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South African Wildlife


Very few people visit South Africa and don't spend at least some time in a game reserve or national park. There is a huge variety of game to be seen, and different areas offer different experiences but many tourists seem to have caught Big Five fever and are determined to be able to go home and claim to have seen them all. The Big Five - elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion and leopard - is just a clever marketing ploy inherited from trophy hunters. These five animals are not the five biggest, or the five prettiest, or the five rarest, or even the five most interesting. They are merely the five that take the greatest umbrage at being shot and are most likely to retaliate with tooth, claw, horn or great big stomping foot.

For this reason, in the days when it was considered manly to hunt, bagging the Big Five was absolute proof of being in possession of large genitals so an inordinate number of these rather lovely animals ended up on the walls of mouldy old houses in various parts of the world. So it's a bit of an anachronism that 21st Century tourists feel they have to tick these very same animals off on their list in order to prove to their friends back home that they had a good time. Elephants and rhinos are absolutely fascinating, buffalos are kind of cute in a daisy-the-cow-on-steroids-and-valium kind of way, lions are truly magnificent, even though you usually see them fast asleep, and leopards are phenomenally beautiful and difficult to spot.

But there are other animals that are even more worthwhile. The beautiful African wild dog is rare and endangered, the porcupine is rather striking, the enigmatic aardvark is fascinating and seldom seen, the tiny, nocturnal bush baby is utterly beautiful and difficult to spot, and both zebras and giraffes, which are quite easily seen, are every bit as photogenic as leopards. Even the ubiquitous impala is prettier than any lion. So, by all means, keep an eye out for the big five - they're well worth looking at and photographing - but don't become obsessed by them. There are three basic variations on the safari theme. The most economical is to visit a national or provincial park on your own, staying in comfortable self-catering accommodation and doing game drives in your own (or rental) car. Most national parks also offer escorted game walks and drives. But if you want a bit of pampering with your game, opt for a luxury game lodge, either in a private game reserve or in a concession area of one of the national parks.

The standard game lodge experience consists of an early morning wake up call, followed by a quick cup of coffee or tea. Once everyone has assembled, you head out on the morning game drive. This is an excellent time to see game as the nocturnal animals are returning to their lairs and the diurnal ones are just beginning to stir. At sunrise you usually stop for a leisurely cup of coffee and a munch on a muffin or a rusk (a typical South African delicacy that is similar to biscotti). By the time the sun is high, you've watched most of the animals waking up, and it's time to return to camp for a slap-up brunch. After that you can snooze, read, lounge by the pool or, at many lodges, opt for a gentle massage, facial or manicure in beautiful surroundings. Everyone meets again in the late afternoon for tea, accompanied by yummy snacks, and then it's off on the evening game drive. Sunset usually finds you at a beautiful spot for drinks and yet more snacks. The drive continues into the night so you can spot the nocturnal animals, like lions and leopards, at their best. You return to the camp late and, after a very quick opportunity to freshen up, meet for a long, leisurely supper, usually at the fireside.

The third option is to join a mobile safari. These range from relatively inexpensive participatory trips, in which you put up your own tent and help with cooking, to full-on luxury expeditions. And, naturally a few good options in between. If you choose this option, make sure you find out exactly what you can expect, and exactly what is included in the basic price. Some safaris appear to be very reasonably priced until you find out, for example, that they don't include park entrance fees. Do your homework. The premier safari and game viewing destinations are the provinces of Mpumalanga and Limpopo, in the north east of the country. Here you will find the Kruger National Park as well as a number of smaller national parks and lots of private game reserves and luxury lodges, many of which border on Kruger. This area consists mostly of broad-leaved woodland that creates the archetypical African scenery - long grass interspersed with big trees. Much of this area is malarial so you need to take all the relevant precautions.

An interesting, rather anomalous, game viewing area of Limpopo Province is the high lying Waterberg, which is only about three hour's drive from Johannesburg. The Waterberg has some great private game reserves catering to a range of budgets and is most popular for its malaria-free status.

The North West Province has two fabulous game reserves, namely Pilanesberg, near Sun City, and Madikwe right up against the Botswana border. The North West Parks are relatively close to Johannesburg and Pretoria and are malaria-free. KwaZulu-Natal also has some classic game viewing opportunities, most notably in the provincially administered Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve.

Although the game is less concentrated, the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park offers a wider range of animals and scenery than Hluhluwe-Umfolozi. The malaria risk in the KZN parks is low to medium. Generally speaking, the Western Cape, Eastern Cape and Northern Cape do not offer the same intensity of game viewing as KZN, Limpopo or Mpumalanga, as the carrying capacity of the land is not nearly as high. However, there are some fabulous untouched areas in the Karoo, Kalahari and Cederberg that nurture game reserves and make for a good safari experience. You just need to change your expectations and appreciate the fabulous scenery and the less frequent, but sometimes more interesting, animal sightings. These areas have the added advantage of being completely malaria-free.

The Eastern Cape has a number of excellent private game reserves and the fabulous Greater Addo Elephant National Park, which is home to - not just the Big Five - but the Big Seven. This is also just marketing hype, but Addo is a great place, and the fact that it includes parts of Algoa Bay and offshore islands means it's also home to the great white shark and the southern right whale, but you're not going to spot one grazing outside your chalet.

The Mountain Zebra National Park, near Cradock, is a lovely park, where you can see these beautiful animals - they're much prettier than their more common plains cousins - and also admire some wonderful Karoo scenery. The Karoo is not classic game viewing terrain but it is beautiful and makes for easy animal spotting as the plants are mostly low growing.

The Karoo National Park, near Beaufort West in the Western Cape, is a great place to see black rhino, and is a convenient stopover if travelling the N1 between Cape Town and Johannesburg.

The Northern Cape has some fabulous game viewing, most notably in the Kgalagadi Trans-frontier Park, which straddles the border with Botswana. While you may see many of the same animals here that you'd see, for example, in Kruger, there are a number of differences. The ubiquitous impala, which you see all over Kruger, is missing here with its biological niche being filled by the iconic springbok.

The magnificent gemsbok, or oryx, is not seen in the eastern half of the country, and even the lions are bigger in the Kalahari. Actually, they just seem more macho, as many of them have black manes - in the same way that Mediterranean men do better designer stubble than Nordic blonds.

The Augrabies National Park, while primarily a scenic park also has some interesting wildlife.

World Wildlife Fund (WWF) - Let's leave our children a living planet. International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) - Creating solutions that benefit both animals and people.

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