For a stopover in your journey, look no further than these national parks and nature reserves. Each allows you to take a breather when you’re on the road and, what’s more, there’s ample reason to dwell longer.

In transit to Kgalagadi or Richtersveld Transfrontier Parks: Augrabies Falls National Park

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This national park would not exist were it not for the Augrabies Falls, where the mighty Orange River tumbles through a narrow bottleneck before falling 56m into an eerie canyon. The name is a derivation of the Nama word “Aukoerebis” which means ‘place of great noise’. The noisy epicentre is wonderful, of course, but the silent remainder of the park is special in its own right. The haunting lunar landscape is punctuated by the silhouettes of klipspringers and quiver trees. The fauna and flora of this riverine desert ecosystem warrant days of exploration.

Spend the night

There are 59 chalets and cottages as well as 40 campsites in the rest camp, so there’s something for everyone. Importantly, all of the accommodation is air conditioned, the campsites are shaded and there are no fewer than three swimming pools. It does get very hot in this part of the world! Braai facilities abound, but if you don’t have the energy to light a fire, head for the fully licensed restaurant.

Special sightings

The park’s huge dassie population supports a number of Verreaux’s eagle pairs which nest near the Ararat and Oranjekom viewpoints. You may even see them on the hunt.

One hour before sunset

You absolutely have to see the falls, and do it so as soon after arrival as possible. After a long day’s drive there’s no tonic quite like the sight of millions of litres of water cascading over an immense precipice. They’re an easy walk from the rest camp, so you don’t even have to get back in your car. If you’re lucky and the river is in flood, you’ll be in for a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but the falls are spectacular all year round, especially in the evening.

Kick start your day

Augrabies is a photographer’s paradise. The falls themselves are the most obvious attraction, but other lesser-known parts of the park are sometimes more photogenic. Get up early and drive to Moon Rock, a huge dome-shaped hill which affords great views of the park from its summit. You’ll find plenty to shoot here. From soulful landscapes to endearing close-ups of dassie and colourful lizards, this park really has it all. If you have the time, drive on to Ararat viewpoint to enjoy and photograph the gorge from above. Keep an eye out for the nesting Verreaux’s eagles and the shy Cape clawless otter. – Nick Dall

Bookings SANParks central reservations +27(0)12 428 9111, www.sanparks.org

Driving along the Garden Route: Goukamma Nature Reserve

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A mere 15km west of Knysna you’re in for a multi-faceted surprise. You will love the dense milkwoods, yellowwoods and candlewoods in the coastal forest of Goukamma Nature Reserve, with some of the highest vegetated dunes in South Africa. The coastal fynbos and extensive dunefields stretch along a gorgeous beach and coastline of 14km. The adjacent Marine Protected Area extends seawards for 1,8km, protecting numerous marine species. Then there’s the Goukamma River and estuary, and the unique Groenvlei Lake which has no in-flowing river and no link to the sea.

Spend the night

Mvubu Bushcamp cottage in the milkwood forest on the shores of Groenvlei lake has spectacular views and sleeps four. On the Buffalo Bay side of Goukamma, three four-bed cottages, with modern décor and facilities, overlook the river and estuary. You will have a private lapa with your own braai facilities and, for chilly nights, there’s an indoor fireplace. Otter’s Rest Lodge, which sleeps four, and Fish Eagle Loft, which sleeps two, both offer stylish accommodation with river and sea views.

Special sightings

There’s a cormorant roost at the point at Buffalo Bay. Swift and sandwich terns abound and, if you look carefully, you will sometimes spot Arctic and roseate terns. Two nights before our stay, at about 21h00, a honeybadger was seen crossing the N2. Please drive carefully, since the animals follow a corridor into the pine forests.

One hour before sunset

Take the pontoon across the river and hike the 6,5km Bush Pig Trail through the coastal milkwood forest and along the jeep track. If you have about three hours, a circular route will link you up with the coast and you can climb up one of the dunes, perhaps getting lucky with a humpbacked dolphin sighting. You return to your chalet along the beach, wading hip-high through the river mouth. If time is of the essence, and provided the tide is out, consider stretching those legs with some rock-pooling.

Kick start your day

Early mornings are usually windstill on the river. With whisps of steam rising from the water, this is the perfect time to go rowing and paddle alongside spur-winged and Egyptian geese. Engage in a spot of birding and look out for the three kinds of kingfishers that occur here: malachite, giant and brown-hooded. – Romi Boom

Bookings CapeNature central reservations +27(0)21 483 0190, www.capenature.co.za

For N2 breaks, between Cape Town and the Garden Route: Bontebok National Park

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This park doesn’t have any of the Big Five, which allows families to explore it on foot without a guide, appreciating the smaller things as they go. The smallest of the national parks in South Africa, it is proof that size doesn’t matter. Bontebok National Park was established in 1931 to protect the 30 bontebok which remained in the wild and is now home to a steady population of around 160 of its namesake, with any surplus being used to repopulate other parks and wilderness areas.

Spend the night

The 10 chalets were recently refurbished and all feature a snazzy open-plan design, wonderful viewing decks and undercover braai facilities. They sleep two people, and two have been fully adapted for people with special needs. Campers and caravanners can stay near the chalets at the top of the hill, but the real gem is the riverside camping area. This section often floods in winter, but if at all possible pitch your tent right on the river.

Special sightings

Hopefully you’ll see bontebok grazing in the campsite. Another fixture is the giant tortoise who does its bit to mow the lawn.

One hour before sunset

Drive down to Die Stroom section of the river, which is idyllic all day long, but particularly special in the evenings. If it’s warm enough, you could have a refreshing swim after your day’s drive, but otherwise it’s great for bird watching and fishing. Carp, bass and bluegill are all found in the river. Too exhausted for any of that? Well then pack deck chairs, snacks and drinks, sit back and take in the serenity. The kids can paddle in the shallows while you unwind.

Kick start your day

There are two great short walks which start and end in the rest camp. The shorter of these is the Acacia Trail, which at only 1,6km can be completed in under half an hour if you walk briskly. Brisk walking isn’t the idea, though; rather take the whole family and really savour it. You’ll be sure to see hoopoes, hopefully some woodpeckers, and a couple of bontebok too. If 1,6km doesn’t cut it, the Aloe Hill Trail is about twice as long and has amazing river views. – Nick Dall

Bookings SANParks central reservations +27 (0)12 428 9111, www.sanparks.org

Travelling North/South on the N1: Karoo National Park

The main rest camp is only 12km from the N1, but you may as well be on another planet. Picture by Kate De Pinna.

The main rest camp is only 12km from the N1, but you may as well be on another planet. Picture by Kate De Pinna.

The Karoo, an endless landscape of koppies and scrub which has to be driven through? Not so. Take the time to get to know it and you’ll be amazed at the variety, colour and originality that lie beneath the surface. The Karoo National Park, situated outside Beaufort West, is by far the best place to stay between Laingsburg and Bloemfontein.

The park boasts unparalleled sunsets and incredible stars, as well as fascinating fossils and an ecosystem which is quite unlike anything else in the country.

Spend the night

Accommodation in the Cape Dutch cottages includes breakfast in the restaurant. The six family cottages have two bedrooms and sleep up to six people, while the other 29 units sleep between two and four people.

The campsite is a verdant contrast to the greys and browns of the Karoo. Its 24 stands, each with power, are secluded from one another. There’s a communal kitchen, ablutions, and laundromat.

Special sightings

In 2010, a small population of lions was introduced. They have settled in extremely well, and two cubs have already been born.

One hour before sunset

The Karoo is at its most beautiful in the interstices of the day, when the sun is low on the horizon. At these times colours that seemed drab in the heat of the day come alive in a symphony of ochre, rose and gold. Take a drive into the game area to find some animals: gemsbok, black rhino, or even lions if you’re lucky. Or simply stop the car and, with the engine off and the windows rolled down, take in the scenery: the colours, the sounds, the smells and the solitude. This is the Karoo.

Kick start your day

The area in and around the rest camp is home to some of the best birding in the park. Keep an eye out for barbets, bulbuls, robins and larks. If you’re into waterbirds, there’s an understated hide next to a small vlei, a lovely place to greet the day. The Fossil Trail is a 400m self-guided history lesson which allows you to better understand the palaeontology and geology of this fascinating region. – Nick Dall

Bookings SANParks central reservations +27(0)12 428 9111, www.sanparks.org

Take a breather between Gauteng and Durban: Wagendrift Nature Reserve

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With big skies, undulating hills and a picturesque dam, Wagendrift Nature Reserve is an ideal spot to break a journey. A stone’s throw from the N3 near Estcourt, the attractive reserve takes you quite by surprise. The landscape is rolling grassveld backed by the muscular ramparts of the Drakensberg. It gets its name from a ford in the Bushman’s River used by the transport wagons of old on their journey from Port Natal to the goldfields of the Witwatersrand. Wagendrift comprises a rustic resort, large dam and 980 hectare park, which incorporates the wild Moor Park Reserve.

Spend the night

Accommodation comprises two campsites and a four-bed cottage. The latter lies on a hill with sweeping views of the dam and is loud with birdsong throughout the day. It’s comfortably furnished with two bedrooms, a lounge, dining room and kitchen. There are two spacious caravan/camping grounds with power points and good ablution facilities. The smaller of the two is open only during high season. The sites are well maintained and set on lawns stretching down to the water’s edge.

Special sightings

The Wagendrift area is the world’s only habitat for a yellow-flowered shrub, Calpurnia woodii. Look out for raptors such as martial, Verreaux’s and African fish eagle. Makhabeni Hill, overlooking Moor Park, is one of the oldest iron-age sites in KwaZulu-Natal and dates back almost a millennium. The southern side of the dam boasts fossilised trees lying exposed above ground.

One hour before sunset

If you arrive late and only have an hour or so before sunset, take a stroll through the campsites and along the banks of the dam. Be sure to carry binoculars as the birdlife is prolific, with more than 215 species recorded. Take along a camera, too, as the sunset reflections fill the dam with colour. Boating is the main activity and the Bushman’s Boating Club has its club house in the reserve. Fishing is popular with scaly, bluegill, bass, carp and eel constituting the main catches.

Kick start your day

In the morning, before setting off on the next leg of your journey, how about tackling the 3,5km, self-guided Furrow Trail in Moor Park? It follows the gnashing Bushman’s River through a picturesque kloof and beside an irrigation furrow built in 1903. There’s plenty of game in this section of the reserve, so keep your eyes peeled for the likes of black wildebeest, zebra, blesbok, mountain reedbuck and bushbuck. – Justin Fox

Bookings Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife reservations +27(0)33 845 1000, kznwildlife.com

When travelling to Kgalagadi, or taking the scenic N12 between Gauteng and the Cape: Mokala National Park

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The sun sets over Kalahari thornveld. Jackals squabble in the distance. The darkening sky already has a sprinkling of stars, hinting at the festival to come. You’re 84km southwest of Kimberley, in Mokala National Park, the perfect away-from-it-all stopover between Cape Town and Jozi. Stay at least two or three nights to surrender to the peaceful atmosphere, the wildlife, the friendly service.

There’s no fuel in the park so refuel beforehand. If you don’t need a 4×4 or high-clearance bakkie to visit, though they do make for a more pleasant ride on dirt roads after the rains.

Spend the night

At Mosu Lodge you can opt for self-catering or dine at the restaurant known for its venison pies. There’s also a bar and pool for overnight visitors. Lilydale has self-catering units overlooking the Riet River, plus a coffee-shop and pool for guests.

Motswedi rustic campsite has six sites situated in a semi-circle around a waterhole. Each site has private ablutions with gas/solar power and there’s a low solar-powered fence around the perimeter for safety. Haak-en-Steek rustic cottage overlooks a busy waterhole and sleeps four. The campsites alongside can be booked only in tandem with the rustic cottage for larger groups.

Special sightings

Look for endangered roan and sable antelope, tsessebe, aardvark and aardwolf. Pygmy falcon and endangered white-backed vultures. The endangered devil’s claw with its pink flowers and seed pods with ‘claw-like’ protrusions.

Mokala’s is Setswana for the camel-thorn tree so it’s not surprising that the park’s signatures are Kalahari thornveld and red sand.

One hour before sunset

Join a guided sunset drive for a chance to spot aardvark and aardwolf. Share your hopes with your guide so the route can be tailored to improve your chances. Feeling lazy? Enjoy a sundowner on the stoep of Mosu Lodge’s restaurant for a grand view of buffalo, tsessebe, kudu, red hartebeest, eland and blue wildebeest drinking at the waterhole. The waterhole next to the Haak-en-Steek rustic cottage also draws zebra, warthog and tsessebe like a magnet. Or relax in your camp chair at Motswedi campsite and wait for buffalo, tsessebe, warthog and zebra to visit the waterhole on your doorstep.

Kick start your day

Join a guided early morning game drive, with coffee and rusks, for a chance to spot some of the park’s rarities. If there are five or more of you, the restaurant can arrange an after-drive breakfast under an old camel-thorn tree. Keen birders shouldn’t miss the hide at Stofdam for the likes of crimson-breasted shrike, malachite kingfisher, long-billed crombec, swallow-tailed bee-eater, white-backed and lappet-faced vulture. Kudu, nyala, roan and sable also drink here. At Lilydale there’s catch-and-release fly-fishing for yellow fish, barbel and carp in the river, or you can get your dose of heritage on a guided outing to see rock engravings. – Roxanne Reid

Bookings SANParks central reservations +27(0)12 428 9111, www.sanparks.org

Heading for Mapungubwe or Zimbabwe: Marakele National Park

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If you’re on your way to Mapungubwe, a World Heritage Site and medieval African kingdom in the far north of Limpopo, Marakele National Park offers its own special attractions. Naturalist and author of The Soul of the Ape and The Soul of the White Ant, Eugene Marais, found this area a fascinating place to study and a calming place of retreat. You may well do the same.

Roughly three-and-a-half hours from Johannesburg, in Limpopo’s southwest corner, Marakele lies cradled by the Waterberg. It’s a spectacular ‘place of sanctuary’ for dozens of rare and endangered species: the largest breeding colony of Cape vultures in Southern Africa, roughly 400 other bird species, mountain gardens of giant cycads and proteas, and four of the Big Five.

Spend the night

Stay in Marakele’s unfenced Tlopi Tented Camp and from your expansive wooden deck, watch game come to drink at the lovely, reed-fringed dam. Bontle Campsite, also unfenced, has 38 sites and plenty of game wandering past. Beware of the many vervet monkeys, who are professional thieves! Definitely lock up all food and turn the fridge against the wall so they can’t open the door. The new Motswere guesthouse sleeps eight people, near the park’s Environmental Education Centre.

Special sightings

There aren’t tons of game in Marakele, compared to Kruger, but the park lies in a transitional zone between the dry west and the moister east, and there is considerable biodiversity. Look for lion, elephant, rhino, cheetah, leopard, and a variety of antelope, including infrequently seen species such as tsessebe.

One hour before sunset

The Towers and their Cape vulture colony of more than 800 breeding pairs are Marakele’s unmissable sights. An hour before sunset take Lekanyane Drive up to the summit, where you’ll see the vultures gliding on the thermals as the sun sinks behind the deep blue mountains, often shrouded in mist. At your feet on the mountain slopes ancient cycads make the place feel primeval.

Kick start your day

The park is self-drive, but game walks and drives can be customised with the park’s expert guides. Start at dawn on a game walk with award-winning field guide Sidney Mikosi, who has a special affinity for animals. – Melissa Siebert

Bookings SANParks central reservations +27(0)12 428 9111, www.sanparks.org

 

*Header picture by Scott Ramsay