Very rarely do you visit a place that truly takes your breath away. Somewhere that is so beautiful, so alive and so changing that you can almost feel it’s pulse under your skin. Kruger National Park is just one of those special places, and in our first meeting began a love affair with all things African. I was hooked. I honestly don’t think you can visit Kruger at a ‘bad’ time of year. With each season comes changing scenery, weather and yet the animals are still there going about their daily business. Each wildlife encounter is unique, and whether you stay in an exclusive lodge in a private reserve or stay in the much cheaper park accommodation, you will be amazed and left speechless as you witness Kruger’s remarkable wildlife and stunning vistas. You may not see the ‘big five’, but the flash of colour as a lilac crested roller swoops past, the dancing of a chameleon on a low hanging branch and the squawks of birds gathering to warn you of a nearby predator are guaranteed to bring delight and get your heart thumping.
All this said, there are a few things to bear in mind when planning your trip to Kruger Park that will enable you to enjoy your experience more and to optimise wildlife viewing potential. Here are a few pointers to guide your planning;
When to go: The summer months (November/December) are usually wet and humid which means that the vegetation is more lush but it can be harder to spot animals due to thicker bush. Bird watchers will not be disappointed if they visit between January and April which is generally drier and an excellent time to observe migratory birds. Vegetation is at it’s sparsest in the driest months from May to September allowing for prime game viewing as animals congregate around rivers and watering holes. Expect to feel a little chilly at night and on early morning game drives. We’ve been twice; once in March and again in May. The game viewing was excellent on both occasions, but it definitely got a little chillier in May even though it was pleasantly warm during the day.
Where to stay: There are plenty of options for accommodation in and around the park. It would be perfectly do-able to stay outside in one of the nearby towns and drive in each day for a stint of game viewing if that appeals to you. I would highly recommend staying inside the park to enhance your experience, lengthen your time there and appreciate it’s ‘wildness’ -there is nothing quite like seeing an eagle owl staring at you underneath a moonlit sky on an evening game drive, or hearing the distant roar of a lion as you hunker down for the night. The main park offers a great choice of lodges to stay in at a reasonable price. Starting at around 305 rand (£16) for a basic camp site and 595 rand (£31) for a hut for two people this can be a very attractive option. Some of the main lodges also offer luxury tents and bungalows for the less budget conscious. We stayed mainly in thatched huts, some complete with kitchenette and barbecue areas that were perfect to enjoy a sundowner after a long day behind the wheel. Consider staying at more than one lodge or campsite to experience different areas of the park. Lower Sabie Rest Camp in southern Kruger was my personal favourite as it boasts fantastic views overlooking the Sabie River and we spent many an hour sipping wine to the overture of hippo’s happily grunting in the river nearby.
Another option for accommodation is to stay at a lodge in a private reserve adjoining the main park. Whilst prices are generally higher (and some are extortionate), it can be a great way to experience your own little piece of Africa for a couple of nights away from some of the busier areas of the park. Gomo Gomo Game Lodge is one such place and I have to say that it was worth the money. We only had a couple of nights here due to the price but they were by far the most memorable – so much so that we went back a second time. Included in the package are all your meals and game drives. There is even an optional bush walk in the afternoon if you can bear to drag yourself away from the pool. The biggest advantage of staying somewhere like this is that the game drives are conducted in open top land rovers that can mow down pretty much anything and they are able to track animals off road into the bush to give you a much more intimate encounter. If nothing else, it’s a lot of fun whizzing off into the night with nothing but the wind (and a few cobwebs) in your hair in search of some of the planet’s most magnificent and terrifying creatures. If this doesn’t get your heart racing, nothing will. Never have I felt so acutely aware of my surroundings as on the bush walk. Despite having two rangers and two rifles in front of me, there is something very humbling about walking in the bush and realising how vulnerable you are. Thrilling too, to see some of South Africa’s most feared beasts away from the confines and safety of the Land Rover. We actually stumbled across a herd of buffalo on our bush walk, and enjoyed watching them from a distance before making our retreat when the direction of the wind changed. That certainly tested my nerves.
Wildlife viewing: If paying a premium to stay in one of the park’s private reserves is not an option, there are a few different ways you can explore the park. Hiring your own car gives a lot of flexibility as you can go wherever you want (as long as you stick to the road). You’d be surprised at the number of animals you will see this way and you won’t have to venture that far before you spot something of interest. Alternatively you could join one of the organised game drives that start at most of the park lodges. The morning drive normally departs half an hour before the gate opens to allow for prime viewing before other vehicles start turning up. Animals are generally more active at dawn and dusk so this is a great time to see them. San Parks also offer various activities such as guided bush walks, wilderness trails and 4×4 game drives .
Whatever choice you make, your visit to Kruger will be unforgettable. Try not to get too fixed on seeing the ‘big five’, but soak it up and enjoy every second in this amazing wilderness. I know I did.