Anita de Villiers plans a self-drive, self-cater safari that doesn’t break the bank. This is how you too, can experience the Kruger on a budget…
James Stevenson-Hamilton writes in his memoir South African Eden, about the time when Kruger National Park first opened its gates to the public, ‘It fulfilled a want and gave the holiday-making public something entirely different from anything it had experienced before.
‘It cost a good deal less to spend a week in the midst of unique surroundings where wildlife went on much as it may be supposed to have proceeded in the Pleistocene, than to put in the same period at a Durban or Cape Town hotel’.
Much has changed since Stevenson-Hamilton’s appointment in 1902 as the first warden of Sabie Game Reserve, which merged with Shingwedzi Game Reserve in 1926 to become the Kruger National Park, the largest game reserve in Africa.
The 19 633 km² reserve initially had no facilities for tourists, and Stevenson-Hamilton recalls that rangers had to give up their own quarters to visitors, ‘who camped out in every room and on the verandas, the rightful owner having to sleep as best he could outside’.
The first rest huts built around 1929 had no windows, and a hole in the door was for checking out dangerous animals that might enter the unfenced camp. A gap between the wall and the thatched roof allowed for ventilation. You can still experience this era of Kruger at Balule Camp, where six of these huts still do duty today.
With only paraffin lamps, three beds per unit and a communal kitchen and ablutions, this small camp oozes the nostalgia of Kruger’s earlier times. Balule is booked months in advance, as I regrettably found out when planning this safari. So tip number one must be to plan your safari and book accommodation well in advance.
For most people, a safari seems to be a costly affair. But a self-drive, self-catering safari in Kruger can be a budget-wise holiday. Essential choices regarding travel distances, regions and camps to visit, and especially the type of accommodation, create a framework within which the finer detail can be negotiated.
The idea of Kruger on a budget had brewed in my mind for a few years and, in the winter of 2016, I eventually embarked on the adventure. My aim – ten days of travelling the length of Kruger, with the aim of sticking to an average daily budget of one thousand rand, including accommodation, food and travel.
Two friends joined me for the trip, but declined to forfeit their luxuries for the benefit of COUNTRY LIFE readers. The communal kitchen and bathrooms that come with most of the budget-style accommodation units, was a bridge too far for them, so they booked their own units. But I loved my abodes, and therein lies safari tip number two: your canvas tent, hut or bungalow will have all that you need, not necessarily of what you think you need. Moreover, a low-key camaraderie with people in neighbouring abodes came along with the sharing.
Day number one, and the Jeep was packed to the brim, leaving little or no elbow space to manoeuvre or to take photographs. We had over-catered and over-packed and soon realised that we had to regroup and dump half of the food, silver wine goblets and such. Luckily, a relative en route could help. So take note of tip number three: when packing, if in doubt leave out. Simplify and travel as light as possible, without leaving the essential stuff behind.
The first night was spent at Crocodile Bridge Rest Camp, as it is conveniently close to the like-named entrance gate. Croc Bridge’s intimate circle of safari tents with communal kitchen and bathroom facilities are spot-on for budget accommodation, and it was with a clear conscience that I could splurge on a cappuccino for the road from the coffee kiosk the following morning.
Kruger’s southern region is bound by the Crocodile and Sabie rivers and its diverse habitat supports most game species, including white rhino, wild dog, elephant and the predators. On the Crocodile River Road we spent a long time with one of the largest elephant breeding herds I had ever encountered, as well as three lionesses with four playful, week-old cubs. After dumping our excess baggage at Skukuza, it was a much leaner outfit that navigated the H4-1 road along the banks of the Sabie River to Lower Sabie Rest Camp, probably the most popular camp in Kruger.
There was a young python in a tree right next to the reception area, and a Fish Eagle sent its call into the golden hour as we lingered on the restaurant deck overlooking the river. It was perceptible that, even in this busy camp, there was a quiet tranquillity and comfortable exchange about the day’s adventures between people, who would stay strangers in a city.
The old-style huts with verandas and shared facilities are reminiscent of old Kodak photos of holidays in Kruger that many people treasure. These units are being refurbished, and the interiors are modernised while still keeping the original architectural style. Lower Sabie was a good place to get into the rhythm of rising early and greeting the flaming sun rising across the river, a pod of hippos grunting nearby.
An early start saw us heading north-west again to Orpen Rest Camp. The dams along the S36 road had all dried up and the impact of the worst drought in Kruger for more than a century started showing. The southern and northern regions did have some late summer rains, but in the central region the drought was at its worst.
Orpen is a small camp set in a lovely aloe garden, and named after the family that donated large stretches of land to the park. Its satellite, tented camp is Tamboti, the first choice not only for the budget conscious, but for its seclusion and atmosphere. With no shop or office, just a line of tents on the banks of the Timbavati River, it requires a stay of at least two nights to get into serious ‘bossies’ mode.
Dust, cameras, binoculars, water and a map had become the key elements of the road that took us further north towards Satara camp. En route, a picnic brunch at the Timbavati picnic spot was a welcome relief, as the temperature was touching 30 degrees on this winter’s day.
Onwards, through a landscape dotted with stone koppies crested with wild syringa trees (Burkea africana), the filigree of their bare branches tracing the sky. Sightings of giraffe, elephant, kudu, impala and waterbuck were plentiful, and a free-standing baobab offered a good photo opportunity.
Satara Rest Camp is big and busy, but the abundance of wildlife on the surrounding plains is legendary. A pride of 22 dozing, sated lions at a kill, three rare Southern Ground Hornbills, a honey badger and a side-striped jackal crossing our path, were all sighted within an hour’s drive from camp.
We had now entered the ‘lion triangle’, the area between Orpen, Satara and Letaba camps that is renowned as prime lion habitat. The bungalow with en-suite bathroom and shared kitchen just topped the budget maximum, but the bargain accommodation of the previous nights allowed for this luxury.
From Satara we travelled northwards, to the bridge over the Olifants River. It is a prime photography spot, especially at sunrise and sunset, and staying at Olifants Rest Camp allows you to stick to the camp’s opening and closing times. Each and every time you stand on that bridge, the scenario and the photographic challenge is different. There were no elephants in the fiery water this time, but the Egyptian geese and the waterbuck more than lived up to the occasion. This is such a unique experience, so tip number four must be: rise early to greet the sunrise from a special vantage point. It’s mahala.
The raiding monkeys were a nightmare at Olifants camp, but the glorious views more than made up for it. Breakfast at the restaurant with the panoramic view over the river and expansive landscape beyond certainly was a fitting reward for the frugality of the past few days. And the 35km along the river to Letaba Camp took us a whole day to navigate, with excellent sightings, including a martial eagle tearing at the tough skin of a water leguaan.
A strong wind had come up during the morning, flapping the ears of a lone elephant bull in green foliage. Quite a unique picture. My most beloved of the bigger camps, and graceful grand dame of Kruger, is Letaba Rest Camp. The tall trees and ilala palms, the tented camp in the middle of the mopani forest, the walkway along the river and the shy bushbuck in camp are all elements that add to the character of this place. And best of all, it is a budget safari haven with huts, safari tents and bungalows that fit the bill. Plus the monkeys behave, thanks to vigilant staff. Allow me this side remark: people, do not feed the wild animals.
The baobabs finally called us to the far northern region where the traffic dwindles to a trickle and the more scarce wildlife species can be seen, including Sharpe’s grysbok, nyala, tssessebe and sable antelope.
On the way there we turned into Mopani Rest Camp and feasted on Portuguese peri-peri chicken livers at the restaurant overlooking the picturesque Pioneer Dam. The best sighting of the day was four female spotted hyenas with two pup litters taking in the winter sun right next to the road.
Shingwedzi Rest Camp was our northernmost camp, one of Kruger’s oldest, and situated on the river bank. Plaques indicate the flood levels of 2000 and 2013, when the river raged through the camp and people had to be airlifted to safety.
Tracing the contours of the northern mopani and baobab landscape, the Shingwedzi and Luvuvhu rivers create riverine forests of enormous nyala berry, sycamore fig and apple leaf trees along their courses. The uppermost border, where Kruger abuts Mozambique and Zimbabwe, is the Pafuri Region, with its ghost-like fever tree forests that many consider the secret gem of Kruger.
This, to me, is Kruger unequalled, and the reason the bushveld calls me to return again and again. The final tip has to be: this place and the adventure it holds is priceless.
- Book for Kruger through SANParks 012 428 9111, [email protected], www.sanparks.org. Keep an eye on the SANParks website for any discounts.
- Budget accommodation units range from camping sites and huts to safari tents and bungalows.
- A conservation fee of R83 per adult and R42 per child per day is charged. Purchasing a Wild Card that gives you entry to all the parks without having to pay the conservation fees may be a more economical option.
- A pensioners discount of 20 to 40 per cent is given to people over 60 years of age for certain camps.
- The speed limit on tar roads is 50km/h, and 40km/h on gravel roads.
- With time allowed for stopping at sightings and picnic spots, distance travelled per day is ideally below 150km. Although the length of Kruger was traversed for the purpose of this article, it makes sense to choose two or three camps in a region, with two to three nights per camp as a good average.
- All the camps offer a variety of activities, including day and night game drives, as well as walks accompanied by a ranger. These do come at a cost, so it is a good idea to do some research beforehand about what Kruger offers for mahala.
- Each and every staff member encountered during this safari was friendly, professional, proficient and willing to go the extra mile. All the camps visited were very-well managed and the accommodation units were clean and welcoming. Kruger must be one of the friendliest destinations in the world.