!
For more information on the Sardine run check out the Sardine Run Professional Association
Tips for having responsible wildlife experiences
- Remember that all of these animals are wild. That means that they are not used to humans, and will bite or nip if cornered or harassed. Always give wild animals their space, and do not get too close that you cause undue stress or leave them with no room to escape.
- Never touch a wild animal, no matter how cute or relaxed they appear.
- If you are on a guided wildlife experience, always follow the rules of the guide. They know the animals far better than you, and are there to ensure both your safety and that of the wildlife you encounter.
- As with any outdoor adventure, take all your litter home with you.
- When viewing wild animals, keep all noise to a minimum so as not to startle the animals, and also not to ruin the experience for others with you.
Let us know what your favourite South African wildlife experiences are by leaving us a comment below.