Guide to Plan and Book a Self-Drive Safari in Kruger Park, South Africa

Going on safari is an incredible experience that you will remember for the rest of your life. It’s tough to describe seeing lions and elephants in their natural habitat, but it is a completely different experience from seeing them in a zoo.

Since I couldn’t find anything unbiased when I went on safari at Kruger Park in South Africa in December 2008, I’m summarizing my many hours of research into a handy how-to guide that will simplify the planning of your self-drive safari in Kruger.

22 elephants!!

Kruger is best-known for the incredible Battle at Kruger video that features a smackdown between lions, buffalo, crocodiles and (as of writing) been viewed 41 MILLION times on Youtube:

1. Accommodations through SANParks

If you’re doing a self-drive safari you’ll be staying at the camps run by the South African Parks Committee, SANParks. They are nice, clean, cheap, and have lots of services. You *might* be able to stay at a game lodge and self-drive, but lodges cater to the high-end (or as a South African friend of mine put it, “scared people with too much money”), so they’ll probably drive you around in their trucks. I’m just going to write about self-driving, as that’s what I know (you can find lots of info on game lodges by Googling around, but not a ton on self-driving).

With a rest camp you generally rent a private cabin. In late 2008, prices were about R300/person ($30 USD). You can also rent a campsite if you have a trailer or tent. They also have larger family-sized cabins if you are traveling with a family. Many cabins include private kitchen facilities, utensils, AC, private bathrooms, patios, and BBQs. They have restaurants and shops that sell non-perishables, fruit, veggies, alcohol, etc. They have awesome guided night drives, sunrise / sunset drives, and bush walks, and I’d highly recommend trying out all of the above.

2. Figure out Your Route

You want to see game, right? Kruger is not a zoo so there are no guarantees of what you’ll see, but if you put in the time, you’ll likely see everything you want. As an example, during my first two days (about 11h driving myself and 5h of guided drives) I saw four lions, and more rhino, wild dogs, giraffes, elephants, hyenas, hippos, impala, etc than I could count. The only thing I didn’t see were leopards.

These maps will be helpful in figuring out your route:

* MAP: Kruger park map with distances
* MAP: Getting to Kruger park

You could search the Lonely Planet forums for suggestions on camps to visit to see certain types of game. In my experience there were all types of game everywhere, so it’s more critical to plan your route based on the amount of time you have available and the airports you’re flying into.

Grab a pencil and paper and plan your ideal route. Write down the airports and entrance gates nearest your desired camps, and write down nearby camps in case your first choices aren’t available.

This table of driving distances between camps and gates will also be helpful:

* TABLE: Kruger park driving distance between camps

Give yourself plenty of time to drive between camps. The park’s roads are mostly paved but animals wander on the road which slow things down (and you’ll probably want to watch them!) The speed limit is only 50km/h on paved roads, and the average recommended speed limit is 30km/h.

3. Find Accommodations

This is a royal pain in the ass and is where you will probably spend a lot of your time, especially if you visit during high season (Dec-Jan).

It’s a pain because accommodation availability will affect your route. Finding the right lodges at the right prices for the right dates according to your route can be a challenge, so you may have to get creative and use your backup camps from section 2.

* ACCOMMODATION: Here’s the online booking page
* ACCOMMODATION: Here’s a SUPER useful page showing lodge availability by date

I stayed at Satara, Skukuza, and Berg-En-Dal. All were nice and had lots of game you want to see nearby (including lions and elephants walking along the perimeter of Satara). I also visited Lower Sabie, which has an amazing restaurant overlooking the Sabie River where I saw hippos playing in the water 30 feet away as I ate.

4. Getting to Kruger

To get to Kruger, you can fly into either Hoedspruit (HDS) or Nelspruit (MQP), or drive (Johannesburg is the nearest major city).

Driving

I flew, but there’s a list of driving times and directions from Joburg here.

Flying

Depending on your route, you will want to fly into either Hoedspruit (HDS) or Nelspruit (MQP).

Nelspruit is also known as KMIA (Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport). It took me a long time to figure out that Nelspruit = KMIA. It’s confusing to find flights in and out of MQP/KMIA as the big search engines don’t recognize KMIA as an airport code, and very few websites refer to it by its airport code, MQP. So when you’re searching for flights into or out of Nelspruit, search for MQP.

This map will come in handy for figuring out how to get to your rest camp from HDS or MQP.

Gates close to Hoedspruit (HDS)
preview002

Gates close to Nelspruit (MQP / KMIA)
* Phabeni (47 km)
* Paul Kruger (77 km)
* Malelane (90 km)
* Crocodile Bridge (143 km)

Here is a full list of distances between airports and gates (be aware it’s a bit confusing, and incorporates driving directions from Joburg).

You’ll want to make sure you can get to your rest camp in Kruger while the gates are open:
KrugerParkGateTimes

Airlines that fly to Kruger as of Dec 08

Airline Flies to Hoedspruit / HDS Flies to Nelspruit / MQP / KMIA
SAX (their site is bunk so I used Travelstart to book) 12-em-check 12-em-cross
Airlink 12-em-cross 12-em-check
South Africa Airways 12-em-cross 12-em-check

Travelstart is a good place to search for flights across multiple airlines in South Africa. And, here’s a list of all the airlines in South Africa.

5. Rent a car if you’re self-driving

You’ll need a car if you’re self driving (duh). Self driving gives you more flexibility that going with a guide – you decide when and wear to go, you often have better sightlines as positioning a large vehicle to see an obscured animal can be tougher.

The downside is that you also have to do your homework and try to figure out where to see good game. You can use the maps that each camp has that shows yesterday’s and today’s game.

game map

You can rent a car at both MQP and HDS airports. Use Expedia, Orbitz, etc to book a rental car through the usual suspects – Avis, Hertz, Thrifty, etc.

Rent a car with air conditioning. Summer days can get above 40 Celsius (more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit).

Rent a small car, a big one isn’t necessary to navigate Kruger. A 4×4 also isn’t necessary as the roads are either paved or manageable gravel. I rented a Hyundai Altos and it was fine (crossing a few of the marginally flooded rivers with it was all part of the adventure :)
HyundaiAltos
Hyundai Altos

Regardless of the car you rent, you need to be smart about positioning your car when you see game. Be early or be high up, otherwise the game will be tough to see because there will probably be tons of cars around. A larger car obviously helps here, but I had no problems with the Altos during four days of game driving.

6. Tips

* Buy food at a Pick and Pay grocery store before entering the park to save money
* Buy a map at the gate you enter. R40 for us.
* Mobile phones work in all camps and some areas in the park
* You can buy water and lots of other provisions at the camps
* I’d suggest getting up early and being out the gates as soon as they open. You will see better game, especially during the summer. Animals rest during the hot and rainy summer days, making them harder to spot. The winters are dry and so you may have better odds spotting animals during the daytime, especially near watering holes.
* Book the sunset and evening drives through the camp (call to book them well in advance – they fill up!) You’ll be in the park when nobody else is – everybody has to be in camp by 630p unless on one of these drives. Your odds of seeing predators unobstructed is higher in the early mornings and evenings as that’s when lions and leopards hunt.
* The SANParks cabins did *not* have mosquito nets, so bring DEET or wear long-sleeve clothes when you’re sleeping.
* Take Malaria pills, because there are malaria-carrying mosquitos in Kruger! Malarone is pricy (about $5/pill in North America) but it doesn’t give you the terrible nightmares that some get with Lariam. But seriously, once you have it, it doesn’t go away – why subject yourself to the risk?
* Internet is available at some of the parks. I didn’t use it as the internet cafe was closed at one lodge and down at the other. I talked to a guy using a 3G modem on the Vodacom network who said speeds were pretty good.
* Have FUN! :)

That’s it, hope it helps. Let me know if anything isn’t clear or if you have questions and I will update this if I know the answers!

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Comments

wow thats sick. thanks for organizing this in a neat/easy to read guide.

i’ll def. put this on my wish-list of trips to do in the future

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