Jump to Kruger National Park.
The term Southern Africa doesn’t have a specific political boundary. Here we use it to refer to the three countries of the Republic of South Africa, Botswana and Namibia. But geographically one might also want to include the small states of Lesoto and Swaziland or also Zimbabwe and southern Mozambique. Or even Zambia.
We focus on the first three countries mentioned because 1) they are relatively easy to travel to and very tourist-friendly 2) we have not visited the other countries mentioned and 3) most natural history travelers will visit these countries first – and for good reason.
Botswana has had a different political history than Namibia and South Africa and the reader should develop a background on each of these countries before traveling there. Use Wikipedia for starters, but the sky is the limit on information available about these countries.
Getting to Southern Africa
To get to Southern Africa you need to fly – unless you live in Africa. True, you can drive there from Europe – if you have a month or more and are willing to cross many international borders through “less-secure” parts of the world. Flying to southern Africa really means flying first to South Africa. There are very few/no flights direct to Botswana from outside Africa and to Windhoek in Namibia there are almost none except from Germany (check online for actual specifics). Nearly all flights to southern Africa arrive to either Johannesburg or Cape Town.
Flying from Europe to South Africa is straightforward – there are nonstop flights from many major European cities. Because there is only a one to two hour time zone difference between most of western Europe and South African destination cities (Cape Town or Johannesburg) travelers from Europe can take an evening flight and arrive in South Africa the following morning – without appreciable jet-lag. If a bit short, a one-week trip to South Africa is feasible for Europeans.
American wanting to travel to Southern Africa have a different, more complex flight situation. There are usually non-stop flights from Atlanta and New York to Johannesburg or Cape Town, though these might not be every day. But you first need to get to these gateway cities and your connection cannot be tight. So coming from the western US might require an overnight stay somewhere in the US – though it hasn’t in recent years for our travels.
If you choose to fly to South Africa from the US via Europe your trip will be longer, but you can spend some additional time (and $$$) in a European city before flying to South Africa. We have done this, and it can be fruitful (or tiring). The in-and out of airports is tedious, though in London we were able to leave our luggage in the airport and travel in London for a long day’s sightseeing before continuing on to South Africa.
Even if you choose a non-stop flight between the US and South Africa you will likely arrive tired. A 16 hr flight is long, and there is a time zone difference of between 7 and 10 hours between South Africa and the US (depending on whether you live in the eastern or western US). The combination of the jet-lag effect and the extra travel time makes a one-week vacation to South Africa too short for most people from the Americas.
Getting around in southern Africa
Vehicle rental versus safari’s:
Driving “details”: Don’t drive at night, know where you are going, stay away from impoverished urban areas, study your routes beforehand and use GPS where possible and accurate.
Where to stay: Generally not in motels/hotels. B&B’s, guest houses, private farms, parks.
Gas stations and highways: attendants pump gas, they clean windows etc – bring plenty of small change for tips (everywhere). Some toll roads, most free. Superstations have shops, restaurants etc and are called “Ultra’s ” or something similar. Each major gas company has their own travel centers. These are great places to stop, eat and rest.
Legacy of apartheid: Every town (even very small) has a section where the black/colored population lived – and still live. Although in principle you can live anywhere today, the towns and cities are now segregated economically. Integration is complete during daytime in businesses but most people still live apart in their own communities. Not enough public transport so huge numbers of people walk long distances. Great for their health (you won’t see nearly as many overweight people in Africa as in the US) but it is a sign of their inability to afford a vehicle.
The goal of the South African government is to have all government workers employed in proportion to their population in the country. If 30% of the country’s population consists of some ethnic group, this should be their percentage of government workers. They have been able to attain this in less than 30 years, but it led to many short-term problems. Most employees in the National Park system are black, though there will be white specialists in areas where there are insufficient black employees (often technical areas).
Money matters: The South African Rand is the currency in South Africa and it can be used in Namibia as well (the Namibian dollar is pegged exactly to the South African Rand). In Botswana the Pula is used, but in some tourist areas the rand or the US dollar are taken, since tourism is dominated by South Africans or foreigners passing first through South Africa or Namibia. ATM’s exist in populated areas, but naturally, away from urban areas cash is needed. Tourist facilities almost universally accept major credit cards, though for travel one should make arrangements in advance through booking engines.
Shopping: South Africa has many large malls, much like elsewhere in the world. Then, there are grocery stores, often attached to the malls (unlike in the US where they tend to be separate from malls). These stores are at similar standards to US malls – some more impressive. These tend to be the best places for picking up major supplies. There are camping and outdoor recreations stores in many cities; South Africans tend to be more involved in outdoor camping and recreation activities than Americans. This applies mostly to white South Africans, though there is an increasing number of Black South Africans involved as well.
Safety: This is important, but you shouldn’t be petrified by fear of local conditions. Don’t drive at night (unless in small towns from your B&B to a restaurant etc). Try to avoid impoverished parts of larger towns and cities – unless on major roads. You will recognize these areas. Park in secure areas (most malls have dedicated watchmen looking over the cars parked there and they should be given a small tip every time you park). Make sure anything of value is well hidden in your vehicle. Don’t park off the road in remote areas – unless you are in a park, private ranch, or similarly safe area.
Some parts of South Africa tend to be more “risky” than other areas. For example, in western RSA there are much fewer people in the countryside because the climate is more arid and agriculture is concentrated in the few river valleys. Sheep farms dominate and these are often very large acreage affairs. Few people live between the towns since the land owners have historically be whites (colored people and blacks were not allowed to own most land). Plus, these farms tend to have sturdy fences that are well-maintained. In eastern RSA, especially in some of the “tribal homelands” that existed during apartheid, the black population could (and still do) live on their own land. In these wetter areas, more suitable to local farming, people are everywhere in the countryside. You, as a tourist, will stand out in such areas.
Practicalities for the naturalist
What to bring: Although you can buy most items in South Africa, foreign-produced items tend to be more expensive. Bring your camera gear, a laptop, and specialty items you usually take to the field. Be redundant with your gear – if something breaks or you drop a camera – what will you do? We have an entire section on field photography for photographers. This introductory talk contains our most useful advice.
Where to go: SANPARKS (South African National Parks) is the equivalent to the US National Park Service in the US. It runs all of the National Parks. BUT, there are many more parks than those of SANPARKS. For example, in the Western Cape province there are reserves run by Cape Nature. These are often large reserves in the Cape Region intended to protect natural habitat. The complication with Cape Nature reserves is that some require advance reservations or making contact with someone to receive permission to visit. Others may have few facilities. Very few have facilities to stay overnight.
Other provinces may have their own reserve system. In Kwazulu-Natal, there is a separate Game Park system run by the province that includes the large and well-known Hluhluwe-Imfoloze, Santa Lucia Wetlands, and Tembe Elephant reserves. The Drackensburg area is also in Kwazulu-Natal. We haven’t visited Kwazulu-Natal at all, so we cannot discuss their reserves here.
Basic Geography of southern Africa
If you are a European or from North America, why should you travel to Africa instead of South America, Australia, or south Asia? This should be a logical first question to the natural history traveler. Every place on Earth has something for such travelers. Africa stands out in some specific areas. But before we get to these we need to discuss the basic geography of Africa. I know most Americans don’t know geography very well, and of Africa they know even less.
Basic Geography of Africa
Biogeography of Africa
Geography of Southern Africa
We break our discussion of South Africa natural history attractions into a few parts. The overall geography is discussed first, followed by what we view as the unique aspects of a vacation to southern Africa. Then we provide some specifics on our strategy for seeing nature in the region.