South Africa’s Kruger National Park is one of Africa’s most popular wildlife reserves. This first-class game-viewing region is home to one of the highest concentrations of big game across the continent. Julian, one of our founders, gives his thoughts on the park and where to stay…
I’m lucky enough to have visited the Kruger a few times. It was one of the first safari parks I ever visited when camping years ago, and is one of the places I recently returned to on a somewhat more luxurious trip! So much has changed over the years – super-luxurious lodges have appeared in the private reserves alongside the Kruger’s border, accommodation standards have risen significantly, and visitor numbers have exploded! One thing has remained unchanged, however – the sheer quality of the Big Five viewing on offer. There are areas of this park where the game viewing is unbelievably good.
What sets the Kruger aside from its competition is the sheer quality of lodges available. The region is home to the highest accommodation standards anywhere – and it offers trips to suit all budgets!
Much of the Kruger itself is a self-drive destination, opening up possibilities such as low-cost safaris and basic camping trips. Parks such as Tanzania’s Serengeti or Botswana’s Okavango Delta simply cannot offer safaris this affordable, so the Kruger will always be attractive to travellers looking for a budget getaway!
At Yellow Zebra we don’t offer self-drive safaris to the Kruger, choosing instead to focus on the private reserves that run up the western side of the park. Safari here is more expensive, but the reserves are home to some of the most luxurious and exclusive game-viewing areas in Africa!
When you delve into South Africa’s private reserves, a number come up guaranteeing Big Five safari at different price brackets. The Sabi Sands, Thornybush, Balule, Klaserie, Manyeleti, Timbavati… and the list goes on. One of the biggest challenges is working out which one offers the best experience!
I’ve always been a fan of the reserves adjacent to the National Park itself. It is simply no good being in a reserve that is fenced off from the Kruger. The Sabi Sands and Timbavati are the very best reserves – two huge areas whose eastern borders adjoin the Kruger itself! This means that both reserves see game migrating in and out from the Kruger – larger herds are guaranteed and the general diversity of game is significantly better.
The Sabi Sand Game Reserve
The Sabi Sands is a genuine contender for leopard capital of Africa and home to the area’s most famous properties. The lifeblood of the park is the rivers, with the Sand River cutting through the heart of the Sands and the Sabi River running along its southern border. Inside the Sabi Sands are a number of individual private reserves.
The best reserves are obviously the largest reserves, but good river access is incredibly important. Close proximity to the border with the Kruger is also key, so that you can witness the crossover of game from the Kruger National Park, as I’ve already mentioned. Both the closer you get to the fences and the less river frontage there is, result in a noticeable lack in the quality of game viewing, especially for the bigger migratory animals.
The first property to mention is Nottens Bush Camp. This charming little camp, with rooms lit only by candles, has a great game-viewing area and the most economical price-tag of all accommodations within the good-quality private Sabi Sand Reserves. For value alone, you cannot go wrong with this place. It is a rarity in an expensive region! Step up a level, however, and you hit the first of the Sabi Sands’ luxury lodges. Kirkman's Camp is a beautiful camp that boasts a superb river location bordering the Kruger. This is a lovely property at a great price, considering Kirkman's is run by &Beyond, one of Africa's most luxurious safari brands!
Lion Sands may well be a small reserve, but the game-viewing area here gives you access to the Kruger itself! The accommodation is of a very high standard, whilst service and guiding are also top notch. River Lodge is where we send most clients, whilst Ivory Lodge is truly fantastic, but also one of the most expensive properties on the planet!
The problem with Lion Sands, however, is the final place I'm going to recommend – the Londolozi Reserve! This outstanding reserve is to the north-west of Kirkman’s and Lion Sands, with probably the most stunning section of river and some truly excellent game viewing on offer. Here there are five camps, with the cheaper Londolozi lodges often being the best places to stay – they share exactly the same locations as the other substantially more expensive Londolozi lodges! I've always thought Founders was a great camp with Varty being the other well-priced camp. Pioneer, Tree and Granite are Londolozi's flagship camps - but these properties are just about as expensive as anywhere in the country!
The final places to mention are those operated by Singita, Africa's most luxurious safari brand. Boulders and Ebony are simply outstanding properties, where the sheer level of hospitality is the focus. Budget goes out of the window when staying here – but the reserve itself and the comfort level compete with any hotel on the continent!
I’d summarise all of this by saying that, unfortunately, budget is the major factor in deciding where to stay. Personally I've always thought it is a good idea to splash out on a little more than Notten’s, so I rarely sell this camp. Kirkman’s is superb and a great option for our entrance-level safaris. Lion Sands is also well worth a look, but pay this much money and I suggest you might as well push the boat out again and pay for one of the Londolozi camps (Londolozi, Founders, Tree and Granite have always been favourites of mine) – or even Singita!
The Timbavati Game Reserve
The Timbavati is the Kruger’s second most famous private reserve. Located north of the Sabi Sands, it too shares its border with the Kruger itself, guaranteeing some of the best game viewing in the country. The two reserves are often combined for a week-long safari, but the Timbavati is also booked as the only safari area on an itinerary – it really is that good!
Where people stay in the reserve depends on their overall budget or where they are staying in the Sabi Sands – many camps offer reduced rates with their sister properties in each area.
The most economical camp we like to use is Motswari. Located in the far north of the Timbavati, this property has a great price for the quality of the camp itself. Game viewing here is very good, especially as Motswari touches the Kruger and is in one of the quieter areas of the park. We often combine it with Notten’s in the Sabi Sands.
A slight step up - and you have Ngala Safari Lodge. With access into the southern section of Timbavati – where less Mopane woodland makes for much better game viewing, this camp and its more expensive sister, Ngala Tented Camp boast the best game-viewing area in the reserve! In fact, Ngala Tented is the best property in the reserve. Both properties are most often combined with Kirkmans Kamp, Exeter or Leadwood in the Sabi Sands, due to the offers when combining camps.
The other properties I’ll briefly mention are Tanda Tula and its ‘Field Camp’, as well as Kings Camp. I often use Kings Camp, especially when combining it with Leopard Hills in the Sabi Sands. However, the two Tanda Tulas tend to be used for Timbavati-only safaris – their high price is exposed over a longer safari, due to having no affiliation with a Sabi Sands property.
The Kruger National Park itself
The far south of the Kruger – specifically the area around Skukuza – is home to the best game viewing in the entire park, as the Sabi Sands is just by here. However, the area is famous for its sheer volume of visitors. This is an incredibly busy, primarily self-drive area that we rarely use.
The centre of the park is an interesting area – here, the habitat changes and dramatic ridges punctuate the landscape. It has long been the destination for adventurous self-drive travellers hoping to escape the crowds of the southern sector. This has always been my favourite area of the park for reliably good game viewing and a change of scenery from the private reserves.
The north of the Kruger is a remote area that takes few visitors. Game densities are much lower here and the animals you do see are skittish! However, the scenery and remote feel about the region are two great reasons to travel here. Getting technical, 85 per cent of the Kruger’s biodiversity comes from the far north! We only use The Outpost and Pafuri in this area – two fabulous camps in one of the most dramatic concessions in the entire park.
Interested in taking a trip to the Kruger – or anywhere else, for that matter? Just get in touch with us to take your first step towards the holiday of a lifetime!