People often think African safaris are either really expensive, dangerous, or both. Before going on a Kruger National Park safari I thought the same.
If you dream of going to Africa to see animals, you can do it without expensive tour guides and luxury accommodations. You certainly could go for those things, but I cherish my independence and my budget. 😉
Why a Kruger National Park safari?
There are quite a few places in Africa to go on safari. Kruger National Park is one of the most famous destinations and for good reason. It’s one of the largest game reserves in Africa and has the highest density of large mammals. It’s famous for having an overpopulation of elephants – you’ll see herds of them several times a day.
Kruger National Park is in one of the safest, most modern countries in Africa with the best tourist infrastructure. It’s easy to reach from Johannesburg, the biggest airport in Africa with the most flights from other continents.
And perhaps the biggest advantage of all…
You can drive through Kruger National Park on your own
Most roads are nicely paved and easy to drive. You can see virtually any animal on a Kruger National Park safari from the comfort of a rental car on a paved road. If you’re itching to drive the few dirt tracks in the park that are open to private vehicles, you can rent a 4×4 but you’ll pay 2-3x as much and won’t necessarily see more.
Every visitor to Kruger has to pay a daily “conservation fee.” It’s basically an admission fee. If you’re a foreigner, it’s R248 per person per day, or about US$22.
Rental cars are cheap in South Africa
We rented a car for five days from Johannesburg airport for R1,145 including all taxes. That’s about US$102 at the current exchange rate, or a shade over $20 a day. It was the cheapest model they had. Granted, it was a manual transmission and in South Africa you drive on the left and shift with your left hand. Takes some getting used to! But the little 1L engine was efficient as hell.
It’s safe to drive from Johannesburg to Kruger National Park
South Africa is famous for carjackings. After reading so much about them I was scared to even think of making the 450km (280mi) drive from Johannesburg airport to Kruger.
I realized once we were on the ground that carjackings are still relatively rare. It’s not like they’re happening on every street corner. People I asked would tell me that it’s rare for tourists to be carjacked. They’re usually targeted rather than random acts of violence.
Always keep your doors locked, keep valuables out of sight and avoid driving at night. Don’t pick up hitchhikers, even moms carrying babies.
Most of the drive from Johannesburg to Kruger is on a modern, 4-lane tolled freeway with a speed limit of 120km/h (75mph). We paid about $14 of tolls each way.
The last bit of the drive from Nelspruit to the Paul Kruger Gate via Hazyview was the sketchiest-feeling. I say sketchy because there were always people on the road, sometimes big crowds of them.
People make gestures at you if you’re obviously foreign, especially if you’re a gay Asian couple. Asians are probably the rarest of the racial groups in South Africa and we definitely attracted more attention than we were comfortable with.
You can stay at Kruger National Park’s public “Rest Camps”
Forget expensive safari lodging. Kruger National Park has a whole system of public rest camps where you can stay in comfort for surprisingly cheap.
Every rest camp has bungalows, a restaurant, a grocery store and a gas station.
The bungalows are basic but have everything you need to cook, clean and sleep.
We stayed three nights in three different bungalows throughout the park. The cost per night ranged from to R903 (US$81) to R1,093 (US$98).
The best way to book bungalows is directly on the SANParks website. You can see real-time availability and reserve the exact bungalow you want.
Food is cheap in South Africa. Most meals even at the rest camp restaurants would cost under R100 (US$9). You can cook yourself with food from the grocery stores for even less – raw steaks can be had for as little as R30 (US$2.70).
We splurged an extra few dollars a day to eat out because driving and looking at animals all day is exhausting. 😉
If you’re looking for a cheaper accommodation option, some rest camps have sites where you pitch your own tent for ~$20 a night.
While out in the park you have to stay in your car at all times except on some bridges and designated stops where you’re allowed to get out. You’re also restricted to driving between roughly 6am-6pm depending on the season. After 6pm, the camp gates close and if you arrive late you could be fined.
For that reason, the larger camps run sunrise/sunset drives as well as ranger-guided bushwalks to give you a chance to safely see the park outside of the restrictions.
The animals on a Kruger National Park safari
You’ll see a lot of animals on a Kruger National Park safari. Although everyone says to get up at the break of dawn and be the first out of the camp gates because animals are most active at dawn and dusk, you’ll still see plenty in the middle of the day, especially herds of large mammals.
I was happy with what we saw, but wished we had seen more lions and leopards. We only had a brief sighting of each at a distance through binoculars. Some people are lucky enough to see them by the side of the road.
There are some drawbacks to self-driving Kruger. You’ll save lots of money but professional guides are much better at spotting and tracking game. They give you a much better chance at spotting all of the Big 5 (Elephants, Rhinos, Lions, Leopards, Buffalo). On the other hand, I liked being able to linger for as long as I wanted at certain sightings and not be on a schedule.
Private game reserves bordering Kruger are good places to see predators like lions and leopards because they can follow animals off-road and you get the combined skilled of several teams of guides tracking down wildlife. If I was to do it again, I might stay a day or two at a private game reserve just for the experience, but it would definitely hurt the budget.
September is the height of dry season in Kruger National Park, which is great for game spotting. Dry season also means the park is mosquito-free so you don’t need to take malaria prevention drugs. We were told that if we returned in March it would be lush and green but easier for animals to hide.
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The sweet spot for cost sharing is when you’re a group of two. You may be able to cut down on costs further by camping instead of staying in bungalows or going in a bigger group, but either way involves more planning and logistics and a bigger group would likely need a bigger, less fuel-efficient car.
By comparison, the cheapest group safaris cost in the range of $170-200 a day. Self-driving Kruger is not only the cheapest but the most flexible way to go. 🙂
Now is a good time to go
The South African rand has been tanking as of late, so it’s a great time to visit South Africa and Kruger National Park. Poaching has re-emerged as a serious problem in Kruger, and it’s hard to say what state the park will be in at some future date. If you’ve dreamed of an African safari, what are you waiting for?