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The Self-Guided Safari: Kruger National Park

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!)

Lion in Africa

African Lion

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.

Kruger Park

The Gate to Kruger Park

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.

Lodging

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.

African Water Buffalo

Water Buffalo

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 Kilimanjaro  Give our friends at Mojhi a look.  They have a wonderful guide for making this dream a reality.  There are 7 different routes you can take to the top.  Each of the trails offer astounding views of the entire area.   They also rate the difficulty of each of the routes to help you match your ability.

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The Secret Safari

Africa is on just about every one’s list as places to see.  With that said, one of the primary barriers that prevent folks from going on safari is the hefty price tag.  Our initial search for safari providers yielded prices ranging from $1000 to $5000 a night!  Ouch!  Perhaps one of the best kept secrets to going on safari is Kruger National Park in South Africa.  Envision a national park the size of England.  It is the self-serve safari.

Here is the drill.  You drive your own car between the different camps in the park.  You simply map out in advance where you want to stay.  Each area has its own character.  There are basically three different types of camps: Main camps, Bush camps, and overnight hides.  Each has its own level of accommodation, cost, and comforts.    We stayed at Sirheni, Olifants, and Skukuza.  We made stops at Mopani, Punda Maria, and Satara.  Let us know if you have quesitons about any of these.  Our favorite was by far Sirheni.  Some camps offer morning and evening walks and drives with park wardens. Candidly, we saw more critters on our own.  But the wardens did offer interesting insights.

Going it on your own in an air-conditioned car, also allowed us to see exactly what we wanted to see. We set our own pace. Taking some back roads, we even got caught in a herd of water buffalo!

Ok we must offer this caution disclaimer.  DO NOT GET OUT OF YOUR AUTO.  You are very safe in your car.  Kruger is not Disneyland .  It is not a zoo.  You are on the turf of some of the most dangerous animals on the planet (hippos being one of the most dangerous?!).  There are snakes.  There are large predators.  STAY IN YOUR CAR.  As two people that are prone to fights, we were concerned about the danger in our car as well as out.  Interesting enough, being cooped up together for four days passed uneventful.  The dramatic beauty and adventure that is around every corner in Kruger prevented any blowups!  AMAZING!

So do you really get to see the animals especially the Big 5?  YES!  Take a look at a few of the animals we saw:

Must haves for doing Kruger:

Food-One of the downsides of doing Kruger is certainly the food.  Many of the Bush camps don’t have restaurants. If they do have a restaurant, it tastes like cafeteria food. You can bring your own food and barbecue or cook at any of the camps. We did this one evening and should have done it every evening.

A good auto-Make sure your auto is good working order. Make sure you have a spare tire(s).  You are truely on your own.  Some roads are very rough.  You don’t need a Range Rover, but you do need something that wont leave you in a lurch.

Updated GPS-we used a garmin NUVI.  Worked great.  Not all roads appeared.  But enough to get us between camps and even a quick jaunt into Mozambique.

A better than average Zoomer-A good camera with a 250mm+ lens is mandatory.  You will not be getting out of your auto.  So you must let the lens do the walking.

Be friendlyMost of the people we met were also doing the self-serve safari. Slow down and ask them what they’ve seen and share what you’ve encountered close by. On one back road, we got tipped off that there were lion cubs just a few miles away. Most likely, we would have driven past and never seen them. On another adventure, someone pointed out a leopard!

Cash-We were not prepared for this.  Much of what you do in the park takes cash.  There are ATMs but they are all from one provider bank so if your card doesn’t work with that carrier, they wont work anywhere. (see Africa fight #5)

Bring shower shoesAs a self diagnosed germ-a-phobe, I can say most of the camps were clean, with the exception of the showers. I was glad I brought some flip flops!

Kruger is amazing.   A great safari is within your budget.

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