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 (many very expensive), 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 time for tourists) 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 South African school holidays and summer break, the park will mostly be filled with foreign tourists. Remember to get a SANPARKS Wildcard (annual pass) 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.
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 make 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.
We have stayed at nearly all (not Crocodile Bridge) 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 at Panic Lake (but outside the rest camp gate).
The main rest camps are mostly intended for guests, but their restaurants, gift shops 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 by 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, 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.
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. 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 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.
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.
Another book is not a field guide or a roadside reference, but background to understand the human management of game in large national parks like Kruger. Shaping Kruger 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 the book 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 most 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 are some 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 increase 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.
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 features 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.