SANParks officials make no bones about the fact that their main concern is wildlife; Homo sapiens are a necessary nuisance. Although an effort is made to service visitors' needs, such as providing escorted game drives (highly recommended unless you're going on to a private game reserve), and the facilities and park infrastructure are undergoing a massive upgrade following a R32-million cash injection, the rules (such as gate-opening times) are inflexible, the staff can be bureaucratic, and, because services are geared toward the South African self-catering market, you're pretty much expected to toe the line. Here's how.
The Lay of the Land
Despite its many defined eco-zones, to the untrained eye, much of the park looks the same. A major portion is covered with a large shrublike tree called mopane. You'll find the most variation in the south and far north of the park -- old bush hands, in fact, divide the park into three distinct regions: The south they call the "circus"; the central area, the "zoo"; and the north, the "wilderness." These are apt descriptions, particularly in the winter months, when the human and animal population soars in the water-rich south, while the less-accessible north remains a calm oasis.
Southern Kruger supports some of the richest game concentrations in Africa, which, in turn, attracts the most people. The busiest -- and often very rewarding -- road linking Skukuza to Lower Sabie Rest Camp is often referred to as Piccadilly Highway, and motorists have been known to virtually jostle each other to get a better view of lions and even create traffic jams around great sightings. It's the best part of the park for spotting rhinos (very common btw. Lower Sabie and Crocodile Bridge), leopard, and spotted hyena, and also hosts good concentrations of lion, elephant, and buffalo.
The central area still features a wide variety of species, particularly around Satara Rest Camp, where open plains frequently reward with good sightings and cheetah. A little more laid-back, with fewer camps, but with a reputation for the highest concentration of lions, this area continues to attract its fair share of tourists.
Most of the 13,000-odd resident elephants are found north of Olifants rest camp, but mile after mile of dense mopane scrubland makes even these huge animals difficult to see. The northern part of the park is probably not the best destination for a first-time visitor, unless you're a bird-watcher or it's combined with a sojourn in the south, but this remote wilderness area has definite advantages for real bush lovers, not least because there are fewer people. As you travel farther north, the mopane is broken by the lush riverine vegetation of the Shingwedzi, the baobab-dotted sandveld, fever-tree forests, and, finally, the tropical flood plains that lie between the Luvuvhu and Limpopo rivers. This northernmost part of the park is, in fact, at the crossroads of nine of Africa's major ecosystems, and the countryside is full of contrasts and the most prolific birdlife in the park: This region is Birdlife S.A.'s top destination. Spend at least 5 days in the Kruger -- ideally, longer -- if you include the north in your itinerary.
Designated Pit Stops & Picnic Sites
The designated sites dotted throughout the park are the only places visitors are allowed to get out of their vehicles. Maps, available at the entry gates and all rest camp shops, will indicate where these are located, as well as the types of facilities each has. (These may include restrooms, boiling water, barbecue grills, seating, shade, telephones, educational displays, and shops manned by attendants who sell wood, hot refreshments, and cold drinks.) The best-equipped and most popular sites are Nkulu (on the Sabie River btw. Skukuza and Lower Sabie), Afsaal (under a giant jackalberry tree on the main road btw. Skukuza and Malelane), and Tshokwane (near the three-way junction of the road connecting Skukuza and Lower Sabie to Satara, and named after an elephant bull that used to frequent the area). The shops here sell everything from scones to brandy. Less busy, with good game- and bird-viewing opportunities, are Orpen Dam, an elevated picnic spot overlooking the water, east of Tshokwane; and Pafuri, the best picnic site in the park, but located in the far north.
Guided Game Drives & Walks
Even if you're self-driving, a guided game drive in an open-topped vehicle is a good way to get oriented, as experienced guides identify animals so you don't have to look them up in a book. During peak season, the major rest camps (Skukuza, Lower Sabie, Satara, Berg-en-Dal) provide these in large 23-seat vehicles; the only way to avoid potential noise and obstructed views is to book one of the less popular main camps (such as Mopani) out of season or stay at one of the recommended bush camps, where drives take place in open-topped 10-seaters.
The best option, offered almost everywhere, is a sunrise drive (R140 per person at rest camps, R176 at bush camps), which departs any time from 4 to 6am (30 min. before gates open). The 3-hour sunset drives (R140 per person at rest camps and gate entrances; bush camps R176), departing 2 hours before the gates close, are as popular as the sunrise drives. You can also book these at the entrance gates, meaning you don't have to overnight here to experience this, and you'll be accommodated on a 10- or 23-seater, depending on numbers. However, the 2-hour night drive (R120-R176), departing 2 hours after the gates close, is the one to make sure you're on; outside the concession areas, this is the only way to see the Kruger at night, giving visitors an opportunity to view the nocturnal activities of such animals as bushbabies, porcupines, civets, hyenas, honey badgers, and aardvarks. Be warned, however, that nocturnal animals are shy, and on a bad night, sightings can be frustratingly rare. You can book any of these drives when making your accommodations booking--particularly advisable for early-morning and night drives, and essential during school holidays (every province has different dates, but they tend to fall in June-July, Sept, Dec-Jan, and Apr).
To appreciate one of the country's more authentic culinary experiences, you may enjoy a bush braai, offered by the Kruger's main camps. These barbecues under the stars are a sociable way to conclude late-afternoon game drives. Bush "breakfasts," where you break for a sandwich-type meal in the bush, are less agreeable. Cost for either is about R475 per person, but confirm availability and price when booking.
If sitting in a vehicle undermines your experience of the bush, consider morning walks (R270 per person), which usually last 3 to 4 hours with a maximum of eight people, offered at most rest camps and bushveld camps. If you don't mind the heat, afternoon walks (R210) are another option.
Big Game on Foot: Wilderness Trails
These 3-night, 4-day trails (R2,710 per person for the duration), catering to a maximum of eight people, offer an opportunity to experience the real essence of the African bush in Kruger at an extremely affordable rate. Although you are unlikely to see quite as much big game on foot (and you may spend a lot of time hoping you don't), and you won't get as close to most animals as you can in a vehicle (animals don't associate the smell of gasoline with humans), you will be introduced to the trees, insects, and animals that make up the surrounding bush under the protection of an armed and experienced guide. The emphasis is on reconnecting with the wilderness in some elemental way rather than ticking off species, but guides are armed for a reason.
As yet, there has never been a human fatality on any of the Kruger trails, and considering the caliber of the guides on hand, it is unlikely to ever occur, but do follow their instructions -- given at the start of each trail -- closely.
The locations of the base camps -- comprising thatched A-framed two-bed huts with reed-walled, solar-heated showers and a shared flushing toilet -- have been selected for their natural beauty. Note that, unlike the trails offered in KwaZulu-Natal's Hluhluwe-Umfolozi reserve, you'll return to the same base camp every night. Besides bedding, towels, cutlery, and food, the park supplies rucksacks and water bottles. Drinks (which you must supply) are kept cold in gas fridges. Age limits are 12 to 60 years, and a reasonable degree of fitness is required -- you will be covering from 8 to 15km (5-9 1/4 miles) a day.
You have seven trails to choose from: The Napi, Bushman, and Wolhuter are all situated in the southwestern section, known for white rhino, granite hills, and Bushman rock paintings. The Metsi-Metsi, which overlooks a small waterhole, and the Sweni, which overlooks the marula and knobthorn savanna, are in the central area, known for its lions. Olifants Trail, which overlooks the perennial Olifants River, west of its confluence with the Letaba, is particularly scenic and one of the most popular. Nyalaland, situated in the pristine northern wilderness among the sandveld's fever tree and baobab forests, is a favorite of birders. But even if you're not a birder, the vegetation and views more than make up for the relative lack of game. Reservations often need to be made well in advance; you can check availability for all trails departing up to a year ahead (and make bookings) at www.sanparks.org.
Hard-core wilderness enthusiasts who are very fit and want to experience a "hard" hike rather than the relaxing standard wilderness trails should sign up for the new 3-night Olifants Back Pack Trail. It departs from Olifants main rest camp and is fairly grueling -- you walk to a new overnight spot every night, set up camp unaided, and carry all provisions in (and out), including your own tent. Olifants is also the camp to book into if you want to tackle a Mountain Bike Trail in the park. A relatively recent innovation, these half- or full-day guided mountain bike trails depart from Olifants Rest Camp. Places are limited to six participants per trail (reservations should be made well in advance) and are led by two qualified and armed field guides; bikes are provided. Three routes are available, graded according to difficulty and technicality (the Hardekool Draai trail is recommended for beginners).
Lastly, bear in mind that early-morning and evening guided walks for a maximum of eight persons is offered at most camps for those keen to walk, but not particularly far.
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.