South Africa’s stunningly diverse 21 national parks offer travellers the opportunity to escape from the bustle and buzz of city life into the tranquillity of nature.
The parks also offer a chance to experience activities such as game viewing, bush walks or canoeing, as well as exposure to a number of different cultural and historical experiences.
With various retail facilities, restaurants, camping and accommodation, visitors can choose to enjoy either a day outing into the wilderness, or a stay over in the parks’ more than 6 000 beds and 10 000 camping and caravan sites, able to accommodate nearly 12 000 overnight guests.
According to Debra Addison, communications director at Wild Africa Fund, people are increasingly prioritising and adopting more sustainable lifestyles.
In this regard, nature-based travel and experiences present a unique way to connect with the wonders of South Africa’s beautiful landscapes, flora and wildlife.
“This is particularly true for young people, who are the most socially and environmentally-conscious generation as they’re looking to enjoy new experiences that are as good for the environment as they are for them,” she said.
Addison said South Africa’s national parks play a vital role in ensuring the wellbeing of communities and a sustainable future, as the parks were established to conserve the country’s unique biodiversity, protect crucial environmental ecosystems and encourage the appreciation of nature, while also helping to drive local economies.
“Our national parks are some of the best funded in the country, but only 25% of their income is state-funded, while 75% is driven by tourism.
“As such, the conservation work they do is mainly supported by tourists and as locals we need to take an active interest in supporting this work.
“By simply visiting our parks, we can help to ensure the resilience and sustainability of the local communities which surround them while also protecting the environment and local wildlife,” she said.
To help South Africans take the opportunity to explore the distinct features, wildlife and landscapes of South Africa’s most beautiful nature reserves, here is a list of must-see parks this summer.
Addo Elephant National Park
The third-largest game reserve in the country, Addo, located near Gqeberha in the Eastern Cape, not only offers visitors the chance to view the park’s large herds of elephants, but also the Big Five.
The park was founded in 1931, with the aim of protecting the region’s remaining 11 elephants; it now boasts more than 600 elephants.
Addo offers a range of accommodation, including Addo rest camp, located near a waterhole, allowing close-up viewing of the local wildlife.
Visitors are also able to take part in activities such as game drives; or relax at the titular Addo Indlovu Spa; or take a marine eco-tour, as the park’s location near the coast allows travellers to visit Algoa Bay and go whale watching or see great white sharks.
Additionally, the park has hiking and 4x4 trails for the more adventurous.
Marakele National Park
In the heart of the Waterberg mountains, a transitional zone between the dry western and moist eastern regions of the country, Marakele is home to an incredible 800 breeding pairs of Cape vultures, which can be seen after taking a trail up a mountain pass.
The park also has elephants, leopards, brown hyenas and even lions, and visitors can enjoy a morning or sunset drive or guided bush walk, or take a dip in a sparkling blue pool at the Bontle tented camp.
The best part of all is there’s no need to own an off-road vehicle in order to enjoy the park as 80km of its roads are accessible by normal sedan vehicles.
Mapungubwe National Park
Located in Limpopo province on South Africa’s northern border, abutting both Zimbabwe and Botswana, Mapungubwe offers travellers a unique view of the confluence of the Shashe River, which flows from Botswana, and the Limpopo River, which flows eastward through Mozambique into the Indian Ocean.
A key heritage site, the park also offers visitors the opportunity to explore a landscape once occupied by the ancestors of the Shona people, who were early Iron Age settlers in the region from about 1 000 to 1 300 AD.
Tourists can also visit the park’s interpretation centre, which hosts the famous golden rhinoceros, a mediaeval artefact made of wood and covered in thin sheets of gold.
Agulhas National Park
Offering hikers, birders and those looking for a quiet and peaceful step-out into nature, the Agulhas National Park boasts a rich diversity of flora and fauna.
The park is located at the southernmost tip of the country, where the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean meet.
Visitors can get to see the lighthouse, built to aid early sailors navigate the rough waters off the Cape coast; or view the remains of ancient stone fish traps, used by the Khoisan people; or, find out about the many shipwrecks along the Agulhas coastline, including the remains of the Japanese fishing vessel Meisho Maru 38, which ran aground in 1982.
Tankwa Karoo National Park
Boasting vast open spaces in the Northern Cape’s western Karoo, a biologically-distinct semi-desert region that stretches across four provinces, the Tankwa Karoo National Park offers visitors a number of attractions.
These include viewing local wildlife from the comfort of your vehicle; negotiating, for the more advanced enthusiast, a number of off-road tracks, including two major 4x4 routes; hiking and cycling; and, taking in the scenic views from the Gannaga Pass and the Elandsberg.