Kruger National Park

How fun is animal spotting

Next to our time in the Galapagos, spending time in Kruger National Park has been our favorite experience.

On our sunset drive from Satara Rest Camp, we met a German couple who come down for a week every couple years. We were talking about how the drives go and what we had seen through our stays so far. As we were talking, Stephen started to make this connection about what's so exciting about the game drives and what it's like to play slot machines…. Some days you win big and some days you don't get much of anything, but the hope to get that big win again and to see something incredible keeps you coming back for more.  We definitely found that true for us.

We definitely felt lucky this time.  Each drive (or walk) we did offered something incredible to see, and we left satisfied each time.  This visit was definitely all about the lions.  We had some sort of lion encounter on each of our experiences.  

The last time Stephen was in Kruger 20 years ago, he only saw a tiny glimpse of a lion for 5 seconds.  But then again, that time he had tons of rhino sightings.  Unfortunately, though while we would have thought it was random chance, our lack of rhino sightings is due to continued poaching in the park. The population of rhinos has gone down 60% since 2013, and probably 20% in the 10 years before that. With the loss of the population, the price paid for rhino horns has increased exponentially and therefore there is now even more incentive to poach. Sad to say, but see them now before they're gone.

Ways to see Kruger

Kruger National Park is huge! Additionally there are private game reserves that are adjacent to the park. The animals roam freely; there are no fences around the park or between the private reserves and the park.

You can stay at one of the private reserves and they will drive you around their land. They generally offer a more bespoke experience as far as food and accommodation than what you can get at the national park rest camps, but we think the ability to traverse a wider area with very different ecological environments outweighs some of the extra comforts.  The one benefit, though, is that they are not confined to roads or trails on their land, so they can approach wildlife a bit closer in certain cases than you might be able to in the national park.

For example, rhino sightings now are generally confined to the southern area of the park, while lions more generally favor the wider open expanses of the middle part of the park.  If you're confined to one of those regions, your spotting opportunities are fewer.  Besides, the accommodation and food at the national park was hardly roughing it, and we spent most of our time out seeing animals and scenery away from the camps anyway. 


You can also hire a private guide to take you through the park, but we don't think that's necessary either. You are more limited on the hours you can be out and on where you can travel while on drives with a private guide, and they can't offer the walking safari experiences you can do from the park rangers.

Also, we found that having more eyes on the bush meant the likelier you will spot what's out there. Yes, you always have a professional guide/spotter with you, but as good as they are, they can only look where they are looking at any given time.  With a private guide, it may be just you and your guide. With the park drives, you have 18 people in your vehicle all spotting. 

Once you find something, the guides are very good about making sure everyone can see and get their photo so we never felt like we were crowded out by the groups on our vehicles, and a couple of times, it was our fellow travelers who picked up on something to see.

How to get to Kruger

You can fly to Skukuza, which is one of the camps inside the park, but renting a car from there can be expensive depending on the season (and you'll want a car to explore the park unless you've hired a private guide), you can fly to Mbombela which is about an hour from the southernmost gates of the park and rent a car from there, or you can drive from Johannesburg. The drive is between 6 and 8 hours from Johannesburg depending on which rest camp you start at.

We decided to drive from Johannesburg. We enjoyed the scenery along the way, and it was mostly divided highway up until the last bit. We did have a bit of a challenge, though, as the route Google took us on had us traveling the last bit continuing on N4 to the crocodile bridge gate.  When we got about 2 miles from the turn off, we encountered a line of trucks on the side of the road and moving into the travel lanes. Apparently this line of trucks continued all the way to the border with Mozambique.

We were a bit concerned that there was a problem, so we flagged down a police officer to make sure there wasn't a problem with us continuing down the road and passing the line of trucks on the highway and there wasn't. He said they are waiting in line to cross the border and drop their cargos of coal and platinum at the port for export.

How much does it cost

If you enter the park, there is a daily fee of about $25 per person if you're a foreigner.  It's the same for daily visitors and overnight visitors.  Our rental car was $25 a day.  Our accommodations each night at the rest camps were about $125 per night. Each of our drives/walks was about $15 per person. In total without food and gratuities, for our 4 day/3 night adventure we spent about $800.  The only things extra were food and gas.  

We brought snacks with us and ate two meals a day at the camps, so we spent about $40-45 a day total for both of us on the restaurants. The restaurants are outlets of local South African chains… Think TGI Fridays or Ruby Tuesday-ish and the like… Good enough but fairly nondescript.  They do have accommodations with kitchens and barbecue grills if you want to self-cater, but we were so busy out and about, the last thing we would have wanted to do was cook a meal.

You can book directly with the South African Parks Authority via their website, but we didn't think it was very user friendly.  You can also email them and you can fill out a form and email it back to them to book, but it was hard for us to do that while traveling.

We ended up booking through a South African travel agency, Siyabona. They make most of their money on the back end, so there was only about an additional $75 that it cost to do that and we didn't have to worry about the website or form.  

What we do every day

Our first and last days only had one experience to account for our arrival and departure, but otherwise we'd wake up before sunrise for our morning ride/walk, go out for about 3 hours with the guide, come back and have breakfast, drive on to the next camp stopping to see animals along the way, check in and nap a bit, go out for our sunset ride for 3 hours, eat dinner back at camp, and then collapse into bed so we could do it all again the next day.  If you want a slower pace, you can definitely stay at a camp more than one night and only do one experience per day instead of two. We figured the more we're out there the more likely we are to see interesting things, though.

And did we ever.  Our first sunset ride seemed relatively calm. Up until almost the end, the most interesting thing we saw were a couple of male elephants play fighting. As we were on our way back, though, one of our fellow travelers called for a stop (again why we think doing the park organized drives is so beneficial). They had spottend a lion and that one lion turned into a whole pride. We spent about 20 minutes observing them; our guide did some animal calls to get the lions up and moving to investigate what the sounds were. They moved within inches of our vehicle. And then we had the scare with the charging elephant (see video).

Our next morning ride was the same kind of thing.  Very quiet for most of the time. Our guide consulted a couple of other drive vehicles that passed by, and we heard that some lions had recently passed by and he got the general direction they were heading. We were able to spot them across the river.  We also got to see a group of baboons on our way back.

Our drive that same night we lucked into seeing both a pair of hunting female lions and the local male in the area.  We spent about 20 minutes with the male as he walked alone alongside our vehicle.

The next morning we went for a walking safari. We got to sleep in an extra 30 min because you have to wait for the sunrise for safety. Even though on the first ¾ of the walk we saw hardly any animals at all, our experience accelerated toward the end.   Just as we started walking back toward the vehicle, one of the group members spotted movement in the grass about 300 meters from a group of zebras.  It turned out that we had happened upon a group of female lions working together to take down one of the zebras. And we were right in the middle of it.   Our guides moved us out of the scene a bit and we watched via our binoculars (VERY important to have binoculars) as they attempted but failed to nail their target. We didn't get any good photos of the attempt, unfortunately; it was a ways away from us and all going on in very deep grass.  Trust us when we say it was really cool.

That night we again had a wealth of lion sightings.  Our one experience that was just so-so was our river walk on the last day; we did get to see some hippos up close, though, and a couple of male teenage impalas battling it out.

Our overall impressions

When you think about it, you could easily spend way more for 4 days at Disney World than what we spent for 4 days on safari at the park.  It really was a privilege to see all that we did, but it is not a privilege that really is as out of reach as one might have first thought.  We did lots in our 4 days and felt like we saw a good variety of wildlife, although we met other travelers who were doing 7 or even 14 days in the park.  Like we mentioned in the start, going on drives feels a bit like playing the slots.  But in our opinion, we had much more of a payoff. 

More photos and video

One of the most cool things was to be able to see the animals engaging in animal behavior; you definitely don't get to see that at the zoo.  Hopefully these short videos will give you an idea of what we saw.  We took way to many photos, so we've added some at the very end of the page here.  You can watch the videos as a playlist by going here.

Teenage male elephants play fighting

Teenage male springbok play fighting

African Monarch Butterfly





Interesting birds at camp

Interesting bird

Our experience being charged by an elephant


Hippo feeding

Interesting bird


Springbok alerted to some danger


On our walking safari

Male lion affectionately knows as Casper



Zebras at sundown

Pride of lions