Visitors can take advantage of the country's extensive public game parks and excellent road system.
Perhaps it was working my way through college at the Milwaukee County Zoo, perhaps it was too many National Geographic specials, but I had wanted to visit Africa for many years. So with great expectations, my husband and I and another couple boarded South African Airways for the 15-hour flight to Johannesburg in November.
I had researched different options for visiting Africa. Group travel seemed too limiting and the smaller private game parks were too expensive, costing upwards of $350 per person per day. But South Africa -- with its extensive system of public game parks featuring affordable accommodations and its excellent system of roads -- allowed us to do a self-driven tour for 16 days with costs under $150 per person per day for land arrangements.
South Africa is a large country, and for our short visit we decided to visit the Northeastern Provinces to maximize game viewing. We traveled from Pretoria to the Northern Province, down through Kruger National Park to the Kingdom of Swaziland, back into South Africa and the Province of KwaZulu-Natal and finally Mpumulanga Province.
Besides the bird-watching and game viewing, we were interested in the culture of South Africa. Three-fourths of the 40 million people in South Africa are black and there are more than eight ancestral groups. There are 11 official languages in South Africa, with most people able to speak one ancestral language plus Afrikaans and English.
The ancestral people in the area of our travels were Zulu, Ndebele and Swazi. Although many blacks live in the townships adjacent to the larger cities, many more make their living in villages or kraals as herders and farmers. As we drove we passed many beehive dwellings with farmers hoeing the small communal plots by hand and herd boys watching the cattle all the day.
Arriving at the Johannesburg Airport, we picked up our Explorer-like vehicle, rented a cellular phone and headed 30 miles north to Pretoria. We were told repeatedly by South Africans that it was unsafe in Johannesburg and not to drive at night. However, we felt safe driving during daylight hours in South Africa and Swaziland.
We shopped for basics in small towns, stopped for lunch in small restaurants and bought fruit from roadside stands. In rural areas, begging was common. When our car was parked by the side of the road, residents would approach, stick their hand in the open windows and ask for alms.
Alive with flowers
The first morning we made a visit to the Museum of the Transvaal to visit a friend and see the Austin Roberts Bird Hall. This was a good introduction to the new species of birds we could see in South Africa. Leaving Pretoria, we went north to Tzaneen and the Magoebaskloof Hotel and Pass of the same name. This was a beautifully forested area surrounded by picturesque tea estates. The hotel attracted monkeys who came early in the morning and reached into the open guest-room windows and stole the complimentary bananas.
We continued north toward Messina, passing large Baobab trees, which grow only in the Northern Province and disappeared as we went south. Legend has it that the gods planted the trees upside-down with the roots exposed to the sky. That is how the Baobab looks without leaves, but we were in South Africa after the spring rains so the trees were lush and loaded with blossoms.
South Africa has more than a tenth of the world's flowering plants and with the abundant rainfall the landscape was alive with wild flowers. This was not the arid landscape of the TV specials.
Our goal was Kruger National Park, one of the top 10 parks of the world, and the Natal Provincial Parks. Kruger was established in 1903 by Paul Kruger and is the size of the state of Massachusetts. With Cape buffalo, lions, elephant, leopard and Rhino -- the big five according to old-time safari hunters -- Kruger is a very popular tourist area and is heavily visited by South Africans.
Accommodations ranged from simple tented camps to self-catering rondavels and cottages all with high-pitched thatched roofs. The main camps had restaurants, gift shops and stores called winkels, gasoline stations and laundry facilities. We entered through the northernmost Pafuri gate and saw large herds of Impala and elephants next to the road. This was the Africa I had come to see.
Staying with the group
Game park gates and the times they are open are important. Whether public park or private reserve, all have guarded gates. The gates were open from one hour before sunrise to sunset. The public is denied entry at all other times. Besides the main park gates, the camps were also gated and surrounded by an animal barrier. Guests were not allowed out of the residence area from sunset to sunrise unless they were on a supervised ranger-led game drive.
People on a group tour could only go into the game reserves with their tour group on formal game drives. Having our own car, we could drive anywhere in the parks during the daylight hours but still had to join an organized game drive for spotting animals at night. Visitors were not allowed to get out of their cars at any time unless they were at specific picnic spots, in game blinds or in camp.
Walking is allowed in the parks, but only on an official game walk with an armed ranger. The game drives, night drives and game walks are on a reservation basis and an additional fee is charged. This was true at Kruger and all Natal Parks Board reserves.
We had been warned to take precautions against mosquitoes in the Kruger Park and KwaZulu-Natal areas as malaria is endemic in this part of South Africa, but we didn't have any mosquito problems until Ndumo Park.
As we left Punda Maria camp driving south toward Letaba camp, we saw elephants, buffalo hippos, giraffes and several antelope species. We arrived at camp 10 minutes before the gates closed. It had taken us more than eight hours to drive the 177 kilometers (about 110 miles) between camps. This was because there was so much game to view and so many birds to add to our bird list.
With large game so numerous and easy to see, we added birds, lizards, turtles and insects to our viewing. Birds with names such as lilac-breasted roller, Kori bustard, paradise whydah, purple-crested lourie and hoopoe were close enough to view without binoculars and were breathtaking in their beauty.
Everyone who goes to Africa wants to see lions and leopards. We never saw leopards, but we saw lions and hyenas on day and night drives. The night game drives are done in raised Jeep-like vehicles that hold about 20 people. Two passengers shine large bright lights into the veld while the driver/ranger looks for game. Dozens of eyes or a large herd of Cape buffalo dancing in the lights was an eerie sight. Photography wasn't hampered by having to stay in the car.
Baboons climbed onto the hood of the car at one point and we had to quickly roll up the windows. Our following days in Kruger and the Natal Parks were spent game viewing and getting to camp just as the gates closed.
Handicrafts and scenery
Swaziland, independent since 1968, is one of only three monarchies in Africa and is the smallest country in Africa. It cost $1 to process the paperwork to cross the border. After passing through the beautiful Piggs Peak area, we headed to the Ezulwini valley, which is a popular tourist area with South Africans. Swaziland is known for handicrafts, and we bought baskets and batiks. We also made a quick tour through Mlilwane Game Sanctuary, where we viewed Beesbok and sacred ibis.
We spent six nights in KwaZulu-Natal at parks administered by the Natal Parks Board. I wish we had stayed longer at Itala Park with its exquisite scenery, black rhinos and Blue wildebeest.
Hluhluwe Umfolozi Park is the crown jewel of the Natal Parks Board and offers the amenities of private luxury camps at Hilltop Camp. This park is credited with saving the white (or square-jawed) rhino from extinction. White rhinos were close when we took a game walk with two-armed park rangers. We were quite startled when a rhino hidden in bushes suddenly decided to run through our group of eight hikers. We all remembered the ranger's instructions and either stayed put or ran behind a tree.
For the next six days, I made all the reservations on a day-by-day basis. It was difficult to get the information I needed from the civil servants that made the park reservations.
At the Indian Ocean boundary of South Africa, a boat ride on the St. Lucia Estuary was a trip highlight. We came close to hippos, Nile crocodile and South African fish eagles. There were people fishing in the estuary, but swimming was banned because of crocodiles, occasional sharks and electric eels.
There are pineapple plantations in this area and we bought several dozen pineapples that were the size of an apple and extremely sweet. Along the road to Mkusi Park were small stands with hand-carved rhinos and warthogs for sale. Having become fond of warthogs, we purchased a carved one for $5.
At Mkusi and Ndumo, we arrived before the guards shut the gates but after the staff had left for the day. At both places a chalkboard informed us of our cottage number. These camps do not have restaurants or stores. We had to provide our own food.
At Ndumo, a chef came to greet us and asked if we had any chops to cook. We had canned spaghetti, soup and pineapples with us and he did wonders with it. These are more remote camps and recently there has been some unrest in this area, so check the local conditions before reserving in this part of the Natal.
Our last night in South Africa was spent at Bohm's Country House. Here we treated ourselves to a gourmet dinner and breakfast before our four-hour drive to Johannesburg and 17-hour flight back to the United States. I wanted to move to Bohm's permanently -- it was one of the nicest places I have been in my travels. The German-born host couldn't do enough for us and the setting near the town of Hazyview was ideal.
I wasn't ready to leave South Africa. It is a wonderful place, and the animals, diverse scenery and culture are special. It is a shame that more North Americans don't visit this area. Most tourists were European and the South Africans were surprised that we came from the United States; we were always identified as German. The maid at Hilltop camp told me she never expected to meet anyone from the United States but she knew about us from television.
U.S. citizens who travel to South Africa generally fly into and out of a private game reserve and do not visit the public parks or interact with the native people. Another area popular with U.S. tourists is Cape Town, which we hope to visit next year.
I found Africa to be very special; this will not be our last visit.
IF YOU GO
For information: South African Tourism Board, 500 Fifth Ave., 20th Floor, Suite 2040, New York, NY 10110. Telephone: (800) 822-5368. Fax: (212) 764-1980. Web site: www.satour.org. After you receive information from the South African Tourism Board, other private agencies will send you material.
Getting there: South African Airlines flies direct from New York and Miami to Johannesburg and Cape Town. There are also connecting flights from other cities in the U.S. through Europe, South America, Asia and Australia.
Getting around South Africa: Domestic air flights, trains, auto rental and bus are available. An excellent road network links South Africa. South Africans drive on the left. A valid driver's license printed in English with a photo is required. Seat belts are mandatory. There are set speed limits, but we never saw anyone pay any attention to them.
Accommodations: The Satour Accommodation guide is excellent.
Climate: South Africa is in the Southern Hemisphere and its seasons are the reverse of those in North America. December and January are the summer months and people flock to the beaches; autumn and spring are the best seasons for hiking. The sun is strong; take precautions.
Currency: The Rand, denoted by the symbol R1. In November, 30 Rand equaled $5. Most places accepted major credit cards, although they are not accepted as payment for gasoline or by street vendors.
Electricity: You will need a special converter for your personal electrical appliances in South Africa. A huge plug is used. Many accommodations will provide a converter on request. The normal South American/European converter kit does not work here.
Health and safety: Malaria regions include the Northern Province, Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal. Bilharzia is present in streams, rivers and lakes in the eastern part of the country. Visitors should not swim in these areas. The Eastern Cape is bilharzia-free. Take the same precautions you would in major metropolitan areas of the United States. Never leave luggage unattended, don't walk the streets after dark, lock your car doors and keep the windows closed in the cities.
Time difference: South Africa is eight hours ahead. So when it is 4 p.m. in South Africa, it is 8 a.m. in Kansas.