My African Adventure was wild. I didn’t only see some of the Big 5 in South Africa, but a lot of other uniquely African animals.
I hoped that African Adventure was a wild trip. Not the kind of wild that involves drunken nights (well not too many). I did have a staredown with a lioness and I went shark diving. The vacations I have spent in South Africa and Swaziland have been my favorite, even topping the Galapagos!
Seeing Some of Africa’s Big 5
When you think of South African wildlife, what’s the first animal you think of? Elephant? Lion? Or a rhino perhaps? These animals are part of the “Big 5”. A term originally coined by game hunters that identify the five most difficult animals to hunt on foot.
Today the “Big 5” usually refers to a checklist that tourists on safari are looking to tick off. (The other two are the Cape buffalo and leopard.) I visited quite a few different places in South Africa where I got to see some amazing animals.
Our wild adventure took us from South Africa to Swaziland, a land-locked country in South Africa. We visited the Mlawula Nature Reserve and Hlane Royal National Park. Here, I came face to face with several rhinos including a baby rhino and his mother. It literally took my breath away!
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Rhinos are seriously endangered so I am lucky that I saw them. At Hlane Royal National Park I also got to see a pack of lions, the only lions in Swaziland. And of course, stopping in our jeep safari tracks at Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve while two male elephants wrestled with each other several meters in front of our jeep.
If you are traveling to South Africa I highly recommend that you travel to Swaziland, it’s amazing how different the 2 countries are considering 1 is in the other.
I had three of the most incredible hours of my life at Tembe Elephant Park. On one safari drive, I witnessed a lioness hunting. Unsuccessful she then moved within a couple of meters at us staring us up and down for over 20 minutes!
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Note to self – don’t ever challenge a lion to a staring contest, you will lose. One woman in the jeep behind us was so scared that she sat on the floor and covered herself with a blanket!
That would have been incredible in itself, but minutes later we came across a herd of 20+ elephants. The Tembe elephants or tuskers are some of the largest in Africa. They surrounded our jeep and two adorable baby elephants who were only 3 days old introduced themselves, while cautiously staying close to their mothers! I will remember it for the rest of my life.
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Getting to Know Other South African Wildlife
Next, it was off to St. Lucia located in iSimangaliso Wetland Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. St. Lucia is a village of only 500 residents, but it has some of the wildest residents I’ve ever met. Most places will have at least the odd streetwalker, but they take on a whole new meaning in St. Lucia.
These streetwalkers are 4-legged. They are Hippo’s cruise the main street at night. There’s also at least one resident leopard and more mischievous monkeys than I could count jumping from roof to roof.
It was also in iSimangaliso Wetland Park that I experienced some of my wildest adventures. Like coming within several meters of a herd of hippos. And staring eye to eye with a hyena on a night drive. Observing the endangered Samango monkeys on the western shores of iSimangaliso Wetland Park.
Related Reading: 8 Ways That Travellers Unintentionally Commit Animal Cruelty
Beyond the Big 5 in South Africa
Given that the purpose of my trip was to hike in Golden Gate National Park and the Drakensberg, I found it rather reassuring to know that I wouldn’t be running into any lions or cheetahs while hiking. My time in South Africa also opened my eyes to the abundance of wildlife that goes way beyond the Big 5.
Golden Gate National Park is a great place for hiking and is famous for its golden colors(see Hiking in Golden Gate National Park). It’s also home to an abundant of herd species, including the Black Wildebeest. I love the idea that you can be hiking and come across a herd of wildebeest. I saw these ones while we were driving.
Note, when in South Africa, keep your long camera lens nearby at all times. You never know what you’ll see.
Herds of Springbok are also frequently seen in Golden Gate National Park. There are a variety of other antelope species and even the occasional zebra! I did see a zebra while we were driving, but it was outside of the park. The Springbok is a South African symbol and is the mascot for many of the national teams.
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I saw this ostrich somewhere between the Drakensberg and Johannesburg. Ostriches are famously known for the false fact that they put their head in the sand to avoid danger, but with predators like lions, these birds are so much smarter than that. They have even been known to kill lions in self-defense, especially if there are chicks around.
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On our hike to Orange Peel Gap in the Drakensberg, we saw several snakes, including three cobras. I am petrified of snakes, especially large, venomous ones like cobras. But even I can admit my fear was unfounded. On each occasion, the snake wasn’t too happy to see our group either and slithered away.
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It should come as no surprise to you that someone who has named her blog “Monkeys and Mountains” was beyond thrilled to see so many baboons! I saw them in Golden Gate National Park and while hiking in the Drakensberg Amphitheater and even got to see a mother and baby baboon at the Didima Chalets. I have the proof in over 300 baboon photos if you want to see them
And now drum roll, please…
The Most Thrilling African Adventure
The most thrilling thing that I did while in South Africa was shark diving. Without a cage.
South Africa is great for wild adventures below the waters. I am an avid shark diver and I couldn’t pass this up, so headed to Protea Banks for diving.
My favourite dive is the baited dive. One of the dives left me surrounded by 17 sharks. No Great Whites, but 15 Oceanic Black Tips and 2 Bull sharks – both are good sized sharks!
Still not having our fill from diving, we headed back towards Durban to Aliwal Shoals, famous for its reefs and sharks. Here we saw some of S. Africa’s most famous underwater residents – the Ragged-tooth shark. Raggies as they’re affectionately referred to. Thanks to the Raggies, I’ve now dived with 14 different species of sharks.
Our wild adventure would not have been possible without our rental car. Renting a car gave us the freedom to explore some of the more remote places we visited which would have been difficult with public transportation.
I would highly recommend renting a car if you want to travel independently and cover a lot of ground as we did.
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Know Before you go to South Africa
How to Get There
If you want to visit any of the above destinations then fly into Johannesburg or Durban. They both have great international airports. I found that hiring a car was a great option but you will find tours to most of these destinations.
Tours for Your African Adventure
Hluhluwe – Umfolozi Game Reserve Tour takes you on a one-day tour of this amazing park that is home to the largest white rhino population in South Africa. This beautiful resort dedicates itself to rhino conservation. The tour goes from Durban.
Tour the iSimangaliso Wetland Park from St. Lucia and get better acquainted with the crocodiles and hippo on this amazing boat ride in the estuary. This tour really calls to you if you are looking for an African adventure.
I have dreamed of seeing African animals in the wild since I was a kid. But nothing could have prepared me for my African adventure. Especially when I learned how many challenges both the people and animals of South Africa and Swaziland are facing.
Disclosure: As always all opinions expressed remain my own and nobody promised me any baby animal sightings.