A lodge vs self-drive comparison of the Kruger safari
“Deep in his heart, every man longs for a battle to fight, an adventure to live, and a beauty to rescue.” – John Eldredge
The Kruger National Park is South Africa’s flagship national park. Wherever you are in the world, if you’re even remotely interested in the safari experience in Africa, you’ve likely heard of the Kruger. It offers a wilderness safari experience that is right up there with the best that Africa has to offer. There’s so much to see and so many experiences to be had in Kruger, that it’s always helpful to figure out what kind of safari experience you want before embarking on the trip of a lifetime!
That’s why this article is a must-read for all first-time visitors to the Greater Kruger National Park region, and for repeat visitors keen for a change. Essentially, there are two options for your safari to the Kruger National Park: a lodge-based safari in some of the Greater Kruger’s more luxury safari establishments, or a self-drive visit to the Kruger, overnighting inside the park in the traditional chalets or camping facilities offered by SANParks.
By looking at some of the advantages of both options, you will be be able to make an informed decision before embarking on one of the greatest journeys of your life to one of the best safari destinations Africa has to offer!
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My wife and I are experienced safari-goers, having travelled to most national parks in southern Africa (the whole spectrum, from luxury lodging to wilderness camping). We recently headed to the Greater Kruger region to experience a lodge-based safari to refresh our minds as to why we love this special wilderness area of Africa so much. We visited two very different lodges, each with their own unique appeal – and each that made us realise why this is such a fantastic option for safari-goers.
The first lodge we stayed was called Rhino Post Safari Lodge, which also has Rhino Walking Safaris’ Plains Camp, where we stayed for two nights. These lodges are inside the national park, and the focus here is on delivering a memorable bush walking safari – highly recommended. Although we were lucky enough to spot lion, cheetah, rhino, a large herd of buffalo and a whole host of other game on foot, it dawned on me that it’s the finer details that matter most when considering this type of safari.
You’re gifted with the time to gain a deeper understanding of how the bush functions, the circle of life in Africa and the fascinating biodiverse ecosystems that play host to these special animals – all of which are a privilege to see in the wild. There are only a few special places in Africa that offer such authentic, wild bush walking experiences, and Kruger is definitely one of them. The opportunity to learn about the African bush, while being in the heart of one of Africa’s most precious wilderness areas is truly special. That is something you can experience first-hand when staying at a lodge.
We then spent two nights at Umlani Bush Camp, in the prestigious Timbavati Private Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger, which is famous for excellent game viewing. There’s no electricity here, although there is a generator for power to charge your devices and for limited wifi access, and lighting is done with lanterns, which adds to the charm and makes for a really romantic setting. Here we had the chance to sit back, relax and unwind with a magnificent view of the wild Kruger as we watched elephants and other game make their way past the camp from our viewing deck.
This is a different kind of wilderness experience, being an eco-lodge that is run almost entirely off the grid, and is well off the beaten path of the tourist routes in Kruger. If you consider that the Kruger attracts roughly half a million tourists every year, why not be one of the tourists that escapes the crowds? That’s the experience that Umlani – and indeed many of the other private lodges in the Great Kruger – offers travellers who are seeking personal, intimate experiences in wild places.
To find out more about the Kruger lodge experience, continue reading below the advert.
So, why would you consider visiting a lodge instead of exploring the Kruger on your own? In my opinion, as a first time traveller to South Africa it’s definitely worth the money to spend a few nights at a lodge. Firstly, everything is catered for and you are treated like royalty. The food is fantastic, the accommodation is excellent, the service is five-star, and the rangers that guide you on the safari are extremely professional and knowledgeable. You are guaranteed to have some really good sightings, and you might even be lucky enough to see all of the Big 5, including the ever-elusive leopard.
To drive around the bush in an open game viewing vehicle, exploring the small gravel tracks, and taking in the sights, sounds and smells of nature affords you the opportunity to digest some food for your soul.
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View a gallery of photos of Kruger wildlife here
What’s nice about the game drives is that no more than three vehicles are allowed at a sighting. The pressure and human interference with the animals is kept to an absolute minimum and guests are ensured good viewing opportunities. The rangers are also allowed to go off-road, which ensures good sightings.
In addition, if you’re a first-time visitor to the park, the expert bush-knowledge of the highly professional guides and staff at the lodges is invaluable in creating those special, wild memories of your first Kruger experience.
Lodges offer the traveller a luxury experience, with amazing food, excellent game viewing and photographic opportunities and five-star service and accommodation. This is the kind of safari experience that is guaranteed to stay with you for a lifetime.
So, after touching on the amazing safari that you can experience at a luxury lodge, why would you even consider a traditional Kruger safari?
Don’t be fooled, a self-drive and self-catering Kruger safari has so much to offer the wild traveller! The Kruger boasts an incredible array of activities including self-drives, guided game drives and night drives, guided bush walks and wilderness trails, and even mountain biking, to name a few. There’s also a whole range of accommodation options, including guesthouses, chalets, bush camps and rustic camping. These might not be as luxurious as the private lodge options, but they offer a completely different experience – one that is more rustic, intimate and authentically Kruger, taking you back in time to when the park was first opened to tourists in the early 1900s.
The Kruger is an incredible place, and the diversity of game and different habitats from north to south is astounding. There’s an excellent road network in a wilderness area of two million hectares, which is about the size of Israel!
I have thought about the Kruger self-drive experience a lot, and just what it is that makes this flagship national park stand out for me. Yes, it can be busy with other tourists, and there may be some traffic jams at sightings, but there are also real wilderness areas and roads with very low traffic numbers, especially in the north. But even on the busy roads, it is still a special wilderness and a privilege to be part of.
So what makes the Kruger self-drive experience so special?
I don’t think there are a lot of places where you can still take a map, plan a route and travel through Big 5 country on your own, at your own speed. The choice of where your adventure takes you is in your own hands. That freedom to explore this magnificent wilderness is, for me, the quintessential Kruger experience. With such a vast wilderness to explore, and with enough time, a Kruger self-drive could give you the strongest sense of freedom you’ve felt in a long time.
I often think that, in our busy lives in the 21st century, we all miss the ‘adventure to live’ part of the quote beginning this article. Each in our own way, we’re all filled with a longing to reconnect with the wild and to have our hearts filled and our senses blown in wild places. For me, that’s exactly what a safari to the Kruger can offer, and is something I feel each time I visit. That sense of fulfillment, that re-connection. That’s something to consider if you’re thinking of a safari trip to Africa. The Kruger will give you that. How you experience it is up to you.
Anton’s flights from city to the Kruger were arranged by Airlink, who offer multi-destination flight options across southern Africa and a convenient Lodge Link program, direct to popular lodges in the greater Kruger National Park and beyond.
To find out more about planning your safari to the Kruger, continue reading below the advert.
Places to stay in the Kruger National Park
Rhino Post Safari Lodge is situated in a private wilderness concession at the southern end of the Kruger. Here, they focus on ensuring the lightest footprint while delivering an exclusive, world-class bush walking and classic safari experience.
Umlani Bushcamp is an ethically operated and Fair Trade certified safari camp. Situated in Big 5 territory in the Timbavati section of the Kruger, they offer guests the opportunity to experience the real magic of Africa. Take your chance to reconnect with nature in one of Africa’s renowned and unspoilt wilderness reserves.
Cheetah Plains is a small, authentic bush camp in the world renowned Sabi Sand Game Reserve – you can be assured of exceptional game viewing. With only eight rooms, the focus is on a traditional safari experience. Expect superb fire-cooked meals served in the open boma as well as friendly and attentive hosts.
Senalala Luxury Camp in the Klaserie section of the Greater Kruger is one of Africa’s most sought-after walking safari destinations, with highly skilled guides capable of safely leading enthralling big game encounters. This exceptional activity is combined with the verdant setting of the camp and associated traditional safari experience that strives to ensure an unparalleled bush experience.
Djuma Private Game Reserve is located in the Sabi Sand section of the Greater Kruger and has two lodges. Vuyatela is a private and exclusive self-catered lodge (chef included in rate). Galago Camp is a self-catering safari game lodge that accommodates ten guests in five rooms. This intimate lodge is ideal for families and groups that like their own space. You will have your own guide and vehicle at your disposal to explore the reserve.
Tanda Tula Safari Camp is located in the Timbavati Nature Reserve, part of the Greater Kruger National Park, and features 12 luxury tents nestled in riverine forest overlooking a riverbed. The Tanda Tula Field Camp is an exclusive use four tented walking safari camp, modelled on the early explorer camps with modern comforts.
Tintswalo Safari Lodge lies in the private Manyeleti Game Reserve situated on the unfenced western boundary of South Africa’s Kruger National Park. This luxury lodge shares the vast Manyeleti wilderness with only one other commercial lodge, and offers all the raw, natural beauty of Africa.
Klaserie Sands River Camp is an exclusive South African safari lodge located on the banks of the Ntsiri River in the spectacular African wilderness of Klaserie Private Nature Reserve. The lodge is appointed with state-the-art facilities which are complimented by a friendly and welcoming team of dedicated staff members
Makanyi Private Game Lodge is a luxury five-star game lodge located deep in the Timbavati Game Reserve, adjacent and open to the Kruger National Park, offering an unparalleled safari experience. The lodge conforms to a classic aesthetic of thatched-roof villas in terracotta tones, avoiding the more formal, ‘Out of Africa’ style nod to colonial bush experiences. This place is relaxed, void of stodginess, and perfect for people looking for a more intimate bush experience
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anton lives in Pretoria, South Africa, and works in his family’s property development and investment business. He and his wife, Renate, both have a passion for wildlife, with a special interest in birds. Leopards also have a special place in their hearts, and Anton initiated, and is currently running, the Limpopo-Lipadi Leopard Identification Project, where they have identified more than 20 leopards already on the Limpopo-Lipadi Private Game and Wilderness Reserve in the Tuli Block of Botswana.