National Parks of South Africa

Leopard with cub in Kruger National Park.

In the early 1890s, President Paul Kruger became increasingly alarmed by the dwindling herds of buffalo in South Africa's Lowveld and declared his intention for a game reserve for 'nature'.

President Paul Kruger's vision laid the foundations of conservation in South Africa, and by the turn of the century the first game reserves - Pongola, Umfolozi, Hluhluwe and Sabie - had been established.

It took another 30 years, however, until the National Parks Act was passed in parliament and conservation of land in South Africa was entrenched by national law. At the same time Sabie was renamed Kruger in honour of the man who had put the whole process in motion.

If Paul Kruger were around today, I'm sure he would be surprised. There are now 20 major parks in the country, covering an area of nearly two million hectares and representing various ecosystems, formations and cultural landmarks. Their diversity is enormous, ranging from the Knysna National Lakes Area and the wind-battered Cape Peninsula National Park to the arid Karoo and the rocky Golden Gate Highlands National Park.

By far the largest - and most successful - is still Kruger. It covers more than 19,000km2 (roughly the same size as Wales) and is run from Skukuza - a veritable 'city' of scientists in the heart of the old park (there's no talk of sleeping in tents as they did in the old days).

With 3000km of roads, 24 rest camps and a host of excellent picnic sites, walking trails, 4x4 routes, hides and massive dams, you won't find better facilities in a game reserve anywhere in Africa. Every year about a million visitors come to appreciate the tally of 520 bird, 114 reptile and 146 mammal species - and nearly half stay for the night, generating substantial funds for the country's conservation coffers. In 1999 tourism in Kruger generated more than R200 million in turnover, with a net profit of about R10 million.

Currently, South African National Parks has an annual budget of R400 million, of which R50 million is funded by the taxpayer. Staying profitable is central to conservation, and in some areas private operators are being invited to tender for certain non-core operations.

Kruger, like all South Africa's national parks, is fenced. While this means that you can keep the game in and the poachers out, it does create an artificial environment which needs to be carefully controlled. Over the years, South African National Parks (SanParks) staff have become experts in game management and their research has been exported all over Africa and the world. But not all interventions - for example, culling - have proved popular with critics and SanParks has had to look at new methods for dealing with population increases.

One remarkable initiative, which has captured the spirit of the 'new' South Africa, is the creation of fence-free parks where animals can migrate freely over national borders (see story on page 68). The first Transfrontier park, Kgalagadi, was officially opened in early 2000 and included South Africa's Kalahari Gemsbok and Botswana's Gemsbok National Park. The fact that both parks had arid climates, low populations and were previously unfenced made the transition fairly easy. Plans to merge Kruger, Coutada 16 in Mozambique and Gonarezhou in Zimbabwe into a massive 35,000 hectare park called Gaza-Kruger-Gonarezhou Transfrontier Park will be trickier (see story on Mozambique, p66).

Funds from profitable parks - and loans from the World Bank - are being used to expand existing national parks as well. Perhaps the most exciting of these expansion initiatives is the creation of the Greater Addo Elephant National Park near Port Elizabeth. If plans go ahead this will see the existing Addo Elephant National Park expanding from 51,534 hectares to a massive 398,000 hectares that will include Woody Cape Nature Reserve. This combination of bush and beach at the top of the Garden Route is sure to be a hit.

Vaalbos national Park near Kimberley, on the other hand, might be deproclaimed. This 22,000 hectare woodland on the Vaal River was originally proclaimed in 1986 on the assumption that neighbouring properties could be purchased to create a viable 120,000 hectare park. Probably due to Vaalbos' location bang in the middle of prime diamond-mining land, this was not possible. It sounds pretty dismal to hear of a national park being deproclaimed, but you can see the point: the place is very small, underutilised and disrupted by the sounds of heavy machinery.

The criterion for creating national parks is not just to protect animals as Paul Kruger originally proposed. In South Africa today, parks such as Golden Gate Highlands National Park have been proclaimed on account of their scenery, while Cape Agulhas (the newest of the national parks) was proclaimed on account of its unique geographical location at the southernmost tip of Africa. In other instances, such as Knysna National Lake Area and the Cape Peninsula National Park, the park body does not actually own all the land under its control. Both these areas are surrounded by densely populated urban and industrial areas and the park officials provide a much-needed buffer against an onslaught of developers.

The creation of national parks in the past was somewhat blind to the needs of people. In what is now seen as a travesty against human rights, many groups, such as the Riemvasmakers in the Northern Cape, were relocated thousands of kilometres to make way for animals. The new South African Constitution protects people's rights to their land and the Riemvasmakers have now been resettled. Another interesting case is the Makulele people from the Pafuri Area in the Kruger National Park.

Since they were removed in 1968 these people have wanted to become involved in nature conservation and tourism. Now, an area of 25,000 hectares has been returned to the community through a deed of donation which permits them to engage in low impact tourism activities. No mining, farming or permanent residence may take place without the permission of the SanParks.

Since Paul Kruger first urged that 'Nature' be protected, the definition of national parks has broadened considerably. SanPark's current mission is to manage a system of parks that represents the indigenous wildlife, vegetation, landscapes and significant cultural assets of South Africa for the pride and benefit of the nation.

Furthermore, a transformation mission is in place to shift from an established system for managing the natural environment to one which encompasses cultural resources and engages all sections of the community. Judging by accomplishments in recent years, SanParks is doing a pretty good job.

Addo Elephant

Established 1931, to protect remaining 11 Cape elephants; now covers more than 80,000ha in the Eastern Cape, 72km north of Port Elizabeth. Plans afoot to expand to 398,000ha, making Addo South Africa's third biggest and most biodiverse conservation area.

From the gently undulating slopes of the Zuurberg Mountains to valleys and plains largely covered by spekboom. Some coastal scrub, fynbos ('fine bush') and grassland. The land has one of the highest animal carrying capacities of any park in Africa.

Famous for more than 300 Elephants but its 50 mammal species include Mountain Zebra, Buffalo, Hippo and Black Rhino. 185 bird species, including ostrich. Vehicle-based game viewing (day and night), hides, floodlit waterhole, walking, hiking trails and horse-riding. Birdwatching, fishing, sailing, swimming. Family cottages (air-conditioned, self-contained and serviced), chalets, two-bed bungalows, two-bedroomed forest huts, caravan and camping sites. Restaurant, shops, swimming pool.

Agulhas

Proclaimed 1998. 230km east of Cape Town. Plans to purchase a further 7000ha. The southernmost tip of Africa: bleak, rocky coastline and rugged windswept plains where Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet. Variety of wetlands. Rocky beaches. Several unique vegetation types, such as limestone fynbos, supporting about 2000 indigenous plant species (including 110 Red Data Book species).

Over 21,000 resident and migrant sea birds occur here annually. The rich marine and intertidal marine life includes the endangered Cape platanna and the Micro frog. Bird, whale and seal watching. Beaches, water sports (including fishing) and safe sea swimming. Nature trails and 1848 lighthouse (National Monument). Agulhas is a graveyard of shipwrecks. Small hotels and guesthouses in nearby towns of L'Agulhas and Struisbaai. Agulhas Caravan Park has self-catering chalets, shop and restaurant.

Augrabies Falls

Created in August 1996 to protect the waterfall and environs; 46,000ha, located 120km west of Upington on South Africa's border with Namibia. Dominated by 'moonrock' and bold granite domes. The park is traversed by the Orange River and its cataracts. The main waterfall (60m) is best to be viewed October - January. Vegetation sparse, adapted to extremely dry conditions: Camelthorn, Quiver and Namaqua fig trees, aloes, euphorbias and succulents. Gemsbok, eland, giraffe, small antelope, baboons, dassies, squirrels and predators, including leopard and jackal. Well known for reptiles.

The spectacular falls, rafting and canoeing over rapids and along river. Gariep 3-in-1 adventure trail (rowing, hiking and biking), three-day Klipspringer hike and other day hikes and drives. Game viewing, birdwatching, swimming. Fully serviced, air-con, self-catering family cottages and bungalows. Camping site and trail huts, restaurant, shops and three small swimming pools. Self-catering 4x4 bush camp.

Bontebok National Park

Created 1931 to protect Africa's last 22 Bontebok; enlarged and proclaimed national park in 1960. 2786ha near Swellendam, 230km from Cape Town towards the Garden Route. Mainly open and flat country interspersed with rocky ridges below the Langeberg Mountains. Sweet thorn trees dominate but olive, yellowwood and milkwood trees found along river beds. With areas of fynbos and renosterbosveld the park is part of the Cape Floral Kingdom, the smallest but richest of the world's six floral kingdoms.

Bonteboks aside, there are large and small antelope, including red hartebeest and grey rhebok, and several Cape Mountain Zebra. About 200 bird, 28 reptile and ten amphibian species. Game drives (Bontebok ewes calve between September and November). Self-guided walks and nature trails. Swimming and fishing in the Breede River. Flowers, birdwatching, swimming, angling. Wine routes nearby. Serviced self-catering chalavans, camping and caravan sites. Shops. More choice and comfort in nearby Swellendam.

Cape Peninsula National Park

Proclaimed in May 1998. Set within Cape Town metropolitan area; scheduled to become a World Heritage Site. When consolidated, the park will cover 20,000ha, including the (former) Cape of Good Hope, Table Mountain and Silvermine Nature Reserves but excluding the marine component (for now).

Embraces the Cape Peninsula mountains, from Table Bay 60km south to Cape Point. Includes patches of afro-montane forest, mountain fynbos and renosterveld. Part of the Cape Floral Kingdom with 2285 registered plant species (90 endemic), many of which are hardy, low-growing, small-leafed fynbos evergreens. 370 species of protea, 600 different ericas, watsonias, orchids and daisies.

Mammals include baboon, lynx, eland, hartebeest, bontebok and small antelope. Nearly 300 different bird (including ostriches), 32 reptile and 15 amphibian species. Penguin colony at Boulders, near Simonstown. Game viewing, whale and birdwatching, shipwrecks. Numerous guided walks, hiking and climbing trails in the mountains. Beaches, tidal pools, surfing, sailing, snorkelling, fishing and horse-riding. Cape Town offers everything from five-star luxury to basic hostels.

Golden Gate Highlands National Park

11,630ha, located 350km from Johannesburg. Lies between the Rooiberg and Maluti Mountains. Much admired for the multi-hued, sculptured Clarens sandstone cliffs and rock formations. Best known is 'the Golden Gate' a set of twin buttresses named the Gladstone. Its eastern buttress is Brandwag ('the sentinel'). The highlands, dotted with caves and rock shelters, overlook grassed slopes with pockets of indigenous forest and wooded ravines feeding the Little Caledon River.

Wildebeest, zebra, mountain reedbuck, grey rhebok and oribi frequent the slopes. Over 180 bird species - notably Black eagles and other raptors; Bearded vulture and rare Bald ibis. Summer veld flowers - fire and arum lilies, red-hot pokers and watsonias - and over 50 grass species.

Principally a scenic park. Good game-viewing roads, nature and birdwatching walks and horse-riding trails. The two-day, 30km Rhebok Hiking Trail is very popular. Bowls, golf and tennis. Basuto Cultural village. Birdwatching hide with vulture restaurants.

Self-catering chalets, hotel rooms in the two rest camps. Equipped trail huts, camping facilities and an Environmental Education Centre (youth hostel); restaurants, shops and swimming pool. Variety of good hotels, lodges and guesthouses in surrounding towns.

Karoo Established 1979, 500km north of Cape Town. Much of the 75,000ha was previously sheep farming land. The Karoo desert is South Africa's largest ecosystem. The 2000m-high Nuweveld Mountains, their plateaux, and rivers that descend to flat grasslands below, dominate the northern sector. The plains are covered with 'Karoo bush' (dwarf shrubs), dotted with sweet-thorn acacia trees.

48 mammal species, notably Black rhino, various antelope and small predators such as black-backed jackal, caracal and Bat-eared foxes. Burchell's zebra, part of the Quagga breeding project, also occur. 180 bird species including 20 pairs of breeding Black eagles. 38 different reptile, 37 gecko/lizard and five tortoise species. Choral symphonies from the eight frog species and barking geckos.

Night drives, game and birdwatching; the unique 400m Karoo Fossil Braille Trail, the Karoo 4x4 route and the 12km Fonteintjieskloof day trail. The main camp has modern Cape Dutch-style chalets, a restaurant, shop, swimming pool, camping and caravan sites. Nearby Beaufort West has hotels, lodges and guesthouses.

Knysna National Lake Area

The park lies on the south coast along the scenic Garden Route, 70km from George. Permanently open to the sea. Dominated by the craggy Knysna Heads. Below, the Goudveld and Diepwalle Forests of yellowwoods and other big trees (up to 6000 years old) overlook the Knysna lagoon, salt marshes and sandbanks.

Once famous for elephants, but these have gone. Small game - bushbuck, duiker and Vervet monkeys, and a variety of birds, notably the Knysna lourie. Diverse marine life, including the endangered Knysna Seahorse. Excellent walks and hikes (some guided) in the forests, some specifically for birdwatching. Whale watching, fishing, sailing, scuba diving, board-sailing and other water-related activities. No lodgings, but hotels, self-catering lodges and hostels in George and Knysna.

Kruger

Founded 1898 as the Sabi Game Reserve, the park has expanded several times. Covers nearly 20,000km2 (60km x 350km) along the border with Mozambique. 14 different ecosystems include bushveld, savannah grassland, woodlands, wetlands, granite outcrops, major rivers and deep ravines.

Boasts the greatest species diversity of any park in Africa. 146 mammal species including the Big Five - about 9000 elephant, 2000 lion, 1000 leopard, 200 cheetah, 3000 white and 300 black rhino, 25,000 buffalo, 5000 giraffe, 14,000 wildebeest, 30,000 zebra and numerous antelope. 520 bird species including raptors, vultures and ostrich. 230 types of butterfly, 50 different snakes and 62 other reptile types. 2000 plant species (336 trees). Insect and micro-organism species uncountable.

Nearly 3000km of game-viewing roads; hides, waterholes and picnic sites. Seven (two-three day) guided wilderness trails; golf course and airstrip at Skukuza. Three of the world's largest private game reserves touch Kruger's eastern boundary. Eight entrance gates.

Many tree-shaded public rest camps with thatched cottages, chalets, camping sites and comprehensive facilities. Six bushveld camps; nine upmarket, private camps. About 24 exclusive luxury lodges in adjacent private reserves.

Marakele

Marakele ('place of sanctuary' in Tswana) is a newly created, 600km2 park, located in the southern section of the Waterberg Mountains in South Africa's far north. Expansion planned.

Wild, rugged land in the transitional zone between the dry and moist areas of South Africa. Contains striking assortment of chiselled peaks and cliffs of the Kransberg, overlooking elevated acacia savannah plains and three main rivers. 5m-high cycads and tree ferns.

Big Five country, plus tsessebe, roan, sable, hartebeest and other antelope. 800 breeding pairs of the endangered Cape vulture - the world's largest colony. Real African wilderness, remote and difficult to explore. Spectacular scenery.

Night drives and hiking trails planned. Tented camp on the Matlabas River and a rustic bush camp (4x4 essential for both). Surrounding private reserves, such as Welgevonden, offer a handful of lodges.

Mountain Zebra National Park

Founded 1937 to protect the last few Cape Mountain Zebra. Since expanded to 19,000ha. Situated 25km from Cradock in the Eastern Cape. Backed by the large amphitheatre of the Bankberg Mountains (the highest is Spitskop, nearly 2000m), open plains roll down to deep ravines and a wooded river course. Grassy slopes, with Karoo scrub, are dotted with aloes.

About 300 stocky Mountain zebra and 57 other types of mammal, mainly antelope and buffalo. 200 bird species (raptors thrive on the many rock dassies and some of the 45 reptile species). Look out for the large Mountain Tortoise and Monitor Lizards (leguaans). About 40km of game-viewing, scenic roads and short walking routes.

A fully-equipped guesthouse (a National Monument), 18 self-catering cottages, caravan and camping sites with restaurant, small conference centre, shop and pool. Cradock has hotels and guesthouses.

Namaqualand - Wildlfowers (seasonal)

Proclaimed 1998. A 55,000ha, 50km-wide strip of flowering desert just inland from the Atlantic coast, 500km north of Cape Town. Diamond-studded sandveld flanks the coast. Inland lies broken hardeveld with granite outcrops and sandy alluvial and semi-arid land. The Kamiesberg Mountains are watered by dew from the foggy Atlantic mists.

Boasts the richest bulb flora of any arid region in the world. In spring (August/September) the veld is a white, orange and yellow carpet of Namaqualand daisies and others of the 355 varieties of flowers. Amphibians and reptiles (some endemic) and desert-adapted mammals. Flowers, hiking and birdwatching. In Springbok, accommodation includes lodges, self-catering cottages, farmhouses and traditional Nama huts - all packed during flower season.

Ai-Ais Richtersveld Park

National Park status given in 1991, to protect the plant life (the richest variety of succulents in the world). Local Nama people allowed to live and graze livestock on the reserve's 162,445ha. In north-west South Africa, on the Namibian border.

Bounded on two sides by the great loop of the Orange River. 4x4 country: harsh, rugged, mountainous land; red-earth, bone-dry plains scattered with strange rock formations. The Malmokkie (coastal fog) supports about 700 different plant types - including Quiver Tree / Kokerboom and halfmens ('half man') trees. About a third of the plant species are endemic.

Few mammals can survive but desert-adapted Kudu, Rhebuck, Klipspringer, Baboons, Monkeys, occasional Leopards, smaller carnivore and various rodents occur. 194 bird, 55 mammal, 58 reptile/amphibian and 14 fish species. Botanical oddities and the flowering of desert plants in spring. Birdwatching, walking and overnight hiking trails; swimming and fishing in the Orange River. 20 basic campsites at 5 locations and 1 self-catering cottage in Sendelingsdrift (the park's reception centre).

Tsitsikamma National Park

Tsitsikamma National Park was established 1964 and expanded 1983. It is the oldest marine national park in Africa. A narrow 1km terrestrial, 80km-long strip of land and 5,5km-wide marine tract. One of the largest single unit 'no-take' protected marine areas in the world. Lies between Groot River West (Nature's Valley) and the Groot River East (Oubos) on the Garden Route.

Backed by the Tsitsikamma Mountains, whose cliffs are cut by valleys and deep river gorges. The fertile coastal plain drops 180m to the sea. Mountain slopes covered by fynbos and indigenous forests. Over 80 tree species (notably 40m Outeniqua yellowwoods); floor of ferns and low shrubs.

Small antelope, including the tiny blue duiker; baboons, monkeys, grey mongooses, the Cape clawless otter and honeybadgers. Whales and dolphins seen from shore. More than 200 bird species; Black oystercatchers, Knysna louries and the Narina trogon. Many molluscs and numerous fish species.

Scenery, wildlife and numerous rivers and streams make this South Africa's second most popular park. Hikes include the 48km Otter Trail. Activities include scuba, snorkelling and canoeing. Whales and dolphins come close to shore. Two big rest camps with fully equipped cottages and 'oceanettes', camping and caravan sites, forest huts for hikers, shops, restaurants and swimming pools. Hotels and guesthouses nearby.

Ukhahlamba - Drakensberg Park

230,000ha World Heritage Site along the KwaZulu Natal (KZN)/Lesotho border. Protects a unique domain of Afro-montane/alpine vegetation. 240km north to south and up to 20km wide.

Main feature is the massive basalt-capped escarpment separating the high Lesotho plateau from the low KwaZulu-Natal coastlands. Aptly named ukhahlamba ('barrier of spears') by the local Nguni, it comprises impassable sandstone cliffs, massive spires, rock buttresses and peaks of over 3300m. In the south, the Sani Pass into Lesotho twists hair-raisingly to the highest point reachable by vehicle in the subcontinent. Grass covered hills, divided by forested river ravines, roll seawards.

Over 1500 plant species, 350 endemic. Proteas, fynbos and ferns on the higher slopes; hardy, small alpine plants, grasses and succulents on the high plateau. Yellowwood trees along rivers. Four state forests in the south.

Game relatively scarce: around 12 antelope species, including mountain reedbuck, oribi and klipspringer. Hyraxes everywhere; smaller mammals (otters, mongooses, servals and lynx) seen occasionally. Over 300 varieties of bird; the rare Bearded vulture nests here. 30 different reptiles.

One of the finest places in the world for rock art (over 600 sites). Gentle walks and some of Africa's most rugged and picturesque hiking trails. Mountaineering, horse-riding, mountain-biking, hang-gliding, trout fishing and a vulture restaurant.

Good selection of Parks Board lodges, chalets, mountain huts, campsites and caves. Most self-catering but several have restaurants and shops. Good hotels, private resorts and B&Bs in the foothills.

West Coast National Park

Proclaimed 1985 to protect 25km of Atlantic coastline, the Langebaan lagoon (with its salt marshes, mudflats and rocky shores) and the surrounding Strandveld fynbos and four offshore islands. 32,000ha, 100km north of Cape Town.

The richness of marine invertebrates support a population of about 40,000 wader birds in the summer (migrants from as far away as Greenland and Siberia). More than 250 species of birds include flamingos (from Etosha), cormorants, 25% of the world's Cape gannets and half its Swift tern populations. Inland, Mountain zebra, eland, wildebeest, bontebok, and (occasionally) caracal, wild cat, Bat-eared fox and the Angulate tortoise (an endemic).

Spring wild flowers; lagoon-based water sports (swimming, sailing, snorkelling and fishing). Two-day, 24km Postberg Hiking Trail. Bird, game and whale watching. Some of the world's richest fossil deposits (over 200 species), including 117,000-year-old human footprints. Caravan, hotel and guest house accommodation in Langebaan and Saldana Bay. Chalets and a houseboat for hire in the park. Geelbek environmental centre has self-catering dormitory-style lodgings for school groups.

Wilderness

2600ha core conservation area, surrounded by 10,000ha buffer zone. There are 4 lakes fed by 5 rivers. 28km front along the south coast, with Outeniqua Mountains as a backdrop.

Sandy white beaches break the rocky coastline. Behind, bush-covered sand dunes, fertile wetlands and a tree-covered hinterland. Mainly coastal fynbos; forests contain iron-, black-, yellow-, milk- and cherrywood trees. Reedbeds and sedge support many water bird species. Over 230 types of birds. Small antelope, Bushpig and Tortoises. Offshore Whales, Cape Fur Seals and Bottlenose Dolphins are regularly spotted. Seven forest walking trails. Water-related activities dominate: swimming, sailing, canoeing, water-skiing and fishing. 2 rest camps offer cottages, camping and caravan sites. Hotels and guesthouses in Knysna, George and other centres.

By David Steel & David Rogers

Copyright 2002 Travel Africa. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without the permission of the author is prohibited.

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