Leopard Kruger Park

On safari in Kruger National Park

It´s 5.30 am. Although the sun is barely above the horizon, I’ve been on the road for just shy of an hour. Well, I say ‘road’, it’s more of a track really; a narrow, bumpy dirt road winding its way through the bush. Progress, once slow in the pre-dawn darkness, is now non-existent; a roadblock grinding us to a halt. Back home, such delays cause frustration. But this is the Kruger National Park in South Africa; the roadblock courtesy of two dozing white rhino who’ve chosen the warm, dusty road as their bed. We’re going nowhere for the foreseeable future, and I couldn’t be happier, as I marvel at these two amazing animals lying nose to tail across the width of the track and snoring softly, not thirty feet away. This scene isn’t unusual when on safari. But something about this specific experience makes it magical. I’m not in a safari vehicle, I’m in a hire car. I don’t have an experienced tracker with me to look out for spoor, there’s just me and my husband. And I’m not being driven around by a professional game ranger, I’m behind the wheel. If you think a DIY safari into wildest Africa is a little daunting, don’t worry. Let Mr Hudson be your guide.

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Lion Kruger Park

Photo: Andrew Watkinson-Smith

A national park with an international reputation

Kruger National Park is often referred to as the jewel in Africa’s crown, and rightly so. It is one of the largest national parks in the world, covering some 7,523 square miles in total. It is a little over 201 miles long from North to South and approximately 40 miles wide from East to West. The scenery changes as you venture further into the Park, from open grasslands and dense Mopani scrub to thorn thickets and lush riverine bush; so no two routes are the same. This changing landscape is home to thousands of animals, birds, reptiles and insects, providing visitors with an unparalleled chance to get up close and personal with Africa’s wildest inhabitants.

The Park is located in north-eastern South Africa, in the provinces of Limpopo and Mpumalanga; roughly a five-and-a-half-hour drive from Johannesburg’s main airport; OR Tambo International. But the drive is a breeze. For a start, Saffer’s drive on the left just like us Brits, and the roads are generally very good. The first couple of hours after leaving the airport are spent on wide highways as you pass first through gold and mineral mining districts and then sweeping pastures, filled with cattle and the odd ostrich, before climbing steadily into the mountainous highlands of Mpumalanga.

You also benefit from there being no noticeable time difference between the UK and South Africa (two hours at most), so awake from your overnight flight feeling refreshed and ready to go. But if you need an extra pick-me-up, make sure you break your journey at Milly’s on the N4 Machadodorp. Built on the banks of a trout lake (yes – trout in South Africa) it offers a deliciously tempting menu of home cooked fare.

Alternatively, if you have time to spare, you could follow the Panorama Route from the N4 highway towards Lydenburg. This breath-taking route takes in stunning scenery, with plenty of places to stop and stare, climbing almost 700 vertical metres from start to finish. The route culminates in the Long Tom Pass, a winding, twisting road that meanders through timber country surrounding the town of Sabie.

But if time isn’t on your side, you can fly from Or Tambo International directly into the Park; touching down at Skukuza in the central region of Kruger. A hire car can be ready and waiting at the airport, so you start your safari the moment you touch down.

Yellow Billed Hornbill Kruger Park

Photo: Andrew Watkinson-Smith

Things to see in Kruger Park

There are several gates into the Park, with Numbi, Phabeni and Paul Kruger Gates all being closest to Johannesburg. Booking in advance is strongly recommended particularly if you’re travelling during peak vacation times. Although you can just turn up, day visitor numbers are restricted when the Park is busy. And if you’re hoping to book an overnight stay, accommodation can be hard to come by.

The Park is home to a vast array of wildlife including the Big 5 (lion, elephant, rhino, buffalo and leopard); the Holy Grail for wildlife watchers. If you’re lucky enough to tick these off your list, you can always up the ante by trying to find the Big 7; which adds cheetah and the endangered African Hunting Dog to the tally.

Although these animals are arguably the Park’s crowning glory, they shouldn’t be allowed to detract from the other fauna found there. Huge herds of graceful impala roam freely throughout the park; often accompanied by zebra, wildebeest and giraffe. Hippos and crocodiles abound in the rivers and dams. And hyena circle the camp fences at dusk, sniffing the night breeze as the aroma of cooking meat fills the air from visitor’s braais.

But if claws, hooves and paws don’t float your boat, don’t worry. There’s plenty to keep even the most ardent twitcher enthralled. More than 500 species of bird call the Park home; over 250 of which can be found there all year round.

Hyena Kruger Park

Photo: Andrew Watkinson-Smith

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The Park map book (a must-have for any tourist) helps you plan routes, distances and times – so you’re never late back to camp

How to get around Kruger Park

The thing that makes Kruger different from its North African counterparts is its infrastructure. A good network of roads, some of which are tar, makes the Park accessible to ordinary vehicles – so you don’t need to rush out and hire an expensive 4×4. Even the dirt roads are easy to navigate. But take things slowly, you never know what’s lurking around the next twist in the road!

Although wild and untouched, the Park is well documented. The roads and routes are clearly signposted making it impossible to get lost. The Park map book (a must-have for any tourist) helps you plan routes, distances and times – so you’re never late back to camp (a sin punishable by a hefty fine or even expulsion from the Park).

In addition to the main camps, which have franchised restaurants to eat at such as Mugg & Bean, and day visitor areas and facilities, the Park also has a series of ‘picnic spots’ tucked away in the bush, where it’s possible to get out of your vehicle. Many have small shops or stalls that provide basic essentials like bottles of water or cold drinks. For just a few Rand you can hire a Skottel; a gas-powered braai (BBQ to you and me) to cook your bacon and eggs which you can buy from some of the larger shops to save you carrying them around with you.

But if all of that is too much like hard work, many of the larger picnic spots have kitchens or restaurants that provide a selection of hot dishes including local specialities. And all picnic spots have toilet facilities so you can freshen up before hitting the road again in search of the Big 5. Although you don’t necessarily have to travel far to find wildlife.

Picnic spots are a haven for birds and smaller mammals. A variety of starlings (nothing at all like the drab birds we know back home) bicker over scraps left on the braais while hornbills flap from table to table in the hope of a titbit. Shy antelope such as bushbuck often use the sites as a haven; believing the hustle and bustle will keep the predators away. In my experience, this isn’t necessarily true as I have visited a picnic spot early in the day just as a pride of lions was leaving (did I mention that many of the picnic spots are unfenced allowing wildlife to amble through?)

Baboon Kruger Park

Photo: Andrew Watkinson-Smith

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Where to stay in Kruger National Park

Doing it yourself doesn’t mean doing away with comfort or luxury. The Park offers a wide range of accommodation to suit every taste and budget. Bedding and towels are provided as are basic kitchen utensils; crockery, cutlery, pots and pans. And most importantly, there’s always a glass for your compulsory G&T sundowner. Everything is clean, modern and tidy, the thatched roofs the only hint that you’re in the middle of Africa.

There are camping sites for both caravans and tents – so you really can do it yourself if you so choose. But why go to the hassle of lugging a tent around with you when you can stay in a pre-made Safari Tent? The permanent structures are on raised platforms with canvas tent bedrooms. Some even have their own bathrooms and kitchenettes.

If canvas just isn’t your thing, fear not. The range of huts, bungalows and guest cottages are made of sturdier stuff, modelled on the traditional Rondavel. Single room units with communal kitchen and ablution facilities are available for next to nothing. But larger units come with their own bathrooms and kitchens. Some even have living rooms.

But for me, what’s outside is just as important as what’s inside. You’re on safari, remember, so you won’t be spending much time indoors. Select accommodation in many of the camps offers either a perimeter or river view, so you can keep spotting wildlife long after the camp gates have closed for the night. So if you get the chance to upgrade, do so.

Guest Houses sit at the top end of the choice of Park’s accommodation. They’re larger, with multiple bedrooms and bathrooms (some en-suite) and a lounge and dining area. They sit on their own plot within the camps, often with their own exclusive view out into the bush; your own little bit of Africa. Prices often start at a base rate of four people, so if you’re travelling as a couple, it’s an expensive way to live the safari life. But what a life! The Nshawu Guest House in Olifants and the Nyathi in Skukuza are excellent examples, with panoramic views over rivers into the African bush.

Skuzkuza Rest Kamp Guest Houses Kruger Park

Skuzkuza Rest Kamp guest houses | Photo: Andrew Watkinson-Smith

Traditional Rondavels Kruger Park

Traditional Rondavels | Photo: Andrew Watkinson-Smith

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If you really want to safari in style, the Park also offers a range of exclusive, private lodges known as ‘Golden Kudus’

As is life, there’s always something bigger and better, so if you really want to safari in style, the Park also offers a range of exclusive, private lodges known as ‘Golden Kudus.’ Luxury is the order of the day, and no expense has been spared to create a unique and spellbinding atmosphere.

So having chosen what you want to stay in, all that’s left to decide is where in the Park you want to stay. There are twelve main camps inside Kruger, from Punda Maria in the northernmost region down to Berg-en-Dal and Crocodile Bridge in the southern areas. The camps vary in size and style, with some dating back to the Park’s early days. Most have shops and petrol stations making them the perfect base from which to explore.

There are five bushveld camps, including Biyamiti and Talamati. These are much smaller and more intimate sites, scoped into the middle of the bush. You get a real sense of being in the wild. But to retain the unique atmosphere, facilities are limited. There are no shops or petrol stations here, so you need to ensure you are well equipped.

But if you’re really feeling adventurous, why not book an overnight hide such as the Sable Hide near Phalaborwa Gate? During the day, this unique accommodation acts as a bird hide, giving visitors a discreet view over a waterhole. But at night, it is transformed into a primitive sleepover where guests get to truly feel at one with nature. You’re locked in, so once the rangers leave you’re alone as the night’s sounds close in around you.

Photo: Andrew Watkinson-Smith

Things to do in Kruger Park

As visitors demand more from their vacations, the South African National Parks Board has done much to move with the times. As well as exploring the Park in your own vehicle, you can book sunrise, sunset and night drives from many of the Park’s camps. An experienced ranger will take you out in an official vehicle to give you an expert glimpse into life in the Park.

But if you feel like stretching your legs a little, they’ve got that covered too, from mountain bike trails and four-day-long backpacking trails to early morning guided walks. Accompanied by trained field guides, you’ll get to experience the thrill of tracking rhino, elephant and lion on foot.

And to finish the vacation off in style, you can now book an unforgettable bush braai. Your own personal game drive leads you to a clearing in the middle of the bush, lit by burning lanterns. As you settle down to enjoy a sundowner, the sounds of the bush surrounding you, your chef cooks food to order on an open fire.

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Truth is, there isn’t really an ideal time to visit – every day is magical

When to visit Kruger National Park

People often ask me what time of year is best to visit the Park, which throws up an interesting dilemma. The summer months from November through to February are hot and humid, with temperatures often in the high 30s. This can make game viewing harder as many of the animals seek shelter from the sun during the hottest parts of the day. But summer also brings the rains. And with the rain comes an abundance of fresh, new vegetation; the perfect environment for many of the antelope species to give birth. The sight of a baby impala taking its first steps on stick-thin, gangly legs is one to be treasured.

The winter months from May to August are much more agreeable; the cooler days giving way to what can often be a very cold night. Winter is also very dry. As the rivers and water holes dry up, animals travel further in search of food and water, so you have a better chance of spotting something. And as the grasses begin to die off, you can see further into the bush, making game viewing easier too. It’s possible to sit at a waterhole for hours at a time watching in awe, and silence, as a procession of the game comes to you. Truth is, there isn’t really an ideal time to visit. Every day is magical. So what are you waiting for?

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