I always find it funny how people often say “The Kruger” instead of “Kruger National Park.” It makes it sound so ominous. Well to be honest, it is a HUGE and rather imposing park. You don’t’ realize until you start planning a self drive trip and notice that driving through the whole park allows you to basically cross into 3 different countries. Because of its size, Kruger is filled with a number of entirely different ecosystems. The northern area is dry and flat, the central gets more elevation and more water and the south is lush and rugged. You could spend a month just exploring this single park. We chose to do 9 nights, and it was hard to know if this was going to be enough, but I think we chose well.
We entered the park through Phalaborwa gate and spent our first night in Shipandani Bird Hide which is in the north near Mopane Restcamp. This was a very unique experience. During the day, the hides are open to the public for animal viewing until 6pm. Then, overnight guests can arrive and have the hide to themselves until 6am. The park provides a bag of linens, lanterns, cutlery and a braai pit with a picnic table. There is also a bathroom with a toilet and sink. For access to full ablutions, you can stop at a nearby camp. The coolest part is that the large wooden birding placards on the wall fold down to become beds! There are enough to sleep 8 people in the hide. There is a viewing platform that looks out onto the bend in a river so you can ideally watch all types of animals come to drink. We were visited by a large buffalo, hippos, wildebeests and of course many types of birds. We enjoyed the peaceful tranquility of having the whole hide to ourselves and thought this was a great experience. There are a few sleepover hides in the park and we would recommend spending a night in one of them.
Our next stop was Olifants camp where we splurged on a bungalow because all the campsites were full. This is a very picturesque camp set on a hilltop overlooking the Olifants river which has many elephants as the name suggests! The bungalow was a thatch roof style rondavel with a single room, bathroom and a porch with a refrigerator and table. You can also get one with a full kitchen on the porch, but there are communal cooking areas in all the camps so you don’t really need your own kitchen. Most camps also have a restaurant, pool and laundry facilities.
On our drives in and around this area we spotted our first lion independently! We saw loads of elephants, most notably a herd of about 35 visited a small waterhole. More and more kept coming and then they danced and played in the water.
Next, we moved south to Satara camp for two nights. The campsites are set up around the perimeter of the camp so that you can watch for game from the comfort of your own tent. Lots of antelope could be seen roaming by. The best part was at dusk the spotted hyenas began to patrol the perimeter. Garrett tried to set out a game camera on the fence and was shocked that a hyena almost immediately tried to eat it! The ablutions were very nice and well placed at Satara. The camp also shows nightly nature documentaries on a big outdoor screen. I loved this feature! Although most of the larger camps had screens, they didn’t have movies going regularly. The area around Satara was where the game viewing started to get much better. Because the northern parts of the park are much drier, animals tend to congregate more in the southern areas. We didn’t have a great amount of luck spotting amazing things this area but other people in the camp were seeing a wide variety of wildlife.
In Kruger you are only allowed to drive on the roads during daylight hours. So to see animals, you have to be lucky enough to find something that is walking or resting close to the road. There are plenty of water holes which are good places to look, but since there is so much water spread out across the park the animals don’t have to congregate all in one area. So it really does take a lot of luck to find things! We started using a new app called “Latest Sightings” where people post the time and location of animals they are spotting along with a photo. It is an awesome idea! However, our service was pretty limited in the park so we weren’t really able to use this app in the most helpful way.
Because you can only self-drive until 6:30, you miss seeing a lot of the action that happens at night. However, the park offers guided night drives which we did for one night at Satara. We saw some great owls, small cats and an elephant on our drive.
After Satara we spent a night a Skukuza. This is the largest and most popular camp in the park. It is the headquarters for SAN parks and functions like a small town with a bank and post office within the camp. They also have a fancier restaurant called the “Cattle Baron”….which is supposed to have free wifi but it doesn’t really work. The Skukuza area is dense with game and offers a great base for exploration. We didn’t like this camp as much because the campsites were sort of cramped and the whole camp was pretty crowded. However, it does have a beautiful main lodge area situated on a river overlooking the old train bridge that used to run through Kruger.
Next stop was two nights at Lower Sabie. This was also a favorite camp because of the location on the Sabie River which is packed with elephants. The campsites were also nicely divided with trees to give a better sense of privacy. We had the best sightings in this area. We found multiple white rhino and two male lions that put on a great display of walking back and forth down the road right past our car. We watched them for about 45 minutes. We also did a sunset guided drive here which have us a nice break from driving. We saw rhino, elephants and an amazing juvenile eagle owl who put on the most unique performance of waving his head round and round.
Our last night was spent at Berg en Dal camp. This camp is close to the Malelane gate and has beautiful hills in the background. The style of this camp was a bit different compared to others in the park. Instead of thatch hut style buildings, everything was made of red brick to give a more woodsy feel. The campsites were again placed against the border fence and the whole area was heavily wooded. It was one of the more beautiful rest camps in the park. We ate lunch at the camp restaurant and it was really excellent. Lots of game in this area as well. There is a pack of wild dogs that frequents the area between Berg en Dal and Crocodile Bridge which we were not lucky enough to catch a glimpse of, but many others did.
Our days in Kruger were busy. We would wake up around 5, get our tent and camp packed up then head out on a game drive which would last until around noon. We would come back and set up camp again, make lunch and try to find a way to keep cool in the middle of the day. It was really really hot while we were there. Around 4 we head out for our evening game drive lasting until 6:30. After this we could set up our rooftop tent for the evening and cook dinner. Then we needed to do the dishes and get everything packed and ready to head out early the next morning. Because we have a rooftop tent, we can’t leave much set up permanently in the camp. We end up having to set up and take down our gear 2-3 times a day. It definitely gets tiring. Especially when the sun is scorching.
As avid safari goers – we have come to the point where we don’t just want to see animals, we have our heart set on getting special encounters. We want to see the rarest animals, experience unique behaviors and get really close encounters. Although there are a ton of animals in Kruger, it is really tough to get these type of sightings! You really have to get lucky to come across animals within view from the road, let alone see something amazing like a kill. Although we had a fantastic time, we didn’t get as lucky as we had hoped to with the exciting animal encounters!
There are two ways to visit Kruger. You can either self drive and stay at self catering SAN (South Africa National Park) Camps in the park, which is a super cheap option especially for families or big groups. Or you could book to stay at one of the private game reserves at the edge of the park. These are smaller fenced off areas which basically pack in the game. Staying at a private camp offers you the luxury of not having to spot your own animals. Also since the areas are much smaller, the guides usually don’t have any problem with finding everything that you would want to see. It is a great option for beginners, because it takes some experience to get good at learning how to spot.
Before arriving to Kruger the only thing we had booked was the sleepover bird hide because there are only a few in the park and they fill up. If you are visiting in the low season, planning to camp and have a flexible schedule you don’t need to book ahead. When you arrive you can go to any SAN camp station and make your bookings with one of the park employees. We made all our bookings on the first day at Phalaborwa gate but you can also make them one day at a time as you go along. So if you end up really liking an area you can stay for longer. The only problem we ran into was that Olifants and Lower Sabie campsite were full on the nights we planned to stay there. We ended up booking a bungalow in Olifants and switching around our dates for Sabie to fix this problem. We also had to switch out a night a Crocodile Bridge for a night a Skukuza camp to make all this work. The SAN camp receptionist was super helpful and worked all this out with us on the computer. We then paid for all the accommodations – about $300 for 9 nights.
The SAN park system is incredibly well run and I would say one of the best park systems in Africa. They have rest camps set up in the parks across the country and you can rely on them to be clean, well managed and affordable. Kruger is a MUST do for anyone overlanding across southern Africa!