Since 1994, when Nelson Mandela spearheaded its peaceful transition to democracy, South Africa has become one of the fastest-growing tourist destinations in the world. And it's not difficult to see why. The country is stable and affordable, with an excellent infrastructure; friendly, interesting, amazingly diverse people; and enough stunning sights, sounds, scenery, and attractions to make even the
most jaded traveler sit up and take notice. And nearly everybody speaks English—a huge bonus for international visitors.
South Africa has always teemed with game. That's what drew the early European explorers, who aimed to bring something exotic home with them. After all, as Pliny the Elder, one of Africa's earliest explorers, wrote almost 2,000 years ago, ex Africa semper aliquid novi—out of Africa always comes something new. Sometimes it was a giraffe, a rhinoceros, a strange bird, or an unheard-of plant.
In the latter half of the 19th century, Dr. Livingstone, Scotland's most famous Christian missionary, opened up much of the interior on his evangelizing expeditions, as did the piratical Englishman Cecil John Rhodes, who famously made his fortune on the Kimberley diamond mines and planned an unsuccessful Cape-to-Cairo railway line. About the same time, lured by the rumors of gold and instant fortunes, hundreds of hunters came to the lowveld to lay their hands on much-sought-after skins, horns, and ivory. Trophy hunters followed, vying with one another to see how many animals they could shoot in one day—often more than 100 each.
Paul Kruger, president of the Transvaal Republic (a 19th-century Boer country that occupied a portion of present-day South Africa), took the unprecedented visionary step of establishing a protected area for the wildlife in the lowveld region; in 1898 Kruger National Park was born.
South Africa has 22 national parks covering deserts, wetland and marine areas, forests, mountains, scrub, and savanna. Hunting safaris are still popular but are strictly controlled by the government, and licenses are compulsory. Although hunting is a controversial issue, the revenue is substantial and can be ploughed into sustainable conservation, and the impact on the environment is minimal. Increasingly, wildlife conservation is linked with community development; many conservation areas have integrated local communities, the wildlife, and the environment, with benefits for all. Londolozi, MalaMala, Phinda, and Pafuri Camp are internationally acclaimed role models for linking tourism with community-development projects.
Although the "Big Five " was originally a hunting term for those animals that posed the greatest risk to hunters on foot—buffalo, elephants, leopards, lions, and rhinos—it is used today as the most important criterion for evaluating a lodge or reserve. But let the lure of the Big Five turn your safari into a treasure hunt and you'll miss the overall wilderness experience. Don't overlook the bush's other treasures, from desert meerkats and forest bush babies to antelopes, the handsome caracal, and spotted genets. Add to these hundreds of birds, innumerable insects, trees, flowers, shrubs, and grasses. Don't forget to search for the "Little Five ": the buffalo weaver, elephant shrew, leopard tortoise, lion ant, and rhinoceros beetle. A guided bush walk may let you see these little critters and more.
Unfortunately, you probably won't be able to see all of the safaris that South Africa has to offer in one trip. We suggest that you read about all of them and then choose for yourself.