The ultimate guide to a South African safari in Kruger National Park

Table Of Contents

Feeling overwhelmed by all the possible choices, lodging, and information when searching for a South African safari? I was, too, when I researched how to do a safari in Kruger National Park. To save you headaches and help you plan easily, I’ve combined everything you need to know here, based on my research and recent personal experiences in Kruger.

Alternatively, if you’d rather have everything planned for you, or if you want to combine a trip to Kruger with other parts of South Africa, G Adventures offers amazing tour packages for an epic South African trip.

PS: please follow these rules and etiquette for a conscious, sustainable safari experience.

Where to start when planning a South African safari?

There’s so much that goes into play when planning for a safari, but before you start looking at your options, you first need to know the following.

When do you want to go on a South African safari? 

south african safari in winter

Most people recommend going in the winter months (May-September) when the grass is short and it’s easier to spot animals.  

Understand the safari terminologies 

south african safari

To avoid confusion, it is important to understand terms such as the Big 5, overlanding, game drive, bush trails, camps vs. lodges, etc. Read about the safari terminologies here

Have a general idea of your budget to manage your expectations 

Many people think safaris are expensive, and that’s just not true. We paid less than €500 per person for a 4-day safari trip in Kruger which included airport transfers to Johannesburg, game drives, most meals, park fees, accommodation, and we had a pool and private bathroom. 

However, it’s important to have an idea of how much you are willing to spend because the options are abundant, from basic, simple tents and shared bathrooms to luxurious, 5-star hotels and everything in between. Having an idea of your spending budget will also help you decide if you want to do a private safari game drive or a shared one. 

This website is an excellent resource for comparing various safari options and South African safari prices for all budgets. 

Do you want to self-drive or do you want a full package?

If this is your first time doing a safari, I recommend getting a full package. This will reduce logistic nightmares and ensure that you are accompanied by a knowledgeable game ranger. Below is more on self-drive safaris.

Should you do a private or shared game drive?

private game drive kruger

This depends on many factors. If you just want to see animals, take a few photos, and don’t mind sharing with strangers, it’s fine to do a shared game drive. Most jeeps don’t allow more than 9 people, and children younger than 8 are not allowed on safaris (some places don’t allow anyone younger than 12 or 16 years of age).

However, there are valid reasons for choosing a private safari:

  • If you have social anxiety or prefer a more intimate moment with your partner or friends
  • If you want a customised trip specifically tailored to your preferences
  • If you are heavily invested in shooting videos and photos
  • If you have a big budget and money is not an issue

Where to find the best safari in South Africa?

zebras in kruger

Kruger is hands down one of the best places to do a safari in South Africa, for the following reasons:

  1. Kruger National Park is a huge park where you can see so much wildlife including the Big 5. Kruger is 7,523 square miles (19,485 square km), and as big as New Jersey, Wales, and Slovenia 
  2. It has all the options for the safari of your choosing, whether you want a luxury trip or are on a tight budget, or want to do a self-drive
  3. Self-drive safaris are very easy to do in Kruger as there are main roads that are paved through the park, and they are generally more affordable compared to full safari packages, but I don’t recommend them if it’s your first safari

If you do choose to self-drive, you can rent a car in Johannesburg and drive about 4-5 hours until you reach Kruger. For accommodation there are plenty of options, you can find what you need for your budget for Kruger on hotel websites easily. 

Where else can you do safaris in South Africa aside from Kruger?

kruger national park

There are other safari options near Cape Town and closer to Johannesburg, but they are usually on private game reserves and much smaller than Kruger National Park, meaning more limited sightings of animals. 

Why would people choose these places instead of Kruger?

  • Proximity to where they are and convenience; e.g. if you’re in Cape Town it’s easier to go to Aquila Game Reserve or Inverdoorn Game Reserve
  • Risks of malaria in Kruger (more below)

Important things to know about Kruger National Park

Kruger is divided into 3 parts: north, central, south

  • South Kruger is generally more crowded because it is the most popular area and closest to Johannesburg 
  • Central Kruger is still popular but less crowded than the south
  • North Kruger has fewer animals compared to the South and Central Kruger, but there is still plenty of wildlife and it’s great for bird-watching

Types of animals you will find in Kruger National Park

lions kruger
  • South Kruger: elephants are abundant, but generally you have fewer sightings of lions, meaning more chances to see cheetahs and wild dogs, both of which are rare to see
  • Central Kruger runs from the Sabi River to the Oliphants River. This area is full of big cats such as leopards, lions, cheetahs, but also hyenas
  • North Kruger: you can expect to see lots of elephants and birds 

Note that you will never see tigers in South Africa or any parts of Africa. Tigers are only found in Asian countries, with the majority being in India. 

What is “Greater Kruger”? 

Greater Kruger refers to areas around the Kruger National Park where the private game reserves are, aka areas privately owned and managed, compared to the national park which is owned by the government. Game reserves are exclusive and hence pricier. In the past, those in the Greater Kruger area used to fence off their property, but most have now taken them down so the wildlife can roam freely from different parts of Kruger National Park

Where to fly into if you want to visit Kruger and Greater Kruger?

Most people fly into Johannesburg, which is a minimum of four hours drive from South Kruger. However, you can also fly into Kruger National Park from Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Durban. There are three airports for each area.

  • South Kruger: Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport (KMI)
  • Central Kruger: Hoedspruit Eastgate Airport
  • North Kruger: Phalaborwa Airport

Is there a risk of malaria in Kruger?

While most parts of South Africa (Northern, Eastern and Western Cape, the North West Province – Madikwe and Pilanesburg) are free of malaria, Kruger unfortunately does contain risks of malaria, especially in the summer months (October-April). You will need to wear natural bug spray (please avoid anything with chemicals), cover up with long-sleeve clothes, and take malaria tablets. 

My recommendations based on my experience in Kruger National Park

How long should your safari package be

I recommend spending at least three days in Kruger (or any safari, for that matter) to ensure that you see all kinds of animals. 

We did a 4-day safari in Kruger so that we could also do the panorama route on one of the days. This scenic long road has multiple places of interest along the way, such as waterfalls, the world’s third largest canyon (Blyde River Canyon), and cultural places. We also had the option to do more game drives instead of the panorama route.

Any longer than 4 days and you might get tired of being in the jeep for endless hours every day and jaded from seeing similar animals.

Do a variety of game drives

south african safari water buffalo

Different animals are active at different times of the day, so I recommend doing a variety of game drives in order to see them all (most safari packages include game drives at various times of the day, although you might need to pay extra to request a night safari). 

Go in the winter months

  • The winter months are the best times to see animals easily, due to low vegetation, though in the summer everything will be more lush and green
  • The heat is more bearable. And while you will be freezing on a sunrise safari game drive in the winter, the day warms up considerably once the sun is out
    • Average temperatures in winter in Kruger: 11°C/52°F up to 28°C/82°F
    • Average temperatures in summer in Kruger: 18°C/64°F up to 32°C/90°F
  • Fewer mosquitoes in the winter months, meaning a lower risk of malaria
  • While the winter months still do attract tourists, it’s still less crowded than the summer months, especially in December
  • If you go in the summer, choose an accommodation that has a pool. You will need it

Private or shared game drive?

I’ve only ever done shared safaris and they were always fine. If people get loud or rambunctious or overexcited (which did happen when we saw baby lions), the game ranger will remind them to be quiet.

Final thoughts on planning your South African safari

Before embarking on your safari, make sure to have an approximate idea of your budget and accommodation preferences and whether you’d rather get a full package or do a self-drive. In Kruger National Park, self-drives are popular among experienced safari-goers, but with a full safari package, everything is taken care of for you, which, for me, was the best option.

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