Picture it: the African Jungle in all its splendour and glory. Your dreamed-about exotic safari destination in surround sound and technicolour. Otherworldly, unknown and frightening sounds penetrate the jungle canopy; the humid air sits thick and sticky around you as the tiger stalks nearby… Tiger? Jungle? African safari? There are a few things we need to get straight Dr Livingstone! South Africa alone is a large country made up of a host of different biomes. So what makes up the major biomes in Southern Africa and what should you expect to see where?
What is a Biome?
Plainly put, a biome is what makes up the environment of a particular place. It is the community of plant and animal life that makes up a major habitat like jungle or tundra. It is this habitat that determines the animal species and relative abundance and scarcity. A biome rich in grass, for example, has the potential to support huge numbers of game as seen in Tanzania and Kenya whereas a habitat like the deserts of the Kalahari will support fewer species.
The Cape Floral Kingdom
The Cape Floral Kingdom is the crown jewel of South Africa. Covering only 0.08% of the world’s surface, this biome has 3% of the world’s plant species. It exists only here, on the southernmost tip of Africa and is known to all, affectionately as fynbos.
Loosely translated fynbos is fine-bush. Without going into too much detail, the Cape Floral Kingdom is essentially fynbos, a collection of scrub type bush that thrives in nutrient-poor soil. The flower species and colours are myriad and they attract a huge number of birds and insects that pollinate and feed on them.
To see fynbos at its best, you need not travel further than Cape Town. The slopes of Table Mountain, Silver Mine and the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve are covered in fynbos. Look out for the most famous species (and South Africa’s national flower) the King Protea, pincushions in red and orange, leucadendrons or cone bushes, ericas, lilies and restios or grasses.
Fynbos has something special to offer year round and a great place to get a handle on what is on offer is the world-renowned Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens in Newlands, Cape Town. For those looking to see more of these species of bulbs and flowering plants, plan a trip around spring time (August to October). Not fynbos so to speak but if you are around at this time, make a point of travelling up the West Coast to see the annual bloom.
Top 5 Fynbos Destinations:
- Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens
- Hoerikwaggo Trail
- Kogelberg Mountain Reserve
- The Fynbos Trail
- Harold-Porter National Botanical Gardens
The Kruger National Park
With almost 2 000 000 hectares (19 000 km2) of reservation, it is not surprising that the Kruger National Park has 9 distinct biomes. It traverses Mpumalanga and Limpopo provinces and stretches for 352 km from north to south along the Mozambique border. Kruger’s popularity with safari goers is well deserved when you consider that this massive reserve is home to 147 species of mammal, 507 bird species, 49 fish species and over 300 different trees!
So what should you expect when you visit the Kruger National Park?
The Savannah Biome is the largest Biome in southern Africa. In South Africa, savannah accounts for nearly one-third of the land, making it by far the most dominant habitat. What makes this a little tricky is that not all savannah habitats look the same.
Savannah is characterized by a grassy ground layer of vegetation which supports a large number of grazing antelope. Depending on the quality of the soil, depth, composition, drainage and rainfall, the upper layer is made up of woody plants, shrubs and trees. The density of these woody layers determine how the biome will be described; shrubveld (shrubs growing near the ground) or Bushveld (dense woodland as well as intermediate growth).
While the Kruger National Park has nine distinct biomes, I am going to break the park into north, south-east and south-west and describe only the major biomes. This should give you a general idea of what to expect and prevent any major surprises.
The Kruger Park North
The northern region of the Kruger National Park is a sun-baked low-lying area of over 7000 km2 that lies to the north of the Olifants River. The combination of high temperatures and relatively low rainfall mean that these plains cannot support large numbers of trees and indeed, the plant diversity in the northern region is the lowest anywhere in the park.
The predominant tree species is the Mopane (Colophospermum mopane). It can grow into a fine tree but here, growing on shallow poorly drained soil, the mopane is a multi-stemmed shrub. Though not eaten by many animals, the mopane is an important part of the elephant’s diet. Not surprisingly then, the northern region is home to half of the Kruger’s elephants.
Although these dry plains do dominate the landscape, the rivers that carve pathways through it are the life-line to the area. The Olifants, Letaba, Shingwedzi, Tsendze and Mphongolo rivers offer lush green riverine bush. The combination of sun-baked arid mopane savannah and lush green and shaded river banks can provide some of the best game viewings in the park as animals tend to shelter from the sun and cluster around these waterways.
Habitats in the Northern reaches:
- Mopane woodlands to the west
- Mopane shrubveld to the east
- Impressive riverine forests along the watercourses
- Lebombo foothills
- Transition from sub-tropical to tropical vegetation begins north of the Tropic of Capricorn
South East Kruger Park
The south-east Kruger Park offers a variety of habitats from the rugged Lebombo Koppies to the open plains, mixed woodland and thorn thicket along rivers. Also classified as savannah, with more rainfall and better soil, the southeastern Kruger Park, below the Olifants River, is dominated by acacia thorn trees.
The sweet grasses that thrive here offer excellent grazing for antelope and the area is awash with herds of Impala, Zebra, Wildebeest, Buffalo and Giraffe. Expect to see lion who hunt the many game animals and white rhino too and if you are very, very lucky, Black Rhino who spend most of their days hiding in thorn thickets!
Habitat to Lookout for:
- Thorn thickets along river valleys
- Open grasslands around Sabie
- Lebombo foothills in the Mpanamana Concession
- Mixed bushwillow and acacia woodlands north of Biyamiti
- Pockets of fine riverine bush along the Sabie River
Southwest Kruger Park
The largely mountainous terrain of the south-west Kruger Park is interesting because of the habitat niches created for some of Kruger’s rarest antelope. The botanically rich mountain veld gets more rainfall than anywhere else in the park and can be divided into two main habitats.
The Malelane mountain veld (to the south around Berg-en-Dal) and the sourveld to the west (around Pretoriuskop and Numbi). The best game viewing happens around the mixed grazing around Berg-en-Dal. With its granite outcrops, valleys and varied bushveld, the south-west Kruger has the ideal habitat for White Rhino and Leopard as well as the rare antelope – Roan, Sable and Lichtenstein’s hartebeest.
What to look for in the Southwest:
- Malelane mountain veld around Berg-en-Dal
- Pretoriuskop sourveld in the Numbi Pretoriuskop areas
- Sweetveld grazing along Voortrekker Road to Phabeni
- Acacia woodlands and mixed bushwillow between Jock's and Skukuza
Namibia and Botswana
In Southern Africa Biomes Part II, we take a look at what to expect when visiting Etosha, Namib-Naukluft and Caprivi as well as the Okavango Delta and the Kalahari Desert.