South Africa offers a unique mix of outdoor, cultural and safari vacations. In its famous national parks, the focus is not only on the Big 5, but also on the unforgettable landscapes!
Besides the rugged cliffs of the Drakensberg, the carpets of flowers at Cape Floral and the dazzling metropolis of Cape Town, South Africa naturally beckons with SAFARI! Photograph the Big 5 in South Africa's most beautiful national parks with lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and buffalo, get to know the endless savannah and watch the red sun go down - absolutely unforgettable experiences in the African bush! No wonder many of the national parks are also represented on our list of the top 10 sights of South Africa.
The best time to visit South Africa's national parks is during the cooler dry season from June to August, when wildlife congregates at the remaining waterholes. Also, then the vegetation is not as dense, the animals are easier to see, and the mosquitoes are not quite as annoying. However, you should pack warm clothes for night, early morning or evening safari drives.
Tip: To make the safari a success, you should be clear in advance about the best time to travel, necessary equipment and prescribed rules of conduct. Which animals can be seen in which national parks can also be helpful for planning.
Table of contents
Kruger National Park
The Kruger National Park is one of the largest and most famous national parks in Africa and shines with extremely high biodiversity. With lodges, camps and paved roads excellently developed, the chance to meet Africa's "Big 5" is particularly high.
In addition to these safari stars, Kruger National Park is home to over 200 other mammal species and some 800 different bird species, which can be discovered amidst the forests and grasslands.
Addo Elephant National Park
Located about 70km northeast of Port Elizabeth in the Sundays River Valley, Addo Elephant National Park is close to the popular Garden Route. It was established in 1931 to protect elephants and they are, of course, the stars to this day. With a population of 500 to 600, a sighting of the gray giants is (almost) guaranteed!
Apart from the impressive pachyderms, not only the Big 5 with lion, leopard, rhino and buffalo, but even the Big 7 can be seen here! Since the national park is also connected to a marine reserve, shark and whale can be seen from time to time.
Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve
Originally founded to protect rhinos in the 1890s, the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve is one of the oldest national parks in Africa. The white r hinos were just saved from extinction at that time and are now numerous again, as are the black rhinos.
The Big 5 are also present in the park, but especially the big cats hide mostly in the dense bush. Who nevertheless spies a cheetah, lion or leopard is just lucky. Giraffes, zebras and wildebeests usually roam clearly visible over the gentle grassy hills.
Marakele National Park
The Big 5 can also be seen in Marakele National Park in northern South Africa. The park impresses with its rugged landscape in the middle of the Waterberg Mountains and is divided into two zones. One is more easily accessible with tracks, but the chance of seeing animals is lower here, while the second part has been left much more pristine and wild and is therefore home to more wildlife. Predator sightings here nevertheless have to do with a lot of luck.
Due to its remote location, only a few safari tourists come to Marakele National Park. Its animal highlights include elephants and leopards as well as the rare Cape vultures, which mainly circle at the Vulture Viewpoint.
Ithala Game Reserve
At Ithala Game Reserve, which is sparsely visited by visitors, the mix of low hills and rugged cliffs provides a fascinating backdrop for viewing African wildlife. Ithala Game Reserve is also home to black and white rhino, as well as elephant, giraffe, buffalo, zebra and huge herds of antelope.
The landscape between the approximately 300 million old rock formations can be explored on your own by safari car, but guided night hikes are also available.
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park
Kgalagadi National Park stretches across the border into Botswana, but tourist infrastructure is concentrated on the South African side. Its red sand dunes offer a welcome change to the eye from the otherwise predominant bush and grasslands and are populated by eland and oryx antelope, springbok and blue wildebeest.
Far from South Africa's top 10 attractions, the desert wilderness of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is usually almost to yourself. The sparsely vegetated landscape offers excellent opportunities for sightings of leopard, cheetah, hyena and lion. The latter are conspicuous for the characteristic black mane of Kalahari lions. Birds, including some birds of prey, also live here in large numbers.
Mountain Zebra National Park
In the also hardly visited Mountain Zebra National Park, several viewpoints offer sensational panoramic views over the Bankberg Mountains, rolling grasslands, dense bushveld and the densely forested banks of the Wilgerboom River. Herds of the endangered Cape Mountain Zebra have been established in Mountain Zebra National Park, with sightings guaranteed on the first day of safari.
Wildebeest, springbok, buffalo and eland complete the ungulate population of the national park. Rhinos and lions are also native to Mountain Zebra National Park, but are rarely seen. Cheetahs are relatively easy to spot - some of them are equipped with a transmitter and can be tracked on foot with trained rangers.
uMkhuze Game Reserve
The uMkhuze Game Reserve on Lake St. Lucia is part of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park just under 2 hours' drive south of Maputo and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. South Africa's largest lake is also home to most of the country's crocodiles and hippos.
The mix of salt and fresh water in the lake, which is only 1m deep, creates perfect conditions for an amazing abundance of fish. The shores and skies are populated by 400 different water birds, including flamingos, herons and pelicans. On land, rhinos, cheetahs, buffaloes, leopards and guenons are among the inhabitants, and the sandy beaches are frequently visited by sea turtles and even humpback whales.
The scenery is framed by the second highest sand dunes in the world (after the spectacular dunes of the Namib, which can be marveled at in Namib-Naukluft National Park in Namibia, among other places).
Mapungubwe National Park
In Mapungubwe National Park, about 1 hour's drive north of Johannesburg, it is not only the animals that are worth seeing. Elephants, rhinos, lions, leopards and numerous antelope species roam through the pristine landscape with floodplain forests, baobab trees and impressive rock formations - but there are also things to see elsewhere.
What makes Mapungubwe National Park so special is its past, because almost 1000 years ago, the largest kingdom in South Africa was located here. Today's excavation site is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and reveals palace ruins and richly decorated royal tombs dating back to the year 900.
Ai-Ais/Richtersveld National Park
Last but not least, the Ai-Ais/Richtersveld National Park should also be mentioned, where wildlife is also not necessarily in the foreground. At first glance, the desert-like landscape between South Africa and Namibia looks like a hostile lunar landscape. Only at second glance does life reveal itself in the form of mountain zebras, ibex, deer antelopes, baboons and many more - forming the most species-rich desert in the world.
The relatively remote national park is best reached by small plane and is home to exceptional flora and fauna as well as hot springs, the UNESCO World Heritage protected last retreat of the nomadic Nama people, and the imposing Fish River Canyon, the second largest canyon in the world.
Private Game Reserves in South Africa
If you are looking for an exclusive safari tour (and have a high travel budget) you should look among our private game reserves in South Africa. Almost all of them offer guaranteed sightings of the Big 5, top trained rangers, luxurious accommodation in the middle of the bush and exclusive game drives where you hardly ever meet other safari cars.