Even if I was a million gazillionaire I am pretty sure I’d still want to self-drive Kruger National Park. Granted, it isn’t as glamourous as a 4 or 5 star luxury private game lodge and you do have your quieter days because you can’t chase animals off the road but there are so many reasons why it is still SO BLOODY AWESOME. Despite it’s clear awesomeness, the majority of international tourists that visit South Africa continue to opt not to self-drive Kruger Park. WHY??? These people are missing out.
In one of life’s biggest coincidences (ever), a colleague of mine is heading over to South Africa (for the first time) in a couple of weeks, during the exact time I will be there – and we almost stayed at the exact same game lodge for the exact same three nights – can you imagine? That is beside my point but I have to admit, life is pretty crazy given it would have been complete and sheer coincidence, with neither of us knowing anything about the other’s trip. ANYWAY, the real point I’m trying and failing to get to is that HE IS GOING TO SOUTH AFRICA FOR THE FIRST TIME AND NOT VISITING KRUGER AND I JUST THINK IT IS A HUGE AND MASSIVE MISTAKE BUT HE WON’T LISTEN TO ME EVEN THOUGH I STAGED A MASSIVE INTERVENTION AND TRIED TO CONVINCE HIM. The bad news is despite the intervention he still isn’t going to Kruger, but the GOOD news is it inspired me to write this article, which is positively bound to be the best thing you have ever read in your life. Maybe it will even change your life by convincing you that you need to get yourself to Kruger (Yes I’m aware history would suggest otherwise!). GETTING TO THE POINT – below are my top 10 reasons for why self-driving in Kruger National Park is a must-do at some point in your life, preferably ASAP:
1. Total flexibility in itinerary
Did you like those ‘choose your own adventure’ books when you were young? YES YOU DID (don’t lie). WELL GUESS WHAT? You can turn that shit into real life in Kruger. You get to pick your destiny – do you want to hang in the south or the north? Take the H1-2 or the H1-1? Have brunch or lunch or both? Drive all day or just go on a leisurely morning and afternoon drive with a long nap in between? Private game reserves are great but you have to stick to their schedule. When you are driving yourself in Kruger you’re the boss and you can make your own itinerary that suits the way you want to shape your day.
2. Choose your sightings
Flexibility extends beyond your schedule and onto your sighting preferences. When going on safari in groups and with a guide, you have competing priorities of so many other people, which means you often don’t get to stay as long as you’d like at a sighting or it goes the other way – you stay for five hours with a herd of impala instead of finding something much cooler (sorry impalas, but you are just not as exciting as a big male lion). When driving yourself around Kruger you are free to hang out with a big elephant bull for an hour (if he allows it) and leave a lion that’s sleeping in a bush if you’ve already seen a few lions that day. It can be quite frustrating having to cater for the sighting preferences of so many other people and even the guides, who often are so concerned about trying to tick off the Big 5 they don’t stop for things like hippos or jackals that you may be interested in. Of course the caveat here is you still have to cater to other people in the car who may want to look at bird or impalas… (or pied kingfishers in Van’s case) but family and friends (particularly husbands) are easier to boss around.
RHCP got it right when they talked about road trippin with their favourite allies – there is something fun about driving aimlessly around looking for animals with your friends and/or family (well admittedly it will depend on which family and friends but you have the power to choose wisely). Probably my favourite thing in the world is driving around Kruger with just Van – even when we don’t see anything we are busy eating zoo biscuits and other junk and having a good time (oh and Van drinking about 5L of Play). There’s no work or other crappy life things to worry about, we are just out there on the road looking for animals. It’s great bonding time. Usually people on holidays are in good moods and particularly if you have just had an amazing experience with an elephant, lion or other cool animal. You’re at your best, so is everyone else and it’s so much fun! To make it even more fun we use walkie talkies to communicate with other family and/or friends driving in the park (albeit the range on those things is terrible so you have to be pretty close for it to work).
4. Shit be CRAY CRAY when you are your own ranger
It’s hard to articulate this one (though clearly I nailed it with above sub-heading) but seriously, it is just unbelievably surreal to be driving around in a normal car with your family and friends – like you are back at home – and then a lion just wanders onto the road in front of you. Or an elephant. Or a giraffe. Or a herd of zebras. Or leopard, or cheetah or whatever. If you haven’t grown up in South Africa (and maybe even if you have) nothing can prepare you for how crazy and amazing the feeling is. It’s true that it may not be as ‘close’ as you would be in an open land rover at a private game lodge (although it very well might be), but the fact you are the one driving your normal car and these animals are right there within metres of you just makes it something incredibly special. You are the ranger and you have found these animals in the big bad African wild (or else you at least found 20 other cars that found them). Nothing can prepare you for when a big elephant bull walks right up to your rented little shit box car and sniffs you through your open window. You try going back to your normal life in Australia, USA, UK or wherever after that happens. Driving on normal roads will never be the same. IT IS SO BORING COMPARED TO KRUGER!!!
5. Self-driving in Kruger is a pretty CHEAP safari option
So lots of people have this idea that they need to save up tens of thousands of dollars to go on safari in Africa. NO. Self-driving Kruger is relatively affordable, particularly for those who come from Western nations where our currency is DOMINATING vs the South African rand (which at this point is pretty much any country). Car hire is pretty cheap, entry to Kruger National Park is pretty cheap and accommodation in Kruger is CRAZY cheap particularly if you pic the more basic options or camp. The food is also cheap. This is coming from an Australian whose currency is worth next to nothing compared to the USD now. You can spend a week in Kruger for well under USD$1000 including car hire, petrol, accommodation, park fees and food. That’s value when you think about how many amazing sightings and experiences you are going to have for that investment!
6. IT IS SAFE, DAMMIT. SERIOUSLY.
Another reason many people opt not to self-drive, or even go on safari in South Africa at all, is due to safety concerns. American media has (ridiculously) taught us to fear black people AND the African ‘jungle’ (plus everything in South Africa). South Africa in particular tends to get a bad reputation for crime – sadly perpetuated by South African expats who harbour a deep-seated resentment towards their former country (let’s not go into this here). The net result is that people believe if they aren’t eaten by a lion they will definitely get shot by an African or at least stabbed while their car is car jacked. NO. I’m not advocating for tourists to wander around the streets of sketchy Johannesburg neighbourhoods at night but I can definitely confirm that it is absolutely safe to go on safari in South Africa at either a private game reserve or at Kruger. These places are even more safe because there are all sorts of protective measures and security put in place to protect the animals from poaching. You have to pay to get into game reserves, which is something that your everyday criminals would prefer not to do. Typically they don’t like to pay money for the privilege of robbing someone. Violent crime, car jackings and animal attacks are basically non-existent with respect to tourists in safari areas. Driving is also safe, particularly around Kruger where the speed limit is 40-50km/h and everyone driving around is a tourist. YOU WILL ALMOST DEFINITELY NOT DIE, I PROMISE.
7. Awesome photography opportunities
You will get amazing photography opportunities no matter where you go on safari (as long as it’s actually a safari destination). In some ways going on safari at a private game reserve offers better photographic opportunities because you can off-road and get really close to the animals, however if you like to have control over the lighting, angles etc for your shots, self-driving in Kruger can afford you greater flexibility. This is also because you can spend as long as you want trying to get the best shot at sightings (well for as long as the animal stays there) whereas at a game reserve you are to whatever the guide decides to do. The exception here would be to book a specific photographic safari – which is your best bet – but also extremely expensive. I like shooting photography at Kruger because Van does an excellent job of positioning the car and we can stay as long as I like with animals like zebras that we may rush away from at a private game reserve in search of the Big 5.
Kruger Park offers really awesome diversity across landscapes and animals. From a landscape perspective it has all kinds – grassland, thick wood, savannah, mountains, rivers, waterholes, and viewpoints with amazing views out to the horizon. So many incredible places to take sunset and sunrise pictures. And the difference between the north and the south is immense. Similarly there is as much diversity in wildlife as you would find anywhere in Africa. They have the Big 5, the Magnificent 7 and just about everything in between. You may not find all species in some of the private game reserves in South Africa – for example many places don’t have wild dogs.
9. Accommodation options
Granted, there aren’t many luxurious options in Kruger Park, but all you really need is a bed to sleep in! It offers plenty of those in many different camps – from campsites to overnight hides (where you can watch the waterhole overnight), to bungalows, safari tents and guest houses… there are so many options to choose from. You can choose the type that best suits your needs and your budget. Check out my tips on booking Kruger accommodation or get in touch if you want more advice on where to stay!
10. Sense of community
It may sound a bit weird but staying and driving around in Kruger fosters a sort of community between you and the other tourists on the road, looking for their next wildlife encounter. Everyone is excited and happy and generally very friendly (save for when people cause traffic jams at really cool sightings) – and often people will stop you as you drive to let you know about something cool that’s just down the road to look out for. On top of that there’s the Latest Sightings community, where you can share your sightings via their app, whatsapp group and/or Facebook page and see what others have been seeing in the area. At rest camps and lunch stops people share stories and update the board, all the while counting down the moments until they get to go back out onto the road in search of their next sighting!
So there you go, there’s my Top 10 reasons why self-driving in Kruger Park is a MUST if you choose to visit South Africa (and even if you do not). For those who have been to Kruger before, what is your favourite thing about self-driving in the park?