Kruger National Park in South Africa is one of Africa’s largest and premier game reserves. No visit to South Africa is complete without going on a safari in the Kruger National Park. Due to its easy access and excellent infrastructure Kruger National Park provides one of the best wildlife experiences in the whole of Africa.
Most people think that embarking on a safari in Africa is very expensive and completely out of their budget range. I can tell you now that often it is or can be the case if you want a world class safari experience, but there are exceptions. Going on a safari in the Kruger National Park can fit all kinds of budgets.
What makes a visit to the Kruger Park so affordable is that the park is perfect for a self drive safari. In this post I will explain everything about how to organise your trip, best time to go, where to stay and what to expect. This guide is specifically for anyone wanting to visit the park on a self drive safari.
Complete guide to the Kruger National Park
Interesting Facts about Kruger National Park
- The area was first proclaimed a national park in 1898 by Paul Kruger (then president of the Transvaal Republic) as Sabie Game Reserve. Only in 1926 Kruger National Park was proclaimed by merging Sabie and Shingwedzi national park.
- The size of the park in South Africa is almost 20 000 km2, which is about the size of Wales and slightly smaller than Belgium or Israel. In other words, the distance from north to south is 360 km and from east to west is 65 km.
- Kruger National Park is home to the notorious Big Five animals
- James Stevenson Hamilton became the parks first warden in 1902. A statue of him can be seen in the Skukuza restcamp.
What to expect from a safari in the Kruger Park
First and foremost, visiting the Kruger National Park means you will be going on a safari, also called a game drive. And if you love to see a large variation of wildlife, the Kruger Park is definitely the place to be. The park has more different species than any other game reserve in Africa. Kruger park hosts around 147 mammal species, 517 bird species, 117 reptile species, 33 amphibian species and 50 fish species.
Most visitors are very keen to see the Big Five animals, which are the lion, leopard, african elephant, black rhino and buffalo. The name, the Big Five, comes from the time when hunting was still allowed and those five animals where the most difficult to hunt while on foot. Still today, most people are intrigued by the beauty and charisma of those five animals and will only call their safari successful when seeing all five of them. With over 17000 elephants, 48000 buffalos, 1500 lions and 1000 leopards, the changes of seeing the Big Five animals is pretty high.
My advice is, especially when self-driving, try to enjoy every type of animal you see. If you just drive to see the leopard or the lion, you will miss out on a lot of interesting and beautiful animals. And sometimes, while looking at an antelope or zebra, a group of lions might appear from behind the bushes.
One thing you have to be aware of is that the Kruger National Park is not a zoo. This means that there is no guarantee of which animals you might or might not see, or how many animals you will see. It’s important to know not to expect any ‘National Geographic’ scenes, where once you drive into the park you can see a group of lions hunting a buffalo or a leopard defending its kill from a pack of hyenas. Those scenes are really rare to see and has taken the film crew weeks or even months to catch on film. But nevertheless, lots of people have been able to see scenes like this in the Kruger park, it will just not happen every day.
The nice thing about going on a self drive safari is to discover and to observe.
How to plan your itinerary in the Kruger National Park
In order to fully enjoy a safari in the Kruger National Park, the best is to stay for a few days. With nearly 20.000 km2 the park is really big and some planning is needed to make the most of it. I would recommend to have at least two driving days in the park, especially when going on a self drive. If you are going on a guided tour, the guide / driver does the spotting, driving and all the explanation. When driving with your own vehicle, you will have to get used to driving and spotting wildlife at the same time.
Kruger National park can basically be divided into 3 sections, the northern, central and southern part. If you only have a few days it will be difficult to visit the whole park, so best is to choose a certain section. Due to the sheer size of the park, it is normal that the vegetation changes when driving from north to south, which has an influence on the wildlife you can see.
How do you know which area will be best to visit and why? I will give you a brief overview of what you can expect from each section:
Southern Part – extends between the Crocodile and the Sabie river
- The southern part takes up one fifth of the total park
- Most people visit this part of the Kruger park which also means that at times it can get pretty congested especially during peak season
- High density of wildlife and higher possibility of excellent game viewing including the Big Five
- Lion and Rhino territory
- Shorter drives between picnic areas and the various rest camps
- Dense vegetation which might make it difficult to spot wildlife
- Lots of wildlife along the river banks, especially during dry season
- Easier access to arrive from Johannesburg / Pretoria and Nelspruit and to continue towards Swaziland and the coastal area.
Central part – Between the Sabie River and south of the Olifants river
- Lots of grassland plains with some woodland in between
- Easy to spot large herds of wildlife on these plains, like larger herds of zebra and buffalo
- Due to the presence of large herds of wildlife, predators will be lurking in the area. Also the best place to see cheetah.
Northern Part – From the Olifants river all the way north
- Higher possibility of spotting rare antelope like Sable, Roan and Eland
- Much less visitors
- Longer drives between the picnic areas and the various rest camps
- More arid and dry landscape, much less rainfall than the South
- Mopane tree makes up a large part of the vegetation which is favoured by the elephants and of course the Mopane worms which is a delicacy in rural areas.
- The very special Baobab tree can be seen in the norhtern area.
- Great for bird watching, especially the far northern section
So which area should you visit? Both Sean and myself have visited the Kruger park many times and have been to nearly every part of the park. I must say that I really love the northern part, but I would not recommend it for a first time visit, unless you are on your way to Zimbabwe, or the northern part of South Africa. It’s really pretty, the vegetation is very different compared to the south, but the area is also very remote and receives much less tourists. And the amount of wildlife you will see in the northern area will in general be much lower than in the south. There are some very nice highlights to see in the northern area, which we described in a previous article and which you can read here.
All in all if you just have a few days in the park, I would recommend to either visit the southern part of the park, or combine the central with the southern section. And this for the following reasons:
- The driving distances between the various rest camps are shorter
- If you stay overnight outside the park, most accommodations are around Hazyview, where the southern and central sections are much closer
- Excellent game viewing, especially during dry season along the rivers
- Lots of private safari vehicles are driving around, which will make it easier to find predators, just see where they stop, or when you see the typical bush traffic jams. These traffic jams will probably indicate a sighting of a large predator.
What can you do in the Kruger National Park?
The main reason to visit the Kruger National Park is of course doing a safari and watching fascinating wildlife. However, there are a few different ways to do it.
Self driving or going with a guide
First of all, you can self drive in most areas of the park with your own (rental) vehicle. You don’t even need a 4×4, most roads are open to any type of vehicle. The main roads to the various rest camps are tarred roads. You can either follow these main roads, or go on the smaller gravel roads. Especially in dry season these roads are fine to drive. When a road gets inaccessible, they will normally close off that section of road. The advantage of self driving is that you can plan your own day, the amount of time to rest, how long you will decide to stay looking at animals etc.
You can also go on a drive with a guide. These drives either take place early morning, mid-day or at sunset. What I would recommend is either going on a sunrise or sunset / night drive. The reason is that you are not allowed to self drive in the park before sunrise and after sunset. Going on one of these official drives will allow you in the park after hours, which might give you the chance to see animals that you will not see during the day.
A day drive is recommended if you don’t like long driving hours. Driving and game viewing at the same time can be tiring if you are not used to it. Also, the driver / guides are trained in finding animals and will find wildlife much easier than you can. They are also in contact with one another. And with their knowledge, they can give you lots of explanation about the various animals and the Kruger park itself. These various drives can be booked at most of the rest camps in the park.
Other activities in Kruger park
Some other activities that can be organised are walking safaris, mountain biking, wilderness trails, and going on a 4×4 trail, to name but a few. More info can be found on the Sanparks website here. The only other activity that I have done in the Kruger park is a walking safari. If you have time to do it, I would recommend it. It’s a different way to see wildlife and nature. You will go with a professional ranger who will explain you all about nature, animals droppings, foot print tracking,… It is not the best way to see wildlife. You can approach an animal very close with a car, but on foot, they will most often run away when they see or smell you. A walking safari is not so much about seeing wildlife, but more about the overall nature experience.
Best time to visit Kruger National Park
What is the best time to visit Kruger National Park? In general I can say that any time is great to visit the Kruger park. Kruger park is a year round travel destination. Some people might say that during dry season you can see more wildlife. In principle this is true for many other parks, but in Kruger park since there is so much wildlife, any time of year is fine to see animals.
During the dry season, most animals will stay close to waterholes or rivers which makes them easier to see around those places. During rain season, there is water everywhere in the park, so the wildlife might be less concentrated and more difficult to spot. Another problem might be that in the wet season the vegetation is more dense in certain areas making it difficult to see animals through the bushes. However, I have been in the Kruger park where people have seen the Big Five animals in less than an hour in the pouring rain. So anything is possible during any time of the year.
Where to stay in the Kruger National Park
Kruger park has a wide range of accommodations inside the park. There are 12 main rest camps where one can book either a campsite, hut, safari tents, bungalows or a roundavel. Besides the rest camps, Sanparks also offers accommodation in bush lodges, satellite camps and overnight hides. More information you can find on the Sanparks website.
There is also a huge offer in accommodation just outside the park, in Hazyview, Phalaborwa, Hoedspruit,…as well as a wide range of private reserves. These private reserves offer more upmarket and luxury accommodation. All in all, you can find any type of accommodation outside the park, from campsites to backpacker hostels with dorms to private rooms.
The accommodation inside the Kruger park is based on self catering. Or there will be a common kitchen available. Most main rest camps have a restaurant available and in some of the larger camps, like Skukuza, you can find a Mugg&Bean and Debonaires pizza.
We prefer to stay inside the park and have stayed in most of the rest camps. The advantage is that you have a wildlife experience in the park. You can hear the sounds of the wildlife at night and especially in the smaller camps you can see animals lurking along the fence. Especially hyenas can be seen who come to the smell of the meat on the braai.
When you want to stay inside the park, it is recommendable to book in advance. Kruger park is very popular with tourists and with local South Africans, especially during school holidays. Some parks in the southern part are booked months in advance for these peak seasons. Especially Lower Sabie camp is very popular. It is located on a hill overlooking the Sabie river where often lots of wildlife can be seen. The camp is pretty small and therefore booked out very fast. Skukuza is the main camp of the park. Anything you can think of is present here, including a doctor. It’s the largest camp. Due to its size it’s not too popular for having the bush feeling. But in my opinion, it is very centrally located which makes it a good base to start exploring the park as well to the central as in the southern part.
Every camp has its specific attraction, either inside the camp or is special due to the surrounding area. For example Punda Maria rest camp in the far north has a waterhole with a hide at the campsite. You don’t even need to go on a game drive, you can just sit and watch the animals that come to drink. From Lower Sabie rest camp you can overlook the Lower Sabie river, where you will nearly always see some wildlife. Olifants rest camp is known to be in an area with a lot of elephants and has a look out with an amazing view.
When deciding on which rest camps to stay, my advice would be to first focus on the area you want to visit, north, central or south. I would also recommend to stay in a few different rest camps, which makes it easier to cover a larger distance in the park, instead of staying in the area around the rest camp. A last important thing to keep in mind is the distance between the rest camps. Make sure you don’t have to cover too much distance in one day, keeping speed limits into account. In the end, the most important thing is to enjoy the wildlife and not to cover too many kilometres in a day and not being able to enjoy and observe the wildlife.
Depending on the time of year, bookings for accommodation inside the Kruger National Park should best be done well in advance. You will have to book your accommodation via the San Parks website. During South African school holidays the Kruger Park tends to fill up pretty fast. South Africans love to travel and this safari park is one of their favourite destinations. So best to check which time of the year are the school holidays and book accordingly. Also some camps are more popular or smaller than others and will fill up pretty fast, like Lower Sabie.
Practical info Kruger National Park
Facilities in the park
Shopping: Most of the main rest camps have shopping facilities, some larger than others. Most shops will provide at least some basic food items, as well as drinks, sanitary and medical items. Other shops will have a full range of meat, fruit, vegetables as well as a large souvenir shop. This will mainly be the case in the larger camps like Skukuza and Satara. Also some larger picnic areas will have some basic food and souvenir shopping facilities.
Eating: Most of the major rest camps have a restaurant. Some of the larger camps like Skukuza even have a small range of franchise restaurants, like Mugg & Bean and Debonairs Pizza. At the major picnic areas you will be able to buy a snack to eat. All picnic areas, as well as rest camps have braai facilities (barbecue) to make and grill your own lunch.
Sanitary Stops: As mentioned before, you cannot just stop anywhere you like in the park when nature calls and hide behind a bush. You might not be alone behind this bush and will encounter some wildlife while not sitting in your car. Plan your drive in the Kruger park in order to have a break at a rest camp or picnic spot every so often. You can find a detailed maps of these stops on the maps you can buy everywhere in the park.
Rates and entrance fees
- The prices vary for internationals, South Africans and members of the SADC countries
- Entrance fee for internationals is 304 ZAR/day (21 Eur or 24 USD) – prices valid till 31.10.2017
- When you plan to visit the Kruger park for a few days as well as some other parks in South Africa it is recommended to purchase a Wildcard. It gives you ‘free’ entry to all the Sanparks in South Africa as well as all the cluster parks. Check for more info here.
Other practical info
- It is not allowed to drive in the park at night. Always check the time they will close the gate (around sunset). There are fines if you are not on time. This is also when sleeping inside the park. The only way to drive at night is join a sunset / night drive with a qualified guide.
- Don’t plan to drive too much distance in a day. There are strict speed limits (50 km/h on tar road and 40 km/h on gravel roads). The average speed you will drive is around 25 km/h keeping into account various stops and animal sightings. This is important when booking accommodation in advance. Make sure you can arrive before the gate closes in the evening. There are speed cops operating in the park.
- Take a copy of all the rules and regulations of what is allowed in the park and what not. They are very strict in enforcing these rules.
- Make sure to buy a Kruger park guide either at the gate or in any rest camp or larger picnic areas. This guide will give you an idea about distances, has a detailed road map and indicates where the rest camps and picnic areas are. This is important to plan a break for when nature calls. You are not allowed to leave your car at any moment, unless specifically indicated.
- Never at any moment feed wild animals, especially monkeys who know when people have food and they can get aggressive after people have fed them. Be careful at any time, especially when you see monkeys or baboons at picnic areas. They will try to steal your food from the table. Also in the self catering chalets, mostly the kitchen and fridge are standing outside on the terrace. Monkeys and baboons have learned to open fridge doors, due to people feeding them from their chalets. The fridges should have locks, use them.
What to pack for a safari in the Kruger National Park
I would recommend not to pack too much for a safari in Kruger National Park. There are some items however that will make your safari in the park better and more comfortable. Read this post when packing for a safari in South Africa.
Photography on safari
Most people will want to have some (or lots) of digital memories of the animals they see. In order to take nice photos you will need a decent lens with a good zoom. You can try to take photos with your phone or ipad, but keep in mind they don’t always come out really well. A phone is great for landscapes or some fast snap shots, but will give blurry images when taking a close up of an animal. You will never get too close to the animals, therefor a decent zoom is recommended. I use a Canon 650D. The zoom lens that is great with a Canon is either the 70-300 mm or the 70-300 mm L lens which gives even better quality. A great all round lens if you don’t want to change the lens too often is the Tamron 18-270 mm. I have been using this last lens for most of my safari photos.
Make sure you carry enough large capacity SD cards with you. You will not want to see those lions catching a herd of buffalo and your memory card is full, in which case you will have to just sit there and take pictures with your eyes and just enjoy to look at it. But we have to admit, most of us will take hundreds or more pictures of the things and animals we see.
Using good binoculars is invaluable on any safari. Most animals will normally not stand posing next to the road. The Kruger park is large and sometimes an interesting animal, like lions or leopards will be quiet a distance away from the road. Having binoculars will give you the means to observe the animals better and not as a little dot in the distance.
When going to Kruger park during winter, it is important to wear different layers of clothing. It will be very cold early morning and late evening. But during the day time it can be nice and warm. In order not to freeze in the morning or be too hot and uncomfortable during the day, it’s important to be able to take clothes on or off. Very important will also be to wear a decent sunhat.
During the warmer but wet season, having a good rain coat is important to carry with you, especially when doing a game drive with an open vehicle from the park.
As a conclusion I can say that you made the right choice to go on a safari in Kruger National Park. It will be, without doubt, a once in a lifetime experience. The most important advice for any safari is to have an open mindset and enjoy every little thing you see and experience. Being in the bush and observing wildlife in their natural habitat is one of the most beautiful things to experience.
And be aware of the following:
Everything in Africa bites, but the safari bug is the worst of all.
Take a look at this short video we made of scenes from the north of Kruger Park:
Have you ever been on a safari? What is your favourite country and park for a safari?
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