What's More Intimidating than a Lion?
I don't know. But the task of planning our Kruger Park safari certainly felt almost as intimidating.
We were spending a lot of money, we were novices, and we didn't want to screw it up, especially since my parents were joining.
Fortunately, thanks to good planning, good luck, and, most of all, great tips from our host Bjorn, our turned Kruger trip turned out great.
And nobody got eaten by lions.
This blog post shares the Kruger Parks safari tips we learned including why you should use Twitter, why the Big 5 is overrated, and why elephants are what you should really worry about more than lions.
Tips For Planning Your Kruger Safari
1. Go During the Dry Season (But Don't Stress if You Can't)
Kruger Park is a year-round destination, with each season bringing its own highlights.
During the dry season (Sep-Nov), animals are easier to spot because the vegetation is sparse and they have nowhere to hide. They also tend to congregate around watering holes.
In the wetter months, it's much greener so animals are tougher to spot but there are more newborn wildlife and migrant birds. We went in January and it rained, but we still saw plenty of game animals.
So don't worry too much about when you go.
There is a worst time to go, though…
Avoid the Christmas holiday season.
Prices are highly inflated because South Africans are on both summer and Christmas holiday and the roads inside the park will be busier than you'd like.
2. Don't Be Misguided
One of the biggest questions we had before our own Kruger Park trip was whether to hire a guide or not.
If you only remember one of our Kruger safari tips, this should be it.
We still don't have an obvious answer, but here's some info that might help you decide:
If you can afford it, get a private guide for your first day
If you can find a guide like Bjorn, the owner of Mbizi Lodge, where we stayed, it's worth the cost for at least one day. He guided us on our first day in Kruger and he was fantastic.
He actually seemed more excited to be on safari than we were!
For twelve straight hours, Bjorn kept us engaged and informed with info on everything from interesting info on animal behavior, spotting tips, crazy stories about the anti-poaching paramilitary, and his own story of how he, an ex-Salesforce employee, realized his dream to become a safari lodge owner and guide.
Not only did we learn and see more by having Bjorn with us on our first day but we also enjoyed our subsequent self-drives more too thanks to everything he taught us.
Beware of bogus safari guides
Bjorn warned us that many safari guides have no idea what they're doing. They bought their licenses from corrupt officials and completely skipped over the intense, multi-year certification course that guides are supposed to graduate from.
They know (and care) next to nothing about animals or the environment and are just doing their job for the money, so getting one of these guides can be a huge waste of time and money.
To avoid getting stuck with one of these bad guides, read forums, ask your hotel, and ask friends who have been to Kruger already (like us!) for a personal recommendation.
Educate yourself before you self-drive
Going on safari without a guide is not a bad alternative. It saves you money and gives you to freedom to go and stop wherever you want.
The downsides are you might see fewer animals because you don't know where or how to look and you don't have anyone to answer your questions or point out unusual or interesting behaviors.
But you can minimize those downsides by educating yourself.
As an added bonus, doing this type of research will get you extra hyped for your trip.
3. Choose Your Accommodation Wisely
Deciding where to stay in Kruger Park can seem like a daunting task. But it doesn't have to be.
Figure out what you'd like to see
If you're after birds, go to the North. If you're after the game, stay in the South. And if you're after maybe slightly less game but fewer people, stay in the middle of the park.
Then, decide whether you want to be inside the park, or not
There's a decent amount of camping inside the park with basic camping facilities. You'll have to bring your own food or stock up at one of the rest stops. Camping is around R250 per couple which makes this accommodation one of the most affordable. Other lodges inside the park vary in price and quality, but some luxury lodges can go as much as R15,000 per night.
If you don't want to camp and you're not rolling in dough, book some of the smaller lodges in advance to avoid disappointment.
Consider staying outside Kruger at Mbizi Bush Lodge
We loved staying at Mbizi Bush Lodge, located about 30 minutes from the Phalaborwa gate in the middle of the park.
Owned by a friendly young couple, Bjorn and Divya, it's a mid-priced alternative to the super-expensive lodges with a much more personal touch.
Bjorn is the game drive guide with a wealth of knowledge and even more passion for wildlife. Divya, his partner, is an amazing chef who treated us to some delicious, homemade meals. And Noah, their son, is too cute for words.
With only three cabins on site and such engaging hosts, our experience at Mbizi felt just as exclusive as and more friendly than any super-luxury lodge.
4. Decide How Many Days to Drive (and How Many to Rest)
The biggest question we had when planning our own Kruger safari was how many days to go for?
And on how many of those we should do game drives?
Based on our experience, I recommend between 3-6 days total spend about two-thirds of that time doing game drives and the other third stretching your legs on a bush walk (below) and exploring surrounding areas like Blyde River Canyon (below).
5. Ensure You Have Super Vision
Whether it's with binoculars or a zoom camera lens, make sure you have a way to see far.
Animals are often further away than you think and even when they're nearby it's really cool to get a close-up.
For binoculars, Bjorn recommends getting a pair with at least 10×50 magnification.
For camera lenses, we saw other people with lenses that looked like the Hubble telescope but found our humble Canon 55-250mm zoom lens did the trick just fine. And it fit in our carry-on!
Consider renting camera gear
If you don't own a fancy zoom lens, consider renting one from a camera shop in Joburg or in one of the nearby towns. Africa Photographic Services in Nelspruit (Southern Kruger) offers rentals starting from about R250 per day.
Tip Within a Tip: Don't rely on your guide to have binoculars you can use, either. Ask in advance.
6. Get a Wildlife Book
We all rolled our eyes when my mom bought a couple of wildlife booklets in town on the way from the airport to the lodge.
But then we all found ourselves fighting over them and flipping through their pages throughout our entire Kruger safari.
They helped us identify all the different animals more easily, especially the many species of antelope, and provided fun facts about each of them, which increased our appreciation and understanding of what we were looking at.
Pick up a book in town in either Hoedspruit or Nelspruit or download a Kindle version here.
7. Don't Miss Blyde River Canyon
Blyde means "happy" or "glad" in Dutch. We felt the opposite of that for missing out on it because of poor planning.
Located approximately 55km southwest from Hoedspruit (the airport nearest the middle of the park), Blyde River Canyon is said to be maybe the largest green canyon in the world and one of Southern Africa's top sights.
It makes for a nice day trip to break up your long game drives and rest your eyeballs from constant animal searching.
Forever Forest in Blyde River Canyon offers many hiking routes that will take you through lush jungle, waterfalls, and some stunning viewpoints.
Alternatively, the Panorama Route is a scenic driving loop you can do.
And just because you're outside of Kruger doesn't mean you won't see animals. Be on the lookout for hippos, monkeys, crocodiles, and the elusive leopard along the way.
Jet Safari Lag
Even though we flew in from Cape Town, which is in the same time zone as Kruger, we had to deal with a version of jet lag.
Call it safari lag.
That's because we were waking up at 4:30 a.m. every day instead of the usual 6:30 to 7 to be out at dawn when the most animals are out.
Prepare for this two-hour time-change the same way you would if you were truly changing time zones. Consider going to bed and getting up earlier before you leave for Kruger, eating earlier dinners, and drinking less alcohol to sleep better.
And take big naps in the middle of the day like the animals do. This way, you'll feel fresh and your ability to spot animals will be on point.
9. Rent a Vehicle that Puts Comfort First
If you're renting a vehicle, place extra importance on comfort.
You will be spending many hours squeezed inside the thing and you want to be as comfortable as you can for a 12-hour journey.
Bigger isn't always better as SUVs aren't necessarily more comfortable. The SUV we were in for one day had high seats and low windows so Chris, who's 6 foot 3, ended up preferring to sit uncomfortably on the ground between the two back seats rather than strain his back and neck to bend over all the time.
And don't feel the need to splurge.
A sedan will have no trouble handling Kruger's paved roads and is way cheaper in both rental cost and gas.
Some say to get SUVs because you're higher off the ground and can see better. This may be marginally true and if money is no object to you, get one. Or rent a car with a sunroof.
10. Find Out What's in Season
For an extra cultural or educational experience, look up what might be in season and if there are any local events or festivals that might be happening during your time in Kruger.
In our case, we lucked into marula season.
Marula is a South African tree with a fruit that resembles a cross between a mango and quince. It's the fruit behind the sweet, creamy, Amarula liqueur you may have tried before.
The fruit was so abundant you had to be careful to avoid it falling off the trees onto your head. People were madly collecting it to get madly drunk off the beer they made from it.
Selina, one of the staff at Mbizi, taught us how to make our own. It turned out to be the world's easiest beer to make.
We used forks to peel back the marula's tough skin and expose a lychee-like interior, which we squished in our fists to release a white creamy juice into a bucket. We then added some water and… that's it!
No yeast or anything else needed. Within a few days, the marula juice naturally ferments into a surprisingly tasty cider-like drink.
The whole experience was just as memorable as any animal sighting.
Kruger Self-Drive Safari Tips
11. Use Twitter
Use Twitter and follow the account Latest Kruger to keep up-to-date with all the latest sightings within the park.
The park's huge, so for most sightings the animals will have left by the time you get there, but you wouldn't want to miss a lioness and her babies if they happen to be just around the corner.
Also, we found it fun to keep updated on all the action and excitement others were having around Kruger.
We even joined in! When we spotted a caracal, my dad took a photo and tweeted it there. He was almost as excited as he was to see the animal when the account reposted his image to its 37 thousand followers!
And WhatsApp's for insiders
Ask your guide if he or she is part of the Kruger spotting WhatsApp group chat. On it, all the guides let each other know what they've spotted and where.
12. Don't Rely on Google Maps
Instead, use the estimated driving times in the printed maps available in guidebooks, like the one pictured in Kruger safari tip #4 above. We found these to be much more accurate.
And they saved the day for us.
If Chris hadn't checked the map, we would've been trapped in Kruger because the loop we thought would take 1 hour (because Google said so) actually took 3 hours, which wouldn't have given us enough time to get out of the gate before the park closed.
But still use Google Maps
While you shouldn't trust Google Maps' driving times, it's still an invaluable tool for tracking your location.
Remember to save the Google Map map of Kruger to your phone for offline use (check out our Google Maps Tips & Tricks post for simple instructions) so you always know where you are.
13. Make Your Own Big 5
The term "Big 5" originates from hunters who used it to refer to Africa's most dangerous animals: lion, leopard, buffalo, rhino, and elephant.
So, unless you're a poacher, it should mean nothing to you.
Forget about checking off the list, focus more on what you do see and not on what you don't see, and make your own Big 5 (or whatever number you want) of favorite animals you spot.
Our Big 5 consisted of giraffes, dwarf mongoose, hippos, ostriches, and dung beetles. And we saw lots of all of them!
14. Don't Worry About Starving
While it's nowhere near the Cape Town restaurant scene, we were surprised to find that Kruger Park had plenty enough food options to keep us fueled for our game drives.
The restaurants in the park had unexpectedly good food at reasonable prices. From vegetable curries to fish & chips and burgers, even the pickiest eater will be able to find something they like for R80 to R150.
Chris' giant schnitzel that could feed a small family of impalas, pictured above, was just R130.
Besides the restaurants, the Kruger rest camps all have shops with a near supermarket-level variety of food and drinks, so you can always pick up some snacks for the road if you're still hungry.
But don't leave your binoculars in the car when you stop to eat
Both the Letaba and Oliphants restaurants that we stopped at had fantastic views from which we could see hippos and elephants.
15. Do Get Out of Your Vehicle
Get out of your car…. Just not when you're on your own in the park. That's forbidden.
But 100% do so on a guided bush walk.
You won't see as many big animals, but seeing and hearing them when you're no longer protected by the shell of a vehicle feels even more primal. And the little stuff you'll find and learn about—footprints, insects, plants, berries, bird calls, smells—is equally cool.
We did one from our hotel at Mbizi Bush Lodge with a fantastic guide, Marius.
One of the unexpectedly cool things we saw during our bush walk had to be the dung beetles (one of our personal Big 5 we mentioned in Kruger safari tip #5). As Marius explained these animal's peculiar behaviors, we chuckled as we watched a male beetle showing off for his lady pushing by pushing her and the massive, perfectly spherical dung ball she clung to towards some distant destination.
If you're interested in getting in touch with our guide, contact Marius Swart at +27 82 254 2282. You can also book guided bush walks through SAN Parks' site.
16. Don't Piss Off the Elephants
When Bjorn told us stories about people, including fellow guides, who got their cars rolled and tossed because they came too close an elephant who was having a bad day, we thought these were unlikely, exceptional occasions.
But then it almost happened to us.
On a self-drive, we stopped to admire and photograph a group of about seven elephants that were about 10 meters away. As the true kings of the jungle, they mostly ignored us puny animals and did their own thing.
We caught the eye of the male equivalent of a teenager. And he didn't like the look of us. He turned to face us, blew out his ears, let out a big scream, and prepared to show us who's boss. Thanks to Bjorn's warnings, we already knew who was boss and we scurried away.
Hopefully, this blog post of our Kruger Safari tips will help make your trip an even more incredible one.
If you have any questions or tips of your own, please share them with us and fellow readers in the comments below.
More South African Adventures
Don't Miss Out
Please don't tell us you're only coming to South Africa for a Kruger safari.
You'd really be missing out if you did.
South Africa's got so much more to offer. And we're not just talking about Cape Town (…though Cape Town's a big part of it).
Once you make the right decision to explore more of South Africa, make another great decision to bookmark our site and check out our other posts and experiences:
- The Hectic Route – Our detailed 14-day journey from Jo-burg to Cape Town stopping in some of the most magical towns and stunning scenery.
- Cape Town Travel Blog – Our comprehensive, fun, unique, and insider guide to what may be our favorite city to live in in the world.
- Unearthing the Garden Route – Also a 4-part series. We share what other guides don't divulge, tips, and restaurant recommendations for South Africa's version of Hawaii.