Kruger, South Africa's first national park, has been part of the national psyche for as long as anyone can remember. The name alone conjures images of crackling braais and campfire tales, of dog-eared maps and inviting dirt roads, and of elephants that are inevitably too close for comfort. For many, it's one of the greatest game reserves on Earth.
The park hugs the northeastern boundary with Mozambique, covering an area the size of Wales. And within its borders? The Big Five (lion, elephant, buffalo, rhino and leopard), so abundant that even a first-time visitor can cross them off their list by lunchtime, plus plenty more besides. Here is our beginner's guide to Kruger National Park.
Kruger offers what most others don't: the chance for a DIY safari. Many African national parks are only open to those with the deepest pockets, but partly thanks to its reliable network of roads, Kruger is accessible to all. You can experience it in your own car, in your own time and in your own way, for a fraction of what you'd normally pay in many of Africa's flagship reserves – and nothing beats having a lion at eye level. This is it: an easy, authentic experience of the bush.
The dry winter season (May to August) is best, as the bush is sparse and animals gravitate towards water holes, making them easier to spot. Temperatures also rarely climb above the late twenties during the day, and can be downright chilly at night, so you'll have a gentler introduction to the otherwise blistering African climate.
But there are perks to visiting at any time of year. In summer (November to December), for instance, the bush is lush thanks to heavy rains, the bird population hits the roof and you'll find many of the animals with young. You can't get much cuter than a hyena cub.
You could join an organised tour in an open safari vehicle, but renting your own car offers much more flexibility. Explore at your own pace, turning off to tackle a muddy loop road or check out a water hole whenever it takes your fancy. Many animals – including African wild dogs – show up anytime and anywhere, and finding them often involves more luck than skill.
When it comes to your car, there are a few things you should know. First, you'll need a credit card, as you can't rent a car in South Africa without one – a lesson you don't want to learn the hard way. Next, go for height over style, as taller cars will help you get a better view over the long grass. A four-wheel drive is a plus (though not essential), as is air conditioning. And finally, get the best insurance you can afford – you never know what'll happen when you meet an elephant.
Always remember that you're driving in the presence of wild animals. Stay in your car, keep your windows up unless you're after a furry passenger, and make sure you carefully follow the other park regulations.
Learn how to act around big game, particularly elephants: give them plenty of room, switch off your engine, stay quiet and never get between an elephant mother and her calf. If you spot any signs of aggression, such as an elephant kicking up dust, flapping its ears and trumpeting, back away slowly, as they can flip cars. If you follow these rules, you'll rarely get into trouble.
Try not to be too ambitious with your itinerary – Kruger is enormous, and distances can be deceptive. Give yourself at least five days in the south, and ten days if you also plan on heading to the wilder north.
When driving, go slow – a car crawling along at 15km/h is the mark of a Kruger veteran. Scour the long grass for a flick of an ear or a swish of a tail and listen for anything unusual, like the crunching of grass underfoot or a tell-tale alarm call. It also pays to know where to look: lions often nap in the shade, while a leopard is unlikely to stray far from cover.
A bush walk. This is one of the only opportunities you'll get to head off into the long grass on foot – accompanied by a professional guide, of course. You'll gain a deeper understanding of the park's flora and fauna, and there's always the possibility of bumping into big game.
If that sounds too adventurous, then opt instead for an organised game drive either early in the morning or late at night. You'll have the chance to spot nocturnal animals, including genets, civets and owls, which you wouldn't otherwise see (as self-driving is only permitted in daylight hours). To book, enquire at any of the main camps.
The south of the park is best for first-time visitors as it has the densest population of big game, and there are some drives here you definitely shouldn't miss. First, there's the route from Skukuza camp to Satara: watch the sunrise from the bird hide at Lake Panic, then head north via the southernmost baobab tree. Just before you hit Satara, turn onto the S100 – the park's legendary white lion is most often spotted here.
Another must is the route from Lower Sabie to Tshokwane Picnic Spot. The road winds steadily higher until you reach Nkumbe lookout, where the savanna stretches out below you for miles. This really is one of Africa's great views.
There are 24 fenced rest camps, with accommodation ranging from simple thatched rondavels with communal facilities up to luxury bungalows.
Satara is based in big cat country, and its circular clusters of rondavels are particularly atmospheric when lit by the glow of the braais at night. Skukuza is the park's HQ and has the feel of a small town, while Olifants wins the prize for the best view, looking down over the Olifants River.
For more of a bush feel, try the tents at Letaba, set deep in mopane forest, or Tamboti – this secluded camp is visited nightly by honey badgers and genets, and hyenas often prowl the fence. If that's still not adventurous enough, book to stay at either Sable or Shipandani after hours.
Accommodation sells out quickly in Kruger, particularly around public holidays, so it pays to book several months in advance. You will also need to pay a daily conservation fee. This adds up quickly, so it's worth investing in a Wild Card if you're staying for a week or longer, which works out cheaper.
There are three main options to get to Kruger: fly to Johannesburg and then drive just over four hours to the park; take an internal flight from Johannesburg to Kruger Mpumalanga airport and then drive an hour; or take an internal flight from Johannesburg straight into Skukuza.
Georgia flew to Kruger Mpumalanga airport with South African Airways, which introduced the new Airbus A330-300 on its daily London-Johannesburg service in 2018. Return flights start from £957.01. For more information, visit flysaa.com.
Top image: Lion mother and cub © Thomas Retterath / Shutterstock
Subscribe to The Rough Guide to Everywhere now (iTunes; Soundcloud; Spotify).