Almost everyone who comes to Southern Africa will visit a game park. Seeing elephants, lions, giraffes, rhinos, zebras and other animals in the wild is an experience not to be missed, and South Africa and Namibia have some of the best parks in the world.
We spent about 7 days in game parks up to this point and we feel we have a much better idea what it is all about that we did previously. The experience can be both wonderful and frustrating and it is important to set your expectations.
Seeing the game is both easier and harder than you would expect. Different parks have different concentrations of animals. We visited Kruger and Hluehlue in South Africa. In Hluehlue we saw numerous rhinos- so many that by the end of the the three days in the park we didn't slow down unless they were close to the road. In Kruger I don't think we saw any.
The most common animals are the bucks: springbok, zebras, impala, gnu, etc. You see them everywhere, in such quantities that it becomes a bit numbing after a while. But even with these you can drive half a day and see none. There's some luck involved.
Baboons, hippos, and crocs are very common. Elephants and Giraffes are also easy to spot simply because they are so large. We had some great elephant sightings where they crossed right in front of us on the road, and more than once we had to reverse as a big bull elephant chased our car backwards, trumpeting and waving it's trunk. Very cool stuff.
Cats are the big prize, and they can be very hard to spot. They are nocturnal so the best bet is to go on a night drive, which the park can arrange for you at a fee. The drives are fun, in an open vehicle where you shine spotlights into the bush. About 50% of night drives spot cats, but we did 6 drives and only saw cats on one of them. That was a lion sighting, and the whole pride crossed the road not 10 meters from us. We had an excellent guide for that one who somehow spotted them when nobody in the vehicle had, even though he was driving, and then reversed to wait for them. In our 7 days we spotted only the one pride of lions and two leopards.
Time of year also has a lot to do with it. Water is the big limiting factor on game, and during dry times the animals tend to congregate at watering holes. We were there after rains so the animals were spread out a lot more, and the grass was tall making it harder to see animals hiding in the bush. Apparently in the dry season you can just camp at a watering hole in you car and watch all the animals come past.
The hardest part for me was the huge amount of driving. You aren't allowed to walk in the park except with an armed ranger on a game walk, so you end up driving most of the day looking for stuff. It doesn't feel like as much of a nature experience when everything has to be done from inside the car. The hikes are a welcome relief but they cover little ground and you are less likely to see good game because the animals are more scared of people on foot.
Apparently your viewing chances increase if you go to one of the private luxury lodges that have sprouted up around the national parks. They have less terrain and tend to know where all their animals are. Some of them have even radio collared some of the animals so they can take you right to the lions. The downside is that prices START at US$400 per person per night, and can easily go up to $2000.00 per person per night. In Kruger you can get by on about $100.00 per day if you do a couple of drives and sleep in a the less expensive places.
We have one more park to go to, the world famous Etosha pan. Etosha is a dry flat desert with a couple of watering holes that attract mind numbing quantities of animals. Unfortunatley Nambia's climate has gone completely haywire the last few years and the pan is flooded by unseasonable rains. Many people we talked to saw nothing at all in Etosha. We are holding of for a few weeks hoping things dry out a bit, but we heard that there is so much water it might be six months before things go back to normal.