Travel in Africa can be many things, but a safari is the continent’s best and most unique experience. And it doesn’t even have to be expensive.
This may change soon. Classic African wildlife encounters will eventually only be found in the largest nature reserves. Ever more people will want to visit the Kruger, and there’s only room for so many. Prices will skyrocket, like they already have done elsewhere in Africa.
Today you can still fly to South Africa, rent a cheap car and do a self-drive safari at a reasonable cost. Even if you lack experience, you will find a wide range of wild mammals, birds and reptiles. I’ll show you how it works.
We start at the O. R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg. Rent any car you’re comfortable with. Most roads you’re allowed to drive on in the Kruger park are suitable for a normal car. Some roads require a four-wheel drive, but it’s easy to avoid those.
It may be a good idea to rent your car from Avis or Budget. If something happens, it’ll be sorted out fastest with them, because they have an office inside the park, in the Skukuza rest camp. Most likely, though, you’ll be fine with any car you rent from whichever company.
Have your GPS take you east, towards Malelane. Use main road N12, which soon merges with N4. It’s a normal highway. If driving on the left is new to you, it’s still an easy drive.
Get away from Johannesburg as fast as you can. After a couple of hours, halfway to Nelspruit, you find Total Petroport N4 Alzu. This is a great place for a pitstop.
Fill up on petrol and snacks. Have a meal at the Nando’s restaurant and start your safari sightings at the same time. Behind the service building is a waterhole. The animals here are obviously not wild, but you gotta love a petrol station that comes with rhinos, ostriches and a good number of other species.
The place is quite bizarre, in an entertaining way. Here‘s a video sneak peek!
If you have to spend a night outside the Kruger Park before you enter it, Nelspruit has several good options. If it gets dark before you reach Nelspruit, a safe stop is the Fortis Hotel Malaga. They have great value rooms and meals, just 90 minutes by car from the Kruger Park entrance.
Malelane has a large supermarket, Superspar. Get a small cooler for long days in the car, and some food and drinks. All the main rest camps inside the park have a grocery store, but the selection is nowhere near as good as in here.
Fill up with petrol if you want to, but there’s really no need. You pay the same for petrol everywhere, even in the park.
The supermarket has a small books and magazines section. Pick up a Kruger Park guide, and you’re ready to go!
You can start ticking off animal sightings even before you enter the park. From Malelane you cross a bridge over the Crocodile River. Look down, and you’ll understand where that name came from. Park your car outside the entrance office and walk back to the bridge to enjoy the view. It’s okay. You won’t die.
On one side of the river is the Kruger Park. The other side is full of lodges and bungalows. Many stay here, at often overly luxurious accommodation, and just do game drives into the park in the mornings and afternoons.
Don’t. Just don’t.
Spend as much time as you can in the park, including the nights. The accommodation may be more basic, but it’s still better. You are surrounded by wildlife, yet safe behind a fairly good fence. The main reason for staying in the park, however, is that it lets you get out on the park roads first thing in the morning, before all of those who sleep outside the park.
When you have seen enough from the bridge, walk back to the gate. Sort out your entrance fee, confirm your accommodation booking if you have one, and in you go.
Inside the park, you can only stop and exit the car at designated places. You will still rarely be more than an hour away from a toilet, often less. Use the restroom at the park entrance, just in case.
The roads are mostly good. If you want to, you can drive on sealed roads only. Driving on gravel roads does not automatically result in better wildlife sightings. Some bird hides and picnic spots with toilets require that you drive at least part of the way on gravel, though. So do it.
Sealed roads have a speed limit of 50 or less, and on gravel roads it’s 40 or less. This almost eliminates any chance of having an accident. You’ll be fine.
If you have trouble with your car, you’re not dead yet. Where there is mobile phone coverage, you can call the park authorities for help. If not, stay in your car and wait for someone to come by. Ask them to notify the people at the nearest camp. There’s a system, and it works.
The only driving issue I have experienced in the Kruger, is that sometimes the smaller roads can be blocked by trees pulled down by elephants. If this happens, just turn around and drive back the way you came from.
You should bring a good map, but you could manage well even without one. There’s a helpful marker like this one at every crossroads. They tell you the distance and direction to every park exit and rest camp in the area.
Statistically, the impala is going to be the first animal you see. The Kruger Park has at least 150,000 of them. They’re easily recognized from behind, thanks to that blackish McDonald’s logo on their behind.
They’re not sponsored. The dark fur of the M becomes slightly warmer in sunlight than the white and brown fur around it. This confuses heat-seeking ticks in search of a nice and warm body orifice to invade. With a bit of luck, the birds hanging around the impala, oxpeckers, will pick off the bewildered ticks before they can hurt the impala.
It’s a good thing there are many impalas around, as they’re the favorite food of the Kruger Park predators. It is estimated that about half of all impala babies are killed by predators within the first few weeks after they’re born.
Hippos and crocodiles are also happy customers of the oxpecker. They’re not friends with each other, though. They just tolerate each other, since they eat different things and have little to fight about. The crocodile wants meat, while the hippo wants grass.
That said, a crocodile can still annoy a hippo, to the extent that sometimes people have seen two half crocodiles. The hippo has a powerful bite.
These giraffes don’t seem bothered by our car. They’re more interested in finding edible leaves on that tree. We slowly pass behind them, trying to put as much distance as possible between our car and those legs, who are capable of delivering a kick that can easily break both a lion’s back and the terms of a rental car insurance.
Wild dogs, sometimes called painted wolves, are usually seen as a blur passing you by, restlessly roaming for prey. On a hot day, however, you can be lucky and find them sleeping in the shade under a tree.
The Kruger Park is a great place to see them, as there are a number of packs that tend to stay in certain areas. Elsewhere they can be extremely hard to see. If you see them at all, it’s typically just a glimpse before they disappear into the forest again.
The strangest creature in the Kruger Park is of course the human. If you don’t go on a self-drive safari, you’ll probably find yourself being driven around in one of these vehicles. It can be good, especially if you’re not that into watching animals anyway.
I’ve been a passenger on drives like this many times. It usually leaves my frustrated. Instead of staying in any spot long enough to figure out what’s going on there, someone in the group will inevitably demand that you move on, so that they can be back in camp in time for their next meal. That same person will also somehow manage to block your view whenever an interesting animal is around.
As a rule, most of the people on a guided safari do not know how to turn off the sound their camera or iPad(!) makes when they take a photo. It may not seem like a big issue, but after a while this will make you go insane.
Disney has given hyaenas a bad reputation, but they are really cool animals. You often see hyaenas playing around with and visibly caring for the cubs in their group. And their cubs are a lot cuter than the grown-ups.
Don’t be fooled by their dog-like playfulness. Given the chance, they’ll easily bite your arm off and run away with it to snack on it. And that’s just the cubs.
A walking leopard is a relatively rare sighting. You may well see a leopard on your drive, but usually it will be stationary, sitting in a tree, feasting on its latest kill. It’s an amazing sight, especially if it stares right back at you with a pair of stunningly green eyes. But the true elegance of a leopard can only be seen when it’s on the move.
There’s no way to plan for that kind of sighting. If you see it, it’s pure luck. Treasure every second you get of this. It’s not a time for fiddling with your camera. Just take a quick photo and lean back and observe.
Here’s a more typical leopard sighting. The photo on the left was taken during the midday heat, when the animal is lying completely still in a tree. The light makes the leopard hard to spot. We leave it alone, and decide to check again towards the end of the day.
The photo on the right was taken about an hour before sunset. The leopard is still in the tree, now awake and alert. The light is completely changed, and there’s no doubt that we’re looking at a leopard.
A kill is also right there in the tree. While we watch the leopard eat, it suddenly notices a careless warthog passing below. The big cat jumps down to pick up dessert. We can’t see exactly what happens, but there’s some impressive jumping in the grass, and some horrific squeals. The leopard is soon back up in the tree.
Lesson learned: If you see something interesting, go back and have another look later in the day, or even the next morning. As the light changes and the temperature goes down, the same location may turn into a different place.
Another example of how a site can change; Vervoerdam, a waterhole between the rest camps Pretoriuskop and Skukuza. During the hottest part of the day, many antelopes come here to drink. It’s too hot for the predators to hunt, so these animals feel relatively safe. It’s lovely seeing so many animals gathered in one spot, seemingly without a worry in the world.
We return to Vervoerdam that same afternoon, just before sunset. Now the predators are on the move, and the antelopes have disappeared. A rhino has shown up instead.
It’s a little bit sad. Except for two ducks, no one wants to play in the mud with the intimidating rhino. Still, watching a rhino in the wild is always a treat.
And this is how you’ll often see lions; sleeping on the ground with a full stomach, working hard on digesting the huge meal they spent the whole morning eating.
Just up the road from that lion, we stop at the Lake Panic bird hide. I don’t know why it’s called Lake Panic, but the fact that there’s no fence between our parked car and that lion makes me slightly worried.
We park as close as we can to the gate, and go down the corridor towards the bird hide. The wall does not seem that robust. Also, I believe a big cat could easily jump over the wall, should it want to.
But this is what you do in the Kruger Park. Wild animals can turn up anywhere at any time. Despite this fact, the park authorities have decided that in a few select places, people are allowed to exit their car. They never guarantee your safety, though. Getting out of your car is your own choice and your own responsibility. Look before you leap!
Most of the time it feels okay, but sometimes, in spots where we are the only car around, it feels a wee bit risky.
The bird hide at Lake Panic is worth taking that risk for. We sit right next to a waterhole and look at the many birds and animals that come and go. There’s a crocodile and several hippos in the water, and a giraffe tries its best to be invisible as it feeds on a tree across the water.
With the dense bush around us, we can only wonder about how many creatures we are surrounded by, unseen by us.
If you don’t catch the sunrise in the Kruger every morning, you’re doing it wrong.
Depending on the month and season, the gates at the rest camps open either at 6 or 5:30, always close to sunrise. That is when the most species are active at the same time. Perhaps you will not get to see a kill, but you will see something you’ll enjoy. Even if it’s just a stork in a tree.
Many come to the Kruger Park hoping to see predators in action. Shown in these photos are two fairly good indicators of there being something exciting nearby.
Always stop and look around when you see a group of vultures in a tree. They may be observing a predator eating a fresh kill, just waiting for an opportunity to get in on the action.
You should also look out for traffic jams. If you see many cars stopped in the same place, there will almost certainly be lions, leopards or cheetahs around.
The traffic jam is mainly a thing in the southern part of the Kruger Park, as it has most visitors. It’s both good and bad. The good thing is that it helps you find exciting animal sightings. The bad thing is that it can be struggle to get your car into a position where you actually can see what’s going on. Also, there’s a real risk that someone will back straight into your car.
If you become part of a scene like this, try to be considerate. Do not hog the best spot for too long. When you’ve had a good look, move along and let somebody else see. The others will pay that favor forward. Sooner or later this is something you will benefit from.
Here’s the reason why all those cars in the last photo stopped. A big, fat leopard sitting still in a tree. It isn’t even eating, just chilling in the shade.
Usually, though, Kruger traffic jams are caused by lions, who tend to be stationary during the day, digesting whatever they killed last night.
Sometimes a resting lion may appear to contemplate hunting any animal stupid enough to come too close. On the left here, you see three lions that seem really interested in a giraffe. It’s an exciting game to watch. The long-neck understands the danger it’s in, and swiftly walks away before it’s too late.
Giraffes are frequently seen in the Kruger Park. For their enormous size, they’re incredibly skilled at becoming nearly invisible. If you look closely, you’ll see a giraffe in the photo on the right. It’s hiding from the sun rather than from predators, but it’s still a good example of how a stationary giraffe can almost be not there.
The mornings are the best. On day four, just a couple of minutes after leaving Skukuza rest camp, we’re in the middle of a fight over a kill between two packs of hyaenas and wild dogs.
The photo may give the appearance of a peaceful morning, but it is everything but that. It’s incredibly exciting to be surrounded by so much action and noise, from the safety of our car.
Eventually the battle moves into the bush, and the show is over.
A little later we see the first wildebeest on this trip.
When I last saw them, they were walking across the plains of Serengeti, Tanzania, and there were tens of thousands of them. This species goes under another name as well; gnu. It’s from the sound they make when they communicate in large groups. “Gnu? Gnu! Gnuuuuu. Gnu. Gnuuuuu.”
I love their language, and I often use it when I try to attract attention from animals. It often works.
These guys are all silent, but it still feels like meeting old friends.
It’s easy to be dulled down a bit by the many sightings of impala, elephants, zebras and some other species that are frequently seen in the Kruger Park. It pays off to stay concentrated, though. Every time you glimpse something you’re not entirely sure about, you should stop, wait, and have a closer look.
That’s how we find this guy and his herd of twelve. “Hmm, what’s that walking between those trees over there?” turned into a group of sable antelopes crossing the road straight in front of us. This species is quite rare to see in this particular national park, especially so far south.
It’s a magnificent animal to watch. Those ringed horns can become almost as long as a grown man. When sable antelopes are attacked by predators, they will often choose not to run away, but instead use the horns to defend themselves.
Kruger Park is dotted with “historical sites”. They’re almost never worth seeking out or stopping for, unless your idea of fun is to read a rock-mounted metal sign with information about some obscure person or event from the past.
In some cases you’re allowed to get out of your car to pretend you’re reading the sign. This can obviously make an historical site a little bit more interesting. Generally, though, you can safely ignore Kruger’s historical sites.
You’ve never been on a safari before, you say? And you’re not sure how to behave or dress? Not to worry. Join the club!
As you travel through the Kruger Park, especially the southern parts, you will see many first-timers. I’m not making fun of them. We’ve all been there. They wear strange hats and it’s painfully obvious that their clothes are brand new, as are the ludicrously expensive cameras they carry around.
Learn to use your camera before you leave home. Bring shoes that will protect you from thorns and snake fangs, and wear them for at least a couple of weeks before your safari begins. You’ll also be wise to dress in something that feels comfortable to you, rather than investing in the kind of garments you would imagine to be preferred by actual explorers.
Skip breakfast entirely, or have just a light snack in the car while you enjoy animal prime time in the early mornings. When it gets warmer, around 10-11, most of the animals magically disappear or just lie down. Now you might as well put your safari on pause and instead call by at some picnic site.
There are a few to choose from. Shown in the photos are some of the better ones.
In the top left corner is Tshokwane, between Skukuza and Satara rest camps. They have a good restaurant, in an area that usually has lots of animals.
In the top right corner is Afsaal, a convenient first stop after a couple of hours if you enter via Malelane.
Bottom left is a group of vervet monkeys at Nkuhlu. They have just spotted a person carrying food, something that will always pique their interest. Bottom right is also Nkuhlu, showing what a park restroom will soon look like if you don’t close the door properly, allowing monkeys to enter.
You may not know this, but giraffes can certainly sit. No day in Kruger goes by without you learning something new about animals. Some sights are amusing, some are surprising, some are hard to watch. You take what you get.
By the way, if you stand next to a sitting giraffe, it will get up and walk away. But if it stayed, it would still look down on you.
Even when a waterhole at first doesn’t look that exciting, you will likely be rewarded if you stop and just sit and wait a while.
When we arrive at Mazithi, there’s just a yellow saddle-billed stork there. Soon a few kudus and impalas come along. They look nervous, probably sensing something that we don’t.
After 20 minutes we discover the cause for their concern. A lion lurks nearby. The antelopes do not see it, but they sense that something is wrong.
We’re not treated to a kill this time. The big cat eventually decides that it’s too hot for hunting, and walks back to its pride that is resting in the shade of a tree nearby.
Speaking about trees; in Kumana, south of Satara rest camp, we find the world’s southernmost wild baobab tree. It’s an impressive giant that may be as old as a thousand years, towering above the other trees that keep being pulled down by elephants. With branches looking rather like roots, it’s as if this tree grows upside-down.
This enormous trunk of this tree can store vast amounts of water, allowing it to thrive through long periods of drought.
If you want to stay overnight in the park at a reasonable rate, the rest camps run by South African National Parks is your only legal option.
Twelve full-service camps are well distributed throughout the park. There are some other rustic camps as well, but first-time visitors to the park should stick to the main camps.
The camps have fences, often double-layered with one being electric. You still have to look out for snakes and the occasional large predator lured over the fence by the sweet smell of barbecue grilled meat, but you’re basically safe inside a rest camp.
The largest rest camp, Skukuza, has a golf course and an airport. It feels a bit weird, but when you consider that Kruger Park is almost the size of Israel and has two and half thousand employees, it’s only to be expected that its “capital” comes with certain modern facilities.
Park rules are very strict when it comes to gate hours. They open the gate at exactly the posted time each morning, and they close it again right on time in the evening. If you arrive late, you risk a fine of up to 1,000 South African rand, roughly 70 US dollars.
This may sound cheap, but it’s ten times the daily entrance fee for an adult South African. It’s a pretty serious offence.
There are many different types of accommodation in the rest camps. Camping in your own tent or camper is cheapest, but if you book well ahead, you can choose between huts with access to communal kitchens and bathrooms, permanent safari tents, bungalows with all facilities en-suite, family cottages, and even luxury lodges that come with servants.
We opt for rondavel (round “Africa style”) bungalows whenever we can. They come at a fair price, and after a long day in the car, having a hot shower and a good night’s sleep is the best way to become a human again.
Never mind that the last thing you see before you close your eyes is a ceiling that will make you dream about spiders.
When you stay overnight at a rest camp, you also get access to many facilities that day visitors don’t.
This includes boring necessities like a laundromat, but also swimming pools that are great for cooling down in. Shown here is the pool at Mopani rest camp.
After checking in and resting in the camp for a couple of hours, it’s safari time again.
Zebras are wary beings, and will usually keep an eye on you whenever they think you’re too close to them. As you can see, this makes for great photos.
Here’s a waterbuck. The horns are pretty unique, but the easiest way to tell them apart from other antelopes is by looking for that toilet seat ring on their butt.
Try looking for the small animals, too. Here’s a dwarf mongoose posing at sunset.
He’s our friend. He eats spiders, scorpions and lizards.
A group of baboons make their way through tall grass towards our vehicle. They are not our friends. Keep your windows rolled up and your doors locked when these are around. They have some pretty mean teeth, and they know it. Attacking in numbers, they will steal your food and vandalize your car if you give them the chance.
They can be great fun and interesting to watch socializing with each other, though.
I’m sure I don’t have to tell you to roll up your windows when this animal comes near. And they do.
If your car is on a lion’s path, and you don’t bother the animal or look like food, it will just walk around you, otherwise completely ignoring you.
Lions are not hard to find. If there’s enough food walking around in an area, a pride of lion will stay there. During the dry season, you will usually find them resting near waterholes, which pretty much serve as a supermarket for lions.
When they get hungry, the alpha male will send out his lionesses to hunt down a meal for them all.
One way they hunt, is that some lions will hide in tall grass like this, while other lions scare a groups of antelope to run into the grass. One powerful pounce later, dinner is served.
If you’re lucky, you may get to see lion cubs. Lionesses of the same pride will synchronize their reproductive cycles, so if you see one cub at first, there’s a good chance you’ll soon see many more.
This is practical for the lions as a species. With several mothers to choose between, a cub can suckle whoever is around. When one mother is off hunting, or dies, the cub will not have to go hungry.
Also, if a new male lion takes over the pride, the mothers can cooperate to protect their cubs, who otherwise will be killed by the new alpha male.
As male lions reach adolescence, they are evicted from the pride. Alpha males do not want to invite competition. Genetically this is a good thing, as it limits inbreeding. For those who are evicted, though, it can be hard. Therefore they tend to stick together, and you often see duos or trios of young males.
They have no lionesses to hunt for them, so they can be more unpredictable than other lions. Be slightly alarmed, but not surprised if these guys look straight at you and appear to be considering you as meat.
Black-backed jackals often show up near lions that eat, trying to steal as much of their kill as they can. The jackals probably have too little meat on them to interest the lions.
Anyway, keep an eye open for lions whenever you see jackals running around.
Don’t bother trying to get a good photo from your car of yellow-billed and red-billed hornbills. You will find them hopping around between your legs at the picnic sites.
Driving north on H1-4, we see a sign warning about rough conditions on the Ngotso Weir Road that goes east. We accept the challenge, and learn that what you see in this photo is pretty much as bad as it gets.
The undercarriage meets the ground a few times, but going slow it’s not a problem.
Our reward for choosing the rough road is this beautiful leopard asleep in a tree.
There are several other cars at the site, so we can’t get the ideal spot to watch the animal from. It’s okay, we just use our car seats in creative ways.
As we cross the Olifants river, we leave Mpumalanga province and enter Limpopo. This means we’re about half-way up the Kruger Park, entering an area with far fewer safari-goers.
The river is almost dry now, but during the rainy season it will become mighty once again. Because of this, we have to drive across a large bridge. The center section of it is considered to be a low risk place, so we’re allowed to exit the vehicle and enjoy the views up and down the river.
We stay very close to the car, though. If something menacing enters the bridge at either end, we’ll quickly move back inside.
A few kilometers from the bridge across the Olifants river is a rest camp with the same name. It lies at the top of a hill just north of the river, and commands the by far most impressive view of all the rest camps. We’re quite happy that we’re staying here for two nights.
If you and up to seven companions want to stay in that house, Lebombo Guest House, with this view, it will cost you about 500 USD (2019 prices) per night. A couple, like us, can have a less extravagant bungalow for 80 USD, merely a three-minutes walk from this viewpoint.
After a full week of sunny weather in the park, we’re a little surprised to wake up to a very windy and cloudy morning. You quickly begin to assume that the weather is always nice in the Kruger Park.
It isn’t, although the climate is quite stable. Either it’s the dry season or it’s the wet season. May through September are dry and relatively cool. April and October are shoulder seasons, where you should expect the unexpected. November through March are hot and humid.
I don’t know if it’s because of the weather, but we barely see any animals this morning. We decide to quickly pop out of the park, to see something completely different.
Clouds may mean poor animal sightings, but they also make for excellent views of scenery. Here we actually get both animals and landscape; two adult hyaenas sleeping next to a colorful tree, under a dramatic sky.
Another scene that could have been pulled straight out of a scary movie. We see no buffaloes walking around today, but we find one that definitely previously did a lot of Kruger walks.
There are fewer bones and other animal remains lying around in the park than you probably expect. Everything that dies is efficiently devoured and broken down into invisible parts by a myriad of large and small creatures.
When I said “something completely different”, I meant it.
Just outside the Kruger Park border, on the edge of the town Phalaborwa, there’s literally a hole in the landscape. It’s the Palabora open pit mine, Africa’s largest, an incredible almost 900 meters deep and two kilometers across. All the copper South Africa needs is pulled out of this hole.
It’s not the easiest sight to see. The road leading up to this vantage point is actually worse than any road we use in the Kruger Park. Not so surprising, maybe. I wouldn’t be very eager to show this thing off, either.
Phalaborwa town is nice enough, but the entire surrounding area looks like a futuristic dystopia, possibly from a different planet. It’s crazy windy, too. I can taste the pollution on my face.
We stock up on groceries and quickly escape back to planet Kruger.
The park is still cold and windy.
Fortunately there are a few indoor activities available. Letaba rest camp has an impressive elephant museum. We learn a lot about the huge animals, and we get a close look at the tusks of several of the largest elephants to have roamed the park throughout the last century or so.
Southern ground hornbills are the size of a child, and they can live for almost as long as most humans do.
It looks like they have beautiful, long eyelashes, but they’re actually feathers that have evolved into looking like hair. The function is the same. These birds spend most of their life walking around on dry ground, and their eyes need protection against both dust and strong sunlight.
What comes around, goes around, and this is valid for hippos as well.
At the Matambeni hide, near Letaba rest camp, we see a crocodile that seems visibly annoyed by a group of loud hippos playing around it.
Later we see a hippo that seems similarly disturbed by a herd of elephants violently socializing right next to it.
Another species that sometimes can be loud is the cape buffalo.
When they become groups of hundreds of animals, you will see a dust cloud before you hear the stampede, before at last the actual animals come into view. When a group of buffaloes march towards your car, it’s pretty intimidating.
Zebras often tag along with the buffaloes, probably feeling safer in their company. A herd of buffalo will also often be followed by thousands and thousands of weaver birds. They feast on the many insects left on the ground in the wake of the thundering buffaloes.
The weavers are social birds. Elephants destroy more trees than birds do, but some birds do their best to change that.
You rarely see a snake in the Kruger Park. There are lots of them about, of course, they’re just very hard to spot.
This one slithers across the road just behind us. We quickly turn the car around and get as close to it as we can. It’s a western yellow-bellied sand snake. If you’re a small rodent, it’s a dangerous snake. To us, though, it’s mostly harmless.
Notice the strange bend towards the back end of the snake. If this reptile is picked up by the tail by some predator, snakey will twist its body around until the bendy bit snaps off. The predator becomes confused, while the clever snake escapes. It’s a neat trick.
Snakes are part of the reason why you should always look where you walk in the Kruger Park. At night, always use a flashlight.
You will probably not find any snakes, but you may instead discover a whole world of small, fantastic creatures that live on the ground.
Many of them are unlike anything you’ve ever seen at home. The one on the left is some kind of velvet ant, which isn’t an ant at all, but a wasp that mimics an ant. I don’t know what the one on the right is, but I’ve named it the weird-headed big-eye cricket.
Mornings may be the best, but just before sunset is another great time for hunting down nice views.
Here’s an ibis at the Letaba river, standing in front of a large tree with bushy branches, exactly the kind you often see leopards in. Not this time, though.
We almost miss the gate time at Letaba because of this large elephant. It chooses to have a zen moment on the road, right in front of us. There’s nothing you can do. You just sit and wait until the elephant decides to move off the road.
We are lucky. We arrive at the gate with three minutes to spare before a fine would have been given to us.
Somewhere north of Letaba we cross the invisible border between where you can not and where you can see the tsessebe. To be honest, I have no idea what I am looking at when this being appears next to the road, staring at us. But it is, as I said, a tsessebe, and I’m very happy to see it.
The species is related to wildebeest and hartebeest, only more rare and much less understood. When they sleep, they tend to stand while resting their mouth on the ground, with the horns pointing straight up. If that’s smart, we certainly don’t know why.
Elephant encounters is usually a large part of any Kruger Park safari. The current estimate is that there are about 20,000 elephants in park. The current estimate for how many elephants the park area can sustain is 8,000. So you see them a lot.
You also see traces of them. There are destroyed trees everywhere, elephant dung makes your drive bumpy, and a herd of elephants will often dominate any major waterhole that you visit.
The huge number of elephants has an impact on the habitats in the park. When trees are destroyed, forest becomes grassland. Some species benefit from this, while others suffer.
What to do about the elephant population is a riddle that no one yet knows the answer to. Sooner or later the authorities may have to start removing or killing elephants in great numbers. In the meantime, enjoy the elephants.
The two photos on the left show elephants at artificial waterholes. Wind power is used to pump ground water up to the surface. The lower photo shows a large water tank that is open at the top. The elephants are the only animals able to take advantage of that. Note the male standing in the center. That is one gigantic elephant.
The lower left photo shows our view as we are stuck in an elephant traffic jam. Walking along the road is easy for them, but fortunately after about ten minutes, they want to go in a different direction than the road does.
It turns out that the cartoon image of elephants walking in long lines, tail to trunk, is a real thing. As you can see in the top right photo, the same can be said about the reasons for the warning sign at Mooiplaas picnic site. When we turn up there, a large elephant is doing a pretty good job at hiding behind a small shed.
We move on.
At the lower left photo, we are one second away from moving out of the way from that elephant. He has started shaking his head and flapping his ears, and that’s all the warning we need.
The Mopani rest camp is located right next to the Pioneer reservoir.
What used to be a forest is now underwater, and the view of a mirrored forest of tree skeletons is fascinating.
From Mopani to Shingwedzi rest camp we take S144, the Old Main Road, instead of the sealed main road, H1-6. This is how it must have been like to visit the park fifty years ago, when all the roads were gravel and carried very little traffic.
We don’t see many animals on this stretch, but we scare off a group of lions that were chilling in the shade of a tree. This feels like a proper piece of Africa.
After checking in at Shingwedzi, we go for an afternoon drive on the Red Rocks loop.
This brings us to this wonderful tableau of hippos. Apart from the size, hippos seem to change very little throughout life. I’m glad we’re different.
At the far end of the Red Rocks, loop we make a detour to the Tshanga lookout point.
After ten days of mostly sitting in a car, it feels liberating to find a place where you’re allowed to get out of your car and walk a hundred meters away from it. Also, it doesn’t feel the least bit safe. We do enjoy the view, but we keep scanning the surroundings for any sign of anything with big teeth and claws.
A tributary to the Shingwedzi river flows past Tshanga. You can’t see the actual water, but the strikingly green trees reveal the secret underground river that exists here.
The view is glorious from up here, but when the grass close to us starts moving as if there’s something large hiding in it, we quickly run back to the car.
The Tshanga viewpoint has given us our longest walk in the park so far. It’s a hot day, the temperature hovering around the 40 degrees Celsius mark.
It’s in moments like this it’s particularly helpful to have some ice-cold water in the car. An easy way to get cold water is to leave a five litres container of water in the freezer overnight, turning it into ice. Bring the container into your car, inside a cooler or a towel, and you will have cold water throughout the whole day.
Just a short while after leaving the viewpoint, we suddenly find a bush that stares back at us. We could just as well have run into this leopard in the open on the top of that hill.
For all we know, maybe we did.
Suddenly the area around Shingwedzi seems to be teeming with big cats. They act and look like they’re the kings and queens of the park, but when you look closely, there are plenty of signs that life isn’t easy for them. Scars all around.
Driving north to from Shingwedzi, we follow S56, the Mphongolo loop. It follows a nearly dry river bed. Water only comes to the surface in a few places, making it a good hunting ground for predators.
We happen upon a group of lions feeding on a young buffalo they have just killed. The alpha male eats first, before he starts allowing the cubs access to the meat alongside him.
Only when the male retreats to sleep and digest, the lionesses approach the buffalo carcass. We sit in our car fairly close to them, and they throw suspicious glances in our direction.
We just sit there, absolutely fascinated. More experienced Kruger visitors, probably South Africans, talk and laugh and have a smoke while they enjoy the show.
We see a lot of different antelope species in northern Kruger. In the top left photo you see a tsessebe, a wildebest and a male impala, left to right. The top right photo shows a female impala and a much larger kudu. Bottom left is a male nyala, and bottom right is a grysbok.
The largest antelope of all is the eland, and among the smallest is the steenbok. The former can reach a weight of more than 900 kilograms, while the latter will stop at around 10 kilograms.
I’ll just take a second here and point out that while I got a lot of good photos of animals on this trip, I also got my fair share of bad ones.
No matter what you do, animals and birds do as they please, and most of the time they don’t particularly want to pose for you. It’s nobody’s fault.
Just do your best, and appreciate the memories you have.
Some animals are easier to photograph than others, though. At the edge of Punda Maria rest camp there’s a waterhole accessible to overnight visitors.
Behind an electric fence you can sit all day and watch animals come, drink and go. They don’t seem to care about the presence of humans with cameras at all.
Punda Maria rest camp is among the smallest in the Kruger Park, and it has the oldest buildings. This also makes it the coziest, I think, and it still does have everything you really need.
The in-camp waterhole is an amazing bonus, unmatched by any other Kruger rest camp.
On our last full day in the Kruger Park we visit the northernmost part of the park. This area is a lot greener than the south, with its more tropical vegetation and less dry habitats.
We drive past Baobab Hill. It’s easy to understand how this landmark of a tree a long time ago came to serve as a camp site for workers from Mozambique, on their way to the gold mines in South Africa.
Pafuri picnic site is about as far north as you can get in Kruger Park. It’s a wonderful place. Under the cooling shade of large trees there are toilets, tables and barbecue facilities, all cleaned daily.
You can sit here and have your tea, while an elephant drinks from the river just a few meters away. The resident warthogs won’t bother you if you don’t bother them.
We drive east from the picnic site to Crooks Corner, where the three countries South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique meet.
It is easily the visually most pleasing drive in all of Kruger Park. Large trees line the road, along with many animals that seem to enjoy the good grazing here.
Our last animal encounter in the Kruger Park takes place at the waterhole in Punda Maria rest camp. A mother elephant teaches her calf the ways of life. In thirty years the little one will have become a mother herself, and this scene will repeat itself, right here.
That’s the most comforting thought I can think of to end on.
See it while you can.
Everything you just read about is something you can do on your own. It does cost money, but not necessarily more than many spend on significantly less adventurous vacations in more familiar surroundings.
These are all the costs involved in making this trip happen for two people in October 2019, ordered by magnitude:
We spent 12 nights in the park and 2 outside it, staying in en-suite double rooms and rondavels/bungalows for two people all the way.
This cost us the equivalent of 1000 US dollars or 900 euros.
We could have chosen to camp instead, or rondavels without bathrooms. That would have cut the accommodation costs almost in half.
Food and Drinks
We bought snacks and some basic food at grocery stores. In addition to that, we had one usually really nice restaurant meal each day. Although drinking is permitted for overnight guests in the park, we consumed no alcohol.
This cost us the equivalent of 380 US dollars or 350 euros.
We could have chosen to buy food at grocery stores and prepare it ourselves. By going for the cheapest options, we might have cut this cost in half as well.
We got a Volkswagen Polo, an automatic, from Avis for two weeks.
This cost us the equivalent of 360 US dollars, or 330 euros.
We could have shaved about 100 US dollars off that cost by choosing a car with manual gears and booking it during a campaign. Because we’re not used to driving on the left side of the road, it’s nice to not have to think about what gear we’re in, so it made sense to us to go for an automatic.
We chose to buy a Wild Card for couples. This gives two people unlimited access for one year to a large number of parks across South Africa and Swaziland. When we bought the card, it cost the equivalent of 300 US dollars, or 270 euros.
In November the prices for a Wild Card changed. See the web site of SANParks for price updates. Generally, though, it seems that if you plan on spending at least seven days in Kruger Park, getting a Wild Card is your best option.
You can buy the card on-line, and you’re supposed to get a physical card in the mail eventually. It never arrived for us, but that was not a problem. We just brought a print-out of the confirmation e-mail we immediately received, and that was sufficient for our purposes.
We spent the equivalent of 220 US dollars, or 200 euros, on petrol. Altogether we drove about 2,700 kilometers. How much petrol you need will depend on how much driving you want to do. In theory, you can just sit at a waterhole and wait for animals to come to you, instead of driving around and searching for animal sightings.
Finally, keep in mind that having a small car is a lot more economical when it come to fuel than renting a large SUV.
All in all, we spent about 2,300 US dollars, or 2,100 euros, on two weeks of safari life in the Kruger National Park, for two people.
In addition to this, you probably need to buy plane tickets to get you to and from Johannesburg. You can often find great deals on flights to Johannesburg, at least from Europe, so make sure you follow the prices a while before you book your ticket.
We chose to begin in the south and slowly make our way to the northern end. Here’s a map that roughly shows how we traveled, although it only shows the main roads we took between the rest camps. We did a lot of driving on various side roads and loops in addition to what you see here.
Our route and pace was partially driven by where we could find accommodation. We booked everything just one month before going. By then, many options were gone, and sometimes we would replace an ideal route with a route that took us to a rest camp with vacancy.
That said, we were really happy with the outcome. Here’s how we split the nights in the park between the rest camps:
- One night in Berg-en-dal, after entering the park at Malelane
- One night in Pretoriuskop
- Two nights in Skukuza
- One night in Satara
- Two nights in Olifants
- One night in Letaba
- One night in Mopani
- One night in Shingwedzi
- Two nights in Punda Maria
Accommodation in Kruger Park
Book at the SANParks Web site. The booking system is a bit cumbersome, but play around with it, and you’ll find that it actually works. Adding in all the nights into the same booking make things really easy for you when you arrive at the park.
I always recommend Lonely Planet, so if you’re looking for a general travel guide book that also covers the Kruger National Park, try them.
If you want to read lots of exciting stories about wildlife encounters in Kruger Park, I recommend 101 Kruger Tales. Reading it is a great way to get to know the park and its atmosphere a little bit.