Independent Safari: A Self-Directed Campervan Journey through South Africa & Eswatini

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Self-guided safari

This narrative was compiled by National Geographic Traveller (UK).

“Brake!” I yell. My spouse, Jon, reacts immediately. A small trunk appears from the marula trees on the side of the road, followed by a larger trunk and curved tusks. Silently, the elephant pair crosses the tarmac right before us. We quickly reverse — we are aware not to intrude between an elephant and her calf — and observe, captivated, the mother and calf who calmly reciprocate our gaze from behind our windscreen.

One might assume that to witness such an encounter, you would have to splurge significantly. To a degree, it’s true; the terms ‘affordable’ and ‘safari’ don’t often coexist. However, in South Africa, experiencing a safari within a budget is quite achievable. For instance, a stay at the northern part of Kruger National Park at the Singita lodge, a brand favored by celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Leonardo DiCaprio, might cost nearly £2,000 per night, per person. Yet, there are more economical alternatives to immerse oneself — with a campervan and budget-friendly camps popular amongst South Africans, costing approximately R330 (£15) per spot.

For 10 days, we choose this route. Although our setup may not offer the expertise of professional guides, luxurious pre-made cocktails, or soft cotton bedding, we substitute these with second-hand wildlife books, £1-per-can Castle lagers, and a convertible dining table bed that isn’t quite spacious. Our temporary abode is a slightly worn, repurposed Mercedes Sprinter that we collect from Maui Motorhomes at Johannesburg airport. Its tractor-like engine and bright white exterior are quite noticeable.

Venturing alone — without the safety of a guide or a standard 4WD — is an unfamiliar experience. As we inch forward in the queue at Kruger’s Malelane Gate, one of the many park entrances and the easiest access point, apprehension sets in. We receive leaflets advising us how to recognize signs of bull elephants in musth — a condition that elevates their testosterone levels, making them secrete a strong-smelling substance from their temples and become hostile. “Never step out of your vehicle,” the guard cautions us at the checkpoint. “You never know who’s watching.”

Numerous campervanners opt to set up at one of the various affordable campsites outside Kruger’s borders. However, we choose the Berg-en-Dal Rest Camp, situated within a 15-minute drive from the gate, as a better value. A slight additional fee affords us warm showers and a prime location where we may see animals like giraffes just beyond the fence. As we park in a centrally located spot under the camp’s canopy of trees, we observe numerous South Africans vacationing, their impressive camping arrangements drawing our admiration. Fairy lights hang from a clothesline, large barbecues and fridge freezers temporarily transported from homes to be plugged in amidst the wilderness.

Kruger National Park is renowned as one of the prime locations to observe the endangered white rhinos.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MINT IMAGES, GETTY IMAGES

The subsequent morning commences at 5am, a time when many park animals are active and hunting due to the cooler climate. We consume a quick black coffee and embark on a drive, selecting any path, until we encounter something. Often, it’s subtle: a fish eagle perched distantly on a tree, its chest bright white and full of feathers; or a seldom seen leopard tortoise, crossing the road at its own leisurely pace, seemingly indifferent to our keen observation from the van. Later, we spot a pair of black-backed jackals, their long, bushy tails trailing behind them.

Sometimes, the wildlife is hard to miss: zebras nipping each other’s tails, giraffes’ tongues wrapped around massive acacia tree thistles, and herds of skittish wildebeest. We sometimes stop and simply absorb the unfolding spectacle. In the late afternoon sun, we spot a hyena mother cuddling in a roadside den, her eight inquisitive cubs peeking over the edge with rounded ears and wide eyes. At another point, two white rhinos appear, their large bodies slowly wandering alongside us before crossing just inches from our vehicle.

Surely, driving in Kruger, as opposed to the secluded regions of luxurious lodge reserves, may at times resemble a grand wildlife theme park. We encounter traffic congestion and vehicles cluttering the road, parking to observe a pride of lions dozing under a tree’s shade. However, at other times, it feels as though we own the vast expanse: infinite roads, deserted for hours, dotted with giraffes, zebras, and numerous elephant herds.

Animals, such as zebra, elephants, and leopard tortoises, can appear from the bush without warning, necessitating caution for self-driving tourists.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MARTIN BARRAUD, GETTY IMAGES

On the recommendation of a fellow camper, we depart Kruger to explore a less-known region of South Africa, approximately 300 miles south. We navigate gravel, dodge potholes, slide on clay tracks, and eventually discover the understated entrance for Mkuze Game Reserve.

The campsite here may lack the amenities we enjoyed in Kruger — creaking doors and windblown leaves in the seemingly abandoned shower rooms give the location a somewhat eerie feel — but it appears more genuine and adventurous. The atmosphere might be a bit too adventurous, I consider, as we react to every snapping twig outside our camper after dark.

Following another day of wildlife pursuit, though finding little more than antelopes, we continue to our next destination, the neighboring country of Eswatini. We’re curious: it shares its borders with one of the world’s most renowned wildlife hotspots, yet it receives little recognition itself.

The border crossing is smooth: a brief passport inspection and a friendly wave at the checkpoint. Then the environment shifts instantly: the substantial supermarkets, numerous petrol stations, and tourists of South Africa are replaced by poorly maintained roads winding through verdant valleys, car wash proprietors waving to attract customers, and local children grinning at the sight of a perplexed foreign couple consulting a map.

We spend the subsequent two nights at the predator-free Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary, located in the Ezulwini Valley or ‘valley of heaven’. It’s an apt description: towering eucalyptus trees line the edges and provide a shaded forest for our parking spot, while a clay path cuts through a field of wildflowers speckled with antelopes and harmless brown house snakes.

In the morning, we trek uphill towards Execution Rock, which is less intimidating than its name suggests. We pause to witness the sunrise and observe antelopes roaming the valley below. We spend a few hours here with Stu, a local guide whom we arranged in advance through the camp’s reception. He imparts knowledge about the plants and herbs to look for if we ever find ourselves lost in the wilderness, picking sour pink waterberries from a bush and praising their iron-rich properties.

“I’ve only ever left Eswatini once — it was for work,” he shares, his round belly shaking as he chuckles through his anecdote. “I visited Durban and ate doughnuts! I took a dip in the ocean. I strolled around at night until they told me it wasn’t safe. A fantastic place,” he expresses, eyes gleaming. “But it’s nothing like here. Nothing like the bush.” He’s correct; there’s a calming sense here in the bush, free of predators, that elicits a meditative tranquility.

Three days later, we bid a reluctant farewell to Stu and re-cross the border back into South Africa. We head 200 miles south to the St Lucia Game Reserve and iSimangaliso Wetland Park, a location famed for its beach as well as its hippos. After the early wake-up calls in Kruger, we maintain a relaxed pace at Sugar Loaf Caravan Park, sipping our morning coffee slowly on our folding tables and chairs under the camper’s awning.

One morning, we venture into St Lucia town and spend R250 (£11) each for a two-hour boat journey along the estuary, spotting hundreds of sunbathing hippos and crocs on the banks. On another day, we schedule a guided tour around the reserve, appreciating the chance to sit back, absorb information, and engage in discussions about rhino poaching with a professional guide named Greg. He navigates us away from belligerent buffalo and instructs us to remain still as white rhinos graze beside our jeep. In the afternoons, we cool off on the dune-lined beach, plunging into the waves and basking on the sand while munching on chips and sipping brightly colored soft drinks.

Ten days on the road, witnessing rhinos and elephants, convinces us that a limited budget doesn’t greatly compromise the experience. In fact, recalling the sight of the baby elephant’s tuft of hair and its excited skips across the road, as viewed from the front seat of our rented camper, I’d argue it may even enhance the experience.

The Caravan and Motorhome Club supported the creation of this story. Published in the Jul/Aug 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Budget Safari South Africa

Can you do a safari on a budget in South Africa?

Yes, the article details a self-drive, budget-friendly safari experience in South Africa. It describes staying in more affordable camps and renting a campervan, offering a unique way to enjoy a safari without the high costs usually associated with such trips.

Is it safe to drive through Kruger National Park without a guide?

The article shares the authors’ experience of self-driving through Kruger National Park. They mention that while it may be initially daunting, they received ample information from the park on how to safely navigate and interact with wildlife. However, caution and respect for the animals and park rules are always necessary.

What are the alternatives to the luxury lodges in South Africa for safari experiences?

The article proposes a self-drive campervan trip as an affordable alternative to luxury lodges. It mentions budget camps that are popular with locals and the use of a converted Mercedes Sprinter for accommodation and transport.

Are there any interesting sights outside Kruger National Park?

Yes, the authors visited the Mkuze Game Reserve and the predator-free Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary in Eswatini, offering different but equally exciting experiences. They also visited the St Lucia Game Reserve and iSimangaliso Wetland Park on their journey.

Is it possible to see a variety of wildlife on a budget safari?

According to the article, the authors saw a vast array of wildlife during their journey, including elephants, white rhinos, zebras, giraffes, wildebeest, and more. This suggests that a budget safari can offer diverse wildlife viewing opportunities.

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