A Self Drive Kruger Safari

Is a self drive Kruger Safari the right option for me? As the name implies, you will be driving yourself, but it also means you’ll be planning every aspect of the trip yourself as well. Booking your accommodation, renting a vehicle, figuring out meals, what extra expenses are involved, and so forth.

A self drive Kruger Safari

There are endless possibilities whilst on a Self Drive Kruger Safari

Renting a Vehicle for a self drive Kruger safari

As I am sure I am talking to probably 100% international guests right now, this will mean renting a vehicle. Again, the style of vehicle will be largely determined by your group size and priced accordingly.

  • Sedan or Hatchback – Fine for a couple or solo traveler.
  • SUV – Friends and small family.
  • Mini-bus – Larger friends and family groups.

PRO TIP

Pay for unlimited mileage! Remember, Kruger Park is close to the size of Wales. Whilst driving around feverishly searching for wildlife over an entire day, you can easily clock up your limit. You will then end up painstakingly watching the odometer as the mileage and account rises. Rather know what you are in for upfront and have the freedom to explore without any worries.

One last thing to consider when choosing your mode of transport for your self drive Kruger safari, is how good the vehicle will be for game viewing. Generally, any vehicle with a high suspension will help to increase your viewing pleasure. Being able to see over long grass (especially in Summer), bushes, down into river beds, and even over other cars is an advantage. Also consider some vehicles’ windows don’t open completely, which can be very frustrating, especially when trying to photograph. So in short, if it is in your budget as a solo or couple, an upgrade to a high suspension SUV can make a big difference to your experience.

Booking your accommodation

The main thing to consider here is do you want to stay inside the actual Kruger or prefer to stay at accommodation outside. Now, very rarely in these pages that follow will I instruct you not to do something. I’m here to give you all the information I have and the options available to you. However,

PRO TIP – You have traveled here (most certainly extreme distances) to experience the wilds of Africa, DO NOT go and book a BnB or hotel in town, please!  You didn’t travel all this way to look at some establishments’ manicured lawns and beautifully trimmed hedges. If you do stay outside, make sure to choose a lodge that either borders The Kruger Park and has a view into Kruger or that is on a small game reserve that has natural bush and wildlife.  

In my opinion, staying in the Kruger Park camps is the best choice. However, there are two reasons you may want to stay outside the Kruger Park and travel in to do your game viewing each day. That would be for catering purposes or if you prefer accommodation that is a little more luxurious.

With regards to meals, if you stay at a lodge, you can have all your meals included at their onsite restaurant, which will be convenient. If you book at a camp inside for your self drive Kruger safari, you will be in a self-catering bungalow or chalet, but this doesn’t necessarily mean you have to cook all your meals. If you stay at one of the larger camps, they have restaurants for you to dine at. They serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner, so you could eat all your meals there or have a combination and do some cooking yourself.

For ease of reference, the Main Camps in the Kruger Park with restaurant facilities are: (Listed from South to North)

  • Berg n Dal
  • Pretoriuskop
  • Skukuza
  • Lower Sabie
  • Satara
  • Olifants
  • Letaba
  • Mopani
  • Shingwedzi
  • Punda Maria

 

Trust me I have seen it a thousand times, guests arrive with the intention of eating at the restaurants for the entire time, but after the first night when they witness the nighttime camp ritual of braaing (BBQ’s). The next day there they are at the camp shop, buying wood, food supplies, and some juicy South African meat. All the above-mentioned camps have very well-stocked shops for your convenience. As well as these additional ones:

  • Crocodile Bridge
  • Orpen

 Pro Tip –

If you can, do your shopping outside at one of the larger supermarkets,

it will save you quite a bit. The park shops are there for convenience, not to save their customers money.

So if you have just flown in to start your self drive Kruger safari, shop on your way to the Park. Think about buying a small cooler box, just to keep the essentials cold until you reach your camp for the night, and then you can pop everything into the fridge at your bungalow. You don’t need anything fancy, a basic one (like this) will cost a couple hundred Rand and will do the job, along with a bag of ice. Also, it then comes in handy later whilst driving around looking for wildlife, to keep your drinks cold.

PRO TIP –

Although it pains me to write this, I’d be wrong not to mention that unfortunately SA does have a crime problem, and as I am encouraging you to shop on your way to the Kruger Park, you will most likely be loaded up with valuables. So there would be a risk of becoming a target to an opportunist thief, who identifies you as a tourist and the logical conclusion that breaking into your vehicle would reap some reward. So, if possible, park in a paid parking area of a mall or such. Although not full proof, there is much less chance of criminals hanging out here due to CCTV and security guards.

Secondly, if somebody doesn’t need to be shopping, they could stay with the vehicle. If neither of those is possible, then we have a very unique career here in South Africa, that of a car guard! Once a very informal practice it is now regulated and basically every parking area will have a number of these people watching over the lot.

They will be identifiable by the wearing of a reflective vest and will be milling about, helping people unpack their groceries, collecting trolleys and even directing traffic, all in the hope of a small tip from the public for their services. So locate one of these individuals, generally, they’ll make their presence felt on arrival and ask them to keep an eye out and when you return give them a gratuity, R5 -10 would suffice. Obviously, to the best of your ability, ensure all valuables are out of sight and try not ‘announce’ your presence to the world.     

So which is a better idea, staying inside or outside The Kruger Park?

Let me just give the main differences here for you to consider. Outside, for the same price, you’ll likely be able to find some nice accommodation which is fairly modern, well decorated and with great amenities. Kruger Park, is fairly basic for the most part and the comment you will often see on the forums is, ‘dated’.

For me, I always find they are very clean, the beds are comfy and they have everything you need. After all, you are really only there to sleep and the rest of the time you are outdoors. Even when you are back at camp over the heat of the day, you pull up a chair on your balcony, crack a beer whilst you read, plot your next game drive route or check your photos. It’s worth being outside as there are also lots of little creatures and birds to view around camp as well.

Second, is the time to actually start your game drive. Remembering here, that the best times to view animals and especially your nocturnal predators, is at sunrise and sunset. If you are staying outside, this will mean a drive to one of the main gates to start your self drive Kruger safari, each day. This will vary, anything from 2 minutes to an hour or more, so do your research and choose carefully. Then of course, you have to pay to get in, even if you have a WildCard  (one fee for a years worth of entry, and they do have international memberships), you would still need to book in. The paying here is not the concern though, whether you enter from the outside each day or are already staying in the Kruger Park, you will pay a daily conservation fee (or entrance fee). See Kruger Park Fees here ,

At the time of writing June 2023, the Kruger Park fees are:

South African Citizens and Residents (with ID) R115 per adult, per day
R57 per child, per day
SADC Nationals (with passport) R230 per adult, per day
R115 per child, per day
Standard Conservation Fee (International Visitors) R460 per adult, per day
R230 per child, per day

** Rates increase every October**

The concern is the time it takes to book yourself in. At best, out of season, you can be first in line and it takes a couple of minutes. At worst, in season, I’ve heard of people waiting for over an hour!

Pro tip –

If you are staying outside and intend on entering the Kruger multiple times. On the first day when they hand you your entry form to fill in, ask for as many as you’ll need for the remainder of your trip. This way each day you can fill in all your information beforehand. I’ve made up a few places in the queue many times whilst people are scrambling in their vehicles looking for a pen and something to press on (so have that ready on the 1st day as well).

Last thing on this point, if you are staying at a camp inside, you will still need to wait for gate opening times. However, once they do open, there is no hold up and you are free to drive out into the wilderness and start exploring immediately. Also consider, that in November, December and January I.E. Summer, when the sun rises especially early. The camp gates open a full hour earlier than the main entry gates, 4:30am Vs 5:30am. That means people staying in the Park will get an extra hour of game viewing time, during the season (hot) that you need it the most.  

Game Drives.

Kruger allows visitors to self-drive themselves around the park. You will definitely need a map, which can be purchased at the main gates, as well as at the shops within the park (+- R100). These are also conveniently printed in a variety of the most common foreign languages. The entire reserve is also very well signposted. At every juncture and crossroad, there will be a stone pillar with at least one sign (for each direction). Indicating which camp, waterhole, viewpoint or picnic site is in that direction. As well as the distance, in kilometers, to said destination (1.6km to 1 mile).   

Map for a self drive Kruger Safari

A Kruger Map is essential to enhance your experience

    

Gate times

Even so, if you are unfamiliar with the park, it is best to plot your self drive Kruger safari route beforehand. This will give you an idea of how long the game drive is going to take you and help ensure you don’t take a wrong turn and prevent you from backtracking on yourself. Remember, the main and camp gates close at a stipulated time. Make note of these when you arrive and also be aware it may change during your stay, as they also alter from month to month. Being late for the gate can carry a fine, and in extreme cases and for serial offenders can mean eviction from the park!

Kruger Park Gate Times: 

Gate Times Jan Feb Mar

Apr

May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
Entrance Gates Open

05:30

05:30 5:30

06:00

06:00

06:00 06:00 06:00 06:00 05:30 05:30 05:30
Camp Gates Open

04:30

05:30 05:30

06:00

06:00

06:00 06:00 06:00 06:00 05:30 04:30 04:30
All Gates Close

18:30

18:30 18:00

18:00

17:30

17:30 17:30 18:00 18:00 18:00 18:30 18:30

Speed limit

The same goes for speeding. The speed limit in the Kruger Park is 50km/h and 40km/h, on tar and dirt roads respectively. Fines will be issued for speeding, there are both camera traps and physical traffic police monitoring for speedsters. Besides, it is just not a good idea. Any animal at any time could step into the road, making it extremely dangerous for both you and the animals. So even if you are late for the gate, it is not in your best interest to speed, especially as the light begins to fade.

Full of possibilities on a self drive Kruger safari

There are many tar and dirt roads to choose from on a self drive Kruger Safari

Driving

Which brings me to the actual game viewing or should I say game searching. I like a 30km/h game viewing speed, I will reduce this when an area is of particular interest or even increase it through some areas that are either wide open or seemingly dry and unpopulated. This speed allows me to scan the bush effectively and still keep my eyes safely on the road, as well as covering a fair amount of ground which is another effective game viewing strategy. Again, Kruger is a massive area, so covering more territory (in most cases) leads to more sightings. Of course, I am really experienced in this regard. So if you feel you are battling to search the bush and drive, then just go with what’s comfortable. There is no right or wrong answer here. It is the wild after all, anything can happen at any time!

Pro Tip –

As mentioned, I am, along with most professional guides very experienced and over the years we develop a very keen eye. The comment we almost always get, is how incredible we are at spotting animals. With our guests acknowledging how much more they see because of their guide.

So here’s the tip, it is what I always tell my guests when they ask how I do it. You need to look for what doesn’t belong, so to speak. Remember, trees, grass, bushes and rocks are all haphazard both in shape and arrangement. Animals, like humans on the other hand are symmetrical. So look at the bush as you move, soften your eyes and scan up, down, side to side (look between the ‘bush’ not at it). Then look for what doesn’t belong and has symmetry. Combine this with movement, the flick of a tail or ear and it will all begin to ‘jump’ out at you!

Tip number two

Don’t get sucked into watching the road for stopped cars ahead, and then assuming they have seen something. It becomes very tempting, especially when you round the bend and see a bunch of cars. Which would usually indicate something out of the ordinary has been spotted. What then tends to happen is that for the next 200-400m your eyes are fixated ahead, and you can potentially drive right past something good. Only to arrive at the scene, the animal is gone or stationary anyway or it was a rock!

Guided game drives

This is where the pros and cons of a self-drive versus a guided experience really come to the fore. Everything up until this point has had its advantages and disadvantages. However, having a guide to help you explore the wilderness can be invaluable. The main benefits being: game spotting, identifying and interpretation of the animals. If you are driving yourself, you must seriously consider buying a wildlife field guide of sorts. The map book you purchased can do the trick as it contains a checklist with some animal and bird illustrations. This is limited however and contains little info on the wildlife. 

Self drive Kruger safari animal identification illustrations

Basic Illustrations are included in your map book for identification purposes

Luckily you can do a mixture, as you can choose to do your game drives with a guide right from the Kruger camps or get one of the many private companies from the outside. The Kruger drives are quite specific, and only last between 2 and 4 hours depending on the time of day. The private companies have many more options and a half to a full day can be booked. If you are staying outside the Kruger Park, it is obviously easier to book with a private company and vice versa. Kruger does operate their open vehicle drives from these main gates: 

  • Crocodile Bridge – (013) 735 6012
  • Malelane -(013) 735 6152
  • Phabeni – (013) 735 5890
  • Paul Kruger – (013) 735 5107
  • Numbi – (013) 735 5133
  • Phalaborwa – (013) 735 3547

** Note here: I called all the different gates and got varying information. For instance, Phalaborwa said, they only do night and morning drives, not sunset. Why, I have no idea. So, I would say during your planning stage, call the gate you intend to use and see what you can book (I listed the telephone numbers above), night, sunset, morning drive and/ or bush walks. **  

The price for the different drives are:

  • Sunrise game drive R380
  • Sunset game drive R380
  • Night game drive R290 

** Another note, these are the standard rates from the main camps as of June 2023. It seems it does vary when you are taking a drive from an obscure starting point. **

These game drives are all shared with other guests. So too are the private company drives, which range between R600 for a few hours, up to R1200 for a full day. However, there is the option to book a private vehicle for yourself. Which can be quite pricey for a couple but very much worth it if your group is 4 or more. 

Pros & Cons of a Self Drive Kruger Safari vs Guided

As mentioned, I’d recommend doing a mixture of guided and self drive game viewing. The pros of a guided drive are:

  • Not having to worry about navigation and gate times.
  • An expert eye to spot the animals, but also to easily identify what you are looking at. As well as interpreting what the animal is doing and overall behaviour.
  • Further to that, understanding the animal’s behaviour to avoid dangerous situations. I. E. at elephant sightings, but also to increase the quality of your photographic opportunities.

 

Cons (of a shared guided drive):

  • Your guides’ attention will be divided between all the people on the drive.
  • The obvious, you run the risk of that ‘annoying tourist’ ruining your experience. And remember the saying; ‘If there isn’t one on your drive, it may be you’, hehehe!
  • Freedom to go where you want, view what you want and for the amount of time that suits you.
  • If you are a family, and I’ve genuinely seen this, the worry that your kids are annoying the other passengers. This can lead to anxiety, hushing your kids and overall preventing them from getting the most out of the experience.

 

Then, these guided drives will be conducted in an open safari vehicle, which comes with its own pros and cons. The benefits being the vehicles are higher for (generally) increased visibility. The lack of windows allows for a less obstructed 360 degree view of the bushveld and space to move about to position yourself better for viewing (obviously can be restricted when on a full, shared drive). When conditions are right, it is quite amazing to have the fresh, bush air in your face. The smell of the wilderness is clean and plentiful, and truly unique.

Cons (of an open vehicle guided drive):

However, this brings us to the cons. They are completely exposed to the elements, which in Africa, can be quite harsh. Cold, rain, wind, dust, heat and others you may not think of such as flying bugs (keep your mouth closed in summer). So if you have kids, it is probably not ideal to be doing long periods in them. Also, another consideration is for the elderly, they are not easy to get in and out of, especially if accessing directly from the ground. So again a couple drives here and there on a safari vehicle, but not ideal to be constantly in and out for 4 days.   

This again is one of the reasons I suggest a mixture of drives. If you are able, wait until you are at the park and book your drive once you have checked the weather report. Even then though, it is definitely worth doing and short drives of a couple of hours give you the experience. Then when the elements become a bit much, you can retreat back to the comfort of your rental car or guided closed vehicle.

Conclusion for a Self Drive Kruger Safari:

Doing a Self drive Kruger Safari most certainly has its benefits. It gives you freedom and flexibility, and a well planned trip can bring your budget down efficiently. However, remember I mentioned ‘costs’ are not always monetary. The ratio of time vs money is directly proportional to the value you get out of the safari. If you have very little time, you may save money doing a self drive Kruger Safari, but you going to lose a lot of value. If you have sufficient time (say a week or more), then fine, you can take that wrong turn or make that incorrect decision. Then still make it up along the way. If you only have 3 or 4 days, seriously consider a guided experience so as to maximize every minute of the safari experience and ensure full value for your ‘buck’.

So, I’d say, self-drive would best suit young traveling families and couples. Those looking to save money and have time on their hands. Then next, a solo traveler with both of the above, as well as looking for some solitude.

 

Next, let’s explore Group guided safaris.  

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