Kruger is a large park, oriented mostly north-south along the border with Mozambique, and it takes more than 9 hours to traverse Kruger from one end to the other. The Google Maps most direct in-park distance is 436 km (271 miles) between the Malelane and Pafuri Gates and this takes 9 h 24 minutes (from Google Maps). And the network of dirt roads (no 4×4 is normally needed on these unless heavy rains have impacted them) is quite extensive. It would take a number of days to traverse all of the park’s roads even once. This is why we like Kruger – away from the rest camps and paved roads you don’t see that many other vehicles. Sometimes we have driven for an hour without seeing another car – which would be unheard of in most US National Parks.
Kruger National Park is one of our favorite parks in South Africa – because it has something of almost everything. First of all, it is South Africa’s largest Park (it takes more than 9 hours to drive from the south to north entrances (436 km) near the speed limit of 50 km/hr). Second, it has almost all of southern Africa’s iconic large mammals – and many of them, like elephants and rhino, number in the thousands. Third, there are a great variety of rest camp accommodations and some camps have short trails within the camps themselves. Then there is the large network of dirt roads that allow you to escape much of the crowds that can be found on some of the paved roads in the southern part of the park.
An excellent source for detailed information about Kruger National Park is the commercial website Siyabona Africa. Though it is designed to sell safari’s of various types, the general information and maps are very good. Much of the material can be found in books and guides available in rest camp stores, but one really needs this information before traveling to Kruger. We now have innumerable books and guides related to Kruger National Park, but we have discovered new material on each visit to the park. Our suggestions is do your planning with everything you can get your hands on online, but then buy whatever you can when in Kruger. It will help you plan your next trip.
Kruger is far enough from the main urban area of Johannesburg (about 5+ hours driving) for it not to be a weekend destination for locals. This is so because the park’s gates close at sunset, so late arrivals are not possible (except in some extreme occasions). If you avoid school holidays and summer break, the park will mostly be filled with foreign tourists.
Kruger isn’t a mountainous park – it is relatively level for the most part. Some notable hills and granite inselbergs are found in the south of the park and scattered along the Mozambique border and near the northern end of the park. Higher terrain is found west of the park’s boundary, rising to near 1500m in places. But within the park, the topography is undulating, with rivers draining it from west to east. These rivers scour to the bedrock in many places and can be mostly dry in the dry season. Some water in the major rivers always exists but is much greater in the rainy season and especially during landfalling tropical cyclones in Mozambique. Then major floods can occur along Kruger’s rivers, and some rest camps have had major flooding.
We have stayed at all of the main rest camps in Kruger, and have some suggestions for naturalists. There are trails, albeit short, in Berg en Dal, Mopani and Punda Maria rest camps. These allow you to get a flavor of walking in the bush and seeing smaller animals, especially birds, reptiles and insects up close. Most other camps don’t have these natural landscapes; the largest camp, Skukuza has a trail through some wetlands and a good bird hide near the camp (but outside the gate).
Driving in Kruger
The road network in Kruger is extensive and the roads connecting the main rest camps are paved. There is a more extensive network of dirt roads that are usually maintained in good condition – adequate for normal sedan cars.
By the way, you can visit almost all parts of Kruger in a normal sedan. The dirt roads are usually well-graded and lack big rocks that might threaten low-clearance cars. HOWEVER, there is a plus to renting a high clearance vehicle like we do (Toyota Hilux 4×4). You are higher off the ground and can see over tall grasses more easily than in a small/low car. Plus, we have a refrigerator for cold drinks and food, extra gear in case you break down etc. Although there is traffic on all of Kruger’s roads, there are some dirt stretches that might see only a few vehicles a day.
First driving rule for visitors: stay below the speed limits at all times (50km/hr on paved roads and 40 km/hr on dirt). Police with traffic cameras do catch speeders (including ourselves once on an early trip when we were “racing” at 60km/hr (about 36 mph) to make a rest camp before closing (we didn’t have reservations). There are very good reasons for keeping your speed down. Large animals can seemingly appear “out of nowhere”, and in a collision between your small car and an elephant you lose. Seriously, you can’t see much going at the speed limit – many animals are cryptic and you simply will miss many things by driving “normally”. A plus of driving slowly on dirt roads is that the dust kicked up by your vehicle will be less.
Maintaining the low speeds needed for spotting wildlife means that you can’t cover as much distance as you might otherwise think. Plan ahead! Use the maps to estimate your driving distances and times and budget for stops.
One of the most exciting things about driving in Kruger is that you literally don’t know what will cross the road ahead of you. It might be a large Leopard Tortoise (a bit tough for photographers since you can’t officially leave your vehicle – and we don’t). It might be a heard of elephants. Or anything in between. You will be surprised how invisible dangerous game can be, so getting out of your vehicle in many places is seriously risky. Don’t do it.
Now that you’ve been warned about getting out of your vehicle, realize that fenced rest areas with toilets are relatively few and far between. Those should be prominently marked on your maps! Make use of them. Admittedly, we’ve been forced to take quick “pit stops” along the sides of long dirt road stretches, but with great care and where visibility was sufficient to see potential dangers.
Strategies for seeing game in peaceful settings
Despite the great numbers of tourists that visit Kruger National Park there are many opportunities to get away from crowds and be almost by yourself. There are some keys to knowing how to do this. Here are some points we have discovered (and many are mentioned on websites and various books):
- Drive slowly. Let others pass you. You want to be looking for large mammals like elephants, but also small ones like snakes and tortoises crossing the road (we’ve seen very few snakes and we tend to look for them). Plus, you will want to be scanning the tree tops for raptors and other birds. You can’t do while driving anywhere near the speed limit. We have found that some stretches of road appear devoid of life, then you pass by something unexpected.
- recognize that day visitors from outside the park do exist and can most easily visit the southern part of the park. Accommodations are more luxurious outside the park and there are more options to walk with guides in private reserves bordering Kruger, so a certain clientele will stay in these places. But many animals can best be seen inside Kruger, so day trips are necessary for these visitors. The park opens to outsiders 1 hour after the Kruger camp gates open, so there is a one hour period in the morning when outside the park visitors won’t be present. If you are staying in a camp near the border of Kruger this might be a factor to consider.
- The middle and northern parts of Kruger get less visitation than the southern part because there are fewer sources of water and there is less wildlife – especially hippos and rhinos. Also, it is farther from most accommodations outside the southern part of the park. You cannot drive from the south of the park to the north and return in one day. So plan to stay in a northern camp to enjoy the less-traveled areas of the park.
- Take advantage of the dirt road network. We have seen that many visitors (in inexpensive to rent small cars) are hesitant to stray off the paved roads. To minimize the crowds you must get off on the dirt roads. Study the maps and decide where you want to go.
- There is a rush to leave the camp when the gates open in the morning. Gate hours are very specific, posted and usually are about 30-45 minutes before sunrise and vary with the sunrise and sunset times. There can be a line of vehicles at the gate in the morning waiting for gate opening. Don’t join the crowd. Wait until 15 minutes or more after the gates open to leave. Otherwise you will in a line of cars moving away from the camp – and hostage to slower cars that stop for the first animal seen. (It can be hazardous to pass cars looking at animals, and somewhat disrespectful as well – you often have to be more patient than you wish – especially if you’ve already see hundreds of elephants during your visit. This might be the first elephant sighting for the visitors in the car ahead of you.
- Consider doing a “typical” safari day. Go out early for 4 hours, more or less, then come back and enjoy the pool and restaurant and take a nap in your lodging. Then, a few hours before sunset, leave and do more exploration. Just be sure to make it back before the gates close.
- Explore your rest camp. Often there are trails, native plants and many smaller animals that you cannot look at when you are outside the gate. Remember, you cannot get out of your car (except in specific locations) in most of the park, so the best opportunity for looking at lizards, insects, plants and the likes is inside your rest camp. Take the time to explore it.
- Look at the night sky – from inside your rest camp – away from any lights. Enjoy the Milky Way; if you are from the northern hemisphere the sky will look very different. Use binoculars if you have them (you should). Of course, a moonless night will be best.
- Spend time at the waterholes and wildlife blinds. We can’t emphasize this enough. You may arrive and see nothing from the blind. But wait – perhaps 30 minutes or even much longer. Animals will appear. Things will change. Of course, you must be quite, avoid taking too much space in the blind and also minimize the use of noisy cameras shooting hundreds of images.
- Be sure not to stray too far from your rest camp near sunset. There is a rush of cars getting back before the gates close (major penalties can apply if they have to open for you). Better to get back 10 or 15 minutes early and enjoy the dusk at the camp.
You can take guided drives around sunset, sunrise or during the night that are offered by the park service, you can stay outside the park and come in with a small salary group and guide or if you have your own car (what we do) you can drive yourself and have enjoy the outstanding experience of finding animals and enjoying beautiful landscapes on your own.
There are many books/guides you can purchase while in the park at their many souvenir shops, however, a relatively recent book ” ” by is highly recommended.
Photo of the book
It is a heavy book to carry, but the maps and the information regarding most roads and animals in Kruger is very useful. It pays to plan ahead so you can make the most of the day. Camp gates open usually at sunrise but you have to be back before closing time, usually sunset. This book will be invaluable to help you make the most of your time in the park.
Because Kruger is so large and has so many side roads to explore, we have organized our material into three sections, from south to north. We make no attempt for completeness in our discussion, but highlight things that naturalists might find of particular interest. We also discuss strategies for seeing the most in the available time – while still enjoying the ambience of the park.