Our family leaves next week for 2.5 weeks in Kruger NP. The following are my personal travel notes, which I've decided to share. If any of it sounds familiar they are most probably YOUR words of wisdom that I have plagiarised! Other first timers may find this useful, but remember these are my subjective pickings from the internet, including TripAdvisor.
Wet season in KNP occurs from November to March and peaks in February. Camps and roads have been strategically located to view game near major sources of water in dry season when the grass is low. September is peak time (warming up after winter) and the rains begin in October. From the SANParks website, accommodation requests are accepted 11 months or less in advance. Bookings for the 11th month are opened on the first working day of each new month, 7.30am. Taking the advice given to me on the SANParks forum, I phoned a satellite office in Cape Town instead of the main hotline and spoke to a consultant at 7.50am, securing everything we wanted.
After booking we had 30 days to pay the 50% deposit online at SANParks.org. The rest must be paid two months prior to travel and, while refunds are not possible (make up any shortfalls with game drives) itinerary changes can be made until the last minute for free. Camps will be able to view our account but credit can’t be spent at shops or restaurants, only drives; however SANParks do refund by email request upon our return to Australia. We requested specific unit numbers (SANParks forum) that were accepted provisionally by our camps. We bought flights two months after our accommodation, Boxing Day sale.
Malaria is a risk from dusk to dawn in KNP but deaths are reducing in South Africa. Preventative medication is available but can have nasty side effects. Most at risk are the elderly, babies, toddlers and pregnant women. July 2016: don't take drugs as the risk is very low and malaria will be eradicated by 2020. You aren’t visiting an isolated rural village and I doubt a tourist has caught malaria inside a camp for years. Most residents living in the area don't take drugs and of the 1.4m annual visitors to Kruger, 75% are locals of whom the vast majority only spray (including forum experts).
Malaria is seasonal and highest risk is March/April. Occurrences increased in 2016/17 when the 2015/16 drought ended. By March, 9478 cases and 76 deaths had been reported in South Africa compared with 6385 cases and 58 deaths in 2015/16. A surge occurred in April, especially Mopani/Vhembe districts of Limpopo Province, coinciding with Easter and higher travel within and adjacent to malaria-endemic countries. “Pools of water are everywhere and KNP is experiencing cases especially in the north.” Urgently seek a doctor in Skukuza if symptoms develop: fever, flu, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea or headaches.
Apply +20% Deet repellent every 4-6 hours, Peaceful Sleep is best. Cover arms and legs (especially ankles) with light coloured clothing as evening approaches; pre-treat clothes with Permethrin. All units have door and window screens, close the vents. Turn ceiling fans on and spray rooms with Doom when leaving or entering, as well as under beds. Sleep with the air-conditioner on, burn insecticide oil or use a plug-in repellent. Mosquitoes are attracted to dirty feet and sweat so shower in the evening with tea tree or citronella gel and shampoo. Use low scented antiperspirant, avoid perfume or aftershave. Citronella candles were very effective in summer around the braai, pleasant smelling too.
KNP has many ecosystems with varying wildlife. The local soil and vegetation determine which animals you see. We enter at the southern border (Malelane Gate) and travel north, covering 90% of Kruger’s 360km length, backtracking at the end for more time near Satara, lion savannah. Our entry permit must be presented at each camp. October is hot (+40°C) but cold snaps occur, especially if the rain arrives early. Wind car windows down to hear and smell the bush. To minimise body temperature inside the car, set air conditioning to ‘feet-only’. Fully close windows when baboons and monkeys are near as they can jump inside; half-close windows next to lions. Take your valuables with you, don’t leave them at camp.
Buy a roadmap inside KNP: R60 for ‘Andy en Lorrain Tinker’ and R70 for Honeyguide, lion on the cover, great for kids. The Wild about Kruger App has everything you need: picnic sites, how to track game from a car and driving directions from where you are, e.g. Johannesburg. The speed limit on tar roads is 50km/hr and gravel 30km/hr. Buy petrol at major camps (2 hour maximum drive) and carry food/water for 2 days; long sleeves in the car to stop sunburn. More eyes scouring the bush the better; take binoculars on guided drives and to view the Milky Way, cameras for the kids. On bumpy roads wrap your camera in a towel and rest on a bean bag or bag of rice to take photos. Read ‘Where to watch game in Kruger’ by Nigel Dennis.
Slow down to see more, especially cats. Our Nov 2015 trip was good but Nov 2016, exactly one year later, was so much better because we reduced our speed, 20km/hr on tar roads we let cars pass. I thought we’d drive 50km/hr between camps and enjoy it, but no we did not! Stop, do loops, calculate time at 15km/hr and only increase speed to reach your camp in time, e.g. Punda Maria to Shingwedzi, 71km in 2.5hr (28 km/h); Shingwedzi to Olifants, 141km in 9.5hr (14 km/h); Olifants to Crocodile Bridge, 181 km in 8hr (22 km/h). Distances between our camps: Berg-en-Dal to Lower Sabie, 113km; Lower Sabie to Talamati, 111km; Talamati to Mopani, 168km; Mopani to Shingwedzi, 63km; Shingwedzi to Olifants, 149km; Olifants to Tamboti, 102 km. Day drive Talamati to Satara, 52km each way.
A low-axis sedan is perfectly fine but gravel roads can wear you down with headaches. Oct 2016: the S126 to Talamati was a shocker; take S36 south or S145 north instead. A regular replied “we now hire a Toyota Avanza, a small people carrier that costs more but is high and very manoeuvrable”, which we have rented. Drive gravel roads in busy periods, less traffic. Since 2010 petrol stations accept foreign credit cards but have cash available for when the system fails, power outages. Fill up when you can not when you have to! Always check your tyres, reduce tyre pressure before driving dirt roads and buy two foam canisters on arrival at Berg-en-Dal. Repair a puncture at the local workshop to keep a spare available.
Take plenty of cash into KNP. The ATM withdrawal limit at major banks is R3000-5000. Nov 2016: ATM fees using a foreign card: Standard R50; Absa R40; Nedbank free; First National Bank (FNB) free; Capitec free. In Malelane visit a branch to change R5/R2 coins for laundry, toll gates and garages to use the loo; also R10 notes for tipping. You must show your passport to exchange currency. The only ATMs inside KNP are at Skukuza and Letaba (possibly Skukuza Golf Club), R2000 limit. Skukuza has a bank open weekdays and Saturday morning. If needing to use the ATMs, both camps have a swimming pool available for day visitors; Letaba has an Elephant Museum and viewing deck at the restaurant.
There is Wi-Fi in southern Kruger at Berg-en-Dal, Skukuza and Lower Sabie reception/restaurant areas but not so north of Skukuza. Internet cafés are available at Skukuza (R50 for 30min) and Mopani (R50 for 60min). Buy a South Africa power plug adapter, Type M, three large pins. Take an extension cord with multiple sockets (only one power outlet in the bungalows) and properly sized fuse (5A) to recharge batteries and phones. Take shampoo and laundry detergent (bars of soap, dish liquid and toilet paper are provided). The main camps have a laundry e.g. Lower Sabie washing machine 2x5R coins, dryer 5x2R coins. Take a clothes line and pegs.
Be out at the beginning and end of each day when wildlife is most active and the sunrises and sunsets spectacular. In October, camp and day visitor gates both open and close at 5.30am/6.00pm. Guided drives (sunrise, sunset or night) and morning walks are available. Get out when the gates open, breakfast at a camp or picnic site, drive, lunch at another camp or return for a few hours to rest, then out again. Rise early in the main camps, at 5.30am we were 10th in line. Skip morning drives; they leave 30min before open but stop for coffee, which is when we pass them missing first sightings. Sunset/night drives are better; Satara and Skukuza have the best road networks. Walks are all about the feeling of the bush, not viewing game.
Morning walk: 4 hours 4AM (1 Oct – 31 Mar) 5AM (1Apr – 30 Sep)
Berg-en-Dal, Lower Sabie, Mopani, Olifants, Orpen: R500 (12-65yo, wear neutral colours)
Sunrise drive: 3 hours 4AM (1 Oct – 31 Mar) 5AM (1Apr – 30 Sep)
Berg-en-Dal, Lower Sabie, Olifants, Orpen: R280 (adults); R140 (child)
Sunset drive: 3 hours 4:30PM all months
Berg-en-Dal, Lower Sabie, Mopani, Olifants, Orpen: R280 (adults); R140 (child)
Talamati: R320 (adults); R160 (child)
Night drive: 2 hours 8PM all months
Lower Sabie, Mopani, Olifants: R230 (adults); R115 (child)
Talamati: R320 (adults); R160 (child)
Considering a sunset drive, watch the sightings board. If there has been good activity, the guides know where to find it. I’m glad I didn't pre-book all the drives I wanted as we’d have had less flexibility and time for self-driving. In future I will only book walks as drives were readily available. A morning drive means rising at 4.30am and a night drive ends at 10.00pm, requiring serious rest between and spoiling a self-drive day. After our sunrise drive we went out to sunset but had no energy to cook. Dress warmly, it’s like an open sea and the blankets provided are insufficient. I cover every part of my body and people laugh until they feel the wind: thermals, warm socks, gloves, beanie, and winter jacket.
Predators hate full moon. A study found that lions in southern Kruger won’t hunt while a film crew following a Botswana pride slept at night and only rose 30min before moonset. At new moon, it is just the opposite and predators roar all night. As a guide for many years in KNP, there is a clear trend throughout the month: if the moon is full, evening drives are almost always more successful than morning drives as game is able to remain more active through the night, resting in the morning (a search light isn’t needed to view game either in open areas). Game is also much more nervous early morning after a dark night. A full moon rising over the Kruger veldt is very special so try to book a riverside unit.
Full moon is October 5th (moon rise 5.44pm) our last night at Berg-en-Dal, with near full moons at Berg-en-Dal and Lower Sabie. Half moon is Oct 12th, our last night at Talamati. New moon is Oct 19th, one night after we leave KNP with near new moons at Olifants and Tamboti. For our first 3 mornings at Berg-en-Dal, moonset occurs 4.40am, 5.20am and 6.00am. The sun rises 5.33 to 5.18am over our stay and sets 5.53 to 6.00pm. At Berg-en-Dal drive between moonset and sunrise for predators. At Lower Sabie the moon rises 6.44pm, 7.46pm, 8.49pm, and 9.53pm. Our second-last night at Lower Sabie is perigee when the moon is closest to Earth during its monthly orbit. We have booked sunset drives 2nd, 3rd nights at Berg-en-Dal and 1st night at Lower Sabie, and a night drive 2nd night Lower Sabie.
We haven’t booked drives after Lower Sabie because mornings could become as productive as evenings with the reducing size of the moon. But be flexible and check the sightings boards. Wife and I have booked separate morning walks at Berg-en-Dal (last two mornings) and Lower Sabie (first and final mornings). Don’t wear shorts and apply insect repellent all over your body, hat and sunscreen. Pepper ticks and sand fleas are worse than mosquitos in October, the grass is prickly. Take Bactroban for itchy bites that easily become infected with scratching (e.g. Mathekenyane, Talamati). Take antihistamine cream if your kids are sensitive to bites and scratchy grass. Pollen and hay fever can be a problem, especially in a strong breeze (antihistamine). Take eye drops and wear sunglasses for dry dusty conditions.
It is Kruger custom to cook beneath the stars on a braai provided with each unit and, after cooking, to place on wood to eat around the fire. Camp noise must cease by 9pm (phone the duty manager, cook quickly after sunset drives). Locals take small freezers but we’ll buy ice and a cooler box in Malelane (26L for R179) using a tie to make it monkey proof. Buy charcoal, firelighters and wood at Shoprite (turn into from the N4) then walk to Spar Supermarket. Buy cheese, biltong (dried cured meat), dried wors (sausage) and meat at a butcher. Take cupboard locks to secure food. Veranda lighting can be poor, use head lamps and a lantern torch (power cuts, snakes), LED torches with a red filter for animal eyes. Take Tupperware for cereal and freezing block ice; ice trays and a good knife.
On the braai cook stews, spaghetti Bolognese with wildebeest mince, steaks, boerewors (coiled sausage), smoked pork ribs, lamb chops and kebabs. Game meat is lean with strong flavour so marinate and slow-cook with beef and bacon (iron pots are available). Camps sell smaller cuts of marinated impala, kudu, wildebeest for stews or kebabs (sosaties); game boerrie is nice to eat cold next day. Eat chicken only on the first night, risk of food poisoning. We eat veg/salad and cook mostly in foil (gem squash/potatoes with herbs, stab with a knife so they don’t explode). Chakalake relish for spice served with Amasi sour cream. Core a red apple, insert caramel chocolate, wrap in foil, rotate until soft then pour over Ultramel custard.
Fruit and veg are still unreliable but camp shops have improved a lot. May 2016: prices are 10-20% more than a supermarket but not +50% that they were 10 years ago. Nov 2016: thumbs up to the new butcher, we’ve been here a month and all is excellent. Tap water is safe and bottled water is available; don’t drink from red painted taps. Communal kitchens have boiling water. Except Talamati and Tamboti, our camps have café-style restaurants, which are improving. July 2017: The Mugg & Beans (except Lower Sabie, a different franchiser) have been closed by SANParks and replaced with the excellent Tindlovu or temporary bush kitchens (Boskombuis) at Olifants, Letaba and Satara. Major camps all sell the same souvenirs but smaller camps, e.g. Crocodile Bridge, Orpen and Shingwedzi, have unique items.
Drive with ice packs, esky and a flask: Amurula coffee, Ouma rusks (buttermilk, cinnamon are my favourite, also muesli), crackers and fruit, sandwiches in Alfoil put in the esky with frozen water, 500ml bottles are best. Cook brunch at a picnic site: rent a gas braai and pan (R25) and take bacon, eggs for French toast, tomatoes, boerewors, onions, mushrooms, baked beans, orange juice, cutlery, plates and egg rings; most have boiling water and sell food to 3.30pm. Fresh roosterkook bread is sold at Afsaal, Tshokwane, Letaba and the Satara day visitor area (Tindlovu). Breakfast menus: Mopani, Olifants, Timbavati and Tshokwane were best. My favourite is a venison roll with Sheba sauce and ginger beer at Tshokwane. The baboons at Nkhulu picnic site are aggressive, avoid.
Visitors posted their favourite places in KNP on the SANParks forum: Mathekenyane lookout ‘place of the sand flea’ 10km from Skukuza on H3; Stevenson Hamilton Memorial at Shirimantanga lookout on S112 where husband and wife’s ashes were laid in 1979 (near Mathekenyane so visit both while staying at Berg-en-Dal or Lower Sabie); early morning at Orpen dam near Tshokwane on Orpen Dam road off S32; Nkumbe lookout on H10 near Tshokwane; Longwe lookout near Engelhard dam next to Letaba River on S62; sit on rocks at Tshanga S52 to overlook a part of still untouched Africa; the Salitje road (S30) for birds.
S100, left at the end and immediately right on the short road to Gudzani dam. Back to the S100 and S41 to N'wanetsi picnic site then H6 to H1-3 for open grassland, zebras and wildebeest. Satara looked like a bomb site in Oct 2016 but after recent rains, browse and graze will quickly recover and the browsers and grazers will follow with predators not far behind; we will be with them all again in Nov 2017. S100 is pretty but from Satara I’d pick S39 along Timbavati River any day, but even this is second to the S56 Mphongolo loop (main water source in the north between Shingwedzi and Luvuvhu rivers).
The Tshokwane--Lower Sabie--Skukuza loop is my first choice via H10 and Mlondozi dam, all tar roads. Oh yes, S30. The S28 area is always good; S25 near Crocodile Bridge. From Olifants, drive south when the gate opens to prime game areas around Satara. July 2017: the Tamboti to Satara road was full of animals, wild dogs near Tamboti early mornings. Favourite place: Olifants River from the bridge just south of camp. My favourite roads in areas you visit: S25; S108; S114 (S139 is great but for Biyamati guests only); H4-2; S28; H10; S30; S36; S125/6; H7; S100; H1-4; S41. The roads around Biyamiti are very productive.
BERG-EN-DAL: most modern camp, nearest to Johannesburg: N4 to Malelane (Spar supermarket), enter at Malelane Gate then a 25min drive. Peacefully set amongst hills and trees in rhino country; pool, rhino museum, wildlife movies at night. Views from our fence-side bungalow, deep into the bush, were serenity for the soul. Comfortable and spacious brick chalets had tiled roofs (thatch elsewhere) with ice cold air conditioning. Two plate stove but no oven, minimal utensils. Windows had no mosquito mesh. Takeaway coffee, wine bar overlooks a dam. Walk behind the cafe near reception for wonderful views.
On the rhino trail inside camp we walked near rhino, kudu, buffalo, impala and hippo. Animals were everywhere, so much so our sunset drives were superfluous. The morning walk is a must! S25 to Crocodile Bridge is 65km on a good dirt road alongside the Crocodile River. Stop at Gardenia Hide and Hippo Pools to walk with an armed ranger. Visit Afsaal, Kruger’s best picnic site and Matjulu waterhole near camp. From the SANParks forum, the best family cottage (FA6) is unit 26. By email Ncamsile informed she had switched us to their second best unit 22 (FA6) as our original unit 12 (FA6C) isn’t on the fence.
PRETORIUSKOP Camp: visit for lunch when at Berg-en-Dal although the only restaurant, Wimpy, is similar to McDonalds. The area is lush with high rainfall, unaffected by the 2015/16 drought, beautiful koppies and rock formations. 3 main routes from camp: 1) tar road to Skukuza past Transport Dam we saw 6 cheetah, elephants, lions on a kill, hyena, mating leopards, rhino and sable; 2) dirt road to Afsaal, stop at the two dams in this area; and 3) road to Phabeni but we didn't see much.
CROCODILE BRIDGE Camp: 200m from Crocodile Gate. Lovely hosts, lodges have a river view. Small shop with only basics; no restaurant but a takeaway for light lunches and easy drive to Lower Sabie. Veranda kitchen with fridge in a cage, take padlocks as the monkeys are clever. A communal kitchen has everything including spices. Nice pool in our favourite camp. Each night the manager hosts a braai for residents. Our tent was luxurious, grunting hippos in a beautiful location and sunset drive the best of any national park, the area teeming with game and a perfect guide. Night drives are consistently the best.
Our scenic 2 hour drive S25 from Malelane Gate to Crocodile Bridge was the best of our visit. I saw elephants, giraffe, wildebeest and lionesses (H4-2/S127/S28 loop) and stopped at Sunset Dam. From the SANParks forum, the best tents (CTT2) are units 7 and 8 next to the fence. The best 3-bedroom bungalow (BD3) is unit 9 (view of river and bush) followed by unit 8 (river view) and unit 16 (bush view). For two nights we’d pay R2820 (two bungalows) or R1270 (two tents) plus R1365 each game drive. We prefer the tents.
LOWER SABIE Camp: best restaurant to watch game; R70 hot or cold breakfast buffet, late morning served lunch items too. If you prefer 5-star lodges like me, stay here anyway! For views choose chalets by the river, for privacy the tents. I hate big camps but Lower Sabie is convenient, not as commercial as Skukuza and always full. Most game exists between Lower Sabie and Skukuza but our sightings were spoilt by traffic jams, only finding relative peace on dirt roads. Our unit 18 had unobstructed views of hippos and buffalo from the deck. From the SANParks forum, the best BD3U is unit 20; units 18 and 22 look next best from the map. Mr Rofhiwa Nedididi has reserved 20/19 or 18/17 for us.
Game drives from Lower Sabie are the best, any direction. Our morning walk was crazy, 8 people with two armed rangers! In 3 days we saw the Big 5, cheetah and wild dogs. At night the bush came alive: side-striped jackal, aardvark and porcupine. We drove every day all day, saw the Big 5 and more but our highlight was the morning walk. South, take S28/H4-2 loop either direction; stop at Crocodile Bridge, Dukes waterhole. Drive the Gomondwane loop where the Vurhami pride (famous tree climbers) can be sighted on the main road, Gezantombi dam wall and even S25. Do the Biyamiti loop. Visit Sunset dam late before closing.
North, H10 to Mlondozi dam then Tshokwane picnic site and loop back H1-2/H4-1, stopping at Nkhulu and Orpen dam. Or continue to see all the dams on the main road where 3-4 of the Big 5 are seen together, especially Mazithi dam (entering lion country). West, leave early H4-1 for breakfast at Skukuza, a leopard hotspot north and south of Lower Sabie. Visit Lake Panic then head for Pretoriuskop, the only road we have seen everything on, H1-1. Stop at Transport dam (‘Battle of Kruger’ video) and travel as far down as comfortable, allowing more than equal time to return due to elephant jams in the afternoon.
SKUKUZA Camp: park headquarters near Phabeni/Paul Kruger gates with time for day drives to Crocodile Bridge or Satara. Cattle Baron is Kruger’s best restaurant. Nowhere in the world are there as many leopards as the Skukuza area, but with capacity for 800 the camp is a small town with shops, bank and a golf course. For first timers I always recommend Lower Sabie. Like many guesthouses in KNP, Nyathi is unsuited to families with kids as all rooms are accessed from outside with no connecting doors. Guest Cottage with river view (GC4V) R5050, 4 single beds. Guest Cottage without river view (GC6D), 6 single beds R5050.
Join the mad dash down H4-1 but I prefer the airport road H1-2 and S83 Maroela loop then H12 to pick up S30. Keep going on S128, reach H10 and drive up and down the lower 15km. Brunch at Lower Sabie then the game rich S28/H4-2 area. Other roads are H11 to S1 (popular but not great for us) or the S1/S65 where safari vehicles go. A nice drive south is S114. We love H1-1 to Pretoriuskop (Shitlave, Transport dams) and return the same way, not S1. Especially near Transport dam, keep eyes peeled for hyena dens and pups in the roadside culverts. Lake Panic west of Skukuza is the best birding hide in KNP; lunch at the golf club overlooking it for peace and quiet. Visit Skukuza Nursery for walkways and a small wetland.
TALAMATI Camp: open grasslands with a floodlit waterhole in front, one of the best in dry season. The manager Wendy is excellent. Peaceful, private with no phone signal or shop but ice/fire wood are sold. We spent a day roaming between the two hides and saw wild dogs, hyena, sable antelope and a constant flow of elephant, rhino, impala, kudu, buffalo and wildebeest. Chalets have been refurbished and overlook the riverbed with excellent kitchen and outside patio. Monkeys are a bother but the mere sight of a catapult keeps them at bay. The Satara shop is 90min away; great night-drive with Nicholas.
There are two ways out. West is a longish drive to S106-H7, a very productive area. East is the morning choice for most on a bumpy road to S36 and left to Shimangwaneni dam. If full, watch how Kruger life evolves at the start of a new day. Mondzweni dam on the way has been dry for years but it used to be a buffalo hot spot. North, continue to H7 past a small waterhole. Or right S126, an awful road but halfway along, difficult to see on your right, is a small track leading to a large waterhole; just before the tar is another waterhole on your right. Drive S100, early morning it is very busy but by late morning terrific.
SATARA Camp: needs refurbishing but is centrally located for cats, also ostrich, jackals, genet and civet that we didn’t see elsewhere. Skukuza, Letaba and Olifants were nicer, more scenic camps but Satara has the best roads. Drive this loop opposite to how most do it: H6 (my favourite road in KNP) to Sweni Hide and N’wanetsi to S41 to Gudzani dam to S100. Take the small loop to Girivana from H7/S40. My favourite road is S41 parallel to H1-4 driving H6, S90, S100 loops. S100 is home to a super pride. From Talamati take S126 for Ximangwaneni dam then 2.5km later, Muzandzeni picnic spot.
North, H1-4 never disappoints, look for huge buffalo herds and lions hunting them at dams like Ngotso. S39 to Timbavati picnic site has few cats but spectacular scenery, then east S127 to H1-4, skipping the rest of S39/40. West, H7 is Kruger’s best road for many with Nsemani dam and its lion pride, south on S36 to see game meandering to the waterhole, loop back S125. We drive a very long loop with no time for stops to see rarer species: west H7, south S140, through the Talamati area known for sable and back to the main road via S126 or S125. I suggest skipping S140/S145 south of Rabaleis loop.
OLIFANTS Camp: feels romantic as huts are mainly for two in a remote setting with nice restaurant, new pool and well-stocked but relatively expensive shop. Nshawu guesthouse is private, ensuite rooms, stunning river view, elephant herds at sunrise. With 2 nights and a trip to the elephant museum, morning walk and game drive, there isn’t time to enjoy the view! Sightings not as good as Satara, we should have stayed one night. Highest camp in KNP, game is too far below to seriously watch. April 2017 bike tours: one of three trails operating, the ‘easy’ one: 5.00-8.30am (Oct-March) and 4.00-6.30pm (Sept-March).
The main road Tshokwane to Olifants has given us great viewing. Walk between the yellow lines on Olifants Bridge (also Letaba Bridge north). When gates open, the main road south to Satara is best but do we take the tar road all the way or turn left S92/91 to the river near Balule camp (vegetation reduces in this area) where we last saw leopard, elephants, hippo and giraffe? We have explored most of southern Africa and Olifants is at the very top of our list. North, the game thins out but so do the people; try the S93 main road loop to Letaba. We book Nshawu to unwind at the end of our Kruger visits.
LETABA Camp: only the perimeter huts without bathrooms have a river view. Free elephant museum near the restaurant; well equipped shop, reasonable prices. Up north, game viewing is difficult but more rewarding: we spent 2 hours with a lioness near Letaba and only 3 cars passed by (relaxed locals and regulars). Keep the car well stocked with food/drink as there are far fewer opportunities, stop whenever possible. Elephants in the afternoon were amazing, bulls at the waterholes. North of Letaba the terrain is boring and covered by Mopani, don’t bother! We prefer Guest Cottages FQ6, units 101/110 are best.
MOPANI Camp: no game, only trees! Amazing sunset, pool is beautiful, washing machine (2xR5), two dryers (5xR2). Vodacom SIM worked well. The FNB is unreliable and not an ATM, it issues a slip to take to the counter, R400-800 limit. Oct 2015 review of Unit 43 FF6V: dated but functional, entry from the deck, cable TV (R300 deposit), ensuite bedroom, freezer, cooker, NO microwave. Outside table but the braai to the side has NO lighting. The best features were our view over Pioneer Dam and the grunting hippos at night.
H1-6 north, S144 and return to camp S143, S50 and S49, the Tropic of Capricorn loop: Maasai Mara like savannah and rare antelope (tsessebe, roan) may not be productive when dry but visit the Mooiplaas and Tihongonyeni waterholes. Late in the day, drive 6min from camp to Mooiplaas waterhole (not the picnic site) and await the elephant bulls. North, have breakfast at Shingwedzi Camp then Mphongolo loop (S56), possibly the best drive in Kruger. Red Rocks and Tshanga get out points (S52) are great.
SHINGWEDZI Camp: rebuilt after January 2013 flooding, river view restaurant but not as nice as Olifants or Mopani. Well stocked but expensive shop sold delicious meat. Two gates increase early morning drive options. We love S56 Mphongolo loop before breakfast, ending at Babalala. S50 south is wonderful but patiently give way to the many elephants. “Hi Rowingboat, leave early, drive S50 from the east gate to Kanniedood Hide and back, a scenic drive along the river. Return to camp for breakfast, pack and drive to Letaba on the tar road. Then take dirt roads S46 and S93 to Olifants, following the river most of the way”.
ORPEN Camp: next to Orpen Gate, no restaurant but a well stocked shop to braai and a pool Tamboti guests can use. One night was sufficient as game viewing is better further in KNP. At night sitting on our veranda under blankets, we watched a parade of game wander to the waterhole: elephants, buffalo, wart hogs, antelope and a leopard. At 4am we were woken by hyena ripping some poor animal apart. Our outdoor kitchen was ransacked by the resident honey badger. We saw buffalo bulls chase away four lions on our sunset drive.
TAMBOTI Bush Camp: no utensils; take knives, cork screw, can opener, oven gloves. Mosquitos! Charcoal at Orpen (3km) as the wood is hard to light with only firelighters. Fridges are in cages, put other food in a secure box on a shelf inside the cage, bolt shut and tie a cable around the bolt. Use the kitchen bins (honey badger). It was a terrifying 5am walk from unit 40 to our game truck. My evening perimeter walk was too scary, I had to bail; the camp is too dangerous for toddlers (snakes). Tent 22 is best but 22/23 also good.
Having visited KNP 150 times, Tamboti is the best: large numbers of zebra, impala, elephant, buffalo, wildebeest; great for lion, leopard, and cheetah. Check the sightings board for wild dogs. At sunrise visit the area where the gravel road to Tamboti and Maroela joins the tar road. We had great sightings on the H7 and Rabelais Rd. The camp is surrounded by short grass that game migrates to give birth when the rains arrive (spur road after H7 turn off). Stop at Bobbejaankrans, H7, for coffee on the way to camp.
From Bidvest (a reliable budget car hire company) we have rented a Toyota Avanza, a small multi-purpose vehicle, 5 doors with three rows for 7 occupants (the last row seats two small kids). The Bidvest website is confusing but implies it can carry 1 small item + 1 carry-on + 5 large or 2 medium size items depending on whether the third row is used. A reply to a family of 5 considering the Avanza for their KNP trip: “I loved my test drive. It’s a bit higher than a sedan with good viewing but no luggage space with two kids in the back row: 4 adults max or 2 adults/3 kids allowing 4 large cases and odd bags too”. I contacted this family who did indeed choose Avanza and had “no issues at all with it in KNP”.
Exit the terminal (porters are everywhere, firmly deny all help and keep a hand on your luggage), cross the road and follow the signs 400m, Bidvest is opposite Europcar. Only credit, no debit cards/cash. The cars have an E-Tag for most tolls, otherwise cash. Seek someone to check the car with (bald tyres, spare wheel and jack), insist scratches are noted as Bidvest cars are older than other hire companies. Early arrival is better but you may still be given a Korean car, less appealing to criminals. Refuel but you will be charged a top-up fee anyway. Your deposit will be returned several weeks later; traffic fines may be months. If no reply dispute charges with your bank, I was debited $60 not R60.
Before the exit, to the right on ground floor and open from 6am, is Vodacom where most tourists buy their temporary SIM card (expires on the return date). Or in Malelane at Vodacom next to the Spar but this could be risky as the laws for South African residents are stricter than tourists. For best coverage inside KNP, buy a SIM from Vodacom. Camps sell airtime vouchers that can be converted to data by phoning the number on the voucher. Turn off updates etc that eat your data overnight, monitor usage daily.
Collect small notes, 5R coins and tip R5-10 when gas attendants clean your windscreen (no self filling). Men everywhere will mind your car: we tip R5 for short stops and R7-10 for 4+hrs or evening. We give R10 and promise R10 on our return, the smiles are worth it. Approaching a car park, don’t start hiding valuables as the minders have already seen you. Park where it’s busy, leave quickly and recognise the sound of your car locking. Drive with doors locked, windows up and don’t stop roadside for souvenirs. At a crossroad, the first car leaves first. Drivers are aggressive so watch your mirrors. Blink hazards twice to thank someone who lets you pass. Speed traps lie within and just outside of KNP, tourists are targeted. Heed any traffic that flashes you. I only carry a colour copy of my passport, not the original.
Returning from KNP, the best souvenir shops 30min from our Airbnb rental (3.00pm check-in) are in Rosebank; visit Mall of Rosebank (between Bath & Cradock avenues) including African Art & Craft Market, Cradock Avenue next to Europa. Hire a driver to see Soweto that afternoon. Hector Pieterson Museum: aged 13, one of the first students killed in the 1976 Soweto uprising, empowering but not too emotional, R30, hire a formal guide. There’s a view of Soweto from one of the windows and it is located in an area where everything happened, including Nelson Mandela and Arch Bishop Tutu homes on Vilakazi St (craft market too). Returning to the airport, domestic (B) and international (A) terminals are under the same roof. Domestic departures are from Level 2 (lifts) or take the escalator up two levels.
Apartheid Museum: R85 adults, R70 kids, 9am-5pm. My 8 and 10 year olds learnt a lot in 2 hours but stick to the main videos as the size of the museum is overwhelming. Take a taxi from our Airbnb rental then use the red city bus loop for a tour of Constitution Hill before returning for rides at Gold Reef City, 9am-5pm (R485 family ticket, 2 adults + 2 kids <1.3m tall, and Reuben R190). The city loop takes 85min, R610. From the Apartheid Museum at 11.05am, we arrive 11.40am at Constitution Hill in time for the Highlights Tour 12-1pm (R250 red bus family special). From Constitution Hill at 1.20pm, we arrive back at the Apartheid Museum at 2.10pm then cross the road to visit GRC.
Gold Reef City is huge, Northern Parkway/Data Crescent. If it rains, the entire park is shut down with no refund. The best rides: Anaconda (1.3m, Fear Factor = 9), River Rapid (95cm, FF=6, for the family), Jozi Express (roller coaster, 1.3m, FF=7, view of CBD), Tower of Terror (vertical drop into a mineshaft, 1.3m, FF=10); Golden Loop (1.3m, FF=8), Giant Ferris wheel (FF=0, take your camera), Miner's Revenge (1.3m, FF=8), UFO (a spinning wheel that tilts from horizontal to 60°, 1.3m, FF=7), Runaway Train (1.3m, FF=6), Tornado (1.3m, FF=0), Dream Boat (1.3m, FF=7). A separate section for younger kids has many rides including wet water rides, Golden Wave is recommended.
Driving Directions: OR Tambo Airport, Johannesburg
1) Follow signage in the airport to Boksburg/East Rand R21 South. This occurs quickly, 700m from the exit of the rental parking garage.
2) On the R21 south take the 2nd off-ramp to Benoni/eMahlaleni N12 East. The N12 joins the N4 just outside of eMalahleni (formerly Witbank).
3) Continue along the N4 through the toll gates at Middelburg and Machadadorp.
4) After the second toll you have a choice. My preference is Schoemans Kloof pass (left fork) into the Lowveld rather than the right (Watervalboven pass). The two meet at a T-junction below.
5a) To BERG-EN-DAL: stay on the N4 through Nelspruit (Mbombela) and the next toll plaza
6a) Through the town of Malelane where you can shop at Pick 'n Pay to your left or Spar Supermarket to your right at the first traffic lights.
7a) Malelane Gate is well sign posted just outside of town.
5b) To ORPEN: at Nelspruit watch the road signs and especially numbers. Take R40 to White River, White River straight to Hazyview (R40 don’t take R538) then straight through Bushbuckridge to Klaserie. At Klaserie watch for Orpen gate signs, turn right and the last 40km is on a quiet road. Especially after Nelspruit there are many traffic police. Never speed near Bushbuckridge, watch out for roaming animals. There are speed traps outside of Orpen Gate because the speed limit remains low despite the open countryside.