We have traveled to South Africa some seven times since 2002 for perhaps six months total time in the region. Our travels have been mostly focused on the succulent plants and birdlife, but no visitor to the region can ignore the mammals that are the highlights of many of the parks. In fact, most nature tourism is focused on seeing these mammals, not the birds or succulent plants that is much of our focus.
South Africa, despite its checkered history with multiple wars, apartheid and many economic and social issues, has the most developed economy in Africa and the highest overall standard of living. There is great inequality for sure, but compared with most countries in Africa its economy and infrastructure is almost first world. Highways and associated facilities like gas stations, modern malls and grocery stores, and excellent restaurants across the country attract huge numbers of tourists from Europe in the northern hemisphere winter.
The national and provincial parks are generally in excellent condition and are places of much tourism by both foreigners and locals. A series of national botanical gardens are known worldwide, as are many of the national parks. And, unlike in many other African countries, it is feasible to do self-drive vacations in South Africa and also in Namibia and Botswana.
Basic geography and climate
Some basic geography is in order to appreciate the reasons we find visiting South Africa worthwhile for the naturalist. South Africa is mostly not in the tropics. Cape Town is about the same latitude as Los Angeles, California and has very roughly a similar climate with a strong winter rain maximum and dry summers. The west coast of South Africa is similar to the coast of Southern California and Baja California, while summer rainfall increases as one proceeds eastward across the country. There is relatively little cool season rainfall in the far east, in places like the Kruger National Park, opposite to that seen in the Cape region.
The ocean temperature is cold along the west coast and increases as one proceeds eastward. That is why the beach towns and resorts are found in southeastern South Africa – especially in the Durban area. Summer air and ocean temperatures are amenable for swimming, unlike in the Cape Town region where conditions are a bit too cool for comfortable beach-going even in the summer (though people do go).
Southern Africa is mostly not near sea-level. Much of the continent is about 1000m above sea level with large parts of eastern South Africa near 1500m asl. Much of Johannesburg has an elevation above sea level of 1600 to 1700m (~5250-5600 ft). Similar to Denver, Colorado.
The main natural attractions of South Africa: Our impressions
Below are some of the main natural history attractions of South Africa (from our perspective as travelers from the US).
Large mammals in multiple game parks. What attracts most naturalists to South Africa are the large mammals. Elephants, rhino, giraffe, zebra, hippos, lion and multitudes of different antelope are the obvious ones. Most of are present in a number of large reserves in the eastern part of the country. Some have been re-introduced into areas closer to Cape Town, though these are relatively impoverished compared with the eastern parks.
Succulent plant flora. Relatively few tourists or even “naturalists” realize that South Africa has the greatest diversity of succulents of any country. But many of these species are inconspicuous and not seen by tourists. The main succulents that most visitors see are the Aloes, approximately comparable to the Agaves of the Americas, and some large succulents Euphorbias that can be found in eastern South Africa. Most succulent plants are relatively small, and many are found in drier areas not on the main touristic routes.
Many parks with “Naturalistic” landscapes: There are a sufficient number of reserves in South Africa with accommodation to be able to work your way across the country spending time in the different parks as you proceed. You rarely need to stay in cities or towns, though there may be various reasons for doing so.
Unique flora of the Cape Region. The Cape Floristic region is considered one of the Earth’s six floral “kingdoms” and the smallest one by far. See more on plant geographical classification schemes here. In many respects it is similar to the California chaparral, with mostly short, fire-adapted vegetation. The rugged topography of the cape region results in a variety of microclimates and this, along with it’s geological diversity (leading to different soil types) results in a large number of specialized endemic species adapted to this region. Endemism is high in the Cape Region because migration to the south is stopped by the Atlantic/Indian Ocean and to/from the north by the arid Kalahari and Namib Deserts. A gradual change in the winter-rain Fynbos vegetation occurs as one proceeds eastward since summer rainfall increases eastward and winter rain decreases.
The Cape Region not only has a large number of endemic shrubs and succulents, but also has the world’s greatest diversity of bulb plants. Many of these genera are well known in cultivation. An excellent summary of the Cape Floristic region for the botanically-inclined naturalist is here (official site) or here (the public without research library access).
Bird diversity. Although the diversity of birds in some Central and South American countries easily exceeds that found in South Africa (or any African country for that matter) the diversity of South African birds, their size, and their differences from birds familiar to North American tourists are notable. Birds like Bustards, Hornbills, Weavers, Sunbirds, Bee-eaters, Francolins, and Rollers are novel to tourists from the Western Hemisphere. A great many eagles, hawks and falcons are present as well as a handful of large vultures.