Kruger National Park, in northeast South Africa is the first and largest of Africa's many wildlife parks and is, in many regards, the most developed, most diverse, and most affordable of all. In this last part of my multi-part posting I will illuminate some of the amazing feature of this world treasure.
After a month of touring the south coast of South Africa and visiting 8 national parks, we flew from Cape Town to Johannesburg, picked up our small motor home camper and headed east to Hazyview, one of the gateway cities to Kruger National Park. We had been planning this trip for almost 5 months and decided if we were going to see the park like we wanted to, we would need a longer time in the park and need to be mobile enough to visit remote spots and yet comfortable enough to stay for over three weeks. We decided to rent from Bobo Campers in Jo'burg and found them to be tremendously helpful and have a variety of vehicles to meet our needs. We selected a "Discovery 4" 6.7M (22 foot) diesel motor home. It was cozy but comfortable and had everything we needed to haul us, our personal items, and the camera gear around the park while letting us sleep comfortably, cook our meals, and have facilities so we could be self-contained on the park roads almost 12 hours a day and camp at several different campgrounds on various nights. This would give us access to vast reaches of the park and not have us confined to only a couple of safari camps. Camping and self-guided touring are not for everyone but worked perfectly for 4 weeks for us.
Kruger National Park, located in the northeast corner of South Africa, is huge - over 7,500 square miles or about twice the size of Yellowstone. While it averages only about 40 miles wide from east to west it is over 220 miles long from north to south. Much of the southwest side of Kruger is bounded by other game parks and wildlife reserves, many private. Much of the northeast side boarders the Limpopo National Park of Mozambique so the park has a wide "buffer" zone for the wildlife to wander. The park is interlaced with a network of paved roads between the major rest camps and entrance gates all supplemented with hundreds of kilometers of gravel/dirt roads almost all of which are in great condition and designed for passenger cars.
The park can be entered at any of 9 official gates (2 in the south, 3 in the southwest, 2 in the central west and 2 in the north.) The gate hours are strictly controlled and entry is not allowed after hours without special permission (and usually escort) to a reserved accommodation in the park. There are significant fees for after hours entry and stiff fines for after hours exit. The rules are in place to protect the wildlife at night and to minimize the risk of poaching. Any vehicle that is not specifically registered with the park and traveling after dark is considered high risk and may be stopped by the armed park anti-poaching patrols. There are paperwork and entrance fees for each park entry. You must stop at the gate, park, and walk to the reception building and indicate if you are a day visitor or will be in park lodging. Daily entrance fees are 304 ZAR (about $24) per adult unless you have a "Wild Card" (3,455 ZAR [about $265] /couple for access to all SANParks for one year) - this is obviously a very good deal and should be obtained in advance from the website. It takes about 6 weeks to receive the card in the US so apply early.
South Africa National Parks (www.SANParks.org) maintains 21 lodging camps throughout the park (some are very large with over 100 accommodations per camp) and there are several private safari parks available at a much greater cost. There are the main rest camps, bushveld lodges, and bush lodges that can accommodate 8 or more guests. Cost varies with the exact type of accommodations but camp sites are about $25/night, safari tents are about $50/night, cottages are about $100/night, and some chalets are about $200/night. The facilities vary greatly as do the costs and information is available on the SANParks website. We chose to stay in caravan (RV) campsites because of the ease to take off with all of my photography gear when the gate opens at dawn and eat on the road while watching wildlife. This was both much more convenient than moving gear in and out of a cottage and much less expensive for a long visit. Every camp ground has a lighted, covered cooking facility with stoves and some have microwaves, a clean dish washing area with hot water, and an "ablution center" with clean showers and toilets. Most campsites had access to electricity but almost none have water or sewer hook ups common in the US. In SA, "gray water" is dumped directly on the ground and "black water" deposited into a canister that has to be carried to the ablution center. Safe water is available to fill the RV tank in all campgrounds. Most camp site have a braai (BBQ grill) and these are used by all South African campers - braaiing is the national past time. Most of the rest camps have a visitor center, small shop with basic groceries, and some have large shops and full restaurants.
We provisioned and checked out the camping features of our RV at the beautiful Kiaat Caravan Park near Hazyview. Hazyview is a moderate size city with 3 modern, well stocked grocery stores, a shopping mall, gas stations, and many good restaurants making it a perfect starting point for 3 weeks in the bush. There are 3 entry gates to Kruger (Phabeni, Numbi, and Paul Kruger gates) a short distance from town. It was a busy holiday weekend and we could not reserve a camp site so had to use the gates each day for 3 days. Because of the holiday the entrance lines were long - over 2 hours one day, almost 4 hours another. After learning the routine of parking, registering, and doing the paper work we were off on our personal safari. We were met by a pride of lions within 200 meters of the gate! The adventure began.
We moved to the south of the park and stayed 6 nights at the Crocodile Bridge Rest Camp. There were no reserved (numbered) camp sites so you just pick and empty site and set up. Crocodile Bridge was not a large camp and the facilities were not quite up to those at other camps but we stayed there the longest of any camps because of the proximity to the greatest diversity of wildlife in the park. We learned later that the locals call the south of Kruger "the zoo" and avoid it because of the crowds viewing wildlife. We were there in the early autumn (April/May) and not in the busy winter season and at times didn't see another vehicle on the back roads for over an hour - if that is crowded, I could get to like the crowds. We liked the camp sites, enjoyed meeting the locals and international travelers, and were amazed daily by both the number and diversity of the wildlife. In our 3 weeks in Kruger we saw /photographed at least one new species every day but one.
To our surprise wildlife was at least as abundant near the paved roads as near the gravel/dirt roads - the upside of the paved roads it that we could cover more mileage but the downside was more traffic. Some days there were as many as 10-15 vehicles stopped for a "lion jam - compare that to Yellowstone or Grand Teton! After several days at Crocodile Bridge camp we finally made it north to the Lower Sabie Rest Camp on the Sabie River. This camp was much larger, had much nicer facilities, and had a Mug and Bean restaurant with huge American style breakfasts for about $4 each. It also had a nice pool that made for a couple of great mid-day siestas.
After returning to Crocodile Bridge for another 4 nights we had to leave the park for fuel and re-provisioning. The Easter weekend came and again we had been unable to get accommodations in any SANParks lodging so had to stay at a private safari lodge at the edge of the park. The cottage was large, clean, and very nice with a canopied queen-size bed and great view of the fence keeping wildlife out of the camp. It had a nice bar/restaurant with a constant turn-over of guests and safari trucks. At the edge of the camp was a fenced water hole that hosted a nightly showing of hippo's and other wildlife. It cost almost 3 times as much as the park lodges and overall left us with a bad taste about private safari camps. We went into the park in our RV every day and routinely saw more wildlife than almost any of the guided tours. After the 2 nights we were happy to be back in the camper and away from the people.
We worked our way slowly through the central park of the park over a few days and then had to rush north for the last 200 km to our final campsite. The terrain in the park varies greatly. In the south were rivers and heavy bush and trees. In the central region things open up a bit and there was more variable terrain with grass lands and open spaces. The north was similar but there seemed to be fewer wildlife. Clearly there were fewer people and vehicles as we moved north but the wildlife seemed to be more sparsely distributed.
Overall, Kruger is an amazing and visitor friendly park with a wide diversity of wildlife. At times we watched more than a hundred elephants cross a river, were surrounded by giraffe, met head on by big cats, and saw virtually every large species in the park. Photography at times can be difficult because of the limitations of shooting from your vehicle, the dense bush, and distances to some animals. Photography was always rewarding and observing the wildlife, sometimes for hours, made this the trip of a lifetime.
Kruger may be the granddaddy of South Africa's national parks but it is certainly not the only park you will want to visit on a photography safari. Our two-month visit in the spring of 2017 took us to ten national parks, each with a unique flavor that will attract many visitors and photographers.
I cannot do justice to these parks in a short description but will try to highlight some features of particular interest to photographers touring the region. I also did not visit parks in the west, northwest, central or southeast parts of South Africa nor did I visit the dozens of nature reserves and private game parks in the country. It would take years to see all of the public lands and wildlife sites in South Africa but the following are some of the highlights arranged somewhat in the order of the number of photos shot in each park. I don't try to equate more shots with greater interest or higher priority but rather use this a a means of judging what I personally enjoyed. Kruger National Park was the focus of nearly a month of our visit so I will save that for the next and final post about photographing South Africa.
Without question Addo Elephant National Park was one of our favorite spots in South Africa. Addo is located north and slightly east of Port Elizabeth where the coast of Africa begins its northern turn along the Indian Ocean. You will take the regional highways R-335 and R-342 from Port Elizabeth about 72 km (45 miles) of narrow (slightly rough) pavement to reach the main rest camp in the park. Here you will find camping, cottages, chalets, a restaurant, and even a swimming pool. Access to all of South Africa's national parks and the daily conservation fees are completely covered if you purchased a SANPark "Wild Card" before departure or at one of the main visitor centers. The card is available for international visiting individuals, couples, or families and is valid for one year from the date of activation. The couples card for all 80+ parks and reserves was 3,455 ZAR (about $270) and restricted couples cards for clusters of regional parks for South African residents vary from about 600 to 845 ZAR. If you are going to visit more than 3 or 4 parks or be in any of the parks for more than about 2 weeks - the Wild Card is a great and hassle-free deal. If you order on-line form the US be aware that shipping can take 6 weeks so order early. You will receive a confirmation letter before the card arrives and this letter will also get you into the parks.
Addo is billed as an "elephant park" but recognize that it is far more than elephants. The park is interlaced with about 120 km of paved and gravel/dirt roads that are in very good condition and easy for our little Nissan rental sedan to negotiate. Only a couple of specialized areas require a 4-WD vehicle. As with almost all of the SA parks the entry hours and rest camp gate hours are tightly controlled and you cannot open your vehicle doors or get out of the vehicle except in very few fenced areas. As the signs say - stuff here will kill you and you can't see the big cats until it is too late. Stay in your vehicle always. There are more than 600 elephants and 400 Cape Buffalo in this approximately 6 x 25 mile park - that is a very high concentration per square kilometer! There are many, many warthogs, a variety of ungulates, lions, hyenas, jackals, and smaller species. There are very rare leopards and no cheetahs. You will find signs everywhere to avoid hitting the rare flightless dung beetles on the roads and you will learn to carefully miss the huge pile of dung beetle housing projects left by the elephants. Addo is a must see park.
Our favorite park near Cape Town was Cape Point National Park and the Cape of Good Hope. This park is south of Simmon's Town and a reasonable day trip from the city. Of course the best photography is during the golden hours at dusk and dawn so you will probably want to spend at least 1 or 2 nights in Simmon's Town so you can be there as the best light. In the park you will find miles of scenic hiking trails, pristine beaches, historical markers, two light houses, and a variety of wildlife. The good news is that in this park your can and must get out of your car and, other than the ocean cliffs, nothing here will kill you. There are ungulates, fur seals, birds including ostrich, and primates everywhere. One of my favorite photographic experiences of the entire trip was when we stumbled upon a troop of baboons sitting on a rock wall in perfect dawn light. We were only about 10 yards away and they entertained us with a private show for over an hour.
The Tsitsikamma / Garden Route National Parks are about 600 km (7 hours?) east of Cape Town on the N-2 highway. It took us over a week to get there but that is another very happy story. These parks are some of local South African's favorites. They are past Cape Agulhas so are on the Indian Ocean and are pummeled by huge surf year round. The rocks, cliffs, and surf are reasons alone to visit the parks but hiking is what brings the locals. The Storms River mouth is the departure point for the Otter Trail, a five-day back packing adventure along the coast. The Otter is accessible by permit only and these are hard to come by. However, the first couple of miles to the waterfalls is open to all. The walk takes you through dense forest, high cliffs, isolated beaches and scrambles through boulder fields - another photographer's paradise. The mouth of the Storms River is crossed by a network of suspension bridges that are photogenic and amazing in their design. The breaking surf along the coast often reaches heights of over 40 feet! Huge rocks provide foreground elements and the beaches are places of relaxation. Whales are common in the migration season but we saw only a couple in April. Don't miss the Cattle Baron restaurant for an outstanding steak at a very reasonable price.
Table Mountain National Park is the landmark of Cape Town and a place for photographers to get creative with the city lights and the mountain's flora. While the mountain is a good background for pictures in the city, its summit is breath taking. It is accessible via a number of trails with variable levels of difficulty but if you are hiking, you must leave early as the sun exposed trail gets brutally hot by mid-day. An areal tramway is another option to reach the summit trails. Views from the tram offer photo delights as the tramcar rotates 360 degrees during the assent and decent. However you plan to reach the summit be sure to take plenty of water. There is also a small snack bar open intermittently at the top.
The Cape Angulhas National Park is at the southern most point in Africa and is the dividing line between the cold Atlantic and warm Indian Oceans. It is a small park with a few trails along the ocean, a light house, and the monument dividing the two oceans. It is worth the stop for a couple of hours.
A 5-10 km side trip north of the N-2 on R-319 takes you to the delightful Bontebok National Park. There are about 150 of the relatively uncommon Bontebok antelope in this unique park. There is a small visitor center, campground, a couple of picnic sites with short hiking trails, and two gravel/dirt loop roads to test your skill at finding the animals. There is also a small river and good bird photography. The park can be fully explored in about 4-5 hours.
After our visit to Addo at the most eastern part of our southern drive we struggled with the best route back to Cape Town, through the mountains and scenic canyons and wine country without repeating segments of our eastern drive. That is when we found Karoo National Park near the junction of the N-1 and N-12 highways just outside of the town of Beaufort West. It was a long and rather boring 400 km drive from Addo through dry agricultural country with a couple of unfortunate detours and diminishing fuel tank. The park is best described as the Death Valley of South Africa - a dry, scenic park with majestic drives, some hiking trails, a network of 4-WD trails, but with wildlife and abundant birding. The park is infrequently visited by tourists and used mostly by locals.
That just about covers the birds-eye view of the national parks in southern South Africa. We flew from Cape Town to Johannesburg and picked up our mini-motor home and headed for Kruger but that will come in the next posting.
After Kruger we had one more adventure in Mapungubwe National Park on the northern boarder with Botswana and Zimbabwe. While Kruger is the oldest national park, Mapungubwe is the newest, established in 2012. The park is a long 530 km north of Johannesburg and can be reached from either Musina on the N-1 in the east or the village of Alldays to the south. This is a remote part of South Africa and unfortunately the road conditions are poor to bad after leaving the national highway. It is paved but full of potholes that could swallow our camper and the driving was a bit treacherous. The park was created as an archaeological park and is a World Heritage Site. It is in two distinct sections divided by private agricultural lands and game parks. There are about 40 km of driveable dirt roads and 100 km of 4-WD "eco-trails." The Park headquarters, visitor center, main archaeological sites, lodging, restaurant, and hiking trails are in the larger eastern section and the campground and birding blind are 30 km of very rough road away in the western section. There is an amazing elevated boardwalk system in the east that overlooks the "great gray-green greasy Limpopo River" so well described by the Kipling story in 1902. The boardwalk lets you walk "safely" above most of the wildlife and offers great views. The general terrain of the park is vastly different from the rest of South Africa with rocky spires, hoodoos, and dense jungle interspersed with massive Baobab trees.
Wildlife is abundant with elephants, giraffe, zebras, antelope of several varieties, primates, and a variety of predators that keep you in your vehicle when not safely in a camp surrounded by electric fence or on a boardwalk. In he western section is a blind overlooking a large pond with the best variety of exotic waterfowl that I have ever seen. The waterhole is visited by all varieties of other park wildlife and was a place where we spent hours watching and shot hundreds of photos.
That is a peek at many of the South African national parks other than Kruger. A huge amount to see that could easily occupy several months of visits. In the next and final post I will try to give you and idea of the enormity and diversity of Kruger National Park.