advertisement

There are four broad options when it comes to accommodation in and around Kruger. The most affordable, and most suitable for self-drive safaris, is the network of rest camps operated by SANParks. These offer comfortable and reasonably priced self-catering accommodation, and in most cases they also have campsites, swimming pools, well-stocked grocery and gift shops, and adequate restaurants, but the emphasis is squarely on functionality rather than chic design or luxurious facilities. The other, far costlier option within the park boundaries is to stay at one of the newer and super-luxurious lodges that operate within nine exclusive concessions that were awarded to select private operators circa 2000. Costlier still, offering a universally high standard of accommodation and service, and arguably the finest close-up Big 5 experience in Africa, are the exclusive luxury lodges in Sabi Sands, MalaMala, Timbavati, and other private reserves that share an unfenced border with the western Kruger.

If you're not prepared to shell out for the luxury lodges in the Kruger concessions and private reserves, but you want a level of pampering absent from the Kruger rest camps, then the final option is to stay in one of the hotels or guesthouses situated on Kruger's periphery and enter the park daily. Only 10 minutes from the Phabeni Gate, Rissington Inn is a recommended option, as is Buhala Country House, 10 minutes from the Malelane Gate, with excellent views overlooking the banks of the Crocodile River. With only 10 bedrooms and 2 garden suites (and no children under 10 allowed), this thatched homestead is a tranquil option; rooms are elegant and cool, and dining is superior to anything you'll find in the rest camps. Like Rissington, Buhala will organize tours of the Escarpment as well as safaris into the park; in addition, Buhala can arrange for you to play at Leopard's Creek, arguably the most exclusive golf course in South Africa (tel. 013/792-4372; www.buhala.co.za; from R1,870 double, including breakfast). And for something completely different, take a look at www.serenitylodge.co.za: Serenity Luxury Forest Lodge (tel. 013/790-2000; from R3,420 double) is everything it appears to be. The lodge's lovely treehouse-style suites are linked by timber boardwalks and located in the midst of a lush indigenous forest, with an almost tropical atmosphere more associated with a KwaZulu-Natal lodge; it's hard to believe that the more arid and relatively hostile Kruger landscape is less than 30 minutes away.

Park Rest Camps

The SANParks rest camps, though somewhat institutional in atmosphere, are difficult to fault when it comes to their primary objective of providing comfortable and affordable bases from which to explore one of Africa's truly great wildlife sanctuaries. And while many South Africans share a certain nostalgia in coming back year after year to find the same impala-lily and bird fabric on every curtain, cushion, and bed; Custos Naturae stamped on every sheet; and the kudu crest embossed on every soap; it's fair to say that these rest camps display little in the way of architectural or decorative flair. That said, the (mostly en-suite) accommodations -- situated in camps scattered throughout the park -- are scrupulously clean, relatively comfortable, and, for the most part, very cheap; in fact, they offer astonishingly good value when compared to parks anywhere else in Africa. They are also remarkably varied, with four or five accommodations types located in various options, including rest camps, satellite camps, bushveld camps, and bush lodges (the latter suitable only for groups). Of these, the bushveld camps are highly recommended -- with only 7 to 15 units in each, they offer more privacy than the large rest camps (Skukuza, the largest, has more than 200 units, as well as a landing strip, a 9-hole golf course, a bank, and two restaurants, to mention just a few of the camp's facilities). You will have to do your own cooking, however, when the camp gates are locked at night -- only the main rest camps have restaurants. But if you don't mind self-catering (get a bush barbecue going), you'll be treated to fewer crowds in the bush, as game drives in the bushveld camps are always in smaller 10-seat vehicles

For budget travelers, the most popular accommodations in Kruger are the main rest camps, which offer a variety of cottages, bungalows, huts, and safari tents; of these, Skukuza, Lower Sabie, Satara, and Olifants are the most popular. All units are sparely furnished and semiserviced: Beds are made and floors are swept; you're not really supposed to leave the dishes, but staff will wash up -- do please leave a tip (around R10-R15 per day should do). Water is scarce, so "en suite" usually means flushing toilet, sink (often in the bedroom), and shower, though the upcoming upgrade will probably mean the basin will become part of the bathroom. The bigger camps are like small suburbs and are designed to encourage interaction among guests (units are close together and often emulate the old Voortrekker laager, a circle, facing inward), so there is little privacy. Try to book a river-facing unit (assuming there is one) or check to see whether you can book a perimeter unit; these face into the bush, albeit through a fence.

The three- to six-bedroom guesthouses represent the top accommodations option in each rest camp. It's well worth investigating these if you're traveling with friends, as they are usually situated in the best location in the camp and offer the most privacy and small luxuries (such as a bathtub).

It's really best to plan at least one barbecue, cooked in front of your bungalow, which is what most local visitors do. This doesn't require much advance organization, as all accommodation units have their own fridge and barbecue, and the main rest camps all have shops selling basics such as milk, bread, butter, cheese, spreads, dishwashing liquid, tea, tinned products, cereal, cold drinks, firelighters, and wood, along with a selection of fresh or frozen meats and a variable range of fresh vegetables. That said, epicureans are advised to shop at a supermarket in one of the Escarpment or Lowveld towns before entering Kruger. The wine selection in the camp shops is surprisingly good -- if you don't know what you're looking for and just want an everyday drinking wine, choose one of the Nederburgs, an old standby.

If you can't be bothered to self-cater, all the larger camps also have dining facilities in the form of a Tree Restaurant and/or Wooden Banana Café. Although the food served at these chainlike eateries is not going to win any culinary awards, it's good value, filling, and caters to a great array of tastes and needs, including vegetarians and diabetics -- and standards and service have greatly improved since management was outsourced a few years ago. Hours and prices at the Tree Restaurants vary slightly from one camp to the next, but breakfast typically costs R49 per person, a la carte lunches cost R60 to 90, and three-course dinners are around R140 to 180. The cheaper Wooden Banana Snack Bars are open from 7am to 9pm and serve a variety of salads, pasta dishes, burgers, toasted sandwiches, and other dishes in the R30-to-R40 range.

Note: If you're traveling during peak summer, especially with kids, think twice before booking into a camp without a swimming pool. Facilities for travelers with disabilities are available at Crocodile Bridge, Berg-en-Dal, Lower Sabie, Skukuza, Satara, Olifants, Letaba, Mopani, Shingwedzi, Pretoriuskop, and Tamboti.

The camps listed accept Visa, MasterCard, Diners Club, and American Express.

Other Camps

Among the other main camps, Mopani (tel. 013/735-6535/6; from R575 for a double bungalow) is the most modern in Kruger, with a lovely setting on the Pioneer dam, untamed bush gardens, and relatively large bungalows. Try to book one of the popular units with dam views (nos. 9-12, 43, 45, 47-54, and 101-102), but even if this fails, there are plenty of decks and the bar from which to enjoy the sunset. The one drawback with Mopane is that game-viewing in the surrounding mopane woodland is somewhat hit and miss, but the camp still makes a good stopover en route between the central Kruger and the far north. The other option in northern Kruger is Shingwedzi (tel. 013/735-6806; double-bed bungalows go for R270 with shared shower and kitchen, or R575 en-suite double), a medium-size rest camp with accommodations that have benefited from a much-needed upgrade. Shingwedzi is quieter than most comparably sized camps, due its remote location in prime elephant territory. But game-viewing along the Shingwedzi River can be superb, and the riparian forest between the camp and Kanniedood Dam ranks among the best areas in the park for birding.

Farther south, Orpen (tel. 013/735-6355; from R600 double for a bungalow), one of the Kruger's smallest camps, with only 15 units, has benefited from a much-needed upgrade. The area also enjoys a reputation for fine sightings -- lions, cheetahs, and wild dogs are regularly seen in the area. It's far better to book its satellite camp, Tamboti, which is Kruger's answer to the East African safari tent, and one of the park's unsung gems. Tamboti comprises 40 tents, each with two to three beds, tucked away among apple leaf, jackalberry, and sycamore fig trees on the banks of the Timbavati River (R675 fully equipped double; R295 double with communal ablutions and kitchens). Book well in advance, though, as the camp is very popular, mostly because of its location and the privacy of the tents, every one of which has a view; animals, particularly elephants, are attracted by the promise of water. Do bear in mind that, as a satellite camp, it has no restaurant or any staff.

Another low-key gem, ideal for true bush aficionados, is the tiny camp of Balule (tel. 013/735-6606), set near the banks of the Olifants River between Olifants and Satara rest camps. There are just six three-bed huts here, at the bargain price of R205 a double using common shower blocks. The rusticity of Balule is underscored by the lack of electricity (paraffin lamps light it up by night), and the nearest shop, restaurant, and filling station are at Olifants, which is also where you need to check in, so stock up on food and firewood while you are there.

Note: Two camps aren't worth considering: Crocodile Bridge (tel. 013/735-6012) is much too close to civilization, across the river from the farms that neighbor Kruger, where you might as well be, with a better view looking back at the park. Pretoriuskop (tel. 013/735-5128), Kruger's oldest camp, is popular but only 8km (5 miles) from the Numbi Gate. Most people press on to Berg-en-Dal, deeper in the bush.

Bushveld Camps

The five bushveld camps are much smaller than the major rest camps and provide a greater sense of being in the bush. They have no restaurants or shops, however, so you must do your own cooking, and any last-minute shopping will have to be done at the nearest rest camp. On the plus side, most of the en-suite units are more spacious than rest-camp options and feature well-equipped kitchens with braai (barbecue) spots. Only residents are allowed to travel the access road, which makes these an excellent place to get away from it all. Best of all, the game drives are in vehicles that accommodate 8 to 10 people. You pay a little more for the seclusion -- rates range from R695 to R1,275 for two to four persons -- but it's still good value.

The centrally located Talamati, close to the Orpen Gate (tel. 013/735-6343), and southern Biyamiti, close to the Malelane Gate (tel. 013/735-6171), are the most popular, located as they are in Kruger's game-rich areas, and easily accessed. Shimuwini, Bateleur, and Sirheni are all in the northern section of the park. Shimuwini, which is reached via the Phalaborwa Gate (tel. 013/735-6683), and Sirheni, halfway between Shingwedzi and Punda Maria (tel. 013/735-6860), both have scenic waterside settings that attract a variety of game and birds, and offer night drives. Bateleur (tel. 031/735-6843) is the oldest bushveld camp and the most intimate, with only 7 thatched units rather than the usual 15. The closest gate to Bateleur is Phalaborwa. Tip: If you are traveling in a large group or as a family with teenage kids, or you just want assured privacy, it is worth asking about the two bush lodges: Roodewal (44km/28 miles north of Satara) and Boulders (25km/15 miles south of Mopani) comprise separate sleeping units connected via boardwalks to communal living areas. Booking one of these lodges (Roodewal enjoys the better setting) will give you the ultimate in 21st-century luxury: peace and privacy at a fraction of the cost of renting an entire lodge in the private reserves that abut the Kruger. The rate is R1,900 and R2,020 for the first four persons, respectively; each additional person costs R370. The lodges sleep a maximum of 19 and 12 persons, respectively.

For more information on all of the above, contact Kruger reservations.

Sleepover Hides

An exciting new innovation is the introduction of two new sleepover hides in 2006: Shipandane, situated 3km (2 miles) south of Mopani camp, on the Tsendze River, and Sable Dam hide, near Phalaborwa Gate. Bird hides by day, they are transformed into primitive dwellings 30 minutes before the gates close. Each comprises a boma with barbecue, a sleeping area (minimum 2 persons; maximum 6; R325 for the first 2 people and R160 per additional person), and a chemical toilet. With the presence of water comes game: Large buffalo herds and elephant bulls frequent these areas, often meters from where you sleep, and this is the closest you'll get (outside a few select private lodges such as Umlani) to wild, dangerous animals without the presence of an armed ranger. It's a highly recommended experience if you like your nature untainted by noise and the presence of other people, but it's not for the fainthearted. There is no electricity (you are supplied with a chargeable lamp) or running water, you will have to make your own bed (pick up bedding and keys from Mopani camp and Phalaborwa Gate, respectively), and you will have to bring your own food, wood, and water (cutlery and crockery supplied). The perimeter is fenced, and under no circumstances -- unless you have a masochistic suicidal streak -- should you leave the enclosure at night.

Camping

Billed as a "rustic campsite," Tzendse, on the banks of the eponymous river, is the latest place to pitch your tent. Opened in late 2006, it is also the only "pure" campsite. With no built accommodations or reception area, it is by far the most serene and scenic campsite in the park, with open-air communal showers. Reception is at Mopani. Campsites are also available at Balule, Berg-en-Dal, Crocodile Bridge, Letaba, Malelane, Maroela, Lower Sabie, Pretoriuskop, Punda Maria, Satara, Shingwedzi, and Skukuza. Campers share bathrooms (shower/toilet blocks) and kitchens, and have access to all rest-camp facilities. Every site has a braai (barbecue), and many also have electricity; you will need to bring in all your own equipment, however, including a tent. Camping costs R120 to R150 per site for the first two people, and another R40 to R50 for every additional person, to a maximum of six per site. (If you want to camp without having to pitch a tent or lug bedding across the world, a number of camps have furnished and equipped safari tents. Most are reviewed above -- the best option is Tamboti, a satellite of Orpen.)

Private Concessions Within Kruger -- Modeled on the successful government program in Botswana, the Kruger concessions were awarded to various safari companies for a 20-year period, starting in the year 2000, on the condition that camps should in no way disturb the environment. This is why most camps are raised off the ground. Competition for these tenders was understandably stiff, and the operators chosen all come with experience, utilizing the best in the business to establish these camps. The standard of accommodation at most concession lodges is comparable to their luxurious counterparts in Sabi Sands and other top private reserves adjoining the national park, and the lodges are run in a similar manner, offering game drives in open vehicles and, in some cases, guided walks within the concession.

In keeping with the service offered by the private reserves, guides within most of these concessions can theoretically drive off-road to track or view animals from a close-up perspective, but the strict procedures imposed by Kruger authorities severely limit the number of sightings where this is permitted. Also, the animals are not always as acclimatized to vehicles as those in the private reserves. As a result, the Kruger concessions tend to offer rather erratic game-viewing and do not promise the almost guaranteed full house of Big 5 sightings associated with Sabi Sands, which makes them less suitable to the typical first-time safarigoer. On the plus side, the Kruger concessions tend to have more of a wilderness feel, and game drives are less frantically oriented toward chasing the Big 5. Guides tend to concentrate on whatever animals they might chance upon, rather than following radio alerts to other vehicles' sightings. As such, the ideal combination, budget permitting, would be to follow a few days of intensive Big 5 game-viewing in Sabi Sands (or another private reserve) with a more chilled sojourn at one of the Kruger concessions.

Which concession? Broadly, the best in terms of overall lodge/wildlife experience is (unsurprisingly) Singita, but it is priced accordingly. Your experience could be compromised by the rains, which means you can't go off-road or, in some cases, even use internal game-viewing roads. We rate Rhino highly for the general experience (though it's more foot orientated) and Shishangani/Shawu/Shonga, Lukimbi, and Imbali for wildlife. SSS is especially good for rhino, Lukimbi for lion, Imbali for lion and cheetah. In addition to the top concessions reviewed below, another option is the upscale Tinga Private Game Lodge (tel. 013/735-8400 or 0861/505-050; www.africanpridehotels.com/tinga), which operates two luxury lodges: Narina and Legends, both in the vicinity of Skukuza. Grand without being overly decadent, it aims high with colonial styling; each has a private lounge, a large bathroom with double showers, and its own heated plunge pool. It's pricey (from R8,000 double), but good deals are frequently found on the Internet. The most singular of the Kruger concessions, set in the far north, is Makuleke Contractual Park, which comprises the 23,600-hectare (58,292-acre) wedge of land between the Luvuvhu and Limpopo River. This area was incorporated into Kruger in 1969, when its 1,500 Makuleke residents were forcibly evicted at the hands of the apartheid government. In 1998, the Makulele people won the first land claim in Kruger, but instead of resettling the land that was returned to them, they opted to develop it for tourism and contract game management to the national park. Today two private lodges (Pafuri Camp and The Outpost) lie within the concession, and local people contribute to the daily running of both, a landmark exercise in sustainable development. Also known as the Pafuri Triangle, Makulele has the highest biodiversity of any part in the Kruger, with more than 75% of the park's species occurring in just 1% of its surface area, it's the one part of the park with a truly tropical ecology. The area is legendary among South African birdwatchers for the presence of several rarities, including Pel's fishing owl, racket-tailed roller, crested guinea-fowl, and triple-banded courser. It is also noted for several nonwildlife landmarks, notably the lush yellow fever forest running toward Crooks Corner near the confluence of the two rivers, the spectacular Lanner Gorge, and the 16th-century Thulamela Heritage Site. However, general game-viewing in Makulele can be rather slow and large predators are scarce, making it more attractive to dedicated wilderness enthusiasts and birdwatchers than to safari neophytes.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.