Kruger Park self-drive getaway

Spoiled with a dream breakaway to SA’s flagship Kruger National Park

By Garth Johnstone

It had been brewing in the mind for a few years now… an epic road trip to reconnect with the Kruger Park and a previous holiday to Mpumalanga and the memories that held.

Somehow, something always came up to spoil our plans, but this year we pencilled in the dates and made the bookings online (for the park and other stops on the route) and there was no going back.

When my cousin died recently, and I was recalling a great holiday his family took me on to the park when we were kids, it seemed like fate was calling. It was time to get to the bush and dust off those old memories – and get an all-important fix of nature and precious time spent in the bushveld.

“But Kruger National Park is a tourism package, a kind of ‘bush light’ experience tailored for the masses,” I hear the cynics declare. Not so, I would argue and even more vehemently after a great holiday/bush experience/reconnection with nature that the Meander Chronicle team (Nerissa and Garth) experienced in the first week of September. Yes, there is lots of traffic in parts, but it’s easy to get away (particularly further north) and there are dirt trails and loops aplenty where you can find peace and quiet.

Typical scene in the southern part of Kruger Park, near Berg-en-Dal rest camp. Pictures by Garth Johnstone and Nerissa Card

Overall, I reckon this was a good time to go. The park was very dry in parts and, in my opinion anyway, the game was abundant and easy to spot, possibly due to the thinned-out vegetation. We did hear some veterans complaining that there was no game about, but how could we agree when the only things on our list that we didn’t see were cheetah and wild dogs, and you can hardly expect those to be delivered up on a plate. (According to the notes in the Tinkers booklet sold at the park’s camps, there are 120 cheetah in the whole park, and the same number of wild dogs. The park is about 360km long with an average width of 65km).

Now read: The Hills are alive with history

I won’t regale you with our entire route (see bottom of post for the details), suffice to say that we spent two nights in Berg-en-Dal camp and two in Letaba. Each day we did a long game drive in the morning and a shorter stint in the evening. Everything worked well, our booking and payment of park fees etc were faithfully recorded, there was no shortage of anything or showers that weren’t functioning properly, electrical points in camps not working, etc, so thumbs up to SANParks. I believe the park is being very well run.

A common sight in the park, but these Zebra posed patiently for us so they deserve a mention.

We camped in a 4x3m tent surrounded by caravanners and other visitors in nifty trailer-tent set-ups. It’s amazing the gear campers have today! We did the trip in a Toyota Run-X, so proof that no 4×4 required for a memorable Kruger experience.

There was a lot of talk in the camps about the destruction the 13 000-plus elephants are wreaking on the environment, smashing over trees all over the show, and how conservation management officials need to do something about it, but that’s an extremely emotive and controversial debate which I will leave to the experts. It must be noted, however, that we witnessed it and it does seem to be a significant problem.

More on the Kruger elephants debate

We felt incredibly privileged and blessed to first of all, be in a position to be able to fund such a trip and enjoy the beauty and facilities of the park, and then to have had such a trouble-free, sightings rich holiday. Not even a flat tyre!

We even saw a leopard (a first for me in South Africa), thanks to some other eagled-eyed enthusiast who spotted the majestic animal lazing next to a bridge just north of Letaba.

Nerissa rather likes giraffe. This one was extremely relaxed and we switched off the engine and stayed with him a while.

Some of the highlights of our trip

Entering the park for the first time after our drive up sent ripples of excitement;
Seeing about 45 buffalo around a watering hole a few kilometres from Berg-en-Dal;
An unusual sighting of a honey badger crossing the road and then being incredibly busy just a few metres away before disappearing into the bush;
An awesome couple minutes watching a massive Martial eagle perched in a tree before he took flight, showing off all his size and incredible strength (later we saw one eating its prey on the ground);
After a couple days of seeing groups of female and juvenile kudu, finally seeing quite a few males together showing off their majestic horns (around Satara and Letaba we later saw lots of the males);
Magnificent view from Olifants Rest Camp;
Spotting an adult leopard near Letaba camp;
Watching a large herd of elephant crossing a plain between Satara and Letaba;
Seeing a mother hyena nursing her cubs while young hyenas frolicked in the background
Seeing a group of female lions feeding on a kill, which appeared to be wildebeest

The Giant was showing off that day

Buffalo which had come to a watering point near Berg-en-Dal on the Matjulu loop. A zoom lens would have helped for this pic.

One thing which is an important environmental management issue, no doubt controversial among nature enthusiasts and Kruger Park fans, was the watering of animals at specific spots where there obviously is no water and animals are used to finding water… eg, Matjulu, near Berg-en-Dal, where we had an impressive experience with buffalo.

I guess it depend entirely on where you stand on the issue, but to me when it is so dry and there is the chance of losing many valuable animals, the parks don’t really have a choice. The ideal is an environment free of any intervention from man, but perhaps in this case it is just not possible. One also needs to consider the odds our wildlife face, such as the threat of poaching, encroachment by mankind, diseases etc, is it so wrong to give them a helping hand?

Leaving the park after four nights, some priceless R and R and wonderful interaction with game was a bit of a wrench but we had to count our blessings. We’d had a wonderful holiday on a fairly tight budget, met some good people and had interesting conversations while camping, and we could feel a bit of pride in how well this national treasure is being run and stands up among the tourism offerings here and abroad that we’ve experience over the years.

Now the only question… When are we going back?

Nyala male near Olifants rest camp.

Useful info:

Take mozzie spray, or consider medication, particularly in the rainy season.
If you have the time visit Nelspruit, it’s a beautiful treed city, which appeared very clean when we were there.
Don’t forget your gear, like binoculars and cameras.
In the months of December-March it will be incredibly hot – be prepared. Find out which camps have swimming pools.
Most of the rest camps have impressive shops and facilities. Particularly if you’re camping, do your research and plan accordingly so you are comfortable and have everything you need.
Purchase the Tinkers Kruger Park Map (Animal/Bird/Snake/Identification) book at one of the shops. It has useful features such as detailed maps, animal and bird check list and spoor chart.
Useful park info on the web

Our route:

Our self-drive route took us from Nottingham Road, via the N3 as far as the N11 turn-off towards Ladysmith and Newcastle. We then followed the route through Ermelo and drove to Nelspruit (google maps or a good old map book will help get you there). Day 2 we drove to Malelane Gate to enter the park (less than an hour), to Crocodile Bridge camp and did a long loop around to Berg-en-Dal rest camp. After two nights at Berg-en-Dal, we had a long drive up to Letaba camp. We spent two nights at Letaba, exited the park at Phalaborwa and drove to Lydenburg where we spent a night. After that we drove to Pretoria for a night (to catch up with friends), to Joburg for a night (to catch up with family) and then home to the Midlands via the N3. Total was about 2600km, including the driving in Kruger Park.

The Kruger National Park… when are we going back?