7 of the best places to walk with big game in SA
If game driving is snorkelling, trail walking is scuba diving. Get set for a deep dive below the surface of the country’s best reserves
1. KAROO NATIONAL PARK
Its location adjacent to the N1 has made the Karoo a popular stopover for travellers for many years. Once hikers could explore without guides. Free roaming ended and escorted trails began when lions were reintroduced in 2010.
This is a good park to do in spring and early summer, when visitors gain a new appreciation for the distinctive biodiversity of the Karoo. Kudus, grey rheboks and other antelopes love the grasslands, and lions are not short of prey.
The main camp is extensive and has a number of self-guided trails including one with fossils and petrified wood displays.
BOOK: Advance booking is essential to ensure the availability of a guide. Call the park on
023-415-2828 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
COST: Dawn walks are R233.
2. MOUNTAIN ZEBRA NATIONAL PARK
This Eastern Cape park is named for the Cape mountain zebra, a subspecies returned from the brink of extinction. Handsome as they are, they live in the shadow of the cheetah, reintroduced to the park in 2008.
The cheetahs are doing well, despite the predation of lions that arrived a few years later. In fact, two new cubs were spotted in December. Thanks to radio collaring for research, park rangers can track some of the cheetahs, and lead visitors on foot through the wiregrass. The cats are not perturbed by the arrival of a few humans. But make no mistake, these are wild cheetahs living their best lives, and the walks are carefully managed to not interfere with natural behaviour.
For a serious workout, pick the Salpeterkop hike, a scramble on loose volcanic rock to a summit, where you'll find a Boer War-era chessboard etched in stone. There's also a short rock-art walk, which is not as hard on the knees.
BOOK: Call the park on 048-801-5700 or e-mail email@example.com
COST: Dawn walks R349, cheetah tracking R429, Salpeterkop R399, cave art R227.
3. HLUHLUWE-IMFOLOZI NATIONAL PARK
KwaZulu-Natal's biggest park is where walking with big game all began. In 1958, the late conservationist Dr Ian Player and his friend Magqubu Ntombela convinced park authorities that walkers could be safely guided in areas with dangerous wildlife. And the park's multi-day Wilderness Trails were born.
Today, the park retains the pure experience of those times: donkeys in place of vehicles, no camp fencing and showers from a bucket suspended from a tree.
The Primitive Trail goes a step further by dispensing with the donkeys and tents. Backpack in, sleep under the stars - and take your turn to keep watch by the fire. What can be wilder than that?
The park aims to please all styles, and the Base Camp Trail combines trail walking with a comfortable camp. Short on time? Both main camps, Mpila and Hilltop, offer dawn and afternoon walks. The park is a rhino stronghold, and don't be surprised to share the trails with elephants, buffaloes and hyenas.
COST: Morning/afternoon walks are R300 and trails range from R2,670pp for a two-night Short Trail to R4,395pp for a three-night Base Camp Trail.
4. KGALAGADI TRANSFRONTIER PARK
It may seem an endless drive through arid plains and red dunes to reach the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, but it's worth every minute. The habitat - soft sand, hot sun - is not suited to long walks, but fine for an early morning amble.
The place to get that is !Xaus Lodge, owned by the local Khomani San community, and named after the San word for heart. Sharing a fraction of the knowledge passed down through the generations, a multi-lingual Bushman guides the walk. In an hour or two, layer upon layer is revealed.
The morning tracks of rodents and reptiles are like a work of modern art when lit by the low-angled light. They lead the eye to a family of whistling rats, or four-striped grass mice. The ground is a trove of seed pods and ostrich shells, used to make traditional jewellery. Every plant has a tale to tell, either as a food source or traditional medicine - or both. And if the meerkats co-operate, you'll surely leave smiling.
BOOK: visit xauslodge.co.za or by phone 021-701-7860.
COST: Walks are included in the overnight fees, R2,500 pp full board.
5. KRUGER NATIONAL PARK
Big-game walks HQ, the Kruger has more trail options than the rest of the parks combined. Where to start? A dawn walk, of course, and all SANParks rest camps offer them.
If you love that, it's time to step up: get in shape for one of the seven three-night Wilderness Trails, an escape within an escape. From the granite outcrops in the south to the Luvuvhu River in the far north, each trail is a different experience. In camp, the essentials are covered: good food, a gas-powered fridge, flush toilets and proper beds.
If that sounds a little too comfortable, check out the backpacking trails in the north of the park, where hikers carry everything needed for three days of "leave no trace" bush walking.
On the other hand, if even more comfort is your thing, there are two specialist trails: Rhino Walking Safaris in the thornveld near Skukuza, and Pafuri Walking Trails in the tropical north.
What will you see? It's the Kruger, one of the world's great wildlife reserves, and anything is possible. Don't just look for the big animals, as it's often the small things you'll sense most: the scent of lavender, the bird sounds, the feel of a found hippo incisor.
BOOK: Visit sanparks.org, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 012-428-9111. Rhino Walking Safaris: visit rws.co.za or call 011-467-1886. Pafuri Walking Trails: visit returnafrica.com or call 011-646-1391.
COSTS: SANParks dawn walks R570 pp, three-night Wilderness Trails R9,282 for two. Rhino Walking Safaris R5,610 pppn, Pafuri Walking Trails R3,590 pppn.
6. MAPUNGUBWE NATIONAL PARK
Tucked up against the borders of Botswana and Zimbabwe, it's always hot in Mapungubwe, except when it's very hot. But don't let that deter you, as it's great walking terrain, and has some very chilled-out SANParks guides. They'll show you their favourite baobabs, rock art dating back thousands of years, and stone ruins from the kingdom that thrived here in the iron-age years 900-1300AD.
The combination of eroded sandstone outcrops and the baobabs make the park a photographer's favourite. Don't forget your binoculars, as it has some of the best birding in Southern Africa, thanks to the Limpopo and Shashe rivers and wetlands. It includes the Pel's fishing owl, African fish eagle and about 500 other winged species.
If you're not tired after the early walk, each day has several guided tours of the main cultural site of Mapungubwe Hill. The 157 steps will get the heart pumping.
BOOK: E-mail email@example.com or call 015-534-7923.
COST: The three-hour dawn walk is R474 and the shorter cultural walk is R260.
7. MARAKELE NATIONAL PARK
If you live in Gauteng, this is the nearest national park with big-game walking, so what are you waiting for? The 2,000m peaks of the southern Waterberg make a fine backdrop when on the trail. But don't worry, the walks stick to lower ground, in bushveld and forest.
It's best to come here in the drier months from May to October, when there's less of a chance of a sudden close encounter with a grumpy elephant or rhino.
As well as those iconic beasts, the park has lions, wild dogs and a big breeding colony of Cape vultures. Marataba is a new upmarket concession in the park with a special focus on walking safaris.
COST: Dawn walks of three to four hours from SANParks are R350 and Marataba's are R850.
NEED TO KNOW
The minimum age for SANParkswalks is 12, and 16 for KZN Wildlife Wilderness Trails. Over 65s should pack a doctor’s certificate of fitness along with a hat and binoculars. Costs do not include parkconservation fees.