South Africa encompasses one of the most diverse landscapes on the entire continent, with habitats ranging from verdant forests, stony deserts and soaring mountains, to lush grasslands and classic African savannahs. It is home to penguins and flamingos, great white sharks and ponderous African elephants, and many more animals that will surprise and amaze visitors. There are more than 700 publicly owned reserves (including 19 national parks) and about 200 private reserves, with Kruger National Park and Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park being the largest. Here is a rundown of what you can see at five of the best spots.
1. Meerkat at Addo Elephant National Park
Not many animals have enough charisma to pull off a wildly popular television series watched in 164 countries, but it is all in a day's work for South Africa's goofy meerkats, whose behaviour and cooperative social structure make these mongoose cousins unique.
Meerkat life is built around a social pack of 10 to 30 meerkats, and all members benefit if the group stays large and healthy. A meerkat's day starts with a session of sunbathing and grooming before the pack bounds off on its daily foraging expedition. A sentry is always posted to cry out if a hawk flies over, but if a ground predator appears the pack jumps up and down together to give the illusion that they are charging. Otherwise their day is spent tousling, rolling around like kids and playing "follow the leader". Everyone pays attention to the pups that emerge from their burrows sometime after January, and the pack takes turns at nursery duty to give the mothers time to find some food for themselves.
From their constant human-like murmuring to their upright stances, there is something comforting about meerkats. And almost everything they do will generate a laugh. Very tame groups can be observed along the Woodlands-Harpoor Loop in Addo Elephant National Park, but also at many other locales.
2. White rhinoceroses at Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve
Hluhluwe-Umfolozi was set aside with the specific purpose of protecting Africa's tiny relict population of southern white rhinos, an action which saved the species from certain extinction. In the sanctuary of this single location, white rhino numbers have blossomed from only 25 at the end of the 19th Century to now more than 16,000 in South Africa alone, all of them descended from Hluhluwe-Umfolozi stock.
Hluhluwe-Umfolozi itself is home to 1,800 of these magnificent creatures - far more than the combined total of all other African countries - and visitors are virtually guaranteed to see some.
Due to its permanent rivers and high-quality vegetation, this reserve is also home to large populations of giraffes, wildebeests, zebras, impalas and greater kudus, along with lions, leopards, elephants, buffalo and both rhino species. Another speciality of the reserve is its three resident packs of African wild dogs, the only protected population in the KwaZulu-Natal province.
3. Cud chewers at Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park
This is a harsh, dry place, but surprisingly rich in wildlife. In recognition of the region's extraordinary values, this vast corner of northwestern South Africa and western Botswana was declared Africa's first peace park in 2000.
Widely thought of as a desert, complete with immense solitude and fields of orange-red sand dunes stretching to the horizon, these ecosystems are technically semi-arid savannahs. This fact becomes abundantly clear when the rainy season arrives in February and unexpectedly transforms the landscape with a flush of brilliant green grasses. In particular, check out the river courses where gemsboks, springboks and wildebeests come from far and wide in search of the tallest and sweetest vegetation.
It would be hard to overstate the excitement of this time of year in the Kalahari. Dominant male antelope stake out territories and try to round up newly arriving females while fighting each other for access to these harems. Predators, including famous black-maned Kalahari lions as well as surprisingly abundant cheetahs, lurk on the perimeter, and a rich assortment of raptors perch on streamside trees.
4. Predators on night drives at Kruger National Park
Rousing from their drowsy daytime sleep, dusk is the magic hour for hungry predators. While a mostly unseen chess game of predator-and-prey plays out in the brush all around you, the tension and thrill grows with each cracking branch and flickering shadow. Glowing eyes dart between trees, yelps and roars rise up in the night, and you may stumble across a fresh kill with lions, hyenas and jackals squaring off over the feast.
The immense Kruger National Park is a perfect place for this drama to play out. Home to large numbers of the Big Five and countless smaller animals, this sprawling 20,000 sq km park is laced with thousands of kilometres of roads and numerous camps offering night drives that take you deep into the bush.
Happily, not all night-time events involve high drama and killing, because this is also the best time to see smaller creatures such as bush babies, genets, civets, owls and nightjars, plus many lesser known nocturnal critters. Bathed in the gleam of your vehicle's spotlights, expect to see all the action up close and personal.
5. Sharks at KwaZulu Natal
KwaZulu Natal is South Africa's most populous province, yet it is the kind of place where you can be surfing one day, and swimming with sharks the next.
Deeper into the Indian Ocean, advanced divers who do not mind a shark or 200 will want to check out Protea Banks. At least 12 shark species frequent the banks. Look for grey reef, thresher, copper, sand, mako, tiger and even the occasional great white shark. For a more sedate and colourful diving experience, try the warm waters of Sodwana Bay.
Greater St Lucia is one of Southern Africa's most important coastal wetlands, famed for its crocodiles and, in November, humpback whales, whale sharks and nesting turtles.
The highlight of this beach strip is the Aliwal Shoal, touted as one of the best dive sites in the world. The shoal was created from dune rock around 30,000 years ago. A mere 6,500 years ago, the sea level rose, thereby creating a reef. It was named after the wrecked ship, the Aliwal, which ran aground in 1849. Other ships have since met a similar fate here. Today, the shoal's ledges, caves and pinnacles are home to everything from wrecks, rays, turtles, "raggies" (ragged-mouth sharks), tropical fish and soft corals.
The article 'Lonely Planet's top five wildlife parks in South Africa' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.