“Every breath you take, every move you make and every step you take, they’ll be watching you”. With their sharp eyes and heightened olfactory senses, the wild beings of our planet remind us of how fragile we actually are. We might hold them captive and make a mockery out of them, but when in their territory, we are the ones who need to tread lightly. Brave the elements, the rough terrain and the overabundance of foliage but do not exhibit your bravado while facing them. You are in the wild and peaceful co-existence is imperative, and South Africa is a brilliant illustration of this harmony. Apart from being a multi-ethnic society and a major seat of international politics, the country is also home to numerous species of wildlife and South Africans take a lot of pride in that fact.
The ‘Big 5’ is perhaps the most important attraction when it comes to wildlife in South Africa. This group is comprised of Cape buffalo, the African elephant, the lion, leopard and black rhino. Watching the wild in their natural habitat, reposing where they belong and preying upon their subordinates in the food chain is an unparalleled experience, and there are plenty of game reserves and national parks in the country that provide you with this wonderful opportunity. However, five of these reserves stand out for obvious reasons.
Mapungubwe National Park
What happens to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Mapungubwe National Park is the perfect place to introspect in peace. Your reverie will however be broken perhaps by the trumpeting of an elephant, a soaring eagle or the chirping of over 400 species of birds but none of that will be a damper. Apart from being deeply entrenched in history right up to the Iron Age, this park is also home to Nile crocodiles and meerkats. The big five can be spotted occasionally and so can oryxes, zebras, hyenas, baboons and kudus. Baobab trees, woodlands and sandstone formations are a major part of the brilliant landscape that Mapungubwe has to offer and every sight is of extreme cultural importance. It really is the idyllic animal kingdom that a multitude of Hollywood titles have attempted to represent. You will invariably have a good time!
Kruger National Park
Yet another massive game reserve in South Africa, Kruger National Park also happens to be the first. While it has gained a large amount of international popularity due to the viral ‘Battle at Kruger’ video on YouTube, physically visiting this UNESCO Biosphere Reserve is a surreal experience. Despite the profusion of magnificent veldt landscapes and every imaginable wild beast, Kruger also unfortunately happens to be a notorious asylum for poachers. Strict anti-poaching measures have been put in place by the government but that hasn’t really deterred plunderers from mercilessly killing rhinoceros and elephants for horns and ivory, respectively. Over 50 rest camps and lodges cater to wildlife enthusiasts and the safari rangers are the most efficient of the lot. I remember how we once had an entire herd of elephants peacefully crossing our path and the incessant clicking of pictures angered the mother who then furiously trumpeted at us before walking away. And then, rather ferocious lions can be seen after dark and they advertently circle your vehicle like they mean business. However, do not panic because the guides know exactly how to keep you safe. Do not be surprised if you see a vervet monkey sitting right outside your cabin on a wonderfully pleasant morning. They’ve probably just come to say hello.
Pilanesberg National Park
Located right outside Sun City, the entertainment capital of South Africa, Pilanesberg National Park, is a geological wonder, a haven for rich flora and fauna and home to an overflowing number of lodges. Driving to the reserve from Sun City is literally like being in two different worlds within an extremely short span of time considering how one is a luxurious man-made wonder and the other is the raw, unembellished face of nature. While the park is replete with African buffaloes, black and white rhinoceros, lions, cheetahs, leopards, zebras and elephants, they apparently like remaining unobtrusive for most of the day.
My most vivid memory of Pilanesberg, which now happens to be the most popular public game reserve in South Africa, was more terrifying than anything else. While I was safely nestled inside a semi-open jeep that was swerving on the unsurfaced track, a mighty elephant suddenly decided to block our way. My guide tried every tactic in the book to get the animal to move away from us but he seemed more obstinate than we had imagined and gradually started advancing towards the vehicle. I was preparing to get crushed by the giant when another jeep came from the opposite direction and together, we were able to confuse the beast and drive away, the maddening adrenaline continually pumping through our veins. I haven’t been very fond of elephants ever since.
Madikwe Game Reserve
Imagine waking up to the sounds of elephants trumpeting from somewhere eerily close to you. So close that it almost seems like they’re babbling, in their language of course, right into your ears. This makes up for one of my fondest memories of Madikwe Game Reserve where I woke up on my first morning and found a herd of elephants right outside my chalet, happily drinking out of a waterhole and playfully spraying water on each other. It was an incredulous experience and it set the tone for all the adventure that was in store for me.
One of the biggest game reserves in South Africa, incidentally the fifth largest, Madikwe is also a favourite for those who do not want to compromise on luxury during their tryst with the wild. For the ones who vehemently swear by their environmental consciousness, it is dotted with rather fancy eco-lodges. What once used to be a farmland, Madikwe was converted into a national parkbecause of its unyielding soil and that evidently was a great decision by the South African Government. During the brilliantly guided safaris, you will be greeted by lions, cheetahs, rhinoceroses, leopards, zebras, buffaloes, impalas, giraffes and ostriches among other majestic fauna. In order to satiate the most hardcore of gluttons, an array of delectable South African delicacies will perpetually be available. Missing out on Madikwe is almost sacrilegious.
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park
The Kalahari Desert is as unearthly a phenomenon as it could possibly be. For the longest time, you might wonder if you’ve somehow landed on Mars, considering the lack of life, vegetation and water (well, that is debatable now). Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, located within the desert, is one of the largest wildlife conservation areas in South Africa and the name literally means ‘a place of thirst’ given the fact that riverbeds are perpetually dry and there is nothing but a never-ending expanse of red sand. While the weather can be extreme with incredibly hot afternoons and nights so cold that even a dozen blankets couldn’t stop you from shivering, wildlife is abundant in the park. There are mighty lions, inconspicuous cheetahs, menacing leopards and sly hyenas. A multitude of herbivores ranging from springboks to gnus can be found roaming nonchalantly until they sense a predator coming for them. Kgalagadi is also a bird-watcher’s paradise.
Kgalagadi is a wonderful place to camp and experience being in the vicinity of the raw elements of the earth. Additionally, it also is the perfect gateway to explore and understand indigenous communities such as the Kalahari Bushmen, also known as the San people. Watch the stars at night and let the velvety sky be your roof for a change. It will be one beautifully indelible memory.
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