A visit to Kruger National Park

In September my wife and I spent two weeks in southern Africa visiting South Africa and Namibia. It was our first visit to the region and we followed a well-trodden tourist itinerary, spending most of our time in South Africa’s Kruger National Park and in Namibia’s Etosha National Park. It was a wonderful trip! Now that the dust has settled here are a few photos and impressions of our experience.

Kruger National Park covers about 7,500 square miles in the north-east of South Africa. It’s a large region – more than twice the size of Yellowstone in the US – that stretches more than 200 miles north to south. The basic setup for visiting is pretty simple. Paved roads connect the various entrance gates to a network of “rest camps”, which offer various levels of accommodation, camping, supplies and services. There are also unpaved roads, which you can avoid if you just want to travel between the entrance gates and most of the rest camps, but which access locations (along rivers for example) that might be good locations for wildlife viewing. You can drive both paved and unpaved roads in your own vehicle, but only between the hours of dawn and dusk. At night you have to be either inside a rest camp (which are gated and fenced) or outside the park. The larger rest camps also offer various activities, primarily game drives in the morning, afternoon or early evening, and walks with rangers in the morning and afternoon. There are a limited number of more specialized activities offered by the National Park, such as longer walking trips with overnight stays in the bush. Some private camps are situated within the park proper, though the main area for private game lodges is the adjacent Sabi Sands. These are much more expensive than the National park accommodation.

What we did. We flew to Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport (MQP), which has scheduled commuter service from elsewhere in South Africa, rented a car, and drove into the park via the Kruger Gate. We stayed for the first two nights at Skukuza rest camp, which is sprawling but beautifully situated. One evening we ate dinner outside at the camp restaurant watching hippo and buffalo grazing in the river below. At Skukuza we booked night and sunset game drives, the highlights of which were sightings of lion and leopard.

Lioness at night, Skukuza rest camp

Twilight on a sunset drive along unpaved roads near Skukuza

A very relaxed leopard seen on a sunset drive from Skukuza

The lights on Kruger game vehicles are not very powerful – you’ll need very high ISO to get anything in the way of photos after dark.

We also went on a morning walk from Skukuza. The game walks in the Kruger bush are organized as small groups – in our case there were just four of us – accompanied by two armed rangers who lead the group at a moderate pace along game trails for three or so hours, stopping for wildlife and signs of wildlife. It’s much harder to find wildlife on foot than from a vehicle, but we got to see a pair of rhino at close range.

Even without the rhinos, the experience of walking in the bush and hearing from rangers who know what to look for was incredible… a highlight of the trip.

During the day between the organized activities we had good luck driving the S1 toward the Phabeni gate.

Along the S1, Kruger National Park

From Skukuza we spent the better part of a day driving the 150km slowly north to Olifants rest camp. The scenery changes from the dense bush around Skukuza to something closer to my vision of the savanna, before entering hillier terrain around the Olifants river.

North of Lower Sabie rest camp

On the road north to Olifants rest camp

Olifants is a smaller camp than Skukuza, with a wonderful situation atop a hill overlooking the river. You’re too far up to get a close view of the wildlife but it’s a great view.

Olifants rest camp, Kruger National Park

View from Olifants rest camp, Kruger National Park

Visiting at the end of the dry season the weather turned against us at Olifants. A morning walk was cancelled and we spent a cold evening on a sunset drive with the rain lashing through our open-sided safari vehicle. We had moderate success seeing wildlife on a loop along paved and unpaved roads north of the camp. Traffic north of Olifants is pretty sparse.

North of Olifants rest camp

After two nights in Olifants we drove south, stopping only for lions, in time to catch an afternoon flight out of Kruger airport.

Advice for visiting Kruger. Four nights in Kruger does not an expert make, even on the internet, but I did learn a few things that weren’t obvious (to me) in advance.

Choosing Kruger rest camps. At busy times you need to book accommodation at Kruger rest camps in advance, and if you leave it too late – as we did – the choice is limited. Reading advice on the web we worried that we’d screwed up because the “best” camps (often suggested to be Satara and Lower Sabie) weren’t available. We worried too much. At least for a first visit Skukuza and Olifants made great places to stay.

Distances. The speed limit in Kruger is 50 km/h. If you’re driving to get somewhere and stop only for lions it’s OK to plan on averaging 40-50 km/h. If you’re driving while actively trying to spot wildlife, 20-30 km/h is more like it. We didn’t have noticeably better luck on unpaved versus paved roads, perhaps because on an unpaved road the driver has to devote most of their attention to the road.

Seeing wildlife. In Kruger the wildlife is pretty spread out, and at least in the south of the park the bush is dense and visibility is limited. The name of the game is covering miles while keeping a close watch for anything within sight of the road. You win on an organized tour because the vehicles are higher off the ground, the driver can spot wildlife you’d miss, and you can be out later in the day and into the night, but it’s perfectly possible to see most of the wildlife on your own.

Seeing predators. The big cats are easiest to find at night. During the day you might still see a lion, but it will likely be asleep and hard to photograph if it’s in the bush. We saw a hyena near the road, but only because its kill was nearby.

Hyena by the road north of Skukuza

Other wildlife. We saw one snake – basking on the road after sundown – and countless birds both beautiful and big and ugly.

Lilac-breasted roller

Kruger wifi. As of September 2016 very limited wi-fi was available at the Skukuza coffee shop, but not anywhere else. Cell phone service was available in most but not all places along the roads we drove.

Kruger accommodation. The cottages in the rest camps are rustic rather than luxurious… expect to share rooms with a healthy contingent of spiders and the odd lizard. By European or north American standards, however, they’re very reasonably priced.

Organizing an independent trip to Kruger. We booked everything ourselves, using the normal travel websites for cars and flights and the official SANParks for activities and accommodation within Kruger. It was pretty easy. The setup is a bit different from the US National Parks, but it’s a straightforward and professional operation.

Would I recommend Kruger? Absolutely. We took better photographs in Etosha, but for a first experience of wildlife in southern Africa Kruger did not disappoint in any way.

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