We have all considered exploring the massive continent of Africa at one time or another, most likely in search of a thrill-seeking adventure, but how about the southern-most tip of the continent, South Africa?
It forms home to one of the largest game reserves in Africa, the Kruger National Park, and encapsulates a rich diversity of wildlife, landscape, history and culture.
This article will aim to provide you with a comprehensive guide of the Park and all the reasons for making the trip down south to discover it in person. It will highlight the best times of the year to visit, a few of the known hotspots to stay at as well as all the relevant information regarding tours, fees, best means of travel etc.
Elephant family in the rainy season at Kruger Photo by lesterwalbrugh
The Kruger National Park is situated in the heart of the Lowfeld and offers visitors the chance to immerse themselves in the diverse, endless landscape and unpredictable wildlife that are the true qualities of Africa.
The reserve is named after 19th century military and political figure Paul Kruger and covers a vast area of land in the vicinity of 19,485 square kilometres; 360km from north to south and 65km from east to west. It even swallows up Israel within its surface area.
The capital city of the reserve and location of the administrational headquarters is called Skukuza, named after the nickname given to British military officer James Stevenson-Hamilton, the first warden of South Africa’s Sabie Nature Reserve.
The Tsonga tribe were the original inhabitants of the region and were effectively displaced at the hand of Stevenson-Hamilton, giving rise to his nickname Skukuza meaning ‘the man who swept clean’. This association would have been made around his reputation as a wildlife conservationist and his efforts at eliminating poaching in the reserve. However, an alternative translation also suggests that Skukuza means ‘the man who has turned everything upside down’ thereby referring to the eviction of the Tsonga people from their home territory.
Vultures at Kruger. Photo by Andreas Schneider
Irrespective of how he earned the nickname, by some unusual turn of events Stevenson-Hamilton made amends and became to be a known friend of the Tsonga people.
He served between 1902-1946 and made it his mission to expand and develop the reserve to eventually form the Kruger National Park as it is known today.
Over this period the reserve was officially named the first national park of South Africa in 1926, almost 30 years after certain areas first became protected by the South African government.
Today, Stephenson-Hamilton has a bronze statue in honour of his work, standing in Skukuza alongside the statues of the two fellow founding fathers of the reserve, Paul Kruger and Piet Grobler.
This is merely a taster of the rich history that led to the rise of the Kruger National Park with many more fascinating details left to be discovered.
The Kruger National Park is situated in the north-eastern part of South Africa, spanning across the Mpumalanga and Limpopo provinces and is surrounded by two large rivers, each forming a natural barrier around the game reserve.
It forms a part of the peace project named the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, established to link it with the Gonarezhou National Park situated in Zimbabwe in the north and with the Limpopo National Park in Mozambique to the east. Not only this, the Kruger also makes up part of the largest biosphere reserve in South Africa, the Kruger to Canyons Biosphere, and the third largest in the world. It is made up of savannahs , grasslands and forests that roughly cover over 4.8 million hectares of South Africa and Mozambique, more than double the surface area of the Kruger National Park alone, and in extent more than twice the size of Israel. Quite simply, it is a colossal piece of land that has been put aside and conserved for Africa’s wild and their supporting ecosystems.
Canyons at Kruger National Park. Photo by David Siu
After a lengthy application process the Kruger to Canyons Biosphere received UNESCO registration in 2001, designated as the International Man and Biosphere Reserve.
The Kruger National Park has been developed to boast with a well-maintained road network of 1800 kilometres, connecting the various regions to 21 rest camps, two private lodge concessions, and 15 private safari lodges – impressive considering that South Africa is still considered a developing country by most.
Safari jeep at Kruger Photo by Mats Ingelborn
The Limpopo river runs along the north of the Kruger National Park and the Crocodile river along the south, whilst there are also many smaller rivers running through the seemingly endless and extremely diverse landscape.
The exact latitude of the reserve is of special interest as the Tropic of Capricorn overlaps it so that each year on or around the 21st December at noon, the sun’s rays will strike directly overhead marking mid-summer with the longest day in the southern hemisphere.
It is also interesting to consider the geology of soil types across the terrain, as it is known to vary drastically. This characteristic combined with the differences in altitude and rainfall explains the remarkable diversity seen amongst the flora and fauna across the reserve. From tropical forests to dry savannah grasslands, these extreme differences in vegetation naturally dictates the species of game and bird which can be supported in the Park.
Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the reserve can be separated into a total of six distinct ecosystems: - baobab sandveld, lebombo knobthorn-marula bushveld, mixed acacia thicket, combretun-silver clusterleaf, woodland on granite, and riverine forest. These different ecosystems provide the particular conditions needed to support the diverse range of species from lions to sand frogs.
To ensure you get the best out of your time at the Kruger National Park, we have outlined the following four regions to help you navigate your way around depending on the experience you’re after:
This region accounts for approximately 30% of surface area yet provides a home for 50% of the lion population and also a sizeable proportion of cheetahs, hyenas and leopards. One of the reasons behind this is most likely the density of sweet grasses and browsing trees, thereby attracting the prey of these animals in considerable numbers, including antelope, giraffe, buffalo, zebra and wildebeest.
Lions sharing remains of a buffalo at Kruger. Photo by Bernard Dupont
So, if you’re on the look out for the Big 5, then this is the region to explore. Although be warned, for these very reasons you won’t be travelling alone, tourists known to arrive here in sizeable numbers all with the expectation and hope of spotting one of the 60 prides of lion.
This region is very popular as well as it supports a distinctly different ecosystem to all the others, sightings of rare birdlife being one of the key incentives to visit. The climate is more on the tropical end, with much greater rainfall as parts of the region lies in a rain shadow. If you pass along the banks of the Luvuvhu River you will also find a series of riverine forest.
Landscape at Kruger. Photo by Ryan Kilpatrick
Another reason why tourists are drawn to this part of the reserve is that there are extensive parts of sand formed by river flood plains alongside visible sandstone formations from the Mozambique coastal plain, both elements sculpting a breathtakingly picturesque sight.
There is a plethora of species which you might capture a glimpse of here, including the knocking sand frog, a collection of bats, the nocturnal bushpig, samango monkeys and within the major water pans across the Wambiya sandfeld you will find the rainbow killifish, a tropical warm-water fish only found in this region of South Africa.
Lastly, if you’re looking to experience a little solitude, this is also a good region to visit, just to spend some time alone with your inner thoughts and mother nature.
This region lies north of the Oranje river and also have the Letaba, Olifants and the Luvuvhu rivers intersecting with two more to create five narrow corridors whereby the soil is considerably more hydrated. Therefore, in the place of mopane trees, the river banks are beautifully lined with nyala, sycamore fig, tamboti and tall apple leaf trees. This network of rivers passes through what is a semi-arid region covering 7,000 square kilometres which receives very little rain throughout the year.
As much as 60% of the Park’s population of hippos can be found around the Olifants and Letaba rivers, not to mention a diverse bird life to fall in love with – you will no doubt spot a few of the Birding Big 6 within this region.
Hippos at Kruger. Photo by Bernard Dupont
You can also expect to find plenty of bushpig within the undergrowth of the Luvuvhu river and elephants are also known to roam around most of the river banks, the latest estimate being in the region of 12,000 – a sizeable herd to keep an eye out for.
The Southernmost region is bounded by the Sabie River running along the north and the Crocodile River along the south. It is possibly the area with the most game so if you don’t feel up for exploring the northern areas of the Park or have limited time, then be reassured that you will find your fair share of species grazing or hunting here.
The landscape of the region is fairly distinct from its neighbours, consisting of valleys with trees such as cape chestnut, coral tree and the lavender-fever berry and granite formations at intervals creating small peaks, called ‘koppies’ in Afrikaans, one of the 11 official languages of South Africa. The dry landscape of the peaks provides the perfect home to rock dassies or hyrax, baboon and klipspringer and you may even find the odd leopard hiding out around them.
Home to many other species such as the white rhino, your chances of spotting one here is almost certain, not to mention other mammals such as kudu, impala, giraffe , buffalo , zebra and elephant. Also, the general absence of lions from the region makes way for cheetahs and wild dogs so you will find a range of species to keep your interest from dwindling.
Lastly, one of the focal points and key characteristics of the region is also the Khandzalive hill as it forms the highest peak within the Park, altitudes ranging between 200m to 840m.
Following our overview of the reserve’s distinct regions and the animals which are generally found in each, you should hopefully have a good overview of the range of animal species that inhabit the Kruger National Park, however here is a quick summary:
Leopard lying on a tree at Kruger Photo by Joe Turco
The Big 5 includes the elephant, rhinoceros, buffalo, lion and leopard
The Little 5 includes the buffalo weaver, elephant shrew, leopard tortoise, antlion and rhino beetle
Red-billed Queleas at Kruger Photo by Chris Eason
Throughout this guide we have made reference to the colossal landscape of the Kruger National Park, which probably doesn’t come as news as it’s generally one of the first images that come to mind, that along with the wildlife of Africa. But there’s a general appreciation that the physical size is extensive, it’s off the scale. However, the landscape is merely one element of the Park which can be described as colossal; there is another. The diversity of animals it is inhabited by. Here’s why:
It his home to 336 tree, 49 fish, 34 amphibian, 114 reptile, 507 bird and 147 mammal species. That is a total of 1,187 types of species.
As for the number of animals per specie, there are estimated to be approximately 12,000 elephants, 27,000 African buffalos, 18,000 zebras, 1,500 lions, 5,000 giraffes, 90,000 impalas and 7,000-12,000 white rhinos. Do you notice the one thing these animals have in common? They are each preceded by a lot of zeros.
The enormous scale and sophistication of Mother Nature can only truly be appreciated in person as a few figures on a page doesn’t come close to doing it justice.
As far as the security of all the animals are concerned, the conservation and protection against poachers and criminals are taken very seriously, the Park continuing the mission of its founding father Stephenson-Hamilton through the use of webcams to constantly monitor all activity around the regions and ensure the wellbeing of all wildlife and vegetation.
Cheetah at Kruger. Photo by Bernard Dupont
Returning to the key driving force of your trip - the hunt for adventure - we can assure you that there is nothing quite like the anticipation of waiting for the wild to come out of their hiding places and ultimately find yourself looking a lion in the eye. Sitting dead quiet within your safari truck very much aware that the only barrier separating you from this ferocious animal being pure open air, and your experienced ranger of course.
Needless to say, the safari experience is one of a lifetime and worthy of being on every adventurer’s ‘bucket list’.
It comes highly recommend to visit the Kruger National Park during the low season in winter, from April to October, as it’s dry with mild day temperatures and low humidity.
It is a good time to visit as the animals tend to gather around the water and the vegetation is sparse making it much easier to spot the wildlife with less plant coverage available to hide.
Therefore, the best months are at the start of the low season, so April/May and at the end towards September/October when it is effectively early or late winter.
Below we have outlined the pros and cons of visiting in low and high-season, each having its advantages and drawbacks:
Best time to visit kruger national park – Winters from April – October:
+ Wildlife tends to gather more frequently around the water and with vegetation thinned out animals are more visible
+ Sunny skies and no rain
+ Low season so school holidays aside, the camps and roads are much less busy than during the high season
+ International travel and accommodation will be cheaper
+ Mild temperatures and low humidity
+ Virtually no risk of contracting malaria
- Very dry and dusty
- Early morning drives in open safari vehicles can get quite cold, so it’s necessary to bring warm clothing
Worst Time to visit Kruger National Park - Summers from November – March:
+ Birding is excellent and many migratory birds are present, unlike the low season
+ The landscape is fresh and green
+ Many baby animals can be seen and all wildlife are in good health
- Wildlife viewing is not as good as the vegetation is in full bloom allowing for plenty of coverage
- Hot and humid so uncomfortable spending long periods of time outside, especially on foot safaris
- Antimalarial medication is advised as risk of contracting the disease is much higher in Summer
- As it’s high season the roads and camps will be at their busiest
- International travel and accommodation will be more expensive
1. Mohlabetsi Safari Lodge - Certificate of Excellence from Trip Advisor:
This lodge comes highly recommended and is managed by a lovely couple, Tony and Alma, so you can be sure to receive a very warm welcome here. The lodge consists of six ethnic rondavels / African-styled huts decorated in a typical African theme. It’s just north of Hoedspruit and 80km to the Orpen and Phalaborwa Reserve gates.
The lodge offers safari walks and game drives - prices available upon request.
2. Ku Sungula Safari Lodge - Certificate of Excellence from Trip Advisor:
Quoted to be “a haven of old-world charm and stylish splendour” this lodge is another winner boasting with raving reviews. Located in close proximity of Mohlebetsi, the Orpen and Phalaborwa Reserve gates are only slightly further (in South African terms) at approximately 95km.
3. Kapama River Lodge - Certificate of Excellence from Trip Advisor & Traveller’s Choice 2017 Winner:
If you’re looking for something out of this world, then this is it. Kapama is said to be the “African Eden” set within the Kapama Game Reserve so the wild is truly on your doorstep. The location is ideal with the mighty Drakensberg mountains in the distance and the Kruger National Park in close proximity.
The reviews speak for themselves however, unfortunately, so does the price - it’s by no means a budget-stay.
There are two options with respects to paying for admission to the Kruger National Park, one being admission on a day by day basis which would be the best option for most, unless you are considering visiting for more than two weeks at which point the Wild Card option scheme could be worth considering.
The daily entry rate structure for all foreign visitors is as follows:
1 Adult: R 304
1 Child: R 152
For foreign visitors, the following Wild Card package is available which will allow entry across 80+ Parks and Reserves across Southern Africa, including the Kruger National Park. It remains valid for an entire year, so if you had seconds thoughts returning back home, this could be a worthwhile option to extend your access for up to 365 days:
1 Adult: R 2,210
2 Adults: R 3,455
Family, max. 2 adults: R 4,130
There are various ways to explore the Kruger National Park, largely depending on the type of experience you are looking for. Below you will find an outline of all the different tours and means of discovering the Park, whether on foot or on a 4x4 safari truck:
One could say that game drives are what the Kruger National Park is all about, venturing out on the back of truck, excited and on a mission to explore Africa’s wildlife. It’s definitely one of the most thrilling activities and ways in which to explore, however by no means the only.
If you are interested to explore the reserve in search of the Big Five on a relatively fast-paced adventure sat on the back of a 4x4, binoculars to hand and at times holding on for dear life, then you should definitely allow time for a game drive.
There is a significant range to select from, many private game lodges providing drives as part of their accommodation package, however below you will find the details of the official game drives arranged by the Park along with their fees:
Sunrise Drive: Available from most locations within the Park including Berg-en-Dal, Lower Sabie, Pretoriuskop amongst others. The prices range between R280-R390 per adult and between R140-R195 per child, dependent on the region where you choose to depart from.
Sunset Drive: Available from most locations within the Park including Berg-en-Dal, Olifants, Shingwedzi amongst others. The prices range between R280-R390 per adult and between R140-R195 per child, dependent on the region where you choose to depart from.
Night Drive: Available from most locations within the Park including Letaba, Satara, Crocodile Bridge Gate amongst others. The prices range between R230-R320 per adult and between R115-R160 per child, dependent on the region where you choose to depart from.
Most game drives organised by the Park tend to last for about three hours whilst independent drives organised by the private lodges and game farms usually include a coffee break and breakfast, or sundowners with a sunset drive. For these private organisers, it forms a distinct part of the game drive experience.
Morning Walks: Available from most locations within the Park including Berg-en-Dal, Biyamiti, Letaba, Lower Sabie, Pretoriuskop amongst others. The price is R500 per person for most walks, exception being the one which departs from Crocodile Bridge Gate which costs slightly more at R575 per person.
Morning walk at Kruger. Photo by Chris Eason
Safaris offered by independent lodges: Many of the private lodges offer guided tours which come highly recommended, so if this is of interest it’s worth bearing in mind when selecting your accommodation. One that has received raving reviews is Mohlabetsi Safari Lodge, as mentioned in the section above.
There are numerous types of Wilderness Trails, each covering a different region. Below you will find a small selection with the departure gates and fees:
Bushman Wilderness: Departs from Berg-en-Dal. The price ranges between R 4,500 and R 4,150 per person dependent on the season.
Napi Wilderness Trail: Departs from Pretoriuskop. The price ranges between R 4,500 and R 4,150 per person dependent on the season.
Nyalaland Wilderness Trail: Departs from Punda Maria. The price ranges between R 4,500 and R 4,150 per person dependent on the season.
The Lebombo Eco-Trail: This trail starts start from the Crocodile Bridge on a 4x4 truck so the maximum number of people on-board is four. They charge R 9,000 per vehicle.
There are three domestic airport s located just outside the Park so selecting the best one to fly into from Johannesburg or Cape Town will depend on the lodge you are scheduled to stay at. On the south end towards Nelspruit is Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport while Eastgate Airport is further north by Hoedspruit. The airport on the far north end of the Park is Hendrik van Eck Airport, in Phalaborwa, which lies north of the Olifants river so if you’re intending to stay around the Northern Kruger Park region then this would be the best airport to fly into.
Most international flights will fly into Johannesburg where you will be able to connect onto a domestic flight to one of the above airports.
From there you can rent a car, most likely through Avis cars, one of the most common car rental companies in South Africa, to continue your journey to the Park and your chosen accommodation.
The Kruger National Park has nine entrance gates which are as follows:
1. Crocodile Bridge Gate
6. Pafuri Gate
2. Kruger Gate
7. Phabeni Gate
3. Malelane Gate
8. Phalaborwa Gate
4. Numbi Gate
9. Punda Maria Gate
5. Orpen Gate
Below is an overview of all the gate opening and closing times:
On a final note…
We hope and trust by this stage your levels of excitement for visiting the Kruger National Park has risen a notch and that you have found the information useful in planning your trip.
Here are some more articles related to safari in Africa that you may like:
Cover image by Chris Eason