There are many game parks in SA but we chose KNP for our first safari experience as it is the largest- almost 2 million ha, 27x the size of Singapore (!!!!).
It is also a Big 5 park (not all game parks in SA are Big5 parks), where first-time visitors can easily check off their Big 5 wishlist (buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion, and rhino) in a short time.
SANParks map of KNP
Self drive or guided game drives?
Self-driving is definitely the cheapest way to “do” KNP. All information you would ever require to plan your trip can be found in the SANParkswebsite. There are various rest camps within KNP with a full range of accommodation options (from rustic tents to ensuite cottages). The KNP road network is good, you don’t need to rent a 4WD. We did fine in our little rental Nissan Micra 2WD, and we even saw fancy Mercedes and Jaguar sedans in the park. Spotting the Big 5 on our own was also fairly easy (they are BIG after all), and the animals are very conditioned to the vehicles. Admittedly we were quite lucky and checked off the Big 5 in just 2 days, with very good sightings (i.e. close ups) of everything except the elusive leopard.
Where do self drive visitors stay?
The SANParks-run accommodation (self-catering) within the Kruger National Park is very reasonably priced but you have to book MONTHS in advance. We tried 2 months prior to our trip and everything was already fully booked (unfortunately our dates coincided with the local school holidays). There are also accommodation options in towns outside various gates, such as the town of Hazyview, a small town close to the entrance gates in KNP South. We stayed at Sabie River Bush Lodge for the self-driving leg of our trip (see my review of SRBL), which is just 19km outside the KNP (Paul Kruger gate).
However if you are not keen to self-drive, you can stay at a safari lodge within a private game reserve bordering the Kruger (typically “all-inclusive” and much pricier than the SANParks accommodation). As it was our first safari trip we also tried out this method for research purposes (see my review of nThambo).
Private game reserves bordering KNP
KNP is in the northeastern part of SA and the nearest international airport is O.R. Tambo in Johannesburg. Johannesburg is about 400km drive from KNP (4-5h, mainly on highways), so you can either drive or take a domestic flight (about 1h) to the Kruger area. As KNP is so huge, it is serviced by 3 small domestic airports (see map below). To book your domestic flight you first need to know which part of KNP you intend to visit (and no, it is not possible to cover the entire KNP in 2 days). Frommers gives a good overview of what you can see in the 3 main regions of KNP.
3 domestic airports near KNP
We chose KNP South as this is the best area to see the Big 5 in a short time (and consequently the most crowded). We also opted to drive ourselves from Johannesburg as we found the domestic flights expensive (about USD250/pax) for a short 1h flight.
Sunday, 22 Sep 2013
Armed with binoculars and a screenshot of KNP map from the SANParks website, we drove 19km from our hotel to Paul Kruger gate. At the gate we endured the bureaucratic process of registering our names on a clipboard, lining up at the ticket office to pay our conservation fee, and having our car boot checked (to make sure we were not bringing any guns or alcohol into KNP).
Paul Kruger gate, one of the entrances to KNP south
tickets and instructions to follow
Finally we were on our way, and we were immediately greeted by some impala. Of course being total noobs we stopped to take pictures, not knowing how common they are.
Impala welcome party
Today we planned to drive the H1-2>H10>H4-1 triangle as this is the route with the heaviest concentration of game.
The noob route (about 150km)
Crawling along the H1-2 at the speed limit of 50kmh, we saw some cars further down the road queueing up to take photos of elephants. Not even 15min into our first day at KNP and already we have seen one of the Big 5!
Our first Big 5
Since we are too cheap to pay for a guided game drive, we decided to shamelessly tail this professional looking vehicle. However he ditched us using a very slick 3-point turn maneuver, and we had to toddle along by ourselves….
Tailing the experts
Beginners’ luck strikes and we chance upon a clusterf*** of cars, and whaddya know, it was a lioness and 7 cubs just trotting down the main H1-2 road! Big cat sightings always cause a traffic jam and it was chaos for a while as everyone jostled for good angles. Best thing is we later bumped into the vehicle that ditched us and the driver couldn’t believe his ears when we said we saw a lioness and her cubs on the main road *smug*
Lions in the wild are lean and mean, unlike zoo animals
I’m gonna be a mighty king, so enemies beware
Lunch stop was at Lower Sabie rest camp. The restaurant there is a madhouse and rightly so, as the views of the Sabie River from the deck are amazing. In fact you can easily check off at least 2 of the Big 5 simply by sitting there. We saw hippo, elephant, buffalo, but unfortunately the DSLR ran out of battery.
Poor DEAD hippo
A very busy waterhole just outside the Lower Sabie rest camp captured our attention for a while after lunch. Day visitors have to exit by sunset so we started heading out of the park on H4-1. En route, we got stuck for 20min at a curious traffic jam just after the turnoff to H1-2. We realized the next day that it was due to a pride of lions hidden by the bush, but on that day we were totally clueless about what everyone was peering at…. noobs!
Lazy hippos at the waterhole
Mon, 23 Sep 2013
We were much more efficient on our second day in KNP, zooming past the ubiquitous impalas and even ignoring elephants and giraffes, except when they crossed the road in front of us. Today’s mission was to find rhino and leopard along the southernmost area of KNP.
why did the elephants cross the road?
We took the less crowded gravel roads since we were no longer noobs. The sightings were much better as we seldom had to share.
The “pro” route (about 250km)
elephants all to ourselves
After a long and fruitless drive along the S25 (a lot of which had recently been razed and blackened by controlled fire), we began to feel disheartened. Amazingly, we stumbled upon 4 white rhino just 5m from the road. They were very skittish but we hung around for a while as there were no other vehicles to crowd us, and they eventually settled down for some nice photos.
very skittish rhino
here’s looking at you kid
We encountered more rhino further on, as well as a rather distant sighting of leopard. Amazing how a polka dotted animal can be so well camouflaged- it took us ages (and a lot of help from other drivers) to spot him walking along a river bed. Lunch at Croc Bridge rest camp was not as exciting as Lower Sabie as this is a much smaller camp with only a convenience store and no restaurant. No views.
spot the spots
Post lunch highlight was a lion along the H4-2 doing his perimeter check. This very stoic lion was totally unfazed by the excitement he was causing, and methodically going from bush to bush to mark his territory. Panda did some creative driving to break out from the line of cars tailing the lion and positioned our car to face him head-on, hence the excellent photos of him walking towards us.
Vidal Sassoon mane
Passing within arm’s length
Animals in KNP sure seem to enjoy crossing the road. On our way out of the park, we met an endless stream of elephants just nonchalantly crossing the H4-1, as well as a huge herd of African buffalo munching on grass by the road.
African buffalo bathed in the light of the setting sun
Crossing the other way
All in all a very good haul for total beginners. Although we drove for hours, it wasn’t tiring as we were tripping over animals almost everywhere. Absolutely fascinating for city rats like us. I felt like we were on the National Geographic channel, for the same price as the entrance fee to Singapore’s Mandai Zoo.
Additional tips for self-driving KNP:
If I were to do it again, I would definitely rent an automatic car instead, as there was a lot of stopping and starting when we came across sightings. No special footwear or clothing required as you are in your car most of the time. As with scuba diving, approach slowly. Avoid sudden movements/noise- you should wind down window, mute the radio, plan your position etc. before approaching to avoid spooking the animal(s).
Date of activity: 22, 23 Sep 2013
Location: Kruger National Park, South Africa
Rate: Conservation fee of R203/adult and R102/child per day (for foreigners), for park accommodation tariffs see 2013/2014 tariffs
Booking: No advance booking required for day visitors
Hotel we stayed: Sabie River Bush Lodge, Hazyview, SA (see my review here)