Adventures, Tours and Safaris in South Africa's National Parks

A guide to the best experiences and things to do at South Africa's national parks, including safari trips, guided tours, wildlife viewing, treks, hikes and more.

When vacationing in South Africa, most travelers start at the urban, cultural centers of Cape Town and Johannesburg, but for real adventure, the advice is simple: "Get out of town." After the cities, most travelers depart for tours, safaris and trips to South African national parks and wildlife reserves. Both cities can be perfect launching points for such tours, and because of the complexity involved in planning trips beyond Cape Town and Johannesburg, most travelers choose to go through organized tour providers who arrange the transportation and transfers, the hotels and lodging as well as the guides and the off-road vehicles required for such excursions.

"Local guides [in South Africa] are very good, well trained and enthusiastic," said Matthew Kearns of the African travel booking site TribalTourist, a website that connects travelers with tour operators.

To get a taste for the wild world beyond the cities, we asked Kearns to put together his short-list of "don't-miss" experiences. He came back with some of the best safari destinations, adventure tours, national parks and other things to do in South Africa, including where to see the "Big 5" animals (or if you’re lucky the "Big 7").

Table Mountain National Park, Cape Town

Table Mountain National Park in Cape Town

Recently dubbed a “New 7 Wonders of Nature,” this mountain range is right in Cape Town, located between Signal Hill and Cape Point. Atop the mountain, travelers can discover more than 2,000 plant species (more diversity than the United Kingdom). This park is known for its overnight hiking trails, mountain biking and the famed Boulders Beach penguin colony.

Things to do: Don't miss the fynbos, or fine bush, a species of flowering plants. These hard-leaved plants are found in the southern and southwestern regions of South Africa. The southern right and humpback whales can also be seen here, off the coast of Cape Town. 

Garden Route National Park

Tsitsikamma area of Garden Route National Park in South Africa

The Garden Route National Park is comprised of three areas—Knysna, Tsitsikamma and Wilderness. Together they form a region full of lakes, oceans, rivers, mountains and forests, offering a variety of water activities for those seeking high adventure (but you can always just relax and enoy this national park for its  scenery). Families should try the Knysna Estuary boating trip and those looking for a little more adventure should try the kayaking and Lilo adventure in Tsitsikamma. The waters adjacent to this national park draw whales, and bird watchers are usually keen on spotting the Knysna Loerie (a large, rare bird also known as the Knysna turaco) and the African black oystercatcher (a coastal bird only seen in South Africa and Namibia).

Things to do: Hike the 5-day Otter Trail, see the Diepwalle Big Tree (an 800-year-old Outeniqua yellowwood), and then go sailing or participate in canoe trips, river tubing, or scuba diving.

Getting there: Garden Route National Park is about a 5.5-hour drive from Cape Town.

Addo Elephant National Park

Addo Elephant National Park

Venture to this national park to spot the "Big 7." That list includes the original "Big 5" animals—the African lion, African elephant, African leopard, the Cape buffalo and the rhinoceros (white or black)—plus the "new 2," the great white shark and the southern right whale. Long ago, the Big 5 would have been on the list to hunt by gun, but today a guided trip through this park will help you "hunt" them via telephoto lens.

Another bonus to touring Addo National Park is the Discovery Trail; the trail takes participants through the thicket for more than a mile, but it has been designed for travelers of all physical abilities, including disabled travelers in wheelchairs.

Things to do: The best ways to experience Addo is through guided game drives, trekking the Alexandria Hiking Trail and participating in Marine Eco-tours for whale watching and a chance to see a great white shark.

Getting there: Addo Elephant National Park is a 6-to-8-hour drive from Cape Town

Mountain Zebra National Park

The Mountain Zebra National Park is home to the Cape mountain zebra; the park has been a protected area for zebra since 1937. Today the reserve has over 700 zebra, and is also home to black rhinos and cheetahs.

Things to do: Travelers often participate in guided walks and hikes in this national park with hopes of seeing the zebras. Also popular is scheduling a viewing Khoisan cave paintings and participating in guide-led cheetah tracking excursions.

Getting there: Mountain Zebra National Park is about 10 hours driving time from Cape Town.

Kruger National Park

Kruger National Park lions

For a real safari experience, spend a night (or more) on site at Kruger National Park. With wildlife galore—147 mammals, 507 birds and 114 reptiles—a visit to Kruger practically guarantees a viewing of native South African wildlife, making this a popular destination for the Big 5.

“It really is one of the finest game parks in Africa and [it is] malaria free,” Kearns said.

Stay on site at a private game farm for $250-$550 per day per person; such lodging-plus-tour experiences often includes full board and two game drives a day (morning and night). Beware: Don’t roam around the camp alone; lions roam free.

For budget accommodations, look at options just outside the park (park visitors must leave the park by 6 pm unless staying at one of the private lodges).

The comfort level of this trip ranges from budget to high-end (depending on where you stay). Most visitors spend between three and seven days while in Kruger National Park.

Getting there: Kruger is a long, 20-hour drive, so most take a flight (4 hours from Cape Town).

Map of South Africa's Top 5 National Parks

Maridane Hewes
About the author

Maridane serves as the associate travel editor for Where. Studying journalism and Italian at the University of Missis...