Situated in the southwestern corner of South Africa, Cape Town is close to several notable national parks, including one of the country’s most celebrated – Table Mountain National Park. If you’re looking to escape city life for a few days, or even just a few hours, there are several incredible nature reserves within easy reach of the city.
Although there is no public transport to these parks, car rental in the city is affordable – particularly outside peak summer season. These parks are run nationally, which means they’re also surprisingly affordable, and most offer unique, well-appointed accommodation with self-catering or camping facilities, perfect for getting off the grid and experiencing the region’s diverse landscapes and wildlife.
Table Mountain National Park (TMNP) includes more than just the iconic, flat-topped mountain at its fringe. It’s one of the largest and most important parks in the country, spreading out from the famous Table Mountain over some 221 square kilometres (22,100 hectares) to Cape Point. Although wildlife in the park is limited to antelope, reptiles, small mammals like the dassie (rock hyrax) and birds, it’s famous for its fynbos – unique vegetation that comprises 80% of the Cape Floral Kingdom. The park is unique in places, as it borders the city, and most people take advantage of the protected region to hike, mountain bike, walk dogs, picnic, or simply take in the views. There are several access points to the park, most of which require no admission fee or paperwork, with the notable exceptions of the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway, Boulders Beach, Cape of Good Hope, and Silvermine, which fall under TMNP but are either privately managed or access-controlled.
The Tankwa Karoo National Park is located in one of South Africa’s most arid regions. A remarkable place to visit, it is located in a unique pocket between beautiful mountains and the Tankwa River. There’s been a slow reintroduction of wildlife, that once freely roamed the area, and it’s now possible to spot a variety of antelope and smaller mammals, like hares, porcupines and mongooses. Although rare, the Tankwa is also home to leopard, aardvark, aardwolf and caracal. Even without the wildlife, the reserve is worth a visit – for its dry, stark landscapes, silence, isolation and incredible night skies. There are several guest houses, camp sites, old farm houses and lodges managed by South African National Parks available as overnight accommodation. The region is also home to the popular AfrikaBurn – an official Burning Man regional event.
The Cape West Coast is an intriguing place to visit throughout the year. It’s a low-key part of the country, where fishermen still row out into the cool waters, and many towns remain stuck in an altogether distant era. The west coast is also famous for its annual display of flowers, and there are few better places close to Cape Town to see them than in the West Coast National Park. Surrounded by the blue waters of the Langebaan Lagoon, it is home to intriguing mammals, like zebra, ostrich and eland, carpeted in colourful flowers in spring, and just a 90-minute drive from Cape Town – a perfect day trip from the city.
The Bontebok National Park is located on the outskirts of the small Overberg town of Swellendam, less than three hour’s drive from Cape Town. The small park was established in the 1930s in order to preserve the antelope species called bontebok. Although the smallest of the country’s national parks, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and forms part of the Cape Floral Kingdom. Though most visit the region for its beautiful landscapes and tranquility, it’s also home to abundant birdlife, including the blue crane, and several small mammals.
Many visitors to Cape Town believe that the meeting point of the Atlantic with the Indian Ocean and the most southerly point of the continent is at Cape Point. Although Cape Point is a dramatic place to visit, visitors looking for this famous location will have to head further out of town – to Cape Agulhas, to be exact. This is the most southern point of the African continent, and it’s home to a massive lighthouse, relics from ancient mariners, and the famous signpost that indicates the meeting of the oceans. Although most travel to the region to visit this location, the park in fact stretches out over some 200 square kilometres (20,000 hectares), between quaint fishing towns and unpretentious villages of the Cape Overberg region.
Slightly further out of town, but still an easy drive from the city, is the otherworldly Namaqua National Park. It sees most of its traffic in August and September, when the stark lands burst into life with the arrival of spring flowers, but its rugged landscapes and vegetation make it a remarkable place to visit throughout the year. Although animal species are few and far between, there’s a good chance visitors will find the speckled tortoise, the smallest species of tortoise. Accommodation around flower season sells out months in advance, and it’s too far out of Cape Town for a day trip – so advance planning at this time is essential. There is fixed accommodation available year-round, though, and two satellite camps that open up specifically to cater to the influx of flower tourists.