What happens on a visit to a South African game reserve?

Elephant sighting on a game drive at Addo Elephant National Park (photo by H Browne - CC-BY)

Elephant sighting on a game drive at Addo Elephant National Park (photo by H Browne - CC-BY)

A game reserve combines nature conservation with travel and adventure. Some game reserves also incorporate animal tracking and hunting, but those are not the kind of game reserves we’re discussing here. We’ll take as our example the game parks run by SANParks, the South African National Parks authority.

The game reserves are huge tracts of land, some bigger than Austria. Many of them are completely fenced, to keep animals in and poachers out. Within the reserves are picnic areas at convenient intervals, and rest camps with overnight accommodation.

The rest camps are fenced to keep the humans in. The idea is that the game reserve is primarily for the animals, and human tourists must be fenced in at night.

During the day you can go on game drives. This involves driving your own car around the roads of the park, keeping a keen lookout for interesting animal sightings. Because of the way these parks are managed for the benefit of the wildlife, there are plenty of animals to be seen. It’s not “wall-to-wall animals” like in a zoo, for there are areas of empty bushland too.

When you see the animals, you can stop a while and watch their natural behaviors. You can see the elephants looking after their young, the lions stalking their prey (and killing it if you are in the right place at the right time), the leopards with their kills dragged up into the trees, the antelopes in all their gracefulness, and the rhinos and hippos looking like they own the place.

The animals are used to seeing cars, so they are usually not bothered if you drive close by and stop for a look. But for safety, don’t put any part of your body outside the profile of the vehicle, because the animals are not used to seeing human flesh.

You need to get back by dark, when the camp gate closes, although you can go on a ranger-led safari drive after dark where you will see what goes on at night, picked out by the ranger’s spotlight.

The camps feature a wide range of accommodation – from tent and caravan sites through basic huts and rondavels through to luxury chalets, with prices to match.

You must pay a daily conservation charge to enter the park. It’s low for South Africans (who are already supporting the conservation activities through taxation), and higher for international visitors. If you’re a regular visitor you can buy an annual pass, which is around $400 for a family (2009).

At some picnic sites within the park, you are allowed to get out of your vehicle. These sites are not always fenced, but they are generally elevated with a good view, and prominent signs warn that you should check for lions before getting out of your vehicle, and that you do so at your own risk.

There are also a range of carefully-controlled adventure activities such as horse-riding and foot safaris. On these events, you are accompanied by an armed ranger who will advise you how to keep out of trouble, and at a last resort can shoot a charging animal, though this is almost never necessary.

At some game parks there are no dangerous animals such as lions or elephants. At Bontebok National Park, for example, the main large animals are bontebok (a kind of antelope) and zebra, and you are allowed to leave your vehicle. At other safe parks, there are hiking trails which may take you past duiker, monkeys etc.

Life in the overnight camps offers a unique African experience, with the sights and sounds of the nocturnal animals, combined with the smell of the braai (barbecue) and the dazzling starry nights so often found away from the city lights.

Game parks are massively popular with international visitors, and accommodation must be booked well in advance. There are also many privately-run game reserves in South Africa, although most of them cater for the ultra-luxury market and the prices can be astronomical.

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