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BBlonde waving grass, with a herd of elephants sashaying through it. Umbrella-shaped thorn trees dotted here and there, with giraffe or kudu nibbling at their leaves – unless there’s a leopard dozing in the branches. A few bushy shrubs with impala grazing close by. A lioness lurking somewhere in the long grass. Overhead, a bright blue canopy that only emphasises the vastness of the horizon, and the tininess of humans in this landscape.
Picture this, and you’ll have a fair idea what South African savannas look like – technically, savanna is a biome in which the tree canopy does not shade the ground beneath completely, allowing grass to grow in continuous stretches between the trees, thus supporting both browsers and grazers. Nature always comes up with variation, though – in some places, the trees are smaller, bushier and less elegant – these savannas are referred to as shrubland.
In South Africa, most people simply call this mixture of thorny scrub, stand-out trees and grassland ‘the bushveld’. In places where trees predominate with ribbons of grass between them, supplemented by under-canopies of shrubs and vines of varying density, it’s called woodland – or ‘the bush’, if locals want to distinguish it from ‘bushveld’.
The savannas of South Africa cover more than a third of the country, curling up from the arid Kalahari through Free State, North West and Gauteng, fattening around Limpopo and the western edge of Mpumalanga, then extending over the Drakensberg and down through KwaZulu-Natal into Eastern Cape.
For visitors, the most important feature of savanna is probably the sheer amount and variety of life it can support – if you’re looking to reconnect with nature, the beauty and abundance of the animal and plant life all round you is a humbling spiritual experience.
When conservation started in South Africa more than 100 years ago, it was this ecosystem that was first protected – in 2 separate sites, at the time in separate countries. What would become KwaZulu-Natal’s Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park was declared in 1895 in what was then the British Colony of Natal, while the land proclaimed as a reserve in 1898 that became the Kruger National Park was in the South African Republic (the ZAR, founded by Voortrekkers).
President Paul Kruger’s independent Boer state later lost a war with Britain to become South Africa’s Transvaal province, which after 1994 was split into 4 separate provinces of post-apartheid South Africa, so the Kruger National Park now spans parts of Limpopo and Mpumalanga.
Kruger and Hluhluwe are where you’ll typically see the Big 5, plus scores of other species of mammals, birds, reptiles and insects – and a large selection of the 5 700 species of plants and trees found on South Africa’s savannas, too.
South Africa’s savanna conservation is not limited to national and provincial parks, happily – the biome’s ability to support large numbers of wild animals effortlessly has attracted individuals in several provinces who have converted farmland into private game reserves and luxury lodges.
Apart from the Kruger National and Hluhluwe-Imfolozi parks, you’ll also see unspoilt South African savanna (this time with the addition of those gorgeous camelthorn trees) in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in Northern Cape, which extends into neighbouring state Botswana.
Then there’s Mapungubwe National Park in Limpopo, and most of the nature reserves and game farms in Free State province. For more variety, iSimangaliso Wetlands Park on the KwaZulu-Natal coast near Hluhluwe-Imfolozi offers a fascinating transition between savanna, wetlands and coastal mangrove forests.
You’ll stand an excellent chance of seeing the Big 5, but the plants are just as spectacular. In regions like the Soutpansberg (in northern Limpopo), you can find up to 400 tree species in a relatively small space.
And don’t forget – savanna (in the northern parts of the country) is home to the giant baobab; quite possibly the most impressive sight of all South Africa’s many and varied plant treasures.