Kruger Safari, South Africa

Elephant face-off, Kruger National Park, South Africa map

A self-drive close encounter with an African Elephant on a Kruger safari. That’s the business! In your own car randomly coming across a serious chunk of wildlife, eyeball to eyeball at less than 3 metres.

How to do a Kruger Safari

a rhino near a car in Kruger National Park, South Africa travel

A rhino snuffling in the undergrowth just  a few steps away from our hire car.

The Kruger safari hype can be overwhelming. ‘One of the world’s best national parks. . . as big as Wales. . . more animals than the Serengetti. . . drive yourself around at your own pace. . . safari pictures to show your grand children’ and so on. These kind of PR puffs lead to over-expectations of a verdant Eden, alive with wildlife lumbering or skittering in front of your wheels at every curve, while you exchange meaningful glances with the Big Five from behind your safely air-bagged steering wheel. Not so. Kruger is the biggest of all South Africa national parks but laced with limited roads that you have to follow (although rangers on game drives don’t) giving wildlife plenty of space to conceal itself, though riverbanks can deliver particularly good animal sightings visible even from terraces in the better rest camps – especially riverside camps or lodges.

Best Season in Kruger

South African currency with animal pictures, South Africa

The ‘Big Five’ appearing on South African currency.

The best time to see wildlife in Kruger is the dry winter season (May-September), but beware crowding and accommodation shortage during the 3 week South Africa school holidays (mid June-mid July). When it rains sparsely the grass is shorter giving better wildlife visibility, while animals tend to wander less and gather at waterholes or river banks, making them relatively easy targets for shots, camera shots. Winter is also low/no malaria season with warm days. But note that chilly nights and very cold early mornings are when the safari tours depart and your transport may be an open jeep. Cold is a common tourist complaint. Also the enticing swimming pools in many rest camps will be barely useable in winter. n. b. Roughly mid June to mid July is South Africa school holidays and Kruger National Park accommodation, especially the best, will be booked up many months in advance, maybe up to a year, so BOOK AHEAD!

May-September temperatures range from lows of 6C (43F) to average highs of 29C (84F). October-April temperatures range from lows of 15C (59F) to average highs of 33C (91F), though 38C+ (100F+) is not unknown. If you’re heat-resistant, like to use swimming pools, enjoy lush vegetation and birds (summer is their best season) and are ready to gobble anti-malarial tablets then this could be a good time for you. n. b. tents can be scorching in summertime (so consider a room with air con)!

Luxury Lodge versus Rest Camp

Dinner in one of Kruger’s upmarket game lodges.

We were obliged to fork out for this luxury camp for a couple of days because we arrived at South Africa’s Mpumalanga airport (near Kruger) during a holiday and all the budget rest camps were booked up. The lodge was a brilliant high-end experience but not so good for animal viewing. We moved to a less spectacular but convenient and way cheaper rest camp as soon as possible.

Charging elephant, Kruger NP safari, South Africa

A heffalump gets in a flap in Lukimbi Game Reserve, mock-charging an offroad safari tour jeep.

Interestingly we saw more wildlife when based at the cheapo rest camp than at the luxury lodge. We believe it’s because the animals in the vicinity of the lodge were unused to hearing vehicles and would disappear pronto whereas the rest camp region was always humming with cars so local beasts were accustomed to seeing/hearing them and unafraid. More on Lodges and Camps

Breakfast in a typical mid-range rest camp bungalow in Kruger National Park, South Africa

Breakfast in a typical mid-range rest camp bungalow on Kruger safari.

Drive-Yourself-Wild Car Rentals

Africans outside Numbi Gate, Kruger National Park, South Africa

Kruger’s Numbi Gate, half an hour’s drive from Mpumalanga airport and things look decidedly human.

Animals  stroll across roads, neither looking left nor right, oblivious of 4 wheeled Kruger safari observers.

Kruger National Park is one of the few animal-packed national parks in the world where tourists are permitted to drive around in their own vehicles, albeit NOT offroad. This cuts down on animal sightings but is a very comfortable, cheap and relaxing way to get around, particularly with kids on board, and all the more fun for bumping into an African elephant in a Ford Focus! Game lodges and rest camps run off-road wildlife safaris too in 4XD vehicles with trackers, included if the traveler is staying in a private lodge and pay-to-view if a rest camp is home. Car rentals can be made at airports, Nelspruit town or even Skukuza camp. Most Kruger roads are in good shape so 4WD is not necessary. Gas stations inside the park do not accept credit cards. SatNav is an asset. With a maximum speed limit on tarred roads of 50kph and 40 kph on dirt time required to drive between camps is between 1-2 hours in the southern sector. It is not permitted to get out of your car outside a rest camp. Gates to Kruger Park and rest camps close at more-or-less sunset (about 6pm) and open at about sunrise (5-6am). DO CHECK your rental car air con thoroughly before heading out on a Kruger safari! In the summertime, November-March, temperatures can reach 38C+ (100F+). Also buy a cooler box, ice packs, and groceries before arriving in the park, from a nearby town such as Nelspruit.

Getting There

Kruger National Park Map courtesy of SANParks.

Kruger Park, bordered to the east by Mozambique and to the north by Zimbabwe, has nine gates, 21 rest camps (good value, self catering possible, government-owned, frequently shoddy service), a handful of satellite camps and bush camps, and 15 private safari lodges (very costly but always comfortable and often extremely luxurious). Most wildlife tourists stop in Kruger’s southern sector where rest camps range from poor (Pretoriuskop) to arguably the best (Lower Sabie), due to the large airport at Mpumalanga and the long driving distances involved. Southwest gates are also nearest to Johannesburg so many locals arrive from that direction and naturally prefer not to drive a whole lot further.

A nearby alternative to a Kruger safari…

However. . . if you really want an African safari with vast numbers of wild animals, go to the waterholes of Namibia’s Etosha or the plains of Kenya and Tanzania. That being said Kenya and Tanzania wildlife safaris are hideously expensive and your timetable is always controlled by a third party – a game ranger or driver, while Namibia is more pricey than South Africa and can be tough to organise. So if you’ve already done East Africa, or can’t afford it, or fancy self drive independence, or want to see other places in/around South Africa too, Kruger Park can be a wonderful experience.