After a wonderful few days in Swaziland, and after a little detour to the wrong airport to pick up Bev in Nelspruit, our roadtrip continued as we headed for South Africa’s famed Kruger National Park. The Kruger is one of Africa’s largest game reserves and it’s fairly unique in that it’s very easy to self drive. We had hired the biggest car possible and with seven people, luggage, lots of food and many bottles of wine our nine-seater minivan was packed!
It’s an easy 90 minute drive from Nelspruit to the Crocodile Bridge gate, and everyone was incredibly excited as we paid our park fees and eagerly looked over the sightings board. We had been on safari with the elephants at Addo the week before, and so were very excited to spend three nights in the bush.
No more than a few minutes after entering the park we saw a family of rhinos. After spending the last hour in the car managing expectations in terms of what we might see, there they were! In fact, we saw so many animals on our drive in that it was a race against time to get to Lower Sabie camp before the gates closed for the evening.
Braaimaster Birtwell cooked up a feast and we enjoyed our braai and a few glasses of South African wine at the camp before heading to bed for an early night. The camp gates reopen before sunrise and we were out at first light with our flasks of coffee, a big bottle of Amarula and Pauli and Anna’s delicious eggs burritos for breakfast.
It was a beautifully clear and crisp winter’s morning and there were animals everywhere we turned. We quickly fulfilled Becki’s life ambition to see giraffe, and also spotted warthog, zebra, wildebeest, buffalo, elephants, impala, springbok and kudu as we drove our way round for the morning.
We spent the afternoon relaxing around the camp before heading to the nearby watering hole with a few beers to watch the sunset with the hippos. Later that evening we went on an organised night drive (the first of our African adventure) and it was an unforgettable evening. Night drives are amazing and a completely different experience from day time as you hear a completely different set of noises in the dark, second guess anything that moves, and see eyes reflecting in the flashlights.
The first special sighting on our drive was a porcupine. You very seldom see this nocturnal animal and with its larger than expected body and beautiful set of quills it really is a fantastic looking animal. Next up we saw a giant eagle owl with its piercing eyes. Our last sighting was to see a leopard. He was hunting. This is one of the rarest animals to spot and when you do, they’re usually up in a tree and you’re seeing it through binoculars. Here he was so close that we could see just how strong he was, as well as his beautifully spotted body. Those few rather nervous minutes where he was walking alongside our open safari jeep will stay with me forever.
The sheer size of the park is unreal. It’s about the same size as the whole of Israel, a little smaller than Belgium and about a third of the size of Ireland. It’s also home to a staggering number of animal and bird species. Catherine and I have developed quite an interest in birds on our travels through Africa, particularly in Uganda which is home to over 1,000 species. We saw so many birds in Kruger and after three days we could name a dozen or so, with the yellow billed horn-bill and the lilac breasted roller being two firm favourites.
The park also supports a number of different vegetation zones and we noticed the change from lots of trees and grassland to open plains as we drove across the park on our second morning to Satara camp. Becki had volunteered to drive and I don’t think she was quite expecting it would involve reversing for 30 minutes while a huge elephant slowly followed us down the road!
After the elephant had finally decided to veer off into the bush, we spotted a pride of lions in the distance. It’s common to see them lounging under a tree in the heat of the day, but this pride clearly had somewhere to be as they headed straight for us, and then across the road. A queue of cars quickly formed as word got out, but it was no bother for the pride as they calmly walked through and around the vehicles. This really made Bev’s trip!
It was a fun and easy drive along good roads to Satara, with lunch at a lovely picnic spot on a lake, and we continued spotting zebra, buffalo, giraffe, elephants and even rhino. We also saw lots of impala, distinctive with stripes that form a ‘M’ on their bottoms, kudu, with their beautiful curly horns, gemsbok, with their super long straight horns, springbok, waterbuck, with the ring on their bottoms and the largest antelope of them all – eland.
That evening we enjoyed a few beers by the campsite fence and while we were reminiscing about the wonderful day we’d had I noticed a hyena had made its way to the fence. Perhaps it had smelt the biltong!
Very early the next morning, Bev and I went on another organised game drive. For the first 2h55 minutes we saw one zebra and some hyena droppings. We were thinking perhaps we might have been better off in bed like everyone else!
Driving back to camp along the famed R100 we noticed a lioness next to the car. We realised that she was hunting, and very quickly she pounced on the nearby buffalo. The buffalo bolted and ran around the car at which point a second lioness came in from the other direction. She was moving so quickly that the buffalo just managed to avoid her as they crossed paths. We then noticed a third female nearby before the final highlight of an incredible three days as we saw two males sitting and watching the hunt unfold. These two regal looking lions had the most beautiful bushy manes and it made me want to grow my hair even longer!
We enjoyed one final breakfast together before making our way out of the park to drop Becki and Birtwell at the nearby Hoedspruit airport. Catherine, Bev, Pauli, Anna and I continued the road trip for a few more days around the beautiful Blyde River Canyon area before Pauli & Anna made their way to Mozambique and we headed back to Port Elizabeth for Ma Bortz’s birthday tea.
Kruger really is a magical place and it was so special to be able to share our visit with friends, and to give them a little taste of the African bush. It’s also incredibly accessible, really well set-up and the facilities are phenomenal. You could spend years exploring the different areas, and staying at various camps around the park, and we’ll definitely be back!
These were covered by our wild cards. An annual wild card gives you access to all national parks in South Africa for a year. Depending on how many parks you plan to visit, it may be cheaper to buy a wild card, or just pay as you go. You can obtain more information here.
Gates and Accommodation
The park has nine main gates and 21 rest camps (as well as two private lodge concessions, and 15 designated private safari lodges). Accommodation ranges from campsites to bungalows and larger houses and the accommodation is equipped with braai facilities and kitchens (private/communal) should you wish to self-cater.
It’s a fantastic website that’s really easy to use. Accommodation does fill up so it’s a good idea to book as early as possible and changes can easily be done on the website.
All the camps are really well equipped and many have shops, bars and restaurants. The shops aren’t that inflated price wise and have everything you might want, including an excellent wine selection
Renting a Car
We rented a car in Johannesburg as we were on a two week road trip but you could easily pick one in Nelspruit. You don’t need a 4×4 for most tracks inside the park.
* Finally, a huge thank you to Pauli for sharing his stunning pictures.