Self drive to experience the African Big 5

This is an account of our experiences at Kruger National Park. Undertaken during August 2018, while on our tour of South Africa, we had included Kruger National Park in our itinerary. Though there are quite a few options to visit Kruger ( discussed later) I would suggest you to Self drive to experience the African Big 5 in the best possible way at Kruger National Park. It is an ideal for game viewing, and family members with the right precautions and control should enjoy this as a self drive option to make the best out of it. Game viewing at Kruger National Park  is an experience not to miss. You are free to stop, to watch the numerous animals and take photos as many as you can The feeling of danger of being so close to such wild animals as the Lion or the leopard adds to the thrill. Do not be intimated by this thought, as it is greatly enjoyable and families love this self drive option.

About 10 days in this beautiful country of South Africa, we had spent our first night at  Aha Lesedi,  (available as a link here : “Among the African Tribals at Aha Lesedi “) and then drove about 450 Kms to Kruger, visiting Pretoria on our way. Here in this article you will find an account of our travels :  Inside Kruger for the African Big 5 . August in the southern hemisphere is winter and temperatures  range between 8 degrees to 24 degrees celsius  average in this region. It was sunny, skies were blue and the horizon spread out all across as we drove towards the Melalane gate in Southern Kruger, with a stop for lunch and a couple more breathers on our way.  Again a quick question : Who was Kruger? The answer, once again,  lies at the end. 🙂

Sunset at Kruger National Park
Sunset at Kruger National Park

Game viewing at Kruger National Park 

Kruger National Park is the largest game viewing park in South Africa and the most frequented among all the other nature parks of South Africa. Bordering Mozambique and Zimbabwe on its east and north-east, Kruger stretches across an area of 19000 square kms. It is home to a massive population of all the African Big Five animals which include the Lion, Leopard, Elephant, African Bull and the Rhino. Offering one of the best experiences of game viewing and holidaying, Kruger also offers glimpses of nature with its running streams, bush velds, hillocks and ravines. We had the opportunity of travelling through Kruger National Park and was able to see all the African Big 5. You can read about our South African Tour Plan here!!

When to visit Kruger National Park :

September to April : Summer and warmer temperatures with a moist and humid climate. Hot days and occasional showers. About 18 to 30 degrees Celsius.

May to September : Winter with colder days and drier weather. Average Temperature is between 8  to 22 degrees Celsius.

Suggested : Malaria prevention with the advice of a doctor 2 weeks prior to travelling to Kruger.

How to travel and enjoy Game viewing at Kruger National Park:

The ways to enjoy game viewing at Kruger National Park – the choices are many. Travelers need to first make some basic decisions to go about. One can enjoy game viewing both at government managed parks  or at private game parks spread across the region. The difference is that private parks are more luxurious, offer customized travel options as a packaged holiday, while government managed parks are on an item basis. No point mentioning that private parks charge about eight to ten times the government park rates but do offer comfort to the utmost. A point to mention here : there are quite a few luxury camps within government parks too, but I believe these are still not as luxurious as the private ones. Some well known private parks are Timbawati and Sabi Sands Reserves. Sabi is the local river which flows through the lower section of Kruger National Park and Sabi Sands Game reserve lies adjacent to Kruger. Here you will find a greater concentration of game viewing and the parks cater to a smaller group of tourists. It was previously separated with a fence but about 10 years back the fence has been removed and now the animals can roam from one game park  to another game park freely. Private parks are booked directly through their own web-sites while governments parks are booked through the South African National Parks website (sanparks.org)

Read about our  South Africa Road Trip Here!!

The Sanparks website offers detailed information about the various parks under its umbrella. It provides glimpses on weather, accommodation, activities, facilities  as well as warnings and park rules. One can enjoy Kruger in a few different modes. One option is to stay outside the park at private hotels and accommodations and tour Kruger National Park as a day visit. The other option is to stay inside Kruger National Park in the different SanParks managed accommodations available and enjoy the park as a self drive option. Third is to avail the morning and evening game drives organized by the individual camps. Other activities include wilderness trails, guided walks and backpacking trails. 

Main camps inside the Kruger National Park :

Map of Kruger National Park from Sanparks.org
Map of Kruger National Park from Sanparks.org
  • Berg en Dal
  • Balule (Check in at Olifants camp)
  • Crocodile Bridge
  • Letaba
  • Lower Sabie
  • Mopani
  • Olifants
  • Orpen
  • Pretoriuskop
  • Punda Maria
  • Satara
  • Shingwedzi
  • Skukuza
  • Tamboti (A satellite camp of Orpen)
  • Tsendze

Maroela , a satellite camp of Orpenand is the only camp where caravans and camper vans are permitted.

 

How to spot the African Big 5 ?

Among all these  Skukuza, in the southern part of the park, along the banks of the Sabie river is the largest camp. It is also at the crossroads between Rhino Territory ( around Berg-en-dal camp) and the Lion Leopard territory (around Lower Sabie camp). This region between Paul Kruger Gate – Skukuza- Lower Sabie- Crocodile Bridge- Malelane Berg-En-Dal- Pretoriouskop- Numbi -Phabeni has the largest concentration of animals. Thus if you have a shorter time span to travel Kruger, I suggest staying around this area .  We stayed a night each at Berg-en-dal and Skukuza camps. Berg En dal is a compatratively smaller camp, but arrangements are good. 

Reaching Kruger National Park :

We drove to Melalane Gate of Kruger National Park at about half past 5 in the evening, after a long drive from  Pretoria on highway N4. (“Among the African Tribals at Aha Lesedi “). We showed our Sanparks booking at the gate and filled up the requisite form for entry. It was a smooth 5 minutes process and soon after a customary check of our car we were flagged in. Our first night was booked at Berg En Dal which is about 12 kms from the Melalane gate. Driving inside Kruger is slow, the maximum speed limit is 50 kmph and as we entered Kruger, the sun slowly started to dip behind the horizon. The sky painted a reddish hue to greet us into Kruger and we suddenly  spotted a couple of zebras to our right. Very soon, a few giraffes, a lonely elephant came into our notice, while about  dozen impalas ran ahead of our car to cross the road. We cruised along at a very slow pace of around 30 kmph, our daughter Titir excited at seeing the animals in the wild ( she hardly remembers Masai Mara now) and I handed over the camera to her with a few basic operating instructions. With the setting sun in the background, we also saw a warthog and  a few boars around us, as slowly the darkness engulfed the surroundings and it started to look a bit ominous. 

At Berg En Dal Rest camp inside Kruger National Camp.

We reached Berg en Dal camp in about 20 minutes, the road well marked and the camp busy with visitors. We signed up , paid our Conservation fees( mind you this is above the daily rentals and is about USD 60 a night per room). We also booked ourselves for the next morning’s Game Drive, for which they asked us to report at 5.30 am. The Main Camp office has an adjoining store to buy all possible necessities  and also quite  a few gift items and collectibles . There is also a small open theater where every evening they screen movies related to the wild life in Kruger, entertaining kids and adults alike. Nearby is a large restaurant and next to a downward flight of stairs is the Rhino Nature walk. Berg En Dal is famous for its local Rhino population and don’t be surprised if you see a rhino family walking beside you . Do not worry, you have a twined barricade to protect you.

Gazelle in Kruger National Park
Gazelle in Kruger National Park

We had our dinner and drove about a half kilometer or more to find our 3 bed studio.  It was a comfortable room with an AC and a kitchenette. The bathroom ran hot and cold water and there was an outside seating arrangement too. It was here that suddenly a gazelle stood still in front of us, clearly confused with the unwanted intrusion. The Rhino walk ran alongside our property for the night and we were hoping  to see some .Unfortunately we didn’t. 

Rhinos in Kruger National Park
Rhinos in Kruger National Park

Early next morning we started our tour around 5.30 am(sunrise in winter in South Africa is usually around 7:30 am).  It was still pitch dark and the open re-modeled jeep had a seating for about 10 people . There were two searchlights one on each side , operated by the viewers to help spot animals in the dark. We were soon met by a hyena and then a group of elephants. “We should look for the green eyes, not the yellow ones”, was the advice our guide/driver game us. Yellow ones belonged to deer and gazelles where as the green ones … you’ve guessed it right !! The African lion. ( Their eyes are blue grey but appear green in the darkness). We did see quite  a few animals including the zebras and monkeys, African owl, kudu ( the South African national animal), white and grey rhinos, elephants, African bull, warthogs,even a mongoose nest with baby mongooses but what gave us a miss were the lion and the leopard. 

Elephant at Kruger

 

Skukuza Camp,the largest in Kruger National Park.

Every camp has a board where you can see the latest game viewings mapped and pointed with flags for the Big 5. It helps to plan your trip well. Soon after breakfast, we were on our way to Skukuza where we were booked for the second night. We kept enjoying our animals and the sights  and in between you can find small parking bays with  small tea/refreshment joints , bathrooms and places to unwind and have a smoke in peace. Mind you again, no stepping out of your car within Kruger and definitely lock your doors.  The reason I say lock your doors is here 🙂 Enjoy the video here.

Sabie river view from Skukuza Camp
Sabie river view from Skukuza Camp

 

We rested ourselves on the second afternoon/ evening  at Kruger, after a sumptuous meal at Cattle Baron Restaurant ,Skukuza. The restaurant had both, an indoors seating as well as a outside deck for people to relax under the mild sun over the Sabie river. The view is great and the other side of the Sabie offers visitors the chance of watching wild animals which is a common sight. We saw elephants and African buffaloes in the swampy marshland bordering the Sabie and were told that a leopard had recently come to hunt but was thwarted by the pack of buffaloes aided by the elephant family. It was somewhere hiding in the bushes around the river. We met a few people and en elderly couple and borrowed their binoculars to scout for the leopard. We found it, deep in slumber under the green leaves close to the embankment.

Lion at Kruger National Park
Lion at Kruger National Park

The sun slowly dimmed and we enjoyed a bit of rest and leisure after the long day which had started very early that morning with the morning game drive at the other camp, Berg En Dal. The camp also had a store with a large inventory of collectibles and items of interest. Interested we were  and Anita and Titir rummaged around for items of their choice. 

Rhino inside Kruger
Rhino inside Kruger

The night went uneventful and we had a refreshing sleep. We packed and left Skukuza around 9.30 in the morning. The plan was to drive towards Lower Sabie camp, try our luck viewing the lion and the elusive leopard, spend half a day inside Kruger and then drive to Graskop before sundown. I had secretly promised myself that I won’t leave Kruger till I see a lion. This stretch between Lower Sabie and Skukuza camp , along the banks of Sabie river, is well known as Lion territory. We kept asking fellow travelers and drivers for lion sightings and got news that lions have been sighted en-route to Lower Sabie. At one such refreshment stop , a woman asked us to immediately drive half a kilometer ahead as lions were there. So we cut short our break and took off. Soon we could see another four to six cars at a stop near a turning of the road. Bushes and yellowish vegetation around winter helps the predators in camouflaging themselves, but the lions were in no mood to do so. There were about six to eight of them in the pack, lazily spending their time in the morning sun, yawning and probably doing light talk amongst themselves. A couple of them raised their heads and looked towards us but the rest just didn’t pay much heed. Watching an African lion in its own surroundings is an experience.  (We had been through a pack of 32 lions at Masai Mara Kenya and it was the ultimate thrill!! )

What was still unsighted was the leopard. It had eluded us at Masai Mara and I sincerely wished to see one today. And soon again we found another group of cars which had halted on the route. A few minutes of ambling around and we could see the leopard , happily sleeping on the branch of a tree next to the main road. We waited for about 10 to 15 minutes, but it just seemed to turn and stretch with no intention of breaking it beauty sleep. For us, it still meant a ‘check off’ from our list of game viewing. We felt happy by such an achievement.

There was still a couple of hours time and we kept driving towards Sabie. In between was this huge lake, bordered by cormorants and different species of migratory birds. We  spotted hippopotamuses in the water, enjoying their bath, spouting water and bellowing  at times. It was only after we came back, that the video footage revealed that the further bank of the lake was literally littered with crocodiles, though we couldn’t see them from a distance with our naked eyes.

We drove to Lower Sabie camp, bought some refreshments from the store there  and I had a smoke. It was about  a two hours drive from here to the Kruger Gate through which we planned to exit. We kept seeing kudus and giraffes,impalas ,gazelles, monkeys, wild boars, guinea fowls and again another pack of lions this time about two hundred meters away, beside the embankment of the Sabie river.  On our return we had an unexpected viewing. The leopard, it seemed, had either been contented with its sleep or has been brought to a discomfort with the continuous queue of vehicles around it. So it decided to climb down the tree.  It was then that we got a few seconds of viewing as it made its way in between the cars to reach the other side of the road and then wait a couple of seconds till it  quickly made its way into the bushes and grasslands to vanish from eyesight. 

Leopard behind the car in Kruger
Leopard behind the car in Kruger

The final cherish-able experience came when we got stuck between a herd of  elephants. They were pushing and jostling against each other and it was a fun watch. But suddenly we found ourselves in the midst of them, with a few of them on either side of the road, quarreling and bickering. I was soon alarmed at the change of events within a couple of minutes or so, and it wasn’t the ideal situation to be. In a jungle, angry elephants are the most dangerous, more so than a pack of lions. I had to quickly take a decision and drive ahead a hundred yards to be on the safer side of things. Again the motto was safety instead of rewards. Soon it seemed they had straightened out their differences and the pack ambled to one side of the road and then was seen thumping softly down through the forest, as a contented family once again.

We left Kruger through the Paul Kruger Gate around 3 in the afternoon. Again , the curio shop near the gate attracted my wife. Fine with me as I thought of stretching my legs after the long drive from Lower Sabie Camp and have a smoke near the Paul Kruger Statue nearby. Graskop was another hour and a half hours drive, where we planned to stay for a couple of nightsto view the Panorama Route.

( You can read about our Panorama Route experience here !!)

Who was Paul Kruger ?

Paul Kruger was the president of South Africa from 1883 to 1889 and was a   dominant political and military figure. He was the key figure in conservation efforts and the establishment of the Kruger National Park. With the discovery of gold towards the end of the nineteenth century South Africa became a battlefield. Soon after the Second Boer war took place and the country went through upheavals. he was elected president of the Transvaal region four times , but ultimately had to flee the country amidst the warring factions. He died in exile in 1904.

Read about our complete South Africa Trip Here!!