While everyone´s first impression of gaming would be the great migration to Serengeti in East Africa, gaming in South Africa is also an abundance of joy. Kruger National Park is South Africa´s most exciting African safari destination.
When I started planning my trip to South Africa, the information was overwhelming to me. There are so many safari tours, hotels, and lodges, operators, and we had a lot of discussions about whether we should be self-driving or not. So here, I would like to share a little about my thought process behind the entire trip planning.
How to get there?
It takes about 5 hours to drive to Kruger from Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo International Airport, and about an hour flight (to any airports near Kruger). Although it would be fun to take on yet another road trip. I decided to reach Kruger flying. There are few airports around Kruger, depending on where you would want to go:
Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport, Nelspruit
This is where I had flown in from Livingstone in Zambia. The airport is about an hour away from Malelane, and about 2 hours away from Sabie Park; the airport had souvenir stores, tourist offices, and other destinations including Cape Town, Durban, and Johannesburg.
Hendrik Van Eck Airport, Phalaborwa
Hendrik Van Eck Airport is located next to the Phalaborwa Gate (I mean, 5 minutes away!). Airlink offers flights from Johannesburg.
Hoedspruit Eastgate Airport
Eastgate is located between Paul Kruger Gate and Phalaborwa Gate, and there are flights connecting Johannesburg and Cape Town.
The Skukuza Airport is located inside Sabi Sands and Flights are available to connect Cape Town, Johannesburg, Londolozi, and Ulusaba.
Where to stay?
The first question that I had was whether to stay in Kruger or outside.
There are amazing rest camps in Kruger, which offer different kinds of safari experiences depending on your budget and preferences. Luxurious camps offer safari packages with full board, guided safari tours, and lodges. Visitors could even sleep in tree lodges underneath the stars, listening to the sound of nature in the open air under a tent!
Economical options are lodges in safari that don’t include meals. However, visitors could bring in their own food and enjoy a delicious barbecue after a day on the safari.
There is an advantage to staying inside Kruger. Visitors could have full experience in the African bush, save time traveling in and out of the park and also save money by paying multiple entrance fees driving day in and day out. However, there aren’t any shops or restaurants in the park (a.k.a. no nightlife), it lacks flexibility as the entrance gates close at 6 pm in the evening and it’s not possible to leave the park until it reopens in the morning. For visitors who are not planning to cook or barbecue, they would have to stay in a lodge with catering.
Which way to go?
If you are planning a trip to beautiful South Africa, I would implore you to put both Cape Town and the Kruger National Park in your itinerary no matter what; and if you have more time, it’s great to explore so many more places from the Sun City and the Lost City, the Garden Route, the Wind Land, Pretoria, Gold Reef City, to even Lesotho and Swaziland.
Let’s get back to Kruger. The Kruger National Park (and I promise I will just use “Kruger” from here on out) is located on the northeast border of South Africa, connecting with its neighboring state, Mozambique. Stretching over 20,000 sq. km Kruger is home to an impressive population of game species, including Africa’s Big Five.
Guess what I was trying to say is, that Kruger is so big that it’s rather impossible to cover every inch of the park for a visit. Lucky for us, animals are roaming freely in Kruger and so no one would expect visitors to drive through the entire park for the game. Where to start depends on what kind of accommodation and experience you are looking for.
There are a few large communities located around Kruger as a pitstop, like Bosbokrand, Acornhoek, Hazyview, Hoedspruit, Komatipoort, Malelane, Marloth Park, Nelspruit, and Phalaborwa. There are restaurants, supermarkets, and even shopping malls in some of these communities for visitors to re-fill and re-stock (as some tourists may stay in Kruger, which I will talk a little bit about it later.)
There are gates located in the south, central, and north of the park. Visit the Kruger website and they have an informative help guide to different regions, game viewing routes, and locations of the entrance gates to the park. Here is where I started to locate which areas and viewing routes are the best for my trip.
Kruger National Park website: http://www.krugerpark.co.za/
Some amazing viewing routes, nearest gates, and highlights
Crocodile Bridge Gate
The Crocodile Bridge Gate is the most eastern entrance to Kruger, located in the South East of Kruger. The northern area between Crocodile Bridge and Lower Sabie offers some of the best wildlife viewings. Along Bume, Biyamiti, and Randspruit Roads is a region defined by low hills with rough and sandy soil on the hilltops that attract Safari browsers. It is one of the best routes in the south of Kruger. The Lower Sabie Restcamp overlooks the Lower Sabie Dam, which attracts a wealth of plants and animals, including elephants and waterbuck.
Hence, there is the South West. Malelane Gate connects to routes that lead from the Malelane Gate, which connects visitors to a number of rest camps and some good viewing spots. Viewing loops like Berg-en-Dal Loop has the highest rainfall in Kruger and a large diversity of plant life, including the Zulu mulberry and the Cape chestnut among others.
Numbi Gate is one of the great entrances into Kruger Park in the South West because its higher altitude gives visitors a sweeping vista over the Lowveld to the east and the granite foothills to the north and south. The Pretoriuskop Route is the oldest camp and is also child-friendly. The entire Big Five could be seen in Pretoriuskop if you are lucky. Furthermore, Voortrekker Road is a road filled with history and wildlife sightings.
Paul Kruger Gate
I stayed near the Paul Kruger Gate and it was where I started. In Shangaan’s words, “Skukuza” means “he who sweeps clean”; it is the Skukuza area and it is the biggest rest camp in the park. The Nwatimhiri Road is a great place for ornithologists and bird watching, keep an eye out for the African hawk-eagle.
Phabeni Gate is located between Numbi Gate and Paul Kruger Gate, it is the best way to get into Skukuza from Gauteng.
Moving to the Central Grassland of Kruger, Orpen is a region of good pasture, with an abundance of grass and other plants, a great food source for the abundance of game in the area. The central grasslands have the highest lion population in Kruger. Timbavati Road is one of the best routes in the Park. Here, visitors get to see the famous White Lion of Kruger drinking at the Leeubron waterhole and the elusive Leopard in the lush riverine bushes. The Mphongolo Loop is also one of the best drives in Kruger, it is rich in games such as Lion, Leopard, Elephant, and Buffalo.
The open grasslands in Satara offer sightings of Kruger’s biggest herds of grazers, Lion, and Hyena. On the east side of the park.
Phalaborwa Gate is considered the north of the part and this region is very different from the southern Kruger. From Mopani to Masorini, Wild Dog is common in the western Mopaneveld between the Olifants and Letaba Rivers. These animals prefer to roam the more marginal plains to avoid the Lion dominated central plains. On the Mopani Camp Routes, Lion Cheetah would be seen occasionally with Elephant and Buffalo being the most common animals spotted. Shingwedzi is dominated by Nyala, Kudu, and Giraffe with Lion and Leopard actively in the floodplain woodland because of the high diversity of prey.
The Olifants Viewing Routes consists of three ecosystems that are great for game viewing – it is home to Kruger’s original Elephant herd.
Punda Maria Gate
Punda Maria and Pafuri Gates are located in the Far North which would be less popular for first-time visitors. While vegetation in the Pafuri region includes a diverse mix of South African Lowveld and African woodlands. On the Mahogany Loop, visitors could find rare flora and fauna that are not commonly seen in other parts of Kruger, such as bushwillow species, silver cluster leaves, Suni Antelope, and Sharpe’s Grysbok.
The Kanniedood Dam drive is one of the best in the Far North. In Nyala Drive, there is a good chance of spotting Nyala, Eland, Kudu, Suni Antelope, Lichtenstein’s Hartebeests (a kind of floodplain dwelling antelope), and the Crested Guineafowl (a kind of Guineafowlbird).
Self-drive or guided tour?
Again, it is all possible depending on your own preference. Guided night safari tours allow visitors staying outside the park to enter the park in the evening after the gates close. While self-driving is cheaper and offers freedom and flexibility, I would recommend at least participating in a guided tour even if visitors decide to drive around the park by themselves. The tour guides know their way around the park, and they would communicate with each other to make sure visitors won’t miss out had there been rare animals seen somewhere near. Furthermore, many of those guides always give interesting commentaries and share their knowledge of those amazing creatures.
There is a great selection of vehicles for self-driving and some may find the navigation fairly easy. The animals are accustomed to the vehicles, it’s generally safe unless you get out of the cars and interact with them.
It could be a problem for drivers to look for directions in Kruger (as I said it’s huge), and mobile phone coverage only covers certain parts of Kruger (generally around the rest camps) but not the entire park. For those staying outside of Kruger, they should be aware of the time or they might be locked in if they can’t make it back to the gates before they close.
What to do?
Wow, to name a few. There are help guides for visitors to look for activities and tours. There are also tour packages that fit different groups of travelers. Classic safari, family holiday, honeymoon, or specialized game viewing… Explore and you will find yourself overwhelmed!
Don’t forget to participate in an evening safari tour because this is the chance that visitors get to enter the park in the evening after the gates closed, and there’s a higher chance that visitors can spot nocturnal animals, including leopard, which is usually more active when the sun goes down ~ 😊