It’s many people’s dream to go on a safari in Africa. If you are visiting South Africa, you absolutely cannot miss the safari in Kruger National Park.
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 so it can get very confusing for visitors to pick the best safari in South Africa. Not all safaris are created equally due to geographical location and size of the reserve (private reserves versus national park) but a safari in Kruger National Park is something you simply cannot miss if you are visiting South Africa.
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 all the Big 5 animals. Many people opt to stay in luxury camps/lodges that take care of all the meals and game drives. Many people also come to South Africa for honeymoon to visit Cape Town and Kruger National Park. Having said that, South Africa is actually 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 the entire day flying to a different country with various visa and vaccine requirements. For a first timer, safari in Kruger National Park will definitely provide you with an unforgettable experience. However if you want something even grander and more “wild”(such as the Great Migration), countries more north of South Africa may have better options for you.
How to Get to and Around Kruger National Park
There are direct flights from Johannesburg and Cape Town on South African Airways into Kruger National Park area. There are 3 airports serving Kruger National Park:
Northern Kruger Park: Phalaborwa Airport
Central Kruger Park: Hoedspruit Eastgate Airport
Southern Kruger Park: Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport (KMI)
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.
You can also drive to Kruger National Park from Johannesburg and it takes about 5 hours.
If you decide to drive, Google Maps works pretty well in South Africa, so you can always use that or paper maps.
Lodging During Safari in Kruger National Park
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
N’Kaya Lodge in Kruger National Park
We had 8 people in the party and started the safari booking process slightly late (still 2-3 months before) so we had rather limited options. We stayed at a luxury lodge called N’Kaya Lodge; it’s a private game reserve in Kruger. You can read some of the reviews here. N’Kaya lodge has 4 bungalows (each with 2 rooms with queen size beds), a main dining/chilling lodge, and an outdoor swimming pool..Besides the 4 bungalows, there is also a central bungalow at the N’Kaya Lodge 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. It’s not the fault of the lodges, it’s more the fact that you are in the bush so there are bound to be insects and other animals (you are on a safari after all).
Upon arrival to the main N’Kaya Lodge safari welcome center for our private 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.
Day 1 Afternoon Safari Game Drives in Kruger National Park
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.
It was everyone’s first drive so the excitement was in the air when we departed the lodge. There is always one driver and one guide and 3-6 passengers in a safari vehicle. Some of the safari vehicles have a cover on top but at N’Kaya Lodge our vehicle was open air.
The guides on all the safaris are highly trained and have been doing this for years. They literally can see things from like a mile away and can spot danger much more quickly. They can tell what kind of mood the animals are in, how far and close we can stay, or if it’s time to just turn around. They also know the reserve inside and out and they can guess where most likely you can see one of the big fives. The guides are so well educated in terms of animals that if you ask them anything about any animal, they can probably tell you.
During our first game drive we got very lucky that we ran across two lions napping and all of a sudden the lions got up and started mating. According to our guide, it was the lions’ mating season and they have sex every 15 minutes which is pretty crazy.
We finished our first safari game drive after a nice sunset and drove back to the lodge. It always amazes me how the guides and drivers do not get lost on the safari at Kruger National Park because the area is so vast and all the bushes and roads look the same. What amazes me even more is that there were internet signal on my phone on the safari when I don’t even get signal outside of London in the English countryside.
Dinner on the Safari in Kruger National Park
If you are staying at a lodge in Kruger National Park, they are generally all inclusive and will provide you with delicious meals 3 times a day. Dinner at N’Kaya Lodge was prepared by chef specifically for our lodge, served buffet style. It was a combination of western style appetizers, meat, and dessert. You can get soft drinks but I don’t think alcohol was included (I believe it’s extra charges). If you have specific dietary restrictions you can tell the lodge ahead of time so they can better accommodate you.
Our safari guide came to dinner and ate with us while telling 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!
Day 2 Morning Safari Game Drive in Kruger National Park
If you are staying overnight at least one night, you will get a both afternoon and morning safari game drive. After seeing so much action on our first day afternoon game drive in Kruger National Park we were pretty excited to start our second day. The second game drive turned out to be 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?
Concluding Our Safari at Kruger National Park in South Africa
Overall we stayed for 2 nights and did 4 game drives in Kruger National Park. Unfortunately we didn’t get to see any leopards as they are generally very elusive and hard to catch! 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. It was very hard to leave Kruger National Park because you are so well taken care of at the lodges and on the safari, food was amazing and you truly feel like you are living in luxury.
Things to Know Before You do a Safari in Kruger National Park
Will I see all the cool animals…. I mean the Big 5?
That’s probably the number thing everyone wonders about when they do a safari. I mean after all you come to the safari to see animals right? Unfortunately you are never guaranteed to see the Big 5. Animals are elusive, the guide would know generally where to find them, but there’s no guarantee. Weather also has to do with a lot of it, if it’s raining most likely the animals try to find cover so it’s less likely for you to see them.
Actually, what’s the Big 5 animal again?
The Big 5 animal include: lion, buffalo, leopard, elephant and rhino
What’s the difference between the different private reserves and lodges in Kruger National Park?
There are several key differences between a private reserve like the one I did and the public areas in Kruger National Park.
Accommodation: Kruger National Park is public, there are rest camps that visitors can stay at for cheap. Private reserves are well, private, but they offer much more luxurious stays and lodges. The private reserve lodges are often all inclusive, they have teams of chefs and servers waiting to make you feel as comfortable as possible. Public camps in Kruger National Park do not offer such luxury but are much cheaper
Game Drive: If you are in Kruger National Park, you can drive your own vehicle to see the animals, this sounds really fun but there are a lot of restrictions. For your safety you must stay on established roads, you cannot get out of the vehicle, you don’t have a guide or a tracker and you must return to camp before sunset.
If you are stay are staying on a private reserve for safari in Kruger National Park, the safari will provide the game drives for you. You will always get a driver and a guide, who have years of experience and know generally where the animals are, therefore you have a better chance of seeing the animals you want to see. These licensed guides can also drive off road and approach the animals while private cars cannot. There are generally no more than 2-3 vehicles at any animal sighting so it’s not crowded. They provide tea and snack and let you get out of the vehicle at an area they deem safe. The safari guides at private reserves in Kruger national park are also very knowledgeable so you can learn a lot about the animals you are seeing. You also get 2 game drives a day with these expensive lodges.
Animals You See: This is a slightly tricky one as both public safari sighting in Kruger National Park and private game reserves have their own pro and cons. Private Reserves share the land with Kruger National Park but the private reserves are never THAT big. They generally occupy an area within Kruger National Park so you are more limited in terms of terrain, types of animals, scenery and habitats when you stay on a private reserve.
If you are self driving in Kruger National Park, you are more likely to cover a greater distance and see different things. That being said, all the private game reserves claim they have all the Big 5 on their properties and during my stay at N’Kaya Lodge, a private game reserve, I did see 4 out of the 5 animals. In addition, just because you can drive more in Kruger National Park doesn’t mean you will be able to see all the animals, especially if you do not have a trained guide/animal tracker with you.
So……should I do the private safari reserve or do my own driving safari?
That’s entirely up to you as I have explained above the main differences between the two. If you are on a budget, you should use the public facility and do a self drive safari in Kruger National Park. If you prefer more luxury and don’t want to have anything to worry about, then you should definitely do a luxury safari lodge on one of the private reserves in Kruger National Park.
When is the best time to visit Kruger National Park?
The best time to visit Kruger National Park is during the dry winter month. During the summer, it doesn’t only get really hot but it is also the raining season. Note that South Africa is in the southern hemisphere so their seasons are the opposite of the US and Europe. Raining season in the summer pretty much starts in November. All the rain will make the safari much more lush but it is harder to see animals with dense vegetation. Winter between June and August is very dry with cold evening and morning temperatures, but it is the best time to see all the animals.
How early should I book my safari and stays at Kruger National Park?
AS SOON AS POSSIBLE! If you are on honeymoon or have a relatively large party (more than 4), I would recommend that you book your accommodation and game drives at Kruger national Park as soon as possible. I booked mine 2-3 months ahead and most lodges were sold out (we had 8 people). If you want to have more options of housing then definitely try to book at least 3-4 months ahead of time. It actually does not only apply to Kruger, but also other popular safari places. When I went to Zimbabe and Botswana with 3 others, all the luxury lodges were full at Chobe National Park. I guess there is just not enough supply of luxury camps to go around.
What Should I Bring Onto the Safari in Kruger National Park?
One of the essential things you should bring is a ultra zoom lens (if you use a camera that can change lens). Animals are often very far away so you will need a very good ultra zoom lens to capture them.
Since you are on the safari in the wilderness, there are a lot of bugs, so you need to protect yourself with bug sprays. I highly recommend this bug spray.
The vehicle during our safari was open air, it can get really hot and sunny on the safari so always bring a hat, sunglasses and sunscreen! I personally love the Japanese sunscreens.
Even if you go to Kruger National Park in the summer, the mornings are never that hot. Your game drives usually start at the crack of dawn (that’s when animals are the most active to look for food), so it will be extremely cold). You should definitely bring warm clothes, gloves, jackets to keep yourself warm.
Is there wifi on the safari in Kruger National Park?
All the lodges should have wifi but some may require you to pay to use. I actually recommend that you get a sim card (either before you land) or at the airport in Kruger. Vodafone is the most used brand in South Africa. Surprisingly there were cellphone receptions on the safari, plus one point to Kruger National Park.
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