KRUGER NATIONAL PARK – A COMPLETE GUIDE

Kruger white rhino

Kruger National Park – 8 days of amazing wildlife encounters. Everything you need to know about driving through South Africa’s premier National Park.

There are few things we love more than visiting national parks. So after we’d finished our travels through West and Central Africa, we found ourselves with a couple of weeks up our sleeves. Kruger National Park was the first place on our list to visit. We had both visited Kruger National Park several times before, but couldn’t wait to return and explore the park again, this time driving through Kruger National Park from bottom to top.

Had we not had a time limit, we would have driven from Cape Town across to Kruger National Park. It would have taken us through some of our favourite places, along the Garden Route, through the Eastern Cape, Lesotho, and KwaZulu-Natal. But with an impending flight to Panama only a couple of weeks away, we didn’t have time, so we elected to fly.

Getting to Kruger National Park by air couldn’t have been easier. There were several airports nearby, the closest being Nelspruit. And there was also a small airport at Skukuza, within Kruger itself, thus avoiding the slightly daunting prospect of renting a car from Johannesburg and driving from there.

Planning our itinerary

Our initial plan was to drive through Eswatini (Swaziland). and then head to Kruger National Park, travelling through the park from the south to north, before driving the Panorama Route, then flying out of Johannesburg. However, when we came to make our campsite bookings through the SANparks website, we couldn’t believe how full the Rest Camps were. In fact, on several days, there where NO campsites available anywhere in the park at all! Unbeknown to us, we were coinciding our visit with one of, if not, the busiest time of year at the park. With two public holidays falling on either side of a weekend (Freedom day – Friday 27th April and Workers Day Tuesday 1st May) many South Africans were flocking to the park for a long weekend of game viewing.

After a little panic, we adjusted our itinerary and developed a bit of an ‘ass about-face’ itinerary that allowed us to see and do everything we wanted. Basically, we spent 6 nights in Kruger, left the park, drove the Panorama Route en-route to Eswatini (Swaziland) where we spent for 3 nights, before returning to Kruger for 2 final nights. We then took a flight from Skukuza to Panama, via Johannesburg.

It was super easy getting to and around the park. We flew into Nelspruit International Airport, where we rented a car from Avis at the airport. From there, it was about an hour drive to the Numbi Gate of Kruger National Park. We had purchased a SANParks Wild Card at the gate, which gave a year’s unlimited entry to 80+ National Parks, Reserves and Resorts around Southern Africa, waiving the daily conservation fee which we otherwise would have had to pay. And then the fun began!

Kruger Map
Map of Kruger National Park from SANParks

The first five days in Kruger National Park took us from South to North, with Pretoriuskop Rest Camp being our first campsite and Punda Maria Rest Camp, our fifth, before a sixth night at the midway point in the park, Letaba Rest Camp.

Day 1: Pretriouskop Rest Camp – Kruger National Park

After entering through Numbi Gate we drove various loops around Pretriouskop as this was our first campsite.

We don’t think it matters how many times we see wild elephants. When you turn a corner and there is one right in front of you, coming straight towards you in your little rental car, it was a bit nerve-wracking.

Elephant by a car at Kruger National Park

Our relatively short first day in the park yielded plenty of wildlife including Elephant, Hyena, Impala and Waterbuck. There was loads of birdlife inside the campsite too including Brown-Headed Parrots and African Green Pigeon and plenty of cute Dwarf Mongoose scampering around.

Impala, Kruger National Park

Day 2: Skukuza Rest Camp – Kruger National Park

Day 2 was simply amazing! I don’t think we could have hoped for more. We drove from Pretoriuskop down and across to Crocodile Bridge Rest Camp for lunch, then up to Lower Sabie before heading over to campsite number 2, Skukuza Rest Camp.

It started off with a bang as we came across a pride of lion just sitting by the side of a small, deserted, secondary road we’d turned down. We had the pleasure of viewing these guys completely alone for some time. Shortly after that we got our antelope fix, numerous Common Duiker, Impala, and a Klipspringer.

Male lion in Kruger National Park

There were loads of birdlife, with juvenile Chanting Goshawk, Brown Snake Eagle, Lilac-Breasted Roller, and Southern Yellow-Billed Hornbills at every corner we turned.

Hornbill & mongoose at Kruger National Park

Very close to Crocodile Bridge, we had a great encounter with a White Rhino mother and her calf. They grazed out in the open for several minutes before someone in a caravan behind, was a little over eager with the engine revving when starting up their vehicle and scared them off. Despite that, the area certainly lived up to its reputation as one of the best places in the park to find rhino.

white rhino at Kruger National Park

The latter part of the drive from Crocodile Bridge to Lower Sabie ran parallel to the Sabie River, where we came across lots of Crocodile and aquatic birds including the beautiful African Fish Eagle and the Yellow-Billed Stork.

Covering quite a lot of ground, we basically drove all day. We had a nice, but not spectacular evening drive and were slowly making our way towards Skukuza Rest Camp to check in and set up our camp, when an oncoming vehicle flashed us and slowed down. The driver told us that there was a small group of Wild Dogs down one of the nearby secondary tracks. We were so excited, as Wild Dogs were the one animal we were desperate to find.

We quickly shot off following the kind man’s directions and after a few turns down various tracks, we came to the smallish island of woodland between two one-way tracks with vehicles jostling around. Eventually, we were able to get into a great position as the dogs settled down for the early evening. It was getting dark quickly and we needed to be back at the campsite before sunset. But we managed to squeeze in about 30 minutes watching these amazing, but seriously endangered animals.

Wild Dogs at Kruger National Park

We got to Skukuza just before the gates closed. As it was dark, finding a vacant campsite, setting up camp and cooking dinner was a little challenging. Once we settled in, we had a few celebratory beers! Imbi was woken from her pleasant wild dog dreams at 2 am by a hyena strolling around the campsite only a couple of metres away from our flimsy net tent. It paid us no attention but the sight was still slightly alarming all the same!!

BBQ at Skukuza Camp, Kruger National Park

Day 3: Satara Rest Camp – Kruger National Park

It turns out that wild dogs are like London buses – they all come at once! The following morning, not long after we left the camp, there was a backlog of vehicles on the main road. A group of around 5 wild dogs were moving towards us, right in the middle of the road. We were towards the back of a large queue of vehicles and desperate to see them.

Trapped behind a large 4WD, we didn’t stand a chance in our little rental car. Then, somehow sensing our desperation, a South African couple in the 4WD next to us leant out of their window to see if we could see the dogs. When we told them we couldn’t, they pulled over just enough to let us in front of them, giving us a clear view of the dogs as they slowly came towards us. Then only a few metres before our car they turned off the road into the bush and out of sight. If that kind couple hadn’t moved we wouldn’t have seen the dogs at all. Such an incredibly kind and unselfish gesture which really made our day!

Painted Wolves at Kruger National Park

Not much further away from the dogs, there was even more commotion as a single lioness strolled down the main road with traffic on either side. I think the picture depicts the scene well. When Kruger National Park is this full, sometimes it feels almost zoo-like.

Kruger Lioness at Kruger National Park

We didn’t stay long before opting to head for one of the much quieter secondary roads in which we quickly came across a few Impala and some secretive Nyala. Whilst photographing these we saw a flash of red to the side of us and to our delight, saw a family group of Southern Ground Hornbill foraging nearby. In South Africa, these guys are classified as endangered. Therefore, the Southern Ground Hornbill Project was established. Any sightings should be reported in order to help researchers.

Southern ground hornbill at Kruger National Park

We took a secondary road up towards the Satara Rest Camp for night three, taking us close to the parks eastern boundary. Driving towards the campsite, the scenery became very different, far hillier. We also found less wildlife generally, but one animal we saw plenty of was the Waterbuck. We were pleased that there was still plenty of birdlife though, with Pied Kingfisher, Purple Rollers, Vultures and our favourite sighting for the day, a little Pearl-spotted Owlet all making appearances.

waterbuck at Kruger National Park

Along the way we came across several dams and viewing points and it was nice to get out and stretch the legs and look for the little stuff, that you’d otherwise drive straight by.

The Satara Rest Camp was quite full. So we were glad we had claimed a campsite, marking it with our groundsheet before our uneventful evening drive. Upon returning to our campsite, we set up our little open-air pop-up tent, which always looked so out of place surrounded by the elaborate caravan setups all around us. In fact, some locals invited us over for a chat, as they couldn’t believe what we were sleeping in!

Net tent at Kruger National Park

They were very friendly, offering us a spare tent to use the following night. But we explained we were moving on the following day. Hearing Imbi was Australian the chat then moved on to the cricket ‘Sandpaper Scandal’ that had recently occurred out there, whilst the Aussies were on tour. One of our new friends pointed out an African Wild Cat wondering through the camp, saving Imbi of too much banter.

Day 4: Shingwedzi Rest Camp – Kruger National Park

The next morning it was another sunrise start and it wasn’t long before we found a female cheetah and her infant, chilling in the long grass.

Cheetah at sunrise - Kruger National Park

We then made our way north heading to our planned lunch stop at Letaba Rest Camp and passed Jackal, Wildebeest, Impala and plenty of Elephant.

elephant at Kruger National Park

To that point, our lunch stops had been a nice time to relax and enjoy a cool beer, but not there. We found Letaba Restcamp to be full of wildlife, with dozy Bushbuck resting in the shade and birdlife in the trees around us. The particularly skittish Green Woodhoopoe and Bearded Woodpeckers certainly gave Chris the runaround.

bushbuck at Kruger National Park

After lunch, we then crossed the river for the long drive north to Rest Camp 4 – Shingwedzi. Nearing Mopani Rest Camp, we came across hundreds of elephant approaching a waterhole. There were so many of them drinking, bathing and covering themselves in mud, we didn’t know where to look! Sadly, pictures just couldn’t do it justice. As we continued north we came across more and more elephants and plenty of Buffalo and Zebra too.

Letaba bridge at Kruger National Park

We passed the river by Shingwedzi coinciding it completely by chance with hundreds of Water Buffalo coming down for a drink. And then as quickly as they came, they left.

drinking buffalo at Kruger National Park

When we checked into Shingwedzi Rest Camp, they warned us of some badly behaved baboons around the camp. So with just our flimsy net tent to offer us protection, it didn’t take much persuading to upgrade to a basic hut. But, it wasn’t the baboons trying to get into our room that night, but this little Rhinoceros beetle.

Rhinoceros beetle at Kruger National Park

Day 5: Punda Maria Rest Camp – Kruger National Park

One of the great things about Shingwedzi Rest Camp was the Spotted Hyena’s den located under and close to the roads at the camp entrance. Early morning game drives almost guarantee sightings of them and their young… if you’re lucky. In our case, we were so lucky we momentarily saw a baby so young, it was completely brown. But our fleeting glimpse didn’t allow enough time for any photos!

The drive north to Punda Maria was a relatively uneventful one, albeit frustrating. We saw numerous Long-tailed Paradise-Whydah birds, but couldn’t get a shot we were happy with. Other than that there was the odd elephant here and there.

elephant at Kruger National Park

Punda Maria was the most basic Rest Camp we stayed at and by far the least busy. Located in the north of the park, it had been described to us as the botanical garden of Kruger National Park. The area itself was a bit of a local favourite and we think a little more research, interaction with locals and more time there would have made our stay far more rewarding. There was certainly great stuff to see there, we just didn’t know exactly where to find it. That being said, there was certainly no shortage of birds.

That night, we were happy to be sleeping in a net tent. We were laying in bed staring at the sky, when two Galagos (Bush Babies) climbed into a tree next to us. They then scuttled around in the branches above lit by the moon. Not one for the camera, but a truly beautiful memory.

Day 6: Letaba Rest Camp – Kruger National Park

Then the following morning, we started our route south towards Letaba. Not too far down the road, we found two young cheetahs resting in the shade.

cheetahs resting at Kruger National Park

For the rest of the day other than the odd elephant, it was a day full of Antelope, with Sharpe’s Grysbok, Tsessebe, Impala, Steenbok and Kudu making appearances.

Sharpes Grysbok, Kruger National Park
Steenbok at Kruger National Park

We spent the night in Letaba Rest Camp, before making a very early start the next morning. Heading out of the Phalaborwa Gate for our enforced break from Kruger National Park, (game driving the entire way out) and our day on the Panorama Route, before a few nights in Eswatini (Swaziland).

Day 7: Berg-en-Dal Rest Camp – Kruger National Park

After an awesome drive down the Panorama Route and lovely stay in Eswatini (Swaziland) we returned to Kruger National Park via the Malelane Gate entrance. We were a little shocked to see there were massive queues to get into the park. In fact, they were turning people away. After about an hour of queuing (thank goodness we pre-booked a campsite), we were in and on our way driving towards our penultimate Rest Camp, Berg-en-Dal for the evening. Known as one of the best places to see leopard and wild dog, we had high hopes of ending our amazing trip on a high.

That night was a funny one. Our tent was pitched right up against a fence, where fragrant Hyenas prowled along the boundary. It was a bit surreal dozing off and being startled by a musty smell, then looking up and seeing a hyena staring at us only a few metres away. This time, unlike our night at Skukuza, there was a sturdy metal fence between us!

Sadly Berg-en-dal didn’t yield any dogs or big cats, though there were plenty of Hyena around.

Hyena Drooling at Kruger National Park

Day 8: Skukuza Rest Camp – Kruger National Park

After our morning drive, we made our way up to Skukuza for our final night in Kruger National Park. Again, we didn’t see anything too amazing, but we did find several Brown-Hooded Kingfisher along the way, along with the impressive Giant Kingfisher.

That night, we set up our trusty parcel taped net tent for one last time, before having our last braai and a few final cold South African beers.

Final camp in our net tent, at Kruger National Park

Day 9: Skukuza Airport – Kruger National Park

Our flight out of Skukuza to Jo’burg was at 13:30 pm the following day, so were able to go on one last game drive, before having to return our rental our car at the airport. Not wanting to tempt fate we didn’t venture too far, instead driving various loops around Skukuza, seeing plenty of Impala and Kudu.

Kudu at Kruger National Park

We also made our way to Lake Panic Hide for our last bird fix. After one or two nice sightings, we started on the track out from the hide back to camp, when suddenly a Black Rhino came out of the thick bush in front of us. It had a nasty wound of its flank, evidence of its involvement in some sort of a scuffle. Notoriously shy and aware it was being watched, it didn’t hang around for long before disappearing into the bushes. But what an amazing way to finish our time in the park!

Black Rhino at Kruger National Park

We drove back to the camp where we had our car washed and vacuumed, before the short drive to the lovely Skukuza airport. We couldn’t have been happier with our time in Kruger National Park. It’s a place we have loved since we first visited and can’t wait to return. We hope our story entices you to visit, we promise, you won’t regret it!!

Getting to/from and around Kruger National Park

There are several ways to get to and from Kruger National Park:

Flying

Skukuza airport is a small airport located within the park itself, close to Skukuza Rest Camp.

Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport in Nelspruit is the closest airport outside the park. It’s around 40km drive to the Numbi Gate, which is close to Pretorioskup Rest Camp.

Johannesburg O.R Tambo Airport is a 4-5 hr drive from Kruger, depending on which gate you enter through. From the airport, it is freeway the whole way, so super easy to drive a car from there.

Car hire

Hiring a car in South Africa is cheap and the only real way to DIY Kruger National Park. Rental companies are available from all airports mentioned above. You don’t need a 4×4 to drive in Kruger as the main roads are sealed. While the majority of secondary roads are dirt, they are reasonably well maintained.

With that said, many rental companies won’t insure you if the car is damaged whilst driving on unsealed roads.

Be mindful of restricted km’s when hiring a car and try to rent a car with unlimited km’s. Some rental companies cap the amount of km you can drive per day. If you exceed the maximum allowed, you will be charged for every extra km, which can be costly.

If renting a car, you’ll need to return it in the same condition you picked it up in. The roads can be pretty dusty and your car can get dirty quickly. It’s cheap and easy to have it washed at Skukuza Rest Camp fuel station. This is especially convenient if flying out of Skukuza airport.

We used AVIS for our trip.

Best time to visit Kruger National Park

Kruger National Park has two distinct seasons and when to visit depends on what you want to experience.

High Season

The dry season falls during the winter months of May-October, which offer the best conditions for game viewing. Animals are more visible as the grass is shorter and they are forced to emerge in search of water. This also coincides with the high season.

Specifically, mid-winter (June-August) is particularly comfortable for visitors. There is little to no rainfall, few mosquitoes and the temperatures are cool during the evenings and warm through the days. Having said that, although September-October can be uncomfortably humid and hot. But the concentration of animals around waterholes are at their peak. Therefore these months are considered the best for game viewing.

Low season

The rainy season falls during the summer months of November-May. Also known as the ‘green season’, most rainfall occurs between November and April, with the wettest months being January-February. Many animals give birth during the summer months, so predators are on the prowl. It is also the best time for birdwatching.

All South African holiday periods are busy at Kruger, with the Christmas period of December-January being the busiest. We would avoid visiting the central/southern parts of the park during these months, along with SA school and public holidays.

Kruger falls in the malaria belt however the risk of developing malaria is low. You may want to consider Malaria medication during your visit, especially during the wet season when there are more mosquitoes around.

Accommodation at Kruger National Park

Kruger has a range of accommodation options. There are 12 main Rest Camps, which are the most popular options and offer both camping and lodging. The cheapest option of course is camping with your own tent or camper van. Powered and non-powered sites are available. Every Rest Camp has an allotment of campsites available. Each come with a braai pit, shared ablutions, restaurant/s, a shop and shared kitchens.

There are also 5 Bushveld camps, 4 satellite camps, Bush Lodges and Luxury lodges. Check out accommodation options on the SANparks website HERE.

Most Rest Camp have a service station on site where you can fill up.

Eating and drinking at Kruger National Park

Rest Camp campsites come with a braai pit. They also have communal kitchens with sinks, hotplates and urns with constant hot water.

Each Rest Camp has a shop that’s reasonably well stocked with meat, veg, tinned food, pasta, charcoal, ice, cold drinks and beer. We took a few dry supplies with us and then topped up with veg, meat and drinks each day. Prices were a little more expensive than outside of the park, but overall, the prices were very reasonable.

We bought a cool box in Nelspruit for around ZAR100 so we could keep our food and drinks cold. Highly recommend. We also recommend buying a small pot for cooking. And utensils to cook with eg: tongs, foil for the braai, reusable plate, cutlery and cup. The shops sold decent reusable coffee cups which also make a nice souvenir. It’s a good idea to take some oil and seasoning in with you. The shops within the park may not have what you want in stock.

Basic bungalows generally have a fridge, while some have self-contained kitchens.

Every Rest Camp has a restaurant or cafe. So food is available to purchase if you don’t want to cook.

Essential information & tips for Kruger National Park

  • The campsites gate open at sunrise and close at sunset. You MUST be back inside the campsite before the gates close, or you will be fined.
  • The exact opening and closing times are displayed at each campsites gate. So don’t forget to check before heading out for the day.
  • Start your game drives when the gates open. Wildlife is generally most active between dusk and dawn as it’s cooler. By starting early, you will you maximise your safari time.
  • Abide by the speed limits inside the park. Remember animals can emerge in front of you before you know it.
  • Keep the park clean. Take your rubbish with you and use the parks bins. Try to use eco-friendly products too.
  • The main rest camps can fill up quickly. It’s best to claim a campsite earlier in the day and set up your evening drive. This will save you from searching for a campsite and setting up in the dark.
  • Avoid the South African holiday periods. The parks accommodation usually sells out. If you visit during this time, you must pre-book accommodation and it will be very, very busy inside the park! You have been warned.
  • If you want to see target species, research the best place to stay and see them. The SANParks website has a little write up for each Rest Camp with a bit of specific information on the wildlife and terrain for each site.
  • Don’t forget to look at the sightings boards at reception to see what species have been seen and where. Remember, some animals have territories, so they may be in the same area each day.
  • If you have a passion for wildlife photography, we highly recommend investing in a decent zoom lens. We shoot the majority of our wildlife pics with a Canon 100-400mm. We also have a 250mm lens which is good, but our 100-400mm offers the best results. It’s worth the investment if you can afford it.
  • Camera shops often rent lenses, which may also be a more affordable option.
  • Take sunscreen, a hat and sunnies, mozzie spray and long lightweight clothes to protect yourself from the sun and mozzies.
  • Depending on the time of year, it can also get cold early in the morning and at night. Having some warm clothes with you just in case is a good idea.

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