South Africa's greatest wildlife holidays, from Big Five safaris to desert drives

Mike Unwin
·10-min read
meerkats - getty
meerkats - getty

Two southern right whales wave a tail-fluke farewell (or so I like to imagine) as I tramp up from the beach. Day over, I think. But, as I fish for my car keys, a lithe feline form appears on the boardwalk ahead. A caracal – the mystery cat, my first in two decades of African wildlife-watching. Tufted ears swivel and amber eyes lock briefly on to mine. It slips away into the dusk. Was it ever even there?

That was De Hoop Nature Reserve, 15 years ago: one among countless magical memories of South Africa’s wildlife. Others evoke wildly different landscapes: crouching with my armed guide in a Zululand thorn thicket as a black rhino huffs and puffs alarmingly close; lying out beneath Kalahari stars as lions moan from the surrounding dunes; cresting a Drakensberg escarpment to spy a bearded vulture soaring across the void below.

In 1994, celebrating its rebirth as a melting pot of colours and cultures, South Africa was dubbed the Rainbow Nation. An ecologist might choose another metaphor – the Mosaic Nation? – to celebrate the country’s natural diversity. For comparison, Australia and Brazil, each more than six times larger, have just seven major biomes (ecological regions) to South Africa’s eight. Its multi-hued ecological rainbow contains desert dunes, coral reefs, snow-dusted mountains, coastal heaths, semi-tropical forests and, of course, “bushveld” – that quintessentially African panorama of dust and thorns synonymous with safaris.

Each biome has its own wildlife, from the grand herds and rampant predators of Kruger Park to the oryx, cheetah and meerkats of the arid Kalahari. Birders, meanwhile, will find such gems as twinspots and trogons in Zululand’s unique dune forests, while marine wildlife buffs can enjoy the likes of breaching southern right whales and nesting loggerhead turtles around the endlessly unspooling coastline. Some of this biodiversity is unique to South Africa. The fynbos heathland of the Cape is one of only six recognised floral kingdoms in the world, with two thirds of its plant species endemic. Much of it is of critical international importance: this one nation now protects some 90 per cent of the planet’s remaining white rhinos.

The good news? It couldn’t be easier for visitors. South Africa virtually invented the big game park and, more recently, has pioneered game translocation, re-establishing historic wildlife communities in neglected areas. Today, an excellent infrastructure and hospitality industry lays all this on a plate. You can luxuriate in an exclusive bush lodge or simply drive yourself around in a hire car. Activities span walking safaris, mountain-bike trails and scuba diving. There are whale-watching cruises, birding tours, flower safaris and even frog safaris. And this is the only country in Africa where you can find the Big Five malaria-free.

There's a high density of wild animals in Kruger National Park, including the Big Five - SASIPA MUENNUCH
There's a high density of wild animals in Kruger National Park, including the Big Five - SASIPA MUENNUCH

A nerdy totting-up of my own wildlife adventures in the Rainbow Nation reveals just how much you might see: I’ve clocked up more than 90 mammal species, for example, and nearly 550 birds. But the tallies don’t convey the memories: fresh lion prints at dawn on a Kruger trail; a golden cape cobra uncoiling over red Karoo dust; a day at Kosi Bay that began with flamingos and ended with dolphins. And I have barely scratched the surface.

Kalahari horizons

The Kalahari’s vast semi-arid expanse takes up much of Botswana but also spills over the border into north-west South Africa, offering special wildlife viewing with a unique ambience. After Christmas, new growth in the enormous Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (shared between the two nations) draws herds of oryx, springbok and other grazers, sustaining an impressive band of predators, including cheetahs, brown hyenas and the region’s famous black-maned lions. For birders, the dry riverbeds and dune ridges are a haven for raptors and desert specials such as sandgrouse. Private reserves such as Madikwe and Tswalu have restored other species to the mix, including wild dogs and black rhinos, and, from the comfort of exclusive lodges, offer a range of guided safari activities, including walking and horse riding. Local specialities here include meerkats, aardvarks and even pangolins. And the region is all malaria-free.

Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (sanparks.org)

Say it with flowers

Wildlife doesn’t have to move in order to be exciting. The Western and Northern Cape are home to some of the world’s most spectacular floral displays as well as a host of animals. In Namaqualand, towards the Namibian border, an explosion of spring annuals – including the likes of Namaqualand daisies and orange glories – carpets the arid terrain with colour. Whites, yellows and oranges dominate, punctuated with blues, reds and purples. Botanists will specifically seek out endemic pelargoniums and geophytes; others will just be blown away by nature’s outrageous palette. Beach Flower Camp and Skilpad Flower Camp in Namaqualand National Park, open for just four weeks during the August/September flower season, offer a complete immersion in this kaleidoscopic wonderland, with luxury tents, sea views and starry night skies.

Flower camps in Namaqualand National Park (flowercamps.co.za)

Namaqua National Park's main attraction is the abundant spring bloom of brightly coloured wildflowers - CLAUDIO VIDRI
Namaqua National Park's main attraction is the abundant spring bloom of brightly coloured wildflowers - CLAUDIO VIDRI

Table-tops and penguins

South Africa’s Cape Peninsula is a world apart: it’s like a slice of the Mediterranean, in terms of both its climate and its landscape, affixed to the bottom of Africa. To some people, this means wine. To the wildlife lover, this Unesco World Heritage Site means unique natural riches – from the scented fynbos heathland, where endemic sugarbirds flit between blazing proteas, to the shallow, sheltered bays where southern right whales arrive during the winter months to rear their calves. Table Mountain National Park embraces both the iconic flat-top itself, where a hike to the summit may bring encounters with rock hyraxes or Verreaux’s eagles, and Cape Point, where rare bontebok graze the headlands and African penguins waddle out of the surf at Boulders Beach. Oh, and did I mention the wine?

Table Mountain hikes (capetown.travel)

Overlooked Overberg

Cape Town to Garden Route: it’s a time-honoured eastbound tourist itinerary. But what it often overlooks are the charms of the Overberg region, where the coast bulges south to form Africa’s southernmost tip. De Hoop Nature Reserve, at the eastern end, offers a beguiling combination of inland hiking trails and, from July to October, some of the world’s best land-based whale-watching as the southern rights arrive from Antarctica to breed in the sheltered bays. There’s no dangerous game to worry about – though the odd shy leopard reputedly roams – but you’ll see herds of bontebok, elands and Cape mountain zebras, elegant blue cranes and the Western Cape’s only colony of Cape vultures. Expect the unexpected: caracals, porcupines and an impressive 6ft mole snake all took me by surprise.

De Hoop Nature Reserve (capenature.co.za)

Penguins waddle out of the surf at Boulders Beach on the Cape Peninsula (also an amazing wine region) - MIKE KOROSTELEV
Penguins waddle out of the surf at Boulders Beach on the Cape Peninsula (also an amazing wine region) - MIKE KOROSTELEV

Heartland haven

The ancient, semi-arid plains of the Great Karoo, in the Western Cape interior, once hosted some of the greatest animal migrations ever witnessed: herds of springbok millions strong took days to pass the town of Beaufort West. Sheep farming long ago replaced such spectacles, but in the Karoo National Park much of the region’s indigenous wildlife can still be seen. This is not Big Five country, although lions and black rhinos have been reintroduced, but rather a fascinating terrain of hidden details, where alongside desert-adapted grazers such as oryx and springbok, night drives may produce treats such as aardwolves or caracals. Accommodation is in charming Cape Dutch cottages, while activities include a network of 4x4 and mountain-bike trails. Keep an eye out for fossils.

Karoo National Park (sanparks.org)

Eastern elephants

When Addo Elephant National Park was declared in 1931, just 11 elephants remained, the beleaguered survivors of the hunting that had otherwise eradicated the great pachyderms from the Cape. Today that number has risen to 600, making for an impressive scrummage as they crowd into waterholes on a hot day. The reserve’s dense scrub is now also home to lions, buffaloes and black rhinos, restored by translocation to their former haunts, alongside plentiful other wildlife – right down to the endemic flightless dung beetle. Its boundaries have also been stretched to the coast, bringing within its protection whales, penguins and the world’s largest gannet colony. To the east, several private reserves, including the award-winning Shamwari, have introduced the luxury Big Five experience and nailed it, making this now one of the top safari regions in the country.

Addo Elephant National Park (sanparks.org)

Since it was formed in 1931, Addo Elephant National Park has seen numbers swell from just 11 of the creatures to over 600 - BENNY MARTY
Since it was formed in 1931, Addo Elephant National Park has seen numbers swell from just 11 of the creatures to over 600 - BENNY MARTY

Scale the peaks

Drakensberg means “dragon mountain”, and these formidable buttresses, squeezed between the Free State, KwaZulu-Natal and neighbouring Lesotho, do indeed suggest some mythical lost world beyond. Rising to more than 11,400ft – Africa’s highest point south of Kilimanjaro – the Drakensberg’s escarpment marks the south-eastern edge of South Africa’s central plateau. This is not safari country, being better known for its spectacular waterfalls and scenic splendours. A network of trails will produce such special upland birds as the bald ibis and bearded vulture, while elands and black wildebeest graze the slopes, and rarities such as otters may turn up. As with all mountains, come prepared.

Drakensberg information and hikes (drakensberg.org)

Rhinos on foot

Nothing quickens the pulse quite like a two-ton, two-horned behemoth blocking your path. The connected parks of Imfolozi and Hluhluwe, in KwaZulu-Natal, are synonymous with both white rhinos and walking safaris. The first, because it was here that the world’s second-largest land mammal – after elephants – rallied against impending extinction a century ago. The second, because this is where the wilderness trails concept evolved. Expect close encounters with white rhinos. Black rhinos, rarer and jumpier than their larger cousins, also thrive here, while elephants, buffaloes and lions are all present. The trails, which book up well in advance, are as much about wilderness immersion as big-game thrills. The camping is rustic; the guiding superb.

Imfolozi wilderness trails (kznwildlife.com)

Wetland wonders

In northern KwaZulu-Natal, iSimangaliso Wetland Park might have been designed to illustrate a biodiversity textbook. One of Africa’s largest coastal wetlands, this multifaceted reserve, proclaimed a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1999, protects an improbable richness of ecosystems, both freshwater and coastal. There are few places in Africa where you can cruise among hippos by pleasure boat and, within the hour, watch a humpback whale spouting off the beach. Add to that the prolific coral diversity along Africa’s southernmost reef, a tangle of semi-tropical dune forest with narina trogons and samango monkeys, beaches on which leatherback turtles lay their eggs, and savannah where elephants, giraffes and black rhinos roam, and you have a veritable wildlife world in one.

Biodiversity reigns supreme at iSimangaliso Wetland Park, and among the savannah you might find roaming black rhinos
Biodiversity reigns supreme at iSimangaliso Wetland Park, and among the savannah you might find roaming black rhinos

Information and activities (isimangaliso.com)

Big country for big game

The Kruger is the jewel in South Africa’s wildlife crown: an Israel-sized national park, home to around 150 mammal species and more than 500 birds, with the bulk of Africa’s white rhinos and the continent’s third-largest lion population. Purists find the Kruger too developed, but its sheer size means space for all comers. This is indisputably Africa’s best A-list park for a budget, self-drive safari, with no need for a guide; equally, its private concessions harbour the likes of MalaMala and Singita, bywords for safari luxury.

Plan your self-drive safari (sanparks.org) or opt for private/guided options (krugerpark.co.za)

Mike Unwin is the author of Southern African Wildlife, published by Bradt Guides