Last Updated on June 20, 2023
The shrill cry of an African fish eagle high above the Sabie River wakes you up early in the morning, and in the distance, you hear the grunting noises of hippos milling in nearby pools. The smell of your neighbor’s coffee wafts in through the half-open window. It is still dark outside, but car engines start purring and people are moving about, getting ready for an early morning game drive. A hyena’s shrill laughter echoes through the air. You sigh contentedly. You are in Kruger National Park!
With a park the size of the country of Wales, it may not be easy to plan your self-drive safari. Time is usually a limiting factor, so I will focus on the rest camps and their surroundings in the southern part of Kruger. Believe me, there is plenty to see and do!
There are five entrance gates and six camps in the southern area, namely:
- Malelane Gate, near Malelane and Berg-en-Dal Camps;
- Crocodile Bridge Gate,near Crocodile Bridge Camp;
- Numbi Gate, near Pretoriuskop Camp;
- Phabeni Gate, near Pretoriuskop Camp and Skukuza Main Camp; and
- Paul Kruger Gate, near Skukuza Main Camp.
The other big camp in the area, Lower Sabie, can be accessed from either the Paul Kruger or the Crocodile Bridge Gates.
Here are the 11 best things to do in southern Kruger National Park:
1. Visit the Main Camp, Skukuza
Skukuza, situated on the Sabie River’s southern banks, is Kruger National Park’s administrative headquarters and largest rest camp.
One easy option to get to the park is to fly, either into the main camp, Skukuza, or to Nelspruit. Both airports have car rental facilities. My favorite is landing in the bush at the charming and modern Skukuza Airport and experiencing the first game drive as you make your way to your destination.
If you travel from Johannesburg by car on the N4, allow about four hours to drive to Nelspruit. On the way, you should stop at Millys Restaurant near eNtokozweni (Machadodorp). Remember to make use of a pitstop when you see one–they are few and far between! From Nelspruit to the Numbi Gate it is about an hours’ drive west on the R40, and to Phabeni Gate it is just a few minutes longer. To get to the Paul Kruger Gate it takes about an hour and a half from Nelspruit.
Alternatively, take the scenic Panorama Route from Johannesburg. Turn west just before eNtokozweni, along the Blyde River Canyon, the third-largest canyon in the world. This route leads to the bustling tourist town of Hazyview, close to Numbi, Phabeni, and the Paul Kruger Gates.
A word of advice: Use the Phabeni Gate instead of the Paul Kruger Gate. The road between Hazyview and the Kruger Gate gets very busy with local traffic and often stray animals. While at the gate, visit the Albasini Ruins, the ruins of a 19th century trading post. There are exhibits of old photographs and artifacts documenting daily life during those times.
There is a first aid center, gas station, shop, restaurant or self-service cafeteria, and braai (barbecue) and communal kitchen facilities in all of the main rest camps. Be ready to splurge in the gift stores. They have a tempting variety of clothing and souvenirs, all excellent-quality products.
Skukuza contains a staff village (not accessible to the public), a church, a school, a bank, and doctors’ offices. Guests are welcome to visit the Stevenson Hamilton Memorial Library; it offers a wealth of information for those interested in the history of the park.
There is also a riverfront walkway where you can while away the hours next to the water, enjoying the cheeky, iridescent glossy starlings and vervet monkeys near the tables. Watch out for elephants and giraffes along the banks.
When in the camp, you should also keep your eyes open for fruit bats, thick–tailed bush babies (a type of lemur), purple-crested louries, and spotted hyenas. At night remember to carry a flashlight. Although the camps are fenced in, you never know what you may spot, even beyond the fence.
2. Explore Around Skukuza
For a unique experience, arrange to play golf at the 9-hole Skukuza Golf Club, situated on the outskirts of the village. The course is not fenced in, and hippos, impala, baboons, and warthogs are regularly seen. Keep an eye out for all wildlife. Golfers have also seen lions, elephants, and leopards inspecting a hole.
Take the loop just beyond the staff village and nursery to Lake Panic. It is an adventure to walk in a protected walkway to the bird-hide overlooking a large dam in the Sabie River. You are bound to see hippos and numerous birds up close. There are seats and tables so that you can have a quiet picnic. No noise, please–we do not want to disturb nature or the other guests. And try not to gape at the telescopic camera lenses that the fanatical birdwatchers set up.
3. Book in at Pretoriuskop Camp
Pretoriuskop is the oldest rest camp in Kruger National Park. It takes its name from the nearby kopje (hill) where voortrekker (Boer who participated in the Great Trek) Willem Pretorius is buried. Pretoriuskop boasts excellent facilities, lovely green lawns, and a natural rock swimming pool. Numbi Gate is the nearest gate and is about an hours’ drive west on the R40 from Nelspruit. The camp is also within easy reach of Phabeni Gate, Skukuza, and Lower Sabie.
Adults and children will love the story of the dog Jock of the Bushveld. Jock was born near Pretoriuskop. His owner, FitzPatrick, a transport rider in the 19th century, wrote a book about their adventures together. FitzPatrick bought Jock as a pup, saving him since he was the runt of the litter. There are plaques throughout Mpumalanga and Kruger National Park commemorating Jock’s journeys into Mozambique. It is fun to keep an eye out for them while driving around.
There is a large population of white rhino in the area. Also be on the lookout for sable antelope, Lichtenstein’s hartebeest, wild dogs, and kudus.
4. Enjoy the Stunning Views at Lower Sabie
The Lower Sabie Camp is one of my favorite camps. It is situated on the banks of the Sabie River and offers terrific views of animals year-round. Green grass and giant sycamore fig trees surround the huts. Marula, Natal mahogany, and fever tree add color at different times of the year, attracting many birds and insects. You can’t visit the park without having a meal at the restaurant here with its stunning river views.
Take a short drive to the nearby Sunset Dam. You won’t be disappointed. Many water birds, pods of hippos, and nearly always some big game, such as elephant or waterbuck, frequent the dam. On the way back, it is also worth it to drive across the nearby low bridge. You’re likely to see lions, cheetahs, warthogs, and big herds of African buffalo.
5. Enjoy Solitude at Malelane Camp
If you are looking for an intimate bush experience, book in at Malelane Camp on the Crocodile River. It has a unique location at the southern boundary of the park. It is about an hours’ drive northeast from Nelspruit to the Malelane Gate. Visitors have to register at the gate since there is no reception area in the small camp, which only offers self-catering accommodation and camping facilities. Look out for rhinoceros, leopards, and wild dogs. You are likely to hear fish eagles calling.
6. Relax at Berg En Dal Rest Camp
From the Malelane Gate, it is a 30-minute drive to the Berg en Dal Rest Camp. Situated on the banks of the Matjulu Spruit in a mountainous environment, Berg en Dal lives up to its name, meaning mountain and dale. At the camp water cascades over walls of natural rock into a large swimming pool. Look out for a wide variety of bird species, especially the scarlet-chested sunbird and Heuglin’s robin.
If you are interested, you can follow a Bushman trail to view San paintings. Visually-impaired hikers can use a self-guided walking trail equipped with braille. By previous arrangement traditional dance groups from neighboring communities also regularly entertain guests.
You may see white rhinos, kudus, impala, giraffes, elephants, reedbuck, klipspringers, grey rhebok, warthogs, leopards, and wild dogs near this camp. Lions often grace the lower plains on the roads to Skukuza and Crocodile Bridge.
7. Drive the Southern Circle at Crocodile Bridge Rest Camp
Crocodile Bridge Gate is a 30-minute drive from the Malelane Gate. The rest camp, situated alongside the Crocodile River, is very close to the Mozambique border and Maputo. The typography is flat with marula trees.
For some excellent vantages of lions and rhinos, follow the circular Southern Circle along the H4-2 tar road and the S28 dirt road, from Crocodile Bridge to Lower Sabie. The circle also includes the S130 and S137 Duke roads. You are bound to see giraffes, spotted hyenas, kudus, and maybe even cheetahs.
Bird enthusiasts can also take a guided walk safari with a resident bird specialist at this camp.
8. Braai Like the Locals
To braai (barbecue) is a South African pastime, a national institution. You will notice braai packs in the stores. A typical braai includes various meats, usually boerewors (farmer’s sausage), lamb chops, rib, or sosaties (kebabs). A braai is a social event lasting a few hours, with people standing or sitting around the grill, talking and drinking, and savoring the slow cooking of the meat. Usual accompaniments include salads, potatoes, or other vegetables grilled in tinfoil. Try to join up with a South African group to get a great introduction to your first braai.
When arriving by car, you can save money on food by stopping in a town supermarket before entering the park.
9. Live it Up in the Luxury Kruger Shalati Train Hotel
Kruger National Park is not all about camping and roughing it. There are excellent restaurants in all of the camps, and the accommodation, although a bit unusual to the uninitiated, is very comfortable.
However, you can luxuriate at the Kruger Shalati Train Hotel, the latest addition to the park. Situated on top of a railway bridge, this boutique luxury hotel with floor-to-ceiling windows occupies the inside of a series of converted 1950s train carriages. The adjoining block and bridge houses have also been repurposed for accommodation and pool deck purposes. Due to the pandemic, it will open in 2021.
10. Get Up Close to the Wild
When staying in the park, you can book morning and evening game drives or a bush trail walking excursion; both are led by qualified personnel. Check each camp’s unique offerings, and make sure to book on arrival since spaces are limited. Follow the sightings map at reception and add the animals you spotted during the day. The boards make for good conversation. There are also nightly wildlife movies at some camps.
11. Complete Your Checklists
A checklist makes your safari more meaningful and fun. Don’t look for just the big animals. Finding other rare and unique animals, birds, and trees can be just as exciting.
Visitors have the thrill of trying to spot:
- The Big Five: the buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion, and rhino, which are the most dangerous animals to hunt;
- The Super Seven: includes the Big Five plus the cheetah and wild dog, which are difficult to see;
- The Little Five: the buffalo weaver, elephant shrew, leopard tortoise, ant lion, and rhino beetle;
- The Birding Big Six: the ground hornbill, kori bustard, lappet-faced vulture, martial eagle, pel’s fishing owl, and saddle-bill stork; and
- The Five Trees: These trees are indigenous to the park and easily recognized. They are the baobab, fever tree, knob thorn, marula, and mopane. I would like to add the sausage tree. There is a magnificent specimen at Pretoriuskop.
Kruger National Park Rules
To protect the park’s flora and fauna and ensure visitors’ safety, guests should follow the park rules and the informative guide and map sold at Reception. I will highlight a few points to remember:
The gates and camp opening and closing times differ according to the seasons. The park adheres strictly to the timeframes. Allow enough driving time to cover the distances as set out in the guide. Stick to the speed limit and budget time to stop for sightings. Sometimes animals block the road and you have to wait for them to move.
Stay inside the vehicle at all times; only get out at designated places. Do not feel tempted to feed the animals since they then become dependent and aggressive towards visitors. In many cases, the park then has to shoot them.
Cellphones are only allowed at the gates, in the camps, and for emergencies on the road. In any case, large areas of the park won’t have reception.
Guests are not allowed to bring alcohol into the park. If you reside in the camp, you may purchase alcoholic beverages at the camp store or the restaurant. Day visitors may not buy alcohol unless they are a Wildcard holder.
Camps offer a wide choice of accommodation, including disabled-friendly options. A team of cleaning staff service all facilities daily. Bookings are made online on the park’s official website, usually 11 months in advance. The campsites have power points, while the permanently furnished canvas tents on stilts include a fridge and small veranda.
The bungalows are either single-room, round-walled, African-style units with thatched roofs, or luxury units with air conditioning, limited DSTV, an ensuite bathroom, and a kitchenette. Guests can hire cutlery and crockery from reception. Family and guest cottages have multiple bedrooms, bathrooms, and a well-equipped kitchen. Guest houses are large luxury units in prime positions, all with a good view.
When should you visit the park? Kruger National Park is a year-round destination. The subtropical weather is always hot during the day but surprisingly cool when the sun sets, especially when on a game drive in an open-air vehicle. The animals are best seen in winter when the trees and shrubs are bare, but summer brings lush veld, newborn creatures, and migrant birds. Another factor for your consideration is that mosquitoes are not as active in the winter months of May to September.
Your stay in the Kruger National Park will affirm its internationally renowned reputation, and you will forever hold the memories of its abundant wildlife, birds, trees, and plants.
Kruger National Park; website: https://www.sanparks.org/parks/kruger/default.php/
Bookings can be made online.
Skukuza Airport Car Rental,Skukuza Airport, Kruger National Park, 1350, South Africa; tel. +27 (0)13 735 5651 or +27 (0)82 458 9344
Millys Restaurant, tel: +27 13 256 0718; website: https://millys.co.za/
Malelane Gate; tel:+27 (0)13 735 6152