KRUGER NATIONAL PARK is arguably the emblem of South African tourism, the place that delivers best what most visitors to Africa want to see – scores of elephants, lions and a cast of thousands of other game roaming the savanna. A narrow strip of land hugging the Mozambique border, Kruger stretches across Limpopo Province and Mpumalanga, an astonishing 414km drive from Pafuri Gate in the north to Malelane Gate in the south, all of it along tar, with many well-kept gravel roads looping off to provide routes for game drives.
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Kruger is designed for self-driving and self-catering. Self-driving offers complete flexibility, though the temptation is to drive too much and too fast, leading to fewer sightings. Furthermore, rental cars tend to be low off the ground and aren’t as good for game viewing as those used by lodges or tour operators. However, you can hop in a car knowing you’ll find supplies at most of the restcamps – indeed self-driving is often the only way of seeing Kruger’s animals if you’re travelling with young children and want to manage time and food your own way. The park’s popularity means that not only are you likely to share animal sightings with other motorists, but that accommodation is at a premium, particularly during South African school holidays, when you may not be able to find anything. Book as far in advance as possible.
Outside the public section, big-game country continues in several exclusive and expensive private wildlife reserves, clustering on huge tracts of land to the west, often referred to as Greater Kruger. As far as animals are concerned, the private and public areas are joined in an enormous, seamless whole. The three major private reserves are Sabi Sands to the south, and Timbavati and Manyeleti, adjoining the central section of the national park. The private reserves are not places you drive around yourself, and they offer a greater sense of being in the wilderness as there are no tarred roads or buildings away from the lodges, and you will not be sharing your sightings with a bunch of other cars. The safari lodges are luxuriously romantic and beautifully set, and dedicated to finding you wildlife.
But whatever you choose, be sure to relax and don’t get too obsessed with seeing the Big Five. Remember that wildlife doesn’t imitate TV documentaries: you’re most unlikely to see lion-kills (you may not see a lion at all), or huge herds of wildebeest migrating across dusty savanna. The element of luck involved is exactly what makes game spotting so addictive.
Brief history of the Kruger National Park
It’s highly questionable whether Kruger National Park can be considered “a pristine wilderness”, as it’s frequently called, given that people have been living in or around it for thousands of years. San hunter-gatherers have left their mark in the form of paintings and engravings at 150 sites so far discovered, and there is evidence of farming cultures at many places in the park.
Around 1000–1300 AD, centrally organized states were building stone palaces and engaging in trade that brought Chinese porcelain, jewellery and cloth into the area, but it was the arrival of white fortune-seekers in the second half of the nineteenth century that made the greatest impact on the region. African farmers were kicked off their traditional lands in the early twentieth century to create the park, and hunters and poachers made their livelihoods here decimating game populations.
Paul Kruger, former president of the South African Republic, is usually credited with having the foresight to set aside land for wildlife conservation. Kruger figures as a shrewd, larger-than-life character in Afrikaner history, and it was James Stevenson-Hamilton, the first warden of the national park, who cunningly put forward Kruger’s name in order to soften up Afrikaner opposition to the park’s creation. In fact, Stevenson-Hamilton knew that Kruger was no conservationist and was actually an inveterate hunter; Kruger “never in his life thought of animals except as biltong”, he wrote in a private letter, and it was his tenacity that saved the animals that hadn’t been shot out, rather than Kruger’s.
The park has been extended into Mozambique with the establishment of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park in 2000, and two border posts linking Kruger to Mozambique have been created, one right at the north of the park at Pafuri near Punda Maria Camp, the other at Giriyondo, between Letaba and Mopani camps.
Kruger flora and fauna
Among the nearly 150 species of mammals seen in the park are cheetah, leopard, lion, spotted hyena, wild dog, black and white rhino, blue wildebeest, buffalo, Burchell’s zebra, bushbuck, eland, elephant, giraffe, hippo, impala, kudu, mountain reedbuck, nyala, oribi, reedbuck, roan antelope, sable antelope, tsessebe, warthog and waterbuck.
The staggering 507 bird species include raptors, hefty-beaked hornbills, ostriches and countless colourful specimens. The birders’ "big six" are the saddle-billed stork, kori bustard, martial eagle, lappet-faced vulture, Pel’s fishing owl and ground hornbill.
Keep your eyes open and you’ll also see a variety of reptiles, amphibians and insects – most rewardingly in the grounds of the restcamps themselves: there’s always something to see up the trees, in the bushes or even inside your rondavel. If you spot a miniature ET-like reptile crawling upside down on the ceiling, don’t be tempted to kill it; it’s an insect-eating gecko and is doing you a good turn. If, however, you have a horror of insects or frogs, stay away from Kruger in the rainy season (Nov–March).
Common among the three-hundred-plus tree species are the baobab, cluster fig, knobthorn, Natal mahogany, monkey orange, raisin bush, tamboti, coral tree, fever tree, jackalberry, leadwood, marula, mopane, lala palm and sausage tree.
Game viewing and picnic sites in southern Kruger
Berg-en-Dal The focus of the camp is the Rhino Trail along the perimeter fence (with Braille facilities), meandering under riverine trees along the Matjulu dam, where there are resident crocodiles and nesting fish eagles. Game includes white rhino, leopards and lions, and plenty of kudu. Some say this is the best camp from which to set out on a morning walk, because of the high likelihood of encountering white rhino, and the pretty scenery.
Crocodile Bridge Try the tarred H4 north and dirt S25 east for elephant, rhino and buffalo. For cheetah, among the best places are the open plains along the S28 Nhola Road. If you’re pushing north to Lower Sabie, it’s worth taking the drive slowly, as this area, dotted with knobthorn and marula trees, is known for its herbivores, which include giraffe, wildebeest, zebra and buffalo, as well as ostrich, warthog and the magnificent black sable antelope. You should also keep your eyes peeled for predators such as lion, cheetah, hyena and jackal.
Lower Sabie The must-drive roads here include the H10 for lion and cheetah, the S130 for white rhino and the H4-1 for leopard. Sunset Dam, just outside Lower Sabie, is a favourite sunset spot, where you can get really close to the water, and is worthwhile at any time of day.
Pretoriuskop A decent focus for a day drive is Transport Dam, on the H1-1, a good place to see buffalo and elephant, and there’s invariably other game to be found.
Skukuza Most people drive along the Sabie River to Lower Sabie, on the H4, one of the best places to see game. The tangled riverine forest, flanked by acacia bush and mixed savanna, is the most fertile and varied in the park. Another great drive is northeast on the H1–2 to Tshokwane picnic site, stopping at Elephant, Jones, Leeupan and Siloweni water holes. The area around Skukuza is also one of the best places to see endangered African wild dogs; worth trying is the S114 between Skukuza and Berg-en-Dal, the S1 between Phabeni Gate and Skukuza, and the H11 between Paul Kruger Gate and Skukuza.
One of the park’s nicest picnic sites is at Afsaal, between Berg-en-Dal and Skukuza on the H3, a good focus for a day drive. Once here, look out for the African scops-owl which sleeps in a tamboti tree nearly every day – the tree is marked so that you can try to spot the camouflaged bird. There’s a shop on site.
Another top picnic spot is Mlondozi, north of Lower Sabie on the S29, which overlooks a dam from a thatched lapa, with some tables and chairs under trees. Tshokwane Picnic Site, 40km north of Lower Sabie on the H10, is much busier, but you can buy meals here.
- The best times of day for game viewing are when it’s cooler, during the early morning and late afternoon. Set out as soon as the camp gates open in the morning and go out again as the temperature starts dropping in the afternoon. Take a siesta during the midday heat, just as the animals do, when they head for deep shade where you’re less likely to see them.
- It’s worth investing in a detailed map of Kruger (available at virtually every restcamp) in order to choose a route that includes rivers or pans where you can stop and enjoy the scenery and birdlife while you wait for game to come down to drink, especially in the late afternoon.
- Driving really slowly pays off, particularly if you stop often, in which case switch off your engine, open your window and use your senses. Stopping where other cars have already stopped or slowed down is probably the best strategy you could choose.
- Don’t embark on overambitious drives from your restcamp. Plan carefully.
- Binoculars are a must for scanning the horizon.
- Take food and drink with you, and remember you can only use toilets and get out at the picnic sites, where there’s always boiling water available, braai places powered with gas, and, at some sites, food or snacks for sale.
Undertaken with the guidance of an experienced ranger, Kruger’s three-night wilderness trails (eight in different areas) pass through landscapes of notable beauty with diverse plant and animal life. However, they don’t bring you nearer to game than driving; they’re really about getting closer to the vegetation and smaller creatures, though you have a good chance of encountering big game. Groups are limited to eight people staying in the same camp, comprising four rustic, two-bed huts, served by reed-walled showers and flush toilets; simple meals are provided. You walk for five hours in the morning, return to the camp for lunch and a siesta, and go walking again for an hour or two in the evening, returning to sit around a campfire. The trails are heavily subscribed. You can book up to thirteen months in advance through SANParks. The cost is around R3500 per person, including accommodation and meals. The only trail where you carry your own stuff is the Olifants River backpack trail, a guided, three-night trail, following the course of the Olifants River. If you want a more than average possibility of walking into big game, book Sweni or Metsi Metsi trails, while birding is best in the far north on Nyalaland Trail, and the trails that are closest to signs of civilization are Bushmans and Wolhuters near Berg-en-Dal in the south.
Game viewing and picnic sites in central Kruger
The S100 or N’wanetsi River Road is one of the best-known drives in the park, with a stop at N’wanetsi Picnic Site, and beautiful scenery of riverine trees and open acacia savanna. It passes through a variety of terrain, which besides being scenic, means it attracts large herds of buffalo, giraffe, zebra, wildebeest, kudu and waterbuck and, in their wake, big cats. The S100 is one of the best roads to find lions.
Satara Rewarding drives are the Timbavati River Road (S39) and the drive east of Satara along the S100, which snakes along the N’wanetsi River towards the Lebombo Mountains marking the border with Mozambique.
About halfway along the tarred road between Satara and Skukuza, the area around Tshokwane picnic site can be good for lions, hence the number of motorists here.
Game viewing and picnic sites in northern Kruger
The S52 Red Rocks Loop southwest of Shingwedzi is a favoured road for elephant sightings, and if you drive it in the early morning, look out for leopards.
Pafuri picnic site 46km north of Punda. This picnic site should on no account be missed, as it’s here that you’ll experience the true richness of northern Kruger, and it is rated as the top birding spot in the park. The site is a large area under the shade of massive thorn trees, leadwoods and jackalberry trees on the banks of the Luvuvhu River and is the ultimate place for lunch. An interpretation board gives a fascinating account of human history in the area. There are braai facilities, a constantly boiling kettle to make your own tea, and the attendant can sell you ice-cold canned drinks.
Wildlife in the private reserves
In terms of wildlife, if it’s leopards you’re after, Sabi Sands is best, especially in the south, where they have become quite blasé about people and vehicles. Timbavati is much quieter and wilder than Sabi Sands, and is known for its large herds of buffalo, with plenty of lions and elephants, though it’s not good for viewing leopards and cheetah. Timbavati’s name is associated with the extraordinary phenomenon of white lions, and while you may see some prides carrying the recessive gene which makes them look a little paler, the last sighting of an adult white lion was in 1993 – though a dozen cubs have been born since, but with the high mortality rate, it is not known whether two which were doing well in 2010 have survived. Manyeleti has a good spread of all game, with some stirring landscapes of open grasslands and rocky outcrops, where it borders Kruger. During the apartheid days, Manyeleti was the only part of Kruger black people were allowed in, and consequently is far less developed than the other reserves, with little accommodation, which works to its advantage in that there are fewer vehicles about.