Top tips for exploring Kruger National Park
A visit to Kruger National Park in South Africa is food for the soul of the weary tourist.
This is undeniably the world’s premier wildlife sanctuary, and one of the most beautiful places on earth. Now stretching for about 40,000 square kilometres (taking into account the reasonably new trans-national park borders with neighbouring Mozambique), the park is unbelievably spectacular, and here are some tips for exploring Kruger National Park.
There are a number of ways to enjoy a visit to Kruger. My preference is a guided game drive over a self-drive. The last thing you want to be doing on your visit is worrying about maps, gates, exits, fees and trying to keep at least one eye on the road as you scan the bush for your next sighting.
Even with someone else in the vehicle, they can’t be looking in all directions at once. On an open safari vehicle game-drive you can focus wholeheartedly on the game viewing. There’ll be several sets of eyes covering the terrain and a knowledgeable guide monitoring their radio for confirmed big cat sightings. Works for me.
Now as in most cases where animal-viewing is concerned, the early bird catches the worm. And it’s no different here. We get started early. Really early. And it’s really cold, so rug up.
Setting out for the first time, you can’t help but have high expectations. Yes! We will see all the big five, including the elusive leopard! We’ve come all this way, so we must!
Well, let’s face it. Looking for a leopard in Kruger is literally like looking for a speckled black and yellow needle in a speckled black and yellow haystack, in the dark (when leopards are most active). There are about a thousand in the park, which means one every 40 square kilometres or so. But the chances are still slim. And to make it even more challenging, these shy guys just don’t want to be found.
As our ranger guide Ed tells us, the best way to approach a day at Kruger is to have no expectations at all and to take everything that comes as a bonus. The park is full of unexpected, joyful experiences that will leave you breathless. Good things often come in very small packages, and it will all happen when you least expect it.
Sadly the vast expanse of Kruger does have a downside. Due to the difficulty in patrolling such a massive area, the park faces a growing problem from the scourge of the African bush – poaching. In particular brutal rhino poaching, which supplies markets in the east with the prized horn – believed to be a powerful aphrodisiac. South Africa is home to more than 80% of the world’s remaining wild rhinos, with a good proportion of them located within the sprawling boundaries of Kruger.
According to the UK-based Save the Rhino project, this year more than 1,000 will be slaughtered by poachers. An AK47 is generally the method of choice. Deaths are expected to outweigh births by 2016. And it would be so easy to fix. No demand equals no poaching.
Back to our game drive and I will say that we don’t get to see a leopard. But we do see three majestic lionesses in all their royal glory. And my favourite of all African animals – the plucky little warthog – so unattractive and yet so utterly gorgeous (watch them shoot off with their little tuft-tipped tales straight up in the air).
There are NAFIs galore (‘not another f’ing impala’ as the locals call them) and four rare honey badgers are the furry black and white icing on our delicious Kruger cake. Enjoy a slice for yourself one day soon. Your soul will thank you for it.
Firstly, how do you get to Kruger National Park?
Kruger is located about a four hour drive from Johannesburg. It’s roughly 400km. So one option is to rent a car and head up there yourself. But most people do it as part of an organised tour or an overland safari.
You can also fly from Johannesburg. It’s an hour’s or so flight and there are a number of flights with South African Airways each day. You can arrange transfers, accommodation and game drives as part of a package.
What’s the best time to visit?
As a sub tropical landscape, Kruger is a year round destination. But the best time to visit is during the dry season from October to April, when the grass is low. The animals are easier to spot and are drawn to the main waterholes to drink every morning and evening. Just remember, most animals don’t want to be seen, so you need to be one step ahead of them!
What are you going to see?
What aren’t you going to see? South Africaʼs Kruger National Park really is as good as it gets in terms of wildlife viewing. The park is home to elephant, giraffe, rhino, wildebeest and a varied population of big cats. All the Big Five call the park home – elephant, lion, Cape buffalo, leopard and black rhino, along with our all time favourite – the warthog!
There are various ways you can explore the park. We prefer guided game drives because you have a lot more people in the truck scanning the landscape for sightings, which is really difficult to do in your own car. The last thing you want to be doing on your visit is worrying about maps, gates, exits and permit fees.
Also, the guides are all linked up by radio and check in with details of, say, a sighting of a lion or a cheetah.
Perseverance is the key. Yes, you have to get up early to do a morning drive, but that’s why you travelled thousands of k’s to get here. And make the effort to head out again that same afternoon. You can relax when your holiday is over!
Where can you stay?
There are lots of options depending on your budget.
There are rest camps dotted throughout the park, which are really just tourist centres. There are shops and restaurants, and most of them have a variety of accommodation options from grassroots right through to luxury.
There are also lots of options clustered around the gates to the park, including permanent tented camps/glamping options. We stayed at the Protea Hotel Kruger Gate which was sensational.
And just because you are outside the gates, don’t think you won’t get visited by wildlife in the middle of the night. There are no fences around Kruger!
Adam travelled as a guest of Evergreen Tours.
Have you travelled to South Africa? We would love to hear your tips for exploring Kruger National Park. Please leave us a comment.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Adam Ford is editor of The Big Bus tour and travel guide and a Melbourne-based travel TV presenter, writer, blogger and photographer. Adam has travelled extensively through Europe, Asia, North America, Africa and the Middle East. He worked as a travel consultant for a number of years with Flight Centre before taking up the opportunity to travel the world himself as host of the TV series Tour the World on Network Ten. Adam also appears regularly as a travel commentator on Sky News Business Class. He loves to experience everything a new destination has to offer and is equally at home in a five-star Palazzo in Pisa or a home-stay in Hanoi.