Imagine waking up to birdsong and sipping your morning coffee while looking out over the rough-hewn cliffs of the Maluti Mountains in the Free State. Perhaps you’re up before the birds on a game drive, jostling along a dirt road towards a waterhole where you’re guaranteed a view of Africa’s Big Five.
Whether your day begins with a trek into mist-draped forests, a run along an untouched beach, or an adrenalin-spiking ride down a rugged mountain bike trail; whatever it is that gets your blood pumping, your soul singing, or your body clock reset from stress to total relaxation, you can find it in your own backyard at one of South Africa’s National Parks.
We don’t often take time off to think about the fact that we live in a country that boasts some of the most beautiful landscapes anywhere in the world, but taking time off is the point: South Africa’s true riches don’t lie in gold and diamonds, but in the system of magnificent parks that stretch between our borders.
“Our national parks are the heritage of every South African,” says South African National Parks (SANParks) general manager of sales and marketing, Bheki Zwane.
More than just a game or nature reserve, a national park’s purpose is to conserve a representative portion of the natural and cultural biodiversity of the country. South Africa is currently home to 21 parks in six of our nine provinces. Each park protects very different habitats, from savanna and semi-desert biomes to coastal parks and floral kingdoms and parks with forests and grasslands. Many of the parks contain more than one habitat, as well as a wide range of natural, cultural and tourism activities. Some parks feature the Big Five, while others are more focused on aquatic eco-systems, vegetation, or cultural or scenic landscapes.
Because of this, visitors have an unparalleled diversity of adventure and wildlife activities from which to choose. From the West Coast through the soulscapes of the Northern Cape and secret wonders of the Karoo, along the pine-edged coastline of the Garden Route and over the rolling green hills of the Eastern Cape to the verdant lowlands of the jewel in South Africa’s game park crown, the Kruger National Park, SANParks offer you such a wide variety of destinations and experiences that it’s almost overwhelming to choose where to go.
According to SANParks annual report, visitor numbers to our national parks increased by 6.6% in 2015. Zwane says: “Awareness is key to attracting visitors. People who have never visited our national parks don’t understand that there’s so much more to explore than wildlife, although observing wildlife is an important motivation for many visitors.”
Depending on where you go, there’s always plenty to do, such as hiking, birding, abseiling, mountain biking, 4x4 trails, environmental education and game tracking.
Whether you’re a newbie to our national parks or a seasoned visitor, SANParks gives you an opportunity to have an adventure in your own backyard. Want to start exploring? Here are two SANParks destinations to inspire wanderlust in 2016:
Golden Gate Highlands National Park: A Golden Opportunity for a Getaway
Officially proclaimed in 1963, the Golden Gate Highlands National Park derives its name from the gold-tinted glow of the setting sun as it bathes the west-facing sandstone cliffs. Perched on a hill in the Maluti Mountains in the north eastern Free State with magnificent views, the Golden Gate is only a two-and-a-half hour drive from Johannesburg and an ideal getaway for stressed-out city slickers.
Expect wide open spaces formed into unusual and moving vistas, and the opportunity to restore your balance in the crisp mountain air. Hike up the self-guided Brandwag buttress trail or the two day Rhebok trail with one overnight stop in a secluded, rustic hut or a take guided walk to the Cathedral Cave. You can also visit the Vulture Restaurant, the Van Reenen graveyard and the Basotho Cultural Village; enjoy horse riding and mountain biking, but always take a moment to soak up the panoramic views. Your wildlife encounters will also include sightings of the bearded vulture, bald ibis, black wildebeest, eland and oribi.
Stay at the Glen Reenen Rest Camp, Highlands Mountain Retreat, Basotho Cultural village or at Golden Gate Hotel, which has been revamped around the theme of the changing seasons and echoes the blues of winter, greens of spring, yellows of summer and oranges of autumn. The 4-star hotel offers plenty of activities, from horse riding, guided walks bowls and tennis to snooker, as well as a cosy pub with a fireplace to while away the frosty winter nights. Nearby Clarens – a bustling and arty little town – is also a gem that’s absolutely worth exploring.
Addo Elephant National Park: Much Ado About Family Vacations
The third largest park in South Africa, the Eastern Cape’s Addo Elephant National Park, stretches from the semi-arid Karoo in the north around Darlington Dam, over the rugged Zuurberg Mountains, through the Sundays River Valley and south to the coast between Sundays River mouth and Bushman’s river mouth. Forget the Big Five, Addo is home to the Big Seven and includes the southern right whale and great white shark among its residents. Where else can you wake up to a game drive and end the day walking along the shore?
The original elephant section of the park was proclaimed in 1931 when only 11 elephants remained in the area. Today, Addo is sanctuary to over 600 elephants, as well as lion, buffalo, black rhino, spotted hyena, leopard, a variety of antelope and zebra species, as well as the unique Addo flightless dung beetle found almost exclusively in the park.
But, more than anything else, Addo is an ideal family vacation destination. Besides the holiday programmes for children hosted during July and December, there’s plenty to explore. Stay at the popular main rest camp, which features comfortable family-sized accommodation as well as a unique waterhole lookout point (floodlit at night). Treat the family to game drives, horse trails, hiking, marine eco tours and kayaking. For a truly special experience (suitable only for adventure-hounds), explore the rustic Woody Cape section of the park, which features a petrified forest* and an endless dune field.
* A petrified forest is one where the trees have fossilised and turned into stone.
The park is also centrally located within easy reach of other major Eastern Cape tourist destinations, like Port Elizabeth, Port Alfred and Grahamstown.
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What you should know before you go for a jaunt in a national park:
All national parks are accessible throughout the year and offer reasonably priced self-catering accommodation that includes camping, bungalows and multi-bedroom guest houses. Luxury full service lodging is available in Kruger, Addo, Marakele, Kgalagadi and Table Mountain National Park. Pack a camera, binoculars and comfortable walking shoes if you want a close encounter with nature on a guided or self-guided adventure walk and hikes.
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Which parks are in your province?
ǀAi-ǀAis/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park
Augrabies Falls National Park
Kgalagadi Transfrontier National Park
Mokala National Park
Namaqua National Park
Tankwa Karoo National Park
Agulhas National Park
Bontebok National Park
Garden Route National Park
West Coast National Park
Karoo National Park
Table Mountain National Park
Addo Elephant National Park
Camdeboo National Park
Mountain Zebra National Park
Golden Gate Highlands National Park
Mapungubwe National Park
Marakele National Park
Kruger National Park
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To book a getaway at a SANParks destination, email email@example.com or book online at www.sanparks.org/tourism/reservations