Extending over a mind-boggling 19,485 km2 (7,523 square miles), the Kruger National Park is one of Africa’s largest and most iconic safari destinations. It’s comparable in area to Wales or the state of New Jersey.
It shares open borders with several smaller private reserves as well as two transfrontier national parks in the form of Gonarezhou (Zimbabwe) and Limpopo (Mozambique).
Kruger National Park vies with Cape Town as South Africa’s top destination, attracting more than one million visitors annually. The park is better suited to affordable self-drive safaris than any other major African park.
By contrast, the exclusive private reserves that border Kruger and ‘concession lodges’ that occupy exclusive enclaves within it set the bar for all-inclusive luxury safaris in open-top 4×4 vehicles driven by expert guides.
Set in the hot eastern Lowveld, Kruger is traversed by several rivers and is punctuated by a few hilly areas. Still, it mostly comprises flat savannah dominated by acacia trees in the south and mopane woodland in the north.
A tally of 147 mammal species includes all the Big Five (around 40,000 buffalo, 13,000 elephants, 1,600 lions, 2,000 leopards, and 7,000 White and 400 Black rhino) along with other safari favorites such as cheetahs, hippos, zebra, giraffe, warthogs, baboons, Vervet monkeys, and a total of 21 antelope species.
Kruger National Park Parfuri ElephantThe Nile crocodile is the most conspicuous of 114 reptile and 34 amphibian species, but the ethereal communal calls of the Bubbling kassina and other tree frogs often provide a haunting aural backdrop to dusk waterhole vigils.
Kruger is a magnet for birding safaris, with 517 bird species recorded. Expect everything ranging from the spectacularly colorful Lilac-breasted roller and White-fronted bee-eater to several heftier species now rare outside of protected areas, such as the eyelid-fluttering Southern ground hornbill, the bizarre Secretary-bird, the massive Kori bustard (the world’s heaviest flying bird), the macabre Marabou stork, and, of course, the ostrich.
Highlights of Kruger National Park
Thanks to its relative proximity to Gauteng, Southern Kruger carries the highest volume of safari-goers.
The far south offers the park’s most reliable game viewing: the surfaced H4-1 that follows the Sabie River from Skukuza to Lower Sabie, a great area to spot elephant, buffalo, lion, and even leopards.
It’s also a favorite for birding safaris, while the H4-2 and associated dirt roads running south to Crocodile Bridge explore the park’s best rhino country.
The focal point of the lightly-wooded savannah of Central Kruger, Satara, stands at the crossroads of some superb safari roads.
Seasonal concentrations of wildebeest and zebra are reminiscent of the Serengeti, and it’s the best place to look for cheetahs and see lion kills – the latter also often attracting jackals and hyenas.
The aptly-named Olifants River is a favored haunt of elephants, and it also often attracts immense herds of thirsty buffalo.
Wildlife viewing in the remote Northern Kruger is challenging because while buffalo and elephants are conspicuous, lions, leopards, and rhino encounters are rare.
Balanced against that, the untrammeled north possesses a mesmerizing wilderness feel and hosts many localized bird species absent further south, making the Northern Kruger a perfect destination for a birding safari.
Thulamela Heritage Site, on the south bank of the Luvuvhu River, protects the substantial ruins of a 16th-century Zimbabwe-style stone-wall royal village.
Makuleke Contractual Park
The 240km2 (93 square mile) Makuleke Contractual Park, which runs south from the Limpopo River along the border with Zimbabwe, was annexed to Kruger following the forcible relocation of its inhabitants in 1969.
Restored to the Makuleke community in the 1990s, it’s still managed as part of Kruger and hosts two private lodges that offer much to keen birdwatchers or anybody seeking a genuine wilderness escape.
An excellent place to seek out the likes of Pel’s fishing owl, Racket-tailed roller, and Triple-banded courser, it also offers exclusive access to the spectacular Lanner Gorge and lush Fever tree forest at Crooks Corner.
Sabi Sands Game Reserve
Home to some of South Africa’s most lauded game lodges, the Sabi Sand Reserve was amalgamated from several now jointly-managed private properties in 1948.
It shares an open boundary with southern Kruger, and expertly guided game drives in open-top 4×4 vehicles often throw up all the Big Five on safari, as well as cheetah and African wild dogs. The reserve also arguably offers the world’s best and most intimate leopard viewing.
Manyeleti Game Reserve
Immediately north of Sabi Sand, Manyeleti Game Reserve, whose Shangaan name means ‘Place of Stars,’ was set aside in 1964 and now shares an unfenced 30km (19mi) eastern border with Kruger and supports a similar selection of wildlife.
However, poaching and low tourist volumes mean that game viewing on safari isn’t quite up there with several of its neighbors.
Timbavati Nature Reserve
Named after the seasonal river that flows close to its southern boundary before crossing into Kruger, the private Timbavati Nature Reserve, created in 1962, and now unfenced along its border with Kruger, operates similarly to Sabi Sand.
Game drives don’t quite match up when it comes to leopard and rhino safari sightings, but since camps are more spread out, they tend to operate at a more relaxed pace.
Private Concession Lodges
The Kruger’s dozen-or-so privately-run concession lodges stand on individual enclaves of national parkland where exclusive traversing rights have been awarded to the concessionaire.
Much like the private reserves bordering Kruger, each concession hosts between one and three exclusive small camps offering guests a deluxe package, including expertly guided safari game drives in open-top 4x4s.
However, the concessions are typically much larger than the private reserves, wildlife is less habituated to vehicles, and there is no cross-traversing with other lodges – the net result being that game viewing tends to be more erratic. Still, the overall experience is arguably more holistically satisfying.
Practical Information of Kruger National Park
- Kruger is well-suited to affordable self-drive safaris. An ordinary saloon car can easily explore a good network of sealed roads. The 20-odd rest camps offer inexpensive but comfortable accommodation, and most have grocery shops, filling stations, and restaurants.
- In addition, an excellent selection of maps, guidebooks, and other interpretive material is available on-site.
- Kruger-Mpumalanga International Airport (KMIA) lies within an hour’s drive of Numbi and Phabeni Gates. It’s connected to Gauteng’s OR Tambo International Airport by several scheduled flights daily, and several car rental companies are represented there. For couples or families, it may be more affordable to rent a car out of Gauteng and drive, following the N4 east from Pretoria to Mbombela or the N12 from Johannesburg/OR Tambo to connect with the N4 at eMalahleni (formerly Witbank). Allow five hours for the drive.
- The private and concession lodges associated with Kruger offer a very different and somewhat more costly experience. Most exude an aura of safari chic, pamper clients with gourmet meals and service levels in line with a luxury spa, and include a guided evening and morning game drive. These lodges are typically visited as a two- or three-night all-inclusive fly-in or drive-down package from Gauteng.
- You could also tag one night at a private reserve to the end of a self-drive Kruger safari – though be sure to time things so that you arrive at camp in time and leave late enough to do all game drives.
- Kruger is hot and seasonally humid, with summer daytime temperatures routinely topping the 30°C/86°F mark (frequently 40°C/104°F in the north). The air dries out in winter when nights can be freezing, and you’ll want plenty of warm clothing for evening and early morning game drives.