It’s official. This week, starting today 14th September, you can get into any (or at least the majority) of the South African National Parks (SANParks) for free. So, if you’re in Cape Town you have the whole of the Table Mountain National Park at your disposal, and, better still, if you’re up in Limpopo and Mpumalanga, the Kruger National Park is yours for free this week … (that’s your entrance fee, not your accommodation, unfortunately).
For those of you who, like me, didn’t have a clue that such a thing as National Parks Week existed, then the next seven days are yours to explore the parks that the majority of South Africans probably never get to see – Madikwe, Addo, Richtersveld, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Mountain Zebra, Camdeboo, Tsitsikamma, and even the more recent Garden Route National Park. There are just over 20 different parks around the country that fall under SANParks, and each of them is a treasure trove of conservation efforts, and a chance to see animals and plants of every hue in their natural environment.
Here follow three of my favourite parks. These are by no means the best parks, as they are all equally worth a visit, but two of them are a little less popular, and well worth seeing because of their uniqueness:
Addo Elephant National Park – Why visit it?
• home to the Big 7
• see one of the most dense African elephant populations on earth
• home to the flightless dung beetle
• the largest coastal dune field in the southern hemisphere
• self-drive and horse trail options
Fast becoming one of the major reasons why tourists visit South Africa, the Addo Elephant National Park, as its name suggests, is the place in the Eastern Cape to commune with over 400 elephants, at a relatively safe distance, of course, although you can do the park on the back of an elephant, horse or even walk – you’re certainly not limited to remaining within your vehicle.
What makes it so popular is the easy proximity to Port Elizabeth and the fact that it’s malaria free. The environment too is incredibly beautiful, as the park lies within the Sundays River valley and contains five of the seven major biomes or vegetation areas in South Africa. Addo also boasts all Big 7 animals – buffalo, elephant, lion, leopard, rhinoceros, whale and great white shark, and now includes the Woody Cape Nature Reserve, which encompasses Bird Eland – home to the world’s largest breeding population of Cape gannets, and the second largest breeding population of African penguins.
Camdeboo National Park – Why visit it?
• Valley of Desolation
• incredible scenery
• home to the bat-eared fox
• the quaint town of Graaff-Reinet
This is one of my all time favourite parks, and one of the lesser known or popular parks – and may it stay that way! For a start, I love the way the name rolls off the tongue and the image that it evokes in me (if you’ve read Etienne van Heerden’s The Long Silence of Mario Salviatti you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about). The word Camdeboo developed out of a similar sounding word in the Khoi language meaning ‘green pool’ or ‘green hippo pool’ and it goes a long way to describing this incredible fertile valley in the midst of the Karoo, complete with impressive mountains.
Camdeboo National Park encircles the town of Graaff-Reinet and provides some of the most breath-taking scenery of the region. The major part of the now 19 405 hectare park lies in the foothills of the Sneeuberg range, but one of the main reasons for visiting the park is the Valley of Desolation, also known as the ‘Cathedral of the Mountains’. There is something bordering on spiritual about this valley. How can one not stand in awe when perched, the vast Karoo plains spread before one, on the pinnacle of enormous dolerite columns that stand up to 120 metres high. One’s part in the greater scheme of things is immediately put into perspective.
The Valley of Desolation became a national monument in 1935 and the Camdeboo National Park fell under the management of SANParks only in 2005, with 14 500 hectares of land was donated by the WWF for Nature. The park is a haven for hikers, with a number of day walks and overnight trails, as well as a fair amount of game. For day visitors there are picnic sites and braai areas (although watch out for the ‘long drop’ toilet).
Namaqua National Park – Why visit it?
• flower power
• Namaqualand daisies
• gazanias, tulips, pelargoniums and beetle daisies etc.
• the world’s smallest tortoise, the Namaqua speckled padloper
Incorporating the reserve known simply as Skilpad amongst flower fundis or Skilpad Wild Flower Reserve, the Namaqua National Park at this time of the year is, without sounding dramatic, simply one of the most beautiful places to be, if standing on a carpet of wild flowers is your thing (it’s really anyone’s ‘thing’ if you but see it!).
Namaqualand is the place of the richest bulb flora of any arid region in the world. Over 1000 of the plant species here, it is estimated, are not found anywhere else on the planet. Oh, and there are beautiful quiver trees, incredible granite outcrops, beautiful succulents, the chances of seeing a porcupine, and the odd scorpion. But really people travel here in August / September to see the flowers that give even the incredible star-studded night skies a run for their money.