Bucket List Safari in South Africa
A safari in South Africa has been on our bucket list for a long time, but with so many places to choose from – game reserves, national parks, do you self drive or take guided game drives? the choice is overwhelming. It will ultimately depend on your budget. We chose the world famous Kruger National Park because of its top reputation for game viewing and opted for a guided tour of South Africa that included a 3 night stay near to the park that gave us 2 full days on safari. The pound was strong against the South African Rand which meant it was great time for us Brits to save money.
Day One at Kruger National Park
We can’t tell you how excited we were on our first morning, dressed up in our safari gear looking like something our of ‘It Aint Half Hot Mum‘ we were ready for our trip of a lifetime! Our 2 day mission was to see the famous Big 5 – Rhinoceros, Elephant, Lion, Buffalo and Leopard. We were excited and somewhat nervous about what we would see having never been on a safari.
Kruger National Park is huge! it’s the largest national park in South Africa – 220 miles long by 40 miles wide, roughly about the same size as Wales. Kruger is located in the North East of South Africa hugging the borders of Zimbabwe and Mozambique. The park has 150 species of mammals, that’s more than any other park in the world! plus 500 bird species and 100+ species of reptiles.
It has 11 entrances (gates are open 5.30am – 6.30pm) and divided into 3 areas – North, Central and South. The highest density of animals are in the South, whilst the North has a very different landscape because it’s more tropical. We stayed in the South in the Timbavati area and used the Orpen Gate each day to enter the park.
Kruger National Park has 2 seasons – Wet from November to April and the Dry season from May to October. We chose to take our trip at the end of September which is prime-time for game viewing as animals are out moving around looking for water. The vegetation is also low making it easier to spot wildlife, in contrast to the wet season when the grass is waist high and thick. It’s also very hot in Kruger at this time, it averaged around 35°C each day on our visit.
Searching for The Big 5
The Big 5 gets it a name from a bygone era, when game hunters named these five animals as the most dangerous and hardest to hunt. Not long into the park, it all got very real as we saw our first magnificent animals of the Big 5 – 3 white rhinos and a herd of water buffalo! Our guide Eric was incredibly good at spotting game especially from great distances!
Our close encounter!
All the animals we’d seen so far were quite far away, but then suddenly we got our first close encounter with some elephants as they wandered closer to the road.
Everyone was speechless when we caught first sight of the elephants, they are just gorgeous, then there were gasps of delight as they came closer to us. The baby elephants were so cute! playing like children. By now the elephants were just a few metres away, but we didn’t feel in danger (despite previously watching those YouTube elephant and cars clips!) they were so close it was like we could almost touch them but Eric told us to keep still and keep our arms inside the vehicle and not to make any sudden noises or movements. We were surprised at how close we got to the elephants – just brilliant!
There’s hundreds of antelopes in the Park, especially Impalas who have beautiful fur, they look so soft and clean. Fortunately for us, Dot & Les in our group had bought a guide book in one of rest camps and shared it with the group. Full of pictures of mammals and birds we could easily identify the animals we were looking at. We thought the guide books are a great idea and also make a nice souvenir – tick off what you see during your Kruger safari.
Driving in Kruger
There are speed limits in Kruger National Park – 50kmph on main tarmac roads and 40kmph on smaller gravel roads. Off-road driving is not allowed. We saw many people doing the self-drive option, but we thought it probably wouldn’t be as good as a guided game drive. It must be harder for taking photos compared to an open jeep plus you don’t have an experienced guide. Our guide, Eric had extensive knowledge and was keen to share it and answer our questions. He also knew where to go because the guides are in radio contact with each other and share sightings. This means they’re able to pass on tips to where animals are located over a much greater area than you could cover by yourself in a car. Our guide was one of the reasons that made the safari so special. Remember these guys are in the park everyday.
We also loads of birds, and especially liked the vultures circling, they have great eyesight and when they see something tasty they will wait in nearby trees.
Other Mammals and Reptiles
We couldn’t get enough of this African landscape but you have to learn to be patient. We were constantly scanning the bush for animals with our binoculars and started to develop ‘bush eyes’ where you start seeing things – tree stumps and rocks that look like animals! The anticipation was a great feeling, wondering what we might see next! Eric told us to look out for the endangered african wild dog. (we didn’t see one) We asked if we might see a pangolin, Eric said chances are slim but not impossible! we liked his optimism.
The jeep was really comfortable in the shade, we loved the feel of being in the open-air. The heat, dust and wind on our faces just added to the safari atmosphere.
There’s quite a few rest camps dotted around the park. We stopped at a couple each day for lunch and ate our first grilled Boerewors – a South African sausage. The major rest camps also have budget accommodation and campsites so you can stay right in the park if doing a self-drive, self-catering holiday. They also have small shops, communal BBQ and kitchen facilities, laundry, first-aid, cafes and petrol stations. You can also book guided game drives.
Unusual Trees in Kruger National Park
We’d never seen a Fever Tree before, they are really unusual because they’re one of the few trees where photosynthesis takes place in the bark, which turns them into a bright yellow-green colour. In the old days people thought these trees made them sick, but it was actually the mosquitoes carrying malaria that made them ill, as fever trees are found in swampy conditions which mosquitoes love.
Talking of mosquitoes Kruger is a malaria risk region, it’s normally low risk but we decided to take medication, because we had it in Cambodia with no side-effects . We also took lots of mosquito spray (with 50% Deet) and sprayed ourselves and clothes in the mornings and evenings when the blighters are most active.
So that was day one, amazingly on our first day we saw 4 of the Big 5!
Our Second Day Safari
Day 2 and another early start 4.45am, our excitement meant it was really easy to get up that early. After a quick coffee and a rusk (a dry biscuit thing that Phil loved, Garth didn’t) we set off at 5.30am armed with a packed breakfast – salami and cheese sandwiches, an apple, banana and fruit juice. It was also chilly first thing, so take a hoody like we did. The animals are at their most active early mornings when temperatures are lower.
We were incredibly lucky early on to catch sight of an endangered bird – the Southern Ground Hornbill. We saw a poster at lunch the day before at the rest stop saying South Africa is trying to re-establish this species and asks visitors to report sightings. Eric, our guide did just this.
The second day was funny as everyone got a bit blase about seeing more elephants and zebras, because we were now desperate to see our last animal of the Big 5 – the leopard! so Eric kept pushing on to find one. The weather was now a toasty 36°C, so the chances of seeing one in the open was slim because of the heat.
Our second day of game viewing ended, and we still hadn’t seen the elusive leopard, but we did have one last chance with an optional sunset drive later in the day.
Sunset Game Drive
Our lodge offered an extra Sunset Safari at a private game reserve next to the park, which we didn’t hesitate to book because we needed one more chance to find that elusive leopard! and tick off the Big 5. We drove into the Manyeleti Game Reserve which is adjacent to Kruger National Park, there’s no fences so animals are free to roam.
It was really good because in the private reserves you can go off road and sometimes get much closer to the animals like we did next to a hyena and two lions.
Then suddenly something came through on the radio and the smile on Eric’s face meant we knew we were in for a treat! Eric’s foot went flat to the floor, and suddenly the chase was on!
We screeched to halt next to a couple of other jeeps not knowing what all the fuss was about, then from a distance we spotted her! a leopard, absolutely thrilling! This was the first time we’d ever seen one.
We both felt elated and also privileged to be there at that moment – witnessing the leopard and her kill, ripping apart the Impala’s flesh, it was gruesome but a special moment of nature in action. Eric estimated that the leopard caught the Impala that day and will have dragged it to the shade of the bush and later on will hang it up in the tree keep it off the ground so other animals like hyenas won’t eat it.
So we’d done it – the leopard, the final one of the Big 5 is ticked off. We were so chuffed and lucky as we really wanted to see the Big 5 iconic safari animals, but weren’t sure if we would.
The day was finished off with some glasses of wine and beers along with some snacks – nuts and biltong chewy dried meats. It was the perfect end to our safari adventure of a lifetime! As we all chatted about the last couple of days and what we’d witnessed as the sun set behind us and the bush went into darkness.
Illegal Rhino Poaching
Kruger National Park faces issues of illegal rhino poaching which is driving these incredible animals to the brink of extinction. South Africa is home to the world’s biggest population of black and white rhinos (80%+) and it’s estimated 3 rhinos are killed everyday in South Africa. The black rhino are classed as critically endangered, so Kruger faces real dangers of the rhino species becoming extinct if poaching continues.
In Kruger National Park many poachers sneak over the Mozambique border which is harder for authorities to monitor. The poachers kill the animals for their rhino horns which have been used for centuries in traditional Asian medicines, popular in Chinese medicine for treating fevers and more recently in Thailand its been advocated as a cure for cancer. There is increasing demand from countries like Vietnam not just for medicine use, but as a sign of wealth in luxury items like jewellery. Sadly gram-for-gram rhino horn is worth more than diamonds and gold.
We asked Eric what more could be done, he said something had to be done about Facebook – saying it was a real problem by helping illegal sellers connect with buyers. It’s a platform for them to trade photos in closed groups, they also use WhatsApp. Sounds like Facebook needs to monitor illegal trading on social media. Sadly Eric also said elephant poaching is also on the rise.
We stayed at the 3 star rated Timbavati Safari Lodge, which is close to the Orpen Gate (takes about 20 minutes by road). We stayed in a colourful ‘rondavel’ – a traditional African hut, albeit somewhat square and more modern. The rooms are simple in decoration, the best thing is no TV in the rooms so you can sit back and listen to nature and all the different animal sounds at night. They also had a delightful little shop and lovely swimming pool, it’s unpretentious and we liked that. The animals roaming around the lodges tell you that you are very much staying in Africa! There is free wifi in the main lobby and bar area.
The campfire next to the bar in the evenings was a nice touch too. Our favourite evening was the braai – an African BBQ, nice home-cooked food. Phil found his meat was a little tough – but they exchanged it for another piece with no hassle.
Fortunately for Garth we didn’t find any bugs in our room. We’d been warned about the possibility of scorpions and giant sized spiders! Phew! Take a torch so you can check your room before going to bed, you’re staying in the bush after all.
In all Kruger was easily the highlight of our grand tour of South Africa. It was an adventure and a trip of a lifetime for us, one of the best travel experiences we’ve ever done. It was absolutely fantastic to see wild animals roaming about freely in their natural habitat, another life experience ticked off! You need 2 days for a good experience, 3 would have been even better to take in a bush walking tour. We’re now itching at doing another safari, possibly a more luxurious one in a private game reserve. Botswana came highly recommended by others in our group who’d been there and done it, so that’s now on our list.
Phil and Garth’s Kruger National Park Top 5 Tips
- Tip #1: Tip your driver/guide about £3 a day
- Tip #2: Animals are most active at the start and end of the day – so consider a sunset game drive.
- Tip #3: Take Binoculars or a zoom lens for your DSLR camera, plus spare batteries & cards.
- Tip #4: Photograph close-up and wide shots of the same scenes, so you can decide later which one is best.
- Tip #5: Don’t wear bright colours on your safari – you don’t want to attract any animals attention! (Alison in our group thought twice about wearing her leopard print scarf!)
How We Did It:
- We stayed for 3 nights at Timbavati Safari Lodge – 20 minutes from the Orpen Gate
- We paid for a tour of South Africa with Explore we had a great group of like-minded couples who love travelling.
- The sunset drive cost 600 Rand (£32) per person and was in the Manyeleti Game Reserve which had 5 different luxury safari lodges – looked like they would be a great place to stay.