The Big Five National Parks Of South Africa

For adventurers, thrill-seekers and wildlife enthusiasts, safaris are what dreams are made of sunsets over the savannah, red hot-air balloons soaring above migratory herds, elephants blowing the dust with the flap of an ear and hippos cooling thick, leathery skin in muddy watering holes; Africa is a destination unlike any other.

Some may call it the trip-of-a-lifetime, but the truth is that once you have experienced the wildlife and landscapes of South Africa, you will have a habit of finding yourself returning there again and again. Fortunately, the country has enough national parks to ensure that you never run out of options. Here are some of our favourites.

Kariega Game Reserve

The one with the happy ending

South Africa’s fastest-growing conservation area is home to not only the Big Five, but also the rare and endangered Cape leopard. However, it is rhinos Thandi and Thembi who are stars of the show on this Eastern Cape stage. Thandi became famous in 2012, when she was one of three rhinos attacked on the reserve during an especially prolific period of poaching in South Africa. Whilst her two companions sadly died, Thandi not only survived but, as tests during her lengthy treatment revealed, was found to be pregnant. Thembi, whose name means ‘hope’ in the indigenous language of isiXhosa, was born in 2015 and has remained by her mother’s side, and has been Kariega Game Reserve’s star attraction ever since. Both rhinos roam free under the protection of the reserve, which blankets almost 25,000 acres of the Eastern Cape and incorporates the Kariega and Bushman’s rivers within its verdant and mountainous wilderness.

white rhino drinking, sighting from a safari car

Addo Elephant National Park

The one with the Big Seven

There is more to South Africa’s third largest wildlife conservation park than its namesake elephants, though they are undoubtedly one of its biggest draws. Addo Elephant National Park started out with just 11 elephants in 1931. Now, there are over 600 African elephants roaming its arid savannah, joined by lion, buffalo, black rhino, spotted hyena, leopard, antelope and zebra. The reserve is also the only place in the world where you will find the flightless dung beetle. Add into the mix the southern right whale and great white shark, both of which are found off the Algoa Bay Coast in the park’s marine area, and you have one of the world’s few Big Seven reserves. With the Woody Cape sand dunes, the Sundays River Valley, which spills into the mouth of the Indian Ocean, and the rugged Zuurberg Mountain surrounded by citrus trees and rose farms, Addo Elephant National Park is one of South Africa’s most diverse in terms of scenery.

A herd of elephants at a waterhole in Addo Elephant National Park, South Africa.

Flightless Dung Beetle, Addo Elephant National Park, South Africa.

Lion in Kruger National Park

iSimangaliso Wetland Park

The one with the beaches

A name meaning ‘miracle and wonder’ leaves a lot to live up to but, if anything, iSimangaliso Wetland Park manages to exceed expectation. The park was South Africa’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, an accolade which came in recognition of its incredible natural beauty and ecological importance. A mosaic of ecosystems, from 25,000-year-old sand dunes, to the majority of South Africa’s remaining swampland along with 135-miles of beaches, makes iSimangaliso Wetland Park the jewel in the country’s coastal crown. Its unique charms also impressed Nelson Mandela, who once remarked “iSimangaliso must be the only place on the globe where the oldest land mammal and the world’s biggest terrestrial mammal share an ecosystem with the world’s oldest fish and the world’s biggest marine mammal”. Game viewing occupies uMkhuze and the Eastern and Western Shore areas of the park, whilst its position on the migratory path of the humpback whale makes whale watching a popular activity, too. Year-round scuba diving in Sodwana Bay is considered some of the best in the world, with over 100 corals and 1,200 fish species found on Africa’s southernmost reef.

Herd of hippos sleeping, Isimangaliso Wetland Park, South Africa

Kruger National Park

The one everybody knows

If you were asked to name a South African national park, the chances are that Kruger National Park would factor in there. This is the world-famous one, its almost endless wilderness having provided the ultimate safari experience since 1898. Yes, the Big Five are here in abundance, but this enormous 7,500 sq. mile space offers so much more besides. The diversity in the park’s wildlife is key here and nowhere in the world will you find such a vast variety of species, including 2000 plants, 53 fish, 34 amphibians, 118 reptiles, 517 birds and 147 mammals. Kruger National Park will soon become part of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, a peace park which will eventually link the game reserve with parks in neighbouring Zimbabwe and Mozambique. The fences between the parks are slowly being removed, allowing animals to migrate as they would have done before political boundaries put manmade borders in their way.

African Bush Elephant

Young Male Lions in Kruger National Park

Giraffe in Kruger National park, South Africa

Hluhluwe – iMfolozi Park

The one that came first

Established in 1895, Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park is the oldest game reserve in Africa, and whilst it was once the Zulu kings who hunted here, it is the Big Five which now stalk the savannahs. The park is in fact made up of two reserves, the Hluhluwe Game Reserve in the north and iMfolozi in the south, with the two combining to cover an area of over 370 sq. miles. The usual safari suspects are joined by crocodiles and hippos loitering in the watering holes in their masses, whilst the park has become best-known for nurturing one of the world’s most notable populations of black and white rhino. It was at Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park that the ‘Operation Rhino’ conservation programme oversaw efforts to bring the Southern white rhino back from the brink of extinction during the 1950s. The park’s conservation team continues to grow the black rhino population too, at a time when poaching continues to be rife. Aside from its rhino conservation, Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park is best known for its wilderness trails.


Male impala lying in long grass