South Africa’s 19 national parks are in the most enchanting areas and conserve different and important aspects of our natural heritage. North, south, east or west, there are magnificent parks to see in every direction. By Keri Harvey
True north: Mapungubwe National Park
Sitting on one of the elevated viewing decks overlooking the Shashe River, we’re entranced as we watch a single file of elephants slowly and silently crossing the river. It’s sunset and they’re heading to Zimbabwe for the night. Tomorrow they could be in Botswana because these two countries’ borders meet South Africa in this northern corner, and of course, elephants don’t need passports.
Earlier we sat in the tree-top hide along the Limpopo River and saw gemsbok, giraffe and more, and on the ‘Serengeti plains,’ we spotted eland and wildebeest grazing. Mapungubwe has plenty of wildlife, including intrepid klipspringer and over 400 bird species. And if you have a vivid imagination, you’ll see animals carved by wind in the surrounding sandstone rocks as well – mostly birds in flight, and the occasional meerkat.
The park has an Asian rhino too. It’s the famous golden rhino discovered on the royal hill of Mapungubwe and now housed in the Interpretation Centre in the Park. It’s part of the reason Mapungubwe was declared a cultural World Heritage Site in 2003. Visitors can see the excavation site and climb Mapungubwe Hill, accompanied by a guide. On top are ancient storage facilities and traditional board games chiselled into the rock. Less obvious is that Mapungubwe was southern Africa’s first kingdom.
Inhabited from 1030, 5 000 people lived here and smelted gold, iron and copper and hunted elephant for ivory. They bartered on the east coast with merchants from Persia, Arabia, Egypt, China and India. Everyone was happy for over 200 years. Then in 1290, the people grew restless. They split into two factions – one headed east to Thulamela in northern Kruger National Park, the other north to create the powerful kingdom at Great Zimbabwe. Why exactly, nobody is sure. Climate change may have been the reason.
Due south: Agulhas
Strange things happen at the southernmost tip of Africa. Massive 30-metre rogue waves roll into shore through winter, and compass needles were said to falter here. It’s for this reason Portuguese sailors named the area Cape of Needles or Cabo das Agulhas. So it’s no surprise then that there are shipwrecks like giant stepping stones off Cape Agulhas – over 120 of them – and most recently the Meisho Maru which ran aground in 1982. Follow the boardwalk from the lighthouse and you’ll see the wreck high out of the water.
The stubby red lighthouse at Agulhas has lit the coastline since 1848 and has a unique lighthouse museum inside. It knows the shipwreck stories and that of a ghost with beautiful hands. She’s said to be a shipwreck survivor and frequents a bend in the road near the lighthouse, now called Spookdraai. Locals know her well, though she’s only ever seen on dark, moonless nights. You too may see her if you do the short, circular Spookdraai Trail.
Less mysterious is the Two Oceans Hiking Trail that threads through fynbos inside the Agulhas National Park. Fynbos was the reason the park was proclaimed in 1999, with the original park being a tiny 4 hectares big. Now it’s over 70km long and about 25km wide and protects some of the most endangered and prized fynbos in the Cape Floral Kingdom. Over 200 of the 2 500 different plant species found here occur nowhere else on earth. Add 60 small mammal species and 230 different birds – including Damara terns and black oystercatchers – and any hike here is a literal walk in the park.
Agulhas is about biodiversity, courtesy of the warm Indian and cool Atlantic oceans meeting here – and the abundance of diverse life each supports.
Heading east: Golden Gate Highlands National Park
The honey-hued sandstone cliffs of Golden Gate Highlands National Park are an icon of the eastern Free State and hold information about life here eons ago. This is dinosaur stomping ground – particularly for Massospondylus – and over 20 dinosaur eggs with visible fossilised embryos inside have been unearthed in the park. There are also fish fossils and dinosaur teeth.
In the striped cliffs, the bottom layer is red mudstone, or Elliot Formation, where most of the dinosaur fossils are found. Above it is the cream coloured Clarens Formation of ancient dune sand. The top layer of black rock, studded with crystals is the Drakensberg Formation, which is the lava flow from erupting volcanoes.
All this is the magnificent backdrop for Burchell’s zebra, springbok, blesbok, eland and delicate oribi in the park.
Rare Cape and bearded vultures also live here and there are plentiful black eagles too. Rare bald ibis breed on the ledges of the sandstone cliffs. Visit the vulture restaurant in the park and take a guided walk to majestic Cathedral Cave. Various other nature walks are possible if you have an hour or five, and the two-day Rhebok Hiking trail is also popular.
When you consider that Golden Gate reintroduced the sungazer lizard and water mongoose to the 11 600 hectare park, instead of focusing on the Big Five as most other parks do, you’re reminded that this park is unusual. The Basotho traditional village next door to Golden Gate is quirky too. A freelance Basotho sangoma threw and read the bones for us and confirmed us travellers protected and in good health, for which we were grateful before we hit the road home.
Facing West: West Coast
When the fog rolls off the Atlantic, the West Coast National Park is completely invisible. Yet, it’s an internationally important wetland and birding hotspot and a showcase of intricate daisy carpets in springtime. Eland, gemsbok, bontebok, blue wildebeest, Cape mountain zebra, bat-eared fox, caracal, ostriches and numerous other mammals also live here, but this park is really for the birds … and the flowers.
The lagoon is home to over 300 different bird species, and Schaapen Island has South Africa’s biggest colony of kelp gulls. In summer, between 50 000 and 70 000 birds fly all the way from Northern Russia to feed in Langebaan lagoon, making for an awesome display of feathered finery – and then bird hide is the place to be. Houseboats on the lagoon also offer an unusual accommodation option and Eve’s Footprint, in the Geelbek Center in the park, is a replica of the oldest fossil footprint of modern Homo-sapiens, dating back 117 000 years – and found right here.
With over 1 200 different flowering fynbos species, plus the annual daisy display in the Postberg section of the park in August and September, this park is magnificent. But be warned that in flower season visitors are mostly in a daisy daze – oblivious to everything but the riotously colourful flower carpets – and will stop and alight from their cars as if entranced by the rainbow flower display. This is the time of year when the park puts on her party dress and flaunts her beauty – with absolute confidence.
Other National Parks to visit
- Addo Elephant National Park – considered the most diverse park in the world with the best close-up sightings of elephant, the Big Seven – which includes southern right whales and great white sharks.
- Richtersveld Transfrontier Park – rock desert with the world’s richest desert flora collection. See halfmens tree, Hartmann’s zebra, rock hyrax and jackal buzzards.
- Augrabies Falls National Park – for the 56m high falls, Moon Rock, and to see rock hyrax, klipspringer and black eagles.
- Bontebok National Park – on the Breede River protects indigenous bontebok and is the smallest of the national parks.
- Camdeboo National Park – surrounds Graaff Reinet. See the Valley of Desolation and Cape Buffalo.
- Garden Route National Park – includes Tsitsikamma, Knysna Lakes and Wilderness and protects coastal forest, fauna, flora and the marine section.
- Karoo National Park – for lion, Cape mountain zebra, brown hyena and Verreaux’s eagles. Also a fossil trail.
- Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park – over 3.6 million hectares with red dunes, gemsbok, black-maned lions, suricate, sociable weavers and pygmy falcons.
- Kruger National Park – the flagship national park with the Big Five and important archaeological sites at Masorini and Thulamela.
- Marakele National Park – in the Waterberg conserves over 800 breeding pairs of Cape vulture, and unusual species like reedbuck, mountain reedbuck and tsessebe – plus cycads.
- Mokala National Park – near Kimberley is the newest park and was declared to protect endangered species such as Roan antelope.
- Mountain Zebra National Park – near Cradock protects over 700 Cape mountain zebra. Also see aardwolf, blue cranes and Denham’s bustard.
- Namaqua National Park – for flower carpets in spring, the world’s smallest tortoise – the Namaqua Speckled Strandloper, quiver trees and klipspringer. Over 1000 of the 3500 plant species found there occur nowhere else on earth.
- Table Mountain National Park – is home to one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World. See penguins at Boulders Beach, visit Cape Point, Signal Hill, Lions Head and Table Mountain.
- Tankwa Karoo National Park – for gemsbok, red hartebeest, orb-web spiders, mongoose, skinks and stargazing.
Tel :012 428 9111
mobile: 082 233 9111
See www.sanparks.org for satellite reservations offices and accommodation options in each park.