South Africa Parks & Reserves

South Africa has long led the way in nature conservation and is home to a wide range of national parks, wilderness areas and private reserves. The top trump card is of course the Kruger National Park, South Africa’s biggest and most diverse park but much of the country’s most beautiful and important natural areas are also protected, whether they are rugged coastlines, baking Kalahari grasslands or soaring mountain ranges.

South Africa overland itineraries take full advantage of the country’s natural attractions and overlanders can expect to see great wildlife in superb settings. Find out more with our guide to South Africa’s parks and start planning your overland adventure.

Kruger National Park

The enormous and magnificent Kruger National Park is without question one of the most famous and popular game parks in the world. A 5-hour truck drive from Johannesburg, it’s the size of Wales or Israel and covers a significant chunk of South Africa’s hot and often humid lowveld - from the Crocodile River in Mpumalanga in the south to the Zimbabwe border in the Limpopo Province in the north. Its entire eastern side is the border with Mozambique.

And it’s getting bigger: the fences between borders and those between the private game reserves on the fringes of Kruger have been taken down now to form the Greater Kruger National Park. This gives the animals a much larger area within which to migrate, and boy, does the Kruger have animals: its density of permanent game is said to be unrivalled by any other park in Africa.

Wildlife is abundant in the Kruger. Sighting members of the Big 5 has become something of a quest for many people when on safari, and the Kruger National Park has more than its fair share of these. There are an estimated 1 800 lion, 9 000 elephant, 25 000 buffalo, an unknown number of leopards and 2 300 black and white rhino.

But that’s not all: its rivers and dams are full of hippo and crocodile while its wooded savannahs and grasslands are home to classic plains game such as giraffe, zebra, wildebeest and many antelope species. Other predators include spotted hyena, cheetah and wild dog, and bird watchers better bring their binoculars - the Kruger has a bird list of over 500 species.

It’s got history too: the park was first proclaimed in 1898 as the Sabie Game Reserve by Paul Kruger, then president of the Transvaal Republic. The first motorists entered the park in 1927 for a fee of one British pound. Since then Kruger has catered for hundreds of thousands of visitors each year and the park has excellent facilities, with a good network of roads and game-viewing waterholes.

The public camps have every amenity from shops to banks to laundry services and can accommodate up to 5 000 people per day. That’s not including the luxury camps in the private reserves. Occasionally it gets crowded, with many vehicles parked around the same pride of lion. But with a 2 600 kilometre road network there are plenty of opportunities to go out into the bush and lose the crowds.

The Kruger’s sub-tropical climate means hot rainy summers starting in November and ending around March/April. The summer rains transform the arid park into a lush flowering paradise, but the long grass makes animals harder to see though the bird watching is excellent. The best time for game viewing however is during the dry and much cooler winter months between May and October when the vegetation becomes sparse and wildlife congregates around permanent water sources.

Addo Elephant National Park

Something of a conservation success story, the Addo Elephant Park in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province was proclaimed a game reserve in 1931. This was to safeguard the last remaining 11 wild elephants that were still roaming the area.

Since then the herds have grown steadily and today the park is home to over 550 elephants and there are numerous other species in the park, including lion and buffalo. In fact, Addo Elephant Park has been so successful that surrounding farmland was steadily acquired and the park has been extended. From a modest 23 sq km in 1931 it now covers 3 600 sq km and - apart from the various terrestrial habitats - it now encompasses a coastal belt with a dune field, and extends into the Indian Ocean. The 120 000 hectare marine reserve includes islands containing Africa’s largest populations of African penguins and Cape gannets.

Addo is famous as a home to the Big 7: lion, buffalo, elephant, leopard, rhino, great white shark and southern right whale. But, given the elusive and/or aquatic nature of some of these species, the highlight here is undoubtedly watching Addo’s elephants, especially around a waterhole, and there is plenty of plains game such as giraffe, zebra, warthog and baboons as well.

Addo has a temperate climate and is a good park to visit at anytime of the year, combines well with the Garden Route and you are almost guaranteed to see elephant.

Tsitsikamma

Tsitsikamma (pronounced sit-si-kama) is a wild and beautiful place. Situated mid-way along the Garden Route, it is a stretch of indigenous forest sandwiched between a rocky Indian Ocean coastline and a backdrop of rugged mountains.

Tsitsikamma is a Khoisan word meaning, ‘place of much water’, and with an abundance of rivers and streams running through its sandstone gorges, it’s a fitting name. The park incorporates an 80- kilometre run of deep forests and secluded valleys, and even extends five kilometres into the ocean to include inter-tidal, reef and deep-sea ecosystems where dolphins and whales frolic.

Afforded formal protection in 1964, it became the first Marine National Park in Africa, and as fishing is not permitted, its marine life remains healthy and diverse. The park is also home to the rare Cape clawless otter, vervet monkeys and baboons, and the forests hide small antelopes and a range of forest and coastal birds.

Most visitors spend time at the Storms River mouth which offers magnificent views up and down the gorge. There are a number of short walking trails, one of which crosses a wobbly suspension bridge, and the park is home to the Otter Trail, a 5-day hike considered the best in South Africa but you’ll need to book months in advance.

On the Storms River itself there’s the opportunity to go black-water tubing – floating down the gentle rapids on giant inflatable inner tubes - and 20km west of Storms River is the Bloukrans Bridge with its eye-popping 216-metre bungee jump, a compulsory stop on every South African overland adventure!

Drakensberg

If the altitude doesn’t, the drama and magnificence of the Drakensberg Mountains in KwaZulu Natal will take your breath away. Mountain passes open up into immense valleys and seemingly endless folded hills of green velvet; in other areas bare sandstone rocks rise dramatically as sharp mountain peaks that are sometimes capped with snow.

Much of the Drakensberg range is protected in the form of the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg Park which runs for hundreds of kilometres down the eastern border of the kingdom of Lesotho, a small mountainous country completely surrounded by South Africa. In 2001 the park won status as a World Heritage Site for its outstanding natural beauty and its important historical significance: not only are there spectacular rock formations (with names like Cathedral Peak, Champagne Castle and Giant’s Castle) but these secretive rocks and caves were once the home of San Bushmen who left their considerable mark with rock art - 3 000 paintings at 600 sites.

Ukhahlamba means ‘barrier of spears’ in Zulu and Drakensberg ‘dragon mountains’ in Afrkikaans but don’t let that put you off:  the Drakensberg has many established trails within the park and is one of the best places in Africa for hiking though choose your season carefully - the summer rains might produce bursts of flowers and lush green meadows but lightning storms are a hazard, while the dry winters are extremely cold at night with sharp frosts and snow falls on the upper reaches of the mountains.