South African Nature Reserves

To many Europeans, African travel more-or-less equates to game viewing. While cities such as Cape Town add an extra dimension to travel in South Africa, the country also boasts more than 300 game and nature reserves. 

Between them, they protect a range of habitats second-to-none on the African continent. The largest and most famous of these reserves is the Kruger National Park, a classic tract of African bush covering an area greater than Wales.

The Kruger Park supports more types of mammal than any other reserve on the continent, while over 500 bird species have been recorded, more than you'd see in a lifetime of birdwatching in most northern hemisphere countries. An excellent road system and good amenities make the Kruger ideal for those who want to hire a car and immerse themselves in the mesmerising atmosphere of the African bush, unconstrained by the somewhat diluted experience offered by the more conventional guided safari.

The so-called Big Five - lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo - are all present in the Kruger in significant numbers, along with such perennial favourites as zebra, giraffe, wildebeest and warthog, more than a dozen antelope species, and less celebrated predators such as jackal, hyaena, hunting dog and cheetah.

But the thick bush often makes game-spotting a real challenge; those who want to be sure of seeing most of the above-mentioned species are advised to spend a couple of nights in one of the more upmarket private reserves adjoining Kruger Park. Here, off-road game drives in open vehicles are led by experienced guides and trackers, and visitors are practically guaranteed the opportunity to eyeball lions, leopards and the rest at chillingly close proximity.

Finest Nature Reserves

South Africa boasts several other fine nature reserves, most notably the cluster in the northern part of KwaZulu-Natal Province, arguably the best place on the continent to see white and black rhinos. On the other side of the country, the infrequently visited Kalahari Gemsbok park is a prime candidate for that trusty old 'best-kept secret' tag.

Situated in the vast and sparsely populated Northern Cape Province, bordering Botswana and Namibia, this 10,000 square kilometre tract of rolling red dunes and deep blue skies is the country's second largest reserve. The apparent inhospitality of its climate is belied by the plethora of large mammals it supports - the elegant gemsbok, dainty springbok, massive eland and ungainly wildebeest.

This is the country's finest reserve for predators, and the open terrain makes it easy to spot all three of Africa's big cats, as well as smaller predators such as the endearing bat-eared fox. Bush reserves represent a mere fraction of South Africa's natural diversity.

At the heart of the country are the Drakensberg Mountains, an immense and spectacularly scenic range returned to year after year by keen hikers and ramblers. The Cape Town area is renowned for its fynbos, a heath-like vegetation cover unique to this mountainous part of the country and regarded as constituting one of the world's six floral kingdoms.

Particularly rich in proteas, the fynbos biome supports one of the most varied floras in the world - the tiny Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve, for instance, protects more indigenous plant species than are found in the British Isles. Another unique biome occurs in the Namaqua region to the north of Cape Town, where the dry stony earth erupts into an unrivalled display of wild flowers every spring.

Then there is the Garden Route, the outstandingly beautiful stretch of coast that lies to the east of Cape Town, with its heath-covered cliffs, lush indigenous forests, idyllic lagoons, picture-postcard beaches and quaint seaside towns. It is worth noting, too, the several special interest groups that are catered for in South Africa.

For birdwatchers, roughly 800 species have been recorded in South Africa, including a greater number of endemics than any other place on the continent - in many parts of the country it is quite easy for twitchers to pick up more than 100 species in a day.

Hikers have in the region of 100 overnight trails and perhaps 10 times as many day trails to choose from. Adventure sport enthusiasts can bungee jump off the Gouritz Bridge, go white-water rafting on the Orange River or be taken on a kloofing trip into the mountains around Cape Town.

And once you have ticked off the terrestrial big five, you can put their size into perspective with a visit to Hermanus - at the right time of year this offers some of the best whale-watching in the world. As much as South Africa is a country of immense natural variety, so is it one of Africa's great cultural melting pots.

That 11 official languages are recognized says much, but even this unique statistic conveys little of South Africa's multitude of cultural influences. In essence, however, this is an African country, and some 80% of the population consists of various Bantu-speaking  peoples, each with their own distinct customs and cultural heritage.

As is often the case in modern Africa, it is increasingly meaningless to try to view traditional African culture in isolation from external influences. However, visitors who wish to explore this arguably rather neglected aspect of South Africa are urged to visit one of the vibrantly painted Ndebele villages that dot the Johannesburg area or to partake of the traditional Zulu experiences offered by places like Simunye and Shakaland in the province of KwaZulu-Natal.

A World in One Country

There is a slogan that has stood the South African Tourist Board in good stead for as long as I can remember. It is this: 'South Africa: A World in one Country'. This is the sort of sweeping statement that will consume any sensible person with the urge to tie up the nearest PR person and make them watch the same television commercial non-stop for 24 hours.

There are no glaciers in South Africa any more. As a potential ski-holiday destination, it ranks only slightly above Libya on the 'no thank you' stakes. And whatever you might say about the Dutch-built Castle of Good Hope - the country's oldest extant building - it hasn't quite the historical significance or ambience of the pyramids, or the Colosseum, or even the ruined city of Great Zimbabwe.

But let us concede, however grudgingly, that the tourist board has a point. South Africa is a country of dazzling variety. Not a world in one country, but - given the time restrictions that face the normal tourist - possibly the next best thing.

Where else, in the space of a two-week holiday, could you realistically expect to experience this wide range of riches: the game-rich acacia savannah of the Kruger National Park; the scenic grandeur of the mountainous Cape Winelands.

A city of such stateliness as Cape Town alongside one as brashly modern as Johannesburg; and a 3,000km coastline encompassing both the paradisial subtropical beaches of the Indian Ocean and the captivatingly austere rockscapes of the chillier, drier Atlantic seaboard? Not anywhere else in Africa, that's for sure. Perhaps nowhere else in the world.

By Johan Liebenberg

South Africa Nature Reserves : Game Reserves and National Parks