From May 2015 until January 2016, I lived in Johannesburg, South Africa. I only had one mission: to build up my wildlife photography skills (check out the results at Photo4me.com/petronella). My friends and I did A LOT of camping over the weekends. If you’re planning to travel down South, consider including camping in your journey. #Pete Gone Camping South Africa!
Pete Gone Camping South Africa: not too wild
At first, camping in South Africa sounded to me like the ultimate wild camping experience. I pictured sleeping in a tent with lions, elephants and cheetahs waiting for me to take a leak in the middle of the night. None of this turned out to be true – at least not in my experience. Of course, there are areas in Africa where bush camping is a more exciting or even dangerous activity, but I was easily able to play it safe (which I like, and you might too). Read on to find out how to camp in South Africa and get that adventurous feeling (without necessarily becoming prey)!
The geographical diversity of the country is amazing
First of all, I’d like to encourage you to just GO and discover South Africa. I’ve travelled a bit, and this is by far the most beautiful country I’ve seen so far (not like I’ve seen everything, but you know…). When I was travelling in SA, I was at the peak of my craziness for photography. I must have taken a trillion pictures. The diversity of this country is amazing and travelling here really gives you the feeling of being close to nature. Whether you choose to hike in the indescribably beautiful Drakensberg area or to cruise around Kruger Park in your own vehicle, this is where you’ll find true eye candy. South Africa is an excellent place for birders, hikers, wildlife enthusiasts… you name it. If you’ve never been there, consider joining a group to travel with. It’s how I first discovered SA’s beauty before I decided to move there (and it was love at first sight). I highly recommend travelling with Drifters Adventure Tours or checking out www.AfrikaOnline.nl/en/ , where I booked my first AWESOME journey to South Africa.
Most important: bush camping isn’t always ‘camping in the wild’
I’ve camped at campsites in several wild parks, along the Panorama Route and in the Drakensberg mountains of South Africa. Keep in mind that most South African people don’t have elephants and predators sniffing around their homes. Wildlife is mainly found behind fences in enormous wildlife reserves. Given this, most campsites are also protected very well. Kruger Park, for instance, offers several campsites (called ‘main rest camps’) inside the park, which are surrounded by a big fence so the wildlife doesn’t surprise you at night. You might spot a few warthogs walking around at breakfast, and you should watch out for snakes creeping around – but as long as you choose an organised and protected campsite, that should be it. Bottom line: just pick the right spot for your kind of adventure.
Plan wisely and watch the weather
The biggest mistake I made before moving to South Africa was thinking that the weather would be hot all the time. WRONG. Nights during the South African winter can be very, very, VERY cold. To give you an example, at one point in July I was sleeping inside my apartment under a duvet, a blanket and a sleeping bag, with a hot water bottle, wearing the thickest flannel PJs I could find, socks, a hat and gloves. Yes, that’s right. Mornings can be so cold that it hurts your skin! So you might want to check the night temperatures when planning your SA wintertime camping trip. Believe me, you won’t want to sleep on the tent floor in that period, so don’t feel like a pussy when bringing a cot (and maybe an extra mattress to put on top of it). Pick the right time for your SA trip based on your interests. Wildlife may be best viewed during the dry season from May until September, since they gather around water holes and rivers then. The low chance of rain also makes this a good time for hiking. Just keep in mind that it will be wintertime then, so it will be cold. Do you prefer warmer weather? Then pick the South African summer (from December until February) and be prepared for heavy rain showers and thunderstorms.
The night skies are perfect for star photography
When enjoying a braai (South African barbecue) in the outdoors with your friends, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the night skies above your head. I never thought I’d see the Milky Way with my bare eyes, but there it was. South Africa is absolutely perfect for night photography and I did a lot of it! From light painting to shooting star trails and blood moon eclipses to the galaxy, I captured it all. Even during the daytime, the South African sky can be very impressive.
Hiking became one of my top outdoor activities
Hiking, hiking, hiking and more hiking – it’s all we did and all we wanted to do over the weekends. To drive my friends crazy, I spent most of our hikes photographing flowers, birds and wildlife. South Africa offers tons of beautiful hiking trails. There are easy trails, like the Blue Wildebeest Hiking Trail near Badplaas, Mpumalanga (a 3.5 hour drive from Johannesburg) and the Hennops Hiking trails in Gauteng (near Johannesburg) – and there are also trails for the advanced hiker in the Drakensberg area. Our favourite hike was called Monks Cowl, situated at the head of the Champagne Valley in Central Drakensberg. We stayed at the perfect Inkosana backpackers lodge Drakensberg campsite. When it comes to camping and hiking in South Africa, you can’t go wrong; if you pick your campsite first, then a trail will be close by. If you choose your trail first, you’ll easily find a nearby campsite or hut. Many South African campsites can be found online, so you can pick your trails and book your lodging in advance.
A lot still on my list
My South African adventures mainly took place within a six- to eight-hour drive from Johannesburg. There is SO much to do in the northeast corner of South Africa, and everything is very affordable. Five days of camping and hiking would cost about 1500 South African rand per person (including food, park fees, car rental, campsite costs and gasoline), which is very cheap. That’s why South Africa is such a great, gorgeous option for budget camping trips. Though I saw a lot while I was there, there’s still a lot of African stuff on my to-do list – like driving in a four-wheeler with a rooftop tent from South Africa through Namibia and Botswana in September!
? Some extra useful tips for camping in South Africa:
- Climate: South Africa has seasons opposite to Europe and North America. It’s summertime (nice and hot but also a bit humid) from December until February, and spring from September until November. The same goes for autumn and winter. Keep this in mind when planning your trip. Also, know that summertime in South Africa means a lot of rain and (especially in Drakensberg) potentially dangerous thunderstorms. My favorite time of the year in South Africa is springtime in October. This is the time when Johannesburg and Pretoria turn purple from the Jacaranda trees blooming! They usually bloom right after the first rains at the start of the summer, which is in the second or third weekend of October.
- Car rental: I liked booking short-term car rentals online at Avis (in Randburg, Johannesburg). The prices were very attractive; I payed €56 total for a four-day rental of a new air-conditioned car. At the beginning of my stay, I had a long term rental (a Volkswagen Jetta <3) from SA Car Hire in Pretoria.
- Tent: You might not want to bring all your camping equipment to South Africa. In that case, consider renting an overland car with a rooftop tent! Loads of companies offer them fully equipped for your convenience. One of my friends rented a Toyota Hilux with a rooftop tent at a company called Bushlore in Midrand, Johannesburg. Be sure to bring a credit card to ensure the deposit!
- Arrival: I recommend you arrive at your campsite by daylight, for safety and because gates tend to close early.
- Navigation: Buy a South African SIM card so you have data available to use the GPS on your phone at all times.
- ID: Always bring it with you – traffic police will ask you for it sooner or later.
- Road safety: Please, please, please keep an eye out for ridiculous potholes in the road and keep both hands on the steering wheel. At intersections, remember that the first car to arrive is the first to cross.
- Being with nature: Visiting a game reserve (a.k.a. a wildlife reserve)? Never, ever leave your car to take a great picture. Can’t see that lion well enough? Better to stay safe and wait for next time than to be eaten (no joke). Also, be aware of macro nature. You will encounter South African bugs and mosquitos. Bring plenty of good mosquito repellant.