A first time visitors' guide to Kruger National Park
A brief guide to give you a little more info on this iconic safari and wildlife destination.
Operations & Marketing Development
23 Nov 2020
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Why go to Kruger?
Kruger National Park in South Africa is huge! It is over 2.2 million hectares in size, that’s roughly 19,600 sq km – so there’s vast areas to explore and with plentiful wildlife, including the Big Five and much, much more. Kruger is considered to be one of the most well-rounded and easily accessible safari destinations in Southern Africa, especially if you are wanting to self-drive.
Kruger is home to…
Nearly 150 different mammal species
Over 500 species of birds
336 different tree species
Many, many more species of reptiles, amphibians and fish.
Plenty of historical sites, including ancient rock art by early human residents
Our favourite Kruger safari
This is a wildlife extravaganza which will take you to the very best that a South African safari has to offer. Superlative safari lodges, exceptional guiding, four different regions.
For 13 nights you'll explore phenomenal South Africa. Starting in the world-renowned Sabi Sands, then to Madikwe Private Game Reserve, Kalahari National Park and culminating in wonderful Cape Town.
This South Africa Safari Adventure costs from £13,145 per person and includes:
Because the park is so vast that it makes a great year-round place to visit. There is not generally a 'peak season' as its popular all year – but Kruger Park does tend to be busier during times which coincide with South African school holidays as it’s a very popular place with South Africans.
Of course, different seasons provide different opportunities to see different things.
November to March – This spring through to summer in South Africa and when the main rain season occurs and there can be spectacular thunderstorms. But, with the rains brings fresh life and an abundance of young animals with predator activity at a high. The bush is at its greenest with migratory birds having arrived from the north. It is a wonderful and colourful time of year to experience the African bush. Temperatures can be high during the day and warm on a night.
April to October – April sees the beginning of the dry, winter season with the majority of the rains leaving South Africa. The bush will begin to dry up meaning wildlife viewing becomes easier with animals beginning to congregate around the more permanent water sources, meaning predators tend to be easier to find as they know the best places to hunt. Temperatures during the day are more moderate than summer with nights being cool and refreshing.
Where should you go and where should you stay
There’s a myriad of choices but before we delve in to them, let me briefly explain the main differences between staying either in the main area of Kruger National Park (KNP), accommodation on the peripheral boundaries of the park compared to those located in one of the private conservancies or reserves which form part of the Greater Kruger National Park (GKNP).
There are no fenced borders between these private areas and KNP which means wildlife populations can go where they want. However, the private concessions are strictly for guests staying there with no self-driving permitted and the general public are not allowed to enter.
Some of these areas include; Timbovati Game Reserve, Klaserie, Manyelati, Mala Mala, Londolozi and of course Sabi Sands, which is world famous for its high population density of leopards.
Staying at one of the private conservancies offers world class safaris in luxury lodge surroundings and allows for game viewing safari activities not permitted in the main area of KNP. Differences include:
Safari rangers are permitted to go ‘off-road’ for special sightings such as the big cats and other predators – this is not permitted in KNP for a multitude of reasons, wildlife safety as well as public safety being a couple of the primary reasons. Safari rangers are well-trained in reading wildlife behaviour and knowing how to react wildlife that they encounter.
The number of vehicles on a wildlife sighting is also strictly controlled, usually a maximum of two or three, meaning that there is less intrusion on the animal as well an optimised game viewing experience for clients.
Bush walks and night drives are more readily available without having to pre-book. Both of these activities are an excellent way to experience African nature from a different perspective.
You will most certainly have a wonderful experience being hosted by some of the best lodges and facilities in South Africa with the opportunity of seeing the Big Five, potentially up-close, under the expert guidance of some of the best safari guides in the country as they expertly enthral you about the wonders of the African bushveld.
Three of our favourites:
Londolozi Founders Camp, Londolozi
The word 'Londolozi' comes from the Zulu word meaning 'protector of all living things'
One of South Africa's original private game reserves and is situated in an exquisite location on the Sand River in the world renowned Sabi Sands. An internationally lauded and a pillar of global eco-tourism. No two days are the same at Londolozi and the experience is perfectly tailored to the needs of the clients who stay.
Phenomenal game viewing in one of the best safari destinations in the world. Cheetah Plains is a mix of contemporary design with sustainability high on the agenda... so much so that each of their safari game vehicles is electrically powered, giving their guests a whole new safari experience.
In 2016, voted number 1 amongst all the top resorts and safari camps in Africa by Conde Nast Traveller. Owned by Sir Richard Branson, with impeccable attention to detail and offering simply stunning wildlife safaris combined with outstanding guest facilities and sumptuous accommodation. This is the epidemy for those looking for a high-end safari experience.
For those wanting to simply dip their toes in to a safari experience in KNP, there are several options to stay outside the boundaries of the park with accommodation to suit everyone’s budget: larger hotels, safari lodges and backpackers. Half and full day safaris can be organised through the accommodation but generally are not included as part of the cost, whereas it would be included when staying at a private lodge or safari camp.
Of course, if you are on your own self-drive tour of the area it is certainly possible to stay outside the park and buy a day pass and enjoy the wilds of Kruger on your own timetable. The cost for a day pass is ZAR 400 per adult and ZAR 200 per child, which equates to roughly £20 and £10 respectively (correct at time of writing).
There are several small towns, such as Hoedspruit and Hazyview in the vicinity which also have plenty of accommodation available.
Staying within main Kruger National Park
Within the boundaries of the main KNP there are also a small number upmarket lodges which have private traversing rights to areas within the main KNP. They also have outstanding facilities and can offer similar experiences and a touch of luxury for those wanting to stay amidst the largest national park in South Africa
Here are some of our favourites.
Pel's Post - Northern Kruger
Perfectly located in one of the most northern and remote regions of the Kruger National Park, Pel's Post offers a touch of luxury with fantastic guiding.
The area is famous for its diverse habitats which support a wide range of wildlife, including large herds of elephants and plenty of lions. The private safari lodge is perfectly perched on the Luvuvhu river bank, offering unparalleled views of the vast remote wilderness and river below.
An off the beaten track gem - ideal for those who love unusual experiences . A modern safari lodge found in the wilds of the very north of the Kruger National Park away from the hustle and bustle of the southern regions.
Located in a stunningly rugged region, The Outpost offers guests a luxury experience to rival any top end lodge in the region. Built high in to a hillside, the lodge commands spectacular views of the surrounding wilderness and is perfect for those looking for a combination of adventure and luxury.
A top quality safari experience tucked away in a quiet conservancy of the Kruger National Park
Jock Safari Lodge - Legendary experiences in the Kruger National Park which promises a top-quality safari experience in a quiet conservancy in the often busier southern regions of the park, which means you can have a much more intimate experience combined with great guiding and luxury lodge surroundings.
Self -driving and self-catering rest camps within Kruger National Park
These tend to be aimed more at the local market and those who want the freedom to self-drive exploring Kruger at their leisure and on their own timetable. Chalet and bungalow facilities vary from rest camp to rest camp, but most rest camps having a shop where you can stock up and buy food, groceries and other essentials. Most of the larger rest camps to have fuel available, so if you do decide to self-drive through Kruger, you shouldn’t have too many issues.
Self-driving and being able to explore the park at your leisure with great company is just one of the reasons why it’s one of my favourite things to do. You can take your time, learn how to search for the resident wildlife and be able to identify it using handy guidebooks. And at the end of a rewarding day, depending on the camps you stay in, there’s an outside braai (BBQ) area where you can cook and enjoy a lovely dinner whilst sipping on an ice-cold Savannah cider and watching an ocean of stars in the night sky above you. Bliss. There has been plenty of times I befriended my neighbours for the night or two as we shared the wildlife encounters of the day around the braai.
Camping in KNP is also possible within designated camp sites, usually within the rest camps themselves.
How do I get there?
Realistically, in my mind and from my experience, the best two ways to get to and enjoy the wonders of the Kruger National Park are either to have a self-drive experience or to stay at one of the safari lodges in one of the private concessions. It is certainly possible to combine the two and have the best of both worlds by self-driving to Kruger and then staying in one of the lovely safari lodges we’ve discussed above.
Here are some suggestions how to get to the Kruger area.
There are a few airstrips in the main KNP itself, which help to service some private lodges and concessions within the main Kruger regions with a few scheduled flights.
A number of the lodges in the private concessions will be located close to private airstrips where chartered flights or scheduled ‘lodge hopper flights’ from airports close to GKNP, fly guests close to their safari lodge. Whilst a premium, it is a very fun experience and you’ll land close to your lodge where you’ll be met by your safari guide and whisked off to your lodge where you’ll be warmly welcomed with a cooling drink before grabbing a rest before heading out on your first safari adventure. These lodges also run a collection service where they will meet you at one of the local airports and transfer you to the lodge by road.
Fly and drive
A popular option is to fly from Johannesburg, or other major South African areas into one of the towns in proximity to KNP and pick up a rental vehicle from there and do your own self-drive itinerary around the Kruger area.
There are a number of flights which service local airports, most of which have hire car facilities. Depending on which region of Kruger you are wanting to explore first will determine which airport will be most convenient for you to arrive and begin your journey from.
Southern Kruger is easiest accessed from either Mpumalanga or Nelspruit airports
Mid Kruger is easiest accessed from Hoedspruit. This is also where a lot of private safari lodges will pick their guests up on arrival.
North Kruger is easiest accessed from Phalaborwa allowing for reasonably convenient access to some of the more remote regions of KNP
Depending on the time of your arrival, it might be worth spending the day exploring the local town, picking up supplies and then heading in to Kruger the next morning – if you do and you’re close to Hoedspruit, make sure you bob in to Sleepers Bar and Restaurant, which is a locally famous establishment with a warm atmosphere, a wonderful pizza menu and is built in an old railway station – just remember to bring your appetites.
Another option is to do a full self-drive tour, land in Johannesburg and then pick up your rental the next day – driving to Kruger takes at least six hours, depending on where you’re based.
There’s also plenty to see and do along the way meaning it’s well worth taking your time as you’ll be passing through areas of stunning scenery such as the Drakensburg Mountains, Blyde River Canyon and the Panoramic Route which is home to iconic vistas such as God’s Window, Bourke’s Luck Potholes and many, many waterfalls. It’s always worth making a stop at the famous Harry’s Pancakes in Dullstoom and Graskop with their mouth-watering and extensive list of pancakes for you to feast on.
So, if you don’t mind taking your time – perhaps spend a couple of days exploring the region either before or after your safari in Kruger National Park.
Hiring a suitable vehicle
Quite a few of the main roads in Kruger are now tarmacked, however there are still a lot of roads which are more gravel and dust tracks so hiring a suitable vehicle is always a wise idea. You might not necessarily need a 4x4 (although these are always fun to drive) but having a vehicle with a moderately high road clearance, such as an SUV is a sensible option. Also remember to take out tyre damage insurance if it is on offer, it may save you a lot of money. Make sure you have a good distance allowance as those miles can easily clock up and you don’t want to be stung with driving over a certain distance.
Self-driving in Kruger – the do’s and don’ts
I’ll break this down in to three parts.
Firstly, wildlife viewing - Remember the wildlife has the right of way.
Always remember that you are in their home so respect the wildlife and give it space, especially with larger species such as elephants, rhino and buffalo. Resist the temptation to lean out of the window or stand through the sunroof to get a better view, especially with predator species. Do not go off-road to get a better view, this will probably provoke or frighten the wildlife. And certainly, do not get out of your vehicle unless you are in a designated public area.
Secondly, watch your speed.
There are strict speed limits within KNP – tarmac roads 50kmph and gravel roads 40kmph. Do not exceed these as there are traffic police which patrol the park waiting to catch anyone who breaks these limits and can issue an on the spot fine. Another reason is for the welfare of the wildlife. I have seen first-hand the results of a vehicle travelling too quickly and being unable to stop or avoid an animal which has decided to cross the road. Not only will you damage the vehicle but more importantly you can harm or kill an animal.
Third, always carry a map.
The road network is vast (there is over 3,000km) and it can be a little confusing, even with the handy road signs. These maps are in the KNP guidebook which you can purchase at any of the rest camps and at the entrance gates to the park.. Always try to plan your routes if you are self-driving allowing for plenty of time and fuel to reach your next stop. Distances between camps can be a little deceptive but you need to also factor in stopping to view any wildlife you come across.
The main, public regions of Kruger National Park are generally broken down into the following regions
Far North and North
Central Grasslands and Southern Mopane
Southern sections (including Skukuza, south east and south west)
Each has its own benefits depending on what you want to see and experience.
Far North and North Kruger
The far north is less visited, making a more secluded experience and it is not uncommon to hardly see another vehicle for the entire day.
The Pafuri and Punda Maria areas are some of my favourites with towering trees, large herds of elephants and its prolific birding. There are good predator sightings here too with lion, leopard and wild dog being seen in the area.
Best rest camps and lodges – Pafuri Camp, Punda Maria, The Outpost, Pel’s Post, Shingwedzi
Key species – Elephant, lion, wild dog, pel’s fishing owl, giant eagle owl, spotted hyena, hippo, zebra and African fish eagle.
Central Grasslands and Southern Mopane
The central areas are a little busier with visitors, but it is still not too busy.
Along the river systems you’ll find towering trees as well as open savannah and through the central corridor you’ll find almost arid areas but you still have plenty of opportunity to see wildlife with elephants and plains game aplenty here.
Best rest camps and lodges – Mopani, Letaba, Olifants and Satara
Key species – Bushbuck, elephant, lion, spotted hyena, African fish eagle, hippo, Nile crocodile and martial eagle, giraffe, blue wildebeest, honey badger and rhino.
The southern section particularly around Lower Sabi and Skukuza are big cat heaven. Leopards and lions love this area and are seen pretty much daily. Which is why it is one of the more popular areas with visitors vying for a glimpse of a leopard asleep in a tree or a pride of lions on the move.
The rest camps in the southern regions tend to be larger and more developed with plenty of convenience stores and a wide selection of restaurants.
Best rest campsand lodges – Skukuza, Lower Sabi, Jocks Safari Lodge, Berg en Dal
Key species – Spotted hyena, purple-crested lourie, thick tailed bush baby, warthog, leopard, lion, giant kingfisher, goliath heron, wild dog, kudu, sable antelope, klipspringer, giraffe, cheetah and rhino.
Other useful information
Money. There are not many ATMs in KNP, but most places will accept Visa and Mastercard (credit and debit), so if you’d rather use cash, then withdrawn what you will need prior to arriving at the park.
Phone signal. I have seen a remarkable increase in the availability of cell/mobile phone signal over the last few years. It might be worth considering purchasing a local pre-paid SIM card and using that as your main contact device.
Food and other supplies. Most rest camps will have reasonably good food stocks with the larger camps generally having a bigger selection, you will be surprised at what you will be able to find. Some camps will also stock game meat for those wanting to be a little adventurous and try local venison.
Restaurants. As mentioned, some of the larger rest camps will have a selection of restaurants for those not wanting to self-cater on an evening. If a rest camp is on your route through the park and you’re not staying there, it is certainly possible to pop in for lunch, pick up supplies or simply take a rest from driving.
Malaria and medication. GKNP and KNP are considered malaria areas with some seasons (particularly the wet and rainy) having higher populations of mosquito. Generally, in the driers season there are less mosquitos around. All we would advise is consult your local GP and follow their advice.
What to do next and where to go
This article is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to learning about and exploring the wonderous Kruger National Park in South Africa for yourself.
Whether you'd like to learn more about self-driving around this phenomenal region or you'd like to experience the outstanding luxury of one of the top-quality lodges - we'd love to create a bespoke safari to the Kruger National Park, tailor-made to your expectations.
If you'd like to learn more about a safari experience to the Kruger National Park call our experts on 01768 603 715 who will be happy to help, or send us a message on our quick and easy enquiry form.
In the meantime here are some fantastic trips to whet your appetite further...
Self Drive Kruger and Mozambique Adventure
Dramatic mountain escarpments, world-class wildlife viewing and secluded beaches await on this wonderful trip.
Taking in some of the most beautiful parts of South Africa and Mozambique, this trip is perfect for travellers looking to experience the two countries’ most iconic experiences, but with the added thrill of exploring under your own steam.
Experience the majesty of the African wilderness on foot. This is a safari experience that will take you in to the African bushveld where even 4x4 vehicles struggle. After an exhilarating bush adventure, its on to cosmopolitan Cape Town where you can soak up the culture and atmosphere of this beautiful city.
Enjoying three of South Africa's most iconic experiences, start your adventure in Cape Towm taking in the sights and sounds of this cosmopolitan city. Then head in to the famed Winelands to sample the best wines that South Africa has to offer. Finally on to the infamous Kruger National Park to get your wildlife fix and go in search of the famous Big Five.