These Wild Places in South Africa Go Beyond the Traditional Safari
South Africa’s Big Five parks and reserves draw the lion’s share of attention from nature-loving foreigners, but several conservation areas offer travelers new perspectives of the country’s culture, history, and biodiverse landscapes.
For many nature-loving travelers, a trip to South Africa is their once-in-a-lifetime chance for close encounters with the country’s most charismatic large animals: lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants, and Cape buffalo. Of course, visitors should never miss a traditional South African safari. But those looking to veer off the beaten path can add a number of lesser-known conservation areas to their itinerary and see a hidden side of the country known mostly to South African residents.
These parks and reserves often reveal a much broader perspective of the biodiversity and cultural heritage found within the country. Many contain millennia-old rock paintings from ancient cultures like the San people or feature untouched expanses of the arid fynbos shrubland of the Cape Floral Kingdom, a biome unique to southern South Africa. Meanwhile, coastal conservation areas give visitors some of the best land-based marine wildlife viewing in the world.
Read on for three distinctive wild areas worthy of a detour.
Rooi (Red) Cederberg
On the remote eastern edge of the Cederberg Mountains, a three-hour drive north of Cape Town, the sandstone-hued Rooi Cederberg is named after the region’s rare endemic Clanwilliam cedar tree. It isn’t far from such famous sites as the towering Wolfberg Arch and the high-altitude vineyards belonging to Cederberg Wines; it’s also a noted destination for prehistoric rock art attributed to the Indigenous Khoi and San people. The Rooi Cederberg serves as an important habitat for such endangered species as the Cape leopard and the Cape mountain zebra.
In the Rooi Cederberg, the private Bakkrans Nature Reserve is now hosting guests in a collaboration among the reserve, Cape Town–based travel company Travel Designer, and Justin Bonello, a South African adventurer, filmmaker, and chef. They’ve opened a series of traditional thatched stone-walled veld cottages inspired by the homes of herders who once inhabited the area. Constructed by area craftspeople, the four exclusive-use cottages, which sleep up to eight people, are decorated with furnishings built from local materials and sit along a rocky escarpment facing the nearby Tankwa Karoo National Park. Guests have exclusive access to the reserve’s rock art and wildlife, which includes Cape leopards, Cape mountain zebras, kudu, eland, and caracals. The concession’s owner is the cofounder of the Cape Leopard Trust, and guests who want a hands-on conservation experience can help install the trust’s camera traps that monitor Cape leopards.
Together with a handful of travel outfitters including Extraordinary Journeys, Travel Designer is creating special conservation-focused itineraries to Bakkrans with prominent experts in southern Africa, including noted archaeologist Renée Rust, famous mountaineer Tony Lourens, and environmental scientist and nature writer David Bristow. Dinners are open-air braais hosted by Bonello under the stars.
De Hoop Nature Reserve
Lying 150 miles to the east of Cape Town in South Africa’s Western Cape Province, the coastal De Hoop Nature Reserve is a windswept landscape spanning about 130 square miles next to the Indian Ocean. It’s filled with sand dunes and clear rock pools. De Hoop is a key conservation area for the unique lowland fynbos that characterizes the region’s Cape Floral Kingdom; 50 of the biome’s plant and flower species are found only in this reserve. Here, visitors can spot Cape mountain zebras, caracals, more than 260 species of migratory birds, and even the occasional leopard.
The reserve’s protected area includes a pristine white-sand beach and a marine protected area that extends three nautical miles out from the coast. It’s one of the world’s best places for viewing southern right whales, which congregate to breed and calf in the bays of the reserve’s marine protected area between July and November.
In late 2019, South Africa–based safari company Natural Selection opened Lekkerwater Beach Lodge in the eastern part of this remote reserve on a private 84,000-acre concession. The seven neutral-toned suites face a mesmerizing view of white beaches and blue horizons, which are on view through floor-to-ceiling windows. Ecofriendly practices abound: Electricity runs on solar power. Furnishings were built with sustainable local woods. Elevated decks help minimize impact on the land, and 24 percent of accommodation charges go directly back into conservation funding for the reserve.
From Lekkerwater Beach Lodge, guests can spend their days hiking the 34-mile coastal Whale Trail, taking a fynbos walk with a naturalist, or exploring the clear-water rock pools filled with starfish, sea anemones, and barnacles.
Straddling the borders of South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal region and the northeastern border of Lesotho, the Drakensberg mountain range is home to Maloti-Drakensberg Park. At 5,600 square miles, it is one of the largest contiguous unmodified expanses of land in the region. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the park contains close to 40,000 rock and cave paintings—the biggest and most concentrated number in sub-Saharan Africa—created by the San people who occupied this land for several millennia. The area also serves as an important water catchment zone for residents of both Lesotho and South Africa.
At the foot of Drakensberg peaks, Greenfire Drakensberg Lodge is about 170 miles northwest of the port city of Durban. It sits on a sprawling farm of nearly 2,500 acres, and its no-frills approach, with no Wi-Fi, electricity, or phone service, is ideal for travelers looking to truly go off the grid. There’s a main lodge with four guest rooms, all with ensuite bathrooms, and five stand-alone family cabins with their own fireplaces that sleep up to four people each.
The lodge offers a perfect base for exploring the area’s untrammeled sandstone ramparts, arches, caves, oxbow lakes, and wetlands, which are covered with indigenous plants and flowers and wildlife including bushbuck, klipspringer, and aardwolves. A day might be spent fly-fishing for brown and rainbow trout, horseback riding, rock climbing, or taking a half-day trek into the mountains to visit a colony of endangered Cape vultures.