Kruger may be the granddaddy of South Africa's national parks but it is certainly not the only park you will want to visit on a photography safari. Our two-month visit in the spring of 2017 took us to ten national parks, each with a unique flavor that will attract many visitors and photographers.
I cannot do justice to these parks in a short description but will try to highlight some features of particular interest to photographers touring the region. I also did not visit parks in the west, northwest, central or southeast parts of South Africa nor did I visit the dozens of nature reserves and private game parks in the country. It would take years to see all of the public lands and wildlife sites in South Africa but the following are some of the highlights arranged somewhat in the order of the number of photos shot in each park. I don't try to equate more shots with greater interest or higher priority but rather use this a a means of judging what I personally enjoyed. Kruger National Park was the focus of nearly a month of our visit so I will save that for the next and final post about photographing South Africa.
Without question Addo Elephant National Park was one of our favorite spots in South Africa. Addo is located north and slightly east of Port Elizabeth where the coast of Africa begins its northern turn along the Indian Ocean. You will take the regional highways R-335 and R-342 from Port Elizabeth about 72 km (45 miles) of narrow (slightly rough) pavement to reach the main rest camp in the park. Here you will find camping, cottages, chalets, a restaurant, and even a swimming pool. Access to all of South Africa's national parks and the daily conservation fees are completely covered if you purchased a SANPark "Wild Card" before departure or at one of the main visitor centers. The card is available for international visiting individuals, couples, or families and is valid for one year from the date of activation. The couples card for all 80+ parks and reserves was 3,455 ZAR (about $270) and restricted couples cards for clusters of regional parks for South African residents vary from about 600 to 845 ZAR. If you are going to visit more than 3 or 4 parks or be in any of the parks for more than about 2 weeks - the Wild Card is a great and hassle-free deal. If you order on-line form the US be aware that shipping can take 6 weeks so order early. You will receive a confirmation letter before the card arrives and this letter will also get you into the parks.
Addo is billed as an "elephant park" but recognize that it is far more than elephants. The park is interlaced with about 120 km of paved and gravel/dirt roads that are in very good condition and easy for our little Nissan rental sedan to negotiate. Only a couple of specialized areas require a 4-WD vehicle. As with almost all of the SA parks the entry hours and rest camp gate hours are tightly controlled and you cannot open your vehicle doors or get out of the vehicle except in very few fenced areas. As the signs say - stuff here will kill you and you can't see the big cats until it is too late. Stay in your vehicle always. There are more than 600 elephants and 400 Cape Buffalo in this approximately 6 x 25 mile park - that is a very high concentration per square kilometer! There are many, many warthogs, a variety of ungulates, lions, hyenas, jackals, and smaller species. There are very rare leopards and no cheetahs. You will find signs everywhere to avoid hitting the rare flightless dung beetles on the roads and you will learn to carefully miss the huge pile of dung beetle housing projects left by the elephants. Addo is a must see park.
Our favorite park near Cape Town was Cape Point National Park and the Cape of Good Hope. This park is south of Simmon's Town and a reasonable day trip from the city. Of course the best photography is during the golden hours at dusk and dawn so you will probably want to spend at least 1 or 2 nights in Simmon's Town so you can be there as the best light. In the park you will find miles of scenic hiking trails, pristine beaches, historical markers, two light houses, and a variety of wildlife. The good news is that in this park your can and must get out of your car and, other than the ocean cliffs, nothing here will kill you. There are ungulates, fur seals, birds including ostrich, and primates everywhere. One of my favorite photographic experiences of the entire trip was when we stumbled upon a troop of baboons sitting on a rock wall in perfect dawn light. We were only about 10 yards away and they entertained us with a private show for over an hour.
The Tsitsikamma / Garden Route National Parks are about 600 km (7 hours?) east of Cape Town on the N-2 highway. It took us over a week to get there but that is another very happy story. These parks are some of local South African's favorites. They are past Cape Agulhas so are on the Indian Ocean and are pummeled by huge surf year round. The rocks, cliffs, and surf are reasons alone to visit the parks but hiking is what brings the locals. The Storms River mouth is the departure point for the Otter Trail, a five-day back packing adventure along the coast. The Otter is accessible by permit only and these are hard to come by. However, the first couple of miles to the waterfalls is open to all. The walk takes you through dense forest, high cliffs, isolated beaches and scrambles through boulder fields - another photographer's paradise. The mouth of the Storms River is crossed by a network of suspension bridges that are photogenic and amazing in their design. The breaking surf along the coast often reaches heights of over 40 feet! Huge rocks provide foreground elements and the beaches are places of relaxation. Whales are common in the migration season but we saw only a couple in April. Don't miss the Cattle Baron restaurant for an outstanding steak at a very reasonable price.
Table Mountain National Park is the landmark of Cape Town and a place for photographers to get creative with the city lights and the mountain's flora. While the mountain is a good background for pictures in the city, its summit is breath taking. It is accessible via a number of trails with variable levels of difficulty but if you are hiking, you must leave early as the sun exposed trail gets brutally hot by mid-day. An areal tramway is another option to reach the summit trails. Views from the tram offer photo delights as the tramcar rotates 360 degrees during the assent and decent. However you plan to reach the summit be sure to take plenty of water. There is also a small snack bar open intermittently at the top.
The Cape Angulhas National Park is at the southern most point in Africa and is the dividing line between the cold Atlantic and warm Indian Oceans. It is a small park with a few trails along the ocean, a light house, and the monument dividing the two oceans. It is worth the stop for a couple of hours.
A 5-10 km side trip north of the N-2 on R-319 takes you to the delightful Bontebok National Park. There are about 150 of the relatively uncommon Bontebok antelope in this unique park. There is a small visitor center, campground, a couple of picnic sites with short hiking trails, and two gravel/dirt loop roads to test your skill at finding the animals. There is also a small river and good bird photography. The park can be fully explored in about 4-5 hours.
After our visit to Addo at the most eastern part of our southern drive we struggled with the best route back to Cape Town, through the mountains and scenic canyons and wine country without repeating segments of our eastern drive. That is when we found Karoo National Park near the junction of the N-1 and N-12 highways just outside of the town of Beaufort West. It was a long and rather boring 400 km drive from Addo through dry agricultural country with a couple of unfortunate detours and diminishing fuel tank. The park is best described as the Death Valley of South Africa - a dry, scenic park with majestic drives, some hiking trails, a network of 4-WD trails, but with wildlife and abundant birding. The park is infrequently visited by tourists and used mostly by locals.
That just about covers the birds-eye view of the national parks in southern South Africa. We flew from Cape Town to Johannesburg and picked up our mini-motor home and headed for Kruger but that will come in the next posting.
After Kruger we had one more adventure in Mapungubwe National Park on the northern boarder with Botswana and Zimbabwe. While Kruger is the oldest national park, Mapungubwe is the newest, established in 2012. The park is a long 530 km north of Johannesburg and can be reached from either Musina on the N-1 in the east or the village of Alldays to the south. This is a remote part of South Africa and unfortunately the road conditions are poor to bad after leaving the national highway. It is paved but full of potholes that could swallow our camper and the driving was a bit treacherous. The park was created as an archaeological park and is a World Heritage Site. It is in two distinct sections divided by private agricultural lands and game parks. There are about 40 km of driveable dirt roads and 100 km of 4-WD "eco-trails." The Park headquarters, visitor center, main archaeological sites, lodging, restaurant, and hiking trails are in the larger eastern section and the campground and birding blind are 30 km of very rough road away in the western section. There is an amazing elevated boardwalk system in the east that overlooks the "great gray-green greasy Limpopo River" so well described by the Kipling story in 1902. The boardwalk lets you walk "safely" above most of the wildlife and offers great views. The general terrain of the park is vastly different from the rest of South Africa with rocky spires, hoodoos, and dense jungle interspersed with massive Baobab trees.
Wildlife is abundant with elephants, giraffe, zebras, antelope of several varieties, primates, and a variety of predators that keep you in your vehicle when not safely in a camp surrounded by electric fence or on a boardwalk. In he western section is a blind overlooking a large pond with the best variety of exotic waterfowl that I have ever seen. The waterhole is visited by all varieties of other park wildlife and was a place where we spent hours watching and shot hundreds of photos.
That is a peek at many of the South African national parks other than Kruger. A huge amount to see that could easily occupy several months of visits. In the next and final post I will try to give you and idea of the enormity and diversity of Kruger National Park.