I didn’t want to go to South Africa when I was invited to my brother’s wedding , I just thought of the country’s chequered history and race inequality. But, we had to go, so we planned a game viewing trip around the wedding, it was so fantastic we went back again a few years later, with the children.
My brother talked us out of backpacking, he’s a bit more cautious than me, for once I listened. Instead we took the easier, but more expensive, option of booking budget accommodation in advance and self driving around the north of this beautiful country.
Game Reserves in South Africa
South Africa is absolutely stuffed with them. The biggest and most famous is obviously The Kruger National Park in the north-east. We chose not to go there because of the malaria risk, we found that you can see as much wildlife as we could ever hope for in the smaller parks and avoid taking antimalarials.
Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve, Luxury And The Big Five
The Hluhluwe Umfolozi Park in KwaZulu Natal , the heart of Zululand, is the oldest game park in South Africa , Zulu King Shaka hunted here and designated the area a conservation zone. You can see all of the Big Five (lion, elephant, leopard, buffalo and rhinoceros) on the savanna and at waterholes, hides let you observe the wildlife at close range. We spotted four of the Big Five, leopard are notoriously difficult to spot.
We booked accommodation in the park itself at Hilltop Camp, a collection of huts and bungalows around a central resort area. We booked a simple travellers’ rondavelle ( you can see a rondavelle in the video below), for a few nights, but got lucky, we were upgraded to a luxurious and very African bungalow with the most amazing views of the Zululand hills. We arrived by car, at night, the next morning as our coffee on the balcony sharpened us up, we realised that the shapes on the hill opposite weren’t cows, they were rhino. Good morning Africa!
As I drew the curtains that night it fell from the curtain rail and hurried off behind the sofa.
James called the ranger ” I’ll be right there, I’ll just get my fishing rod!”
We never quite worked out what he meant by that. James used a broom to persuade our green friend to leave before the angler arrived.
Now you need to forget everything you imagined about going on safari, guides and safari vehicles, we self drove, just cruised around the park looking at the animals. The animals also came to us, we had a zebra outside our bungalow one day. Organised game drives are available from the lodge at Hill Top, but you have to pay and small children may not be able to sit still for long enough. We did take one organised night drive, the guide was fantastic, pointing out bush babies in the trees and driving us right up next to an elephant, nobody realised he was there until the guide turned the torch on him. Guides have a sixth sense for animal location.
St Lucia Wildlife Reserve, Watch Out For Hippos!
St Lucia, on the coast, is a wetland reserve famous for hippos and crocodiles, there are also a lot of bull sharks, maybe not the best place for a swim. This video was filmed at the St Lucia Wildlife Reserve, you get to see what I look like.
Again, we booked a rondavelle, perfectly comfortable accommodation with shared toilet and kitchen blocks. It was great to meet a few locals and the park ranger as we cooked our boerewurst. They gave us a real insight into why this country is the way it is, they kind of changed my outlook. Guns and violence are a part of life here.
They told us that the hippos sometimes came into the camp at night, so to watch out if we needed to visit the toilet block after dark.
It was on the floor in a toilet cubicle. We left this one well alone, a green mamba, the rangers sprang into action, caching the critter in a bucket.
We had some other close wildlife encounters at St Lucia, monkeys on our roof, a tortoise strolling through camp and a family of warthogs right outside our hut. They’re in the video.
Diving Sodwana Bay, My Best Dive Ever
Sodwana Bay is a superb dive, the only surf dive I have ever done.
Inflatable boats take you out from the beach, just beyond the waves. The coral is spectacular, so big and healthy looking, the fish that hang around here seemed bigger than any I had seen elsewhere. Getting back into the boat afterwards resulted in a very inelegant faceplant into the floor.
It was here, in deeper waters, that the coelocanth was first discovered. I love the book, A Fish Caught in Time: The Search for the Coelacanth, which tells the story of that event, it’s a great read.
This dive is my favorite ever, better than any I have done in Australia or Maldives. I’d love to do it again.
Should You Visit South Africa With Children?
South Africa is in the midst of upheaval and change at the moment, I can’t advise on safely in the current political climate, but, if things resolve themselves my answer would be absolutely yes!
The wildlife viewing is sensational, my children will never look at a zoo the same way again. They learnt that giraffe are often struck by lightning, I bet you’d never thought of that! There was a dead one blocking the road one morning, the rangers explained what had happened.
The boys found out a bit about the foods of the region, South Africa’s rainbow cuisine, braiis, biltong and bunny chow. They got a glimpse of Zulu culture. They got to stroke a baby lion. They were, at the time, too young to take on much of the social history of South Africa, I would very much like to take them again when they are older, it was a learning experience for me.
Restaurants are plentiful, food is good, cheap and suits a western palate.
You do have to exercise caution, violence is a big problem here, don’t get out of the car if the road is blocked, reverse away, it could be a trap and obviously keep car doors and windows locked.
Don’t leave the windows open in your accommodation, you don’t want a house full of hungry baboons ( it happened to my brother, he should know better he’s lived there for seven years).
Don’t forget that wild animals are everywhere, not just in the reserves.
If you take younger children I would highly recommend self drive animal viewing in the game reserves, take your own car seats, they are not counted as part of your baggage allowance.
Just remember to watch out for snakes.