A self-drive safari in Kruger National Park turned out to be a more liberating and enjoyable experience than any organized safari.
Sometimes my annoying questions on Tripadvisor get little in the way of worthwhile responses. I regarded a visit to Kruger National Park as must-see on a trip to South Africa, but I wasn’t sure how to go about it. During my first safari in Kenya, everything was neatly organized for us. Don’t get me wrong: I had a great time and saw some wonderful wildlife, but sitting on the safari vehicles for hours at a time became tedious, and organized safaris are generally expensive. With my independent streak, I wasn’t keen on being on a scheduled multi-day itinerary. The overwhelming response from forum-goers was: do it yourself!
1) I have never driven on the left side of the road
2) I would be by myself
3) Did I mention by myself driving through a large nature reserve?
The thought of charting my own course excited me, and the “what if” scenarios gave me a certain degree of anxiety.
- The intrigued part of me went ahead and booked a bungalow at the big Skukuza rest camp in Kruger National Park and found a surprisingly inexpensive car rental from Avis.
- The South African National Parks is fairly easy to navigate and make bookings on, but three months ahead, it was obvious most of the best accomodation in September was long gone, particularly in rest camps such as Olifants, Satara and Lower Sabie that others mentioned to be their preferred camps.
- I also signed up for a couple of game drives (one for sunset, one for night) and a ranger-led bush walk run by South Africa National Parks. These were my fall-back options just in case (and I figured I could book additional game drives if I was uncomfortable doing the drives myself)
- The big dilemma was where to go and how – I booked a two-week itinerary completely on South African Airways for 4 different flight legs, all with a stop-over in Johannesburg OR Tambo Airport (JNB), although I never actually planned to visit Johannesburg
- JFK – Skukuza Airport
- Nelspruit – Victoria Falls
- Victoria Falls – Cape Town
- Cape Town – JFK
- All of the layovers were nearly planned to be long enough, but nothing more than a few hours.
Arriving in the Rainbow Nation
Transiting at OR Tambo Airport in Johannesburg was easy enough, with the only real delay being that most of the flights I had through JNB used a shuttle bus to/from the airport (I guess they must be in short supply of jetbridges).
The flight from JNB-SKU was incredibly short, and we were served a small snack and coffee. As I watched the Kruger bush from above, my anxiety was mostly replaced by excitement about finally making it to South Africa, a long-time dream.
Skukuza airport is a tiny thatched-roof airport and we walked straight from the plane into the building. I purchased a map of the park from the gift shop and headed into the Avis office – I was the only one, as it seemed everyone else was being picked up, most likely to be taken to their luxury safari digs. Picking up the rental car was as painfully slow as it almost always is. I was quite amused that the Avis agent offered to rent me a GPS – when I asked whether it would even work in the park, he grinned at me with a polite “No, not really”. So much for that.I did want to visit Swaziland, so the agent gave me a special paper giving me permission to drive the car over the border into Swaziland, no extra charge or anything.
The drive over to the Skukuza camp was a quick 10-minute ride and made me a little more comfortable with how a self-drive safari would work:
1) The roads were fairly empty
2) Driving on the left side of the road is not that much different than driving on the right, except that I kept hitting the windshield wiper instead of the turn signal
3) At every intersection, signs point you in the right direction and there are only so many ways you can actually go inside the park
4) The animals own this park and will cross when they please, so watch out!
Skukuza – The Big Camp
Approaching Skukuza rest camp, I started to encounter impala and elephants and noted how different this was from my Kenya experience, where encountering wildlife was relatively infrequent – even common animals such as impala and elephants. It was a good omen that I would get plenty of wildlife-watching opportunities during the trip.
Skukuza is the big rest camp of Kruger National Park, and I read plenty of criticism from South Aricans about how busy it gets. There is a lot of accomodation, two full service restaurants (one was closed at the time), a quick service restaurant and fairly large shop on premises. It was an easy adjustment to Kruger, but I could see why people, especially South Africans who bring their own equipment, would opt for smaller camps.
The bungalow? It was alright. One could deem it just a place to sleep. The plumbing odor was a bit nauseating and lighting made it pretty hard to see anything at night. A bit over-priced but for staying in the middle of the park, its the price you pay.
I registered myself with the camp and as it was still morning, I was told to come back later to check-in, so off I went to do my own game drive. One thing I must say: As a solo traveler, the downside is that while trying to keep your eyes on the road, you miss wildlife in the distance that your passenger(s) would normally find.
A few months before this trip, I spent a week at Yellowstone National Park, and the difference between that and this experience was night and day. When wildlife is spotted in Yellowstone, people would actually park their cars on the road and leave them to go see the wildlife. I saw people yelling at the wildlife to turn around for their photos (seriously). At Kruger, I found a much higher level of courtesy. Even with a prized sighting like lions, people properly pulled off to the side of the road to let others pass and be able to observe the wildlife. In general, my average drive would see no more than 1 or 2 cars visible. Folks will pull up next to you to ask what you are seeing, and I learned to do the same. It was overall a very respectful that at least I encountered in the park.
Picking the Drives
It is amazing to drive the same road 3 or 4 times and encounter completely different sets of wildlife. I had as many elephants, zebras, giraffes, wildebeest, and impala as I really wanted. I have to credit the SANP web site for listing the type of wildlife and environment of the different sections of the park and different roads.
- H1-2 and H1-3, the roads between the Satara Camp and Skukuza Camp, offered up everything – 3 separate lion sightings between Satara and the Tshokwane Picnic site (which, by the way, offers up some great and cheap hot fare if you don’t feel like sitting at one of the park restaurants). On my second day, when rain took over the park, I and a few others got lucky and stumbled upon a pride of lionesses, miserable and wet, slowly crossing the road through our vehicles. That honestly has to be one of my fondest memories of the drives.
- On the road from Skukuza to Lower Sabie, a troop of baboons took over the road, blocking a few of us for a while until we could finally make a safe path to pass them by. Again, a clear reminder that the wildlife owns this park and not the other way around.
- I only witnessed one kill -a pack of hyenas with what I assume was an impala. It was entertaining to watch the hyenas try to shoo away the vultures who showed up to partake in the meal. When I drove pack later, the sun had hit the kill and the odor was quite overwhelming.
- Between Lower Sabie and Crocodile Bridge, the environment changes again – but this is a great place to encounter birds, crocodiles (of course) and hippos in the various lakes.
- I also drove down H1-1 and H3 to Pretoriuskop and Berg-En-Dal, never actually going to the camps but to encounter the completely different environment of that area. The land became more arid, less populated with both wildlife and humans as well – a desert feel. I actually found very few other vehicles in this part of the park, but the nature had a certain beauty to it, and with less wildlife, I turned my attention to some of the amazing birds.
- I only did one of the three activities I booked – the sunset game drive on Day 1. I think between the jet lag and rain, I was ready to get off of it well before it was over. The only nice part of that drive was getting close to a couple of white rhinos. I did encounter a couple of black thinos FAR away on my own drives, and the same went for Kenya, so it was a treat to see them up-close. After that, I decided to skip the night drive because the sunset game drive went on quite late into the night. I also skipped the bush walk due to the rain and just continued my drives, encountering a surprising amount of wildlife even in the downpour.
Table For One?
I dined in the open full-service restaurant at Skukuza the first night (Cattle Baron) – talk about AWKWARD. The place was full and was some sort of evidence that this is not a common trip for the solo traveler – add to that the waitstaff all hanging around where I was sitting. Eeek. I have to praise SANP for the quality of dining in the park – there were quick service options at every rest camp I stopped at and the food was actually good. I gained an appreciation for Mugg & Bean and the other options at the rest camps. Back at Skukuza, I patronized the take-away portion of Cattle Baron and dined al fresco at one of the tables looking out at the river – all of these camps seem to have found a beautiful view for their dining. Needless to say, faster and less awkward than sitting in one of the dining room, especially after spending 12 hours on the road.
My strategy for the next couple of days:
- Wake up at 5 or 5:30 in the morning and get ready
- Nothing was open, so I made so with some fruit/protein bar and instant coffee I brought along (the bungalow included a fridge and kettle outside, and there are food supplies at the main shop)
- Be one of the first people out the gates at 6am
- Stop for breakfast later in the morning
- Stay on the road with an aim to arrive back at Skukuza around the time the gates close
Safety and Coping
I read about the unfortunate incident of the woman who was in the Lion Park and had her window down and well…you know the rest. SANP makes it clear that drivers should keep their windows up and stay I side the vehicle. There are a few spots where I was able to park and take a little stroll – generally these were at higher elevations where it was safer, but otherwise I only left my car in proper rest camps or stops. When watching the wildlife, I kept a reasonably safe distance (this is what long range lenses are intended for!) and if I did happen to open my window for whatever photo op, I made it quick and scanned my surroundings as this is what the unfortunate woman failed to do. When I encountered a pack of lions, I kept the windows up until they were somewhat in the distance, whereas maybe I gave myself more leeway with a sole ostrich on an empty, low-bush road.
Admittedly, one risk is that there is no cell reception outside of the camps and stops, so if you do get into an emergency, it may require waiting to flag down another car. This is part of the risk in my opinion. Traveling alone usually means a lot of added risk, but I believe you simple have to accept it and try to have a reasonable plan for what happens if some common things happen – crime is not really a factor here, but being in an area with few services makes this more risky than traveling to a big town or city.
The upside to having your own car is you can bring whatever supplies you think you might need with you for the days journey. I typically did not return back to my camp until sunset.
I am glad I listened to forum-goers and opted it to do it myself. My only regrets were that the elusive leopard and cheetah were not spotted on this trip, but I encountered both in Masai Mara, so it wasn’t the end of the world for me. I found Kruger National Park to be pleasant and my co-visitors to be equally pleasant. I can’t compare this at all to Masai Mara, where 500 safari vehicles show up when lions of a cheetah is spotted. This just felt less chaotic, with people respecting each other’s ability to both see the wildlife as well as allowing other drivers to move past.
The dining options and shops made it easy to come to the park with almost no supplies, although understandably things are more expensive due to the captive audience – but by American standards, still quite inexpensive. There is no cell signal outside of the rest camps, but with a map and signs, it seems pretty impossible to get lost.
I think the best part of the experience is the independent travel aspect. Sure, a luxury safari outfit could have charged me $700 a day to go off-roading and probably ensure leopards, cheetahs, and even a proper kill, but I was happy to use my own eyes and encounter what I could on my own – it sort of the made the day more interesting that way than if I was sitting in a safari vehicle all day.
I loved my time in Kruger National Park and I will be making a return visit sometime soon. My time there inspired me to look for other self-drive options in South Africa and Namibia. Now that I am orientated with the park, I would probably book ahead earlier and stay in a camp like Satara or Lower Sabie
The bungalow as Skukuza was ok, but I was honestly happy to see the back of it as I left through the south gate on to Marloth Park to stay at La Kruger, a boutique hotel, in order to visit Swaziland easily. That is another plus side of KNP – besides Mozambique and Swaziland, there are other areas to explore such as doing the Panorama.
Solo Traveler Comments:
- Car rental and food are very inexpensive by Western standards
- Kruger has wildlife numbers/diversity on par with the best safari reserves in Africa. Animals will be everywhere
- Main roads on the park are sealed, well-marked with signs and easy to navigate
- SANP provides extensive information online and at rest camps to aid independent game-watchers
- Probably the most inexpensive (good) safari you can arrange
- The quality and selection of food at the rest camps is surprisingly impressive – not just basic meat and vegetables, but roasted red pepper quiches, fresh omelettes, and so on.
- SANP accomodation is rustic
- Game-watching is easier with one person driving and one or more people with binoculars
- Fairly expensive flights if not driving from Johannesburg (connecting to Nelspruit, and even more expensive for Skukuza and other KNP airports)
- No cell service outside of rest camps. Need to be extra prepared if something goes wrong.
- Compared to a town or city, harder to connect with others.
- Very few solo travelers for this type of trip