As the seasons change, it’s my recommendation to shop now for some comfy hats – be it for protection from the sun or warmth, as well as a good pair of walking shoes and some outdoor clothing, and head out to explore more of our country starting with these lesser-known national parks.
Forming part of the 19 reserves that SANParks manages, they offer a glimpse into South Africa’s indigenous fauna, flora, varied landscape and cultural heritage.
The best-known park in the SANParks fold is likely the Kruger National Park. Proclaimed in 1898, it is the oldest as well as the largest at nearly 2 million. That’s a lot of European countries. As for the most popular, the Kruger Park and Table Mountain National Park are South Africa’s most visited tourist attractions and it’s easy to see why. Yet, this is more about the unsung heroes of the SANParks family, the lesser-known parks worthy of a visit.
Set in areas of unrivalled beauty, be it arid, coastal, mountain or bushveld, ranging from world heritage sites to places of natural biodiversity. Each holds the specific purpose of conserving the game, marine ecosystems and vegetation found in their region. It is significant to work. Accessible and affordable, nearly all have overnight facilities which vary in style and level of comfort. Activities on offer are diverse and include game viewing (guided or self-drive), bush walks, canoeing and lessons in conservation.
1. Bontebok National Park, Western Cape
Perfect for a day visit, although it is wonderful to overnight here and watch the Bontebok grazing from your chalet window first thing in the morning. Bontebok National Park is the smallest of the SANParks and is just gorgeous. Located on the banks of the Breede River just 5km from the town of Swellendam in the Western Cape. This places it within the Cape Floral Kingdom which explains the rich floral offerings. Perfect for a day visit, although it is wonderful to overnight here and watch the Bontebok grazing from your chalet window first thing in the morning.
Accommodation is at Lang Elsie’s Kraal rest camp, the first SANParks rest camp to be built according to a Touching the Earth Lightly ecotourism design. Named after a Khoe-Khoe Chieftain who lived here with her clan in the 18th century. The camp has ten units and provides pristine scenery towards the Langeberg Mountains. There’s also a very good camping site.
The park is home to 200 Bontebok and the formation of this park is known to have saved the species from extinction. Main attractions include other game such as Grey Rhebuck, red Hartebees and many other smaller mammals. Enjoy a drive around the park, bird watching from the viewing decks, or from one of the numerous picnic and braai areas. On my first visit, I took one of the walking trails through the aloes and spring flowers, as well as a linger down at the Breede River. If the weather is warm enough, you can swim here or simply enjoy a nap on the sandbank.
2. Mountain Zebra National Park, Eastern Cape
The 28 000 hectares Mountain Zebra National Park is situated about 12km inland from the town of Cradock and is accessed off the R61 towards Graaff-Reinet. Synonymous with the Great Karoo the air is crystal clear here, the scenery beautiful and the setting tranquil. This National Park was originally proclaimed in 1937 to save the dwindling Cape Mountain Zebra population and boasts a conservation success story which has it protecting over 700 zebra as well as the endangered black rhino and reintroduced cheetah. The fenced-off Rest Camp is located about 12 kilometres from the entrance gate and offers comfortable family cottages, a campsite with communal facilities, a good restaurant and a shop. There is also a guesthouse and two mountain cottages further into the Park. The Rest Camp cottages are a short walk from the restaurant, which allows a good chance for star-gazing after dinner.
Activities in the park include self-drive and guided game viewing on the 70km of mapped-out roads. Visit the San-cave paintings or enjoy the two short self-hike trails within the fenced Rest Camp; the Black Eagle Trail of 2.5km is a more challenging climb to the top of the rocky outcrop with spectacular views over the Park while the Imbila Trail 1 km is an easy, flat trail. Also recommended is the guided Cheetah Trekking (see the video at the bottom of the page) which can be booked on arrival, a very special experience which heightens all senses. Day visitors are welcome and there are a couple of good picnic sites in the park where you can stop for lunch. On my first visit, I arrived as the sun was softening on the land. About 5 minutes in, a black rhino walked across the road right in front of us, pausing slightly before running off. A surreal experience and luck of the bush.
3. Golden Gate Highlands National Park, Free State
Having grown up in the Free State this is a place of my childhood memories. Located in the untouched foothills of the magnificent Maluti Mountains, the Golden Gate Highlands National Park is named after the sun that catches the sandstone cliffs. The most impressive is Brandwag Rock, which simply must be climbed. This 11 600 hectares showcases true highland habitat and provides a safe environment for the black wildebeest, eland, blesbok, oribi, springbok and Burchell’s zebra. Look out for the rare bearded vulture and bald ibis too. Ribbokkop is the highest point in the park and can be hiked to with a guide. The Golden Gate Hotel offers assorted luxury accommodations and has excellent facilities, their fireplace is a perfect place for cold winter nights. The nearby Glen Reenen Rest Camp has more affordable rondavels and guest cottages and for those wanting to be out in nature, there is a good camping site. Things to do include a visit to the Van Reenen family graveyard, which has some incredible angels on guard. A hike up the Brandwag mountain and visits to the various lookout points. Numerous walking trails and horse riding. Whilst there listen for the call of the baboons through the wind.
“listen for the call of the baboons through the wind”
4. West Coast National Park, Western Cape
Perfect for easy day trips from Cape Town specifically to see the spring wildflowers. Located just inland from the Langebaan Lagoon, the West Coast National Park is home to thousands of seabirds, sheltered islands and untouched beaches. During spring the land turns into a rich tapestry of wildflowers, often scattered with resident antelope. For accommodation look to Abrahamskraal’s self-catering cottage and the Duinepos chalets, there are even houseboats available for hire. The Geelbek restaurant offers an excellent option for lunch. Main attractions include flower season in Postberg between August and September, a visit to Eve’s footprint and walking trails, driving to the 16-mile beach and taking in the various viewpoints across the lagoon. Cycling and mountain biking, whale watching in season, bird watching and the numerous walking trails. Simply put, this place is idyllic.
5. Kgalagadi Gemsbok National Park
Bordering Botswana and Namibia where the red dunes appear to go on forever, is the spectacular Kgalagadi Transfrontier National Park. Coming into existence with the amalgamation of South Africa’s Kalahari Gemsbok National Park and Botswana’s Gemsbok National Park, the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park has an area of over 3,6 million hectares, making it one of the greatest conservation sites in the world. Best known for its gemsbok, curious meerkats, black-maned Kalahari lions and sociable weavers (who weigh down telephone poles and trees with their giant nests). You may even find a lone camel on the land. Here the sparse vegetation and dry riverbeds provide dream backdrops for photographers. There is accommodation in the three main camp rest camps, namely Twee Rivieren Rest Camp, Mata-Mata Rest Camp and Nossob Rest Camp, which offer a combination of chalets and camping facilities. Although I highly suggest the Kalahari Tented Camp which is situated high up on a dune that overlooks a waterhole in the ancient dry Auob River. The camp is unfenced and the lion and hyena pass through at night, adding a different dimension to the experience. Activities include self-guided game drives as well as guided drives and walks by arrangement. Mostly though, this is a place to reconnect with nature.
The Essential Details
- For more info on the various SANParks reserves and where they are, look at sanparks.org.
- Catch a glimpse of the action before deciding which National Park to visit, by checking out their live Webcams.
- All of the parks listed above are malaria free.
- Dress warmly during winter and take good walking shoes, a sun hat and sunblock all year round.
- Check out the gate times, as you don’t want to be caught on the wrong side when the sun goes down.
- Watch where you put your feet, all of these parks have a healthy population of snakes.
- Do bear in mind that not all parks have shops, restaurants or fuel stations. Stock up before arriving just in case.
- The best thing you can do for yourself, and your family is to get a WILDCARD. Wild Card Membership gives you unlimited access to most of the country’s premier conservation areas.
** This post is made possible by Superbalist – who understands the needs of travellers. Mine in particular.
** Pics courtesy of SANParks.