South Africa is one of the world’s best destinations when it comes to wildlife photography. From spectacular mountains and to lush forests to arid deserts, South Africa has it all, including some of the world’s most magnificent large mammals.
Having grown up in South Africa and having travelled the country extensively, I have been fortunate to have visited some of its most stunning locations. This is my top five list of best destinations for wildlife photography in South Africa.
1. Great Kruger National Park, Mpumulanga
Kruger National Park is the oldest of South Africa’s national parks. Comprising nearly 2 million hectares of conserved land, it offers unrivalled wildlife viewing opportunities and the best big 5 viewing in the country. The park itself is made up of three distinct regions, each having its own unique geology and vegetation ranging from the riverine thickets of the south to the Mopani Shrubveld of the north.
The Kruger is well developed and the big mammals and birds are habituated to vehicles, making many encounters unique and intimate. The downside is that Kruger is a popular destination, especially during school holidays. It is not uncommon to be crowded out of more popular sightings.
For big mammal viewing, I recommend the southern half of the park and camps such as Lower Sabie, Biyamiti and Berg-en-Daal. Lower Sabie is a beautiful camp situated on the Sabie River and I have always had plenty of good sightings of lion, leopard, elephants and birds near the camp. For a more a more secluded experience, Biyamiti is a hidden gem situated along its own private road alongside the Biyamiti River. My last visit to Biyamiti proved to be an elephant bonanza, with several herds passing near the camp in the few days I was there.
The area around Satara Rest Camp in the mid region of the park is a lion and leopard hotspot. Satara’s open vegetation is also more conducive to photography and there are plenty of encounters to be had with the larger herbivores. The northern region of the Kruger Park around Shingwedzi is quieter and popular with birders, especially during the summer months. Despite the seclusion there is plenty of large game to be seen, including some of the rarer species of antelope not commonly seen in the southern half of the park.
In short, the Kruger National Park is a wildlife photographer’s dream. To get the most out of a visit, I recommend a stay of at least 7 days, with changes between the different overnight rest camps. As you will be shooting out of a vehicle, I would recommend a DSLR and a good 100-400mm zoom lens and shorter range 24-70mm general purpose zoom lens to capture the large mammals. If you want to photograph birds, I would recommend a prime lens of 400mm and above.
Many people say that the best time to visit is May to August when the vegetation is at its thinnest. The truth is, after numerous visits, each month has its own rewards. If you love baby animals, October is a great month, coinciding with the birthing season for many of the mammals. November to January, the height of the rainy season is also great for birding.
2. Kgalagadi Transfrontier National Park, Northern Cape
Not many places come close to the peace and tranquillity that can be experienced in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier National Park. Sitting on the fringe of the greater Kalahari Desert, the Kgalagadi boasts an outstanding array of wildlife. It is a big cat and bird watchers paradise, with some of the best bird and large raptor viewing to be had in Africa.
Just be warned, game density in the Kgalagadi is naturally sparse and you have to put in a lot of driving to get good sightings. Although the gravel roads are continuously maintained, they can be quite rough and I have had the misfortune of blowing several tyres over the years. So be prepared.
There are two major roads in the park, both of which form a ‘V’ and travel north and south along the Auob and Nossob Rivers. The good news is, as an arid park, the two rivers offer the only continuous source of water, so the animals have to congregate near the two roads. With little vegetation to block the view, good sightings of more unusual species such as cape fox, bat eared fox, meerkats, wild cats and brown hyena can be had. More common species include springbok, Oryx, hartebeest and wildebeest, and of course, everyone’s favourites, lions, leopards and cheetahs. My two favourite rest camps are Mata Mata and the Kalahari Tented Camp. Nossob Rest Camp is as a popular location for big cat viewing, especially leopards. Twee Rivieren Rest Camp offers plenty as well, with several different species of owl residing around the camp (with assistance from friendly camp staff, I was able to find four different species of owl within a 100 metres of my chalet).
The Kgalagadi like Kruger, is a self -drive park and you will need a 2x4 vehicle at a minimum. You will also need spare tyres and provisions, including enough potable water, for the duration of your visit. The best months to visit are May to September, when daytime temperatures are mild and the winter sun is relatively flat, allowing for good photography between dawn and 10 am and 3pm and dusk. November to February is generally good for big cat viewing, although daytime temperatures can soar to the 40 degree Celsius mark.
You will have to shoot out of a vehicle inside the park. Equipment rise, I recommend a DSLR, a 100-400 mm zoom lens, although a prime lens of 400mm or more is preferable given the openness of the park. A general purpose 24-70mm lens also comes in handy for the chance close encounters. Bring a tripod to capture spectacular sunsets and landscapes from the rest camps (and the many owls which rest during the daytime in the trees surrounding the camps). As with the Kruger Park, I recommend a visit of at least seven days, including moves between the overnight camps. If you are lucky enough to secure a booking, you cannot go without a visit to one of the stunning wilderness camps of Kieliekrankie, Kalahari Tented Camp and Bitterpan.
For the seasoned traveller and photographer, Kgalagadi is a destination all of its own.
3. Giant’s Castle, Drakensberg Mountains, Kwa-Zulu Natal
Giant’s Castle is situated at the half way point of the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg World Heritage Site about six hours south of Johannesburg. It is one of the most beautiful places in southern Africa. Comprising a single overnight rest camp, Giant’s Castle links up with several hiking routes which link with the northern and southern region of the park. For the landscape photographer, there are stunning vistas, valleys and streams to take in, all set against the dramatic backdrop of the Drakensberg mountain range and the Lesotho highlands. For the wildlife photographer, the main attraction is the world class vulture hide, set against a cliff face overlooking the Giant’s Castle vista. From the hide you can catch a glimpse of various eagles, buzzards, vultures and the star of the show, the endangered Beared Vulture. The excitement peaks when these birds come in to land on the cliff edge just in front of the hide.
To access the hide, you will need to book in advance. The Giant’s Castle rest camp will supply you with a key and a bucket of bones to set out for the birds once you reach the hide. While Giant’s Castle is accessible via normal sedan, you will need a 4WD vehicle to access the hide. The mountain road is not in good condition. The hide itself can comfortably accommodate three photographers and their equipment. Expect to spend a day in the hide, so bring enough food and drink and warm clothes if you visit during the winter months. I recommend visiting during April and September, when food is scarce in the park and the vultures are more likely to come in to land near the hide. I recommend setting up early in the hide from around 8am as the birds are most active between 8am-1pm during the winter months.
Equipment wise, a DSLR and a long lens are a must. If you can stretch it, a 500 to 600mm prime is ideal. Bring a beanbag to rest your camera on or a tripod with a fluid ball head or Wimberley type pivot to capture the action. The bearded vultures will spend quite a bit of time soaring past the hide, so set up your shooting position in the hide carefully. When the vultures are not around, there are always plenty of sunbirds and chats near the hide to photograph. For the other areas of Giant’s Castle, a sturdy tripod, a cable release, a DSLR level camera and general purpose and wide angle lenses are a must. If you shoot using neutral density filters, bring those with as the contract between the valleys and mountains can be significant. Giant’s Castle is a hiking destination, so don’t be afraid to go on a hike and explore the park, as there are many unique and spectacular locations to photograph.
Giant’s Castle’s clear mountain air and stunning vistas are ideal for recharging the batteries and reconnecting with nature. The vulture hide offers a chance to view Africa’s rarest and most stunning birds up close. It’s a place I can’t wait to go back to.
4. Pilanesberg National Park, North West
Pilanesberg National Park is an easy two hour drive north of Johannesburg. Set in the crater of an ancient volcano, Pilanesberg offers excellent large mammal viewing amongst a scenic landscape. The birding is also very good.
A mix of private and public accommodation is available around Pilanesberg to suit a range of budgets, with Manyane Camp generally proving the most popular. The park allows you to drive or join one of the many guided game drives on offer. Self-driving is best for photography. Mankwe Dam is at the centre of the park and has an excellent hide from which you can regularly see cormorant, kingfisher, herons and fish eagles. Larger mammals such as elephant, white rhino, antelope and the various cats can be seen from both the tarred and gravel roads that surround Mankwe Dam.
The only downside to Pilanesberg is its popularity. It can get crowded at times with game drive vehicles and buses coming in from nearby Sun City and the many surrounding camps. Take the gravel roads to avoid the crowds and focus on the smaller, less popular sightings. May to September is generally the best time for photography when the grass and foliage is shorter.
Recommended equipment for Pilanesberg is a DSLR, a lens with a 100-400mm zoom range and general purpose lens for landscapes and any close up opportunities that present themselves. As you have to photograph out of a vehicle, a beanbag rest is handy to place over your window to support your camera and lens.
Pilanesberg offers something for everyone. Being just two hours north of Johannesburg, it offers a quick getaway and rewarding photographic opportunities.
5. Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park, Kwazulu-Natal
Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park is Kwazulu-Natal’s largest and oldest big 5 park. It is situated four hours north of Durban and roughly 8 hours south of Johannesburg. It is one of the best locations in South Africa to photograph white and black rhino. There are also plenty of other game opportunities and good birding around the many rivers which cross the park.
Hluhluwe-Umfolozi has two main camps, Hilltop and Mpila and a number of smaller bush camps with limited facilities. Nselweni Bush Camp on the banks of the Black Umfolozi River is one of my favourite camps. The terrain in the park varies widely, from the rolling hills surrounding Hilltop to the savannah thickets of the Mpila region. There is only one tarred road spanning the length of the park from which a majority of the large mammals can be seen. The rest of the roads are gravel and they vary in condition.
Birdlife in the camps is very good, especially during the summer months with some rare species making an appearance. A four or five day visit is generally enough to get the most out of Hluhluwe. As a self-drive park, you will need to photograph out of your own vehicle. Guided night drives are offered from the main rest camps. May to September is generally the best time of the year to visit when the bush is at its thinnest. While summer is good for birding, Hluhluwe can become uncomfortably hot and humid during the day, driving most animals to seek shelter between 9am-3pm.
As with Kruger and Pilannesberg, a DSLR and zoom lens of 100-400mm range is recommended to capture the larger mammals. A general purpose or wide angle lens comes in handy at many of the viewpoints, where you are able to alight from your vehicle. For the birds, a large 400-600mm prime lens comes in handy if you can afford it. A beanbag support for your camera is also a must have as you will be shooting from a vehicle.
While Hluhluwe doesn’t have the big park appeal of Kruger or Pilanesberg, every visit is rewarding and there is plenty on offer for the wildlife photographer. The trick is to look for the small things.
There are many locations in South Africa that I still want to visit and photograph. Mapungubwe National Park, Ai-Ais/Richertersveld National Park and the Cape national parks are but a few. In short, South Africa offers wildlife photography opportunities to suit every budget and skill level. It is the world wrapped into a single country. To get the most out of any visit, plan carefully and know where and how to find the animals you want to photograph. Africa follows its own timeless rhythm and provides its own rewards. If you want some advice about where to go, don’t be afraid to get in touch.
Russell Hunter Photography