Lions, rhinos, elephants. This is what draws many of us to South Africa, one of the most biologically diverse nations on Earth. Photographer and writer Scott Ramsay spent a year bouncing along in Land Rovers, camping out and exploring, a journey he wrote about on his blog A Year in the Wild (yearinthewild.com). Recently back in his Cape Town home, he suggests these destinations for your own big trip. Visit between March and October, he says, when it's drier, less humid and the animals congregate around water holes.
This classic and popular South African national park, 20,000 square kilometres in size, combines the chance to see a diversity of animals within a well-organized setting. Fenced-in "rest camps" that range from basic to luxurious are spread across the park, while field guides offer tours into the bushveld via car or on foot.
"It's really probably the most accessible African animal destination in the country," says Ramsay. "It's big enough to get that sense of wilderness, but at the same time it's not scary for people who aren't used to the bush."
Despite having visited this park every year as a child, Ramsay had never seen a leopard. His luck changed during his five-week camp-out.
"It was probably the most special moment for me, out of many, because leopards are quite elusive, quite secretive and they're very photogenic."
Closer to the Indian Ocean in the subtropical province of KwaZulu-Natal, is Hluhluwe-Imfolozi (kznwildlife.com), one of the oldest parks in Africa. It's also the place where white rhinos were saved from extinction.
"It's only 900 square kilometres, so it's not that big, but it's very pretty and it's very diverse in its scenery. … And it's also got all the big animals, so it's got elephants, lions, leopards, buffalo."
There are two main rest camps here, including an unfenced one, and true wilderness trails, where you backpack and sleep under the stars, accompanied by poetry-reading, armed rangers.
"At night the lions are roaring and the leopards are calling," says Ramsay about his four nights in the bush on a wilderness walk, where everyone would take turns keeping watch around the fire. "You come out of that quite changed as a person – you're so in tune with the bushveld, you're so in tune with the animals. Your senses are so alert."
Tembe Elephant Park
Tembe (tembe.co.za), also in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, is home to the last population of elephants in Africa that has never been hunted. And despite its smaller size, only 300 square kilometres, the land is home to high concentrations of animals including many lions, says Ramsay. "It feels very wild there. There's only one rest camp you can stay in. You need a 4x4. It's much more adventurous," he says, adding: "We saw the elephant with the biggest tusks in southern Africa. His name is Isilo, and that means King of Kings in Zulu. His tusks, they weigh 65 kilograms each, [and measure] 2.5 metres long each. He's about 60 years old. You don't see a lot of elephants with long tusks, wherever you are in Africa, because they get killed by hunters or poachers."