Johannesburg - Although we live in the most technologically advanced country in Africa, there are still wild open spaces in the interior of this place we call home… and getting out there to explore these spaces and wild places is a balm that soothes the soul.
Come with us on a short tour of some of the jewels of the South African interior – and then get out and take a look yourself...
You can have your game watching – and gaming too
Lying in the remains of an ancient collapsed volcano, the 55 000-hectare Pilanesberg National Park in the North West province is probably the most accessible of all parks in the country, being around two hours’ drive from Pretoria and Joburg.
It is home to the Big Five – lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard and rhino – as well as the resort and entertainment magnet, Sun City. So you can have your game watching alongside your game playing.
Following Operation Genesis in 1979, which involved the game-fencing of the reserve and the re-introduction of many long-vanished species, the park now has more than 7 000 animals including 24 of the larger species. The geology of the area also goes back millions of years and the park is situated in a transition zone between the dry Kalahari areas and the wetter Bushveld zones, so there is a wide variety of life – plant, animal and bird.
There is a variety of accommodation in and around the park, from the Golden Leopard Resorts (camps and facilities run by the North West Parks Board inside the park) as well as self-catering, timeshare and hotel rooms at Sun City, along with private game lodges in the park itself. Self-drive tours and guided safaris (on foot or by vehicle) are on offer, catering for all ages.
There is life outside Kruger
In the northern regions of the country are three fascinating reserves, which offer a different experience to the likes of the Kruger National Park.
Mapungubwe, on the border with Botswana and Zimbabwe, is not only a bushveld experience to rival any other but it is also an important historical site, established around the headquarters of the ancient Mapungubwe Empire.
This had its citadel – complete with well-defended access routes – atop the sandstone massif which dominates the area around the Limpopo and Shashe rivers.
Further south is the Waterberg and Welgevonden biosphere area, with a number of private reserves and game farms. The mountainous countryside is home to a number of species of mammals and a plethora of birds.
Marakele, a national park situated in breathtaking mountains, offers a striking contrast to the bushveld. It boasts higher-altitude plant and animal life.
The mountains are home to one of the biggest breeding colonies of vultures in the country.
It is best to get there about mid-morning because, as the air heats up and thermals begin to rise, you will be rewarded with the sight of vultures soaring over your head as they ride the air currents.
All three reserves are in a malaria-free area.
A living encyclopedia of nature
The world-renowned Kruger National Park, a strip 360km by 65km in size and 2 million hectares in area, is the flagship of South African National Parks. The Limpopo River and its scenic beauty are to the west, the lush Mpumalanga region to the south and Zimbabwe to the north.
Here live the famous Big Five, little five and the birding big six. Each subregion in the park has its own unique fauna and flora ensuring that there is something for every nature lover in the Kruger.
The Kruger National Park is unrivalled for the diversity of its life forms and a world leader in advanced environmental management techniques and policies. The park is home to an impressive number of species: 336 trees, 49 fish, 34 amphibians, 114 reptiles, 507 birds and 147 mammals.
Evidence of man’s presence in the region over many centuries – from San rock paintings to majestic archaeological sites like Masorini and Thulamela – can be seen in the Kruger National Park.
These treasures represent the cultures, people and events that were part of the history of the Kruger National Park and are conserved along with the park’s natural assets.
Numerous rest camps provide ample accommodation, offering a range of lodges, tented camps and self-catering chalets.
The more popular destinations in the park are Lower Sabie, Punda Maria and the Crocodile Bridge rest camp. Most of these spots provide a wide variety of tour options, walking trails and safaris.
The Lower Sabie Rest Camp, on the banks of the Sabie River, is surrounded by leafy riverine vegetation, such as the sycamore fig, and is set against the backdrop of the Lebombo Mountains. Terraces of tidy white bungalows surround the luxurious safari tents of Punda Maria, where fascinating colonial history makes campfire stories a staple activity. The wealth of indigenous vegetation makes for excellent bird-watching opportunities.
Game-spotting is the order of the day at the Crocodile Bridge Rest Camp. This is one of the best camps in the reserve and noted for the population of lion that hunts in the area around the banks of the Crocodile River.
Land of endless horizons
SA National Parks is justifiably proud of the five national parks which make up its arid region: Kgalagadi, Augrabies Falls, /Ai /Ais-Richtersveld, Namaqua and Mokala in the Northern Cape.
The Kgalagadi and the /Ai /Ais-Richtersveld are also Transfrontier Conservation Areas, which means they cross borders into Botswana and Namibia respectively.
The parks have a rugged beauty and you won’t find space like this – where the horizons are endless and the skies cloudless and blue – in many other places. Sunrises and sunsets are some of the most glorious in the world.
The arid region parks are home to unique species of plants, like the quiver tree, which have adapted over millennia to their harsh environment.
In the Kgalagadi, you can marvel at the majestic lions and beautiful gemsbok.
While 4x4 vehicles are needed for some of the roads in some of the parks (notably Kgalagadi and Ai /Ais-Richtersveld), most are accessible to two-wheel-drive cars.
Distances, though, are formidable, so plan your journeys carefully beforehand and use the experience of the SANParks booking office staff to help you.
Vastly magical Karoo
The Karoo, spanning nearly 400 000km2 in the geographic midriff of South Africa, must be one of the quietest places on Earth. It is a place of immense spaces, wide-angle horizons, craggy mountain ranges, conical hills, an ancient inland seabed and a sky so big that at night it feels like you can touch the stars.
The Great Karoo stands proudly with other desert tourism regions like the Australian Outback and Arizona and New Mexico in the US and makes for a memorable road trip.
Watch a sunset thunderhead gathering over the village of Aberdeen, after a blazing hot midsummer’s day, and toast life on the open road. Stand still in the Matjiesfontein military graveyard and try to hear the strains of the lone Highland piper who is said to be playing Scotland the Brave for all time.
Head for the settlement of Nieu Bethesda in winter and hunker down with a Karoo Ale at the Sneeuberg Brewery. Share a traditional Karoo supper in the Victoria Manor Hotel in Cradock.
Stride the streets of Colesberg on a tour of this Victorian-era town and venture out on the Gariep Route, staying over at the eccentrically stylish Karroo Theatrical Hotel outside the mohair town of Steytlerville.
Stargaze with astronomers on a hill outside Sutherland, home of the Southern African Large Telescope. Visit the seven radio dishes out at the Square Kilometre Array, near Carnarvon, and imagine the day when more than 2 500 of these wonderful techno-beasts will be swaying in unison, listening to the universe.
Hear about the endangered riverine rabbit in Loxton and drive to Calvinia in spring to catch the display of daisies.
Have a sundowner at a spot overlooking Graaff-Reinet and the Valley of Desolation, giving you an eagle’s-eye view of the vastness of the Karoo.
Go fossil-fossicking in the Karoo National Park outside Beaufort West and antique-chasing in Willowmore before entering the Baviaanskloof Wilderness Area, famous for its mountainous terrain and adventure activities.
Drop into Prince Albert at Olive Festival time and listen to the gurgle of the water furrows as you sit on your stoep on a warm evening.
Water of life
In the wide-open, arid spaces of the South African hinterland, water is a precious resource. Rain is scarce and river courses flow infrequently.
Two methods have been adopted to get water to the region’s animals and humans – dams and wind pumps.
Multi-bladed windpumps (windmills to some) are common all over the drier parts of southern Africa and are capable of hauling significant amounts of water to the surface from well below ground level. Although the pumps are technologically inefficient, they are simple and require little maintenance, so they suit rural areas.
In the interior they have become a symbol of life.
Karoo lamb is now protected “meat of origin”, because of its unique flavours – flavours which result from the diet of free-range sheep in the region.
The various bushes, shrubs and plants in the Karoo impart noticeable tastes, likened to herbs and which blind tastings have proved are uniquely different to lamb raised in pastures (like those elsewhere in South Africa) or on grass plains (like those in Namibia, for example).
And there are many ways to enjoy it: as lamb shank, in a pie, as a roast rack or as chops. Also, nothing goes better with a Karoo lamb meal in the Karoo than a good glass of South African red wine...it’s one of the world’s unique culinary experiences.