Independent Safari: A Self-led Journey Through South Africa & Eswatini by Campervan

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Self-guided safari

Sourced from National Geographic Traveller (UK).

“Stop!” I yell, my voice echoing in the quiet surroundings. Jon, my husband, quickly brakes. Suddenly, a small trunk peeks out from the marula trees bordering the road, followed by a larger trunk and curved tusks. The elephants walk silently, their enormous feet barely making a sound on the tarmac. We back away, knowing well not to separate a baby elephant from its mother. There we are, staring at them through the windshield, the mother and baby equally engrossed in observing us.

The common presumption is that encountering such a sight would cost a fortune. Indeed, the terms ‘affordable’ and ‘safari’ rarely find themselves together. However, in South Africa, a budget-friendly safari experience is entirely feasible. For instance, spending a night at Singita lodge in the northern reaches of Kruger National Park, a favourite of celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Leonardo DiCaprio, can cost nearly £2,000 per person per night. But there are also cost-effective alternatives, such as using a campervan and choosing budget camps, popular among locals, for about R330 (£15) per spot.

For 10 days, that’s our strategy. We might not have the expertise of skilled guides, well-prepared cocktails, or soft cotton bedding, but we make up for it with second-hand wildlife books, £1 Castle lagers, and a convertible dining table-bed, albeit a bit too short. Our abode is a slightly worn, repurposed Mercedes Sprinter, collected from Maui Motorhomes at Johannesburg airport. It’s quite noticeable: pristine white, with a tractor-like rumble.

Setting off alone, without a guide or a standard 4WD, is uncharted territory for us. As we inch forward at Kruger’s Malelane Gate, one of the numerous entry points to the park, we’re a bit anxious. Informative pamphlets handed to us discuss how to identify signs of bull elephants in musth — a phase characterized by elevated testosterone levels, leading to a potent-smelling discharge from their temples and heightened aggression. “Never leave your vehicle,” a guard warns us, “you never know who might be watching.”

Many campers prefer to set up at the affordable campsites located outside of Kruger’s borders. However, we opt for the Berg-en-Dal Rest Camp, a short 15-minute drive inside the gate. For a bit more money, we get hot showers and an on-site location where we might spot animals like giraffes just beyond the fence. As we find a spot in the shaded woodland of the camp, we notice many local holiday-goers with impressive camping setups, including fairy lights, large barbecues, and refrigerator freezers relocated from their homes and plugged in amidst the wilderness.

The next day begins at 5 am, when the park’s wildlife starts to stir in the cooler temperatures. We gulp down black coffee and hit the road, stopping when we spot something of interest. Sometimes it’s subtle: a fish eagle in the distance, its chest adorned with brilliant white feathers; or a leopard tortoise slowly crossing the road, seemingly undisturbed by our observation. Later, we see a pair of black-backed jackals, their bushy tails trailing behind them.

Sometimes, the wildlife is hard to miss: herds of zebras, giraffes feeding on acacia trees, and skittish wildebeests. Occasionally, we stop and just watch the spectacle unfold. In the afternoon, we spot a hyena mother in a roadside den, her curious cubs peering out with wide eyes. Later, two white rhinos saunter by, crossing just in front of our van.

True, driving in Kruger can sometimes feel like navigating a vast wildlife theme park. We encounter traffic jams and cars parked to observe a lion pride lounging in the shade. Yet, at other times, it feels like our private sanctuary: endless roads with giraffes, zebras, and herds of elephants scattered around.

On a fellow camper’s advice, we depart Kruger for a less popular part of South Africa, about 300 miles south, leading us to the Mkuze Game Reserve. The campsite lacks the facilities we had in Kruger, and the slightly eerie environment makes us jumpy. Nevertheless, it offers an authentic and adventurous feel. Our next stop is Eswatini, an intriguing nation bordering one of the world’s most renowned wildlife destinations, yet hardly known itself.

Crossing the border is hassle-free and leads us to an entirely different environment. The expansive supermarkets, numerous gas stations, and tourists of South Africa are replaced by poorly maintained roads, locals beckoning for business, and children amused by a foreign couple consulting a map.

Our next stay is at Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary, located in the Ezulwini Valley, appropriately named the ‘valley of heaven’. We’re awed by the towering eucalyptus trees, a trail of wildflowers dotted with antelope and brown house snakes, and even the campsite’s nightly visitors, a mother warthog and her babies.

The following day, we hike towards Execution Rock, not as ominous as it sounds, and watch the sun rise over the valley below. We spend the day with Stu, a local guide, learning about the local flora and fauna.

We bid Stu farewell three days later and return to South Africa, heading 200 miles south to St Lucia Game Reserve and iSimangaliso Wetland Park. After our early starts in Kruger, we enjoy a relaxed pace at the Sugar Loaf Caravan Park. We embark on a two-hour boat trip along the estuary, marveling at the numerous hippos and crocodiles. On another day, we book a guided tour around the reserve, learning about rhino poaching and watching white rhinos graze next to our jeep.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Self-guided safari

What is the primary mode of transportation on this safari?

The primary mode of transportation on this safari is a campervan. The travelers rent a converted Mercedes Sprinter from Maui Motorhomes at Johannesburg airport.

Can I see wildlife on a budget in South Africa?

Yes, it’s possible to see wildlife on a budget in South Africa. The article suggests staying in budget camps and driving through wildlife-rich regions like the Kruger National Park using a rented campervan.

What kind of wildlife encounters can I expect on this trip?

On this trip, you can expect close encounters with various wildlife species including elephants, zebras, giraffes, wildebeest, hyenas, and white rhinos. You might also see rare creatures like leopard tortoises.

Can I self-drive into Kruger National Park?

Yes, you can self-drive into Kruger National Park. However, the article suggests reading park guidelines and following safety precautions. It’s also recommended to respect wildlife and maintain safe distances.

What are some lesser-known wildlife destinations in South Africa and Eswatini?

Some lesser-known wildlife destinations in South Africa and Eswatini include the Mkuze Game Reserve and the Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary in Eswatini’s Ezulwini Valley.

How are the camp facilities at Kruger National Park?

The camp facilities at Kruger National Park are quite good. The Berg-en-Dal Rest Camp mentioned in the article offers hot showers and a prime location for spotting wildlife.

What is a must-visit location in Eswatini?

The Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary in the Ezulwini Valley, also known as the ‘valley of heaven’, is a must-visit location in Eswatini. It’s predator-free, providing a relaxing environment for wildlife viewing.

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