Wake up at the crack of dawn and drive out of the camp gate as soon as it opens. Following the sound of a lion roaring in the distance, heading towards vultures circling over a kill or simply randomly driving around and spotting whatever walks your way, you get a fantastic taste of the African bush. Apart from near-guaranteed encounters with the Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo) there's an endless variety of fascinating animal and plant life waiting to be discovered, in a range of stunning landscapes.
Around 4.5 hours drive east of Johannesburg, the Kruger National Park (KNP, run by SANParks, www.sanparks.org) is one of the best places to experience wildlife in the world; the good news for travellers is that's its easily accessible and – with some planning ahead – very affordable to explore. At 19,500 square kilometres (360km north to south, 65km east to west) the park is as big as Slovenia, so it's best to focus on exploring a limited area and not drive long distances – 20km/hr is the ideal pace for spotting wildlife anyway. Leaving your car is strictly forbidden except at the restcamps, picnic areas and bird hides.
First-timers should consider spending at least two full days in the south of the park where sightings are usually the best and there are plenty of rest camps to choose from. Lower Sabie is regarded as one of the most beautifully located, while Skukuza is the biggest and busiest. Alternatively, you may opt to stay just outside the park in the nearby town of Hazyview. If you have time it is also worth venturing to the middle section of the park for a day or two. Good rest camps here include Satara and the smaller Olifants camp, located on a high bluff overlooking the Olifants river.
The 12 main restcamps inside the park have an affordable range of self-catering accommodation in modest chalets, bungalows and permanent canvas tents – all with beds, linen and a fridge and access to a communal kitchen or braai area and often with their own kitchenette. For high season visits (during South African school holidays such as New Year and Easter) book these well in advance. Rest camps can be booked and paid for via the SANParks official website. The main rest camps have petrol stations, restaurants, ATMs and shops that sell everything you need to self-cater – including cooler boxes and ice for chilled refreshments.
Visitors can drive around freely from sunrise to sunset; before and after that, SANParks' capable rangers offer - highly recommended - drives (morning, sunset or night) in open jeeps or trucks and at some camps guided morning walks through the bush. These can be booked online or at the camps and cost around R300-R500 per person.
The forum on the SANParks website is a delight to read; helpful and experienced members have posted a wealth of information. The essential 25-page "Kruger Park Map" book (A. Tinker), available at all gates and camp shops, has clear maps, tips and pictures of the most common animals. For more detail and fascinating stories, get the 330-page "Exploring Kruger" book (B. Hilton-Barber & L. Berger). The popular ’Kruger Sightings' app can help you spot your desired animal, but may take away the fun of being in the bush. For a complete escape we suggest you log out and go wild.
Written by Jeroen van Marle. Van Marle pioneered the In Your Pocket Guides for Romania in 1999 and since then has written travel guides for more than 25 countries. Co-author of the Rough Guide South Africa he is a frequent Kruger visitor. He resides in Berlin, managing the Dutch branch of the SecretEscapes.com travel website while working on the Rough Guide Europe book. Kruger photos by Soulafa Mamlouk.
THE ROAD TO KRUGERAlthough many visitors choose to visit Kruger as part of an organised package, rushing straight in and out of the park on an organised transfer, if you can we recommend that you rent a car, drive yourself and take your time to stop off along the way from Joburg – there’s even more to be enjoyed in this area than the hunt for the Big Five. A self-drive Kruger holiday will also usually work out cheaper than a packaged tour.
Here are some of our recommended road trip stopovers on the road to Kruger.
If you decide to drive the journey to Kruger in one go, the best halfway rest stop is at Alzu Petroport on the N4 35km from Middelburg, which has a cafe, steakhouse, a game park and the Country & Outdoor store, great for outdoor clothing and accessories. Open 24hrs.
The perfect overnight stop or weekend getaway some 270km east of Joburg. Wake up to an awe-inspiring view of the sky-filled valley at the Walkersons Hotel & Spa, the morning light reflecting off the tranquil trout dams, enclosed by the Steenkampsberg mountain range. The spacious lakeside suites and cottages are an ideal hideaway, complete with fireplaces and gorgeous views. Follow the path from your door to mountain trails, romantic picnic spots and excellent fly fishing and bird watching opportunities within the 800 hectare Walkersons private estate. For dinner the restaurant serves fresh rainbow trout straight from one of the nearby lakes and dams. It’s almost law that you cannot leave Dullstroom without tasting the national treasure that is the home-baked trout pie at Milly’s Country Trout. This store and farm stall stocks a wide range of homemade preserves, pickles and sauces plus freshly frozen trout and trout pâté.
Walkersons Hotel & Spa Walkersons Private Estate, Lydenburg road from Dullstroom, Mpumalanga, www.walkersons.co.za, tel. +27 13 253 7000.
Milly's Country Trout Critchley Common Centre, R540 Dullstroom, Mpumalanga, tel. +27 13 254 0310. Open 06:00–20:00, Sun 06:00–15:00.
From Dullstroom you can drive one of the most scenic roads in the country on your way to the Orpen Gate in the central section of the Kruger Park. Head north from Dullstroom in the direction of Pilgrim’s Rest (on the R533), an historic gold mining village that is now a quaint open-air museum and onwards to Graskop, which sits on the edge of the Escarpment – the point at which the Highveld (the high plateau region) meets the bushy plains of the Lowveld. From here follow the R532 along the edge of the Escarpment stopping at the many viewpoints which line the Blyde River Canyon such as God’s Window and the majestic Three Rondavels. Then loop back around via the R36, R527 and R531 to enter the park at Orpen Gate. Note that the park gates close for overnight visitors between 17:30 and 18:00 and open in the morning from 05:30–06:00.