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.
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.
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.