There is a reason that an African safari is on everyone’s bucket list. Seeing wild animals roam across the African plains is an experience like no other and I feel so fortunate that we saw a ton of animals on our trip. While traveling to South Africa, we spoke with several people who had been traveling to the region for years and kept looking for a particular elusive species. We felt so fortunate that we saw almost everything we wanted to see.
First, let me get you excited about this post with pictures of some of the animals that we saw. Alex and I feel so fortunate in that we saw so much! Zebra, giraffes, elephants, hippos, kudu, wildebeest, warthog, leopards, wild dogs, and more! There were a few species that wouldn’t let me get a good picture, such as the hyena and wildebeest, but I have mental pictures of those! It was such an eventful week.
Before I get into the details of where we stayed, I want to share some general tips about planning a safari in South Africa.
Time: We only had one week in South Africa because of our previously planned vacation to Australia and Asia so we spent the majority of our trip in Kruger Park with a day on the Panorama Route and a day in Johannesburg at the end of our trip. Although Alex and I have very generous vacation policies through our jobs, it wasn’t enough to give us more than a week for our trip because we had already allocated so much of our time off. Most people who take an African safari spend at least two weeks there. That way, they have more opportunity to travel to different parks, different countries, visit other destinations like Cape Town or Victoria Falls, or just take time to relax at the lodge. We definitely want to return and when we do, we plan to stay for longer than a week.
Budget: Another thing to know about an African safari vacation is that you can plan a trip at virtually any price point. You can stay at camps within the park for as little as $20 a night or you can stay in high-end lodges for several thousand dollars a night. Because we booked our trip late due to a very inexpensive last minute flight deal, all of the camps within the park were booked. We used trusty TripAdvisor to find inexpensive lodges just outside of the park and were very happy with our choices. Some people will insist that you have to book your trip through an agency, but we self-booked everything and it worked out perfectly for us. We enjoyed traveling around the park at our own pace and staying in different locations, while still being able to book game drives through the lodges where we stayed. I’ll share more details about where we stayed a bit later in this post.
Game drives: On our trip, we both self-drove through Kruger park and went on guided game drives. I would recommend both experiences. If you do one of each early on in your trip, you can do more of your preference later. We felt that each option had advantages and disadvantages. Self-driving was great because several times we found ourselves alone with the animals watching rhinos sleep or driving through a herd of elephants. We found it enjoyable to be able to spend as much time as we wanted at each stop to take photos and appreciate the wildlife. The advantage of a guided game drive was having an educated guide to answer questions, share information, and help identify species. Also, the guides all have an app that they use to share information regarding big sightings so you can rush to a lion kill if another group has found it first. The flip side to that is that there tend to be a lot more people at each spot because all of the guides immediately head to big sightings. It can feel a bit more like you are chasing the animals rather than just happening upon them. To reiterate, we enjoyed both for different reasons.
Car: Although many people will tell you that it is not necessary to rent an SUV if you are planning to self-drive, we were both very glad we had one. Although we saw people driving in Kruger in small cars, I think the roads were much more easily navigated with an SUV. Not only did it make for a smoother ride, but I think the animal viewing is better when you are sitting up high.
Crowds: Fortunately, we never really experienced large crowds or traffic jams. While self-driving, many times we were the only car on the road. While on the game drive, we saw larger groups at big sightings, but it never felt overly packed. We did not make it to the far north of Kruger park, but apparently it is even less populated with travelers.
Dress: I would advise dressing comfortably and in layers. Game drives are much more sedentary than you might imagine. You will be in the car most of the day and can only exit your vehicle at rest camps (for your own safety). I spent most of the trip in workout clothes and running shoes. The time of year will obviously determine the weather you experience, but we visited in May and the weather was quite moderate. When we started our game drives (before dawn), it was in the 50s, but as the sun rose, the temperature climbed into the 80s. I wore layers so I could lose them as the day warmed up.
Don’t forget: Binoculars and your camera! Binoculars were ESSENTIAL for viewing the animals as close as possible, especially if they were a ways off of the road. Camera is obvious; we used our Nikon L330 because it has a great zoom!
Airports: We flew from Johannesburg into Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport on the way into Kruger and left from Hendrik Van Eck Airport in Phalaborwa. Both airports are tiny and extremely easy to navigate. Both have rental car options which was very convenient for picking up and returning our car.
Gates: This map shows all of the gates within Kruger park. We entered the park through the Malalene Gate, which is the closest gate to the Kruger airport. I would say that our largest number of animal sightings were on our way into Kruger from the Malalene Gate. We saw animals almost immediately upon entering the park and continued to see them all day. We entered and exited the park for our guided game drive through Kruger Gate and saw a herd of at least 40 elephant playing near the bridge there. We also entered and exited through the Orpen and Numbi Gates at other points of the trip and saw a lot of wildlife in those areas as well. If you’re on a guided game drive, you should not have to stop and purchase an entry as your guide most likely did that before picking you up. If you self-drive, you will have to stop and purchase a day pass. I also recommend purchasing the guide that is sold at the gates. It has a lot of park information, maps, and a checklist of animals that you might see on your safari.
Where to stay
- Sabie River Bush Lodge (near Kruger gate). We stayed at the Sabie River Bush Lodge during the time we spent in Kruger park. It was a wonderful place to stay near the Kruger gate and I would highly recommend it! The staff was incredible at every turn. A staff member even washed our car while we were on a game drive. We had a wonderful talk with the owner during our stay one night and learned much about South Africa and the area. A three-course dinner was included in our stay and was delicious. The server was so gracious and wine (from South Africa) was also available for a very reasonable price. The lodge has a resident hippo that we were lucky to see grazing along the river a few times during our visit. The room was in a thatched cottage with mosquito netting on the bed and was very comfortable and quiet. The lodge also featured amenities like mini-golf and a pool, but we were so busy with safaris that we never used them. We did a guided morning game drive through the lodge and our guide was fantastic! A large lunch was included in the price of the game drive.
- Silonque Bush Estate (near Phalaborwa gate). We stayed at the Silonque Bush Estate on our way out of the park before flying back to Joburg from the Phalaborwa airport. It was a fantastic place to stay in the bush. We really felt like we were “away from it all” as the estate is about 15 minutes from town. The estate has a lot of wildlife; we saw tons of impala and rabbits. The staff was friendly and informative and although there is not a restaurant on site, the staff will stock your kitchen before you arrive if you request they do so in advance. We had booked a room, but were very pleasantly surprised when we arrived and were generously upgraded to a larger house. The house had a huge kitchen and living space and beautiful bedrooms with large en suite bathrooms that had indoor/outdoor showers. Showering “in the bush” while watching the sun rise was an experience that I will never forget. We also enjoyed sitting on our terrace in the evening to look at the stars and listen to the sounds of the bush; we even saw shooting stars! Our only regret was that we only had one night at the Silonque, so I hope to return stay for much longer next time!
Restaurants: Most of the time, we had dinner where we were staying and had lunch that we packed at rest camps. However, we did visit one delicious restaurant while we were in Phalaborwa.
- Hat and Creek (in Phalaborwa). Hat and Creek is a beautiful restaurant with great food, and very reasonable prices. We shared an appetizer, two meat entrees, and a bottle of wine for ~$60 USD including tip. Desserts looked incredible, but we were too full from our main meals to try one. Our only complaint would be that Alex’s game platter did not have all of the game listed in the menu description. We think there may have been a slight language barrier, so we will give them a break! What to eat: Springbok carpaccio appetizer, one of the many filet mignon options.
Sabie River Bush Lodge, R536 Kruger Gate Road, Southern Kruger National Park Mpumalanga, Portia Shabangu, Hazyview
Silonque Bush Estate, Plot 30-32 Silonque Nature Reserve, Phalaborwa 1390
Hat and Creek, 2 Hendrik van Eck Street, Limpopo Province, Phalaborwa 1390
And with that, I’ll leave you with some inspiration from South Africa! Next week, I’ll be telling you all about the Panorama Route and a rehabilitation center that we visited!