On a regular basis we receive glossy travel advertisements in the mail. They show pictures of remote Africa savannahs with robust looking guides driving Range Rovers dressed in Green or khaki. They often are pointing off into the distance at some incredible animal. Our reaction to these appeals: Sign us up! Take our money! Then reality sets in. We don’t have $20k stuffed in our mattress. (we did find a quarter last week!)
What to do?
After lengthy research, we were able to piece together the idea of doing a self-guided safari. We settled on South Africa as out destination as the flights there are very reasonable and plentiful. We selected Kruger National Park for our self-guided safari.
Kruger National Park
Kruger park is one of the largest game reserves in the world. The entire park covers 7, 500 square miles and is 250 miles top to bottom and 50 miles wide. Roughly the same size as Massachusetts! It is a massive park. The park is home to the classic Big 5 including: lion, leopard, black rhinoceros, elephant, and Cape buffalo. Beyond these incredible animals, you will likely encounter hundreds of other animals large and small. The park is home to over 100 species of reptiles and 30 amphibians.
Getting around the Park
Your first stop for research on the park should be the park’s website (https://www.sanparks.org/parks/kruger/) The site is extremely helpful, especially keeping current on road closures, conditions and weather. There are 9 main gates into the park. These entry points are for paying fees, securing maps, and getting current info on park conditions.
Roads in the park are in varied condition. You go from paved tarmac to dusty gravel roads. A good map, and in some cases, even a decent GPS will help you navigate the park. At each of the rest camps you will find a crowd sourced “animal” board where other visitors post animal sightings. This can prove helpful as you quest to see the complete Big 5.
There a number of different lodging options for your self guided adventure. The park’s website will give you the option to see photos of the “camps”. You can reserve everything from humble bush camps to the luxury lodge option. Pick the right option for you. Each camp is surrounded by high fences that prevent animals from entering. Each camp has set hours for entry, when the gate closes, it closes for the night. There is a significant fee to open after hours. We nearly learned this the hard way. WE were caught up watching a pride of lions, and lost track of time. Not good. We had to step on it to barely make the deadline. Each area is unique in its food and amenities. Be aware of what is available. Some camps have spartan restaurants. Most offer some sort of food offering. The bush camps do not offer food, they are strictly self catering.
What is the difference?
So what are the key differences between a true-guided safari and the self guided option?
The biggest difference from our experience is the cost. You will likely see the same animals, you will see the same flora and fauna. Many of the guided safari tours are in and around Kruger Park. They both offer very similar habitats for the animals. Top end guides are good at knowing where the animals like to hide out. Not having to drive to see the animals is also a definite advantage of the guided option. Park rangers can help with some information, but would not be able to offer the in person perspective that would be provided in a guided situation.
What to drive
The question we get asked most often about our self-guided experience is what we drove. We rented a basic sedan at the airport in Johannesburg. We would recommend something with a little more ground clearance. A small suv would be ideal. You definitely don’t need a jeep or a range rover to get around Kruger.
A Word of Caution
Kruger national park is not a petting zoo. It is wild. The animals reign here. Do not leave your vehicle outside to the gated camps. Do not “hike” the park. Just because you don’t see any animals, doesn’t mean that they cannot see you. You very well could be dinner. It is tempting to exit your vehicle to take the perfect picture. We recommend you position your vehicle to take the picture then use your camera lens to get you close. Regardless if you are on a guided safari or self guided, the rules are the same, don’t approach the animals….ever. Stay on the road. Keep an eye on the weather and the environment around you. You will have the adventure of a lifetime.
What we wished we had known:
We purchased our first “real” camera and long distance camera lens for this trip. We were glad we did. Candidly, we wished we have invested more in longer range lens. Spend the money. The pictures will be priceless.
Expectations: The second thing we wish we had known, was advice given to us by one of the game wardens at one of the camps. “Don’t expect to see anything…then you will be in constant amazement, you will see everything!”. Such wise advice. Don’t come with a list of things to see, be open to the experience and seeing whatever comes your way that day. This is hard for those of us that love lists. Be open to whatever happens.
Enjoy your Safari!
Safaris are wonderful, but if your dream is climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. Give our friends at Mojhi a look. They have a wonderful guide for making this dream a reality.