A visit to Kruger National Park in South Africa is food for the soul of the weary tourist.
Now covering around 40,000 square kilometres (taking into account the reasonably new trans-national park borders with neighbouring Mozambique), this is undeniably the world’s premier wildlife sanctuary. Here are some handy tips for exploring Kruger National Park and getting the most from a first visit.
There are a number of ways to enjoy a visit to Kruger. My recommendation is to do a guided game drive over a self-drive experience. The last thing you want to be doing in the park 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 animal sighting. Even if there’s someone else with you 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!
When it comes to wildlife spotting, the early bird usually catches the worm — and that’s certainly the case here in Kruger. Be prepared to get started early. Really early. And it’s generally very cold in the park around dawn, 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, but that’s not many in an area this size. To make it even more challenging — these shy guys just don’t want to be found.
On one of our game drives, ranger guide Ed tells us that 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 that 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, while rhino deaths from poaching are falling, at least two rhinos are slaughtered in the wild every day. An AK47 is generally the method of choice. The sad thing is — it would be so easy to fix. No demand equals no poaching.
While we don’t get to see a leopard on any of our drives, we do spot three lionesses in all their royal glory. We also see several of my favourite African animal — the warthog. They’re 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 Kruger cake.
Enjoy a slice for yourself one day soon. Your soul will thank you for it.
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. However, 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.
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 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 of the Big Five call the park home — elephants, lions, Cape buffalo, leopards and the elusive black rhino.
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. The guides on game drives are all linked up by radio and will check in with each other with details of big cat sightings.
Perseverance is the key. Yes, you have to get up early to do a morning drive, but that’s why you travelled thousands of kilometres to get here. Make the effort to head out again that same afternoon. You can relax when your holiday is over!
There are rest camps dotted throughout the park. They have shops and restaurants, and most of them also offer a variety of accommodation options — everything from grassroots lodges to luxury glamping.
There are also plenty of places to stay clustered around the various gates to the park. We stayed at the Protea Hotel Kruger Gate, which was sensational.
By the way, if you are staying outside the park gates, don’t think you won’t get visited by wildlife in the middle of the night. There are no fences around Kruger!
Do you have any tips for exploring Kruger National Park? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
Adam Ford is editor of The Big Bus tour and travel guide and a travel TV presenter, writer, blogger and photographer. He has travelled extensively through Europe, Asia, North America, Africa and the Middle East. Adam 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. 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.