South Africa's Top 5 National Parks

By Bushtracks
August 10, 2022

South Africa is a vast country that has been blessed with an abundance of natural beauty and is one of the world’s greatest wildlife-watching destinations. Its abundance of animals includes the ‘Big Five’ of African animals, as well as a multitude of other animals, both big and small. In fact, the Rainbow Nation, as it is known, is home to some of Africa’s top national parks.

1) Kruger National Park.

The Kruger National Park covers nearly two million hectares of land in the provinces of Limpopo and Mpumalanga in northeastern South Africa. The huge park is home to Africa’s most iconic species—elephant, lion, leopard, cheetah, rhino, buffalo, giraffe, hippo, and zebra. Alongside this impressive line up are another 136 mammal species and more than 500 bird species.

The huge park offers a varied landscape, easy access, and a vast network of roads. While the southern sections can become crowded with 9 different entrance gates, it’s also easy to escape this with good planning, and the northern section is far less visited.

You can explore with your own vehicle or join a huge range of guided wildlife safaris, although a safari guide can help with both navigation and wildlife spotting. Kruger is considered the premier safari destination in southern Africa, and accommodation in and around the park is plentiful and great value. One thing is certain when you visit Kruger; you will have an unforgettable encounter with nature thanks to the reserve’s incredible mix of wilderness and wildlife.

The best time to visit Kruger National Park is during the dry winter months from May to September.

 2) Addo Elephant National Park.

Addo Elephant National Park is conveniently situated an hour’s drive from Port Elizabeth. A malaria free park, it is South Africa’s third largest national park and over 600 African elephants live here. Alongside the impressive number of elephants, you can also see a myriad of other animals, and the park’s recent expansion to include St. Croix Island and Bird Island makes it the only place in the world where you can see “Africa’s big seven.” This is the African elephant, rhino, Cape buffalo, lion, leopard, humpback whale, and great white shark in their natural habitats.

Addo is a magnificently diverse national park and offers a wide variety of game viewing, outdoor adventure, accommodation and cultural experiences. Although it is close enough to Port Elizabeth to make a day trip possible, there is simply too much to see to do the park justice in a day and we recommend at least two nights here.

In Addo, wildlife viewing is excellent all year round. Since the area has an arid to semi-arid environment, animals are drawn to the waterholes throughout the year, but the drier winter months from June to September are ideal. Of course, in winter, the nights may get very chilly, and early morning game drives require winter clothing. Accommodation options are varied according to taste and budget, with four rest camps, four privately run lodges, and a main camp with a swimming pool, café, floodlit water hole, and numerous lodging options.

3) Table Mountain National Park, Western Cape

One of the most iconic sights in the whole of South Africa is Table Mountain, which forms an impressive backdrop to the city of Cape Town. Table Mountain National Park is both a UNESCO world heritage site, and a new natural wonder of the world. It hosts the richest floral kingdom on earth, with more than 1470 floral species.

The top of the mountaineous plateau is often topped with clouds and is awe-inspiring to visit. Numerous twisting trails of varying difficulty levels make their way up the side of Table Mountain, and the view on the hikes gets better the higher you go. At the top, incredible panoramas of Cape Town and the surrounding ocean make the trek all worth it.

The park covers a large section of the Western Cape and includes Boulders Beach, where visitors share the shore with a colony of African penguins. The magnificent Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens are found on the eastern foot of the mountain. The park offers an impressive range of adventure activities, including hiking, abseiling, mountain biking, rock climbing, paragliding, bird and wildlife watching, snorkelling, and diving.

The best time to visit is between November and February, when the temperatures are ideal for outdoor activities and the rainy days are minimal.

4)  Mapungubwe National Park

Formed to protect the former capital of the Kingdom of Mapungubwe, Mapungubwe National Park is situated at the confluence of two powerful rivers and three nations. The area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For thousands of years, both humans and animals have been drawn to this South African Limpopo natural reserve.

Visiting the area where the first kingdom in Sub-Saharan Africa was established and learning about the people who used to live here is very special. The history of the people who used to live in the area dates all the way back to the Iron Age, and numerous archaeological finds have been made. Archaeological finds such as pottery indicate that the community used to trade with places as far away as China. There is a museum with many of the artefacts uncovered in the park on display. Information on the park’s history and biology is also available at the Interpretive Centre. Guided tours of the archaeological sites offer fascinating insights.

Mapungubwe’s landscape is unique, with beautiful sandstone formations and ancient baobabs. Most of the large African game species occur in Mapungubwe National Park. There are good numbers of elephants, leopards, kudus, hyenas, baboons, giraffes, and fewer white rhinos, lions, and wild dogs. When the Limpopo River is not in flood, animals  roam freely across it to Botswana, Zimbabwe, and back. Mapungubwe National Park is one of South Africa’s best birdwatching destinations, with over 450 recorded bird species.

Outdoor adventures include heritage tours, treetop walks, and day and night guided game drives.

5) Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park

The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is a fascinating unspoiled desert ecosystem. The park is situated in the northern part of South Africa and shares borders with Botswana and Namibia. Its remoteness means there is some effort in getting there, but visitors are rewarded by the harsh and ethereal beauty of the desert with its seas of straw coloured grass, shifting in the breeze, rust sand dunes, dry riverbeds, and enigmatic thorn trees. The stars shine brilliantly at night, when you are serenaded by the haunting calls of black maned lions, shrill jackals, and barking geckos.

Despite the lack of water, the Kgalagadi teems with life, and has been described as an arid Eden. In fact, this is a fantastic place to see big cats in the wild. There are some 1,775 predators here, including cheetah and spotted hyaena, elusive leopards and the’mane’ attraction, the famous black maned lions. You will also see desert adapted species such as springbok and the enigmatic oryx. It’s also a great park for viewing the seasonal movements of animals like blue wildebeest and springbok.

The Nossob and the Auob rivers, which are both transient, are the centres of life in the Kgalagadi. Rarely do the rivers have surface-level flow; instead, the camelthorn trees and other nearby flora are irrigated by water beneath the ground, which in turn feeds the park’s herbivores with vital nutrients.

The best time to see animals is during the changeover from the rainy season to the dry season in March, April, and May. There will be enough water in the rivers to entice a large number of animals, and the worst of the heat has passed. But remember to bring lots of warm clothing to contend with the chilly morning air and the evening’s plunging temperatures.

Sign Up for the Bushtracks Newsletter