For those in need of a serious wildlife fix, you’ll likely struggle to find anywhere as wildly populated with incredible animals, including Africa’s Big Five, than Kruger National Park.
It was one of the best experiences of my life when I visited recently, and I was lucky enough to experience it in two very different ways.
After travelling from London to Johannesburg we picked up our hire car and drove straight to Kruger. This is a pretty easy option but it is worth noting you can be driving anything from five to eight hours depending on where in the park you’re staying. The roads are safe, and very easy to navigate with barely any traffic once you leave Johannesburg and you’ll find plenty of places to stop to get petrol along the way too.
My top tip is to pick your stations wisely – we visited one which not only had the cleanest, most luxurious toilets known to man, it also had a mini game reserve at the back with Rhino, Zebra and some exotic birds too! And with home-born Nando’s found almost everywhere, we enjoyed some delicious chicken on our pitstop at bargain prices in a truly gourmet setting.
After a very long drive, one I hadn’t anticipated to be quite as long we were scaling the dizzying heights of the magnificent Kruger National Park, all 4.8 million acres of it. (Yep, it’s THAT big!)
Two ways to experience Africa’s big five at Kruger National Park
There are many different gates to enter the park, however to get to our first stop we needed to head to the far north of the park to a private game reserve known as Klaserie. The area is home to a few different lodges, but we were bound for Klaserie Sands River Camp, a boutique lodge home to a maximum of eight guests at any one time. With no border between the main park, it’s the perfect place to spot an abundance of wildlife without anyone else getting in the way of your camera shot of the animals.
And boy, did we see some wildlife! I was a little nervous driving through the bumpy, rugged route from the main gate to the camp but my fears were swiftly softened with the sight of a Giraffe casually and elegantly feeding at the side of the road. Minutes later we drove past a small herd of Zebra who didn’t bat an eyelid at our small car trundling through their territory, so relaxed they were in their surroundings.
Arriving tired, a little hot and sweaty, but elated at the range of wildlife spotted, we were greeted by Lee-Ann, one half of the two couples who own and run the camp. We were immediately swept up into warm hospitality and informal luxury, before hopping onto a truck with Gordon our guide, who took us out to see the sights.
A boutique safari experience
With blankets, binoculars and water we were cosy, comfortable and ready to go. Alongside a highly skilled guide, all game drives go out with a dedicated spotter too — one of the big differences between the main national park and the private game reserves. Almost immediately, we spotted a whole pride of sleeping lions and had the luxury of stopping to wait, and watch them awhile.
A few minutes further and we were also blessed to see Rhino too. Rhino are under threat from poachers in South Africa and we were soon to see the very real issues camp rangers face in the government-run national park. However, here in the private game reserve there has been less of an impact, due in no small part to the fact there are so few people able to come in and roam around without being noticed by staff of all the safari lodges. As such, we were able to spot plenty of White Rhino (confusingly, they aren’t white at all!).
A sundowner by the river gave us a chance to eat biltong (delicious!) as well as meeting the world’s most dangerous animal: the hippo. Terrifying, grumpy and a sight for sore eyes!
Here we were treated to a wonderful three course meal served up with delicious South African wine (Lee-Ann and Gordon also dined with us, adding to the informal feel) after which we laid our heads on plush pillows in our incredible lodge and enjoyed a blissful night at Klaserie.
The following morning, we were up at the crack of dawn to catch the sights again, and hopefully Africa’s big five – and catch them we did. We managed to spot a big herd of elephants (my favourite animal) as well as a leopard, and some more lions too. Stopping for a break, we enjoyed hot tea and biscotti while we admired the majestic African landscape in all its glory.
Inside the main park
I couldn’t recommend staying in a private game reserve highly enough — it’s an unforgettable experience and one I’ll treasure for the rest of my life. The guides have time to share their passion with us, and are able to give us space to enjoy each sighting at our leisure. And there is honestly no price I wouldn’t pay to enjoy biscotti and hot Rooibos tea with a herd of elephants either.
But sadly, our time at the camp came to an end and we drove the few hours into our next stop — the Crocodile River Camp in Kruger National Park. Run by SAN Parks, there are a plethora of camps to suit every budget within Kruger – from the simple to the higher end options. We opted to stay in a comfortable self catered hut with air con overlooking the beautiful Crocodile River. We were beyond happy with our choice.
After a quick nap and a freshen up, we popped to the shop (each camp has a gas station and shop and many have a Mugg & Bean restaurant too) to pick up supplies to have our own Braai (BBQ) after which we enjoyed a sundowner and an early night — it was to be another early start (four am for our morning drive).
Although our morning drive was, of course, quite different to our Klaserie experience — our wonderful guide was just as knowledgeable and passionate about protecting wildlife and told us many a story of his game walks through the park and the sights he’d seen.
We spotted absolutely hundreds of elephants, coming through the mist and walking ever closer to us before wandering around us to get to the other side of the river to drink — and, yes, there were babies too. Be still my heart.
More rhino, zebra, springbok and even a honey badger and we felt as though we were in the midst of a David Attenborough documentary. Nothing can prepare you for being so close to some of the most amazing creatures on the planet. I defy anyone not to have an emotional reaction the first time they see a herd of elephants crowding their beloved baby to protect it.
One of the brilliant things about Kruger, is how easy it is to self-drive around the park. Roads are easy and well marked and there is a real camaraderie amongst guests with people often rolling their windows down to alert you to something cool they’ve seen around the corner. Or to warn you there’s nothing ahead.
We also really enjoyed a few riverside coffee breaks at the Lower Sabie Mugg & Bean. A simple chain restaurant in South Africa, this branch felt quite luxurious given its prime location over the Sabi River where you could sip your flat white while elephants, hippo and giraffe frolic and drink on the banks.
Would we have preferred to stay longer in the bosom of the Klaserie Sands cosy family? Yes, absolutely. But did we regret a second of our time seeing both sides of the park and Africa’s big five? Absolutely not. Without a question of a doubt — Kruger National Park has rushed to the top of my travel experiences and snuck its way into my heart.
Please note that I was a guest of Klaserie Sands River Camp and enjoyed a complimentary stay. All views are my own regardless.