Kruger National Park: The Complete Guide

Leopards on Safari, Kruger National Park

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Kruger National Park

Address
South Africa
Phone +27 13 735 4000

Arguably the most famous game reserve in all of Africa, Kruger National Park is a vast tract of land covering nearly 20,000 square kilometers (7,722 square miles), in the northeast corner of South Africa. It spans the Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces, and runs along the national border with Mozambique. It is the ultimate safari destination for visitors to South Africa, offering day visits, overnight stays, self-drive safaris, and guided game drives. 

Kruger National Park was first established as a wildlife refuge in 1898 when it was proclaimed as the Sabie Game Reserve by the president of the Transvaal Republic, Paul Kruger. In 1926, the passing of the National Parks Act led to the merging of the Kruger with nearby Shingwedzi Game Reserve, creating South Africa’s very first national park. More recently, the Kruger became part of the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Park, an international collaboration that joins the park with Limpopo National Park in Mozambique and Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe. As a result, animals can now move freely across international borders as they would have done for thousands of years. 

Things to Do

The vast majority of people visit the Kruger to go on safari. You can drive your own car along the well-maintained tarred and gravel roads or book a guided game drive through any of the rest camps. Options for the latter include drives in the early morning, late afternoon, and at night. One of the best ways to experience the park in all its beauty is on foot, either with a guided walk at the camps or on one of the multi-day Wilderness Trails. Four-wheel drive enthusiasts can test their vehicles (and their mettle) on the park’s off-road trails, while mountain biking is offered at Olifants camp. Golfers can even tee off at Skukuza Golf Course, whose un-fenced green is frequently visited by hippo, impala, and warthog. 

Kruger also has a fascinating human history, with evidence of people and their prehistoric ancestors living in the region for up to 500,000 years. More than 300 Stone Age archaeological sites have been discovered within the park, while other sites relating to the area’s Iron Age and San occupants also exist. In particular, the Kruger is known for its San rock art sites, of which there are approximately 130 on record. Sites of particular anthropological interest include the Albasini Ruins (the remains of a 19th-century Portuguese trading route), and the Iron Age settlements at Masorini and Thulamela.

Safari Drives

A safari drive is the main activity at Kruger National Park, and the park’s incredible size means that it spans a number of different ecosystems including savannah, thornveld, and woodland. This diversity creates the ideal habitat for an astounding variety of flora and fauna, including nearly 150 different species of large mammals—more than any other African game reserve. Amongst them are the Big Five safari animals, which are buffalo, elephants, lions, leopards, and rhino (both black and white). The Little Five are also present in the park, and are some of the smallest creatures at Kruger. Other top wildlife sightings include the cheetah, the Sharpe’s grysbok, and the endangered African wild dog. The best time to spot wildlife is in the early morning or late afternoon, while guided night drives provide a unique opportunity to look for nocturnal species

Hiring a driver or joining a tour group is the best way to explore the massive park, since guides are in communication with each other and can alert one another when there's an animal sighting. You can book a tour through the park itself or contract a private tour guide for more personalized attention. Renting a vehicle and driving yourself through the park is also an option for those who want the freedom to explore on their own.

Best Hikes & Trails

Driving around on a safari sounds like a dream vacation, but embarking on foot through the national park and literally stepping into nature is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. There are several Wilderness Trails that are multi-day hikes led by a local guide, where campers explore the bush and camp out. The hikes move at a leisurely pace, but hikers may be trekking up to 12 miles per day and endurance is necessary.

  • Bushmans Trail: You'll have one of the best chances for getting up close and personal with big game on the Bushmans Trail, especially white rhino. The area is made up of low valleys surrounded by tall rocky hills, providing some excellent scenery while walking. This walk also includes important historical sites, like San cave paintings dating back thousands of years.
  • Napi Trail: The campsite on the Napi Trail is at the confluence of two rivers in the national park, which naturally attracts all types of wildlife who come to drink at the riverbank. One of the best experiences, however, is nighttime as campers fall asleep to the lively sounds of the bush.
  • Sweni Trail: Hike along the Sweni River and you'll come across not just the animals that graze near the water, but their predators as well. Hearing the roars of nearby lions is common once the sun goes down, which you'll be able to hear while stargazing at the night sky.
  • Guided Day Treks: For those who want to hike around without the rustic bush camping experience, you can join a guided hike that leaves in the morning and lasts a few hours.

Where to Camp

There are several options for camping at Kruger National Park at over a dozen different campgrounds, ranging from primitive campsites where campers need to pitch their own tent to luxury bungalows and cottages. There are 12 main rest camps at the national park, all of which offer electricity, a camp store, a gas station, laundry facilities, and a restaurant or self-service café. In addition, there are five "bushveld camps" for campers who don't mind trading in the amenities of the main camps for a more intimate and remote experience.

You have to reserve your place to sleep before you arrive, choosing which campground you want to stay in and the type of accommodation you'll be sleeping in.

  • Skukuza Camp: This is the largest campground at Kruger National Park and includes the most services for guests, such as multiple restaurants, a golf course, and the only airport inside the park. There are observation decks around the camp and you're likely to see animals without leaving the grounds—lions and cheetahs occasionally interrupt golfers by hunting prey right on the course.
  • Berg-en-Dal Camp: Berg-en-Dal is one of the most accessible campgrounds as it's only an hour away by car from the major city of Mbombela. The Rhino Trail is a hiking path that goes around the camp and offers great views of wildlife. The campground also has a swimming pool for cooling off after a day of exploring.
  • Bushveld Camps: There are five bushveld camps—Bateleur, Biyamiti, Shimuwini, Sirheni, and Talamati. These are restricted to overnight guests and have fewer facilities than the main rest camps, but they do give guests a unique feeling of remoteness and at night you're more likely to hear the sounds of the park.

Where to Stay Nearby

There are also 10 private lodges and three luxury tented camps located on concessions within the park. These are five-star, ultra-upmarket options for those that want to combine days spent game-viewing with gourmet meals, spa facilities, and impeccable service. Whatever accommodation option you choose, booking in advance is essential and can be done online. 

  • Skukuza Safari Lodge: Of the high-end lodges, the Skukuza Safari Lodge is the most low-key and more like a hotel than a luxury safari getaway, also making it much more accessible. It's in the same area as the huge Skukuza Campground and near the Skukuza Airport for easy transportation.
  • Lukimbi Safari Lodge: This family-friendly lodge offers the full five-star package. Parents enjoy chef-prepared meals with kid-friendly options, and there's a spa for total pampering. The rooms overlook the nearby river, which is a gathering spot for animals you can see directly from the lodge.
  • Singita Lebombo Lodge: Floor-to-ceiling glass windows, premier bottles of South African wine, and elephants grazing outside your room make the Singita Lebombo Lodge stand out as one of the extravagant places to stay in the whole park.

How to Get There

The Kruger is easily accessible via road for self-drive guests, with tarred roads leading to all nine entrance gates. Make sure to leave plenty of time when planning your journey, as all gates close at night (although late entry may be permitted for a fee). Overseas visitors generally choose to fly into Johannesburg and then catch a connecting flight to one of four airports. Of these, only Skukuza Airport is located within the park itself, while Phalaborwa Airport, Hoedspruit Airport, and the Kruger/Mpumalanga International Airport are situated close to its boundaries. Daily flights also exist from Cape Town and Durban.

Upon arrival at any of these airports, you can hire a rental car to take you to (and around) the park. Alternatively, some private bus companies organize shuttles between the airports and the park, while those on a packaged tour will likely have their transport taken care of for them.

Accessibility

Visitors with mobility challenges can fully enjoy several areas of the park, including safari drives, camping, and reaching scenic outlooks via accessible boardwalks. However, the facilities vary greatly depending on which area of the park you're in, so take a look at the detailed accessibility guides for each camp area to confirm what is available. Mobility impaired guests who need accommodations in the park can also reserve one of the campsites or bungalows designed with accessibility in mind.

The tour vans provided by the park don't have lifts or ramps to accommodate guests in wheelchairs, but there are multiple providers in the area that are focused on tours for guests with disabilities, such as Epic Enabled Safaris.

Tips for Your Visit

  • Early morning and evening are usually when animals are most active, making for the best time to spotting wildlife.
  • Many first-time visitors make the mistake of trying to cover too much ground. Plan out your visit and take your time to explore the park, since slow travel is the best way to see animals. Every camp area maintains a list of areas with animal sightings that's updated daily, so inquire before you set out.
  • Malaria is a common issue when traveling around the bush of South Africa. Take malaria precautions like medication, long sleeve shirts, and insect repellant.
  • Pack a flashlight if you're camping in the park. The campsites are not well-lit and a flashlight is required for walking around after dark.
  • April to September is the dry season and the best time to visit, with warm days and cool nights. October to March is hot and rainy, which brings lush green landscapes that are pretty but make it harder to see animals.
  • No pets are allowed inside the park.
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Kruger National Park, South Africa: The Complete Guide