It’s no secret that South Africa is a wildlife watcher’s utopia. The northern savannah accommodates the Big Five in abundance, the oceans teem with whales, sharks and dolphins and the birdlife from Cape Point to the Kalahari could keep twitchers occupied for years.
But for every world-famous park there’s an unknown reserve, and for every expected encounter there’s a unique animal experience waiting for the intrepid, the adventurous or the traveller who just yearns to escape their car.
Freelance travel writer Lucy Corne spoke to us yesterday about being seduced by South Africa, here she gives us in depth guide to the best up-close animal encounters…
Best for a Unique Travel Tale: Jessica the Hippo, Hoedspruit, Limpopo
“Meeting Jessica the Hippo is one of the most exceptional, bizarre and wonderful animal encounters anywhere. Rescued from the river as a newborn, umbilical cord still attached, Jessica was raised by former game warden Tonie Joubert. These days she’s too large to sleep in the Jouberts’ bed, but she still plays with the family dogs and poses for photos with the few travellers who venture to this steamy corner of South Africa.
For a nominal fee, visitors can feed Jessica with litres of herbal tea and dish out a dose of her favourite snack – coffee. Nothing on earth compares with the weird feel of that rubbery tongue as you delve your hand into her mouth. Except maybe the feeling of relief when you pull it out and realise that all of your fingers are still attached”¦
Getting there: Hoedspruit clings to the edge of the Kruger National Park. There are daily flights from Johannesburg.
Staying over: The region is rich in luxury game lodges. Stand-outs include Tshukudu with its rehabilitation centre for orphaned animals, Africa on Foot which specialises in walking safaris, and Pezulu Lodge with its upmarket tree houses. Budget-conscious travellers should check out Mariepskop View Chalets.
Best for Family Fun: Riding ostriches, Oudtshoorn, Western Cape
Oudtshoorn is the self-proclaimed ‘ostrich capital of the world’ and its ostrich farms offer activities catering to every level of courage. Wimps can stick to the passive part of the tour, covering myths (no they don’t bury their heads in the sand), anatomy (yes their eyes are bigger than their brains) and diet (they’ll eat anything).
The brave can stand on unhatched eggs as a vigilant mother looks on; the braver can pose with the birds for a photo opportunity. And the bravest can sit astride the birds as they demonstrate their land speed skills. Of course, capturing these erstwhile jockeys crashing to the floor on camera is an endeavour suited to every traveller. And if you’re feeling particularly malevolent, you can always head to one of the town’s excellent restaurants to polish off a perfectly cooked ostrich steak – no courage required.
Getting there: Oudtshoorn is a six-hour drive east of Cape Town. The closest airport is in George, a 50-minute drive from the ostrich capital. There are regular flights to George from Johannesburg and Cape Town.
Best for variety: St Lucia, KwaZulu Natal
If you’re looking to make some headway on your South African wildlife checklist, then St Lucia should provide the required boost. Here you’re warned against walking the streets at night not because of crime, but because you might turn a corner and bump into a hippo out for its evening stroll.
Ease in gently with an hour-long cruise around the estuary, where hippo, crocodile and bird sightings are almost guaranteed. Nighttime tours seek out loggerhead and leatherback turtles in summer, while boats track whales and dolphins in winter.
The surrounding reserves offer everything from the Big Five right down to miniature reptiles like the dwarf chameleon, which is no more than two inches long.
Getting there: Richard’s Bay is the closest airport although Durban, 250km south of St Lucia, is a larger hub with regular flights from both Cape Town and Johannesburg.
Staying over: St Lucia has some excellent budget accommodation, including Veyane Cultural Village, where you can stay in a Zulu-style hut. For something more luxurious, try the St Lucia Wetlands Guest House.
Best urban safari: Paddling with penguins, Western Cape
Standing just two feet high, African Penguins are every bit as cute and comical as their larger counterparts and seeing them from the ocean on a kayaking trip from Simon’s Town gives you a real sense of belonging.
Back on shore, a little land-based viewing can round off an excellent day. Penguins gather en masse at Foxy Beach and visitors do much the same, but even the largest crowd couldn’t take away from the unique experience of seeing penguins in suburban Africa. At neighbouring Boulders Beach there are no fences and if you brave the freezing water (plus the occasional piece of penguin poo floating by) then you can paddle with the birds.”
Getting there: Simon’s Town is 40km south of central Cape Town and can be reached by train.
Header image of Oudtshoorn ostriches © South Africa Tourism.
Virgin Atlantic operate daily flights to to South Africa from London Heathrow.
Check out Lucy’s other features on dining in style in the Cape Winelands and Johannesburg: South Africa’s Heart of Gold. Got any wonderful wildlife travel tips to share? As always, comments are welcome below.