The Kruger National Park is South Africa’s biggest tourist attraction, and there is a very good reason for that; the Kruger National Park scenery and plenitude of wildlife will capture a part of you forever. It’s a place everyone should experience – at least once in their lifetime.
Where is the Kruger National Park
At nearly 20,000 square kilometres, it is the size of a small country and stretches for 360 km north to south along South Africa’s eastern border with Mozambique, and 65 km from east to west. And unlike its bordering famous private game reserves, like Mala Mala and Timbavati, the Kruger is exceptionally accessible; there are affordable accommodation options to suit all pockets.
Kruger National Park Map
Once you’re in the Kruger National Park (or anywhere in South Africa, really) getting your hands on a map of the Kruger Park is really easy, and not too expensive either.
Maps of the Kruger that you find online are fairly easy to come by too but extremely vague (the one on the official website too) and planning a holiday using one, especially if you are planning on doing loads of self-drives, will be a frustrating task. As you can see below, they’re not exactly extremely detailed:
So if you’re looking for a map online, then we’d recommend you buy a high resolution Kruger Park map instead. These kinds of maps contain in-depth information regarding roads and infrastructure, distances and points of interest. They even have info on 4×4 routes and other really cool Kruger National Park activities.
Visiting South Africa’s Kruger Park for the first time
For first timers, we recommend that you explore the southern parts of the Kruger, especially for the majestic scenery and abundant wildlife. Any of the popular camps can be recommended, like Crocodile Bridge, Lower Sabie, Skukuza and Satara.
Granted, these camps are rather busy, because they are closer to “civilisation” and there is arguably more wildlife in the southern regions. The camps are huge and present the best chance to get accommodation, especially during school holidays (April, June, Jully, Sept, Dec, Jan).
That being said, it is definitely recommended to make your reservation 12 months in advance and you are always lucky to get a spot in Satara or Lower Sabie, even when you book that far ahead.
All the info you need to plan your first trip to the Kruger National Park:
Contact Details: Kruger National Park Admin Offices: +27 (0)13 735 4000
Camp Contact Details: For camp specific enquiries and bookings.
Best time to visit Kruger National Park
The Kruger has something different to offer throughout the year. If it’s game you are after, the best time to go is late winter or early spring (August to October), because that is when the park is at its driest, which means animals gather around waterholes and they are easier to spot.
The downside is that grazers will not be in peak condition any more, because food supplies are also low, but predators will be at their fattest, due to grazers being easier to catch! Don’t be fooled about temperatures in early spring, because it gets seriously hot just before the rains arrive from November onwards.
The rainy season (November to March) brings life and that’s also when many animals time the birth of their young, to maximize survival rates. The temperatures temporarily ease when it rains and a lowveld thunderstorm is something to behold.
For birding, the summer months are undoubtedly the best, due to many migratory species making an appearance, especially in the northern parts. Many people think the best time to go is from April to June, when the weather is simply perfect and the bush is still lush from the summer rains.
However, with abundant vegetation, animals become trickier to spot, so you see, there are trade-offs to consider, but the bottom line is that any time is a good time to visit the Kruger National Park.
Best gate to enter Kruger National Park
The best gate to enter Kruger is the one closest to where you are coming from, because then you are on a game drive on your way to your destination! But be careful, speed limits on the main roads (50km/h) must be strictly observed, because you don’t want to hit an animal.
Besides, there are other practical reasons for going slowly; you can’t effectively spot anything if you go more than 30km/h, and there are frequent speed traps with hefty fines for transgressors. So plan your journey in advance and enter the gate nearest to where you are coming from. Arrive as early as possible, especially on weekends and school holidays, because it can take a long time to pass through gates in season.
Best place to see lions in the Kruger
There are roughly 1500 lions in the Kruger National Park and they occur anywhere, but truth be told, there is no doubt they are more prolific in the southern regions, especially around Crocodile Bridge, Lower Sabie, and Satara.
In our opinion, if you spend 5 to 6 hours on the road in the Kruger (split into an early morning and afternoon drive), the chance of seeing lions is very high (75%), especially in the south.
Early morning is your best chance to see them in a semi-active state, because lions are nocturnal, spending their nights hunting, and they spend the hotter parts of the day lying in shade, with the only sign of life being an occasional flick of the tail!
That said, we have observed lion kills in the middle of the day, so you really never know what you are going to get. Drive slowly and you improve your chances dramatically.
Guided tour or self-drive?
For us, self-drive all the way. But that’s just us. This really depends on your own personal situation and preference. Factors such as where you’re coming from, budget, travel-style, car rental, etc. will all play a role in whether to do guided tours or self-drives.
For those that would prefer to go on a guided tour before doing a self-drive, or possibly the guided tour route is just simply more you … or you’re just plain unsure whether you will see anything on your game drives, consider a full-day Kruger Park excursion. There are also some other really cool Kruger National Park safari tours too, so check them out and book in advance.
While I’ll admit, the guided tour route isn’t exactly our style, as we like to explore on our own and visit the National Park frequently – such tours have major up sides for first-timers and tourists wanting to gain knowledge of the fauna and flora while experiencing wild animals like never before.
Pick-up with these tours are possible from Marloth Park or Komatipoort (or any address in the surrounding area really). As well as from Malelane, Berg-en-Dal, Lower Sabie or Crocodile Bridge camps. If you’re staying at Chroc Bridge – even better, it’s the starting point of the drive and a real hotspot for game.
In fact, a couple of years back, we saw the Big 5 on our FIRST game drive of the holiday – all were very chuffed.
Exploring the North of the Kruger Park
Okay, now onto the whole reason we decided to write this article in the first place:
This article is actually about an alternative side of the Kruger, which many people are unaware of…
Most visitors enter the Kruger from the south, through the Malelane or Kruger gates, but why not try entering from the north?
How to enter the Kruger Nationalpark from the North
Take the N1 past Jozi and Pretoria to Polokwane and then head east on the R71. On your way to Tzaneen you can take a detour over the magnificent Magoebaskloof pass via the R528. Then wind your way towards the Punda Maria gate via Giyani on the R81, but beware the going is slow because you are travelling through rural towns, where time stands still, and you contend with cows and goats.
Still, it exposes a side of our beautiful country that is well worth experiencing.
Arriving at Punda Maria
Punda Maria is a stunning camp set against a rocky outcrop and if you are lucky to get a site on the fence, you need not go on any game drives, because every possible animal comes to drink at the nearby waterhole at one point or another.
Sites here are not allocated and work on a first come first served basis, so it makes sense to plan your arrival early, because most people vacate their sites before 10h00.
The camp has a sparkling pool, which comes in handy during the hotter months. Most people avoid the north during the summer months, but if you can tolerate the 40 plus degrees, this is the best time to be here; no crowds and the bird-life is insane. We ticked 20 new species in 5 days, including rarities like the pennant-winged nightjar and the pigmy kingfisher.
Another often overlooked camp in the north is Shingwedzi, with its lush surroundings. Home to some of the biggest tuskers (elephants) in the Kruger, you also have a very good chance of spotting the rare Bennett’s woodpecker, right in the camp.
North Kruger attractions
A drive to Crook’s Corner, where Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa converge on the Limpopo river, is highly recommended, especially the section along the Luvuvhu river, with its huge riverine trees. At the picnic site, you are free to walk around and marvel at these ancient giants. The Punda Maria region is often referred to as the botanical garden of the Kruger.
A scenic game drive along the Shingwedzi river is unforgettable, as it winds its way through ancient forests.
Sleep in a bird hide
Looking for something different? Well just south of the Mopani rest camp is the Shipandini bird hide, where it is possible to overnight for those daring visitors. We seriously recommend this!
6 beds fold down from the back inside the bird hide and all bedding and utensils are supplied. The hide has an enclosed lapa area where you will feel at one with the bush, especially when the eerie night sounds commence with sunset. The hippos snort in concert and the frog calls are almost deafening. There is a second overnighting bird hide (Sable hide), located near the Phalaborwa gate, which can accommodate up to 12 guests.
The next gem on your way south is the basic camp site of Tsendze. The lack of electricity means the “soft” campers don’t come here, ensuring tranquility at its best, especially since most sites are spaced well apart, amidst a forest of Leadwood, Mopane and Apple Leaf trees.
This is also one of the few places where you can encounter the elusive African Barred Owlet, just ask camp manager Rodger to help you find it because they are tiny and hard to spot.
To complete a “Kruger with a difference” trip, you simply have to do one of their 3-day wilderness trails.
There are 7 options: Bushmans and Wolhutter (both near Berg-en-Dal), Napi (Pretoriuskop), Mathikithi and Sweni (both near Satara), Olifants (Letaba) and Nyalaland (Punda Maria). Secure a booking online or check out availability.
Although the trails seem pricey, one must factor in that just about everything is included, such as overnight accommodation in a secluded rustic bush camp setting, all meals and 4 guided walks. You only need to bring along beverages. We did the Olifants trail and did not lack excitement – Read about our experience and see some pics.
Till next time!
If you’ve never been, we hope this article has enticed you to put the Kruger National Park on your bucket list. And if you have already been, well, we know it’s just a matter of time before you go back, maybe to the northern region next time? What are you waiting for? – make your reservation today – you won’t regret it!