South Africa is known for diverse wildlife and the magnificent coastline with world class wines. That being said, I love the idea of being driven in game drives with open-top jeeps as much as I love to drive it myself. The wildlife photos that I have shared on social media, most people assumed that they were taken during a guided safari drive. In my recent trip to South Africa, I spent 3 days and 2 nights in the magnificent Kruger National Park. We entered the park apprehensive and excited, but left like kids that just visited Disneyland.
The difference between guided safari game drives and self-driving is literally being driven and driving yourself respectively. There are two kinds of guided game drives, either with Sans Park or the privately owned ones. The one conducted by Sans Park has the privilege of going out earlier (before the gates open at rest camps and the Kruger main gates) and coming back later. There are also night drive options. You should always try to book in advance and experience one of these guided drive once. Private ones are usually pricier depending on the operator. Nothing is like self driving because you can drive wherever and stop whenever you like. A sense of satisfaction is achieved and greatly memorable when you spot the rarer animals like lions, leopards, cheetahs and rhinos. The kind of satisfaction achieved is like chasing the northern lights in Lapland, similar yet different.
When to go?
Avoid the wet season because of the risk of malaria, do take malaria pills and cover yourself up as precautions if you travel during this period. We went during September which is spring time in South Africa and decided not to take the pills. It is also the dry season and animals are out hunting more often, so that increases your chances of game viewing.
How to go?
Most people fly into Johannesburg because it serves most major airlines. From the airport, it takes about 4 hours of driving to the main gate of Kruger National Park. Malelane gate is the nearest main gate if you are heading directly from Johannesburg area. But I recommend to spend the night outside Kruger and head in earliest the next day. The queue to enter the park usually starts 30 minutes before the park gate opens. Panorama route is highly recommended to be bundled into the journey before or after Kruger. Hazyview is a great town to stay over and you can enter through Phabeni gate early next day.
A coffee cart goes around early in the morning to those cars in the queue
How much to pay?
Sans park charges R372/person/day for conservation fees in Kruger National Park, this is even if you travel in the same car. For accommodations, bungalow style huts cost about R1500 and bigger family options starts from R2000.
My rule of thumb is to fill up whenever you see a gas station and the car is below half tank. There is usually a filling station in rest camps so the chances of running out of fuel is minimal when you are in Kruger.
Where to go?
This is critical because it will decide which rest camp you stay in Kruger National Park. Since booking availability in rest camp is much more difficult to obtain, I recommend to do it months in advance so that you get a good selection to match your route. With the rest camps booked, plan your drives according to the rest camp location. Different areas of Kruger are good for particular animals due to the terrain. Take note that the speed limit in the park is 50km/hr. This is not only for your safety but also for the wildlife.
The night before was spent at Hazyview so it took about 15 minutes to join the gate queue at Phabeni. We entered the gate at 6am. It was a slow drive to Skukuza because it was our first time in the park and we stopped at every sighting. We saw baboons, zebras, impalas, hippos and eagles. Lunch at Skukuza has plenty of options, we loved the view of the Sabie river at Cattle Baron Grill and Bistro. We spent the first night in Satara rest camp. Taking the H1-2 and H1-3 is the direct route from Skukuza to Satara and they offer good chances of spotting lions and cheetahs because of the terrain changes to typical African savannah. We saw numerous sightings of elephants and giraffes along this route. We wanted to book an evening game drive at Satara but it was fully booked. Game drives with Sans Park can be booked and prepaid in advance together with accommodation. It was only near Satara that we spotted a cheetah at dusk when we went along the H7.
Lunch at Cattle Baron Grill and Bistro
We woke up early to leave Satara but had to wait for the gate to open at 6am. Then, I had a little chat with the rest camp guard on duty. He mentioned that out of his five years working in Kruger, he had only experienced less than five leopard sightings. S100 is famous for the pride of lions that lives around but we did not see any during our drive. Instead, we caught two different prides around the H1-3. Yay! lion checked off the list! Another highlight was the family of hyenas that was lazing around their nest early in the morning. We continue south back towards Skukuza for lunch and then towards Lower Sabie via H4-1. We chanced upon 2 leopard sightings, WOW. Someone else spotted it both times and we happened to be there at the right time. We also spotted a pride of fifteen lions going on a hunting spree! We ended the day by heading to Berg-en-dal rest camp. We chose it because Lower Sabie and Crocrodile rest camps were full and this was the next best option.
You can take another drive around if you have not seen all the animals on your check list! Exit Kruger either through Malelane gate or Crocodile Bridge gate.
The trip can done in reverse format, that means entering from the southern gates and leaving from Phabeni. It is also extendable by driving north to Olifants and beyond.