Since the publication of my book A Walk in the Park: travels in & around South Africa's national parks, people often ask which are my top 5 favourite national parks in South Africa. Picking my top three is easy; two I’ve visited time and again, never becoming bored, and I totally lost my heart to the third on my first visit. Choosing just two more from the other candidates is much harder.
If you hate the heat, visit between April and September. The best things to look for are birds of prey and small mammals and reptiles. Although you may spot lion and leopard, leave your Big-Five notions at home and take pleasure in cheetah and an abundance of bat-eared foxes, whistling rats and barking geckoes, or you’ll miss the special Kalahari magic.
See also: 10 reasons to love the Kalahari
2. Kruger National Park
Kruger is impossible to beat for both variety of game (147 mammals, 507 birds, 114 reptiles) and number of exciting sightings. It also boasts more than 200 cultural heritage sites. There's a wealth of things to do – day walks, wilderness hikes, night drives, 4x4 trails and mountain biking - but the main event is driving your own car around the game area. Stop near a waterhole and be patient, and don’t forget to look up into the skies for raptors and into trees for a snoozing leopard.
See also: 15 things to do in northern Kruger National Park
3. Mapungubwe National Park
Archaeological treasures show that the people lived here between 900 and 1300 AD, even before Great Zimbabwe. It provides sanctuary for black and white rhino, elephant and other animals, and conserves fossils and ancient rocks that are nearly three billion years old.
I fell under the spell of its Venda-styled camp at Leokwe, its reddish sandstone rock formations, friendly people and magnificent baobabs - fat upside-down trees that can live for thousands of years. Venture here to enjoy a treetop walk, admire striking rock formations or sip sundowners where two rivers and three countries meet.
See also: Mapungubwe National Park: everything you need to know
4. Ai-Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park
It was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2007. Don’t try to visit the park itself without a 4x4, though a visit to the nearby Richtersveld Community Conservancy settlements of Eksteenfontein, Lekkersing and Kuboes is possible with a sedan. And watch out for searing summer temperatures (up to 53°C) and chilly winter nights.
See also: Why you have to visit the Richtersveld wilderness
5. Garden Route National Park: Wilderness Section
If you’re feeling lazy, drive along the Seven Passes road between George and Knysna, take a picnic into the forest, visit a bird hide to get up close and personal with one of South Africa’s richest water bird habitats, or simply laze on a creamy white beach. If it’s action you’re after, row a canoe up the river, go fishing, windsurfing, hiking, abseiling, kloofing, paragliding, hang-gliding, or mountain biking. You’ll run out of energy long before you run out of fun things to do.
See also: No chance to be bored at Wilderness
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