One reason people visit South Africa is to go on a wild safari and see all the animals. There are so many different safaris in South Africa alone, and unfortunately not all safaris are created equally due to geographical location and size of the reserve (private reserves versus national park).
Kruger National Park is THE top place for Safari in South Africa; it’s about an hour flight from Johannesburg and it’s huge area with the Big 5 (lion, buffalo, leopard, elephant, rhino). Many people opt to stay in luxury camps/lodges that take care of all the meals and game drives and in my opinion, it’s a great option. Having said that, South Africa is not the best place for safari in Africa itself, the best safaris are in Kenya and Tanzania (remember Lion King? That’s from Serengeti in Tanzania). However due to time constraints, most tourists visit Cape Town first and would like to do safari without having to spend 5 hours flying to a different country with various visa and vaccine requirements. For a first timer, Kruger National Park will definitely provide you with an unforgettable experience. However if you want something even grander and more “wild”, countries more north of South Africa may have better options for you.
- You are not guaranteed to see the Big 5. Animals are elusive, the guide would know generally where to find them, but there’s no guarantee.
- There are many private reserves and lodges within Kruger, they may be located in different areas of the park but they should all have the Big 5
- Bring a super zoom lens. Often times the animals will be far away because vehicles would disturb them up close
- Bring bug spray. I don’t think there were a lot of mosquitoes when we went in October, but that can change depending on the location and season.
- Bring warm clothes. Usually there is a 5:30am game drive and you will be in a open 4×4, be prepared to stay warm
- All meals are provided. If you have a dietary restriction, let the lodges know ASAP
- Luxury lodges and camps are booked up months in advance, start your search at least 3-4 months in advance to avoid disappointment
- There is cellphone receptions on the safari, if you need to get a sim card, Vodafone is the most used brand and there is a stand that sells sim card at Kruger National Park airport.
- Bring sunglassesa and sunscreen, some of the vehicles may not have a cover
There are direct flights from Johannesburg and Cape Town on South African Airways into Kruger National Park area. Once you land, you can either pick up a rental car or wait for your safari lodge to pick you up. We rented two cars online because it ended up being cheaper to do so than to pay for airport transfer. However if you do not feel comfortable driving in South Africa, it may be best to arrange transportation with your lodge.
If you decide to drive, Google Maps works pretty well in South Africa, so you can always use that or paper maps.
When you search for “Kruger National Park”, a lot of options will come up and it can get quite overwhelming. In Kruger itself, there are tons of options, ranging from rest camps to camp sites to luxury camps and lodges on private reserves within Kruger. You can also self drive through Kruger National Park with a map, but that takes a lot of careful planning. The rule of thumb is to read reviews online before you decide on one. A few things to take into consideration when looking for a safari accommodation:
- Budget: have some numbers before you start looking. Luxury lodges can cost a few hundred dollar a night per person
- Days you want to be there: unless you are doing a self drive, usually your lodge will provide you with 2 game drives a day, one early in the morning (~5am) and one in the afternoon (~4pm). Most people choose 2-3 days (4-6 game drives)
- Number of people in the party: Some of the lodges only have 4 bungalows, so if you have a large party, make sure the lodges will have enough room to accommodate all of you
- When you are going: spring and summer are always popular seasons to go (people want to avoid harsh winters in the North!). If you are going at peak season, start looking at least 3-4 months before. Otherwise all the nice places will be booked up
- Services they provide: generally safari lodges will provide 3 meals a day, plus afternoon tea or coffee on the drive. You should always email the lodge to find out exactly what kind of service and facilities they provide to you and if there are hidden/extra charges
We had 8 people in the party and started the process slightly late (still 2-3 months before) so we had rather limited options. We stayed at a place called N’Kaya Lodge; it’s a private reserve in Kruger. You can read some of the reviews here. The lodge had 4 bungalows, a main dining/chilling lodge, and a swimming pool, although nobody really used the pool because it looked a bit dirty.Besides the 4 bungalows, there is also a central bungalow with wine cellar, dining area, and living space for you to relax and mingle.
The lodges themselves were really nice. There was a living room and TWO bedrooms in each of the bungalow. However, some of the lodges may have mosquito and bats at night, so make sure to bring insect repellent and use the mosquito nets if necessary.
Upon arrival to the main safari welcome center for our reserve, we were greeted by the lodge staff and were introduced to our safari guide. We were asked to park our cars in the main parking lot so they can transport us in a safari vehicle to our bungalows for refreshments.
After resting a bit, it was already 4pm and time for our first afternoon safari drive. The drive usually lasts around 2 hours with a short tea and snack break in the middle.
Dinner was prepared by chef specifically for our lodge, served buffet style. It was a combination of western style appetizers, meat, and dessert. Our safari guide came and ate with us and told us stories of rhino poaching and all the crazy things he had seen while working on the safari. We found out that most of the guides here start when they were pretty young and they are so well trained that they can see and hear things from very far away! This is how they keep visitors safe and they are extremely knowledgeable so ask your guides anything on a safari!
Our second game drive was the next morning at 5:30am. I think excitement was the only thing that motivated us to get up that early in the cold. But hey, how many times do you start your morning seeing zebras and giraffes?
Overall we stayed for 2 nights and did 4 game drives. Unfortunately we didn’t get to see any leopards, those elusive creatures! But we did have a great time there and saw 4 out of the Big 5. Although it was not my first safari, but I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of the safari drives.
In my next two blog posts, I will write about a few other Safaris in South Africa and Botswana, as well as activities at Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. So stay tuned!