Quick Guide - Kruger National Park
As summer in South Africa is yielding to autumn and winter, a truly South African winter holiday comes to mind. The Kruger National Park is our oldest national park and receives more than a million visitors each year. It’s larger than Gauteng Province by area, and hosts more than 700 species of birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish, almost 2,000 species of plants, and 148 species of mammals. With more than 50,000 specimens of the Big Five alone , you’re sure to have a safari no matter which part of the park you visit.
WHAT TO DO AND SEE
These curious-looking antelope were a novelty to me when i first visited the Kruger National Park. They can survive without water for 30 days and run up to 90km/h (which crowns them the fastest antelope in Africa), and yet i didn’t know of their existence until i opened the Kruger National Park’s colourful guidebook which lists the species of animals and birds to be seen in the park. To be fair, in South Africa they are only found in the northernmost provinces, and they kind-of-maybe-just-might-look-a-little-tiny-bit like a hartebeest. Still, it felt to me like i was exploring the natural wonders of Africa for the first time as we drove from camp each day with our guidebook resting on my lap, hoping to spot this new-to-yours-truly species. And sure enough, we weren’t disappointed. Late one afternoon we stumbled on a small herd at the water’s edge. Even though they are not as well-known as the Big Five, or as feisty as the zebra, or as graceful as the giraffe, the tsessebe is still a special animal to encounter.
• Southern Ground Hornbill
The largest species of hornbill is a sight to behold. Strutting through the grassy plains, males reach up to 1.29m in height and can weigh up to 6kg. Their stark black plumage and beaks are contrasted by bright red wattles (yellow in juveniles), and on the rare occasion that you catch them in flight, they display their brilliant white primary feathers, carefully hidden beneath their black coats and only manifested when they have to take to the sky.
Did you know that southern ground hornbills have been known to eat animals as large as turtles and hares? Did you know that their sunrise calls can be heard at distances of up to 3km? Did you know that, on average, a breeding group (consisting of a breeding pair and two to ten helpers) only produce one chick every 9 years? Did you know that there are only about 1,500 southern ground hornbills left in South Africa, and that here the species is listed as endangered?
One thing i know is this: the size and grace of these birds are breathtaking, and it’s one of the many jewels in our country’s crown of natural spectacles.
• Evening Game Drive
An evening game drive is worth every penny of the cost. The main advantage is that you’re able to travel through the park after sunset, when visitors have to be back at the camps. This means much less traffic. Also, the elevated seats on the open-sided vehicles most often afford you much better views than if you were travelling in your own car. One evening we saw a cheetah and her cubs scouring the plains for a meal, and then we crossed paths with a large pride of lions with many cubs. Of course, it’s entirely possible that you could see all of that during the day from your own vehicle, but it won’t be the same as experiencing it in the evening from an open vehicle.
• Bush Baby
Spotting a bush baby perched on a tree limb high above you is one of the many treasures of the Kruger National Park. These are some of the cutest animals on earth, with big eyes “to see you better” and wide ears “to hear you better”, just like the story of Red Riding Hood. Their long tails and furry bodies complete the image of a cuddly toy hanging out in a tree. But even though bush babies seem timid, they have exceptionally strong legs and can move surprisingly fast when they want to. It’s a great idea to saunter around camp at night, looking for bush babies in the tree branches, while walking off your hearty Bushveld “skenkelpotjie” (lamb shank stew) before retiring to bed for the evening.
• Water Holes
Animals, like humans, need water, which means that waterholes are excellent places to spot your favourite species. You might think, “Of course! Tell me something I don’t already know.” But on our last afternoon in the Kruger National Park, we headed to an obscure, small waterhole on a dirt road. There had not been any lion, leopard or cheetah sightings in this corner of the park the previous day, which meant that everyone was crowding everyone else someplace else. We had purposely decided to only visit this waterhole that afternoon, so we packed the cooler box with snacks and drinks, brought along a book or two, and checked that the camera batteries were charged. The afternoon started slow, but after a few visitors to the waterhole and some patience, we were blessed with just about the cutest thing i have seen in many years. An elephant family of four arrived for their afternoon cocktail to fill their bellies with gallons and gallons of water, and then the smaller members of the group started playing in the mud. Apparently it’s not only their way of cooling down, but this is also how elephants apply sunscreen. And if you’ve been to Africa, you know you need sunscreen. For about ten minutes we just sat there, enjoying the mud bath just about as much as the elephant youngsters, until the leader decided it was time to move on. One tranquil afternoon at a waterhole is just about the perfect way to say good-bye to the Kruger National Park in my opinion.
WHAT TO EAT AND DRINK
• “Koffie en Beskuit” (Coffee and Rusks)
What better way to start the day than with this South African breakfast on the run? Everyone wants to see the fresh, new morning in the veld, so our plan was simple. We filled our trusty Atlasware flask the night before, packed the Aeropress, the coffee and filters, and checked to be sure that the rusks were still where we’d left it today: on the back seat. This way, you won’t need to spend time preparing breakfast, and you won’t miss a second of your epic South African wilderness experience.
• Biltong and Droëwors
Of course it would be kinder to your budget to bring along your own, but for those of you who are curious, why not try the more exotic flavours of biltong at the camp stores? Most of us know springbuck and kudu biltong, but it’s not often that you can lay your hands on eland or buffalo biltong, and the stores here afford visitors the ideal opportunity to do just that.
You’re going to spend hours at a time in your car, so be prepared to munch. Of course there are rest stops and camps along the way, but if you happen to find yourself in the middle of a pride of lions basking in the afternoon sun, would you hurry to get to the next rest stop? We prefer nuts, dried fruit, chips and of course chocolates.
When the sun sets and everyone has to return to camp, there is only one thing left to do: light the fire, add some meat to the grill, and share your sightings with whomever is close enough to hear. Chops, steak, boerewors (South African sausage) and some side dishes makes up for all the “proper food” you missed while you were out tracking the elusive leopard or the reclusive rhinoceros. You could also splash for buffalo or some other unfamiliar steak at the camp supermarket if you’d prefer. Either way, you’ll fill your belly and go to sleep with the sounds of the South African night lulling you to sleep, and tomorrow you’ll start the day with some coffee and rusks . . .
WHERE TO STAY
Shingwedzi is located in the northern part of the park, and though it’s not as big or as new as some of the other camps, this is where you’ll truly get the simple South African Bushveld experience. In this part of the park, the elephant herds are numerous and large, and you won’t leave here without meeting your share of these behemoths.
The camp is a bit off the beaten path for most visitors, which means it’s quieter and less crowded, and the northern parts of the park is easily accessible from here.
Letaba is one of the oldest and largest camps in the Kruger National Park. Situated centrally on the banks of the LEtaba river, it boasts the Elephant Hall Museum, where you’ll not only learn a few things about elephants, but also have the opportunity to see the Magnificent Seven exhibition. This contains the skulls and tusks of seven giants of the South African Bushveld.
This is my second favourite camp. While this is much larger and busier than Shingwedzi, it redeems itself with spectacular views over the river (especially at sunset), with many open spaces to explore or just spend a few minutes by yourself, and with great facilities.
Outdoor movie nights, guided night walks for the kids, and exploring the perimeter of the camp in search of spotted hyenas also add to the experience.
Mopani is the newest rest camp in the Kruger National Park. Although we didn’t stay here, it’s a scenic camp which has been built in such a way as to blend into the surrounding natural features beautifully. Just 12km north of Mopani you’ll cross the Tropic of Capricorn, which means you’ll be exactly halfway between the South Pole and the Equator. Although visitors are not allowed to leave their vehicles in the park (except in the camps and at view points), a sign at the Tropic of Capricorn informs you that you won’t get fined if you choose to get out of the car here. We did just that, but because i was eager to get back to the car before a lion got to us, the photos are less than spectacular. Mopani also offers the only sleep-over bird hide in the Kruger National Park, which is extremely popular with outdoor enthusiasts.
Satara is a big and busy camp, and most people come here for only one reason: the big cats. The camp itself is not as scenic as Letaba or as rustic as Shingwedzi, but if you’re here to meet Simba, this is your safest choice.
The night air is heavy with the sounds of the lions roaring, and almost everyone who camps here have at least one lion sighting per day, if not more.
Located on the southern banks of the Sabie river, Skukuza is what you might call the capital of the Kruger National Park. It’s the largest camp in the park and also the main administrative centre. It sports a nine-hole golf course, indigenous nursery, the Stevenson-Hamilton Memorial Museum, an airport closeby, and conference facilities. Although this is a beautiful camp, it’s also the largest and busiest, and therefore not my top pick to stay.
WHEN TO VISIT
As the Kruger National Park is situated in the northeast of South Africa, temperatures are higher than in other parts of the country throughout the year. Summer brings with it the rainy season, which means the vegetation is thicker and animals are less visible. In this part of the country, contracting malaria is also a risk (although less so during the winter months). Therefore we’d usually choose to visit the park during the winter. That being said, winter is peak time in the park, so you might want to take that into consideration as well when you plan your visit.
WHERE TO BOOK
For those who want to visit the park, bookings are facilitated by SANParks. Camping and caravan sites, as well as accommodation in bungalows, luxury tents and chalets are available throughout the park. Day visitors are also welcome, and don’t need to make a booking. A Wild Card will reduce your park fees, whether you plan to visit for a day or stay in the park for several days.
Whatever you do and wherever you go in the Kruger National Park, be sure to unplug, relax and keep your camera charged.
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