Along with the Serengeti, Kruger National Park must be one of Africa's most iconic safari destinations. It is home to an astounding diversity of wildlife, including the Big Five (buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion & rhino.) And of all African wildlife parks, Kruger has to be the most well-equipped and maintained park making it an ideal self-drive safari destination.
But we stayed at a private game lodge and it wasn't until later on our South Africa trip that we'd do some self-drives.
Private reserve vs self-drive
The #1 reason to opt for a self-drive: cost. Full service private game lodges are more exclusive and therefore more expensive, so you may prefer to find other lodging: the cheapest bungalows in the self-catering Kruger Park rest camps go for around $100 a day for 2 persons. Tents or camp sites are even cheaper, if you're adventurous.
And if you are, you may also prefer the freedom of a self-drive: you're in charge of where to go, and at what pace. And the sense of accomplishment that comes with having successfully tracked down that coveted animal.
A guided safari drive, on the other hand, puts you in the hands of a capable and experienced guide/tracker who knows the terrain and the animals. They know how to track them, whereas you would probably be driving blind, crossing your fingers until something appears - unless if you use the sighting boards. They can also drive around at night, while self-drivers have to be off the roads before the gates close, before most of the predators become active. And not only are the odds of a sighting better, so is the quality: when you do spot something, they can also go off-road and move closer to the animals or get a better angle. Such guided safaris can also be booked from the Kruger Park rest camps, so you don't necessarily have to be in a private game lodge.
But the private lodges have another advantage! We were in a camp in the Klaserie Private Nature Reserve, a reserve that shares (unfenced) borders with Kruger National Park. This reserve is private property of about 60 camps that share their grounds: game drives of one camp can freely roam the area of another camp (just not the grounds of individual land owners who want to be left alone.) We were told that the Klaserie alone is big enough to drive around non-stop for 4 days, without having to use the same roads twice. While the animals can freely cross over, the other tourists can not. The camps cooperate and share sightings over the radio so you might run into another jeep at an interesting sighting, but never the chaotic queue of a self-drive.
While a private game lodge is more expensive, it doesn't necessarily have to cost an arm and a leg. Some do, but others are quite reasonably priced considering that all of your meals, game drives & conservation levy is included, and the level is service is unmatched. We stayed at Xanatseni Private Camp, a top notch camp at a reasonable price. It was the most expensive accommodation on our trip, but by far the most unforgettable. I wished we'd stayed for longer, and I would go back in a heartbeat.
A day at a private camp
|05:30||Wake up call|
|A gentle knock on the window to wake you up (increasingly louder until you do)|
|06:00||Coffee, tea and rusks|
|You woke up early and will be on game drive for a few hours: you'll need that coffee!|
|06:15||Morning game drive departs|
It's dark when the game drive leaves and the tracker will scan the terrain with spotlights until the sun come up.
It's pretty chilly at first (at least in winter, but blankets are provided) because you're in an open vehicle, with up to 9 others.
About halfway into the game drive, you can get out the jeep in a safe spot for a coffee & a muffin.
|09:15||Morning game drive returns|
You're really hungry by now, so after a quick refreshment, you join the rest of the guests for a delicious breakfast.
You're free to do as you please until lunch. Maybe get in the watch tower and wait for an animal to come drink from that watering hole near the camp?
Better hope the other guests are nice folks (they were amazing people!), because you'll spend a lot of time together: 2 game drives & 3 meals a day!
Only a little while before the next game drive.
|15:30||Afternoon game drive departs|
Second game drive of the day, but it starts an hour later in summer.
The cats wake up and prepare for their hunt - hope you'll get to see one!
When the sun is setting, you stop for a sundowner: a quick drink and a light snack.
|19:00||Afternoon game drive returns|
|19:15||Pre-drinks around the fire|
|After a delicious dinner, listen to the other guest's stories around the camp fire.|
Because of the nature of a safari, you're bound to have a few stories to tell. Most of us just don't happen to live in the wilderness and this is a far cry from our day to day lives.
During our first lunch - we had just arrived - the other guests warned out to keep an eye out at night.
After dinner, most guests like to stick around the
entertaining area to keep talking with the other guests, which is what they'd done the night before.
The entertaining area is where meals are served, but there's also a bar and a few sofa.
The building opens up to the pool & a few outdoor lounge chairs outside, and a camp fire on the other side.
While they were having a final drink around the camp fire, a few hyenas and a leopard had entered the camp to drink from the pool.
Unfortunately, nothing this exciting happened to us (we didn't even get to see a leopard at all.) The next night, when we were around the camp fire, we heard something ruffle in the bush right behind us. I grabbed a flashlight just to see a skunk-link animal running off. Curious as to what it was, we ran around (through the entertainment area instead of the edges of the bush) to try to locate it again. The on-guard guide was there and had also spotted it: it turned out not to be a skunk, but a honey badger, who we just saw enter the camp fire area. Although it looked almost cudly at night & from afar, this animal is quite notorious for its fearlessness. But this little guy was just looking for a safe spot - he was wounded.
We didn't spend the 2nd evening around the camp fire: we had asked our guides if we could borrow some of their flash-/spotlights and "hang out" in the watch tower. It was not a success, though. For the most part, all we could see was a few antelopes coming near the park. We'd also thought we heard the boar that we had seen hanging around the camp earlier that day. And while I'm not an expert, I'm pretty sure we saw a hyena quite close to the camp (it has a pretty recognizable sound.) But we were interrupted after a good hour when our guide came up to urge us to go inside: those boar noises we had heard were leopard calls, and it must've been within 100 m (~ 110 yd) of the camp.
That night, we had all heard monkey noises. Some (including us) had even heard a monkeys on the roof of our houses. And some (including us) had heard a few monkeys fight, much later in the night (and they had tossed around our garden furniture.) But it wasn't until the morning that we realized how many monkeys there were, when we saw a monkey drop and run over the roof. Followed by another one. And another one. And another. There must've been around 20-25. Then 30 more jump off of another tree. That's one of those moments when you realize who this land really belongs to, and that you're just a visitor/intruder.
It never really felt scary, though. Not even when we got a flat tire, though that probably would've been a lot worse during a self-drive. I think the most scary thing was when we were eye to eye with an aggressive elephant, about 30 m (~30 yd) away - a distance that it can cover in about 2 seconds. It intended to charge us and we had nowhere to go (we were off-road & facing the animal), but our guide told us that fleeing would be a bad idea anyway: it would just chase us down! So we just stood there, holding our grounds to intimidate the elephant. When it did move closer, we'd wait a minute and move back a few meters, then hold our ground again. It worked, but that's intense!
Or that time that we were right next to a pack of sleepy lions - so close that I could pet them had I wanted to. Half an hour later, we were enjoying our sundowner not too far away when we see another vehicle coming in our direction with its spotlights shining on something. Those same lions had gone out to hunt! It didn't take us long to get back in the jeep.
Game viewing is a game of chance.
Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you don't.
Our first 2 game drives were not a huge success: we saw a few elephants, but in terms of
big game, that was about it.
But we've seen a lot of antelopes and birds, among which the
suicide bird (I forgot its real name): to impress the ladies, it'll fly up, then do a vertical dive, only to pull up when it's about to smack into the ground.
We actually saw one do the dive.
We had more luck after that: that pack of lions, a group of wildebeest, elephants again, giraffes, rhinos (that I didn't manage to get a good picture of here), and 2 horny hippos (one of which had a turtle on its back.)
I still regret only staying here for 2 days - who know what else we would've encountered here!
I strongly recommend anyone going to Kruger Park to also visit the Panorama Route, a mere few hours away.