Sitting in Nairobi, planning the great African road trip, Kruger National Park had been one of the destinations I had been anticipating the most. After years of camping in Kenya’s top safari parks, I had always wondered how southern Africa’s most famous national park would compare. On the road trip, it was one of the most common questions I was asked.
“Are you going to Kruger?”
Of course, I was.
Preparing for a Kruger Self-Drive Safari
Researching Kruger was intimidating. It is South Africa’s oldest national park (founded in 1926), and it is massive, spanning 19,485 km2 (7,523 sq. miles), which is just a bit smaller than the countries of Israel or El Salvador. There are 38 camping spots listed on the SanParks website ranging from places with restaurants and gas stations to campsites and without electricity or plumbing. I wanted to see the storied Limpopo river, and the lands that had produced all the wild campfire stories I had heard on the drive down.
Approaching from Maputo, I had originally planned to drive through Limpopo National Park in Mozambique, but people there advised me not to bother, noting that most animals stay on the South African side of the park. Further, no one was sure of the road conditions, and I did not want to risk being bogged deep in the bush on my own.
In retrospect, I am not sure if that was the correct decision, but I only had planned seven days and six nights in the wilderness and wanted to cover a lot of ground.
The Crowds of Southern Kruger
I entered the park from the southern Crocodile Bridge Gate. Driving north in the direction of Lower Sabie, the roads were paved, and cars were speeding by me as I gazed over the plains looking for animals. There were crowds of cars around ordinary sights like zebras, and I was very confused. I kept thinking I would come to a subsequent park gate where the real park would begin. It all just felt too manicured to be wild.
At dusk, I pitched a tent at Lower Sabie among rows of camper vans, ate dinner at the restaurant, and wondered if I had accidentally arrived at a theme park next to the national park. Honestly, I just felt disgusted by the amount of people and development in what I had thought was going to be pristine wilderness. I knew that most animals lived in the south of the park where I was, and sightings were easier there because of the thick bush in the north, but I just felt out of place. I was done.
The Most Accessible Self-Drive Safari Park in Africa
At dawn, I drove north for Tsendze Rustic Campsite, far past where most visitors venture. I took my time, taking the smallest dirt roads I could, and managed to find the big five (lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant, rhino) by chance. It is very rare to find the big five in a single day (I had only done it twice before). You need a special safari park, some luck and an experienced spotter. So, it felt good to accomplish that without a guide — a tribute to my years of safari experience and the great job the rangers do to protect the animals in Kruger.
Parked by a pack of painted dogs, other cars pulled up around mine, and I was amazed by how calm the pack remained. A white rhino I found later did not even look-up as more and more cars gathered to observe it. It felt safe. Glancing at the other cars, almost none were big four-wheel drive cars like mine. They were just normal two-wheel drive city cars. No auxiliary fuel tanks on the roof, no mud on the side panels — and inside were families. I had not realized it, but I had never really seen kids on safari before.
That moment changed my perception of Kruger. It was too developed and crowded for me, but it was not for me. It was a huge expanse of well protected habitat where heavily hunted animals felt safe. It was developed enough that anyone with a car and some time could bring their children to be awe-struck. Further, compared to the safari areas of East Africa, it is extremely affordable. In this sense, it is a very special place, which makes the wild accessible to many, and that is wonderful.
A Wilderness Meditation in Northern Kruger
I spent the rest of my trip in the far north, seeing very few people, but also very few big animals, and that was a fine compromise. I found more packs of painted dogs and watched herds of elephants cross swollen rivers dyed red with earth. I observed birds, turtles and chameleons hunt. I was pleased to be happy in the north with such small sightings. It felt like a safari maturity, where just being alone in the bush was a meditation for me. I was able to see magic in the elements that float by most folks.
On my last day, I drove south again and stopped for fuel at a rest camp. Coming out of the wilderness is always the same, where the sounds, smells and speeds of life are all accentuated. Paying for the gas, my voice cracked, and I realized I had not said I word for the last six days. I had been alone with the wilderness – a bit lonely but very happy.
Kruger Versus the Safari Parks of East Africa
Wilderness in its purest form is a historical concept in most of Africa. Most safari parks, like Kruger or those in East Africa, have had long histories of human impact: building roads, redirecting water flows, and managing species’ populations. Reflecting on my experience, true wilderness would have been too much for me. It was not what I had been seeking nor what I was used to in East Africa.
Without the safety of my car, I would have needed much more gear and training to explore the African bush. I did not have the time or resources for that, just as those I passed in Kruger probably did not have the time and resources to take a year-long road trip across Africa.
Overall, I just enjoy the more rugged safari experience common in the East African parks and Botswana. They require more experience and equipment, but they are often an enjoyable test of safari acumen. I prefer less sightings if it means less people. I enjoy roughing it through the mud, cooking on a fire, and sleeping in a tent with the sounds of the bush vibrating around me. I just like things a little wilder than the experience I had at Kruger. So, while I probably will not return to Kruger, I am happy to know that many people safari there every day and love it.
Notes for Nomads:
Here are some tips of a self-drive safari through Kruger National Park. It is a perfect place for those that want to experience in the African wilderness, but do not have a lot of previous experience with it. It is safe, spotting animals is relatively easy, and there is all the infrastructure you need there already.
Kruger is notably less busy in shoulder seasons and on weekdays, however, even then, pre-book lodging on the SanParks website. If you are planning to camp in a tent, Getaway Magazine’s article on Kruger campsites is a great starting point.
Here is a great guide for first timers planning a Kruger self-drive safari, which also includes some suggested itineraries and what to pack. The south is where sightings of big game are best, and the north is where you will find solitude. For those traveling to the north, I recommend Tsendze Rustic Campsite. It does not have electricity but is does have hot showers.
I navigated the park without trouble using the paper map I got at the gate, as well as Maps.me and google maps on my phone. Remember to download the offline map for the park on both apps beforehand. The Kruger Explorer App was recommended to me, which has suggested itineraries, and knowledge about all the animals you can see. That is super nice to have on a self-drive safari, and it looks very well done. However, I have an old-school, physical book, so I did not buy it.
If you do not have any safari experience, you can book a short guided game drive at one of the main SanPark camps. It will teach you about driving speeds, which species to expect in which habitats, and at which times of day. You might also try a night drive, which you are not allowed to do on your own. Have a wonderful time!