Self-Drive Safari in Kruger National Park

While deciding on where to go during our 14 month trip around the world, we set our sights firmly on South Africa. Its reputed beauty, delicious food and wine, scenic coastlines, world-class hiking, and of course the chance to safari in Kruger National Park inspired us immensely. Having thoroughly enjoyed our road trip along South Africa’s stunning Garden Route, we were keen to start a South Africa self-drive safari from Johannesburg to the legendary Kruger National Park.

Kruger National Park Rental Car and Lions
Typical “traffic jam” on a Self Drive Safari in Kruger National Park

Kruger National Park is an amazing destination in South Africa. It is one of the largest parks in the entire continent of Africa. It spans over 360km from the North to South and 65km from East to West, covering a total of 19,485 square kilometers. It is home to over 150 mammal species, including iconic African charismatic megafauna such as elephants, lions, leopards, and rhinos among many others.  It also boasts over 500 different types of birds and 100 reptile species. There are beautiful scenic overlooks to stop at, riverside restaurant patios to enjoy a cold drink on during a hot afternoon, and endless tracts of road to drive looking for animals. In short, it’s a veritable paradise for nature lovers.

Still, when we landed in South Africa we weren’t sure we would be able to swing a trip to Kruger National Park while keeping to our RTW budget. Whenever we did internet research for a Kruger safari, the least inexpensive quotes would still be thousands of dollars for just a week in the park. I saw a quote for a “budget camping safari” for only 3 days in the park that was over $600usd per person, not including meals and only featured one full day in the park. A safari in Kruger without blowing our budget that let’s face it, we had already torpedoed with our cruise to Antarctica, was starting to seem wildly out of reach.

But after talking to our local friends, including one whose father wrote a guide book on the park (it’s in Afrikaans so we weren’t able to use it), we were reassured that we could easily arrange a budget-minded, self-driving safari. Over a delicious braai, we brainstormed the perfect camping itinerary with our friends in Cape Town and by the end of the evening had firmed up our plan for a self-driving safari in Kruger National Park while staying on budget.

What Kind of Car do you Need for Kruger National Park?

While some safari parks in the world, such as Maasai Mara in Kenya, the Serengeti in Tanzania, or Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda require a sturdy 4X4 off-road vehicle, Kruger can be seen from behind the wheel of a small car as many of its roads are paved asphalt.

Lion eating in front of a safari jeep
Your typical safari vehicle is not required in Kruger National Park!

Having gone on safari in Kenya and Uganda, where our driver/guide took us down tracts that were little more than two depressions in the dirt in either a massive van or SUV, we found the prospect of driving ourselves on asphalt roads in an economy rental car rather intriguing. It is also seemed like the most economical way to experience the park.

If you search for a self-driving safari in Kruger you may get results for wildly expensive gas-guzzling SUVs or fully-decked out enormous campervans that will set you back thousands of dollars for a two-week rental. Nevermind that this doesn’t include daily park access fees or campsite fees.

The reality is, there are over 3,000km of public roads in Kruger and some of them are tar/asphalt, while others are sand or gravel, but in both cases they are suitable for small car driving. For example, we drove over 1,000kms in the park on all kinds of roads and just once came across a road that said it was only suitable for a big 4X4 vehicle. While renting the classic massive safari vehicle has some perks, such as higher clearance for dirt roads, and offering a better vantage point to see the animals in certain occasions, we didn’t think it was worth the extra expense.

Instead, we rented a small economy sedan and camped in a tent which was a great way to see the park without breaking the bank.

While we’d do it again in a heartbeat, renting a car in South Africa can be tricky and we had major issues with the rental agency we used for this trip.  If you’re going we seriously recommend that you read our post on renting a car in South Africa before choosing your car rental!

Vehicles lined up for safaris in Kruger National PArk
Our car looks pretty small next to this massive SUV!

When is the Best Time to Visit Kruger National Park?

The park can be visited year round but it has two distinct seasons: the dry season and the “green” season. Most people visit the park during the drier winter months of May to October when the grass is low and sparse which makes spotting animals easier.

Within this season, the best weather is considered to be between the very dry months of mid-June to August, when there are few bugs, warm days and cool nights, and very little rain. The period for the very best game viewing is considered to be during the hot, humid months of September and October when animals consistently congregate around water holes to beat the day’s heat.

The second season or green season begins as the rains arrive in November, peaks during the months of January and February, and tapers off by the end of April. While it is the buggier season and the tall green grass can hamper wildlife viewing, it is the best season for seeing the park’s diverse birdlife who will be all spiffed up in their breeding plumage, and perhaps best of all, it is the baby animal season! If you’re lucky you will see lion cubs, hyena pups, and impossibly cute baby elephants.

High Water while Driving in Kruger
The water level was very high after several days of rain in February!

We went in mid-February and while there were definitely times that we felt like the tall grass was hiding some animals, we had some absolutely incredible wildlife viewing experiences.

To put it all in context, within our first couple hours of entering the park on the first day of our 8-day safari we had seen 4 of the big 5!  This included a leopard, sighting, a lucky arrival at water hole during elephant bath time where they splashed around and trumpeted happily in the mud, and we had identified dozens of new bird species for the life list. If that is Kruger on a “bad” day, I can’t imagine how good it would be during the months that are considered the best for wildlife viewing!

Leopard in Kruger National Park
A Leopard sighting on our first day!

Getting to Kruger from Johannesburg

If you are coming from abroad you will most likely fly into Johannesburg first before continuing onto Kruger National Park.

We didn’t spend too much time in Johannesburg but we did make sure to see the Apartheid Museum which is absolutely a must-see when visiting South Africa. Its moving and thought-provoking exhibits tell the story of how South Africa became a society that was deeply segregated along racial lines until some brave individuals, including none other than the legendary freedom fighter Nelson Mandela himself, rose up and fought back against oppression.  It is very well done and no visit to South Africa would be complete without understanding its history.

For our few days in Johannesburg, we stayed at Rosegarden Guesthouse, which was an affordable and comfortable place in a residential neighbourhood run by a wonderfully hospitable local woman.  We would stay there again in a heartbeat!

To get to Kruger from Johannesburg you have two options:

1) Flying to Kruger National Park

After landing in O.R. Tambo International Airport, the most popular way to get to Kruger is to take a quick flight to Nelspruit and pick up a car to rent there, but you can also fly into Hoedspruit or Phalaborwa. You can fly to Nelspruit from Cape Town as well.

We drove through Nelspruit and it has plenty of services to stock up for your road trip if you’re picking up your car there.

Cape Buffalo in Kruger National Park
The Cape Buffalo, probably the least exciting of the Big Five, but he does look really good in the morning light!

2) Driving from Johannesburg to Kruger National Park

In perfect driving conditions, it should take about 5-6 hours to drive from Johannesburg to Kruger.  It is perfectly safe to drive from Johannesburg to Kruger although you should watch out for construction, toll booths, speed traps, and potholes that could seemingly swallow your car whole.  The larger freeways seem to be well maintained but the more rural roads require closer attention.

The most direct route to Kruger from Johannesburg is to drive along the N12 to the N4 which will take you through Nelspruit.  From there you can easily access the Malelane Gate or Crocodile Bridge but there are many different options for reaching the park.

This downloadable map provides some great information about driving routes to Kruger from Johannesburg and we referred to it regularly while planning our itinerary.

Don’t Skip the Panorama Route!

While you can b-line it from Jo’burg to Kruger, we think that if you have the time, you should consider taking a side trip through the incredibly picturesque Panorama Route. We turned off the N4 while driving to Kruger toward a peaceful small town called Graskop where we spent 2 nights at an awesome AirBnB. This allowed us to spend a full day touring around the Panorama Route, the highlight of which is the Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve.

Blyde River Canyon
Blyde River Canyon, the highlight of South Africa’s Panorama Route

Following our day of driving and hiking along the Panorama Route we went to cool off in the Mac-Mac Pools near Graskop. These are not to be missed!

Mac Mac Pools
Mac Mac Pools, a great swimming hole and only a short detour on the way to Kruger

Self-Drive Kruger National Park Itinerary

As we mentioned earlier, we were very fortunate to have some local friends who visit the park very regularly (seriously, many South Africans take a yearly trip to Kruger and we are sooooo jealous) to give us their advice about the best campgrounds and driving routes.

While there was some debate amongst them over which campsites were the absolute best, they all agreed that the southern to the middle of the park was the best area for wildlife viewing. The northern part of the park is said to be best for viewing birdlife, but they suspected that is because you won’t see much else there whereas in the south, you can see both wildlife and birds. So with that in mind, we planned a trip that would allow us to spend as much time as possible in the southern and middle parts of the park that have the most game.

After our side trip to the Panorama Route where we stayed in the quaint town of Graskop, we drove toward Hazyview (watch out for the potholes!) and entered the park through the Phabeni gate.  Our itinerary was as follows:

Two Nights at Lower Sabie 

We made it!  After entering the park we drove from Phabeni gate to Skukuza for lunch, stopping regularly for wildlife viewing.  Then we drove the H4-1 road to Lower Sabie which follows the Sabie River and is famous for leopard sightings.  Lower Sabie is a very popular camp with scenic views and lush trees.  It’s well situated in the park and often books up early, but during February there were plenty of campsites available.

We spent the next couple days looping down to Crocodile Bridge and alternating between driving the S28 and H4-2 roads.  Again, we spotted most of the big five over these days, as well as our best sighting of the endangered African Wild Dog.  Our only Rhino spotting of the trip was in this portion of the park but unfortunately, it crossed the road so quickly we didn’t have time to snap a photo.  For a big creature they sure can move fast and hide well in the tall grass!

The endangered African Wild Dog in Kruger National Park
The endangered African Wild Dog

 Two Nights at Satara Rest Camp

From Lower Sabie we headed north to Satara Rest Camp.  The area around Satara, especially the S100 road is famous for cat sightings.  While we had seen a few around Lower Sabie most of them were hidden in the grass so we were hoping for some clearer sightings.

Unfortunately for us, it rained a lot during our time at Satara and the S100 was closed.  We did get a chance to drive it once but didn’t get any more cat sightings to report.  Again, as we were in the green season the growth around the river was very thick and we likely couldn’t see most of the wildlife.    We had a close call with a big jam for a leopard and it’s cub but unfortunately, we arrived about a minute too late!

Giraffes on the Road in Kruger
We missed the Leopard taking photos of these guys. Sometimes safaris are just about luck!

Two Nights at Letaba

Moving on from Lower Sabie we drove the H1-6 tar road to Letaba and had one of our best lion sightings of the entire trip.  We spent at least an hour watching a pride of lions laze around on the road (just like big kitties!), and when we finally decided to move on we spotted another group of lions!

Lion Sleeping on the Road
Just like a big kitty!

After finally pulling ourselves away from the lions we detoured into Olifants camp for a coffee and snack and moved on to Letaba.  Olifants is another popular camp in Kruger and you could easily stay here instead of Letaba.

Two Nights at Letaba

Once we reached Letaba the rain returned and as a result, most of the gravel roads were closed, as well as the Matambeni Bird Hide and Engelhard Lookout.  Next time I guess.  Letaba was nice but we didn’t seem to be very lucky on our game drives.

Hippo on the banks of the Letaba River
Letaba camp overlooks the Letaba river and wildlife can often be spotted on the banks.

From Letaba, we changed our plans and took a long morning drive back to the Orpen Gate.  We spotted a lioness and her cub along the Timbavati Road before reaching Orpen, and this Hornbill didn’t seem to want us to leave the park and end our safari.  We didn’t want to either.

Hornbill checking out our rental car in Kruger
Hornbill checking out our rental car in Kruger

Kruger National Park Safety

Despite how many apex predators call Kruger National Park home, it is one of the safest places in all of South Africa. The animals are cordoned off from the camping areas by a tall, electrified fence and crime against tourists is low. Crime against animals, on the other hand, is a devastatingly common problem (caution: graphic image in link).  If you see *any* suspicious behaviour that looks like it could be poaching, report it to the SAN Parks authorities immediately.

A self-driving safari in Kruger National Park is a perfectly safe way to visit the amazing park so long as you follow the SAN Park Rules and some very basic precautions, such as:

Obey the speed limit

Traffic accidents can and do occur in Kruger, either between visitors or when a car strikes an animal.  Speed limits are 50kph (30mph) on paved roads, and 40kph (25mph) on gravel roads.  You will likely want to drive slower than that so that you can spot the wildlife!

Don’t get out of car

There are clearly designated spots where you can get out of your car, otherwise it’s not a great idea to alight from your vehicle, since ferocious man-eating beasts abound.  Try to keep your hands and arms inside the vehicle while taking photographs too. We saw a cackle of hyenas investigating a woman’s car to the point of touching it with their noses, but she didn’t realize that the animals were so close and started to roll her window down.

A hyena’s jaws can literally crush bones like candy.  There have been other incidents where lions and leopards have tried to drag people from their vehicles. Remember, these are dangerous animals so keep your car doors closed and windows rolled up if the animals approach your car.

Hyena sniffing a car
Keep your hands in the car, these guys bite hard!

Keep respectful distance from wildlife

By law, the animals rule the road in Kruger, so give them plenty of distance. The worst things we saw were many close calls between tortoises and giant African land snails and cars. Other tourists haven’t been so lucky and have had their cars flipped over by angry elephants. I can’t imagine how expensive their repair bill was! Oh, and like in many other parts of the world, animal/human conflicts often result in the animal being put down. In this case, the elephant was killed so don’t let that be your legacy in Kruger National Park.

Elephant in Kruger
Don’t get too close to elephants as they may charge.

Don’t sleep outside of your tent

While it might be tempting to sleep out under gorgeous South African stars, leopards in particular are able to sneak past the electric fences and have attacked people inside the camps. For the most part, they won’t go inside your tent to seek you out.

Watch out for malaria at Kruger National Park

We heard conflicting reports on how much of a problem malaria was in Kruger so we erred on the side of caution and took anti-malarials. The SAN Parks website indicates that there has been an increase in Malaria diagnoses since 2017.

We saw all kinds of bugs when we were at Kruger but not a lot of mosquitos but regardless, it’s better to be safe than sorry.  We strongly recommend taking malaria medication.  You can also buy night-time mosquito repellent that lasts 8 hours at most stores in South Africa.

Carry a flashlight or headlamp when walking around at night

Spiders, scorpions, and snakes all live inside the camp and a bite from any one of them could end your safari early. Bring a torch to keep an eye out for them at night.

A juvenile Verreaux Eagle Owl, the largest owl in South Africa
A juvenile Verreaux Eagle Owl, the largest owl in South Africa

Kruger National Park Safari Tips

A self-driving safari is an excellent place to practice responsible tourism and see all the very best that this beautiful part of the world has to offer. The following tips will help to make the most of your time in the park:

Get on the “Safari Schedule”

This is probably the most important tip! The “Safari Schedule” is a very early, sunrise start, followed by a leisurely lunch and afternoon snooze, then a second game drive starting later in the afternoon between around 3:30-4:30pm. The animals will be most active right at dusk and dawn, so aim to be one of the first people outside the gate. Depending on what time of the year you are visiting the park, the gates usually open between 5:30am and 6:00am.

We happened upon a pride of lions just past 5:30am and had them all to ourselves for almost an hour. By 7:00am they were moving off the road to get away from the cars that had started to jam up. Being there early awarded us the best views of them. The second-best time to see animals is around dusk, but be mindful of the fact that the gates close at around 6pm (depending on season) and that late arrivals must pay a fee.

Lion on Satara and Olifants Sign
We were the first car on the scene for this incredible sight!

Check sightings boards

Camps and gates will have often have sightings boards set up so you can see where other people have seen the big 5, as well as other interesting animals such as the endangered Wild African dogs. DO NOT report rhino sightings as they are under an extreme risk of being poached. We only saw 3 rhinos during our 8 days in the park and both times it was just  a quick glance with no chance of getting a good picture.

Rhinos are killed for their keratin-filled horns because stupid people believe that eating rhino horn will make them better lovers, when the reality is they could just chew their own goddamn fingernails and have the same impact. People please, don’t f*ck anyone who has eaten rhino horn. Wild rhinos are seriously at risk of disappearing from the planet completely because of this ridiculous practice. Again, if you see anything that even remotely looks like poaching, report it to SAN Parks employees immediately.

The endangered Black Rhino
The endangered Black Rhino in Kenya

Be Careful When Sharing Photos on Social Media

That amazing, once in a lifetime photo that you took of a rhino that got you hundreds of likes on Instagram could lead a poacher straight to the animal. If you do share the photos that you took responsibly (and to be clear, we think you should), leave the exact location out of the description, crop out any identifying landscape features, and be sure that the picture isn’t geo-tagged.

Buy a Guide Book

If you don’t buy one in advance you can pick one up at any of the rest camp shops.  Guide books detail the various species of wildlife that you can see (and you’ll see a LOT) as well as many of the popular driving routes so that you can plan your morning and afternoon drives.

Bring snacks

Distances between camps can be quite far and your best bet of seeing animals is to drive as far and as much as possible. Bring along some snacks so you’re not left hungry with a 2 hour drive to the nearest camp. This is a good chance to try South African Biltong!

Bring a reusable water bottle

Tap water in Kruger National Park is filtered and safe to drink. We never had an issue drinking the tap  water in the park and saved dozens of crappy plastic water bottles from accumulating on the planet for the next 450 years.  You also might appreciate bringing something like a Hydroflask to keep cool drinks cool and hot drinks hot for long drives.

Jackal on our last safari day in Kruger
A Jackal on our last safari day

Consider bringing a spare bottle for….emergencies

Speaking of long drives….what happens if you have “to go”?  You aren’t allowed to get out of your car except at designated sites (picnic sites and restaurants all have bathrooms) but other than that there’s not a lot of places where you can safely get out of your car to go. It’s kinda gross but it might be a good idea to bring a spare bottle or ziploc bag for you know, relieving yourself safely inside the car. Many people swear by a wide-mouth collapsible Nalgene as their go-to emergency bottle. Just be sure to label it so it doesn’t get mistaken for one you can drink out of…

Download music and podcasts ahead of time

You won’t have reliable cell-service throughout the park so download some offline music and podcasts ahead of time. We loved listening to the Stuff You Should Know Network’s podcasts on elephants, lions, charismatic megafauna etc while cruising around!

Go on a night safari or sunset drive

Many creatures are more active at night. You can go on a guided safari with a SAN Parks guide for about 250-300 rand per person.  Sunset drives and night safaris can be organized at most camps. We opted for the night safari as we figured we could do our own sunset drives and we saw jackals, owls, lions, genets, and hippos grazing on land.

You should also do a night walk around the fences of the camp after dark. Bring a flashlight or headlamp which will illuminate the animals’ eyes and you may see bush babies, African wild cats, bats, owls, and even hyenas waiting for the stupid people that throw their scraps over the fence too (SMDH, just don’t).

Participate in citizen science

Check in at the campground SAN Parks office to see what citizen science initiatives they’re running. For example, there were posters asking for information from visitors about their Southern Ground Hornbill, and wild African dog sightings. If you see these creatures, take a pin on your phone and jot down some notes (ie: How many? What were they doing?) then email it to address listed.

Southern Ground Hornbill
Scientists are studying the nesting habits of the threatened Southern Ground Hornbill

Camping in Kruger National Park

Camping in Kruger National Park is a fun and relatively budget-friendly way to experience the park. I say relatively since camping in a tent elsewhere in the world won’t set you back about $100cad per day but this is the famous Kruger National Park so the stakes are high.  Not sure where to stay in Kruger?  Check out this guide to Kruger National Park’s accommodation.

Budget for at the very least $110(cad) per day for two people

SAN Parks entrance fees for non residents are about $35cad (372 Rand) per per person per day and tent camping sites cost about $30cad (315  Rand) per day. Food and fuel will be extra. Meals at restaurants in the park are pretty affordable and will generally cost about $5-15cad without drinks.

Photo of a giraffe in kruger

Rent or Buy Camping Equipment?

If you have your own camping equipment and can bring it to South Africa easily, that is probably the best option. Otherwise you will have to look into renting or buying equipment onsite. We found it tough to find camping equipment for hire that didn’t cost several hundred dollars for large canvas tents, chairs, awnings, tables, and lots of things that you can probably live without.

One place we contacted could provide a very small canvas tent for about $80cad for a week, and then we found a nylon one for rent at a different place for $60cad. In the end the most affordable course of action was to buy a small tent for $30cad from Game (kind of like a Wal-Mart) and it served us well. It kept us dry during downpours, packed up nice and small, and didn’t feel too crowded since we could store our bags in the car. It even served us well on the Lycian Way in Turkey despite definitely not being an ultralight backpacking tent!

Budget not an issue?  We saw a lot of crazy camping set ups, some complete with air conditioning and everything.  Something like the ShiftPod wouldn’t be out of place and you’d certainly be comfortable!

Zebra in Kruger South Africa

Cooking in Kruger

There are electric cooktops but they are usually only one or two burners so plan for very simple, one-pot meals if you’re going to cook your own food. Bring a pot too! Hot water is provided in pre-boiled tanks but power outages happened almost daily, so sometimes the water was only lukewarm. In addition to a pot, we also brought two small plastic picnic plates, titanium sporks, a swiss army knife, dollar store bbq pincers, a thermos, and tin cups.

Most campsites feature braai facilities so you can also bring your own charcoal and plan for a cookout. Meat can be purchased inside the park but it will be more expensive than buying it elsewhere. Firewood should not be brought in from outside of the park and can be purchased there. If you’re camping and don’t have a cooler that plugs into your car, good luck keeping things cool. Even with a daily bag of ice, food that needs to be refrigerated will not last more than a couple days inside a cooler. It just gets too hot during the day.

If you’re like us and don’t have all the braai fixings, you can buy a cool one-time “braai in a box” for about 40rand. We made a delicious barbecue on our last night in the park to cap off a beautiful trip while hyenas prowled, just meters away on the other side of the fence.

How to pick your camping spot
If you are bringing your own tent, campsites are self-service so getting there earlier in the day is best. We never had any issues finding a good spot if we arrived after our morning safari sometime between noon and 2pm.

As for selecting a site, look for a dry and shady spot wherever possible.  If there is any evidence of water pooling in your camping spot, choose a different one. We were tempted to overlook some water pooling in one spot because the trees offered some nice shade and it was more secluded than the dry spots that were available out along the fence. We set up our tent and had an afternoon snooze. When we re-emerged, a woman came over and told us that she had seen our site completely under water the day before, and with more rain in the forecast, we decided to move our tent. It rained hard that night and we would have been camping in a puddle if that nice lady hadn’t warned us!

Warthog in the mud
This warthog might have liked camping in a puddle but we wouldn’t have!

Once you have selected your tent site , be sure to check the spot where you actually plan to set up your tent for sharp acacia tree thorns or other pokey things. More than once, I saw an acacia thorn poking through the bottom of our tent, perilously close to ruining my air mattress. We wisened up after that!

No sleeping bag required

It will be hot but not stifling in your tent at night. We survived with just our sleeping bag liners. Once during a particularly heavy downpour, I draped my scarf over me too like a blanket. As per usual, we also had our small down pillows and a Thermarest Neo-Air inflatable air mattress to make things more comfortable.

Self-Driving Safari in Kruger National Park – Just Do It!

A self-driving safari in Kruger National Park will be a road trip for the ages. If you drive yourself in a small, economical car and stick to camping you will still get to have the legendary safari experience at a fraction of the price. Our 8 day trip to Kruger was an absolute highlight of our 14 month trip around the world and is a place that we would love to revisit. I mean, who wouldn’t want to see this sharp-dressed fellow every day?

lilac-breasted roller
Lilac-breasted Roller in his spring finest, you will see dozens in the park!
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