MOTIVATION FOR THIS PAGE
This page provides information on some of the South African National Parks that we have visited and that should be considered as destinations when visiting South Africa. Most of this material also applies to Parks in Botswana and Namibia. We have not attempted to visit all parks and reserves in these countries – that would be nearly impossible given the large number of parks and other nature reserves. Our interests have been in botanical subjects, animals of many kinds, from larger mammals to smaller reptiles, and especially birds, which tend to be more obvious and easier to spot. Many books are available that summarize the parks and reserves and a tremendous amount of internet material as well, so one wonders what is the point in yet another website with this material. Our audience is the naturalist, often with special interests in succulent plants and smaller animals.
We don’t emphasize “the Big Five“! If you just want to see the Big 5 our pages might not interest you. The Big 5 are impressive (we’ve not yet see one of them – the leopard, but herds of elephant and Cape Buffalo are truly impressive. Rhino are interesting and lions – well they are sporadic and often sleeping. You should be aware that there are “the little 5“, “the ugly 5” and presumably other 5’s…
Basic aspects of National Parks in southern Africa
National Parks in southern Africa (South Africa, Botswana, Namibia) are not the best places for hiking – unless going on a guided hike with armed rangers is your passion. There is no question that such hikes can be exciting at times – we have done this in Ghana – just ourselves and a guide. You don’t know what you will encounter and being in the open near elephants is definitely an adrenaline rush.
If the park has dangerous game, you are normally required to stay in your vehicle – including keeping your arms inside. One can see the logic in this, but it prevents you from closely approaching a tortoise or chameleon you might see crossing the road. Photography is quite restricted as a result.
Accommodations are found both outside and inside National Parks in southern Africa. It is a near-consensus that lodging and service is better outside the parks than in Government-run rest camp accommodations inside the parks. This has been our perception – facilities are overpriced for what you get. However, we have not stayed at higher-end lodging within Kruger, or stayed in lodging outside some of the main parks like Kruger and Etosha. You will pay more for these lodges – and in Botswana the sky is the limit for what you can pay. (Botswana has opted for higher-end, lower-volume tourism.)
Some advantages of staying inside a National Park is that 1) you can leave your camp (usually) one hour earlier than if you stay outside 2) you may have access to an illuminated waterhole and 3) night drives start from each rest camp. If you stay outside a large National Park like Kruger or Etosha it is not possible to arrive at some interesting locations shortly after sunrise – the disances are just too far from outsie the park boundaries. Common to some parks are “concessions” that may border the national park. These are large privately-run land holdings that offer similar experiences to staying inside the park – only that the facilities can be “upmarket” and some services better. These concessions can have their own waterholes, wildlife blinds and and a variety of lodging facilities. Some concessions are quite large (like Sabi Sands, 650 sq km, next to Kruger and Onguma, 340 sq km, next to Etosha), with some wildlife migrating between the main park and the concession.
Some rest camps are large enough to have trails within them that go through natural vegetation. Though not long enough to be considered a strenous hike, they can get you away from the crowds that might be on the main viewing platforms or around the restaurants or other rest camp facilities. Some of the camps with trails that we like in Kruger National Park include Berg-en-dal, Mopani, Punda Maria, and Tamboti Tented Camp (natural camp setting). Skukuza has a trail in the botanic garden area and trails elsewhere. In the main rest camp at Addo National Park there is a wheelchair accessible trail, hardly used, that goes through very interesting succulent rich vegetation. In Etosha National Park in Namibia, several trails inside the rest camp go through natural vegetation on a dolomite hill.
Because distances between rest camps are substantial in some parks, there are toilet facilities, usually merged with picnic areas, in most parks. These are usually fenced. In our experience there are not really enough of these, necessitating “water management strategies” on some stretches… Think twice about that extra coffee in the morning.
Picnic areas, because of the scraps of food often left by visitors, tend to be good (if unnatural) spots to photograph some birds and mammals that might want to eat these scraps. Some of these animals can be approached quite closely.
Most parks have wildlife hides, where you can sit and wait and watch animals that come to the water to drink. These hides are usually suitable for small animal photography, since smaller animals can usually pass through or over the fences. Wildlife hides usually require that you park your car in an unprotected area, then open a gate and walk along a mostly enclosed walkway to the hide. This minimizes the noise at the hide itself and prevents animals from seeing people approaching the hide. Monkeys and other small animals can easily get into the hides, though they usually don’t when people are present. You might need to keep an eye out for wildlife as you exit the protected hide area to return to your vehicle.
Common to all parks in southern Africa with dangerous game is the restriction on night driving – you must be back at the rest camp by the gate closing times that are prominently posted. These times vary with the time of year, with some parks opening their gates as early as 45 minutes before sunrise. Others open at sunrise. There are real fines for arriving at a gate after it closes. Similarly, speed limits are enforced in parks, especially in Kruger where the distances are large and people can discover they are too far from their rest camps toreturn before the gate closes. We once received a ticket for speeding – going 60 km per hour (36 mph) – the max speed in Kruger on tarred (paved) roads is 50 km/hr (about 30 mph). The fine was small, but the park personnel do use the speed cameras of the type that are common to South Africa. These speed limits are actually important, since large game (and even small ones) are present – especially near dawn or dusk. On dirt roads the speed limit is 40Km/hr. This also helps to keep down dust in the dry season. Your game driving speeds will normally be well under these speed limits.
Kruger is a large park, oriented mostly north-south along the border with Mozambique, and it takes more than 9 hours to traverse Kruger from one end to the other. The Google Maps most direct in-park distance is 436 km (271 miles) between the Malelane and Pafuri Gates and this takes 9 h 24 minutes (from Google Maps). And the network of dirt roads (no 4×4 is normally needed on these unless heavy rains have impacted them) is quite extensive. It would take a number of days to traverse all of the park’s roads even once. This is why we like Kruger – away from the rest camps and paved roads you don’t see that many other vehicles. Sometimes we have driven for an hour without seeing another car – which would be unheard of in most US National Parks.
Most parks with large game offer night drives. In general, we have not been impressed with these, though we did have a truly educational one in Mokala National Park – when we were the only participants. We have almost universally been cold, despite what we thought were our adequate preparations. Sitting in an open vehicle for several hours at night does cool you down! For the cost involved we have not been impressed with the novel nocturnal wildlife we have seen. Yet these nigh drives remain popular. We hope that future vehicles will be 1) electric, to greatly reduce vehicle noise and 2) have an independent guide (not just the driver) who can provide a running commentary about natural history topics between “spottings” (preferably via earphones so the noise is minimized). The Kruger and Etosha night drives we have taken usually lacked such narration, the Mokala drive didn’t. Our perception is that the best game drives are on private game ranches and concessions, but we have no direct experience to confirm this.
Getting information about the parks
SANPARKS is the Government Organization responsible for managing the South African National Parks. Their webpages describe each park and provide basic information. A great many other commercial websites exist that also describe the parks – and a Google search often will bring up these sites first. Some are very good, others less so but all of course want to encourage you to visit the parks and buy services mentioned on the websites.
Different from National Parks in the USA, visitors to parks in southern Africa usually get, when they enter and pay their fees, a very basic sheet with park rules and regulations. Usually there is no map, no information about rest camps, or nothing about park wildlife highlights. The National Park brochures that American tourists are familiar with don’t exist at most African parks. The philosophy follows European procedures (from our limited experience with European parks), where most everything has to be purchased separately. This takes place at the shops found in every rest camp. There are various map/animal identification brochures that, for 4 or 5 dollars, are essential for the ordinary visitor. All of these brochres are similar, differing mostly in style of the maps.
The rest camp shops do have books focused on the natural history of the park, but these are few and far between. Bird and mammal identification guides, yes, but books describing the parks natural environment or ecology are often limited. A great percentage of the items in these shops have little to do with the park itself – being of the T-shirt or gifts one might buy for taking home as a gift for friends or family.
Some rest camps have visitor information centers or displays, but they are not comparable to those commonly found in visitor centers in US parks.
Keep in mind that national parks in southern Africa charge by the day and the costs vary from park to park. You pay a daily fee per person rather than per car as is the case in the US. In the US you also pay once and it is good for a week. (Unlike the US, how much you pay depends on your citizenship, South Africans pay 25% of what foreigners from most other countries pay). Like the US, South Africa offers a card called the Wildcard. It is good for a year and it is valid in all the national parks and some other state conservation areas in South Africa. This card is relatively expensive for foreigners (for 2018 it is 3800 rand for a couple (close to $314 USD currently (Jan 2018), but if you plan to spend more than one week in national parks you will save with the Wildcard – especially if your time is spent in Kruger, one of the most expensive parks (368 rand per person per day). You can purchase the Wildcard at most entrance gates – it is best to do so the first time you enter a national park. You can also try to get it ahead of time, but they use slow mail and it may or may not arrive prior to your departure.
Links to specific National Parks
Although there are pull-down menu tabs to each of the parks below, they are provided here as well so you can jump to them.
Tankwa Karoo National Park cottages