Kruger National Park is one of Africa’s largest game reserves, covering an area of almost 20,000 square kilometers. Besides its incredible size though, the park is very well known around the world for being a “Big Five territory”. That’s right, somewhere within the immensity of this nature reserve you will be able to come across the famous Big Five just casually hanging out – lions, elephants, leopards, buffalos and rhinos. And, of course, other animals call Kruger their home: giraffes, zebras, all kinds of cute turtoises, boars, deer, wild dogs, bird species that I could never name, and much more.
Last year, I managed to visit Kruger Park. I was staying in Maputo, Mozambique with my boyfriend and we decided to spend the weekend in South Africa and finally try our luck in at Kruger Park to see if we could at least spot one of the Big Five. We had a small budget for our weekend getaway but it was one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had. Let me show you how we did it. Here are some tips to explore Kruger Park on a budget:
1. Travel in the low season.
Safaris in South Africa are best enjoyed in the dry winter season – that’s somewhere between June and September. Due to the lack of rain in this season, animals gather more frequently at water holes and shrubs and trees are smaller, making it much easier to spot wildlife. As you can imagine, though, the high demand for safaris in this time also makes prices reach ridiculous amounts.
The rainy season can be a bigger challenge for game viewing: animals take shelter from the rain and the dry shrubs turn into lush forests that can block your views. But Kruger is home to so many animals, game-viewing is great year-round (and it’s cheaper in the low season!).
2. Spend the night outside the park.
Everything at Kruger Park is expensive, but accommodation easily takes the prize. Although it really is a unique experience to camp out under the stars on a luxurious lodge surrounded by nature’s wildest beasts, it’s also an expensive experience that not all of us can afford.
When I went, I stayed close to the park in a little town called Whiteriver. We splurged a bit and stayed at a self-catering luxury suite at Nut Grove Manor but it was worth every penney. After a full day of exploring, nothing felt better than a home-cooked meal in a giant and comfy bed.
3. Don’t feel obligated to book a safari.
Many people think that it’s either reckless or plain dumb to go to a game reserve and not book a safari. Well I can tell you from experience that it’s neither – at least at Kruger Park.
As you enter the park, you can purchase a map that has all of the paved and dirt roads properly marked. All of the rest camps, private lodges, restaurants, gas stations (yes, gas stations) and gates are also clearly identified both on the map and along the way on signposts so it will be very, very difficult for you to get lost. Even if you do manage the incredible feat of getting lost, rest assured that there are always a number of cars passing by who are more than happy to help you out.
What’s more, you don’t need a safari guide to spot the animals you want to see. A bit of research ahead of time, a bit of luck with the weather and a well planned itinerary to make the most of your time in the park are all you need to make sure you know exactly where you need to go.
We spent one day at the park, didn’t get lost or eaten alive and managed to see all of the Big Five. So it’s possible friends! My suggestion is: rent a car, study your maps and get to the park as early as possible to make the most of your day.
And if you want to be really, really cheap just follow along behind the safari tour jeeps as soon as you spot one.
4. If you do want to book a safari, do it as late as possible.
Booking a safari has its advantages: you don’t get tired from driving around all day, you get all kinds of cool info from the safari guide, you can meet other people and you have great views most of the time as the jeeps don’t have windows and you’re seated a bit higher than usual for a car.
So if you’re really keen on booking a safari, I can only give you this advice: book it as late as possible. In the low season, you can book safaris the day before but of course in the high season you might need to book them a bit more in advance. I say this for two reasons:
- Because you want to make sure you book your safari on the right day (i.e. when it’s not raining, windy or too loud/busy in the park);
- Because your hotel or lodge probably offers a better package than the one you will find online. There are too many Kruger Park Safari websites and it’s overwhelming to go through all of them to figure out which has the best deal.
5. Get free advice!
On the other hand, there is plenty of information out there that is useful to make the most of your trip and, best of all, it’s totally free. The best resources I found were this website that gives you some options of pre-planned self-drive itineraries that you can then tweak to your preferences.
But the most useful resource we had was the Latest Sightings Snapchat. Latest Sightings offers live wild animal reports at Kruger Park on their Snapchat account (@latestsightings) so, at any time, you can check into their story and see where lions or crocodiles were last spotted. Of course, you’ll need an internet connection for that so if you’re cheap like me and my boyfriend you can just use your hotel’s Wi-Fi connection in the morning before you set out exploring and bam! You know exactly where to head that day.
At every rest stop in the park, you will also find a map with small stickers indicating animal sightings that day. The safari tour guides fill the map so you’ll have plenty of useful information there – and if you linger near the map for a little while (without being creepy…) you can also chat with fellow explorers for some insider tips.
Are you planning a safari trip soon? When/where are you going? I’d love to hear about your travels!