South Africa is the kind of place that should only exist in a guilty pleasure flick. You know the kind. Kids who look like they stepped out of Stranger Things find themselves rooting around in a wardrobe and somehow get lost in a fantastical country full of deserts, grasslands, wetlands, and subtropical forests. It’s all so sublime and challenging to wrap your arms around a country where unsurpassed natural wonders seem to be the norm.
The dramatic landscape scratches the surface of what South Africa offers. It’s also home to the Palace of the Lost City, Table Mountain, and the Big 5 animals everyone covets seeing on their next camping adventure. South Africa wildlife is the cornerstone of what makes the country so magical, and the best way to immerse yourself in the experience is while camping.
There are plenty of places to see wildlife in South Africa to experience the freefall feeling into a natural abyss for yourself. Here are eight places to get started to see the Big 5 and other native animals.
Kruger National Park lives up to the hype as an iconoclast of South Africa wildlife preservation, outdoor wonders, and wildlife. The nearly two million hectare park is home to lions, leopards, elephants, buffaloes, and rhinoceros. Tourism helps fund the park, as well as campsite fees and tourism.
There are scores of campsites within Kruger National Park to choose from including:
You can get a rundown on Kruger National Park’s rest camps, bush camps, and lodging options here.
Pro tip: Bring binoculars and start your day early to see the most activity and beat the high heat.
Black-mane lions snooze under camel thorn trees against a dramatic landscape of red dunes. If stunning lions aren’t enough to suit your wildlife fix, you can also find gemsbok, blue wildebeest, leopards, and raptors roam through Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.
Choose from campsites, family cottages, chalets, and rustic camping. Each option offers a different vibe from creature comforts to up close and personal to wildlife, so book according to your preferences.
Pro tip: Twee Rivieren campsite offers a small restaurant, shop, and swimming pool to stroke your creature comforts. For a campings spot near South Africa wildlife, try Grootkolk Wilderness Camp with a floodlit waterhole frequented by animals.
Listed as South Africa’s first World Heritage site, iSimangaliso Wetland Park welcomes southern right whales, bottlenose dolphins, humpback dolphins, and other marine life. New species are still being discovered in the wetlands already known for its biodiversity, but you can also find black rhinos dotting the landscape.
There are several camping options to choose from, although one of our favorites is Cape Vidal Campsite, just a stone’s throw from the beach. You can also set up camp on the western shores of False Bay, Sodwana Bay, and eMshopi Camp Site.
Pro tip: Bring your scuba gear, iSimangaliso Wetland Park offers the opportunity to explore the aquatic wildlife in Sodwana Bay.
Situated on the edge of Pilanesberg National Park, Bakgatla Resort boasts a unique history. The game reserve sits in the crater of an extinct volcano dating back over one million years ago. Wild animals and Africa’s Big 5 roam the area, along with brown hyena, springbok, and birds.
Choose from bed chalets with all the non-camping creature comforts you want like air conditioning. Or pick a sleeper safari tent with a wooden deck and patio overlooking the bush, camping sites, or caravan sites.
Pro tip: Ask about guided safari game drives to get the most out of your South Africa wildlife trip, then take a dip in the on-site Olympic-size swimming pool.
There’s something magical about sleeping among the wildlife at Addo Elephant Park in Port Elizabeth. Like the name implies, this park is the place for elephant lovers who want to see herds of elephants at Kapoor dam. You’ll also find lions, the majestic Zuurberg Mountain, and rolling sand dunes.
A floodlit waterhole offers a tantalizing vantage point for lions, spotted hyenas, and jackals. You’ll also find elephants, Cape buffalo, and something called a flightless dung beetle that has the right away on the roads. Choose from guest houses, cottages, forested cabins, chalets, and camping sites that allow up to six people for a South Africa wildlife adventure.
Pro tip: Take a horseback ride to soak up the experience from Addo Main Camp.
Arrive during early August through September for a carpet of colorful flowers at Namaqua National Park. The flowers alone draw visitors from around the world, but you can also find smaller game animals, including Klipspringer, Springbok, Cape Grysbok, and Dassies. Seasonal whales, dolphins, and Cape Fur Seals visit the coastline, along with over 123 species of birds, including Palearctic waders.
Pro tip: Bring your camera for endless photo opts of South Africa wildlife along with the aloes, daisies, perennial herbs, and lilies.
The World Heritage Site of Mapungubwe National Park is teeming with wildlife, birds, and plenty of history. Mapungubwe Hill was once a thriving trading outpost between 1200 and 1290 AD, where a famous golden rhino and other artifacts were found. The area is also home to elephant, white rhinoceros, lion, leopard, hyenas, giraffes, bush pig, and a variety of wishlist South Africa wildlife viewing opportunities.
Sleep among the sandstone hills at Leokwe Camp with a swimming pool and sundeck. There’s also Limpopo in a riverine forest, caravans, and tents at Mazhou Camping Site, or Vhembe Wilderness Camp along a small ridge.
Pro tip: Don’t miss the exclusive eco-trial available for campers at Tshugulu Lodge at the park.
Keep an eye out for black rhinos, zebras, eland, ostriches, and some lions roaming through Karoo National Park. Depending on droughts and climate, game can sometimes be hard to spot. Ask the grounds staff for the best rote, including the Lammetjies Leegte route along the plains. Choose from campsites, caravans, Cape Dutch style family units, and cottages are available with access to swimming pools.
Pro tip: Bring your mountain bike and hit the rugged trails before a dip in one of the two swimming pools.
If you’ve seen the Big 5 and are looking to expand your South Africa wildlife horizons, the Royal Natal National Park is home to resident bushbuck, otters, jackal, and baboons. The famous Amphitheater enhances the gorgeous mountain scenery of Royal Natal National Park with a 500m high rock wall. Hiking is popular, as well as trout fishing along the Mahai and Thukela Rivers. After a hot day of hiking, take a swim in a fresh mountain stream.
Pro tip: The best time to visit Royal Natal National Park is from March to May when rivers are full, and animals come to water and nudge around the green landscape.
The best all-around pro tip we can share is to be patient. Depending on the season and campsite, game can be unpredictable and show up at unexpected times. Or they might play an elusive set of, “Hey! Let’s make the campers come and find us!” Joining a guided safari tour or asking the campground staff for their insights will help increase your chances of seeing the game of your dreams.
Safety should also be on the top of your mind. Remember to stay at your designated campsite at night, follow the rules, and never approach the game, no matter how friendly they look. After all, they’re wild animals in their natural habitat, and we are their uninvited guests.
There’s also no shortage of best campsites to see South Africa wildlife, so make a return trip part of your endless journey. After all, no one says, “If you’ve seen the Big 5, you’ve seen them all.” One trip to South Africa is never enough.