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05 October 2023

Our Top 3 South African National Parks for Winter Game Viewing

As the South African winter air falls upon our mountains and fills our valleys, the once vibrant wilderness transforms ever so subtly. Crisp morning air embracing your skin, filling your senses with natural aromas and a tranquility like no other. The rich African sky is decorated with fine mist that promises to lift later on in the morning, raising the curtain on a new day and a new adventure. It is here, amidst the silence, that the soul of the South African outdoors begins to reveal itself in a unique, breathtaking way.

The first hints of sunlight pierce through the frosty air, casting a pale gold hue on the frost-kissed grass. In its stillness, though the cold, the landscape begins to come alive. Each blade of grass glistens in the morning light — a glimmer of hope that temperatures are rising soon.

As the croaking of the nearby army of frogs quiets down, the polite chatter of a pair of Scarlet-chested Sunbirds can be heard in the distance. You’ve just woken up in the Kruger National Park, the largest national park on the continent and the oldest in South Africa. It’s one of the most popular parks to view our big five, and it’s in your very own backyard.

Winter in the South African National Parks is a captivating spectacle, a time when the parks display a different side, a side that is calm, tranquil, and yet strikingly beautiful. Brush the frost off your boots, and let’s set out on a journey across three of our hand-picked national parks that are perfect for winter game viewing experiences. Let’s explore Kruger National Park, Addo Elephant National Park, and Marakele National Park.

Winter Game Viewing Delight in Kruger National Park

Kruger National Park is a vast wilderness situated in the north-eastern corner of South Africa, offering a pure African bush experience for all those who are lucky enough to grace the park with their presence. The park spans across the Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces and borders Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

Wildlife to Expect:

Kruger is renowned for its abundant wildlife, which becomes even more visible in winter. The reduction in natural bushveld owed to a drop in seasonal rainfall, along with the dry weather lure animals to the waterholes, providing excellent game viewing opportunities. All members of the Big Five — the lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, and Cape buffalo — can be found here. Cheetahs, wild dogs, and a host of herbivores, including Impala, zebra, and giraffe, can be seen roaming the wilderness. The little five also adorn the park’s grounds. These are the Buffalo Weaver, Elephant Shrew, Leopard Tortoise, Ant Lion, and Rhino Beetle.

Additionally, over 500 common, rare, and endemic bird species inhabit the park. The big six of the birding world to look out for are the Ground Hornbill, Kori Bustard, Lappet-faced Vulture, Martial Eagle, Pel’s Fishing Owl, and Saddle-bill Stork.

Other Winter Experiences:

Kruger National Park presents a variety of winter experiences. Game drives are a staple, with both day and night drives offering unique wildlife viewing opportunities, with warmth to be found beneath blankets atop of land cruiser vehicles and hot chocolate the reward at the end of your safari. The cooler temperatures make bush walks particularly enjoyable, providing the opportunity to get up close with nature. For a different perspective, consider taking a hot air balloon ride over the park at sunrise. Kruger National Park also offers 4×4 Trails and 4×4 Eco Trails, Mountain Biking, Birding, and golf. For the curious, the Elephant Hall at Letaba Rest Camp is a great place to learn more about our incredible South African giants.

The Honoured Big 7 at Addo Elephant National Park

Located in the Eastern Cape, Addo Elephant National Park is the third-largest national park in South Africa and stretches from the semi-arid Karoo area in the north around Darlington Dam, over the Zuurberg Mountains, through the Sundays River Valley, and down to the coast between Sundays River Mouth and Bushmans River Mouth.

Wildlife to Expect:

True to its name, Addo Elephant National Park is home to hundreds of elephants, offering ample opportunities to observe these gentle giants in their natural habitat. It’s also one of the few places where you can see the Big Seven — the Big Five, along with Southern Right Whale and Great White shark off the coast of Algoa Bay. The winter months provide excellent viewing opportunities as animals gather near water sources, and the park’s diverse landscapes make it a hotspot for a wide variety of bird species. With up to 450 bird species inhabiting the park, bird watchers will be in their element.

Other Winter Experiences:

For those seeking adventure, the Bedrogfontein 4×4 Trail presents a combination of breathtaking views and historical relevance. This 45km trail is situated between the Kabouga and Darlington areas of the park and offers an unforgettable journey through areas of significant Anglo-Boer War battles and sites of ancient rock art.

Nature walks and hikes are another fantastic way to explore the park’s distinct biomes, each home to unique flora and fauna. The Alexandria Hiking Trail, a two-day circular trail stretching over 32km, provides an immersive experience of the park’s landscapes.

Marine enthusiasts will appreciate the park’s coastal section between Sundays River Mouth and Bushmans River Mouth. Here, you can bask in the sun on one of the warmer winter days, relax on the sandy shores and  enjoy a picnic.  Alternatively, book a chartered cruise from the Port Elizabeth harbour and go in search of marine wildlife such as the Southern Right Whale and Great White Shark. The Bird and St. Croix islands in Algoa Bay are vital breeding areas for marine birds like Cape gannets, African penguins, and rare roseate terns.

The Sanctuary that is Marakele National Park

Marakele National Park is situated  approximately a 2.5 hour drive from Johannesburg and Pretoria, making it the ideal reserve to visit if you are not wanting to drive too far for a weekend getaway.  In Tswana, Marakele means ‘a place of sanctuary’, and Marakele National Park offers just this.

Located in the heart of the Waterberg Mountains, summer weather conditions offer a hot summer’s day without the stifling humidity that can be expected of lower lying regions in South Africa.  Winter offers cool, crisp mornings and evenings with very pleasant daytime temperatures – making Marakele the ideal mind-winter break destination.

Make a day trip to Marakele and enjoy the spectacular scenery from the viewtop at the top of the mountain, alongside the Cape Vulture Colony.

Wildlife to Expect:

In winter, expect to encounter a host of mammals such as elephants, Black and White rhinos, leopards, lions, brown hyenas, and a vibrant antelope population. Sable, Kudu, Eland, Impala, Waterbuck, Tsessebe, and smaller species all occur in the park. Moreover, Marakele forms part of the world’s largest colony of the endangered Cape vulture, so keep your binoculars at the ready for these magnificent birds.

Other Winter Experiences:

Aside from game drives and bird watching, Marakele also offers morning and sunset bush walks and a two-night 4×4 eco trail. For a breathtaking sunrise, a drive to the Lenong viewpoint on top of the Waterberg Mountains is a must.

Some information to note before we set off on our winter exploration…

Handy Information

Winter game viewing in South Africa’s National Parks can be a thrilling experience, but it’s not your typical beach holiday. It’s crucial to come prepared so your adventure can be comfortable, enjoyable, and safe.

First things first: pack warm clothing. South African winter days can be sunny, but temperatures can plummet in the early mornings and late afternoons, especially on game drives. Pack jackets, beanies, scarves, and gloves. Don’t shy away from layering — it is your best friend in the South African winter. Remember, the colour of your clothing can affect game viewing, so opting for natural tones will help you blend in with the surroundings. Green, brown, khaki, and olive are perfect for blending in with the environment.

Essential items to pack include a camera, binoculars, a torch, sunblock, sunglasses, hiking shoes, and any personal items necessary for your comfort.

South Africa’s national parks offer a range of dining options. The restaurants at our National Parks serve a variety of dishes, including South African cuisine. Whether you want a hearty breakfast to start your day, a quick lunch between game drives, or a relaxing dinner under the stars, you will be well catered for.

At Kruger Park, ample cafeterias and restaurants are available for casual dining throughout the park. For a truly unique dining experience, consider booking a Boma or Bush braai at any of the rest camps. View a list of restaurants.

Addo Elephant National Park also offers a variety of restaurants, including a Cattle Baron Grill & Bistro.

Unlike Kruger National Park and Addo Elephant National Park, Marakele National Park doesn’t have on-site shops, restaurants, or fuel stations, so be sure to pack in any supplies you might need or buy them in Thabazimbi before nightfall. Despite this, you can cater for yourself with the braai facilities.

Game viewing experiences across the various South African National Parks offer the opportunity to truly immerse yourself in nature, rejuvenating your soul, reviving your mind and relaxing your physical senses.  Wintertime is one of the best times of year to truly experience the beauty of our majestic landscapes, and get the very best game viewing experiences.

Breathe in nature – exhale relaxation with South African National Parks. Wild is our backyard, come unwind in it.