Going on safari in Africa is on pretty much everyone’s bucket list. Who wouldn’t want to get up close and personal with a majestic giraffe or marvel at the power and beauty of a pride of lions. Seeing these animals in their natural habitat is a thrilling experience. Kruger National Park is one of the oldest and also largest parks around and it draws millions of people to its gates every year.
But when it comes to planning a safari in the Kruger, there are so many options it’s almost dizzying. You can stay in everything from primitive tented camps all the way through luxurious game lodges that cater to your every need. You can go on the cheap and self drive or you can have a ranger take you on a guided journey.
With all of the options out there it’s hard to decide, so I’m here to help you get a better understanding of what to expect and which means of exploration is right for you.
We spent 6 days in the Kruger and did a mix of both self driving the Kruger and staying in a Private Game Reserve, so we have a good understanding of the pros and cons to each. Here is what each is like.
Kruger Self Drive Safari:
On a self drive safari you’ll more than likely fly into Kruger Mpumalanga International (MPQ/ 1.5 hours from Kruger) or Johannesburg International (JNB/ 4.5 hours from Kruger). The drive from Johannesburg is longer, but a rental car will cost less from this location because it is the busiest airport in the country. In South Africa they drive on the left so make sure you get to know your car before you set off. I found that I frequently hit the windshield wiper instead of the turn signal quite often! We just called it the American windshield wave hello!
First elephant sighting upon entering the park! So exciting. Remember, they drive on the left in South Africa!
Hazyview and Nelspruit are the nearest big towns to the park. Here you can find grocery stores to stock up on food before you enter the park. You can buy one of those cheap white Styrofoam coolers and fill it with necessities for your stay. There are also stores inside the park with a more limited selection, these can be a bit more expensive.
If you don’t want to deal with a cooler and food, there is also the option to purchase all of your supplies on an as needed basis from the rest camps in the park. These places also have restaurants to eat at. What you choose to do will depend on your budget. We opted to skip the cooler and just eat all of our meals at the restaurants in the park or at the accommodation we stayed at. This is a bit more expensive, but we got to concentrate on just driving around and enjoying our self drive safari, rather than cooking, cleaning and worrying about where to store our food.
With views like this, paying the extra money to eat at the park restaurants is worth it!
When you do a self drive, you can stay directly in the park at one of the rest camps, or stay outside of the park in the many hotels along the way. If you want to stay at one of the rest camps in the park, you need to book well in advance.
Our trip was planned last minute, so most of the good spots inside the park were sold out. So we chose to stay just outside the gates at the Crocodile Bridge Safari Lodge. It was a reasonably priced place, located less than 200 meters from the Crocodile Bridge entrance gate.
Luxury tents at the Crocodile Bridge Safari Lodge.
A typical day involved getting up early and eating breakfast at the Lodge and then heading into the park to drive ourselves around. The roads in the park are well maintained and clearly marked so it’s easy to get around. We just picked a route and drove around, stopping at our leisure and watching out for animals. The southern section of the park is one of the most active and you have a high likelihood of seeing all of the big 5 here.
Seeing a lion up close, is an awe inspiring experience!
We would stop for lunch at one of the rest camps and head out for another safari in the afternoon. The rest camps have boards that show where a particular animal has last been sighted, so if you really want to see a lion, you can check out the board and head in that direction when you head out on safari again. Once the day was over we would head back to our accommodation and relax with a cocktail and look at all of the awesome photos we took. On the self drive option, we could go wherever we wanted during the day.
Elephant crossing in the park!
Morning time is when animals are most active
Staying in a Private Game Reserve:
When you stay at a Lodge in the park, all of your wishes are catered too. From the moment you check in you will feel like royalty. Some of the cheapest places start at 300$ per night and go all the way up to over 1000$ a night! How deep are your pockets?
The best way to pick a lodge is to figure out what part of the park you want to be in, your price range and your desired amenities and then do some research on Tripadvisor to find one that matches closely with your needs.
We knew that we would already cover the southern half of the park with our own vehicle on our self drive safari so we opted for a lodge that was more toward the middle section of the park so we could see the landscape there. We wanted something middle of the road in price, but still great quality. In the end we ended up choosing the Imbali Safari Lodge. It was a gorgeous place with a very intimate feeling. All the meals were served on a deck overlooking a watering hole, where animals came daily to get a drink.
Lunch with the million dollar view
Our nightly cocktail spot. Happy hour with the elephants!
Unlike the self drive option, you are on a schedule at the safari lodge. You can choose to partake in all or none of the activities. You can make it as relaxing as you choose, but your ranger led game drives will have a definite schedule. A typical day at Imbali started off with an early AM wake up call with coffee, tea and biscuits. Animals are most active in the early morning so the first safari of the day is usually before the sun rises.
Bleary eyed, but ready to see some wildlife
More coffee, tea and biscuits half way through the morning safari
After the morning safari, breakfast is served on the deck and then you have the afternoon free to do as you please. Most people relaxed by the pool, read some books or got a massage. Lunch is served around midday, and an hour or 2 before sunset, cocktails are served before you head out on the afternoon safari.
Kruger is home to some amazingly beautiful birds as well! Bring your binoculars!
The afternoon safari ended a little after sunset. We had a chance to wash up and then join the whole group for dinner in the lodge.
Pros and Cons:
Self Drive Pros – Much cheaper. Freedom to go where you want when you want. Not stuck on a particular game concession.
Self Drive Cons – The person driving your car can’t concentrate on looking out for animals. Accommodation outside of the park can take a while to get too. You don’t learn about the habitats and behaviors of the animals. Smaller cars have a low visibility when searching for animals.
Private Reserve Pros – Everything is taken care of for you, no meal prep, driving, worrying about gas. The rangers who work at the lodges have infinite knowledge of the animals in the park and they will not only point things out for you but give you a lesson in their behaviors. Lodge rangers work together, by radioing to each other the specific locations of certain animals, this way you are more likely to see all of the big 5.
Private Reserve Cons– Much more expensive. Each lodge has a concession in the park that they must keep their guests in, you don’t have to pay the daily Kruger entrance fee, but you are only allowed in that smaller part of the park. Guests are paired up in groups of 6-8 people for safari and dinner. You may or may not like everyone in your group. We really enjoyed our group mates so it was a positive for us.
Differences between Kruger National Park and the Private Game Reserves:
In Kruger National Park, vehicles must stay on public roads, some of which are tarred. In the private reserves, most of the roads are dirt, and the vehicles are allowed off-road so you can get up close & personal to the wildlife.
Giraffe crossing on our self drive
In Kruger, accommodation is clean and comfortable, basic and affordable. At private safari lodges, accommodation ranges from rustic to super luxurious.
Our tent at the Sabie River Bush Lodge during our last day
In Kruger Park, unless you join a guided safari, you will need to self-cater, or dine at the camp restaurants. If you stay at private lodges, all meals are included and catered.
In Kruger, you’ll get a feeling of its vastness, and have an enormous area to explore, covering different landscapes and vegetation types. Most of the private reserves have a limited traversing area, with a limited area permitted for game drives.
Due to the size of Kruger, you are likely to see a greater number and variety of animals on safari in Kruger compared to the private reserves.
Because vehicles from different lodges stay in radio contact, you are likely to see more prime sightings such as predators at private reserves, and can often get up close to big cat sightings.
A rare sighting of a Pangolin. One of the secret 7. Our guide radioed its location to another group so everyone could see it!
In Kruger Park, there can be many vehicles at a sighting, especially at a popular one such as a predator kill. In the private reserves, you are not permitted to drive your own car so there are much fewer vehicles at sightings.
In Kruger, you have electrified perimeter fences at the rest camps, and you can view night prowlers like hyenas with spotlights from the safety of the camps. In private lodges, there are often no fences and the wildlife visitors are free to roam through the lodge area.
In Kruger, the camp gates open at sunrise and close at sunset (actual times vary according to season). During the day, you can stay out on game drive as long as you want to. In the private reserves, most lodges have a fixed daily itinerary which includes a morning game drive and an afternoon game drive which continues after dark as a night drive (drives are usually 3-4 hours long).
In general, Kruger is a lot less expensive and is a great safari option for those on a tight budget who want to see a variety of different landscapes and wildlife. The private reserves cost more and are great for those who want a more exclusive, luxury safari experience with the chance of some great close-up sightings.
Best time of year to safari in Kruger – The best wildlife viewing in Kruger is during the dry winter months from April to October. At this time the bush thins out and animals congregate around waterholes and rivers. This way it is much easier to spot wildlife. There are less tourists during this time, and you are not likely to need anti-malarial pills. The peak season runs November-March, with late December to February being the busiest. The weather is hot and there is plenty of rain so the bush is nice and green. Accommodation gets booked out and you may have to jockey for position with other cars at prime viewing sites. With that being said, we visited the Kruger in November. We thought it was the perfect time of year, because it wasn’t too hot yet, the crowds were still light and there were baby animals everywhere! Seeing all of the babies was one of the highlights for us.
Adorable baby giraffe!