The Kruger National Park is probably Africa’s most famous game reserve, a must visit for any wildlife lover. The largest national park in South Africa, it is home to more species of large mammal than any other. Besides the Big Five (lion, elephant, rhinoceros, buffalo and leopard) you can see anything here from giraffe to bushbaby, not forgetting about birds and reptiles. The Kruger is easily accessible and affordable, so we couldn’t think of a reason not to go when we were in the neighborhood!
We visited the Kruger as part of an overland trip through Swaziland and Mozambique, but you can of course fit it in with any other trip in the region. We drove up from Swaziland, crossing the border at Jeppes Reef, but you can also easily reach the Kruger from Johannesburg (just over 4 hours) or Maputo (2,5 hours, but rental cars in Mozambique tend to be more expensive than in SA). You will need a car, preferably 4×4 to be able to take some smaller and bumpier side roads, although Kruger’s main roads are excellent and you can get to all the rest camps in a normal passenger car. If, like us, you want to cross into Limpopo National Park in Mozambique, a proper 4×4 is necessary however. The best time to visit is the dry winter season (May-September), when temperatures are pleasant (if a little chilly at night) and wildlife easier to see because vegetation is sparse and animals are drawn to waterholes to drink.
Day 1: Berg-en-Dal rest camp
Make your way to the Malelane Gate of Kruger National Park, where you pay your multi-day entry fee. Don’t forget to look down at the Crocodile River, you might see your first South African hippos here!
Our first stop was Berg-en-Dal rest camp. Inside Kruger there are about two dozen rest camps operated by SANParks (the government body responsible for South Africa’s national parks), and some private lodges. Most of these private lodges seemed beautiful and luxurious, but also very expensive and no better in terms of animal sightings, so we decided to stick with the SANParks camps. Some of these camps are too big to have much charm, and some could use some sprucing up, but all in all they are very good value for money. Try to avoid South African school holidays and make reservations as far ahead as possible, bungalows can fill up quickly.
Berg-en-Dal is one of the newer camps, its bungalows are clean and comfortable and the grounds are nice. It is located in the south-west of the Kruger, the most mountainous part of the park which sees the most rainfall. In this area you can find some of Kruger’s rarer antelopes and plenty of rhinos. There is a trail along the perimeter of the camp (where we immediately came across a family of elephants!) if you want to stretch your legs after the drive. I also highly recommend going on a guided bush walk. Counterintuitively you actually see less on foot: the animals in the park are so used to cars that they come very close to them, they are actually much more shy when it comes to people on foot! However, it’s a very different and much more exciting approach, getting much closer to nature.
The only real downside of the SANParks camps are the restaurants. I thought our first dinner at Berg-en-Dal was rather average, but this was before I discovered that most other camps have nothing but a Mugg&Bean. You get very tired of seeing the same unappetizing menu day in day out, plus the service is sometimes very slow. Most South Africans self-cater, and I strongly recommend you do the same, bungalows always have kitchenettes and/or braai areas. Some camps (like Berg-en-Dal and Satara) have little grocery stores which are fine for meat, fruit and vegetables, but they don’t sell basics like good olive oil or spices, so bring some groceries from Malelane. It’s a little annoying spending your precious time here cooking, but you’ll thank me later for bringing at least enough for a few meals. Be careful of monkeys, they are very cheeky and will steal your food if they get the chance!
Day 2: Satara “cat camp”
Today, we went further north in the park, taking side roads and detours to maximize our chances of encountering wildlife. It is always worth stopping at any indicated waterholes: especially in the dry season these are the best places to see animals. We slowly made our way to our next overnight destination: Satara Rest Camp. Satara is very big and the cottages are a little worn out, but the reason for coming here are the fertile grazing lands surrounding the camp, which attract plenty of herbivores… and the felines who hunt them, which has earned Satara the nickname of “cat camp”.
I recommend going for a sunset game drive here, for beautiful evening light photo ops followed by an impression of a night drive. All camp gates close around sunset, so going on a guided tour is the only way to see what happens out there at night. Safari vehicles are high and open, allowing for better views than from most cars (provided they’re not too full and you’re stuck in the middle). They also have spotlights, indispensable to see anything at night. Another advantage of joining a game drive is that guides share information about recent sightings. Our guide knew of a pride of lions that had just killed a giraffe right by the side of a road. It was amazing to get such a good look at the two females and their cubs, who were focused on their meal and couldn’t care less about us. If you come across something like this, take note of the spot, it might be worth coming back the next day by yourself (it can take a while for a pride to finish off a kill, and when they’re done there will probably be hyenas or at the very least vultures to take over).
Day 3: Letaba rest camp
Start the day early at … impressive marabou stork and other birds gather here.
We then headed to Olifants rest camp for lunch. You don’t go there for the food, which is the same as everywhere else, but the panoramic view over Olifants River from the restaurant terrace is absolutely stunning.
After lunch we went on to Letaba rest camp, right in the center of the Kruger Park. Letaba also has some great views, over the Letaba River, especially scenic at sunset. There are lots of elephants in this area and you’ll probably see some crossing the riverbed. The camp is a little dated but pleasant enough, with some cute semi-tame bushbuck wandering around.
That afternoon, we finally saw a leopard, quietly enjoying an impala up a tree just beside one of the main roads. We were lucky to arrive as one of the first, because soon there was a traffic jam, everyone trying to see what everyone else was looking at. This is what makes the Kruger such a strange experience, untamed wilderness and asphalted roads sit side by side here. It feels almost indecent how we can intrude on wild animals’ daily business from the comfort of our own car, equipped with the latest photography gadgets… But who’s complaining?!
Day 4: Towards Limpopo National Park
Today, slowly make your way back out of the park. We had decided to move on to Limpopo National Park, just over the border in Mozambique. The border crossing at Giriyondo is open between between 8 am and 3 pm (April-September) or 4 pm (October-March). Not many people take this route, but it is easy enough as long as you have a 4×4. In Limpopo we stayed at a great rest camp, Machampane Wilderness Camp. You can read more about our travels in Mozambique here.
It’s about a 5 hour drive back to Malelane Gate, so you might want to consider breaking up your journey if you are going elsewhere. …
I could have stayed much longer in the Kruger, the wildlife just doesn’t get boring! I’m definitely planning on going back, also to see more of the northern part of the park.