Written by: Matt Newkirk
Destination: Kruger National Park, South Africa
Visited: August 2019
When my wife and I were planning our trip to Africa, one of the things that was at the top of my list was to go on a safari to see Africa’s amazing wildlife. However, when I started looking into the cost of African safaris, it wasn’t long before I started to get really discouraged. We were traveling for an extended period, so our daily budget was really tight. Most safari tours I found online started at several hundred dollars per day, and some were even thousands of dollars per day. There was no way that we were going to be able to swing that kind of money.
The more I searched, the more I began to lose hope. I was so frustrated. Traveling in Africa is supposed to be cheap, why are these companies charging so much for these safari trips? That’s when began to wonder if we could just rent a car and go on safari ourselves? As it turns out, I was on the right track. It really is as simple as just renting a car and driving into a safari park, at least in Kruger National Park in South Africa.
A close encounter with a bull African elephant at Kruger National Park
Kruger National Park is located in the north-eastern portion of the country of South Africa. At nearly 20,000 sq. kilometres, it is one of the largest game preserves in all of Africa. Kruger was first declared a National Park in 1926, and today it extends all the way to South Africa’s borders with Mozambique and Zimbabwe providing a protected corridor for migrating game animals.
Despite Kruger National Park’s enormous size, it is surprisingly accessible. There are excellent quality paved roads that connect every corner of the park, and an extensive network of rest areas and safari camps. While it is certainly possible to arrange game spotting tours, the park is perfectly set up for self-drive safari adventures.
A trio of zebras at Kruger
Kruger National Park is home to a whopping 147 species of large mammals, more than any other game preserve in Africa. The park is also home to all five of the “Big Five” game animals. I had personally never heard the term “Big Five” before visiting South Africa, but it is serious business there. Driving to the park, we passed restaurants selling “Big Five Burgers”, there were “Big Five Hotels”, and even “Big Five” Souvenir Stores. In case you’re wondering, “Big Five” refers to five game animals: the lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, and Cape buffalo.
We spoke with quite a few of the park’s visitors who had seen the “Big Five” at Kruger, some had even seen all of them on their very first day in the park. We were not so lucky. We did see four out of five though. Despite our best efforts we never managed to spot any rhinos. This is because rhino populations worldwide are dwindling and the park is very secretive about the location of its rhinos to protect them from illegal poachers.
In case you haven’t heard, rhino populations are quickly being reduced to the point of imminent extinction around the globe, largely due to the Chinese and Vietnamese appetite for their horns. Many practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine claim that rhino horn is a powerful remedy for erectile disfunction. This is, of course, totally ridiculous. Rhino horn consists almost entirely of keratin, the same compound that makes up human fingernails and hair. Truthfully, men ingesting rhino horn to help them with their sexual inadequacy, would see the same results from eating a steaming pile of turds.
A warthog in the grass along the road
We did not see rhinos during our time at Kruger, but we did manage to see a lot of animals. Driving through the park, we literally saw hundreds of wild elephants, giraffes, zebras, warthogs, baboons, impala, antelope, Cape buffalo, hippopotamus, lions, leopards, crocodiles, hyenas, ostriches and too many others to name.
A huge elephant crossing the road in front of our car
Here are some tips that I put together for anyone planning a self-drive safari in Kruger National Park. These are the questions that I wish I had the answers to before we went.
Yes. We felt completely safe driving around the park. It is important to remember that the animals are wild. This is a game preserve and not a zoo, do not feed the wildlife. You must remain in your car for your own safety and as a general display of your intellect. If you give the animals plenty of space and respect you will not have any problems.
The roads are impeccably maintained. The vast majority are paved, and the dirt roads that we drove on are neatly graded and easy to navigate.
Our Kia rental car that we took on Safari at Kruger National Park
Absolutely not! We rented the cheapest economy car that we could find to drive around the park. If you are on a tight budget, you don’t have to worry about going cheap. Our car was only about $12 a day and got amazing gas mileage.
The speed limit throughout the park is 50km/hour, so we coasted in 5th gear to save gas the majority if the time. I would recommend a tall car though if you have the budget, as some height would allow you to see over the tall grass along the side of the road.
You can easily pick up a rental car in Johannesburg or Nelspruit. Driving in South Africa is easy as the roads are not overcrowded and safe for the most part. There are some areas, particularly in Johannesburg, that may not be safe to drive in. It’s best to map out your route and make sure to avoid the sketchy neighborhoods before you go driving through Joberg.
A southern ground hornbill
We drove (coasted) through a pretty large section of the park in four days. I think that that was a good amount. We saw tons of animals, and left once we were tired of driving at numbingly slow speeds for hours at a time to look for wildlife.
Cape water buffalo, one of the "Big 5"
No. We had no problem spotting the wildlife. When we first entered the park, we went about 45 minutes or so and only saw a few antelope. Then we turned a corner and saw elephants and zebras at a watering hole. If you drive around long enough you will spot lots of animals, even without a guide.
On some days, we literally had large herds of zebras and elephants surrounding our little Kia rental car. Usually when there has been a large cat sighting, such as lions or leopards, you will see groups of cars stopped along the road watching them.
We found that driving around at dawn and dusk provided some of the best opportunities to spot animals, but we did come across animals all day long.
Rivers and watering holes also increase your odds, so keep that in mind when planning your route. At the safari camps and visitor centers, there are spotting boards, showing where different animals have been reported on a map of the park. Rhinos are excluded from these boards to protect them from poachers.
Our car outside of the safari hut at Letaba Rest Camp
Safari Camps are scattered around the park and are usually at great spots for wildlife viewing. These camps are fenced off and provide protection from the animals. Every safari camp that we stopped at included a small store, a gas station, a restaurant, and overnight accommodations ranging from tent camping to multi-room luxury cabins.
We stayed in the safari huts, because we didn’t have camping gear. These huts were small but clean and comfortable, and included beds, chairs, a refrigerator, and a charcoal barbeque.
In hindsight, I would not hesitate to tent camp, it is a good way to save money if you are up for sleeping on the ground. We did see some signs warning campers to refrain from feeding wild hyenas because it can be dangerous if they get too comfortable with humans. The only animals we encountered in the safari camps were small monkeys and some lizards and birds.
Make reservations BEFORE going to Kruger, as spots in safari camps fill up well in advance. We were not able to secure lodging within our budget for every night of our visit, but did pretty well for booking last minute.
A hippo heading back into the water
There are a lot of hotels located just outside of many of Kruger National Park’s entrances. We found many of these hotels to be nicer and a better value than staying in the safari camps. Our strategy was to spend every other night in the park. That way we only had to pay the entrance fees every other day.
If you have a reservation in the park, you will have to pay the entrance fees ($25 per person) in order to enter the park to reach your camp. You can then spend the next day slowly driving out of the park, and not have to pay the entrance fees until you enter the park again. This was a great way to keep Kruger National Park within our tight budget.
The baboons were surprisingly pretty shy
Since we only booked our trip about a week before arriving in Kruger, our route was largely planned based on availability in the Safari Camps. These camps fill up well in advance, so I would recommend reserving your spots as early as you can. Here is the website where you can check availability and make your reservations (https://www.sanparks.org/parks/kruger/). We found that the website reservations system didn’t work properly, and the online customer service was terrible. In the end, we had to make our reservations the old-fashioned way, over the phone.
Remember that the speed limit in Kruger is only 50km/hour, so you aren’t going to go too far in a single day. Also, you must be out of the park or in a safari camp before 6:00pm. Be sure to plan reasonable distances between stops, because you will be moving slowly and you can only stop for food and toilets in designated areas. It’s better to drive slowly and spend your time looking for wildlife anyway. When in doubt, follow rivers and water, these increase your odds of spotting the animals.