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.