9 of the wildest experiences in Southern Africa
Scott Ramsay has been to some of the most untouched regions on the planet. In all his years of exploring, he counts his visits to the national parks and reserves of Southern Africa among the wildest. ‘It’s a privilege living in this part of the world,’ he says, ‘because all of the following experiences are within a day or two of travel from our major cities.’
1. Skinny-dip in South Africa’s finest rock pool
Where: Mkambati Nature Reserve, Wild Coast, South Africa GPS S31 16.057 E30 00.563 Distance from closest city Durban, SA: 183 km
Situated on the northern Pondoland coast, between the Msikaba and Mtentu rivers, the relatively small 7 000-hectare Mkambati Nature Reserve is the closest you’ll come to a subtropical paradise in South Africa: virginal rivers tumble over waterfalls, deep gorges cut through rolling grasslands and pockets of dense swamp forest border beautiful secluded beaches.
There are only a dozen or so waterfalls in the world that cascade directly into the sea, and Mkambati Falls on the eponymous river in the middle of the reserve is one of them. But there are other falls too, and the best is Horseshoe Falls, about two kilometres inland.
Here the river plunges over a 50-metre-wide, 20-metre-high crescent-shaped sandstone wall. At its base is probably the finest rock pool I have seen in Southern Africa, deep and wide. As you dive in, drink and savour the water, because this is how H2O ought to taste. The river has its source within the reserve, so the sparkling liquid is probably some of the purest in the country.
More than 2200 species of plants can be found in this region, making it one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. But there are problems in paradise: mining companies are poised to rip up some of the coastal forest and dunes to dredge titanium from the sand north of the reserve. I have no idea why anyone would want to destroy such a place
2. Walk with wild elephants
Where: Mana Pools, Zimbabwe GPS S15 43.483 E29 21.695 Distance from closest city Lusaka, Zambia: 120 km
The bull elephants of Mana Pools National Park in northern Zimbabwe live all year round on the albida woodland floodplains along the Zambezi River. Unlike most other national parks in southern Africa where visitors are restricted mostly to their vehicles, visitors to Mana Pools can walk around freely, with or without a guide. As such, knowledge of wildlife behaviour is essential. Lions, leopards, wild dog, buffalo and hyena are common at Mana.
I spent a few days walking with guide Stretch Ferreira, who has worked in the conservation area for more than two decades. In this time, the bull elephants have come to know and trust the lanky, bearded guide. Late one afternoon, slowly and calmly, a bull elephant approached Stretch and the rest of us. The largest terrestrial animal on Earth towered over us, almost within touching distance. Never has my heart pounded more. Because Stretch knows each bull by sight and personality, he is able to read their mood and behaviour. It meant that although I was nervous, I didn’t feel scared. While hunters in areas surrounding the national park are quick to pull their triggers, the relaxed bull elephants of Mana’s sanctuary seem to know that tourists mean them no harm.
3. Hike the Berg’s wildest pass
Where: uKhahlamba Drakensberg World Heritage Site, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa GPS S28 53.661 E29 00.752 Distance from the closet city: Durban, SA: 223 km
The Mnweni area is the least touristy part of Southern Africa’s biggest mountain range. Renowned landscape photographer John Hone once wrote that Mnweni ‘has the very finest inland scenery of the whole of Southern Africa’.
Because of historical politics, the Mnweni area was not included in the protected area of uKhahlamba-Drakensberg World Heritage Site, although there are new plans to do so. The land, situated between Royal Natal National Park and Cathedral Peak, belongs to the Amangwane people. The pass itself is one of several that cuts up the basalt cliffs, topping out at over 3000 metres. Your lungs will be bursting, your legs will be aching, but the views will be more than enough reward.
I spent a week in winter exploring the passes and plateau with Zulu guide Caiphus Mthabela, who lives at the base of the cliffs and knows the passes better than anyone. We slept in small tents on top of the mountains, freezing during the icy nights. During the days we soaked up the winter sun, drank hot tea and ambled across the roof of Southern Africa, stopping now and again to gaze at the world below us. Bearded vultures soared low over our heads and I wished I could have grown wings and joined them.
This is real mountain country and only fully prepared hikers should attempt to scale these heights. Basotho dagga smugglers sometimes use the passes at night and the winter cold can be dangerous. Because there are almost no other tourists, chances are you’ll be alone for days at a time, so a local guide like Caiphus is worth the price (R500 per day for a group of four hikers).
4. Sleep in the bush close to lions
Where: Mabuasehube Game Reserve, Botswana GPS S25 03.967 E21 58.832 Distance from nearest city: Gaborone, Botswana: 399 km
The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is roughly 40 000 square kilometres, almost the size of Switzerland. But there are no yodelling mountaineers here, that’s for sure. This semi-arid landscape of endless dunes and pans in the Kalahari Desert is dotted with ancient acacia trees and thousands of springbok, gemsbok and several hundred lion and leopard.
The South African side is the most popular with tourists, with several rest camps, good roads and facilities. But it’s just one-third of the park. The other two-thirds lie in Botswana, and this is where things get really interesting. There are only a few jeep tracks running through the thick sand, so a 4×4 is mandatory. Short distances can take hours to cover. The heat and dryness is intense, so self-sufficiency is vital.
The small campsites are really just GPS co-ordinates that point to copses of acacia trees, which provide the only shade for hundreds of kilometres around. There are one or two long-drop toilets and maybe a working tap, if you’re lucky. Out here, you’re on your own, literally … unless a pride of lions decides to surround your tent.
At Mpayathuthlwa Pan in the east of Mabuasehube, the resident lions have been known to spend hours lounging in the shade of the acacia trees in the unfenced campsite. When I travelled there, the lions were roaring at night, but they kept their distance. Fellow campers told me that on a previous trip, they were confined to their tents for several hours, as nine lionesses made themselves at home under the tarpaulins.
5. Walk the land of the dragons
Where:|Ai-|Ais/ Richtersveld National Park, South Africa GPS S28 19.077 E17 15.107 Distance from nearest city Upington, SA: 395 km
The iconic mountain of Tatasberg is a 1000-metre-high granite pluton, a conglomeration of thousands of massive boulders piled on top of each other. But if your imagination wanders, it’s really the fearsome fortress of a dragon, banished by the gods to the outer edges of an evil kingdom.
This is a fierce land. Jagged, black mountains cut into the bright blue sky like sharp canines. Deep valleys bake under the sun. Fortunately for visitors and animals alike, the Orange River flows like a vein of life through this superlatively hostile scene.
There is no marked trail, but the top is always within sight, so it’s not too hard to find the way and a two-hour ascent give or take rewards hikers with the finest desert views in the country (if you’re staying at Tatasberg Wilderness Camp, ask camp ranger Seth Domrogh to guide you to the bottom of Tatasberg, from where you can start walking).
Being on top of Tatasberg can feel physically isolating … and a little intimidating. But it is also invigorating and has the power to strip you down to your true self, relinquished of all of society’s airs, graces and pretensions. It’s a wild feeling. And there is so much life in this desert. It’s the most bio-diverse arid region in the world, with remarkable plants such as the quiver tree, which can grow for hundreds of years and reach more than 10 metres in height (look out for them on Tatasberg). Gemsbok, Hartmann’s mountain zebra, leopard and caracal all occur, albeit at understandably low densities. And the night skies are among the brightest.
6. Worship the purest skies
Where: Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Botswana GPS S21 24.288 E23 47.804 Distance from closest city Gaborone, Botswana: 418 km
The southern hemisphere faces into the Milky Way, so fortunately for us our night skies contain far more stars than the northern hemisphere. Resist the urge to start counting them, unless you want to be busy for a very, very long time. There are more than 300 billion stars in our galaxy, and most of them are visible in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.
There is absolutely no light pollution here, mostly because this is one of the largest protected areas on the planet, and the second-biggest in Africa, with no man-made objects for hundreds of kilometres in either direction.
At more than 50 000 square kilometres, it’s one of the few parks deserving of the superlative term ‘ginormous’. Endless, flat grasslands grow on desert sand, attracting large herds of springbok and gemsbok in summer, when thunderstorms briefly crack open the skies. When there are no clouds (and that’s for more than 330 days of the year) the night skies are the finest I have seen in southern Africa. Rolling out of bed onto the deck with a loved one feels like rolling into
a Valentine Day’s edition of Star Trek, flying into the ultimate wilderness of outer space. Yet it’s firmly grounded in Africa. Lions roar, nightjars sing, geckos bark, and crickets croak. Who wants to go to space when heaven is right here?
7. Go in search of Namibia’s desert jumbos
Where: Puros, Kunene, Namibia GPS S18 44.064 E12 56.562 Distance from nearest city Windhoek, Namibia: 605 km
From afar, they looked like ants on an immense tapestry of sand, rock and sky. We watched Earth’s biggest land animals walking steadily towards us, as morning desert mist swirled around them. It was just me and local Himba guide Robbin Uatokuja.
The remote community conservancy of Puros in the northwest Kunene region of Namibia is renowned for its sightings of desert-adapted elephants. Although elephants are the biggest creatures on the planet, it’s sometimes infuriatingly difficult to find them here.
That morning, we were lucky. They found us. As they loomed closer, Robbin tugged on my shirt and beckoned for me to retreat. For decades during the civil war between South African forces and Angolans, these elephants had been shot and persecuted. Today, they are more used to people. Still, we didn’t want to take any chances.
They calmly walked past us and disappeared into the distance. We were the only people for miles around, alone in this dreamscape of elephants silhouetted starkly against a landscape denuded of any other life. It remains my most memorable wildlife experience.
8. Feel the spirit of Kruger
Where: Olifants Backpacking Trail, Kruger National Park, South Africa GPS S24 01.915 E31 26.563 Distance from closest city Polokwane, SA: 204 km
The Kruger National Park is the country’s single most popular tourist destination. More than 20 000 square kilometres of bushveld and savanna teem with wild animals in a country where more than 90 percent of the natural habitat has been transformed or destroyed by man’s encroachment.
While most visitors experience the park from their cars, or behind the fences of rest camps, the four-day, three-night Olifants Backpacking Trail is one of three multi-day walking and camping trails. The trails are an immersion into the original spirit of Kruger, when legendary warden Colonel James Stevenson-Hamilton patrolled the bush on foot, long before any tourists came near to the park.
The walks are guided by two armed rangers and follow the course of the Olifants River. It’s raw: you carry your own backpack with supplies, you go to the loo in the bush and you cook on an open fire. You sleep under the stars (or in tents if you prefer), and each trailist takes a turn to keep watch during the night. One night, a bull elephant walked within metres of our camp to quench his thirst, the moonlight rippling on the river as his trunk broke the surface.
During the day, we almost bumped into some grumpy old buffalo bulls, and as we snoozed one afternoon in the shade of a leadwood tree, an otter came up out of the river to check us out. These are wildlife interactions that are only possible on foot. Colonel Stevenson-Hamilton’s motto was ‘Keep it simple, keep it wild’. I think he would have approved of today’s trails in Kruger.
9. Revel in Africa’s richest river
Where: Bwabwata National Park, Zambezi Region, Namibia GPS S17 53.810 E23 17.198 Distance from closest city Livingstone, Zambia: 268 km
Horseshoe Bend is an oxbow lake on the Kwando River in Namibia’s Caprivi Strip, at the heart of Southern Africa’s most abundant wildlife region. Chobe and Hwange are to the east, Kafue to the north and the Okavango Delta to the south.
At the centre of it all is Horseshoe Bend in Bwabwata National Park in Caprivi, one of the least visited wildlife hotspots in southern Africa, partly because it’s difficult to get to. The long and recent history of military conflict in the region has also deterred visitors.
But peace now reigns, and it’s making a comeback befitting of a leaping herd of impala. It’s rich in wildlife, which moves among community conservancies, whose residents have adapted over hundreds of years to living side by side with animals such as lions, elephants, wild dog and leopard.
And the two kilometre-long lake is the best place to see animals, but it’s tricky to get there. An obscure sand track peels off from the main road and stretches for 40 kilometres to an opening in the woodland. There are no signs, gates or park officials. If you don’t have a GPS, speak Lozi or have a local guide as company, then you will get lost.
Almost every day at sunset, huge herds of elephant and buffalo come to the lake to slake their thirst. They saunter through the dusty woodland, the late afternoon sunlight glistening off their tusks and horns. There’s a good chance you’ll have the place to yourself, but it is becoming more popular, so don’t delay.