There’s something just SO incredibly exhilarating about driving around a South African National Park IN YOUR OWN CAR and encountering massive wild animals (like HUGE elephants!) SUPER up close and personal, I am actually getting giddy as I write this sentence and think back to our unbelievable experiences in the park!! During our five day self-drive safari around the park, we were able to view wild elephants, giraffes, warthogs, hyenas, wild dogs, and more… literally just A FEW FEET FROM OUR CAR!
On February 10, James and I flew to Johannesburg, South Africa and picked up our tiny little rental car for what would be an exciting five-day adventure in the Kruger Park wilderness of African animals. Kruger National Park, in the northeastern part of South Africa, is one of the largest and most well-known game reserves in the whole continent of Africa, and is also a park where visitors actually have the freedom to drive their own cars on most roads around the entire park. And it also is probably one of the cheapest places to do a safari, especially if you DO bring your own car, like we did.
And Kruger Park is HUGE! The park is 220 miles long from north to south and 65 miles wide—around 7,500 square miles total—which is roughly the same size as the state of New Jersey! The park was initially created to control hunting and protect the diminished number of animals in the park back in the early 1900s. However, even though this greatly helped the problem, rhino poaching is still a big issue for Kruger, as the trade is very profitable, bringing in over $66,000 alone for one rhino horn!
The entire park holds over 500 species of birds and 125 mammals, including a total count of over 13,000 elephants, 9,000 giraffes, 37,000 buffalo, 5,000 hyenas, 1,600 lions, and 1,000 leopards.
The drive from Johannesburg to Kruger Park isn’t all that bad: about 5-6 hours on nicely paved highways… roads that are actually similar to back home. Of course, though, you have to get used to driving on the LEFT side of the road and sitting in the driver’s seat on the RIGHT side of the car! Fortunately, James already had practice driving on the left side of the road from past experiences driving a campervan in Australia and a few different rental cars around Capetown, South Africa, so this was nothing new for him!
We did a bit of research on self drive experiences in Kruger Park and were a bit intimidated at first. Would we be able to spot animals on our own? Would a tiny car suffice, or did we need to rent a 4WD car or a truck? How do we get around the park exactly and where do we go? Will we be in danger from any animals if we are on our own? Fortunately, the website for SAN Parks (South African National Parks) was PHENOMINAL and pretty much answered all our questions and more! Seriously… I don’t think I’ve ever seen such an organized website with SO MUCH information and detailed, good-quality maps! It had information for Kruger Park on self-drives, certain places to go in the park to (hopefully) spot certain animals, tips on driving, tons of detailed maps for each section of the park, list of fees, distances from different places in the park, detailed information on different campsites, and you could even make reservations on the website for any of the park campgrounds! Once we gathered information and then began driving around the park ourselves, it actually became a LOT easier than we thought!
Anyway, so after we picked up our rental car at the Johannesburg airport and then spent the night in the city, the next day we drove 6 or so hours out to Kruger National Park. There are many entrances to the park, but we entered through the Paul Kruger gate and stayed at the Skukuza rest camp for the night. There are over 15 rest camps throughout the park, and each have a variety of accommodations including basic campsites (a plot of land, and you need to bring your own tent), basic or luxury safari tents (a large, stationery canvas tent, with a door, electricity, and more), and basic or luxury bungalows (small houses/rooms that you rent). All options include an outdoor BBQ area and some tents/rooms have fans, A/C, kitchens, and private bathrooms…
of course, depending on how much you spend. For James and I, we mostly stayed in basic tents, which gave us two beds inside a canvas tent with a refrigerator, fan, electricity, and an outdoor dining table… and for two people together the cost was only $45/night! One of our five nights, we were forced to stay in a “luxury tent” since nothing cheaper was available, so for $75/night we had a tent with a private bathroom and our own kitchen… not bad! Although, it’s also worth mentioning that tourists must also pay a $25/day park fee to even spend time in Kruger… but overall that’s still cheaper than staying in a hotel in many other places in the world! Anyway, there also are a variety of private accommodations available around the park, but since we were on a tight budget and didn’t have any luxury requirements anyway, then camping was the way to go! Plus, each campground area included a restaurant, grocery store, gas station, and reception, so that made everything super convenient.
We picked up a map for a few dollars at one of the campground stores, looked over the notes we had gathered about places in the park that were the best for spotting animals, and tried to estimate distances from place to place, since the park really is HUGE and we weren’t sure how much ground we could cover each day. That first night we arrived to the park (February 11), we decided to go out driving for an hour and a half before the campground gates closed at 6:30pm, as it is prohibited to drive in the park after that time. The first hour we barely saw anything other than a few groups of Impala (deer), and both of us had a sinking feeling in our stomachs, thinking, “Shoot—is this going to be too hard to spot animals on our own the next four days??” And just then—A hyena! SUUUUPER CLOSE to our car! It was scavenging for food and running alongside our car, and I couldn’t believe just how CLOSE it was! [See the fun video of us spotting the hyena by clicking here.] Then, when we were almost right back at our campground, we saw a group of three wild dogs running in the street! They were just wandering, slowly, and we
were actually able to pull up our car RIGHT ALONGSIDE THE DOGS! I seriously could have reached out and touched them!! I actually rolled up my window because I wasn’t sure if they would react in any way and actually jump up towards the window. What was most exciting about this encounter is it was a very RARE sighting, as there are only approximately 120 wild dogs in the WHOLE park! Happy with our first tiny self-safari for the day, we went back to our tent, had dinner, and celebrated with some wine.
The next day we were up EARLY to leave at 5:30am, since EARLY, early morning is of the best times to spot wild animals. We covered a TON of ground that day… I think we ended up driving around 12 hours total, all over the park and all the way up to the “Letaba” rest camp!! Of course, the distance we traveled would have normally only taken 4 to 6 hours, but we were driving slowly, taking side roads to look for animals, and making stops along the way. And it was worth it because saw SO MANY ANIMALS that day, it was truly spectacular! We actually kept a list of everything we saw that day: 3 warthogs, 3 wild dogs chasing an impala, several hornbill birds, waterbuck, 3 different elephants on their own, a group of 15+ elephants, a group of 25+ elephants crossing the road [and one began to charge at us!! See the video here!!],
white egrets, vultures, a hawk/kite, group of 5 giraffes, warthog family of 5, huge group of hippos in the water, 2 warthogs running across the street (almost hit one!), giraffe family, 3 water buffalo far away, group of 10+ buffalo by the road, 2 elephants fighting far away, hornbill birds pestering us at lunch, 3 pigmy hippos out of water, baboons, lots of HUGE SPIDERS and incredible spider webs you can see from a distance, several groups of monkeys, a white monkey baby, groups of zebras and wildebeest, many groups of impala, storks… and more! What an incredible day!… although we still hadn’t seen any cats yet.
The third day (February 13) it was drizzling out in the morning and we drove for HOURS without seeing hardly anything except a few groups of impala! We were upset and discouraged, plus exhausted from being up at 4:30am, so we decided to just give up for the morning and we went back to our tent to take a nap. After lunch, we set out again for an afternoon drive, but didn’t have much luck either!! We ended up seeing a decent amount of animals between the afternoon
and early evening, but nothing much more than what we had already seen: groups of zebra, some water buffalo far away, 3 giraffes close up (we interacted with one quite a bit which was fun), 4 hippos out of the water (plus 4+ submerged in the river), waterbuck, 2 elephants grazing, 3 ostriches, a group of 8+ elephants by the road, and 13+ elephants very far away. I guess after you spend so many days looking for animals, the excitement somewhat wears down in regards to animals you’ve already seen… we just REALLY wanted to see lions and leopards!! We HAD actually seen both lions and leopards in the Serengeti the month before, but we were hoping to see a lion with a big furry mane and a leopard more close up!
On day four (February 14), James and I did another HUGE drive back down to the southern part of the park with a TON of elephant sightings again (over 30 elephants throughout the day), plus tons of baboons, a baby hyena, storks, cranes, wildebeest, zebra, impala, giraffes, hippos in water, and a huge group of 10+ warthogs running away… but STILL NO CATS! We hadn’t seen a rhinoceros, either… sad! When we arrived at our campground, “Lower Sabie,” that night, we realized we may not get to see any cats on our own!… so we decided to pay for an organized night tour that was available through the park. Driving around in the darkness is actually a great way to see animals you normally wouldn’t see in the heat of the daytime… plus, you are not permitted to drive at night in the park on your own, anyway. At 8pm, we jumped into a safari vehicle with about 20 other tourists and we were off into the darkness of Kruger Park. As the truck zoomed along, four
different people in the truck shined powerful spotlights out into the wilderness in all directions, searching high and low for any kind of glowing eyes (pretty much any mammal or bird’s eyes will glow when shined by a spotlight!). Unfortunately, we spent WAYYY too much time (in James’ and my opinion) looking at and for dumb BIRDS!… and we were watching the clock tick tick tick by, hoping and praying we would spot a lion or leopard! Unfortunately, we never did. HOWEVER, we had some other pretty cool experiences: we saw several hippos REALLY CLOSE to the car, which was new for us because normally hippos are ONLY seen totally submerged in water. We also saw an owl, marabou stork, a tiny wild cat (which actually looked pretty much like a house cat!), and an absolutely HUGE group of 40+ water buffalo all together near the road! Oh yea, and we also saw a rhino!!! He was blocking the road in front of us at one point in our drive, and for a moment the mean looking beast almost charged the vehicle.
The coolest part of the night drive is when we encountered a group of elephants and one teenage elephant was feeling particularly aggressive that night and kept repeatedly trying to charge our vehicle! Our driver turned off the engine and we just sat and watched the elephant as he swayed back and forth, puffed his big elephant ears out, and make some grunting and squeaking type noises!! Our truck was large enough that we weren’t in any danger from this little guy, so it was quite amusing and fascinating to watch it happen right in front of our eyes!
Our last day, February 15, we were headed back to Johannesburg, but we took a route through the park that we THOUGHT would be good for spotting animals, particularly lions, leopards, and cheetahs. Boy, were we wrong! We saw absolutely NOTHING for probably over an hour or two!
Fortunately, shortly thereafter we saw a gathering of cars and found out there was a group of lions sleeping on some rocks nearby! We stopped and got out the binoculars and zoomed in with our camera, and sure enough: there were about six or seven lions, all lying next to each other far away on some rocks. It was pretty cool, although they were incredibly far away… but—hurray!—we saw lions in the wild in Kruger!!
As we exited Kruger National Park back to Johannesburg, we were extremely satisfied with our self-drive safari experience. We had seen four of the “Big Five” animals (rhino, elephant, buffalo, and lion) plus tons of other animals. But the BEST PART of this experience in my mind was just how UP CLOSE you got to these animals, and IN YOUR OWN CAR!! It was something that is so incredible and personal, it’s hard to describe the feeling other than to say it was absolutely extraordinary!
AND—just so we could get that HUGE LION experience up close and personal, we visited “Lion Park” in Johannesburg the next day and actually got to drive our car through lion-filled areas (much like that of a safari) and we saw TONS of lions—male and female—walking around, napping, and chowing down on animal carcasses during feeding time!! Again, this was a SUPER CLOSE experience, as we drove our own car and the lions were right outside the window!!
Ahhh…. We had such wonderful memories and safari experiences in South Africa, and this Kruger Park experience was THE BEST way to end the Africa portion of our RTW trip! I HIGHLY recommend doing a self-drive in Kruger Park, so please contact me if you are ever thinking of doing one yourself!
Have you experienced Kruger Park? Please share your experiences below!
Click here to see our photos from Kruger National Park!