South Africa’s Big Five Parks and Reserves attract the lion’s share of attention from nature-loving foreigners, but several conservation areas offer travelers new insights into the culture, history and landscapes of the region. biodiversity of the country.
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For many nature-loving travellers, a trip to South Africa is their unique chance to encounter the country’s most charismatic large animals up close: lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants and Cape buffaloes. Of course, visitors should never miss a traditional South African safari. But those looking to get off the beaten path can add a number of lesser-known conservation areas to their itinerary and discover 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 in the country. Many contain thousand-year-old cave paintings from ancient cultures like the San people or feature untouched stretches of the arid fynbos bushland of the Cape Floral Kingdom, a biome unique to southern South Africa. Meanwhile, coastal conservation areas offer visitors some of the best land-based viewing of marine wildlife in the world.
Read on for three distinct wilderness areas worth a detour.
Rooi (Red) Cederberg
At the far east 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. It is not far from famous sites such as the imposing arch of Wolfberg and the high altitude vineyards belonging to Cederberg wines; it is also a notable destination for prehistoric rock art attributed to the indigenous Khoi and San peoples. The Rooi Cederberg serves as an important habitat for endangered species such as the Cape leopard and the Cape mountain zebra.
In the Rooi Cederberg, the private Bakkrans Nature Reserve now welcomes guests as part of a collaboration between the reserve, a Cape Town-based travel agency travel designerand Justin Bonello, adventurer, filmmaker and South African chef. They opened a series of traditional thatched-roof, stone-walled cottages inspired by the homes of the shepherds who once inhabited the area. Built by local craftsmen, the four exclusive-use chalets, each sleeping eight people, are decorated with furniture constructed 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, kudus, elk and caracals. The concession owner is the co-founder of the Cape Leopard Trust, and guests who want a hands-on conservation experience can help set up the trust’s camera traps that monitor Cape leopards.
With a handful of travel outfitters including Extraordinary journeysTravel Designer creates special conservation-focused itineraries to Bakkrans with leading Southern African experts, including renowned archaeologist Renée Rust, famed mountaineer Tony Lourens and environmental scientist and naturalist writer David Bristow. Dinners are outdoors braais hosted by Bonello under the stars.
De Hoop nature reserve
Located 240 km east of Cape Town in the Western Cape Province of South Africa, De Hoop Coastal Nature Reserve is a windswept landscape stretching approximately 210 km² along the ocean Indian. It is 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 plant and flower species of the biome 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 stretches three nautical miles from the coast. It’s one of the best places in the world to see southern right whales, which congregate to breed and give birth in the bays of the reserve’s marine protected area between July and November.
At the end of 2019, a safari company based in South Africa Natural selection open Lekkerwater Beach Lodge in the eastern part of this remote reserve on an 84,000-acre private grant. The seven neutral-toned suites face mesmerizing views of white-sand beaches and blue horizons, which are visible through floor-to-ceiling windows. Eco-friendly practices abound: electricity is solar powered. The furniture was built with sustainable local woods. Raised decks help minimize impact on the land and 24% of accommodation fees go directly to the reserve’s conservation funding.
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 northeast 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 tracts of land in the region. A Unesco World Heritagethe park contains nearly 40,000 rock and cave paintings—the largest and most concentrated number in sub-Saharan Africa – created by the San people who occupied this land for several millennia. The region also serves as an important water catchment area for residents of Lesotho and South Africa.
At the foot of the Drakensberg peaks, Greenfire Drakensberg Lodge is about 170 miles northwest of the port city of Durban. It sits on a sprawling nearly 2,500-acre farm, and its no-frills approach, with no Wi-Fi, electricity, or phone service, is ideal for travelers looking to truly get off the grid. There is a main lodge with four guest bedrooms, all with en-suite bathrooms, and five self-contained family cabins with their own fireplaces sleeping up to four people each.
The lodge provides an ideal base for exploring the area’s sandstone ramparts, arches, caves, oxbow lakes and wetlands, which are covered in native plants and flowers and wildlife including bushbuck, the klipspringer and the werewolves. A day can be spent fly fishing for brown and rainbow trout, horseback riding, rock climbing, or a half-day hike in the mountains to visit a colony of vultures of the Cape endangered.
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