Kruger National Park in South Africa – an animal and tourist paradise
Before my trip to South Africa I knew nothing about the Kruger National Park. And sincerely thought that Limpopo is a fairy tale place, where the hippos from the poem about Doctor Aibolit live. In fact, Limpopo is the name of the river in the province of the same name in the northeastern part of South Africa, where the park is located.
Kruger National Park – what is it
Kruger covers about 20,000 square kilometers – slightly less than the area of Israel. It is difficult to call it a park in the traditional sense of the word. This endless savannah: to just drive around it, you need to spend several days.
In addition, the national park is adjoined by private reserves (Sabi Sands, Timbavati, Kapama, Klaseri and others), forming a large park – Greater Kruger National Park. The main difference between the private reserves and Kruger Park is that you can only visit them with a tour. Lodging is more upscale, but prices are also higher than in the state Kruger. The animals and birds in all the reserves are about the same, as they roam quietly through all the areas.
The national park is named after Paul Kruger, president of the Transvaal, a country that existed in Africa in the second half of the 19th century. Kruger was one of the first in South Africa concerned with nature conservation and restricted hunting in the region, which later became part of the park.
Authorities want to expand the territory of the reserve and create the Great Limpopo Park. It will include lands on the territory of Zimbabwe and Mozambique. The main reason for including these territories in the protected area is the migration of animals, especially elephants, which are killed by poachers as soon as they leave the park.
Safari tour or self-drive – what to choose
You can either enter the park on your own (buy a ticket and drive your own car) or by booking a safari tour with an agency.
1 rand = 4,27 roubles.
It is hardly possible to save on the entrance ticket: the territory is surrounded by a fence, and the cars at the entrance are often checked. Although an experienced traveler and zoologist Vladimir Dinets in his guidebook “Wild Africa” tells about a peculiar way to enter the park. “If no legal overnight stays are planned in the park, you can save money for entry by hiding some people in the trunk of the car – only you have to do this both at the entrance and at the exit…” I wouldn’t take any chances and mess with the harsh South African rangers. The fine for being on the territory without a ticket is 1,500 rand (6,500 rubles).
I spent a long time researching the tours and was already ready to book one of the options. The three-day tour with accommodation in the park and shuttle from Johannesburg (about 500 kilometers) cost from 6,490 rand (28 thousand rubles) to 10,220 rand (44 thousand rubles) per person, depending on lodging conditions.
However, I declined the tour, because I was convinced that to go alone in a group of five people will be cheaper. As it turned out later – in vain. Including rent, rental car, gasoline, food and tickets to the park, a self-guided safari is roughly equal to the cost of the tour. Therefore, the economic criterion should not be decisive in the organization of the trip.
It is worth to go on your own if you are fundamentally to decide where to go and where to stay. And, of course, you must know how to drive: it is forbidden to move around the park on foot.
The advantage of organized safaris is the presence of a knowledgeable guide-driver, who, unlike ordinary visitors, has the right to go from paved roads to dirt roads in search of animals. In addition, in many organized tours, tourists are accompanied by a guide, who specially looks for animals and calls other groups by radio to know where you can see the most animals of the reserve at the moment.
Even if you decide to forego a ready-made tour and organize a safari without a guide, I advise you to book a night safari or – for the brave – a bushwalk.
The park closes at 5:30 p.m., so a night safari is the only opportunity to see giraffes walking in the sunset and have dinner by the light of the fire under the African stars. Only being in complete darkness, you realize how many sounds, rustles and smells around, unnoticeable during the day. In addition, many animals, such as members of the feline family, are more often seen in the evening or in complete darkness. Bring a powerful flashlight from home if you’re planning a night hike through the national park.
It gets dark early in Africa, and the night safari starts around 3:00 p.m. and ends by 10:00 p.m. The owners of the cottage where I lived helped organize a night safari with dinner for 1,100 rand per person (4,700 rubles).
An option for the brave is a walking tour with an armed ranger guide, who will guide you through the animal tracks and tell you about the flora and fauna of the park. On such a walk is not allowed children under 13 years. The tour is considered safe, but periodically there are news about attacks of animals on people. The walk can be booked on the official website of the park or through many travel agencies.
Who lives in the national park – the “big African five”
During a safari, visitors seek to see the “big African five”: lion, leopard, buffalo, rhino and elephant. Traditionally, these animals were considered the most prestigious and the most difficult to hunt trophies. It was said of the hunter who managed to kill a “fife” that he collected a “grand slam”. Of course, any hunting in the national park, as well as the importation of weapons, is under the strictest prohibition. But the name is firmly attached to the animals.
Despite the ban, poaching is still a big problem for the national park. Poachers are usually members of armed gangs and are fought at the state level. There are regular news reports of criminals clashing with rangers and animals attacking poachers.
The easiest thing to see out of the “big five” is the elephant. And not just because of its imposing size. There are a lot of elephants in the park: they calmly come out on the road, often lead their cubs behind them and do not react to human presence at all. None of the animals react to visitors’ cars. For the inhabitants of the reserve, they have already turned into a part of the landscape, like a big stone or a tree, not worthy of attention. It is easy enough to see buffalos, too, usually they graze peacefully on the banks of rivers.
Lions are harder to see, as they are nocturnal animals. But like the real cats, lions love to bask in the sun and often sleep right on the heated asphalt. A good clue on how to find them is to follow the hyenas. These screechy and unkempt predators often congregate near a breakfasting lion, waiting for scraps.
Leopards are even harder to see. They usually rest in the trees during the day. If you go on safari with a guide, he can find out where a leopard was last seen by calling his colleagues and head there in the hope that the animal is nearby.
The hardest thing to find is rhinos. Unfortunately, because of poachers, their numbers have declined. They are under the strictest protection, somewhere in the depths of the park, and their location is usually not disclosed to tourists for safety reasons. Rhinoceros horn is considered medicinal in the folk medicine of many Asian countries and is therefore in great demand on the black market. We were lucky enough to see these animals only from a distance through binoculars.
While rhinos are difficult, zebras and impalas (small antelopes) are found in whole herds. So soon you stop paying attention to them. Giraffes stroll peacefully along the roadsides, crocodiles and turtles rest near ponds, long-horned kudu graze among the trees. Hippos can be seen in the rivers. Warthogs (relatives of Pumbaa from “The Lion King”) walk along the roadsides, and monkeys defiantly walk right into the tourist camps. In addition, there are lizards, birds, and lots of smaller animals like rabbits and squirrels.
I went to Kruger Park for three days: the first day was a night safari, and the remaining two days I moved around on my own. This was enough time to get to know the reserve for the first time. You can see all the animals, and some of them even manage to get bored and seem no more exotic than ordinary cows.
Park rules: don’t pester the animals and obey the traffic rules
Don’t forget that you are a guest in the park, and not just a welcome guest. The animals are in charge; don’t disturb them in any way. They are not likely to be interested in you. Neither elephant, nor hippo, nor giraffe will attack a human if he does not disturb their boundaries.
There is a very strict speed limit for the safety of the reserve’s inhabitants. It is prohibited to drive at a speed of over 50 kilometers per hour on the huge, desolate and perfectly flat roads. They really watch it, a ranger with a radar can lurk in the bushes, and the fine reaches 1,500 rand (6,500 rubles).
Stay in the park for those who do not reside on its territory can be from 06:00 to 17:30. A one-day ticket costs 400 rand (1,700 rubles) per person. There are ten entrances from different sides. It is better to come to the very opening – a better chance to see the maximum number of animals. If you are late in the park and leave after 5:30 p.m., you will be fined 500-1,000 rand (2,100-4,200 rubles) for being late.
The roads in the park are excellent, passable by any car. Go off the roads and get out of the car is strictly prohibited for your own safety. Do not forget that the cases of animal attacks on humans still occur. It is allowed to get out of the car at the special viewing platforms. By the way, on them you will probably see signs that prohibit scattering the ashes of the dead. For some reason South Africans took a fancy to the park for saying goodbye to their deceased loved ones.
Driving too close to a giraffe or an elephant is also a bad idea. These giants will easily tip your car over if they think you’re in their way. Such incidents are regularly posted on information boards in the camps – as a warning to other campers. The stands also contain information about where you have recently seen leopards, lions or rhinos. But it is not always fresh. Therefore, the best reference point for finding animals is a cluster of cars on the road. Chances are, something interesting is going on nearby: elephants are swimming or a lioness is finishing eating an antelope. It also happens, be prepared to see bloody scenes.
Another rule of Kruger, which the guides will tell you about, is to beware of baboons, the most cunning, aggressive, and intrusive inhabitants of the park. The monkeys have no fear of humans and will steal anything they can carry at the first opportunity.
No mandatory vaccinations are required to enter the country. However, the reserve is a malaria danger zone. There are no vaccinations against malaria, but at least take a spray against mosquitoes. If within two weeks of returning home you feel symptoms of a cold, it could be malaria. Don’t take any chances and do a rapid test right away to rule it out. Buy in Africa, a few tests and pills for treatment, such as Coartem. Russian pharmacies do not sell such tests and drugs for malaria.
The only hospital in Russia that treats malaria, the second infectious disease hospital in Moscow, back in 2013 treated traveler Artemy Lebedev’s malaria with quinine, just like 200 years ago.
South Africa has its own standard (type M) of electrical outlets, and many places have adapters: sold at airports in duty-free shops and in any supermarket in South Africa. Since this is a fairly rare type of outlet, not all universal adapters fit them.
Since you’ll be in the car most of the time, it’s not worth dressing up in camouflage or buying special safari shoes. But you will need binoculars. Many animals cannot be seen without binoculars, and it is prohibited to drive up close. Without binoculars, I would not have seen a rhino. You don’t need to buy expensive models with night-vision functions, a medium-priced binoculars with 8-12x magnification will be enough. If you do not plan to use them in the future, there is probably a rental service in your city.
There are many campsites with restaurants and stores in the park, so you do not need to buy a supply of food and water with you. True, the prices of some items may be a little higher than in the city supermarket. They also sell souvenirs and maps of the reserve – they are often more convenient than GPS. Navigators can plot a path along a road that doesn’t exist. Or suggest to drive from the gates of the park to the city through the local village, on a night unlit road without asphalt, which happened to me. There were occasional skinny cows on the roadway. And out of the thick fog, drunken, belligerent locals literally fell out a meter in front of the car.
Animal-watching is a major pastime in Kruger. But if you want to do something else, you can golf at Skukuza Rest Camp, learn more about elephants at the Elephant Hall Museum at Letaba Rest Camp, or explore the well-preserved rock art of the Bushmen, the ancient tribes who lived in the park, at Berg-en-Dal Camp.
South Africa is justifiably considered a country with a high crime rate, but it’s safe enough to be in the reserve. As one of the rangers told me, there is nothing to be afraid of because the park visitors are protected by animals. Hardly anyone would sneak across the savannah to rob a camp if there was a risk of becoming prey to a hungry lion on the way.
Also, the park is a serious source of income for South Africa, so the state makes efforts to make its territory safe for tourists. However, basic precautions don’t hurt: don’t leave your belongings unattended and lock your car.
It is usually advised to go to Kruger Park from May to October, during the dry season. I was in January. It rained intermittently in the early morning or late evening, but it didn’t interfere with the safari. The temperature allowed to walk in shorts and not to die from heat, and there were not many cars with tourists.
It’s better to overpay a little and stay on the Kruger property – you won’t waste time on the morning commute and rush to get out before the park closes. Conditions range from basic to deluxe. You need to make a reservation on the official website of the park and register there in advance.
The most budget-friendly option is a camping spot, which costs R340 per person (1,450 rubles). A room in a cottage with a shared kitchen and WC is R440 (R1,880). A big tent with all amenities – from R1,200 (5,120 rubles), a bungalow – from R1,800 (7,700 rubles).
The most luxurious option costs from 8 thousand rand (34 160 rubles) per person. Those planning a truly luxurious vacation should look for accommodations in Lower Sabi Park, where you can choose one of the designer cottages with a swimming pool or a romantic tree house.
If, like me, you didn’t get a chance to stay in the park, you’ll find a huge number of cottages in Hudspruit on Booking or Airbnb. Don’t be surprised if you pay for your reservation by wire transfer or are asked to send your card number. It happens quite often, but pay attention to the reviews and check if the potential accommodation has a website or Facebook page before transferring money. When booking, look up the distance to the nearest park entrance on the map. It will usually take about an hour to get there.
I stayed at the Giraffe Lodge with the expectation that I would be able to walk around the neighborhood after the park closed. But it turned out that there was nowhere to walk in Hoodspruit. In addition, after getting up at five in the morning, there was no energy left for it. Some animals even entered the cottage, an hour’s drive from the reserve. In the morning the paths were dug by melancholic warthogs, the pools were warmed in the sun by imperturbable lizards of impressive size.
Russian citizens do not need a visa to enter South Africa.
The easiest way to get there is to fly to Johannesburg and from there you can take a car or take a domestic flight to the park. The nearest airports to Kruger Park are Skukuza, Hudspruit and Nelspruit. There are flights from Cape Town and Johannesburg. There are also buses and hotel transfers.
If you can, look for flights from the Baltic States. They will often be noticeably cheaper than direct flights from Russia. Skyscanner shows that the cheapest flight in 2020 from St. Petersburg costs 42 thousand rubles, and from Tallinn – 28 thousand rubles.
You can rent a car in Hudspruit or Johannesburg, the nearest major city to the park. All major rental services are available in South Africa, I booked through Avis. The main thing is to make sure there is no limit on the number of kilometers per day – you have to drive a lot.
I got to the park by car from Johannesburg and flew back to Cape Town by plane. I didn’t have much luck with the latter. Two days before departure, CemAir announced that its planes had not passed the flight standards test and cancelled all flights. We had to rush to buy more expensive tickets. As it turned out later, this happens regularly with CemAir. The money for the advance-purchased tickets could only be recovered by the bank – in South Africa no one would protect the rights of consumers. The latter is worth keeping in mind for other services and treat it with philosophical calm.
I was not familiar with Africa and South Africa and not very well prepared for the trip, spent more than I could have. Learn from my mistakes.
- Renting a car from Johannesburg – 18,400 rubles for four days (3,680 rubles per person).
- Renting a cottage – 15,800 rubles for two nights for five people (3,160 rubles per person).
- The night safari – 4 600 rubles.
- Gasoline – 57 rubles per liter, 7,980 rubles for five people (1,596 per person).
- Dinner for one person in the park – 427 rubles (2 562 rubles total).
- Entrance to the park – 3,400 rubles (1,700 rubles per day).
- Airfare from Hudspruit to Cape Town – 19,370 rubles for the ticket, which I bought at the last minute.
Total: 36,800 rubles for three days per person.
After the safari it was possible to travel around the country, see penguins on sandy beaches, visit the traditional areas of Cape Town and get to the very edge of the continent, but the safari remained the strongest impression of the trip.