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South Africa

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10 Secret Parks

Text: Dylan Kotze: Photographer: Russell Smith. Photographer’s Assistant: Cara Esterhuysen. Article from the October 2013 issue of Getaway Magazine.

Dylan Kotze trawled South Africa to find uncrowded, affordable Nature Reserves worthy of a weekend visit.

Trips to the bush need not be an expensive annual affair to South Africa’s most popular parks.

Bontebok National Park

Nearest town: Swellendam, Western Cape

Explore Bontebok National Park on one of the three hiking trails that take in the tranquil surroundings outside SwellendamTen caramel-coloured wooden chalets line the Breede River banks, beneath the towering Langeberg Mountains that form the backdrop to South Africa’s smallest national park. It was originally set up in 1931 to protect the world’s 30 remaining bontebok, a population which now flourishes in the coastal fynbos and renosterveld. Spend your days wallowing or paddling in the river, driving to numerous lookout points where grey rhebok, red hartebeest and the park’s namesake roam, or walking one of the leisurely nature paths ranging from the 1,6-kilometre Acacia Trail to the 5,4-kilometre Bushbuck Trail. Then end the day on the wrap-around chalet deck, watching the sun slip away with a crackling fire and the calls of the African fish-eagle as a backing track.

 Enjoy sundowners overlooking the Breede River

The semi-private chalets are fully equipped for self-catering and each has two single beds and a double sleeper couch (chalet number seven has the best river views). The campsite works on a first come, first served basis and is split into two areas – one behind the chalets with more than enough braai facilities, a central ablution block and electricity points, and the other on the river’s edge. While the views are better from the latter sites, you have to walk a short distance to the amenities and there are no electricity points.

Cape Town – Swellendam 220km – Swellendam – Bontebok 5km – Bontebok – Mossel Bay 175km

Co-ordinates: S34,0558°, E20,4730°

Contact: SANParks central reservations, tel 012-428-9111, email reservations@sanparks.org, www.sanparks.org.

Blouberg Nature Reserve

Nearest town: Makhado, Limpopo

Baobas are the tree of life capable of living for more than a thousand yearsA dream destination for twitchers and nature lovers, Blouberg Nature Reserve is home to 850 breeding pairs of endangered Cape vultures as well as lappet-faced, hooded, white-headed, white-backed, the rare Rüppell’s vultures and more than 225 other recorded bird species. Catch all the action from the Vulture Restaurant hide, which is best visited during winter months – and don’t forget your binoculars and camera (a good telephoto lens is recommended for excellent shots). While it’s well worth a visit for that alone, the surrounding bushveld savannah spotted with baobab trees is also home to giraffe, zebra, Cape buffalo, sable antelope and kudu, which often wander through the four self-catering camps. Wildlife is best viewed on the four-night Blouberg Wilderness Trail.

The four thatched four-sleeper cottages at Mashatu Camp are fully equipped, but don’t offer the same ‘bush’ feeling as the other three camps. The unfenced Tamboti Bush Camp has four rustic safari tents with solar-powered lighting, a fully kitted-out kitchen and a large braai area next to a huge tamboti tree. It can only be booked by a single party, so it’s completely private.

Then there’s Molope Bush Camp in the heart of a beautiful forest of mature weeping boer-bean and nyala trees. It has five private campsites complete with showers and flushing toilets, but no electricity. Lastly, if you’re looking for a self-sufficient, back-to-the-bush experience with very basic facilities (i.e. bucket shower, pit toilet and a small braai place), pitch your tent at Modumele Wilderness Camp. What it lacks in facilities it more than makes up for in atmosphere.

Pretoria – Polokwane 260 km Polokwane – Blouberg 130 km Blouberg – Makhado 105km

Co-ordinates: S22.9833°, E29.1472º

Contact: Blouberg Nature Reserve, cell 078-869-5240,015-293-3611, email info@ kunemoya.co.za, www.kunemoya.co.za.

Lekgalameetse Nature Reserve

Nearest town: Tzaneen, Limpopo

Closest to the river, you can watch your kids splash around from the deck of chalet number four.With seven quaint, wooden cabins alongside the nameless river at the base of the towering Wolkberg Mountain, Lekgalameetse is the epitome of a forest getaway. Although in the same general area, each self-catering unit occupies its own secluded spot in the dense indigenous forest, so the samango monkeys jumping from branch to branch are more likely to bother you than your neighbours.

The nicest thing about staying here is that you’re never far from the sound of water, with cabin four claiming the best river views. A long walk upstream will take you past clusters of inviting natural swimming pools with sparkling, clear water and rabbles of butterflies, particularly in late summer. Or you can head out in a 4×4 past the waterfall, following tracks that lead to wonderful stops on top of the mountain, such as the lookout point from The Downs, and The Cathedral picnic spot in a shaded grove of trees.

The area was also the backdrop to the lives of interesting characters during the Anglo-Boer War, and history buffs can arrange a guided tour to see the sights and hear tales of the British soldiers who settled here after the war.

Pretoria – Tzaneen 355km Tzaneen – Lekgalameetse 65km Lekgalameetse – Nelspruit 250km

Co-ordiantes: S24,1447°, E30.3013°

Contact: Limpopo Tourism Agency, tel 015-293-3600, email reservation@golimpopo.com, www.golimpopo.com.

Fort Fordyce Nature Reserve

Nearest town:  Fort Beaufort, Eastern Cape

The best view in the Eastern Cape is arguably from the top of the Amathole escarpment.This might be the find of the century. To get there, you’ll pass through an amphitheatre of mountains, disappear into thick forest and wind up a gravel road that eventually emerges on top of the Amathole escarpment. From here, the endless views of the crumpled landscape, taking in the Hogsback and Katberg mountains, are arguably the best in the Eastern Cape. Burchell’s zebra, black wildebeest, mountain reedbuck and red hartebeest wander the plateau, often passing just in front of your doorstep. The reserve is best explored on foot along a number of trails, but its draw-card is the exceptional crags that attract Spiderman-footed rock climbers. There’s a shaded picnic spot next to the dam near reception that is perfect for lunch, but beware of the sneaky Chacma baboons, whose barks echo across the forest canopy.

There are three accommodation options inside the reserve. Maqoma’s Den (close to the reception area) sleeps four and Pakamisa comfortably sleeps six; both are basic, concrete buildings with everything you need, including an indoor fireplace for chilly winter nights. If you can, book the quintessential forest log cabin known as Harris Hut. You’ll need a 4×4 to get there and after parking it’s still a short walk to the hut, but that’s a small price to pay for a home surrounded by indigenous yellowwoods and milkwoods, the scene completed by a gently flowing stream.

Port Elizabeth – Fort Beaufort 210km Fort Beaufort – Fort Fordyce 5km Fort Fordyce – East London 160km

Co-ordinates: S32,6797°, E26,4894°

Contact: Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency, tel 043-701-9600, email info@ecotourism.co.za, www.ectourism.co.za.

Thakazulu Game Reserve

Nearest town: Ulundi, KwaZulu-Natal

The Black Mfolozi flows past Thangami Safari Spa, which claims its natural mud bath as one of only five in the worldIf you’ve ever wondered why elephants love a good spa treatment, here’s your chance to find out. At the base of the valley created by the Black Mfolozi and Thaka rivers lies a natural mud bath, supposedly one of only five in the world. After overcoming the strange, snot-like texture of the mud, its 30-odd minerals will leave your skin feeling as if you’ve had a beauty treatment, without the cost.

If you’re up for something more adventurous, try the 65-metre zipline, go abseiling or tackle one of the challenging 4×4 routes that include river crossings, cambers and occasional sightings of zebra, giraffe, kudu, impala and nyala. Once you’ve passed the crocodiles’ resting pen, head to the reserve’s on-site accommodation at Thangami Safari Spa, take a dip in the naturally heated mineral pools, grab a bite from the restaurant and see how many of the 250 identified bird species you can spot from the deck.

The basic, semi-detached self-catering units and camping areas are set on two terraces – the upper one concealed in monkey-infiltrated trees and those lower down with better views across the valley.

For the best views and relative privacy, the reasonably priced honeymoon suite takes the cake.

Durban – Ulundi 230km Ulundi – Thakazulu 70km Thakazulu – Joahnnesburg 455km

Co-ordinates: S28,0105°, E31,3061°

Contact: Thangami Safari Spa, tel 083-256-6036 (be patient with intermittent reception), www.thangami.co.za.

D’Nyala Nature Reserve

Nearest town: Lephalale, Limpopo

Comfortable Wooden Chalets are suitable for families and sleep four - your kids will love the nearby pool.D’Nyala demands a slow, relaxed pace where days revolve around food, game-viewing and unwinding with a good book. This relatively small, tranquil reserve gets its name from the majestic nyala tree that grows up to 30 metres high and is identified by its gnarled and crooked trunk (look for the huge nyala tree – you can’t miss it as you drive into the camp).

The park is also famous for being the southern most habitat of the baobab tree and there are a number of these dotted throughout the 8000 hectare reserve.

Self-drive along the well-sign-posted route that takes you through an impressive landscape of mopane, marula, knobthorn, wild fig and leadwood trees. The loop takes about two-and-a-half hours to complete, but could take much longer if you get caught up at the reserve’s main attractions: two game-viewing hides – Tamboti in the north and Kokoriba in the south – overlooking the flat Tambotie River savannah plains. Given the locations, you’d be unlucky not to spot white rhino, giraffe, waterbuck, zebra, tsessebe and eland, especially during the drier winter months.

The resort-style camp is frequented by monkeys and kudu, but is possibly more famous for being the venue of peace talks between Nobel Peace Prize winner FW de Klerk and Cyril Ramaphosa, in the early 90s. They no doubt enjoyed the comfortable facilities as much as the modern visitor will: wooden four-sleeper chalets, double-bed VIP suites, a conference centre (check to see if this is booked by a large group) and an enormous pool, which is great for kids.

Polokwane – Lephalale 240km Lephalale – D’Nyala 15km D’Nyala – Pretoria 275km

Co-ordinates: S23,7500°, E27.8258°

Contact: Limpopo Tourism Agency, tel 015-293-3600, email reservation@golimpopo.com, www.golimpopo.com.

Plumari Game Reserve

Nearest town: Rustenburg, North West Province

White Rhino and other wildlife sightings are almost guaranteed at Plumari Game Reserve.Plumari Game Reserve in the Magaliesberg is the perfect place for a pampered wilderness weekend getaway. The luxurious four-star Askari Lodge inside the reserve takes you back in time with one of the largest private collections of ox wagons in South Africa and decor pieces dating back to the 1800s.

The fine-dining Karibu Restaurant and opulent, thatched chalets with wooden patios and en-suite Victorian bathrooms overlook Elephant Dam, where many antelope and bird species gather to share sundowners. For the hardened bush-goer, the reserve may seem a little like a glorified zoo, but the two-and-a-half-hour game drive to see the resident lions, white rhino, buffalo, hippo and wildebeest, and the ‘touch and feed’ experience with two habituated teenage elephants are not to be missed, especially for kids. Complete your stay here by treating yourself to a massage or beauty treatment at the on-site spa.

Rustenburg – Plumari  55km Plumari – Johannesburg 80km

Co-ordinates: S25,8933°, E27,6044°

Contact: Askari Game Lodge and Spa, tel 014-577-2658, email reservations@askarilodge.co.za, www.askarilodge.co.za. 

Songimvelo Nature Reserve

Nearest town: Barberton, Mpumalanga

Bordering Swaziland’s northwest and woven into a diverse tapestry of rolling hillsides, hidden valleys, forested ravines and open plains, Songimvelo is one of Mpumalanga’s best-kept secrets. The Komati River winds across the valley floor on its quest to the sea and is the primary water source for the reserve’s animals. An easily navigable self-drive through the reserve offers sightings of Burchell’s zebra, blue wildebeest, red hartebeest, waterbuck and blesbok that wander the grassy plains and giraffe, impala and kudu that thrive in the denser woodland. Elephant and, unfortunately, hornless white rhino are also frequently seen.

Camping is available but with rates so good book a chalet at Kromdraai CampThe reserve covers such a large area that its accommodation, Kromdraai Camp, is 20 kilometres east of the main gate. There is a camping area, but as the rates are so affordable, it’s worth booking into one of the rustic, self-catering six-sleeper wooden cabins. They’re fully equipped, reasonably spaced apart from one another and maintain that special feeling of being in the bush. Apart from a short walk to the Komati River, there are no activities in the camp, so pack some toys and games. A new upmarket lodge overlooking the river within the fenced game reserve area is currently being developed and is expected to open this summer.

Nelspruit – Barberton 45km Barberton – Songimvelo 50km Songimvelo – Mbabane 65km

Co-ordinates: S26.0426°, 031.00360° (Kromdraai Camp)

Contact:  Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency, tel 013-759-5300, email info@mtpa.co.za, www.mtpa.co.za. 

Wolwespruit Nature Reserve

Nearest town: Bothaville, Gauteng .

With campsites this close to the Vaal, you can practically sit with your feet in the water.Scenic, quiet and isolated, Wolwespruit is a perfect destination for those wishing to get away from the crowd and enjoy a weekend’s peace and tranquillity. Most keen anglers are quick to head to Bloemhof Dam Nature Reserve to throw a line into the Vaal River, but there’s also yellowfish aplenty just 130 kilometres upstream at Wolvespruit – and a totally different setting. The pretty riverine bush provides a welcoming habitat to many bird species, which are particularly abundant in summer. Most notable are shrike, starling, thrush, pink-billed larks, swallow-tailed bee-eaters and giant kingfishers. Hiking is the best way to view the variety of antelope found on the grassy plains including kudu, blesbok, zebra and hartebeest.

There are rustic campsites all along the riverbank, which have no flush toilets or electricity but do have the more important things in life: a braai area and great views of the river. The positioning of campsites 18 and 19 – close to the ablutions and with more convenient river access than others – makes them the most sought after.

Johannesburg – Bothaville 220km Bothaville – Wolwespruit 45km Wolwespruit – Bloemfontein 260km

Co-ordinates: S27,3708°, E26.3497°

Contact:  Wolwespruit Nature Reserve, tel 018-581-9705, email nwptbwol@mweb.co.za, www. parksnorthwest.co.za.

Molopo Game Reserve

Nearest town: Vryburg, North West Province

PLEASE NOTE: ONE OF OUR READERS WENT TO THIS PARK IN AUGUST 2013. ACCORDING TO THEM, THE PARK SEEMS ABANDONED! None of the contact numbers are working. Do not make this trip of approximately 80km of dirt road without confirmation.

Park off at one of Molopo's waterholes usually packed with wildlifeMitch like its more famous nearby neighbour, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Molopo Game Reserve is characterised by gently sloping red Kalahari dunes studded with bushman grass that is ideal grazing for herds of plains game such as eland and wildebeest, and an abundance of typical Kalahari birdlife.

The need for a 4×4 as well as Molopo’s remoteness and winter hunting season, combined with a lack of large predators and luxury facilities, make it less well known as a tourist destination. It’s therefore emptier – perfect for those seeking solitude.

Both day and night drives are possible, but the best way to experience the reserve’s stillness is to park off at one of the six artificial waterholes and let the animals come to you. Before you head out, ask concessionaire Gerald Botha to point you to where the largest concentrations of game have recently congregated.

The campsites at Phiri Camp are spread over a wide area, but most are close to the ablution blocks. With this relative privacy, you really get the feeling of camping out alone under incredible night skies in the African bush, but remember temperatures in this region are extreme. Winter days are hot, yet nights are near freezing; in summer it’s boiling hot most of the time.

The nearest town with decent supplies, Vryburg, is 240 kilometres away, so you’ll need to come fully prepared with enough fuel, food and water and a vehicle capable of tackling sections of rough corrugations and sand.

Johannesburg – Vryburg 390km Vryburg – Molopo 240km Molopo – Kuruman 255km

Co-ordinates: S25,7816°, E22.9422°

Contact: Gerald Botha, cell 082-873-8780.   For more information, visit North West Parks, www. parksnorthwest.co.za.

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