I first came to the Kruger National Park in South Africa in 1991 when I worked and lived in Johannesburg. It was love at first sight for me, and soon I came almost every weekend and holiday while living in South Africa. I quickly learned the safari ropes: There are all gradations of African safaris, from lavish and outrageously costly to the simple drive-yourself model that characterizes the Kruger experience. I sampled them all: luxury lodges in the Sabi Sands Game Reserve (adjacent to the Kruger), camping in Botswana’s Savuti and Okavango wildernesses, Etosha National Park in Namibia, Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, Victoria Falls on the Zambian side, and recently a lodge-based safari in Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Conservation Area and the Serengeti National Park.
Each experience was rich in its own way, but my goal is and has always been to see African animals in the wilderness. I see the same animals whether I am paying a lot or a little, and I need only a modicum of comfort: a roof, toilet and shower, a comfortable place to sleep. I dearly love Champagne and TLC, but really, do I need those things in Africa? I long ago decided not, and I found the Kruger is the ideal place to see African wildlife in a natural setting.
To enjoy the Kruger fully, one must be willing to drive oneself around in one’s own vehicle (I rent from Avis) and become at least minimally adept at knowing where to go and what to do. So here goes passing along what I’ve learned in a quarter century of DIY safari trips to the Kruger.
First, this rule of thumb: No matter what kind of African safari you choose, and no matter in what country, there’s one word that applies to all safaris that you should know: “chance.” Chance is universal to the experience, whether over-the-top expensive (it’s easy to find safaris that cost $2500 per day per person) or do-it-yourself (I pay less than $85/day in the Kruger). Regardless of what you spend, you may or may not see all the African animals you’ve dreamed of when watching National Geographic specials. In the end, it all boils down to luck.
(In South Africa there is one way to cheat chance if you are willing to pay two grand a day per person, and that is to book into one of the luxury lodges in the Sabi Sands Game Reserve right next to the Kruger. Places like Londolozi, Mala Mala, and Sabi Sabi will pamper you and almost guarantee you’ll see the “Big Five” because the Sabi Sands Game Reserve is a private concession area. For the money you are paying, they can afford to send out an army of trackers day and night to mark where the animals are, later taking you there for that phony “Aha!” moment. To me, though, it feels like deluxe Disney. It isn’t the wilderness. It certainly isn’t a real “safari” when you are holed up in a fancy lodge the entire trip.)
It is true, however, that skill and experience play a large part in increasing your chances of seeing everything you want, including the “Big Five” African species that everyone wants to brag about: elephant, lion, buffalo, leopard, and rhino. I’ve picked up a thing or two that can help your chances of seeing what you want when you come to the Kruger:
Most important is to set your expectations right. Your luck (chance) of sighting animals will vary from day to day and from minute to minute. Africa, even the vaunted Serengeti Plain of Tanzania, is not a uniform land of open savanah where one can see for miles. Quite the contrary, most of the many African wilderness areas I’ve seen are dotted with trees and bushes and/or tall grass that make viewing much beyond the roadway difficult or downright impossible. That’s true even in the Kalahari Desert of Botswana. African animals are masters of staying out of sight. Many times I have seen an entire herd of elephants suddenly walk out in front of me on the road and beside the road, and then, within a few minutes, vanish into the flora. It is not that they are moving fast; it is just that animals appear and disappear quickly. I might see a leopard running by the car for a couple of minutes and then watch it lope off into the bushes. For me it was an exhilarating moment, but the next car that comes around the bend one minute later will have missed it entirely, and how do I explain that to its occupants? It’s just chance.
One obvious way to increase your chances is to cover more distance. The more you drive the roads, the more your chances increase of catching some special, elusive experience like the African Wild Dogs I saw for half an hour this morning. In six days I have already driven 1,060 miles on this trip to the Kruger. The speed limit in the park is 50 KPH on paved roads (31 MPH) and 40 KPH on unpaved roads (25 MPH), so that’s a lot of hours driving. My reward is seeing a lot of game.
To cover distance, you have to know where you’re going, so first buy a mapbook at any Kruger Park store. Two or three publishers have them available for 70-120 Rand ($5-9), and they are indispensable for knowing where you are and how to get places. I prefer the Honeyguide Publications version, but the Tinker version is equally good. I recommend the mapbooks with large format individual pages of each section of the Kruger rather than the cheaper, folding maps available.
African animals roam free in their natural habitat, of course. Unlike animals in a zoo or private game park, they are not bunched together. Don’t expect, therefore, to see vast herds reaching for the horizon, galloping before you at every turn. This isn’t a Hollywood movie; it’s the real world, and in reality, animals wander all over looking for food, water, and mates. Again, set your expectations accordingly. Some days you’ll probably be amazed at the numbers; other days, not. It is chance.
It is often said that the southern camps in the Kruger (Satara, Orpen, Crocodile Bridge, Berg-en-Dal, Skukuza, Lower Sabie, and Pretoriuskop) have more open areas and often better game viewing. I disagree about more open areas–open areas exist in all parts of the park–but agree that the south seems to have more animal concentrations that come close to the roads. I have seen a great many animals around all the northern camps, with the sole exception of Mopani. Mopani is the newest Kruger camp, built in the 1970s or 80s, and its infrastructure is built of gorgeous stone around a big lake created by a dam. Despite Mopani’s beauty, I have never seen much game close by.
Drive at or below the speed limit to increase your chances of seeing game. You’ll see more if you drive slowly. My average speed on Kruger roads is 33 KPH.
More pairs of eyes equals more sightings. It’s more difficult to catch sight of things when driving alone.
When driving with two or more persons, divide up the watch areas. For instance, those sitting on the left side should keep watch left, and those on the right watch to the right. The front seat passenger should ideally help watch front and center so the driver can focus on keeping the car in the road.
Rent a car with good visibility, that is, one that sits high and has lots of windows; a van works exceptionally well, I’ve found.
Take out the headrests to improve 360 degree visibility.
Most predators (lions, leopards, wild dog, hyena, jackals, smaller cats) hunt at night, late afternoon, and early morning. They lay up during the day. So the best times to see meat-eaters is early morning and late afternoon. Be prepared to get up early and stay out as long as the gates are open (see schedule).
There are exceptions: Cheetah are daytime hunters, and other predators will sometimes be about during cool, overcast days.
Game drives between about 9am and 3pm (varies by time of year and cloud cover) are often rich in prey animals, but rarely predators.
Where prey is plentiful, predators will often be near. Where prey are few in number, don’t waste your time there.
Giraffe, hippo, rhino, elephant, and buffalo are usually not on the predator menu, so where they are to be found, normally there won’t be predators around.
There are exceptions: Lion and even hyena sometimes take buffalo, and any old, weak, and/or injured animal, no matter how large, will be killed and eaten. Or scavenged if already dead or dying.
Normal prey animals are impala, kudu, waterbuck (though it has a distasteful musk gland), zebra, wildebeest, nyala, steenbok, scrub hare, warthog, vervet monkey, baboons, and all the other antelope species. Anywhere those are in number, look for predators.
Zebra, wildebeest, and impala often stick together for safety. Sometimes kudu, waterbuck, and other antelope mingle with them, too. Where groups are prey animals are found together, the killers are often close by.
But they may not be! This is a general rule, but no guarantee that predators will always be close to their prey.
Consult the camp sightings boards for hints at where to find animals, especially predators, but keep in mind that all animals move all the time. What was there at 6am will likely be long gone by 7am unless it’s lions on a big kill. That could last for hours, or even days if devouring a big animal like a buffalo.
Ask other tourists what they’ve seen and where. This applies both at camps and on the road. I often put a hand out to stop an oncoming car to ask what they’ve seen and where, and other people ask me the same. Don’t be shy.
Take some time with animals to watch them, not just tearing about looking for lions. I find elephant behavior endlessly fascinating. Both single animals or in herds, the big guys always show me something. Recently I watched an elephant repeatedly swipe a foot cleanly across a large mass of tough grass being held tight by its trunk, using the toenails like a scythe to clip the grass so it could be lifted and eaten. On my current trip (April-May, 2016) I got a video of an elephant surveying a large tree to find the best place to push it over and break it. Once it had the tree down, the elephant galloped around to the top, now lying on the ground (formerly out of reach), to browse the most tender leaves and branches.
Once I observed a young leopard working hard to eat a big monitor lizard. Must have been a tough meal to digest, but fun to watch.
Sitting by hyena dens is always rewarding, especially when the pups are newborn. They are real cute and inquisitive, like many youngsters, and they like to come up to the car and peer up. They appear to be begging for a pat on the head, but even young hyena jaws could take a man’s hand off, so resist the urge.
There are probably more tips to share, but that’s a pretty good roundup. If you follow them, you should have a very rewarding trip to the Kruger. I am there now and posting via a slow and awkward mobile hotspot by tethering my Samsung tablet to my Samsung smartphone. Please therefore forgive any errors in this post, especially format problems.