There are many different ways to experience and enjoy South Africa’s world-famous safari destination, the Kruger National Park. Let’s unpack six of the most popular options for doing a Kruger safari and look at the pros and cons of each:
1. A self-drive holiday
This is the typical “South African” way of doing Kruger and how most locals enjoy their national park. Accommodation can range from camping in your own tents to using the park’s permanent tents and self-catering bungalows or chalets. Without doubt, this is the ‘cheap and cheerful’ way to see Kruger. The downsides, especially for first-time visitors, are not having a seasoned guide with you, nor having the experience and height advantage of an open safari vehicle. The upside is flexibility – grab a map and off you go!
2. A guided, open vehicle safari
Similar to the above in that you will stay in public rest camps, but you will not have to drive yourself around, nor should you need to self-cater. With this option, the benefits are obviously the services of an experienced safari guide, well-versed in the behaviour and habitats of the various species; your game drives will be in elevated, open safari vehicles, where you can get better sightings and enjoy the smell and feel of the bush; and game viewing is usually much, much better as guides are in contact with each other and share sightings.
As with regular public vehicles, open safari vehicles are not permitted to do off-road game drives but, depending on the operator, it may be possible to stay out on game drives all day. Several operators offer these small-group safaris with scheduled departures from Johannesburg and/or Nelspruit. Privately-guided options are also available (useful for family groups with young children), but will be more expensive.
3. A closed-vehicle tour
These can take the form of large group bus tours and overland truck camping safaris. These tour operators typically use large closed vehicles for bigger groups on a tight budget. Often, they do a whirlwind tour of Kruger, perhaps with one or two nights’ accommodation in the park as they usually cover vast distances on longer itineraries to get in as many destinations as possible. These overland vehicles are custom-built for large groups. The biggest downside of both bus and overland truck safaris is usually being in a closed vehicle with limited visibility, jostling for a good position at the window at exciting sightings.
4. A safari at a private concession within Kruger National Park
These safari lodges are able to use a combination of their own concession roads as well as the Kruger’s public roads. Examples include Camp Shonga, Rhino Post, Imbali Safari Lodge, and Jock Safari Lodge, to name a few. This is a more expensive, luxurious and all-inclusive option, with meals and game viewing activities included in the tariff. It’s worth noting that, although game drives are conducted in open safari vehicles, these are not generally allowed off-road as they are in other adjacent private reserves. Also, many of them do not offer bush walks. The concession safari lodges in Kruger are mostly in the mid-range to high budget categories.
5. A safari at private game reserves adjoining Kruger
Those that are not fenced in but share open borders with Kruger and form part of what is known as Greater Kruger Park, allowing free and unhindered movement of wildlife. Some of these include the Sabi Sand, Manyeleti, Timbavati, Klaserie, Balule and a few smaller reserves. At these lodges, prices range from below ZAR 3000 ($200) per person per night at a budget-friendly lodge, to ZAR 15,000 ($1000) per person per night and more at top-end luxury lodges. The rates include all meals, morning and afternoon/evening game drives of about three hours each (not all-day game drives) and usually the option of a short bush walk.
At the upper-end lodges, your drinks are also included and the accommodation is superlative. Game drives are limited to each lodge’s traversing area so your game viewing area has restrictions, although game viewing is often similar as the animals are free to roam. A big plus about these lodges is that the open safari vehicles are allowed off-road, giving you the possibility to get really up-close to interesting sightings. There are many differences between these private safari lodges in terms of location, traversing areas, number of guests per vehicle, levels of privacy and luxury, pricing, and so on.
6. A safari at a smaller, private, fenced game reserve
Those that do not share unfenced borders with Kruger. Examples of these include Kapama, Thornybush and several others in the Kruger area. Because of their proximity to Kruger, agents often sell these safaris as “Kruger safaris”, even though you will not be in Kruger itself, unless they include a day drive into Kruger as part of the itinerary. The larger of these reserves do offer the Big Five as well as cheetah and wild dog, but they require careful management of wildlife populations because they are fenced in.
Typically, they will have limited numbers of big game and large predators (maybe a few elephants, one or two small prides of lion, etc.). Often, the concentration of general wildlife can be kept artificially high compared to the Kruger itself, giving you more consistent and predictable sightings. Some of the smaller reserves are too small for elephant and lion and only stock some of the Big Five, or they keep lions in a separate camp or enclosure. For some, it may feel more like a glorified zoo and they dislike seeing fence lines and stopping to open and close gates during game drives. Others may prefer the consistency of sightings due to the higher concentration of wildlife, and don’t mind the smallness of the reserve. Other than that, the lodge experience is the same as in option five, and the accommodation ranges from small, rustic, tented bush camps to large 70-roomed hotels, and everything in between.
Which option is best?
How long is a piece of string? It depends on your budget, time of year, accommodation availability and how much time you have. If you are looking for total flexibility and independence and don’t see the need for an experienced guide or open vehicle game drives, the self-drive option may be your best bet.
If you are a first-time safari goer, options two, four or five would definitely give you a better experience as you would be able to enjoy game drives on an open safari vehicle with an experienced guide. If your budget is limited, options one or two are great, and some lodges under option five are also very well priced and surprisingly affordable. If you are looking for a guided Kruger tour, find out where the accommodation is so that you are not expecting option two but end up staying outside Kruger in a tiny reserve that does not even have the Big Five.
Another popular option is to do a “combo safari” by combining more than one of these options; for example: combining option two and five allows you to spend a few days exploring Kruger itself with an experienced guide, followed by a few days at a private safari lodge in one of the adjacent game reserves – and get the best of both worlds.