How to get the most out of Kruger National Park
One of the world's oldest and largest national parks, the Kruger, is one of the best places to see Africa's big game roaming wild. Stretching 350 km up through northeastern South Africa, from the Crocodile River in the south to the Limpopo in north, the park is the size of Wales, and you can be on your way there when you fly direct from London to Johannesburg with Virgin Atlantic*. In this guide, we'll show you how to make the most of any trip to the Kruger, so you enjoy a memorable safari of a lifetime.
An introduction to Kruger National Park
In recent years Kruger National Park has grown in size, as fences have been torn down along its borders with Mozambique's Limpopo National Park, Gonarezhou in Zimbabwe, and the private reserves that hug its western edge. The Kruger is now at the heart of a conservation area called the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Park that covers 35,000 sq km although.
Travellers fresh from East African safaris will notice one big difference with the Kruger: the tarmac roads and dirt tracks of the park are filled by private cars but it's important to say that you can book your very own private, guided safari experience to really get the most out of the park.
The main areas of the park
There are three main areas to visit in Kruger. The southern and most accessible part of the park is known as The Circus due to the number of visitors. Though this probably has the highest game density of all, the experience is rarely private.
Head north and the central area is called The Zoo. This is still a prime wildlife area, fringed to the east by the most famous private reserves. This is perhaps the best place for game-viewing the park's 147 mammal species.
The northern part of the park is aptly known as The Wilderness. The game density is far less for several good reasons: it's a lot drier and wildlife can spread over into Mozambique where there's less competition for grazing. Travellers here have a far quieter experience, and tend to focus on the park's less heralded attractions; the 500 bird or the 114 reptile species.
Self driving in Kruger National park
Driving yourself around the Kruger is not quite the casual idyll you might dream of - there are strict rules that are rigidly enforced. Driving at night is not allowed and you'll need to prove at the gate that you can reach your reserved accommodation before dark - without breaking the 50 kph limit. Sightings are restricted because you're not allowed to leave roads or trails to get closer to animals that naturally keep clear of known thoroughfares.
Sensibly you're not allowed to get out of your car - or even stand up through a sunroof - though tales abound of Darwin-fail tourists getting out to get closer photos of lion. It's possible to join guided walks and night drives in specific areas but these are operated by SANParks and need to be booked well in advance. The three-day wildlife walks often book out a year before.
How to really make the most of Kruger National Park
Although people self drive in Kruger there are drawbacks: untrained eyes struggle to spot anything smaller than an elephant, and the constant engine noise frightens off shy species and drowns out birdsong. There are times in life when you need a knowledgeable professional, and an African safari is one of them.
Crucially, when you explore with a guide, you can tell that the safari experience has been perfected. Game spotting is from open Landrovers, with tiered seats at the back making the most of the view. Each game drive is carefully choreographed to avoid even catching sight of another vehicle so you can experience a sense of the remote bush even though a neighbouring concession might start just over the nearest hill.
The guides are almost always at the top of their game, immediately identifying every bird that flits across their land, but they're not often asked. The constant flow of short-stay visitors want to see Africa's 'Big Five' - lion, leopard, buffalo, rhino and elephant - and, with the high price of accommodation, preferably in one day.
The park's guides have learned the movements of their reserve's Big Five species and know where to find them - fast. All guides keep close track of their success in finding all five species, although not much time is left for the esoteric lore of nature. For a truly personal safari experience, book a private guided tour.
Staying in Kruger National Park
South African National Parks (SANParks) maintains a range of campsites and lodges. Some are the size of a small town: Skukuza can sleep a thousand visitors, has an airstrip, a golf course, and the park's only ATM. Wherever you stay, you must book your accommodation within the park in advance to guarantee entry.
Other options include the likes of Protea Hotel Kruger Gate* and Pestana Kruger Lodge*, located at Malelane Gate, as well as soaring luxurious safari lodges designed by talented architects on generous budgets that showcase the African bush. You get used to seeing baths set on balconies, shower gels infused with herbs in safari-chic bottles, and four-poster beds draped in muslin. The country's top chefs can be found competing to push the frontiers of cuisine, and every need is met.
If you're not one for planning far ahead however, and therefore likely to miss out on accommodation, you might be better off staying outside the park, in towns such as Hazyview, White River (my favourite) or Phalaborwa, and making day trips into the park.
If you fancy spotting anything from the Big Five to beautiful birds in Kruger National Park, check out the latest fares to Johannesburg from London Heathrow with Virgin Atlantic. You can also find out more about the weather in Kruger National Park, and see when we think is the best time to go.
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