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. Kruger has roughly 20 thousand elephant, 35 thousand zebra, 35 thousand Cape Buffalo, 10 thousand giraffe, 150 thousand impala. You get the idea. Lots of large mammals. See more census results here. 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.
American and European tourists may wonder where in Africa is the best place to see wildlife. The areas on the continent that advertise their wildlife heavily and promote such tourism are east Africa (Kenya and Tanzania) and southern Africa (South Africa, Namibia and Botswana). Both regions seem to have similar wildlife (lions, zebras, hippos, elephants, wildebeest, giraffe etc.). Many of the birds are similar. But there are differences. The landscapes are different; eastern Africa has high mountains (e.g. Kilimanjaro, Mt Kenya) and wet forests on mountain slopes. East Africa has active volcanoes and dry rift valleys. Kruger has none of this – the landscape seems bland by comparison with east Africa. What does Kruger have that other parks don’t?
The reasons for visiting Kruger – over the eastern African parks like Serengeti and Masai Mara at least, may have more to do with logistics and cost than what animals you might see. South Africa has a long history of the locals (albeit the white population) being very active in outdoor activities. The infrastructure for what we call today “ecotourism” was built around the interest by the locals in southern Africa. The park facilities had to cater to local interests and be affordable to them. In eastern Africa the nature-tourism focus has been dominated by foreign tourists. These tourists can afford more. Also, independent tourism in the east African national parks, though it exists, is less common than package tours and safaris. In South Africa the parks are explored primarily by independent travelers. The facilities are designed for independent travelers. And the infrastructure in South Africa outside of the parks is nearly first-world, with excellent roads, organized towns, shopping centers etc. Of course, this is mostly true only outside of the former townships where much of the black population still lives. Much of the rest of Africa is less developed than South Africa and it is a challenge for independent travelers to drive through many countries with relative ease.
In summary, the per-day costs to visit parks in South Africa are considerably less than in Kenya and Tanzania. This translates to a longer vacation for the same cost. And the freedom of independent travel is very important to many naturalists who want to organize their activities around what they want to see. In a tour you must be willing to spend time in activities that the tour wants to see. Unless of course you opt for a private tour (usually more expensive).
The reader can detect our biases; we prefer southern Africa for the travel freedom it affords. We have not (yet) been to east Africa, though we want to go. It is simply that every time we do the cost calculations, we end up deciding southern Africa is a better deal. If it were only for birds we might prefer eastern Africa. But the succulent plants that interest us have a much greater diversity in southern Africa, while the larger mammals can mostly be seen just as well in either region. And the accommodations, food, vehicle rental options, and ease of travel are much better in South Africa than in most of the rest of Africa.
Kruger is a large park, oriented mostly north-south along the border with Mozambique. The 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 is quite extensive and 4×4 is normally not needed on these roads. 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.
An excellent source of detailed information about Kruger National Park is the commercial website Siyabona Africa. Though it is designed to sell safari’s of various types (many very expensive), the general information and maps are very good. Much of the material can be found in books and guides available in Kriger’s 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 lack 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 time for tourists) for it not to be a weekend destination for most 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 South African school holidays and summer break, the park will mostly be filled with foreign tourists. Remember to get a SANPARKS Wildcard (annual pass to all of the South African National Parks) if you plan on visiting for more than a week – otherwise the daily fees will exceed the Wildcard fee.
Kruger isn’t a mountainous park. Some hills and granite kopjies are found in the south of the park and other elevated terrain is scattered along the Mozambique border and near the northern end of the park. Much higher terrain, rising to near 1500m in places, does border the lowveld, but it is well west of the park itself. Within the park, the elevations are low, but the topography is undulating, with rivers draining the land that run 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 been seriously damaged by flooding.
Scenic landscapes with mountains and sweeping vistas isn’t what Kruger is about. Subtle variations in the landscape produce vegetation variations that control the distribution of the dominant grazers and their predators. The availability of water affects hippos, crocodiles and a host of other wildlife dependent on water.
There are a few basic aspects of the geology of Kruger that the visitor should be aware of. Despite the fact that basic geological maps are available in all of the guidebooks available in the rest camp bookstores we didn’t pay that much attention to them. But a basic appreciation of the underlying geology will help you appreciate better the landscape and the vegetation you see as you travel across the park. An excellent short summary of Kruger’s geological setting and landscapes is that by Viljoen 2015. You can see the pdf here.
The western side of the park is underlain by granite and this weathers differently than basalt. Koppies form from the weathering of granite and are a distinctive landscape feature of many African granitic landscapes.
Basaltic landscapes look different and don’t have obvious Koppies. Basaltic landscapes are relatively flat and support shorter “savanna-type” vegetation. The higher hills and ridges in the far eastern part of Kruger – along the border with Mozambique, are comprised of rhyolite – viscous volcanic flows of granitic composition. The naturalist should be aware that the vegetation (and resulting animals like grazers) vary with the underlying geological substrate in complex ways that I don’t attempt to explain here. But the reference by Viljoen cited above starts to discuss this – and much more has been done to look into these relationships by researchers.
The Kruger National Park has many (12) main rest camps and a number (11) of smaller, more rustic camps that can only be accessed by guests. Descriptions of these camps can be found in the Siyabona website or the SanParks (official) site. The SanParks site has more information, but is a somewhat less “user-friendly” website. To help the reader we have downloaded the pdf maps of each park and also made screen captures of the camps from Google Earth so you can see better their relationship with the surrounding terrain and vegetation. We have also marked some of the more interesting features for naturalists.
First, some basics about rest camps in Africa. In South Africa these camps are fenced so that the dangerous animals cannot get in… and get to you. Some camps in other countries are unfenced and you are protected by your own tent or chalet. Thus, you are contained inside your camp at night and the animals roam free in the park without humans bothering them. The opposite of a Zoo.
While the perimeter fences of the camps are electrified and have razor wire in many places, they are not entirely animal proof. Leopards have gotten into the camps and killed people, and monkeys and baboons seem to have no problem getting in. They can do this during the daytime when the camp gates are open to vehicles. Even smaller antelope are in some of the rest camps (Punda Maria) as are smaller mammals and reptiles of almost any size. Birds of course can fly in and some of the best bird-watching is done inside the rest camps.
We have stayed at nearly all of the main rest camps in Kruger (not Crocodile Bridge) 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 at Panic Lake (but outside the rest camp gate).
The main rest camps are mostly intended for guests, but their restaurants, gift shops and many other facilities are open to day visitors. Also, in each rest camp there is a day-use visitor area where tourists passing by can stop and picnic or look around. All of the guidebooks sold in the gift shops have maps showing the layout of the rest camps in the park so you can find your way around them.
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. The dirt road network is actually much larger than those that tourists can drive on. A certain percentage are assigned to concession lodges – if you don’t have a reservation you are warned not to drive down the road to the lodge. Then there are access roads for park personal to remote parts of the park. Such roads will be marked in some manner to indicate no entrance. In effect, there are some very large pieces of Kruger that are off-limits to tourists. This will become apparent when perusing the Kruger road maps. Consider this fact as a benefit to the wildlife of the park.
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, and 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 much 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 herd 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.
Kruger’s biota. Key features and attractions
Although we have noted that many of the large mammals in Kruger can be seen in various parks in Africa, the convenience of seeing them is greater in Kruger than many other parks in other countries. But precisely what should an American or European be impressed by in the Kruger National Park? What can you see there that you can’t see in a large Zoo?
In our experience, what is most interesting to even the mildly patient observer are the interactions among herd animals. In a zoo you will see a couple of elephants, or a few zebra, but in Kruger you will see herds of 40 elephant or more with all ages present. You will see solitary males (rare in Zoos) wandering. And you will frequently see mixed herds of zebra and giraffe. This is not a coincidence – the giraffe serve as a sentinel for other herd animals. In our observation in various parks in southern Africa the giraffe are among the wariest of the large mammals. When they approach a waterhole (say in Etosha in Namibia) other animals will follow.
Elephants deserve a few additional comments. We, like most tourists, want to see them. But when we do we are not entirely relaxed, even in our vehicles Most tourists have seen the videos or photos of small tourist cars being turned over by elephants. Though rare, just knowing that an angry elephant can be a real hazard to you even inside your vehicle gives you a feeling of trepidation. If an adult male is blocking a lonely road we have to be patient until it walks well off the road. No other animal, with the possible exception of large Rhinos or Hippos, is such a comparable threat.
Cape Buffalo aggregate in herds of a hundred or more animals at times. These groups are impressive.
Under appreciated by a great many tourists are the smaller animals of Kruger. Many tourists want to see the “Big 5” – leopard, lion, rhino, elephant and Cape Buffalo. This is almost pushed upon tourists by the tourism industry. Have you seen the Big 5? Well, after weeks in Kruger and other parks in southern Africa we still haven’t seen a leopard. But we haven’t gone out of our way to see them either. We are more interested in the animals you are very unlikely to see in any zoo. Most African birds won’t be found in your local zoo. Some of the tortoises and turtles and most of the lizards are hard to find in zoos. Plus most of the smaller mammals. And though you may see a Baboon or Vervet Monkey in a Zoo you will not see them in large troops nor the interactions between the individuals. The dominance of termite mounds in parts of Kruger is impressive to the first-time visitor to the tropics. Though there are many parts of Africa with more impressive termite mounds, the landscape in parts of northern Kruger is dominated by termite mounds. In the wet season there are nuptial flights of these termites and we have seen hornbills and rollers feeding off the insects.
The lizards of Kruger are very interesting; some like the Chameleons and geckoes are small and inconspicuous. Others, like the Monitor lizards, can be impressively large and may be found walking through camp seemingly without fear of humans.
Totoises are rarely seen in North America, but they are relatively common in southern Africa (aquatic turtles are less common and restricted to water). In fact, the Cape region of Africa has the greatest diversity of tortoise species in the world. And the most common species, the Leopard Tortoise (Geochelone pardalis), is one of the largest land tortoises – excepting a similar one found in the Sahel and one in South America and of course the large island species found on Aldabra in the Indian Ocean and those in the Galapagos.
Some of the smaller animals include the reptiles such as land tortoises, lizards and aquatic turtles shown in the images above. Of course, a four ft long Monitor Lizard might not see small to you! The Nile Monitor is just a smaller version of the well-known Komodo Dragon.
Here is an assortment of some of the mammals of Kruger. No attempt is made here to be a field guide! Click on any image to see more about the images.
Baboons and Vervet Monkeys deserve a gallery by themselves. They are commonly seen at Rest Camps and visitors need to be careful to keep their chalets, tents and vehicles closed at all times. Leaving a vehicle open for only a minute can invite a visit and theft of something!
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 this 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. Some park gates opens to outsiders 1 hour after the Kruger camp gates open, so there is a one hour period in the early 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 that are 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 spend some time 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 avoid the crowds you must drive on the dirt roads. Study the maps and decide where you want to go. The dirt roads don’t necessarily have more large wildlife, they are simply more pleasant to be on.
- There is a rush to leave the camp when the gates open in the morning. Gate opening and closing hours are very specific, and opening is usually about 30-45 minutes before sunrise and varies with the time of year. There can be a line of vehicles at the gate in the morning waiting for gate opening. Don’t join the crowd. Wait 10 minutes or more after the gates open to leave your camp – you will still be out before sunrise. Otherwise you will be 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. You might have already seen hundreds of elephants during your visit but for the people in the car in front of you this might be their first sighting. Also, we have found many times that other people were seeing things we hadn’t spotted.
- Consider doing a “typical” safari day. Go out early for 4 hours (more or less) and 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 gate closes.
- 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. We have actually brought a small telescope (8 inch Celestron) to South Africa to observe the night sky (though Kruger isn’t the best location for this).
- 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. Conditions will change. Of course, you must be quite, avoid taking too much space in the blind, and minimize the use of noisy rapid-sequence photography.
- 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 it for you). Better to get back 10 or 15 minutes early and enjoy the dusk at the camp.
A note for serious photographers
We are not serious photographers. Yes, we have good equipment and have learned how to take reasonable photos over the years. But our travel is not dedicated 100% to photography and we haven’t sold our photos. We are not professionals. We very recently bought an ebook, The Photographer’s Guide to the Greater Kruger National Park, about photography in Kruger. It is excellent and very detailed about where and how to photograph wildlife in Kruger and surrounding private reserves. There is much information about rest camps, private accommodations, wildlife blinds etc.
Some of the recommendations in the Photographer’s Guide are at odds with what we have mentioned above for making the most of your visit to Kruger. For example, they make the point of being first in line to get out of the rest camp when the gates open. There are advantages to this (no one is in front of you), but the downside is that they get up at 3 AM – after 5 hours sleep, to be in line at 4 AM. If you must travel 30 minutes or more to your first stop of the day this may be important. And it is important to be out early and late in the day for the best photographic light conditions. If you are a local South African, or have unlimited time, you can do what the authors of the Photographer’s Guide do and spend many hours at a time at the wildlife hides, waiting for the “special events”. Most naturalists from other countries won’t have the time to do this, but it is a relaxed strategy and certainly allows one to see the daily rhythm of life at the waterhole. Interactions between animals can be better appreciated this way.
To avoid crowds, our strategy is to pick driving routes where most tourists won’t go initially. Another strategy is to go to Kruger in the wet season (February-March), when fewer tourists are present. It is warmer, more humid, and the green vegetation makes seeing large game animals more difficult. But there is more bird life at this time of year with winter migrants from the northern hemisphere, less dusty roads, and fewer tourists. Reptiles and amphibians are likely to be more active as well.
Elephants are obviously impressive. Not only for their size, but the size of their herds and the interactions among them. In 2015 (last census) there were about 17 thousand elephants in Kruger.
Wildlife blinds in Africa are a well-developed concept, unlike in North America. The parking area is away from the blind and is connected to the blind via a lengthy path that is shielded by fences on either side so that one is not visible to animals at the waterhole. Noise from approaching and departing vehicles is also lessened. The inside of the blind is generally dark so that movement in the hide is not as readily visible by animals at the waterhole. There are benches to sit and short shelves to rest your camera, binoculars, or guidebooks on while you wait for animals to approach.
Despite giving you the opportunity to see large animals relatively close-up, the distance between you in the blind and the wildlife is such that photography can still be challenging. Small birds and mammals will still be too far for good photography and even larger mammals will often require good telephoto lenses for “filling the frame” shots. Some blinds are better than others for certain subjects.
There are many books/guides you can purchase while in the park at their many souvenir shops, however, a relatively recent book is Kruger Self-Drive and is highly recommended. It is a heavy book to carry, but the maps and the information regarding most roads and animals in Kruger are very useful.
Another book we recommend is not a field guide or a roadside reference, but rather background to understanding the human management of game in large national parks like Kruger. Shaping Kruger by Mitch Reardon should be digested by any naturalist intent on getting more out of their Kruger visit.
One key concept that we did not appreciate until reading Shaping Kruger is the impact of “boreholes” in modifying the fauna of Kruger. Boreholes are wells drilled to provide water for animals to drink. The philosophy was that if water was provided during the dry season more game would survive the dry season and game numbers would increase. Predators would increase and in effect the entire food chain would be amplified. But there were secondary impacts of adding boreholes that were not anticipated. Adding a small water source in a dry area concentrates the animals needing the water. Predators can much more easily find such game by waiting near a waterhole. In effect the number of predators increases at the expense of the antelope and other prey items.
How were the conditions before boreholes were added? The Kruger National Park area is cut by major rivers that drain the higher terrain in the west and feed into the lower elevation parts of lower Kruger and in Mozambique. These rivers are many miles apart and in the dry season can be almost without water. But rivers have a great advantage over boreholes to game animals like impala and other antelope. These animals can approach a river anywhere to get water – a predator cannot wait in one place and expect an antelope to walk past it on the way to water. Having a river as a water source makes it much more difficult for predators to catch game when compared with borehole water. For this reason, many boreholes have been closed in recent years to move the predator-prey relationship more towards a natural state.
Of course just what is the natural state of Kruger? About one third of the national park is burned every year to provide fresh grass for the herbivores. This is done in a patchwork fashion, but there are many plots throughout the park where grazing is restricted/prevented to evaluate the impact of both fire and grazing on the vegetation.