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A lodge vs self-drive comparison of the Kruger safari

by

Anton Kruger

Friday, 19th May 2017

“Deep in his heart, every man longs for a battle to fight, an adventure to live, and a beauty to rescue.”  – John Eldredge

The Kruger National Park is South Africa’s flagship national park. Wherever you are in the world, if you’re even remotely interested in the safari experience in Africa, you’ve likely heard of the Kruger. It offers a wilderness safari experience that is right up there with the best that Africa has to offer. There’s so much to see and so many adventures to be had in Kruger, that it’s always helpful to figure out what kind of safari experience you want before embarking on the trip of a lifetime!

Kruger National Park Plains Camp
A bush camp in pure wilderness, Plains Camp is a remote gem in the Kruger ©Anton Kruger

That’s why this article is a must-read for all first-time visitors to the Greater Kruger National Park region, and repeat visitors keen for a change. Essentially, there are two options for your safari to the Kruger National Park: a lodge-based safari in some of the Greater Kruger’s more luxury safari establishments, or a self-drive visit to the Kruger, overnighting inside the park in the traditional chalets or camping facilities offered by SANParks.

By looking at some of the advantages of both options, you will be able to make an informed decision before embarking on one of the greatest journeys of your life to one of the best safari destinations Africa has to offer!

Private lodges

My wife and I are experienced safari-goers, having travelled to most national parks in southern Africa (the whole spectrum, from luxury lodging to wilderness camping). We recently headed to the Greater Kruger region to experience a lodge-based safari to refresh our minds as to why we love this special wilderness area of Africa so much. We visited two very different lodges, each with their unique appeal – and each that made us realise why this is such a fantastic option for safari-goers.

Kruger National Park Plains Camp
The luxury tented accommodation at Plains Camp is the ultimate high-end safari-style ©Anton Kruger
Welcome drinks
Welcome drinks at Rhino Post Safari Lodge. This is the kind of hospitality typical of the lodge experience in Africa ©Anton Kruger

The first lodge we stayed was called Rhino Post Safari Lodge, which also has Rhino Walking Safaris’ Plains Camp, where we stayed for two nights. These lodges are inside the national park, and the focus here is on delivering a great bushwalking safari – highly recommended. Although we were lucky enough to spot lion, cheetah, rhino, a large herd of buffalo and a whole host of other game on foot, it dawned on me that it’s the finer details that matter most when considering this type of safari.

Campfire on deck with a view
Campfire on deck with a view at Plains Camp ©Anton Kruger

You’re gifted with the time to gain a deeper understanding of how the bush functions, the circle of life in Africa and the fascinating biodiverse ecosystems that play host to these special animals – all of which are a privilege to see in the wild. There are only a few special places in Africa that offer such authentic, wild bushwalking experiences, and Kruger is one of them. The opportunity to learn about the African bush, while being in the heart of one of Africa’s most precious wilderness areas is extraordinary. That is something you can experience first-hand when staying at a lodge.

Encountering a large herd of buffalo
Encountering a large herd of buffalo up close on a walk from Plains Camp. This is living the African adventure! ©Anton Kruger
The walking experience with guides from your lodge is highly educational
The walking experience with guides from your lodge is highly educational ©Anton Kruger
A toothbrush made from a magic guarrie bush
Amos, our guide, showing us how to use a toothbrush made from a magic guarrie bush ©Anton Kruger

We then spent two nights at Umlani Bush Camp, in the prestigious Timbavati Private Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger, which is famous for excellent game viewing. There’s no electricity here, although there is a generator for power to charge your devices and for limited wifi access, and lighting is done with lanterns, which adds to the charm and makes for a romantic setting. Here we had the chance to sit back, relax and unwind with a magnificent view of the wild Kruger as we watched elephants and other wildlife make their way past the camp from our viewing deck.

This is a different kind of wilderness experience, being an eco-lodge that is run almost entirely off-the-grid and is well off the beaten path of the tourist routes in Kruger. If you consider that the Kruger attracts roughly half a million tourists every year, why not be one of the tourists that escape the crowds? That’s the experience that Umlani – and indeed many of the other private lodges in the Great Kruger – offers travellers who are seeking personal, intimate experiences in wild places.

Isolated accommodation in the Kruger
Umlani Bush Camp tucked away in a special corner of the Kruger wilderness ©Anton Kruger

So, why would you consider visiting a lodge instead of exploring the Kruger on your own? In my opinion, as a first-time traveller to South Africa, it’s definitely worth the money to spend a few nights at a lodge. Firstly, everything is catered for, and you are treated like royalty. The food is fantastic, the accommodation is excellent, the service is five-star, and the rangers that guide you on the safari are incredibly professional and knowledgeable. You are guaranteed to have some excellent sightings, and you might even be lucky enough to see all of the Big 5, including the ever-elusive leopard.

To drive around the bush in an open game-viewing vehicle, exploring the small gravel tracks, and taking in the sights, sounds and smells of nature allows you to digest some food for your soul.

A majestic lioness
Imagine having the opportunity to see three of Africa’s big cats in the same place. These are the kinds of special sightings you can experience in Kruger, like this lioness. ©Anton Kruger
A beautiful leopard
…and this beautiful leopard ©Anton Kruger
A gorgeous cheetah
…and this gorgeous cheetah in the savannah ©Anton Kruger

What’s nice about the game drives is that no more than three vehicles are allowed at a sighting. The pressure and human interference with the animals are kept to an absolute minimum and guests are ensured excellent viewing opportunities. The rangers are also allowed to go off-road, which provides good sightings.

Also, if you’re a first-time visitor to the park, the expert bush-knowledge of the highly professional guides and staff at the lodges is invaluable in creating those unique, wild memories of your first Kruger experience.

Lodges offer the traveller a luxury experience, with fantastic food, excellent game viewing and photographic opportunities and five-star service and accommodation. This is the kind of safari experience that is guaranteed to stay with you for a lifetime.

Self-drive safari

So, after touching on the fantastic safari that you can experience at a luxury lodge, why would you even consider a traditional Kruger safari?

Don’t be fooled; a self-drive and self-catering Kruger safari has so much to offer the wild traveller! The Kruger boasts an incredible array of activities including self-drives, guided game drives and night drives, guided bush walks and wilderness trails, and even mountain biking, to name a few. There’s also a whole range of accommodation options, including guesthouses, chalets, bush camps and rustic camping. These might not be as luxurious as the private lodge options, but they offer a completely different experience – one that is more rustic, intimate and authentically Kruger, taking you back in time to when the park was first opened to tourists in the early 1900s.

An expansive view of the Sabie River
An expansive view of the Sabie River. A Kruger self-drive offers the visitor many viewing opportunities of the famed riverbed ©Anton Kruger
A guided bush walk
Taking a guided bush walk from one of the camps inside the park is a must-do when staying inside the Kruger on a self-drive safari ©Anton Kruger

The Kruger is an incredible place, and the diversity of game and different habitats from north to south is astounding. There’s an excellent road network in a wilderness area of two million hectares, which is about the size of Israel!

I have thought about the Kruger self-drive experience a lot, and just what it is that makes this flagship national park stand out for me. Yes, it can be busy with other tourists, and there may be some traffic jams at sightings, but there are also real wilderness areas and roads with meagre traffic numbers, especially in the north. But even on the busy roads, it is still a unique wilderness and a privilege to enjoy.

So what makes the Kruger self-drive experience so unique?

I don’t think there are a lot of places where you can still take a map, plan a route and travel through Big 5 country on your own, at your speed. The choice of where your adventure takes you is in your own hands. That freedom to explore this magnificent wilderness is, for me, the quintessential Kruger experience.

With such a vast wilderness to explore, and with enough time, a Kruger self-drive could give you the strongest sense of freedom you’ve felt in a long time.

A lion and lioness on the road
Slightly different to city traffic, it’s not wise to get angry at the culprits who cause these Kruger backups ©Anton Kruger
A night drive in the Kruger
Night drives run from the Kruger camps are an exciting and different way to experience the bush! ©Anton Kruger
Camping in the Kruger
That rustic Kruger camping experience ©Anton Kruger

I often think that in our busy lives in the 21st century, we all miss the ‘adventure to live’ part of the quote beginning this article. Each in our own way, we’re all filled with a longing to reconnect with the wild and to have our hearts filled and our senses blown in wild places. For me, that’s exactly what a safari to the Kruger can offer, and is something I feel each time I visit. That sense of fulfilment, that re-connection. That’s something to consider if you’re thinking of a safari trip to Africa. The Kruger will give you that. How you experience it is up to you.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Anton lives in Pretoria, South Africa, and works in his family’s property development and investment business. He and his wife, Renate, both have a passion for wildlife, with a particular interest in birds.