Exploring Kruger National Park: A Visitor's Guide
Kruger National Park is the largest and oldest National Park in South Africa, and is internationally renowned as one of the world's most important game reserves. Spanning almost two million hectares, the park lies in the northeast of the country in the South African provinces of Limpopo and Mpumalanga. It forms part of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, a massive wilderness area linking Limpopo National Park in Mozambique and, in the future, Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe. Kruger is one of the easiest national parks in Africa for visitors to explore on self-guided tours thanks to its excellent tourist infrastructure and abundant and diverse accommodations. In addition to Bushman rock paintings and important archaeological sites, the park protects an astounding diversity of wildlife, and lucky visitors may even spot the Big Five: lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant, and rhino.
Kruger National Park's climate is subtropical and most of the rain falls in the summer, with higher rainfall in the south of the park compared to the north. The best time of year for game viewing is winter (June, July, August), when the days are sunny and warm and the nights are cooler. At this time of year, many trees and shrubs have lost their leaves, and water sources dry up, making it easier to spot game around the remaining waterholes. Summer brings lush growth and possible sightings of newborn animals.
Kruger National Park occupies an almost level area, much of it covered by expanses of grassland and scrub, with gallery forests frequently extending along the river banks. Most of the southern part of the park is hilly wooded savanna. The lifelines of the Kruger National Park are the five perennial rivers, which flow through it from west to east: the Crocodile, the Sabie, the Olifants, the Luvuvhu, and the Letaba. The ecosystem of Kruger National Park is vitally dependent on these rivers. Artificially created waterholes provide additional perennial water sources for the game.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Kruger National Park
Flora and Fauna
Kruger National Park is remarkable for the exceptional quantity and variety of its flora and fauna. Almost 2,000 different species of plants have been recorded in the national park, including some 500 different trees and shrubs, such as thorn trees and mopane. Many of the trees have thick cork-like barks, which provide protection against savanna fires.
Wildlife is also diverse. The park is home to 114 different species of reptiles, more than 500 species of birds, and 147 mammals, including the Big Five as well as zebras, giraffes, impala, cheetah, and hippo to name a few. The park is also one of the last refuges for endangered species, including the black rhino and African wild dog. The best times to see the animals are the early morning and late afternoon.
Driving in the National Park
Most visitors tour Kruger National Park in their own vehicles. The park has a network of some 2,300 kilometers of well-signposted roads. Not all are asphalted, but the unsurfaced tracks are usually negotiable by two-wheel-drive cars. Detailed maps are available when entering the park. The speed limit is 50 kilometers an hour on asphalted roads and 40 kilometers an hour on other roads.
A particularly rewarding trip is a drive through the entire length of the park, observing the striking contrasts in the scenery. Alternatively, travelers can use one of the camps as a base and explore the surrounding area in a series of shorter trips. At least two or three days is recommended to explore the park.
Guided Walks and Drives
Visitors can join guided walking tours several days, led by experienced game rangers and trackers, ranging from shorter day walks to overnight expeditions with accommodation in simple huts. The different camps also organize guided tours in cars. Night game drives are also available.
Kruger National Park is renowned for its diverse and abundant lodging options catering to all budgets. Accommodation is available in campgrounds, government-run rest camps, and privately run camps and lodges. Most visitors spending two or more days in the national park stay in the government-run rest camps. Guests can choose from safari tents and thatched bungalows to comfortable well-equipped guesthouses. Most of them are air-conditioned and include cooking facilities. All the larger rest camps have restaurants and shops, a filling station, information center, and first aid facilities.
For more luxurious accommodations, guests can stay at one of the private game lodges that lease land from the park, such as the plush Buhala Game Lodge on the banks of the Crocodile River, Jock Safari Lodge, and Pestana Kruger Lodge. Another option for upscale accommodations are the private game reserves on the park's western boundaries. Since these are not within the park boundaries, they allow vehicles to drive off-road in order to track game that moves freely into and out of the national park. The most well-known reserves are Sabi Sands (home to Londolozi, Ulusaba, and Lions Sands lodges) and Timbavati Game Reserve.
Below are descriptions of the main government-run camps within Kruger National Park:
Punda Maria Camp
A haven for birders, Punda Maria, lies in the extreme north of Kruger National Park, at the foot of the Dimbo Mountain, with luxury safari tents and thatched bungalows. From the camp, guests gaze upon views over the Mopane plain.
The sandveld round Punda Maria is an offshoot of the Kalahari basin. Nyala, kudu, buffalo, and Sharpe's grysbok are common in this area. To the north, on the Luvuvhu River, the dry savanna gives way to lush forests with fantastic opportunities for birding. One of the park's best birding drives is the 25-kilometer Mahonie Loop around the camp. At Klopperfontein, 20 kilometers northeast of the camp, giant baobab trees grow along the edge of a waterhole. About 23 kilometers beyond, the road comes to the Luvuvhu River picnic area where visitors can spot crocodiles and hippos from the bridge. From here, a track runs east along the river to the Pafuri picnic area, with great views of the river banks.
Nestled along a bend in the river, Shingwedzi camp lies 73 kilometers southeast of Punda Maria and is the largest of the three camps in the northern part of the park. Great viewpoints lie along the road from Punda Maria to Shingwedzi, which sits amid ideal elephant habitat. Accommodation includes bungalows and a luxury guesthouse. A few kilometers north of the camp, large herds of elephants as well as buffaloes and baboons are frequently spotted and, lucky visitors may even glimpse wild dogs and leopards.
North of the Babalala rest area, cheetah can sometimes be spotted on the open plains. Another track runs southeast from Shingwedzi to the Kanniedood Dam, with a bird hide. Look for African jacana here as well as black crake.
The modern and luxurious Mopani Rest Camp is the newest of all the rest camps. From here, guests can enjoy a beautiful view over Pioneer Dam. Accommodation consists of an upscale guesthouse, cottages, and bungalows, as well as a bird hide that doubles as open-air accommodation in the evening. About 17 kilometers east of Mopani, Nshawu Dam has an excellent game observation point where herds of elephants gather, particularly after rain. Water birds are prevalent here, especially kingfishers, storks, and fish eagles.
Midway between the southern and northern boundaries of Kruger National Park, Letaba Rest Camp lies on a wide bend on the Letaba River (Letaba means "river of sand"). Tall sycamore figs, mahogany, and sausage trees shade this well-equipped camp, which offers a choice of guest houses, bungalows, cottages, huts, furnished safari tents, and campsites. Bushbucks, vervet monkeys, and fruit bats live within the camp, and the area is popular with elephants and many species of birds, especially owls. The Elephant Hall here displays informative exhibits on these magnificent creatures as well as an impressive collection of elephant tusks, including those of a bull elephant known as Shawu, which are believed to be the longest ever found in southern Africa.
Cheetah and many species of antelope live in the savanna country around Letaba. At shady waterholes, elephants, buffaloes, zebras, and gazelles come to drink. The Engelhard Dam to the east and the Mingerhout Dam are also good places for observing game and water birds.
About 39 kilometers from Letaba Rest Camp, is the Masorini Village Museum where archeologists excavated the remains of a Stone Age iron-smelting plant. Tourists can explore the reconstructed village and dome-shaped clay furnaces here.
The Olifants camp, with its magnificent old trees, is one of the finest in the national park. Accommodation includes air-conditioned bungalows and two guest houses. From the camp itself, perched 100 meters above the Olifants River, guests enjoy excellent views of game along the riverbank and the rolling plains below. Lion, crocodile, and hippo are frequently sighted here. In the north, mopane trees attract kudu, zebra, and elephants (olifants is the Afrikaans word for "elephants"). In the south, buffalo and giraffes are often spotted on the plains. The sunrises and sunsets here are spectacular. About 10 kilometers west of the camp is the Nwamanzi Lookout, one of the best game observation points in the park.
Beneath a large grove of shady trees, Balule Camp is a small satellite camp of Satara and Olifants Rest camps. The rustic atmosphere of Balule Camp will appeal to the independent camper who enjoys a close-to-nature experience. The camp gas no electricity, and no day visitors are permitted. A fence divides the camp in two sections. One section has six three-bedded huts and a communal bathroom and kitchen facilities. Paraffin lamps provide lighting. Each hut is supplied with linen and towels.
Near the park's center, amid savanna dotted with knob thorn and marula trees, Satara is the park's third largest camp and is often called, "the cat camp" as this is one of the best areas to spot lion, leopard, and cheetah. The rich grazing land and many waterholes here attract large numbers of antelope, which the big cats ambush - especially during the dry season when herds of impala come here to drink at the few remaining waterholes. Accommodation is available in thatched bungalows, guest houses, and camping sites.
At the Nsemani Dam, nine kilometers west of Satara, hippos and waterbuck are frequently spotted, as well as the occasional pride of lion. About 25 kilometers northwest of Satara, on the banks of the Timbavati River, is the popular satellite camp of Maroela with tent and RV sites - one of only two sites that exclusively accommodate campers and RVs.
Tucked amid aloe gardens in the dry open plains, the small Orpen Rest Camp lies at the park's Orpen Gate. Comfortable thatched cottages and larger more luxurious guest cottages are the accommodation choices here. Just outside the fence of Orpen Camp, a small waterhole attracts game throughout the day including rhino, impala, baboon, and elephants. About seven kilometers from here, Rabelais Dam attracts waterbuck and other thirsty wildlife. Orpen Camp offers game drives, game walks, and night drives.
In Big Five territory, Skukuza is Kruger National Park's largest camp and offers plenty of facilities, including restaurants, shops, an Internet cafe, airstrip, and even a nine-hole golf course. An outdoor amphitheater screens wildlife documentaries, and the Stevenson-Hamilton Memorial Library here is a must-see. Its namesake was instrumental in establishing Kruger National Park, and his assistant, Harry Wolhuter, killed a lion to save his own life armed with only a pocket knife. Tourists can see the knife and the lion skin in the museum. Accommodation at this camp includes safari tents, guest houses, family cottages, riverside bungalows, and a large camping site.
Wildlife is abundant in the area. Warthogs and vervet monkeys roam around the camp accommodations, and an observation point overlooks the banks of the Sabie River, where hippos live, and elephants come down to the river to drink. Heading northeast from Skukuza to Tshokwane, big game are frequently sighted in spite of the fairly busy traffic, and the Manzimahle Dam and nearby Lion Pan are often frequented by lions.
Lower Sabie Camp
From Skukuza, a road runs along the Sabie River to the Lower Sabie camp, with a large diversity of wildlife thanks to its sweet grazing land and abundant water. Accommodation ranges from a camp site, and furnished safari tents, to a luxury guesthouse and bungalows. Big game can almost always be seen in the bush flanking the road, and drivers often have to brake to avoid giraffes, antelopes, elephants, or zebras. With its extensive areas of grass and many trees, Lower Sabie is a popular camp. The Sabie River, which is dammed at this point, is home to many water birds and tourists can also spot monkeys, elephants, rhinos, hippos, and buffaloes.
Crocodile Bridge Camp
Near the Mozambican border, Crocodile Bridge is a great area to see the Big Five. The area is known for its many prides of lion and high concentration of rhino. The grassland in the surrounding area attracts zebras, wildebeests, impalas, kudus, gazelles, and large herds of buffaloes. In winter, the Crocodile River dries up, leaving only small pools, but these are still an important source of water for animals. About six kilometers from the camp is an observation point where visitors can watch hippos wallowing along the muddy riverbank.
In the southwest of the National Park, nine kilometers from the Numbi Gate, is the Pretoriuskop camp, the oldest in the park and one of the largest. Wilderness trails surround the camp, and guests can cool off in the natural rock swimming pool. Accommodations range from well-equipped guesthouses and family cottages to basic bungalows and campsites.
Within this area, enclosed by picturesque granite hills, many species of trees and shrubs grow, including the coral tree, which produces its blood-red flowers in August and September. Around Pretoriuskop visitors can sometimes see rare species of animals at close quarters, including wild dogs, cheetahs, leopards, and antelope. Rhino are also common in this area.
About 60 kilometers southeast of Pretoriuskop Camp, Berg-en-Dal is one of the park's newest camps and offers magnificent views of its hilly surroundings. It sits on the banks of the Matjulu spruit, in the south western corner of the park. Lodging options include bungalows, guesthouses, and campsites. A short nature trail runs through the camp, where many species of birds can be spotted including lilac-breasted rollers and scarlet-chested sunbirds. Leopard, lion, and wild dog are also found in the area. Visitors can view San rock art along the Bushman Trail.
Tips & Tactics: Getting the Most out of a Visit to Kruger National Park
- Bring binoculars for close-up views of the wildlife.
- Time game drives and walks for the early morning and late afternoon when animals are most active.
- Review the animal sightings boards at the camp receptions to see what wildlife might be in the area before heading out on a game drive or walk.
- Stay in vehicles at all times, except at specially designated places.
- Drive slowly to see hidden animals and to avoid hitting wildlife.
- Check the opening and closing times of the park's gates and camps before visiting.
- Take appropriate precautions against malaria. Kruger National Park lies within a malaria zone.
- Never feed the animals.
- Daily flights to Kruger National Park operating from Johannesburg to Skukuza Airport, Phalaborwa Airport, Hoedspruit Airport, and the Kruger/Mpumalanga International Airport (KMIA) between Nelspruit and White River.
- Daily flights also operate to Skukuza from Cape Town. KMIA also receives daily flights from Durban and Cape Town, and a bus shuttle operates between the airport and the park.
- Travelers can also fly from Cape Town to Hoedspruit.
- The National Park is a 3.5 to 4.5-hour drive from Johannesburg. Most visitors enter by the Numbi Gate, Phabeni Gate, or Paul Kruger Gate. The fastest route to these gates is on the N4 to Nelspruit.
- Travel companies in Johannesburg, Durban, and Nelspruit run tours to the National Park in air-conditioned coaches.