South African national parks are a good bet, when exploring South Africa.
They’re generally well maintained, cheaper than the average safari lodge, and, if you time your visit for SA National Parks Week, grant South African citizens free entry.
These are five underrated South African national parks that deserve a closer look …
Agulhas National Park lies on the very tip of Africa with a landscape so varied that its rare limestone fynbos and protected lowland become a draw card in their own right. But it is the wild sea views, and rock-littered seascape, that win hands down – the sea from the shore is nothing short of stupendous, and if you hire one of the wooden chalets on stilts, the views are yours for your entire stay.
Almost 300 of the plants here are not found anywhere else in the world, and if you’re a bird spotter, then 9% of the water birds in the Western Cape hang out here. There’s a three-day hike through the park following the trail of ancient strandlopers, and the coast’s litter of shipwrecks, whilst the famous Agulhas lighthouse lies just outside the park (you can climb to the top).
Stay Here: Find accommodation in Cape Agulhas
Head here when the river is in flood, and it isn’t difficult to work out where the name, Augrabies, comes from – the Khoi clearly thought the rush of water hitting the rocks below the famous waterfall was a racket, hence Aukoerebis (place of great noise).
Reasons other than the waterfall to visit this national park include the harsh desert landscape of rocks and boulders (the river ravine is 500 million years old), not least of which is Moon Rock, a geological marvel, and the granite outcroppings that make for great photos. Don’t miss Ararat Viewpoint, Echo Corner, or Oranjekom.
And the national park’s antelope, and odd appearance of a meerkat, simply round off the experience.
Stay Here: Find accommodation in Augrabies
Hidden in the Karoo heartland, the Mountain Zebra National Park is one of South Africa’s lesser known national parks (although the recent addition of a further eight accommodation units must mean the word is finally out).
Easy to include in a Karoo road trip (it’s really close to Cradock), one of its big selling points is that the park has lions (albeit a few), leopards and cheetahs (you can track the cheetahs on a guided walk). The herds of plains game are impressive, the mountains even more so, and the sturdiness of the mountain zebra which clamber up into the far reaches, admirable.
There are ground squirrels to entertain, a sunset drive worth taking, and rock art sites.
Stay Nearby: Accommodation in Karoo Heartland
Close to the town of Beaufort West, the Karoo National Park is one of the best halfway overnight stops on the Johannesburg to Cape Town route along the very long Karoo N1 – you simply nip off the national road, and after a couple of twists and turns through the valley, you’re miles from the traffic and within a vast pocket of peacefulness.
Known mostly for its herd of Cape mountain zebra and black rhinos, the reserve is also home to several lion. But one comes to this one of the South African national parks for the views. And the quiet (the restaurant’s lamb chops are not too shabby either). If you can, and aren’t sick of driving, do the Klipspringer Pass for the views out over the Karoo.
Stay close by: Find accommodation in Beaufort West
Reasonably close to Kimberley, the Mokala National Park has only been around since 2007, and is probably best known for its breeding and reallocation of endangered animals (roan and tsessebe antelope in particular), for use in other national parks and game reserves around South Africa.
Go for the scenery (it’s a really pretty park), the sound of birds, the game drives, the night skies (those stars!), the plants and little creatures, the chance to stay in a tree house (seriously, although there’s a minimum 2-night stay) and the chance to see San rock art (ask for a guided tour).
Stay close by: Find accommodation in Kimberley