The following article has been crafted by National Geographic Traveller (UK).
While most African reserves tend to cater for high-budget travellers, Kruger, the pioneer national park in South Africa, provides an opportunity for a far more budget-friendly, self-guided safari. Situated along the border of Mozambique, you get to encounter creatures like giraffes and rare African wild dogs from a rental car, much like the one you might have parked at your residence. The park invites you to explore at your leisure, whether it’s following a trail or chasing the sight of a water hole, pausing to refer to a well-used map or reaching for some biltong.
The park, particularly its southern region, teems with wildlife, and it’s quite feasible to spot lions, leopards, and even rhinos by the end of the day. Come dusk, your close interactions with these animals will make for intriguing stories around the campfire, especially if a lion ventured uncomfortably close.
The quickest route into the park from Johannesburg is a domestic flight that lands straight into Skukuza, the park’s most extensive rest camp. The park boasts 23 such camps in total, offering diverse accommodations ranging from camping spots and safari tents to high-end thatched bungalows.
A less costly option is to take a flight to Kruger Mpumalanga, hire a car at the airport, and embark on an hour-long drive to Kruger’s Malelane Gate. Although Wi-fi and 4G availability are restricted, maps can be purchased at the airport and in park shops; the main camps in Kruger also have petrol stations. Once you’ve settled in Skukuza, unwind with a visit to the nearby Lake Panic hideout, a birdwatcher’s paradise. Spend a tranquil afternoon observing pied kingfishers and, if you’re lucky, catch sight of the elusive leopard. For a satisfying dinner, head back to the camp and dine at the Cattle Baron steakhouse, from where you can watch the Sabie River hippos while savouring the fillet rossini topped with a creamy peri-peri sauce, priced at a modest R189 (£8).
The following day, journey east along the Sabie River to your evening halt, Lower Sabie Rest Camp. Take a leisurely drive and remain vigilant; this stretch of road is known to host the world’s highest density of leopards. Break your journey for lunch and wildlife spotting at the Nkuhlu Picnic Site by the river, before proceeding to camp to view crocodiles at Sunset Dam. Keep an eye out for thick-tailed bush babies, often sighted here.
Commence your day at dawn with a game drive — consider exploring south where cheetah sightings are common — and return to camp for a hearty South African breakfast at the restaurant terrace. The river flows beneath, offering potential sightings of elephants as you enjoy your boerewors (spiral sausages). Prepare for a breathtaking drive to Satara Rest Camp, via the Nkumbe View Site which overlooks the vast plains. Pause for lunch at Tshokwane Picnic Site, where you can rent a gas-fired skottel braai for a South African-style barbecue, but stay alert for hyenas. From here, head to Orpen Dam for a chance to spot kudus and bushbucks.
Satara is ideally located for big cat sightings, so venture out on the S100 road at dawn the next day to potentially spot a white lion known as Casper. Or, reserve a guided morning bush walk at the camp and listen for the roar of lions. You’ll be lodging for the night at Tamboti, a thrillingly wild camp offering safari tents nestled in a forest along the dry Timbavati River, frequented by genets and honey badgers. Don’t bother setting an alarm — the resident baboons bounding on your tent’s canopy will serve as your wake-up call — and then drive north to Olifants Rest Camp.
Olifants, translating to ‘elephants’ in Afrikaans, justifiably derives its name from the frequent elephant visitors. The camp, perched on a bluff overlooking the river of the same name, offers panoramic views of wildlife quenching their thirst. Spend your day observing animals with your binoculars and a bottle of Amarula, a South African cream liqueur, or embark on game drives further north. This region is dotted with mopane trees and, unsurprisingly, is a favourite haunt for elephants.
Be cautious, as the elephant herds in the park’s northern part tend to be less accepting of humans compared to their southern counterparts, so maintain a safe distance during encounters. Stay the night at Olifants, or head north to stay at Letaba, where tents are discreetly placed in a mopane forest. The next morning, drive back to Skukuza for your flight to Johannesburg, or continue onwards to Cape Town.
The commanding view over the river from Olifants Rest Camp allows visitors to observe elephants in their natural habitat.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ANN AND STEVE TOON, ALAMY STOCK PHOTO
Five Pro Tips
Take it slow: Seasoned safari drivers crawl along the roads at 5mph, meticulously scanning the bush. Emulate them to spot subtle signs like a twitching ear, differentiating a rhino from a rock. Crack your windows open to listen for animal alarm calls. Scan waterholes, shady spots under trees, and parked cars for potential wildlife encounters.
Rise early: Rest camps in the park lock their gates overnight for safety. Early risers line up before the gates open around 5 am for prime wildlife viewing opportunities, with both nocturnal and diurnal animals spotted along crowd-free roads. Stay out until the gates close to potentially spot creatures like owls, active near dusk.
Choose wisely: Consider a high vehicle for the best wildlife spotting experience, a 4WD for comfort, and an automatic transmission for a quick getaway when necessary. Invest in the best insurance you can afford.
Learn body language: Understand how to behave around large animals, especially elephants, which can potentially damage your car and pocket. Switch off your engine at sightings, keep windows shut, stay quiet, avoid lone male elephants in musth and don’t get between a mother and her calf. If animals show signs of irritation or predators are suspected nearby, leave the area.
Get organised: Popular camps like Lower Sabie, Skukuza, and Satara get booked months in advance. Reserve your thatched huts or safari tents early through the SAN parks website. Consider investing in a Wild Card for unlimited access to over 80 parks and reserves in southern Africa if you plan to stay longer, as it is more cost-effective.
Published in the Jul/Aug 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).
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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Kruger National Park Safari
What is a good location for a budget-friendly safari in South Africa?
Kruger National Park in South Africa is an excellent option for an affordable self-guided safari. The park is accessible by a rental car and is home to a diverse array of wildlife.
How can I get to the Kruger National Park?
The most convenient route to the park from Johannesburg is by taking a domestic flight straight into Skukuza, the park’s largest rest camp. Another budget-friendly option is to fly to Kruger Mpumalanga, rent a car at the airport, and drive an hour to Kruger’s Malelane Gate.
What wildlife can I expect to see at the Kruger National Park?
The park is rich with wildlife, particularly in the south. It’s possible to spot lions, leopards, rhinos, giraffes, and even rare African wild dogs. The stretch of road along the Sabie River is said to have the world’s densest population of leopards.
What accommodation options are available at the Kruger National Park?
The park has 23 rest camps with various accommodation options ranging from pitches and safari tents to more expensive thatched bungalows.
What tips can enhance my self-drive safari experience in the Kruger National Park?
Here are five key tips: 1) Drive slowly and observe carefully for wildlife. 2) Rise early as you’ll find the best wildlife spotting at dawn and near nightfall. 3) Choose your rental car wisely considering comfort, view, and safety. 4) Learn how to act around big game to ensure your safety. 5) Book your accommodation in advance and consider investing in a Wild Card for access to multiple parks and reserves in southern Africa.