South Africa is known the all over the world for its abundance of wildlife, not least of all its many birds. In fact, there is an established avi-tourism industry that invites birding enthusiasts from all over the world to indulge in top-class bird-watching.
The sheer variety of birdlife in South Africa is impressive; made up of typical African birds, migrants, and Endemic Birds. Visitors can join up with a formal birding tour group or can explore the country and its species on their own. Of the approximate 850 recorded bird species in the country, around 725 are resident birds (or, at least, annual visitors). An impressive 50 avian species can only be found in South Africa, giving birders a prime opportunity to spot something very special. There are many intra-African migrant birds that hail from across the globe. Some have their origins in China, Europe and even the Arctic and Antarctic. Notable endemic varieties include the Black Oystercatcher, Blue Crane, Cape Parrot, Cape Vulture, Forest Canary, Ground Woodpecker, Jackal Buzzard, Knysna Turaco, Namaqua Sandgrouse, Protea Seedeater, Southern Bald Ibis, Southern Pale Chanting Goshawk, White backed Moosebird, and the Yellow-breasted Pipit.
Avian enthusiasts are often lured to South Africa by the variety of endemics and endangered bird species. The endemic species can be found throughout the countryside and landscapes of this country; through grasslands, mountains and even dry desert regions.
Thanks to the abundance of excellent South African hotels and accommodation facilities, as well as an established transport infrastructure (including international car hire companies), South Africa is proving to be one of the world’s top birding hotspots.
South Africa boasts a multitude of nature reserves and game reserves like the Kruger National Park are home to an extraordinary array of wildlife, including many bird species. Many of these cater specifically to keen bird-watchers to make their experience as rewarding as possible. Added facilities in these parks and reserves may comprise bird hides, trails through their natural habitat, information sheets and experienced guides that are equipped to find more elusive species and point them out to visitors.
Nature loving tourists are well-rewarded when they visit this country, and are reminded to bring their binoculars and identification aids.
When is the best time to visit South Africa, you ask? Well, how many seasons are there in a year? When it comes to pinning down the best time to visit the Rainbow Nation, you’ll find a year-round vacation destination whose varied landscapes and kaleidoscopic attractions promise a thrilling getaway no matter what time of year you visit. South Africa is a large and diverse country with a climate that varies from region to region: Cape Town and the Western Cape experiences winter rainfall (June to August) and a largely bone-dry hot summer while much of the rest of the country, including the Kruger Park area, have heavy summer thundershowers (December to March) and a dry winter period from May to October. The Garden Route and Eastern Cape on the other hand can experience rain at any time of year.
Spring, September – November
The birds are chirping and the flowers are blooming! Spring in South Africa sees visitors flock to the West Coast to see the magnificent springtime flower displays on offer. Prime destinations for this include the Namaqualand Flower Route and the West Coast National Park. Photographers and nature lovers alike are sure to be wowed by South Africa’s flower season. Meanwhile, Cape Town is warming up nicely in time for the sun-drenched summer months but is still devoid of some of the larger tourist crowds that flock to South Africa’s darling city. Up the east coast of the country, whales are spotted, making it a great time to head to towns like Hermanus on the Whale Route. Spring is also a superb time to visit South Africa if you want to go on safari, and Kruger National Park, in particular, promises excellent wildlife sightings. KwaZulu-Natal‘s game reserves are winners at this time of the year, just before the summer months when the sub-tropical climate makes it a bit too hot and humid. Towns such as Ballito and Durban along the KwaZulu-Natal coastline are the perfect spots from which to take many a dip in the warm Indian Ocean’s waters.
Summer, December – February
Oh yes, its summer! The days are long, the holiday cheer is plentiful, and the sun shines down on the landscape day in and day out. Cape Town is undoubtedly one of the most popular destinations if you visit South Africa during the summer months, and if you don’t mind the crowds, it’s certainly the place to be. In Kruger, the babies born a few weeks before are now more confident and playful, and the park is dotted with various antelope and their minims strutting about. That said, danger is always lurking thanks to resident big cats and the most vulnerable members of any herd are always the young.
Autumn, March – May
The sunlight hours are becoming fewer and the evenings may require a cardigan, but the days are still filled with warmth. Cape Winelands destinations such as Franschhoek and Stellenbosch, with its cobbled streets and oak-lined avenues, are truly a sight to behold when trees turn the buttery, warm hues of autumn. KwaZulu-Natal has cooled down again, and the breezes coming off the ocean almost make you think that Mother Nature is breathing a sigh of relief, too, at the lowering humidity. This is also rutting season so safari spectacles can be quite exciting with the quest for dominance spurring many a head-on in the antelope community.
Winter, June – August
Wildlife sightings are easier than ever in winter with safari destinations, such as Madikwe and Kruger, being hit by their dry season. The foliage thins, the river and water sources dry up, and wildlife is forced to cluster together and search a little harder for food and water – which is great news for safari-goers! Nearby, the most picturesque self-drive route in the country, the Panorama Route, is at its most appealing after the rains. The rainy season often brings mist, ruining the incredible viewpoints that dot the area, from God’s Window and the Three Rondavels to the Blyde River Canyon. This area is also a perfect add-on to any Kruger itinerary, with both areas conveniently at their best in the winter months. Countless winter specials and the city all to yourself certainly take the chill out of a Cape Town winter, so don’t discount the Mother City between June and August when you visit South Africa. In Hermanus, the Whale Season is ongoing with sightings of humpback and southern right whales all along the Western Cape coastline.
All in all, there’s something to see whatever time of year you decide to visit South Africa, making this wonderfully diverse and intoxicatingly beautiful country an incredible year-round holiday destination. Contact your travel expert Travel2Africa today for more advice on what to do and where to go on your South African vacation.
Knysna stands out on South Africa's famed Garden Route thanks to the sandstone cliffs that dramatically separate its tranquil lagoon from the pounding surf of the Indian Ocean. It's also home to the country's largest indigenous forest. Hop aboard a ferry for a ride through the scenic highlights. The Millwood Mines at Jubilee Creek, site of a major gold rush in 1885, provide a picturesque spot for a picnic. Be sure to try some local oysters during the renowned annual festival.
This buzzing and interesting town is a popular holiday destination throughout the year for both tourists and locals alike. Best known travel destinations and is an excellent stop-over whilst touring the area. Located in the Western Cape province of South Africa, Knysna is a buzzing vibrant town throughout the year.
Knysna’s indigenous forests, fynbos, lakes, rivers and mountains, combined with a temperate climate, makes this area a natural Garden of Eden. As a little-known fact, the indigenous forest consists of the largest complex of closed-canopy forest in Southern Africa.
This is a natural paradise of lush, indigenous forests, tranquil lakes and golden beaches. She nestles on the banks of a breathtakingly pretty lagoon, now a protected marine reserve that is home to the extraordinary sea horse and over 200 species of fish.
Beaches, lakes, mountains and rivers provide endless opportunity for leisure and outdoor adventure. Within the town, craft shops, flea-markets and cosy cafés beckon with small-town charm and hospitality. The area around Knysna is a veritable Garden of Eden. This is home of the only forest elephant in South Africa, the rare Pansy Shell, the brilliantly coloured, and elusive, Knysna Loerie, a plethora of waterfowl and forest birds, dolphins and visiting whales.
The indigenous forests in Knysna constitute the largest complex of closed-canopy forest in southern Africa, whilst the remarkable richness of the Fynbos vegetation contributes over 8000 plant species to the Cape floral kingdom. Exploring the Knysna forests, along demarcated walks, with the occasional call of the Loerie, provides a complete escape into a former time when many elephants trod these paths, particularly if you’ve read Dalene Matthee’s ‘Circles in a forest’.
Today a mere three elephants are reputed to still roam the forest. The Knysna Elephant Park has brought the elephant back to Knysna and all the elephants are former orphans rescued from culling operations in the Kruger National Park, except for Thandi who was born in the park.
A visit to Knysna would be incomplete without a trip to the heads - a striking geological feature made up of a pair of huge, brightly coloured cliffs lying at the mouth of the lagoon, flanking a channel of potentially treacherous water that flows into Knysna’s lagoon. The eastern head houses a lookout with spectacular views of the lagoon, Leisure Isle and Knysna whilst the western head is a privately owned nature reserve called Featherbed Nature Reserve. Visitors can get to the reserve via ferry. The Featherbed Nature Reserve provides scenic views of Knysna and The Heads from the opposite shore of the Knysna Lagoon
The harbour area and the Knysna Waterfront is also home to most of Knysna’s nightlife, with several bars, restaurants and clubs where patrons can enjoy a cocktail while watching the sunset over the heads. Golf enthusiasts will find the area a treat, with several world-class courses on offer both in Knysna itself, and in neighbouring towns.
Interestingly tourists coming to South Africa are always keen to see the country's celebrated Big Five (elephant, buffalo, lion, leopard and rhino) neglecting a wealth of smaller wildlife. Entire vacations are planned for the sole purpose of spotting them. But I would like to introduce you to the lesser known “Small 5”, whose names relate to their bigger counterparts, this is called the Little Five: elephant shrew, ant lion, rhinoceros beetle, buffalo weaver and leopard tortoise.
The Elephant Shrew
Getting its name from the elongated snout that resembles an elephant’s trunk, the elephant shrew (pictured above) is the most adorable of the Small 5. It is also the hardest to spot. Weighing around 28 g, they are active during the day and are said to be highly nervous and intolerant of trespassers. To avoid nasty tempers, they prefer going unnoticed by remaining absolutely still. Their long legs make them proficient at lightning-fast sprints away from danger.
Named for its lion-like method of ambushing prey, the ferocious antlion is an insect with about 2 000 species worldwide. ‘Antlion’ is a term actually reserved for the larval stage of the insect’s life cycle. Adults closely resemble dragonflies. The antlion larva has a masterful art of digging conical pits in dry, soft sand that is easy to shift. It will take some effort to get a glimpse of this Small 5 predator, but you should see its little cone-like sandpits on the ground. If you’re patient, you may be rewarded with a spectacular display of ambush in action. Whether you spot one or not, you can impress friends with this useless fact: An antlion larva never poops. It waits until it is an adult before excreting all the left-overs from its time as an underground predator.
The Buffalo Weaver
Buffalo weavers live in the dry savannah and acacia woodland areas, where they forage omnivorously on the ground, often following the trail of buffalo herds. A beautiful find among bird watchers, these social birds tend to form large, loosely ordered colonies. Weavers build massive communal roosts in tall acacia and baobab trees, which can be easily spotted for their untidy appearance. There are two species of Buffalo Weaver. More common is the noisy Red-Billed Buffalo Weaver and there is the White-Headed Buffalo Weaver.
The Leopard Tortoise
The large leopard tortoise gets its name from its attractive black and yellow speckled shell, clearly resembling a leopard’s spots. The slow-paced tortoises are one of the easiest to spot of the Small 5 (you’ll hardly miss one lumbering across the road). They are typical grazers, found in semi-arid, thorny and grassland habitats throughout sub-Sahara Africa. Many African cultures see the tortoise as a sacred symbol, but they are also widely eaten and considered a delicacy.
The Rhino Beetle
Another Small 5 insect is the rhino beetle, which gets his name from the distinctive horn-like structure on its head. Both sexes have horns, which makes it difficult to distinguish between them. The horn makes an excellent digging and climbing tool, while the males also use them in combat during mating season. Adult rhino beetles are an impressive 2.5 – 5 cm long. Not only are they one of the largest beetle varieties in the world; they are also proportionally the strongest animal in the world, known to lift 850 times their own weight.
Have you spotted any of the Small 5 creatures before? Give it a shot next time you’re on safari in the Kruger National Park!
In Africa, the big five game animals are the lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, and Cape buffalo. The term "big five game" (usually capitalized or quoted as "Big Five") was coined by big-game hunters and refers to the five most difficult animals in Africa to hunt on foot. Subsequently the term was adopted by safari tour operators for marketing purposes. The members of the Big Five were chosen for the difficulty in hunting them and the degree of danger involved, rather than their size. The big five are among the most dangerous, yet most popular species for big-game hunters to hunt. The 1990 and later releases of South African rand banknotes feature a different big-five animal on each denomination.
Countries where all the members of the big five can be found include Angola, Botswana, Zambia, Uganda, Namibia, Ethiopia, South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Malawi.
The African elephant is a very large herbivore having thick, almost hairless skin, a long, flexible, prehensile trunk, upper incisors forming long curved tusks of ivory, and large, fan-shaped ears. The two distinct species of African elephant are: African forest elephant and the African bush elephant. It is said that elephants are difficult to hunt because, despite their large size, they are able to hide in tall grass and are more likely to charge than the other species.
The black rhinoceros is a large herbivore having two upright horns on the nasal bridge. Its thick (1.5–5 cm) protective skin, formed from layers of collagen positioned in a lattice structure, is very hard to puncture. In the context of big-game hunting in Africa, the term "rhinoceros" may refer to either the black or the white rhinoceros, in South Africa they are called ‘Rhino’. Among big five game hunters, the black rhinoceros is preferred, although it is now critically endangered, and hunting is extremely limited due to this.
The African buffalo or Cape buffalo is a large horned bovid. Buffalo are sometimes reported to have killed more hunters in Africa than any other animal, and they're the only animals within the Big Five that aren't endangered or threatened. A similar claim is also made of hippos and crocodiles, but these statements include all people and not strictly hunters. The Cape buffalo is considered by many to be the most dangerous of the big five, reportedly causing the most hunter deaths, with wounded animals reported to ambush and attack pursuers.
The lion is a large carnivorous feline of Africa and northwest India, having a short, tawny coat, a tufted tail, and in the male, a heavy mane around the neck and shoulders. Lions are desirable to hunters because of the very real danger involved. A lion may attack without provocation, and is considered by many to be the best of the big five. Lion hunting is challenging because of the habitat and temperament of the lion. Lions live in the savanna where tall grasses, shrubs, and bushes obscure them and provide cover and camouflage. Lions do not generally avoid confrontation, but will usually face a challenger. They are unpredictable and may charge when sufficiently annoyed or confronted by danger. These factors together make lion hunting a challenge to hunters.
The leopard is a large, carnivorous feline having either tawny fur with dark rosette-like markings or black fur. Of the big five, it is most difficult to acquire hunting licenses for leopards. The leopard is considered the most difficult of the big five to hunt because of their nocturnal and secretive nature. They are wary of humans and will take flight in the face of danger. The leopard is solitary by nature, and is most active between sunset and sunrise, although it may hunt during the day in some areas. Leopards can be found in the savanna grasslands, brush land and forested areas in Africa. Baiting, hounding, and stalking are the most common methods used to hunt the cat.