All you need to know about travel in the greater Kruger National Park
Dreaming of sunsets, wildlife and big five game drives in Kruger National Park. Photographer, author David Rogers gives first hand tips and a little history for visitors to know when to go, where to stay and what to expect.
I was at Shalati Lodge, a luxury, five-star railway train hotel on top of the bridge at Skukuza in Kruger National Park. Looking down on the Sabi River with its life-giving tapestry of grasses, water and rocky outcrops, I was reminded that it was at this spot and on this very train in 1923 almost exactly 100 years ago, that the very first tourists first visited this park. The round in Nine railway tour showed just how popular game viewing was with visitors and three years later in 1926 Kruger became South Africa’s first national park
Today Kruger covers nearly 20 000 square kilometres (an area the size of Belgium) and gets about 950 000 visitors a year. It’s probably the most accessible and organized self-drive game destination in Africa, with a well-developed network of public rest camps and more than 3000 kilometres of road to explore. The park has 517 species of birds of which 254 are resident. It also has 147 species of large mammals which is more than any other reserve in Africa.
WHERE TO STAY IN KRUGER
Kruger has 12 main camps. Many, including Skukuza, Satara and Olifants, resemble small villages with rows and rings of self-catering houses, chalets, restaurants, swimming pools and camp sites. These camps often get chosen because of their great wildlife and locations, bu they can get pretty busy and some self-drivers prefer smaller bushveld camps such as Bateleur, Biyamithi and Shimulwini which have private access roads and offer much more privacy.
WHERE IS THE BEST GAME IN KRUGER
The most prolific game viewing in Kruger found in the south so you need to be prepared for seeing quite a few vehicles at sightings. Generally the further north you venture the less predictable the viewing becomes. I have visited some of the best game areas in Africa and enjoyed much wilder and more exclusive experiences but I still relish being on my own, finding leopards and quieter roads and enjoying the amazing game viewing and wilderness which you can still find if you stick to quiet roads. There are places here and there where you can get out of the vehicle and enjoy the wide and wonderful views.
WHY STAY IN A PRIVATE CONCESSION
There are a handful of privately owned concessions in Kruger National Park which offer walking trails, sleep outs and lodging right inside the national park. Singita Lebombo which is one of the premier camps in Africa is one example. Most of the big names in private lodges are however to the west of the park in private reserves such as Sabi Sands and Timbavati. When fences along the western side of Kruger National Park were dropped in the 90s and animals were able to move freely, these reserves become part of the Greater Kruger National Park.
A big difference of being in a private game reserves is you can follow the Big Five off road in open vehicles. It is also possible to do sundowners overlooking the plains and enjoy exciting night drives. Another big difference is the exclusivity you will enjoy. While Kruger sightings can attract big traffic jams, the sightings in the private reserves are carefully controlled so that there are rarely more than three vehicles in a sighting. Sightings can never be guaranteed, but with close communications between vehicles by radio, most visitors to the these reserves get to see all or most of the big five. Exploring with well qualified guides and trackers does create a very rich experience for visitors.
SABI SANDS OR TIMBAVATI
The Sabi Sands area, and this includes Mala Mala, Londolozi and Singita has the most productive game viewing in the West and if it’s all about Big Five sightings then you should consider visiting this area of the park. There are also less expensive ways to explore this area and Notten’s Camp is one of our favourite value camps. The Timbavati which lies further north also has excellent big game viewing and with fewer vehicles you can spend longer times at sightings even if they are a little less predictable. Here you can find great offers at five star and also less expensive camps.
CHOOSING A LODGE
The choice of lodges is mind boggling. Some have private pools and the sort of furnishings you would expect to find in a palace and you can expect five star dining prepared by the very best chefs from around the world. At other camps, you can enjoy much simpler camps with home cooked meals and hospitality around the fire. I am happiest on a sleep out deck under the stars enjoying the wildlife, but I do also so appreciate the opportunities for fine dining and romantic rooms with rim flow pools. For me the standard of guiding is also hugely important and often sets camps apart. At premier camps you will find highly educated and qualified guides who could, if they had made different choices, have found themselves behind a board room table rather than a game drive vehicle.
The experience of staying in a private lodge has a wonderful routine. It usually starts with coffee and breakfast and then at sunrise you will head out on your game drive. The reason for heading out early is to catch the action as lions and predators are usually most active in the early morning. You will likely stop on the game drive for a coffee and a snack before returning to the lodge mid-morning for a brunch and siesta. The afternoon activity usually stars at about 4 pm with a light tea and a game drive that usually ends at a wonderful sundowner spot before returning to camp with spotlight catching owls and other nocturnal animals. Then its dinner and bed before the next day when the entire routine starts again. Although it might seem repetitive no day in the bush is ever the same and the whole experience is entirely addictive
USEFUL FACTS FOR BOOKING A KRUGER HOLIDAY
A night in a private lodge can cost you anywhere from R4000 per person a night for a bush camp which is likely to have really terrific game to R30 000 a person a night for a five star lodge that serves fine wines and delicious meals. Of course there are plenty of options in between and its really all about you and what you would like in terms of comfort and experience. We suggest that you spend at least three nights in each lodge, If you are an adventurous traveller, I can highly recommend a week exploring the Greater Kruger area perhaps enjoying a few nights at lodges and a few nights in Kruger National Park in between. You can even consider spending a night on the train, Shalati, where tourism to this park began. It’s an amazing experience.
When booking a safari for one of the private game lodges or to include Kruger National Park and its surrounds we are well equipped to offer you suggestions and also help you plan an itinerary. We know the lodges and the owners and the best guides. Our itineraries can include a mix of different camps offering you an interesting and varied experience. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
There is no bad time to be on safari in the Kruger area. Animals are easiest to see during the dry season from June through to November. The summer months offer more birds, greener colours and wonderful landscapes. However, the game viewing in the Greater Kruger and especially the private safari camps is fairly consistent throughout the year. The summer temperatures from November to February can be in the 40s during the day so you need to consider how you feel about the heat. Most places do have airconditionig.
If you know where you are going and want Kruger Park bookings only then I suggest making contact with Kruger Lowveld Tourism. They are based in Nelspruit – 0137551988. Alternatively you can deal direct with Sanparks. Sanparks.org. The rates for a two bedded room with a bathroom will cost about R1500 a night.
Kruger National Park has direct flights to Cape Town and Johannesburg. You can fly into Skukuza, Kruger National Park International Airport, Hoedspruit and directly into your camp depending upon your itinerary and budget. It’s also possible (and less expensive) to hire and drive in directly from Johannesburg.
David Rogers has written extensively on Kruger National Park and its private reserves. He was involved in Readers Digest Guide to Game Parks and wrote the Guide to Kruger National Park (Struik Publishers) as well as Safari in Style (Africa Geographic). He has also written on the subject for Geo, Daily Telegraph and UK Sunday Times. While working for Getaway Magazine he wrote many articles on Kruger and also their popular series Affordable Lodges of the Lowveld. He now leads photographic safaris and also helps people plan and book their itineraries in Africa.