Of the five million people who visit South Africa’s national parks every year, a whopping 80% end up either roaming Cape Town’s Table Mountain National Park, or seeking out a self-drive safari in the mighty Kruger. But South Africa has another 17 national parks within its borders, offering everything from semi-desert canyons to bracing coastal hikes, from pocket-sized parks where you can spot antelope on foot, to expansive spaces where lion, hyena and cheetah roam freely. Whether you’re looking for big game or big waves, multi-day hikes or serious 4×4 adventure, lush green landscapes or stark scenery that makes you wonder how any animal life can be sustained, there’s definitely a South African park to please every type of traveller.
Best for families – Addo Elephant National Park
Many of the country’s parks cater for kids, but Addo, 40km from Port Elizabeth, is perhaps the most family-friendly of them all. Animal sightings are frequent and the chance to bump into elephants around every bend is one that will please young safari-goers. It’s not all about the elephants though – the rest of the big five are in attendance and kids might also enjoy looking out for the endemic dung beetle. Addo’s 180,000 hectares are manageable, meaning kids won’t get overly bored on long loops. Back at the main rest camp, there’s an underground bird hide, a jungle gym and an excellent information centre definitely designed with younger travellers in mind.
Sleep out: If you’re not staying in the park, check out River Bend Lodge (http://www.riverbendlodge.co.za/) a luxury lodge with a heavy focus on child-friendly stays.
Best for adventure addicts – Garden Route National Park
Incorporating the protected spaces of Tsitsikamma, Knysna Lakes and Wilderness, this scattered park has just about every activity an adventure sport enthusiast could wish for. Fancy a challenging multi-day hike along the coast, a zipline tour through the forest or an abseil alongside a trickling waterfall? The Tsitsikamma section has you covered. Canoeing enthusiasts are well catered-for in the Wilderness lagoons, while those seeking a shady walk through the forest should head to Knysna. If none of that ticks the boxes you can also snorkel, birdwatch, take a boat trip, go tubing down the river, ride mountain bikes through the trees or hurl yourself off a bridge at the world’s highest bungee jump.
Sleep out: After a hard day hiking, biking and kayaking, retreat to the splendour of the Views Boutique Hotel in Wilderness (NB, there is a review of this on the site – might be good to link here to keep people on the site? https://afktravel.com/hotel/views-boutique-hotel-spa/)
Best for sunset strollers – Golden Gate Highlands National Park
A short drive from the artsy town of Clarens, Golden Gate is not the park for those seeking sightings of big game. It is, however, the park for anyone who loves mountain scenery, uncrowded hiking trails and simply spectacular sunsets. If you’re a keen walker, sign up in advance for the 30km Rhebok Trail, tackled over two days. If you’d like to explore the park on foot but aren’t up to a serious hike, try one of the hour-long loops leaving from the rest camp or just come at dusk and step out of your car as the sun’s waning rays bounce off the sandstone crags making the whole park live up to its colourful name.
Sleep out: Sitting in the higher reaches of the park, the Highlands Mountain Retreat (http://www.sanparks.co.za/parks/golden_gate/tourism/highlands_mountain_retreat_accommodation.php) offers smart self-catering log cabins and plenty of tranquillity.
Best for exclusive animal encounters – Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park
Images of packed jeeps and rental cars crowding around a big cat sighting are not uncommon in some of Africa’s better-known parks and the idea of getting a lion or a leopard to yourself is sometimes a romantic and unattainable notion. Not so in the Kgalagadi, a transfrontier park that straddles South Africa and Botswana. Only a fraction of the tourists that enter the Kruger venture to this hot and dusty park and even at busier times of year, you can expect to spend some quality time with the black-maned Kalahari lions that the park is best-known for. Some people end up with an encounter a little closer than they bargained on, since many of the park’s camps are unfenced…
Sleep out: Owned by local indigenous communities, the glorious chalets at !Xaus Lodge (http://www.xauslodge.co.za/) blend perfectly with their surrounds.
Best for big cat bragging rights – Mountain Zebra National Park
Tucked away in the Eastern Cape’s interior, this park sees only around 20,000 visitors enter its gates each year, but what an experience awaits those who bother to venture here. As well as game drives – zebra and buffalo are more commonly sighted – trips to see San rock paintings and hikes past Anglo-Boer War relics, Mountain Zebra offers a unique opportunity to join a ranger for a morning cheetah-tracking expedition. The four-hour experience begins in a jeep but once you get close to the collared cheetahs, the fun continues on foot…
Sleep Out: Stay at the 4-star Amali guest house.
Best for off-road enthusiasts – |Ai-|Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park
Just getting to this vast park on the South Africa/Namibia border is a mission – it’s 90km on a reasonable gravel road to the nearest town, Alexander Bay. Once you’re in the park, you can forget any thoughts of exploring in your rental hatchback – a 4WD is essential if you expect to see anything past the entrance gate. Visitors need to be fairly self-sufficient – bring gallons of drinking water, stock up on petrol, food and firewood and don’t expect to be checking Facebook for the duration of your stay. The rugged park has an other-worldly feel, with its rocky desert and sandy canyons interrupted only by the iconic “half-mens” trees.
Sleep out: Try the reed cabins at Tatasberg Wilderness Camp (http://www.sanparks.co.za/parks/richtersveld/tourism/accommodation.php) for a rustic but delightful sleeping experience.
Best for birdwatchers – Marakele National Park
Many of the country’s protected spaces abound in birdlife, but Marakele, in the Waterberg region of Limpopo, is particularly rewarding for twitchers. As well as a range of eagles and hawks, plus smaller, brighter species flitting between trees, Marakele is home to one of the world’s largest breeding colonies for the Cape Vulture. A vertiginous road leads to a lookout where you can glimpse some of the 800-or-so breeding pairs swooping and soaring high above the park.
Sleep out: Join a luxury hiking trail or just indulge in the spa at Marataba (http://www.marataba.co.za/), a private concession within the national park.
Best for botanists – Namaqua National Park
In spring, the Namaqua National Park explodes, both with the multi-coloured petals of the flowers that bloom following winter rains and with the tourist feet that come to witness the annual spectacle. Some 3500 plant species are known to thrive here and from August to September you can expect carpets of purple, orange, yellow and white to liven up this otherwise barren landscape. For the rest of the year, Namaqua is largely ignored and while it’s not so pretty without its plumage, there are still plenty of plants to seek out, including plenty of succulents and the inimitable quiver tree.
Sleep out: North of the park, the Naries Namakwa Retreat (http://www.naries.co.za/) offers serene, luxurious accommodation well off the beaten track.
Best for budgeters – Bontebok National Park
If you’re time-poor or cash-poor, a multi-day stay in a national park could well be out of reach. Just getting to many of the parks takes time and money, with most far from the reaches of the country’s public transport network. Bontebok, South Africa’s smallest national park, is also one of its most accessible. Home to zebra, hartebeest and of course the antelope that gives the park its name, Bontebok National Park sits just outside Swellendam, a two-hour journey from Cape Town. If you don’t have a hire car, the park is a 6km hike from the town and as you won’t find any predators within, walking here is not off-limits. There are several day hikes on offer, fishing or swimming in the river and two accommodation options within the park boundaries – campsites and self-catering chalets alongside the river.
Sleep out: Once you’ve budgeted on a game-viewing trip, splurge on the delightful De Kloof Luxury Estate (https://afktravel.com/hotel/de-kloof-luxury-estate/), sitting in a quiet Swellendam side street.