Do It Yourself
Safaris sit atop most South African travel bucket lists, and for good reason. The country has some of the best wildlife viewing opportunities in the world, in some truly staggering locations.
For many who visit South Africa, “safaris” involve shelling out thousands of dollars for an exclusive private lodge, where a bevy of beaming khaki-clad assistants take care of your every need from arrival to departure. But there’s another way to do it that costs a fraction of that all-inclusive package — on a self-guided trip to one of the country’s famous national parks. And just because you’re going it alone, don’t think that you’re getting a diminished experience; self-drive safaris often serve up a significantly richer wildlife experience.
A successful self-guided safari in South Africa requires some advanced planning, a bit of research and a healthy dose of luck — particularly when it comes to game sightings. That’s because, unlike the private reserves that populate the north eastern corner of the country, game viewings aren’t guaranteed.
But with some inside knowledge, you can improve your chances. And given enough time and determination, the resulting sightings are often filled with surges of adrenaline only a self-guided trek can deliver.
Here are some essential tips if you’re planning to experience a safari in South Africa on your own terms.
Head for Kruger National Park
There are several incredible national parks throughout South Africa. Each offers something different, from sheer panoramic beauty to unique wildlife and stunning flora. But if it’s the ultimate self-guided safari you’re after — the kind where you have every opportunity to spot the famous “Big Five” animals, and to still experience true South African bush — then you simply have to plan your visit around Kruger National Park.
Often just called Kruger Park, or even Kruger, this is the flagship national park in the country. There are more than 7,700 square miles of unspoiled bushveld to explore, a vast array of wildlife, and hundreds of important cultural heritage and archeological sites.
It’s also perfectly equipped for self-guided safaris. There are more than 20 rest camps offering options to suit all budgets, hundreds of miles of well-maintained sand and tar roads, well-equipped stores, restaurants and coffee shops, and the possibility to spot incredible wildlife from the comfort of your vehicle.
Get There Safely
Kruger Park is located in the northeastern corner of South Africa. Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport is the biggest and most conveniently located airport offering access into the park. But at present it’s only serviced by Airlink and private charter airlines, and car rental at the airport is limited.
Therefore, your best option is to fly into O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, and hire a vehicle. The nearest entrance gate from the airport into the park, Malelane, is approximately 250 miles away, and you should allow up to five hours, depending on traffic, to get there.
Remember that in South Africa, vehicles drive on the left side of the road. The country also operates on the metric system, which means your speed limits and distances will be in kilometers. The general speed limit in towns and cities is 60 km/h (37 mph), and up to 120 km/h (74 mph) on freeways.
Rent an SUV, Van or 4x4
Although the roads in Kruger Park are superb and don’t require a 4x4, the added height you’ll get from an SUV, van or 4x4 can make all the difference. Grass can be long, particularly after rains, and passengers in smaller sedans may miss out on views of wildlife.
It’s by no means a requirement — most people who travel to the park do so in small sedans — but if budget allows, the added comfort and height of an SUV or 4x4 vehicle can make all the difference.
You should be able to rent a vehicle directly at O.R. Tambo International Airport, or, if you’re staying elsewhere in the country, at major centers and airports. If you’re set on getting a large vehicle it’s important to book ahead, as stock of these is often limited.
Consider Which Region of the Park to Visit
Kruger is famously large, occupying several different biomes, and thus each has a distinct look and feel. Because of changes in vegetation, wildlife tends to congregate more in some areas than others, and, of course, visitors follow suit.
There’s the possibility of spotting wildlife throughout the reserve, but if you want to improve your chances, focus your trip around the south of the park. The region from the southern border along the Crocodile River all the way up to Sabie River is rich in a variety of wildlife, and is the most populated. It’s not unusual to spot all of the “Big Five” on a single trip to the south of the reserve.
But don’t necessarily discount heading farther north. Though “Big Five” numbers are smaller than in the south, there’s the possibility to stumble across some truly unusual sightings, like the nocturnal bushpig, rare antelope like Sharpe's Grysbok and nyala, and birds including the Cape Parrot, Trumpeter Hornbill and Tropical Boubou. There are also fewer people, and truly beautiful landscapes.
Choose Your Accommodation
National parks in South Africa offer a wide range of places to stay, and most of them are very affordable, especially when contrasted with private reserves. Accommodations in Kruger include demarcated sites to pitch tents, permanent safari tents, rustic rondavels (westernized versions of traditional round African huts) with shared ablutions and a kitchen, comfortable cottages and even large guest houses.
The type of accommodation you choose depends on your preferences — all offer varying levels of comfort, but are totally self-sufficient. Unless you are camping with your own tent, daily service is generally provided, and you will usually have access to self-catering equipment, bedding and basic items to make your stay comfortable.
Consider Visiting More Than One Rest Camp
There are several types of rest camps dotted throughout the park, and each offers something unique. Main Rest Camps offer stores, restaurants, fuel and other facilities, whereas smaller Bushveld Camps have none of these but offer a more exclusive and peaceful retreat. There are also Satellite Camps, Bush Lodges and even the option to stay the night in remote Overnight Hides.
Each camp offers something distinctive in terms of atmosphere, facilities, views and nearby wildlife. As such, it’s a good idea to combine at least two or more on your trip. Keep in mind that distances between camps might sound short, but speed limits may make them a considerable drive away. Focus on a few camps in a general area, and you’ll be exposed to the best of the reserve.
Pick Your Season
There’s no right or wrong time to go on safari, and Kruger is a year-round destination. But these are the things to keep in mind: School and national public holidays tend to make the park unbearably busy; summers are hot (at times temperatures reach higher than 100 degrees F); and winters can be cold.
If you have the luxury of picking any time of the year to visit, consider booking your trip just before or after the dry season, which falls roughly between April and September. You’ll find milder temperatures, sparser vegetation and the increased possibility of seeing animals at watering holes and, in the spring, newborn young.
Consider What to Pack (or Purchase) Ahead of Time
If you’re going on a self-guided safari, chances are you’ll need to do self-catering, at least for some meals during your trip. There are a few restaurants at main rest camps, but these likely won’t be enough for you to get by (and prices can add up).
You can get groceries and most essentials at stores located at main rest camps, but you may be better off picking up supplies before you enter. Pack what you need into cooler boxes until you can offload them into fridges at the rest camps.
If you’re peckish mid-drive, there are demarcated picnic spots throughout the reserve. You’ll usually have the option of using a gas cooker to fry up a great bush breakfast, although you’ll need to provide your own crockery and cutlery. Most picnic spots also allow you to purchase breakfast, fast food, soft drinks and coffee.
Other essential items to pack include warm clothing for winter, swimsuits for summer (many large camps and day visitor sites have swimming pools), sturdy walking shoes if you plan on taking a walking trail, mosquito repellent and malaria prophylactics, binoculars and a camera.
Purchase a Map, and Plan your Routes
There are myriad routes you can take around the park, and chances are you’ll spend much of your time driving. Visitors are only allowed to drive during daylight hours, and it’s important to have at least some idea of where you’re heading, to ensure you return in time.
There are high quality maps available at all entrance gates and stores throughout the reserve — use these to plan circular routes and to learn more about the type of wildlife you’re likely to see in each region.
Be aware of speed limits, delays caused by wildlife sightings and the need for pit stops — once inside the park, you can only leave your car at demarcated campsites, picnic spots and viewpoints to get out, and these are often many miles apart.
Maximize Your Chances for Spotting Wildlife
Every regular self-drive game reserve visitor has his or her own preferences, tips and tactics for improving their chances of spotting the best wildlife. The reality of a self-guided safari, however, is that there are no guarantees. Although many choose guaranteed sightings radioed in from spotters in private reserves, the thrill you’ll feel when you spot your first animal in the wild is worth the added effort.
It’s important to drive slow, and to keep a beady eye out your windows at all times. The longer you stay out on the road, the greater your chance of seeing wildlife, but staying out all day can get exhausting.
As such, most choose to do two shorter drives each day — one at first light, when rest camp gates open, and then another later afternoon. This approach increases chances of spotting nocturnal wildlife, and there’s often more activity at these times than during the heat of the day.
Another alternative, particularly if you’re visiting in the heat of summer or during a dry spell, is to head out to a nearby dam or watering hole and relax there for an hour or two. There’s always a possibility of seeing wildlife heading to the water for a midday drink, and even if not, the peace, tranquility and simmering tension of possible sightings make for time well spent.
Opt for an Occasional Guided Game Drive or Walk
All camps in Kruger offer a variety of guided activities. These include game drives with trained rangers in open vehicles, both during the day and at night after the gates close for the general public. Even in the midst of a self-drive safari, it can be a nice break to hop aboard these vehicles and gain some insight from the experts.
Some camps also offer the opportunity to get out on foot with guided morning walks. Armed rangers lead you through the open bush and chat about the plants and animals you encounter along the way. Although these tend to yield fewer sightings than game drives, they’re an amazing way to experience the bush.
Consider Including a Multi-Day Walking Trail
There’s nothing quite like experiencing the bush on foot. Although many camps offer short morning walks in the vicinity of the camp, there are also incredible walking trails that you can book ahead of time, some of which include accommodation.
There are two types of walking trails in the park — Wilderness and Backpacking. The former are found in various purpose-built campsites dotted around the park; the latter require participants to carry their own equipment and to set up camp along a somewhat spontaneous route.
Both offer an amazing way to experience the wild, and visitors can easily tack these on to more traditional self-drive trips.
Appreciate the Little Things
While luxury, private safari experiences are about being pampered and, in many cases, transported directly to wildlife sightings, a self-guided trip is about the entire experience — the anticipation of sightings, planning a day of adventure to your own preferences, quiet nights beneath the South African sky, long days spent beside a watering hole, and settling into the rhythm of the bush. This means driving slowly, going to bed early and rising at first light.
Though self-guided safaris produce incredible sightings of the country’s most impressive wildlife, often the smaller details of simply being in the bush are what make it such a memorable experience.