Update on Access in our National Parks

When last Rolling Inspiration covered some of the accessibility opportunity within SANParks (the former National Park Board), it was reported that there were many pending accessible opportunities planned and in the pipeline. Some of these have now come to fruition and it is time to report back on some of the new and perhaps unknown opportunities for the mobility impaired within the National Parks.

For those of you who are addicts of the bushveld new fully equipped safari tents at Punda Maria Camp in Kruger National Park may be worth trying out as one of the tents is adapted for the mobility impaired. (Picture: Discovery Trail Addo)

If you are looking for a new destination arguably more exciting and pleasurable than Kruger, in July last year Mapungubwe Hill in Mapungubwe National Park was declared a World Heritage Site. In September last year Tourism and Environmental Affairs Minister Marthinus Van Schalkwyk opened the revamped and indeed renamed park (it had until then been known as Vhembe-Dongola National Park). The park is at the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe Rivers where SA, Botswana and Zimbabwe meet. The new park boasts some immaculate facilities including new reception offices, two new rest camps, a visitor centre, a series of lookout platforms overlooking the three countries, a tree-top boardwalk over the Limpopo River and some game hides. Most of these facilities are suitable for the mobility impaired, including two cottages at the beautiful Leokwe Camp (surrounded by sandstone rocks and baobabs); a fully equipped safari tent at the quaint Limpopo Tented Camp with one accessible unit (the ramp is a bit steep and there is some soft sand to negotiate, but inside it is very comfortable and accessible); a wheelchair friendly pathway to the confluence and viewing platforms of the Limpopo and Shashe Rivers; and the tree-top boardwalk and hide, where it is common to have elephants and other game (including stray cattle from our neighbouring countries) passing on the ground below. (Picture: Augrabies)

Camping facilities should be added to the selection by August 2006. The park has all the major African game except buffalo. Elephant are abundant and leopard sightings are numerous. Birding wise, culturally and botanically the area is as rich as anywhere in the country. At about four hours north of Pretoria on the Polokwane N1 and then the road to Alldays, the park should be particularly appealing to people in the Gauteng area. (Picture: Nature’s Valley Trail)

A word of caution though to people who battle with extreme heat: the Limpopo Valley gets exceptionally hot in the summer months, but with the warm winter nights, what a pleasure to escape to this unheralded part of the country for a weekend or a few days. The park is accessible to sedan vehicles, but there are some 4x4 restricted routes.

Then, if one is looking for an environment different to bushveld, there is now a varied selection of accessible accommodation options in the semi-desert conditions of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (formerly Kalahari Gemsbok National Park) and at Richtersveld National Park. (Picture: Accessible tree-top boardwalk)

Admittedly these parks and their camps are a long distance from most major cities, may require a 4x4 to access and can be prone to extreme temperatures; so not everyone will have the means or ability to enjoy them, but unlike the past, when such destinations were difficult or impossible for a person in a wheelchair to visit, there is now the opportunity for those who are willing and able. Due to the remote location and inexperience on the part of the constructors and designers, some of these units are not as well designed as they could be from a wheelchair user’s perspective, with some of the roll-in showers being more cramped than ideal, mirrors badly positioned etc. but most of these units’ facilities will be ideal and such deficiencies have been brought to park management’s attention. Hopefully they will be proactively addressed and they shouldn’t deter from experiencing these amazing environments that will touch one’s soul and memory forever.

Also in the arid reaches of the country, the Augrabies Falls now has a dramatic accessible pathway and boardwalk over the Falls. In the past mobility impaired visitors to the park would be frustrated as they would be unable to easily access a viewing point of this natural wonder, but now the opportunity is easily facilitated. With the nature of the terrain, the boardwalk is understandably a bit steep in places, so all but the most robust wheelchair users will require limited assistance, but it is an opportunity that was absent before and well worth planning a visit to. (Picture: Grootkolk communal area )

Moving from the dry sands of the arid north-west, to the forests of Tsitsikamma, the Park’s Honorary Rangers and Metropolitan have provided support and sponsorship to the park to build an open access boardwalk through the forest at the Nature’s Valley end of the park. Currently it only runs a couple of hundred metres (the environment requires a relatively expensive product – polywood into the forest and to complement the trail with a hide ovehe Groot River (where otters, kingfishers and the like dwell) are afoot subject to the sourcing of funding. Next, the park has plans to increase their quantity of accessible accommodation to a decent level at both Storms River and Nature’s Valley.

The thickets of the Eastern Cape’s Addo Elephant National Park have also had recent additions to their accessibility selection (which has included wheelchair friendly trails, hides and accommodation in the form of accessible new cottages at both their main camp and the new Matyholweni Camp, nestled in a wooded valley just off the N2. Now that the park has reintroduced lion (after over 100 years’ absence) and stretches all the way to the Indian Ocean, one has a chance to see “the Big 7” – the terrestrial big 5 alongside whales and great white sharks. (Picture: Confluence - 2nd Viewing Platform)

If access to mountain heights and rolling grasslands are what excites you most, some units in Glen Reenen Camp at Golden Gate Highlands National Park have been adapted to become accessible, as have a couple of the log cabins in the new Mountain Retreat Camp, positioned 2000m above sea-level, where the camp is nestled into the slope, with the turf forming part of the unit’s roofs to blend into the environment. Construction on the vulture hide (which will be accessible) is due to start next year. This will prove to be an awesome attraction for the park.

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