An African safari is one of those experiences that’s on most traveler’s wish list, and I fully expected that someday Lucas and I would plan this adventure. However, it hasn’t been especially high on my list of destination priorities, because I feel like this is the time in our lives for budget travel.
When I think of safaris (and whenever I hear about them for that matter), they involve expensive safari lodges or fancy safari tents and small jeep tours into the African wilderness. Since I can rarely justify spending so much on a single vacation, the concept has never held that much appeal. The idea of visiting Africa and seeing the animals in the wild is certainly attractive, but it would mean spending a bundle to book a safari package, right? After all, you need a place to stay and eat out in the African wilderness. And you can’t just go driving around looking for elephants, right? You need a jeep with a safari guide to take you to the right places and drive you out over the untamed African wilds!
I had no idea how wrong I was.
We headed off to our first safari in South Africa back in April, invited along by some friends in Oslo who’ve traveled to the area before. Although we split the cost of the trip four ways, doing a similar trip for just the two of us would have cost under $600 for a 3-day safari (including food, car, accommodations, park fees, etc, but excluding airfare to South Africa of course)!
Thanks to the infrastructure at Kruger National Park, there actually are budget safari options that mesh with our independent travel style. Park visitors can simply drive around the park in their own cars between sunrise and sunset, and there are a number of rest camps inside the park providing food and accommodations. There’s no need for a swanky lodge; no need for a jeep and a safari guide; no need to spend a small fortune!
We flew into Johannesburg, where we rented a car at the airport and then spent the night in a guesthouse nearby (since our flight arrived quite late in the evening). The next day we set out driving east toward Kruger. Our first destination was the Blyde River Canyon in Mpumalanga province. We had originally planned to drive part of the scenic Panorama Route, but we arrived late in the day, and after a late lunch of pancakes in Graskop, we didn’t have much time to enjoy the views before it got dark. We did make it to God’s Window, and Lucas convinced the guard to let us in for a quick look at the Bourke’s Luck Potholes, even though it was past the park’s closing time.
Both places were well worth visiting, and I think it would have been a good place to spend a night or two en route to/from Kruger. Our GPS directions took us back through the area when we left the park (giving us a second chance to stop for pancakes in Graskop), and we were all struck by the scenery along the drive (the weather was much clearer on the return trip).
Since Kruger’s park admission is a little expensive (around $20/person per day) and the best game viewing is in the early morning and late afternoon, most people recommend spending a night on the edge of the park so that you can enter the gates when they open (around 6:00 am depending on the season). We stayed in a cottage at the very pleasant Komati River Chalets, where we had a kitchen and a braai (barbecue) to self-cater our dinner and breakfast. We weren’t sure what kind of groceries we would be able to get inside the park, so we visited the local supermarket the night before to stock our cooler with meat for grilling and materials for sandwich lunches.
Our original plan had been to enter the park through the Crocodile River Gate, but the gate was closed due to flooding, forcing us to drive 45 km back to the Malelane Gate. We left early and got to the park just before the 6:00 opening.
I honestly didn’t know what to expect driving a little Volkswagen Polo around a safari park in South Africa. How would we know where the best spots were to look for wildlife? How much would we really be able to see from the car? Would the car even make it over the park roads?
It turns out that we saw an amazing amount of wildlife, even from the car’s low vantage point. A lot of animals were right alongside (or in) the road. As for the roads themselves, even the dirt roads were very well maintained, so driving was quite easy even in the little Polo. Although you are more likely to see certain types of animals in different areas of the park, based on their climate and landscape, figuring out where to look isn’t all that difficult. The easiest method is simply to look for a big crowd of vehicles stopped along the road and ask someone what they’re all looking at! Even with no one else around, a lot of the wildlife isn’t that hard to spot.
We had read and heard quite a lot about the park’s Find It guide that allegedly contains great information for where to spot the different wildlife, but we never actually saw a copy of it at any of the park’s shops. Instead, I picked up a copy of Andy & Lorrain Tinker’s Kruger Park Guide & Map (The Tinkers are responsible for most of the photos seen on the park’s postcards). Along with maps, a brief wildlife guide, and a spotting checklist, the booklet contained a list of the Tinkers’ favorite drives for wildlife spotting and photography. It gave us some great ideas for some of the best routes to travel between camps, and we got a lot of use out of it over the next few days.
During our three-day stay, we got to see all of “The Big 5” (lions, elephants, buffalo, leopard, rhinoceros) along with plenty of zebras, giraffes, antelope, etc. Unbelievably, we were even lucky enough to see a pack of wild dogs and a pride of lions with a large kill.
A lot of people have asked if we were worried about being so close to such large predators in our little rental car, but the park has strict rules about staying inside the car except in specific designated areas. For the most part, the animals are completely indifferent to the vehicles and don’t really pay them any mind. Of course, a bit of common sense is called for, but as long as you follow the rules, the risks are relatively minimal (to both you and the wildlife).
Since one of the rules is that overnight visitors must be inside the rest camps from sunset to sunrise, the larger rest camps offer sunrise, sunset, and night drives to allow wildlife viewing outside the daylight hours. We opted for a sunrise drive, which began before dawn, and while we didn’t see much in the dark (even with the spotting lights), the sunrise itself was beautiful. In retrospect, I might have opted for the sunset drive, since we seemed to find some of the most exciting wildlife in the half hour before the gate closing!
We spent our two nights in the park at Satara Rest Camp, where we opted to tent camp. On our first night, the camp was fully booked (because of the South African school holiday), but we had reserved a campsite early in our planning. Arriving just a few minutes before gate closing, we had a bit of trouble finding a campsite, since the spots aren’t really marked, and there is no way to reserve a specific location. For dinner, we used one of the campground’s braais to grill the meat we had packed. Satara had a small grocery section in the store, which would have been good to know in advance, since there was no refrigerator. Instead, we had to keep all of our meat and perishables in our cooler (in the air-conditioned car during the day), and each night we bought a new bag of ice. Our campsite was right across the road from one of the camp’s “kitchens” which was equipped with sinks and a small electric stove top. Mostly the kitchen served as a communal charging station, and the many outlets were all filled with digital camera chargers and laptops. The campground was also equipped with a bath house, so we had running water, showers, etc.
Had we chosen not to pack our tents, the rest camp also contained a number of cabins of varying levels of amenities. We did opt to eat in the restaurant once, and I was quite surprised by the quality of the food. It was a little expensive, but the menu had a good variety and some very tasty dishes.
For safety and peace of mind, the entire rest camp is surrounded by a high electric fence. This was understandably comforting when I woke for our sunrise drive to a lion roaring outside the camp!
Overall we had a great time, and based on our sunrise drive, I think we had a lot more fun going it alone than we would have had being shuttled around on a safari truck all day.
The rest of our photos from Kruger are posted here. (For reference, all of them were taken with a basic 3x zoom point-and-shoot Canon Powershot. It would have been nice to have a fancy telephoto lens, but so many of the animals were close enough that it wasn’t a necessity.)