Seeing wildlife in South Africa may be on top of your bucket list, or just one of the things in your itinerary. During my recent visit, I felt there were more places to see wildlife in South Africa, than anywhere else in the world. The reason being there are not just one or two national parks, there are countless reserves, safaris, game ranches, sanctuaries, farms, and more.
Perhaps you aren’t aware that many travelers go to South Africa for hunting and poaching as well. South Africa is one of the few countries in the world that allows private ownership of wild animals, so game ranching is a big industry. A simple google search will show you how many companies offer “trophy hunting” packages where you can select an animal to kill and bring back home. Many of them will claim that you are helping “conserve wildlife” by hunting the animals outside the parks that would otherwise harm agricultural land (which is usually not true). One such website offers an all-inclusive package of 1 x Impala, 1 x Blesbuck, 1 x Zebra, 1 x Redhartebeest, 1 x Warthog for only $5,000! Others, offer killing elephants, lions, leopards, hippos, and crocodiles. Sadly, majority of these hunters come from the US.
What I know is most of these animals are not really wild. They are the ones you have pet at so called “sanctuaries” that offer wildlife encounters (touching a lion, feeding a cub, walking with cheetahs, etc), even volunteer vacations taking care of animals. Therefore, the animals are attuned to humans. When they are released in a restricted area with a hunter, they don’t run away, and end up being killed rather easily.
So, if you want to see the Big 5, the best thing to do is see them in their natural habitats, which is mainly at Kruger National Park in South Africa, though there are a few other national parks where you can spot wildlife too.
If you don’t want to spend a lot of money going on a safari, or perhaps are traveling with young kids who won’t appreciate being in the wild, there are other options to see wildlife in South Africa sustainably.
Penguins at Boulder Beach
Watch African penguins at Boulder Beach near Simon’s Town, about an hour south of Cape Town. This beachfront penguin colony resides in the Table Mountain National Park Marine Protected Area. You can kayak around the beach or watch them breed, swim, and moult from wheelchair friendly boardwalks. When I was there in late December, I saw lots of babies! Admission: $5 adults; $3 kids
Big Cats at Panthera Africa
See white lions, Bengal tigers, leopards, cheetahs, caracals and more at this sanctuary. Panthera Africa rescues captive bred big cats from private homes, circuses, game ranches and other places. The nonprofit’s mission is to allow the cats to spend the rest of their lives abuse free. They have plenty of space to roam, playtime and food. But unlike other “cat sanctuaries,” you can only visit Panthera for couple of hours a day, and won’t have any physical contact with the animals. Admission: $14 adults; $10 kids
Elephants at Knysna Elephant Park
Here too you can see rescued orphaned elephants that are mostly sent on to private reserves to live out their lives. Advance reservations are needed for a guided visit where you will be briefly allowed to touch and feed an African elephant. The Knysna Elephant Park is a good place to learn about elephants, but if you want to see them in their natural habitat, go to Addo Elephant Park in the Eastern Cape. Admission: $23 adults; $12 kids; Free for under 5
Monkeys at Monkeyland Primate Sanctuary
Monkeyland is possibly the worlds first free roaming multi-specie primate sanctuary, located in Plettenberg Bay, South Africa. You will get up close with lemurs, howler monkeys, spider monkeys, capuchins and gibbons. You walk through a jungle-like setting through a thick canopy of trees and a hanging bridge, while the monkeys go about doing their daily business, oblivious to humans. The best part is seeing all different species of monkeys come together over the dinner table! Please do not touch the monkeys. Admission: $19 adults; $10 kids; Get a discount when booking two or more sanctuaries.
Exotic Birds at Birds of Eden Free Flight Sanctuary
This is most beautiful bird sanctuary I have visited anywhere in the world! You can easily spend an entire day walking through 2 hectares of trails with different habitats. Birds of Eden is home to over 3,500 birds of over 220 species, with the main focus being African birds. While it may not yet be a home for the rare cape parrot, which is infact the rarest African bird, there are still so many other beautiful birds to admire that you can’t not be happy walking around the sanctuary. Most of the birds are rescued caged birds that have only lived in small spaces and some are very friendly with humans. However, they go through a rehabilitation program where they relearn to fly, build flight muscles, and socialize with other birds. Admission: $19 adults; $10 kids; Get a discount when booking two or more sanctuaries.
Please keep in mind that when you are visiting a fake sanctuary, petting a wild animal, purchasing animal products (such as zebra skin, tiger bones or ivory jewelry), or keeping wild animals as pets, you are directly and indirectly involved in the exploitation of wildlife.
To learn more about volunteering with animals in South Africa and big cat conservation, watch my interview with Panthera.
Do you know the difference between ecotourism, sustainable travel, responsible travel, and volunteer vacationing? While there is a lot of overlap with each of these terms, they all have one common theme – that is to improve lives through travel and tourism.
On a recent Yoga Retreat in Bali, Indonesia through international nonprofit, Go Eat Give, I experienced an all-encompassing, meaningful venture into sustainable tourism, where we actually supported the community we visited in many different ways, perhaps without even realizing it.
Sustainable Tourism, A Stay Off of the Beaten Path
Most visitors to Bali either head to the beach resorts of Kuta, or the hippie city center of Ubud. Our accommodations were at Puri Gangga Resort and Spa, a 4-star 20-bedroom property located in the highland village of Sebatu (about 30 minutes from downtown Ubud) in East Bali. Enclosed by rice paddies and forests, the resort was a peaceful oasis overlooking Gunung Kawi Sebatu, a tranquil temple with gardens, and ponds full of blooming lotuses and enormous carps.
The resort was small, yet charming. It blended well with the peaceful environment and embodied nature into everyday living. From the fishpond at the reception, the stone pathways leading to the rooms, to the open-air restaurant, I always felt the presence of life surrounding me. Even my luxurious villa had thatched roofs that naturally repelled mosquitos and furniture made of Indonesian teak wood. My bathroom was huge, boasting great views of the surrounding paddies, and had a partially open roof in the shower. When it rained, the water just drained off into the rocks and plants around my toilet. I felt I had the luxury of indoor plumbing, set in an all-natural ambiance.
Each morning I woke up at the crack of dawn to the sounds of birds chirping and roosters crowing. I walked alongside the infinity pool in the morning mist of the forest, to attend my yoga class. At 7 am, a few early risers gathered in a spacious room with open windows facing east on one side, and west on the other. This week, we practiced meditation and graceful poses, using The Warrior of Light by Paulo Coelho as a spiritual guide.
A relaxed yoga session was followed by breakfast at the resort’s restaurant, Kailasha, with a bird’s eye view of the temple below. This sustainable tourism location features a 3-course breakfast service that included a plate of fresh-cut tropical fruits, Indonesian coffee or tea, and tropical juices squeezed to order. A woven basket full of assorted baked bread, arrived with pineapple and strawberry jams made on-premise. Options for Western and Balinese style breakfasts were presented – coconut pisang rai (steamed bananas), Martabak sayur (savory stuffed pancake), Nasi Goreng (fried rice), Dadar Gulung (sweet coconut pancake), or eggs and toast. Like most Balinese families, the restaurant bought all the ingredients very early in the morning, many of which were picked from the adjacent farms.
I returned to Kailasha restaurant for dinner a few times and enjoyed healthy, fresh, and delicious local flavors. Baby spinach dressed with sunflower sprout and tossed in virgin coconut oil was the perfect Nature Healing Salad, while the main course, Balinese Tipat Cantok – rice cakes with steamed beans, carrots, bean sprouts, and peanut sauce, made for the most scrumptious vegetarian treat.
My intention of living in the village was not only to decompress but also to experience the authentic life in Bali. At the resort I stayed in, there were activities designed to do just that. Puri Gangga offers a “Living in Culture” package that includes accommodations with daily yoga, afternoon tea, massages, and several cultural activities.
Some of the evenings, young Balinese dancers and Gamelan players would be invited from the village to perform for the guests at the resort. Watching talented girls of 8-10 years of age up close, dressed in their colorful costumes, and synchronizing their eyeballs with the music, was simply mesmerizing. I looked around and noticed the reaction of all the other spectators – fixated on their camera lenses, wanting to capture every single moment of this special treat.
I learned to make Balinese Canang Sari, an offering where we weaved palm leaves and decorate the square-shaped plate with bowls. It took me almost an hour to make one, and every Hindu household on the island makes 20-50 of these each day! While walking around the streets, you will see these offerings left at the doorsteps of businesses and homes after being blessed at the temples.
Visiting With the Locals
During the village tour, I visited the workshops and homes of local artists. Everyone I came across was busy working on some craft they had honed – be it sculpting stone statues, decorating wooden carvings, painting wicker boxes, or weaving baskets. Many of the products looked familiar, as I had seen them in the markets. It’s hard to conceptualize the time and labor behind the knick-knacks we pick up as souvenirs and understand that someone’s livelihood may be entirely dependent on our purchase.
Everyone who worked at this resort was a member of Sebatu village, so my dollars spent remained mostly in the area. I visited the homes of a hotel’s staff – a petite girl in her early 20’s who taught yoga, led people on tours, and conducted cultural lessons. She lived with 50 of her family members in a compound where she had a little house of two rooms. Her parents slept in the kitchen, while she had a tiny windowless room to herself. When one of my friends gave her a generous tip of $100, she was super excited and narrated how she would purchase books for her younger sister, give some money to her mother, put some aside, as well as help with the temple maintenance. Imagine what a 21-year old in the western world would do with $100 in cash!
There is no better addition to a venture into sustainable tourism than to be taught first hand by a local! During my visit, I signed up for a Balinese cooking class at Paon Bali Cooking School, where aunty Puspa and her husband, Wayan run an enterprise out of their home in another nearby village. He picks up the guests, shows them around the rice paddies, and brings them to their home, where Puspa teaches visitors how to cook 10 Balinese dishes in one session!
Over the years, through the growth of their business, they have been able to employ many of their relatives and neighbors, who would otherwise be selling art on the streets for pennies. Here they get to walk to work, eat whatever they want, and have fun teaching tourists about their native cuisine.
Batik is an ancient art form made with wax resistant dye on fabrics. Batik in Indonesia is perhaps the best known and an important part of their heritage. I decided to take a lesson in Batik at the home studio of a local artist, Widya where I spent about 5-6 hours learning the art from start to finish. I started with a blank piece of white cloth, stenciled a design with a pencil, and then drew it out with wax using a spouted tool called a canting. I wax stamped the borders of the cloth, while one of Widya’s many assistants, who are also excellent artists, help me correct my errors.
They showed me my selection of all-natural colors to fill in between the wax. The cloth is then dried in the sun, boiled in hot water to remove the wax, and air-dried again. While I worked diligently to create a masterpiece, Widya’s wife took my lunch order and ran off to the kitchen to cook Gado-Gado (a traditional dish of cabbage, green beans, and peanut sauce) and served it with fresh watermelon juice. It takes a lot of patience, good vision, and a steady hand to create these pieces, and I was nowhere close to being able to fetch a price for my work! Widya sells his work to shops and galleries around the world. It can take him a week or a month to make a single wall hanging, depending on the intricacy of its design. Like Puspa, he has created a small business at his home to sustain other artists who don’t always get the fame they deserve.
Volunteering in the Community
Lastly, on this sustainable tourism journey, I spent some time learning about poverty in Bali’s villages and how it has impacted the children. I met with the staff of Bali Children’s Project (BCP) and learned that many of the families are so poor, that the parents unable to sustain, end up committing suicide. Young kids are left to fend for themselves and end up working on the streets selling cheap souvenirs. I also saw some of their living conditions where a family of 4-5 would sleep in one dingy dark room on a torn mattress with dirty coverings. BCP has enrolled 300 kids to attend school through a sponsorship program, but that is only a fraction of the kids in Bali who need help.
I visited some of the schools where BCP sponsored kids are studying. We spend time doing arts and crafts with third graders. They took to me instantly, calling my name and teaching me words in Balinese. They were eager to show me their work and surrounded me when it came to picture taking the time. Despite their circumstances, these kids were very outgoing – smiling, laughing and eager to know me.
In my short time there, I couldn’t do much except donate some money to purchase beddings and commit to sponsoring two kids till the age of 18. It costs only $40/ month per child, a small sum in comparison to the big difference it can make in the life of a child. By receiving an education, these kids have some chance to break out of the cycle of poverty.
More than Just Memorable
When I think about all the lives that were impacted directly and indirectly because of my 10-day sustainable tourism visit to Bali, I am pleased. I feel I truly became a sustainable traveler, leaving a positive impact on the environment, society, and economy.
According to leading hotel industry tracker STR Global, there are over 13.4 million hotel rooms worldwide (as of 2012). Not all hotels are eco friendly or have adapted green practices. There is no doubt that staying in a hotel uses a lot of resources and puts pressure on the environment. Yet business and leisure travelers can take simple steps on an individual level to offset some of this impact. Continue reading “10 Ways to be Green at a Hotel”