Northern South Africa is home to several wildlife regions including the famous Kruger National Park.
Most journeys around northern South Africa will begin in Johannesburg, a vibrant cosmopolitan city. Many travellers will by-pass the city but if you have the time there are some significant sites of interest – Soweto, the Apartheid and Voortrekker monuments, history of gold, and the Cullinan Diamond mine to name but a few.
Two hours drive north-west of Johannesburg is Sun City. The complex, which is home to four hotels, two championship golf courses and an extensive entertainment centre (with a comprehensive list of activities including swimming pools with wave machines), is completely man-made, even down to the river and the lake – quite a feat. Nearby is the Pilansberg Game Reserve so even a ‘soft safari’ is available.
The Limpopo Province is the most northerly province in South Africa, separated from both Botswana and Zimbabwe by the Limpopo River. The high-lying Waterberg area, around 3 hours drive north of Johannesburg, offers a number of malaria-free safari experiences in attractive mountainous terrain and the area is especially suitable for families.
Further north, the Soutpansberg (mountains) lie in the heart of Venda country and offer an archaeological insight to the history of the area with both San rock engravings and paintings present. Ecologically, the mountains are also interesting particularly in respect of vegetation.
From the Pont Drift border post in the far north, it is possible to access Mashatu Game Reserve in Botswana. Mashatu is the largest privately owned game reserve in southern Africa, and is located in the ‘wedge’ of eastern Botswana known locally as the Tuli Enclave. The area was originally inhabited by the mystical Maphungubwe tribe in 800AD, and made famous by Frederik Courtney Selous who hunted elephant in the region during the late 1800’s and led the Pioneer Column and Zeederberg Express. Baines also passed though here on his voyagers. Archaeological sites abound including the notable Motloutse Ruins and Pitsani Koppie.
Access to the Mashatu/Tuli region is very difficult from within Botswana so the area is seldom included as part of a ‘Botswana safari’. More commonly, it forms part of a holiday to South Africa, rivalling areas such as Madikwe and the Kruger National Park.
Polokwane and Makhado are two major towns in the province, but Tzaneen, on the edge of the Drakensberg escarpment perhaps offers more for the tourist. Aside from the stunning scenery, including the Magoeboeskloof Pass, the Debegeni Falls, and Duiwelskloof gorge, there are lots of local craft centres, botanical gardens, and a big farming community growing a wide variety of sub-tropical products – avocado, citrus, tea, coffee and mangoes.
To the east of the Drakensberg Mountains the landscape drops away into what is known as the ‘lowveld’. The main attraction here is the The Kruger National Park, which covers a huge area of some 2 million hectares stretching for some 200 kms along the western flank of the Lebombo Mountains, the boundary with Mozambique.
It takes two full days to drive from north to south at an average ‘game viewing’ speed. The north of the park is significantly drier, and less visited, than the south where the game viewing tends to be more varied. However, the private Makuleke Concession in the northern Kruger offers walking safaris and luxury lodge facilities.
The Kruger has a well developed road network, some of which is tarred (sealed), and in excess of 25 accommodation properties, in the form of restcamps (run by the National Parks department) and luxury lodges (run by private concessionaires). The rest camps cater primarily for the self drive tourist, whilst the luxury lodges mostly accommodate fly-in international visitors. There are also a network of ‘walking only’ trail camps which are operated on a 3 night scheduled departure basis. These are hugely popular and require early booking (up to a year in advance).
Bordering the south-western boundary of the National Park, the Sabi Sands, Timbavati, Manyeleti and Thornybush game reserves were amongst the first to offer luxury safari experiences in South Africa. Privately owned, there are no restrictions on off-road driving, night drives and walking. Using open vehicles, these reserves offer fantastic game viewing.
The southern half of Kruger and the associated private reserves fall into Mpumalanga Province, noted too for the impressive Drakensberg Escarpment which forms the divide between the ‘lowveld’ and the ‘highveld’. Stunning scenery, including some spectacular waterfalls, mountain passes and view points (God’s Window amongst them), as well as the Blyde River Canyon (the Worlds third largest canyon) make this area worth visiting. Nelspruit is the main town in the region, and an access point to the southern Kruger and bordering private reserves.