You know the swooning images: dining al fresco at linen table-clothed tables in the African wild; pampered tourists sipping “sundowners” in the sunset; wildlife photographers with 2-foot long camera lenses zooming in on a male lion. Very “Out of Africa”. Great stuff, but it’ll cost you thousands upon thousands of dollars. The truth is you don’t have to be a wildlife expert or wealthy in order to experience a real safari.
Even a simple search by the internet savvy traveler leaves one overwhelmed with pages of safari information. Where do you stay? Is it better to self-drive or use a guide? Do you buy a package deal? Travel with others? Private reserve or a public park?
You might be surprised to learn that in South Africa, anyone can just rent a car and drive around a national game park while appreciating breath-taking sights. A favorite for traveling families and travelers wanting a customized experience, a self-drive safari lets you determine your own schedule and spend as much time with animal sightings as you choose.
South Africa’s flagship national game reserve, the Kruger National Park, is enormous, about the size of northern Ireland or the state of Connecticut, and is teeming with lions, elephants, rhino, giraffe, leopards, honey badgers, kudus, impalas, zebras, buffaloes and numerous bird, insect and plants species. With its 13 main rest camps, 5 bushveld camps, 2 bush lodges and 8 luxury lodges along with a very good road system, Kruger Park offers one of the finest self-drive safari experiences.
How Does the Self-Drive Work?
Armed with the indispensable Honeyguide Kruger National Park Map, available at every park entrance gate and campsite, everyone from a first-timer to the seasoned safarian can relish in charting a driving route. The map features detailed driving distances, park opening and closing times, rest stops, picnic areas, viewing hides, water holes, an animal and bird guide, and over 200 archeological and historic sites. Knowledgeable and service-minded park staff will gladly offer tips for safe and enjoyable driving and animal spotting.
Images of dusty Land Rovers may still occupy your mind but any two-wheel drive sedan will meet your needs. A vehicle that sits slightly higher than others (SUV or van) is recommended but not imperative for a successful safari as it improves your viewing angle and chances of spotting game where the bush is dense. For best game viewing, be sure to shift into “vacation gear”, and drive slowly (yes, really, about 20-30 kms/miles per hour). Wait, is that a leopard or a cheetah? Beautiful color illustrations in the map guide help you easily identify what animals you’re seeing and you will soon become familiar with the difference between a bushbuck and an impala.
With the Lebombo Mountains to the east, the bushveld area in central Kruger, the thickets and riverines, you will never tire of the changing landscape even during the occasional “dry” animal spotting days. The Kruger Park’s diverse ecological zones host an intricate eco-system that easily appeals to the avid birder, naturalist and “Big 5 seeker”.
No safari is complete without one of the sunset/night drives offered by the Kruger Park in open-air vehicles, with expert guides to unveil a nocturnal world vastly different to what you saw in the same spot earlier. For star gazers, spending a quiet moment observing the southern night sky is a treasured experience. Most camps also offer guided morning walking tours that bring you close to nature, if you dare! If you are traveling during the South African winter (June/July/August), be sure to pack layers and some warm clothing. Those early morning and night drives in open-air vehicles can get very cold when the sun is not around. But don’t worry, temperatures reach comfortable and sunny ’70s and ’80s mid-morning onwards, not bad for winter weather!
Staying Inside or Outside Kruger?
All camps inside the park offer clean accommodations, a store (food and basics), a restaurant, petrol/gas facilities, viewing decks and helpful staff. The amenities are far from basic and so the term “camp” can be misleading. In fact there are several housing options: you can book a basic camping site for your tent, a comfortable cottage/hut with a basic kitchen, or some of the nicer cottages and guest houses that can accommodate up to 12 people in very spacious and comfortable three to six bedroom units.
In addition to staying inside the Kruger, there are plenty of places to stay outside the Park that provide easy access to the many entrance gates. One of those nearby towns is Hazyview, located 12 kilometers from the Phabeni Gate into Kruger Park. For years, we dreamed of owning a place there, as both our families love wildlife and are passionate about going on safaris. We have been on safari in Kenya, Tanzania, and — of course — South Africa; we are so ‘wild’ about Kruger National Park in particular that we even got married at a bush camp in the park!
Over the years, we have convinced many to visit the Kruger Park and fielded hundreds of questions about planning trips to South Africa, eventually realizing that we enjoy sharing our love for safaris so much it could become a combined venture of both travel planning and offering a bush lodge for travelers to stay at. In early 2012, we bought a house near the Kruger National Park and launched Swagat at Kruger Park Lodge, at mykrugerlodge.com.
Our modern and very comfortable three bedroom, self-catering chalet is 12 kilometers from the Phabeni Gate in the town of Hazyview. Our place is spacious with large decks to observe the gorgeous sunsets after a long day of sight-seeing. It sits on a development with a golf course, tennis courts, three swimming pools, kids play areas, and mini-golf. Supermarkets, restaurants, pubs and coffee shops are all conveniently close to make your stay comfortable. Want to zipline, absail, white water raft, taste some local coffee, go up on a hot air balloon or pamper yourself at a spa? All there within a short distance from our place.
Beyond Kruger – More to See in the Area
If you plan to visit Kruger Park, consider that the area is also home to the third largest canyon in the world: Blyde River Canyon. An unforgettable trip itinerary includes a several-day safari, a visit to the nearby elephant sanctuary and a day trip to Blyde River Canyon with its marvelous waterfalls, rock formations and miles-long views. The Blyde River Canyon is easily accessible for a day trip from our chalet.
One of the advantages to staying outside the Kruger Park is that it expands your dining options. Even a small town like Hazyview offers everything from fast pizza and burgers to more local South African fare – Pioneer’s Butcher & Grill has been reviewed as having the best steak in South Africa, and the modern Kuka Restaurant & Cocktail Lounge features an “afro-chic menu”. You can go from buying freshly-baked pastries at the local Belgian bakery to testing your palate by tasting kudu or ostrich at one of the Kruger Park’s rest camps at lunch. If you prefer to cook your own meals, places like Swagat at Kruger Park Lodge feature modern and fully-equipped kitchens and large outdoor decks with the ubiquitous South African braai (built-in barbecue grill). Add some cold beer or exquisite South African wines to the mix and the party’s already begun.
Making It Happen: Start Planning Your Trip!
Being in Kruger Park is at once peaceful and exhilarating: it is wonderful to be disconnected from the buzz of the internet and telephones, and to just take in the unique sounds, sights, smells, and air. And nothing beats the excitement of being the ones to spot a leopard or hear a herd of 200 buffalo thundering past the car. There is truly a satisfaction and excitement in spotting animals on your own, feeling like you are in the midst of a wildlife documentary.
Kruger offers an African Bush experience that captures the imagination, draws you into nature’s magic, and nourishes the soul. And it is accessible to both experienced safari-goers and first-time travelers alike.
From Johannesburg, we recommend renting a car and driving the 4-5 hours to Kruger Park – highway road conditions in South Africa are excellent, with well-supplied and clean rest stops/gas stations along the way. If you want to stay within Kruger park limits visit the South African National Parks website at sanparks.co.za. Contact the authors if you want advice on Kruger camps or if you want to stay outside the park.
About the Authors: Heeten and Jenny work with people to figure out a trip itinerary that will fit their travel budget and also includes a combination of self-drive and guided safaris. Long-time Boston residents Heeten Kalan and Jenny Dahlstein have turned their love for wildlife safaris in South Africa into a travel planning service for adventure seekers everywhere.
While there are plenty of luxury tour companies offering safaris at hair-raising prices, we aim to help travelers discover South Africa’s travel destinations – and Kruger National Park in particular — in a fun, easy and affordable way via self-drive safaris. Learn more at mykrugersafari.com and mykrugerlodge.com. They can also be found at facebook.com/swagatlodge