Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

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Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Kruger National Park (South Africa): The DIY Safari For Everyone

INTRODUCTION

This is the story of our family’s experience (me, my wife, our 8 year old son, and our 3 year old daughter) during two weeks of viewing African wildlife in the Kruger National Park (South Africa) in late March/early April, 2007. It was wondrous, relaxing, and sheer fun.

This was not our first trip to the Kruger. We’ve been three times with kids, once before that as a married couple prior to our son’s birth, and I have been so often that I’ve lost count.

I am writing this to stimulate interest among people who might want to go.

BACKGROUND: SAFARI OPTIONS IN SOUTHERN AFRICA

If you want to go to the familiar places of equatorial East Africa (Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi), I am not your source. This report focuses on one safari option in the southern African region: the Kruger National Park in South Africa.

But first I will provide some background on the totality of options to visiting the remaining wilderness areas of southern Africa and how my wife and I obtained our knowledge of ways and means to see African wildlife and wilderness areas:

We have made numerous trips to game parks and nature preserves in southern Africa since 1991. “Southern Africa” includes the southern half of Angola and the entire countries of Namibia, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Zambia (the latter two were formerly Rhodesia).

In addition to visiting the Kruger, my wife and have been on a number of what are called “camping safaris” (see discussion of this option below). We camped, for instance, in Zimbabwe in the Hwange National Park and visited Victoria Falls.

In Botswana, we’ve been lucky enough to participate in six camping safaris. Those were to the Chobe National Park (both Serondela and Savuti sections), to Moremi and Xakanaka on the edge of the Okavango Delta, and into the Okavango to several camps reachable only by small planes.

In Namibia, I took my parents on a self-guided tour over a large part of the country that encompassed the Namib Desert, Swakopmund, the Skeleton Coast, Damaraland (home of the desert elephant), and Etosha National Park.

I have also tasted the posh side of safari life by visiting several very expensive South African game lodges in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve adjacent to the southern part of the Kruger and in the Timbavati Game Reserve adjacent to the northern part of the Kruger. Both areas are home to such well-known, world-class safari lodges as Sabi Sabi, Londolozi, and Mala Mala. (Each time I managed to get significant discounts, thanks to local friends and contacts, else I would never have been able to afford those places, which run thousands of dollars per night.)

Each of those experiences was different, and required different planning and execution. What they shared in common was the opportunity to see lots of African animals in the wild, with nothing separating us from them but a few feet of air.

Though we have most often been in vehicles, our close encounters with African wildlife have sometimes been on foot. However it’s experienced, there is nothing we’ve done in life that can equal the thrill of it or the relaxation, which is why we keep going back.

In summary, then, these varied safari experiences can be classified into three options to see wildlife in southern Africa. The third option, going to the Kruger National Park, is the cheapest one, and is certainly the easiest one if you want to do it on your own:

1. CAMPING SAFARI OPTION

This is quite comfortable, reasonable in price (though much more expensive than the Kruger), and not as rustic as it sounds. We advise booking through a licensed service for access to the remote wilderness areas of Botswana and Zimbabwe. Though theoretically possible to organize a DIY tour of the Chobe National Park's two regions in Botswana (Serondela in the north Chobe and Savuti in the central Chobe), it would be unwise and dangerous to do so. (Chobe is pronounced CHŌ′ BĒ.)

Better to use a service, because Botswana, unlike South Africa, is not tamed and not for the inexperienced. You risk dying of thirst in the Kalahari or being eaten by lions and hyenas while trying to change a flat if you do it on your own.

Camping safaris in Botswana through licensed guide services run from US$200-400 per day per person, inclusive of charter flights into the Okavango, all park fees and taxes, food and equipment, vehicles, tents, cooks, guides, etc. Nights are spent in public campgrounds in the wilderness in very roomy, two-person, outside frame tents using sleeping bags on the tent floor (all tents have a sewn-in floor).

Because of the close proximity of large predators to campers, most services won’t accept children under 12 on camping safaris. There is a slight danger of being eaten, and small children are more inviting prey than adult humans. Some outfits impose an upper age limit, too, but it’s possible to waive it if you are in reasonably good health.

Ablutions are accomplished in public facilities that are crude and often barely operable. Showers are cold water only; however, this is of little concern as the weather is invariably hot in the Kalahari Desert except in the dead of winter. Anyway, the cold water feels great to wash off the hot dust of the desert.

All meals are provided and prepared for you. In fact cuisine can be impressive: We once had a perfect Baked Alaska done in a makeshift oven constructed over a camp fire burning deadwood we picked up that afternoon. Quite a feat in the wilderness of one of the world’s great deserts with hyenas lurking barely outside the firelight!

Morning and afternoon game drives led by very knowledgeable guides and trackers are included. Game drives take you to the same areas, where you see the same animals, as the rich folks from nearby luxury lodges.

It is not exaggeration to describe the camping experience as thrilling. For example, it’s best not to come out of your tent at night because you are sleeping in the wild with no fences. Lions and hyenas routinely wander through the campgrounds, often sniffing at tents. If you have to pee, you are literally putting your life at risk to unzip the tent and dash to the toilet.

Even in a group around the fire before bedtime, things can get hairy. At Serondela campground (north Chobe) in 1997, a group of seven of us from North Carolina were confronted while eating dinner by a large male lion. He announced his presence by roaring loudly just 15 feet from our table. Our natural instincts kicked in, and we were all soon fighting to climb into a nearby truck (though afterwards we couldn’t remember the details of how we got there) while he circled us and continued to roar threateningly.

Lions coming to dinner or poking around among the tents at night with only a thin layer of canvas between you and them will definitely make a believer out of you fast. You won't get that feeling of mortal terror—of being packaged meat for the King of Beasts—in either of the other two options. It does wonders for restoring one's humility.

As we’ve said, we have done such trips six times through Zimbabwe and Botswana. It is very exciting, but not for the squeamish. Our hands-down recommended service has always been South African-based Afro-Ventures (www.afroventures.com), but recently some of their services have changed. I suggest you inquire directly with them about their current camping safari options.

2. LUXURY SAFARI OPTION

If you're willing and able to fork over US$1,500 to $4,000 per night per couple to stay in a luxury lodge, you'll see plenty of game and be coddled by candlelight Champagne dinners and manifold foot servants.

Definitely a high cholesterol experience, but best if you are a Rockefeller heir. Real world class luxury, with every conceivable amenity.

Luxury game lodge safaris do not include airfare to and from southern Africa but do often include private plane charters between remote bush camps in Botswana. Sometimes drinks are included, sometimes not. Prices do not include gratuities.

Fine accommodations are available, whether in South Africa or in the deepest bush of Botswana (such as the central Kalahari and at Savuti). It’s a guaranteed posh experience. But once away from the lodges for morning and evening game drives, you will be taken to the same places, where you will see exactly the same animals, as those on a lowly camping trip in the same areas. Thus the big premium over the camping option is to cover the foot massages, the high teas, the silk bed covers, and the caviar canapés back at the lodge. (Meanwhile, over at the campground, camping patrons like my wife and me sweat whether the coast is clear between the tent and the toilet after one too many warm beers.)

3. SOUTH AFRICA’S KRUGER NATIONAL PARK: THE “DIY” PHOTO SAFARI OPTION

The Kruger National Park combines the best aspects of both options above into an affordable package. It is the premier example of what can be called a "do-it-yourself" (DIY) photo safari. The Kruger provides the infrastructure inside the Park itself (a great road system, modern and safe camps with comfortable accommodation, restaurants, food, petrol, etc.).

You, in turn, provide the vehicle and yourself to drive it. Kruger map in hand, you drive wherever you please on an extensive network of well-maintained tar and gravel roads over an area the size of New Jersey in search of animals. You don't have to go far before seeing plenty, as our species sightings list later in this report will demonstrate.

At least two other national parks have a similar set-up in southern Africa: Hwange in Zimbabwe and Etosha in Namibia. Both were modeled on the Kruger. But the Kruger is the largest, has by far the best infrastructure, and is the easiest to book and get to.

The DIY approach to game viewing makes this the Everyman experience. Visiting the park is so easy to arrange and so cheap to do that anyone can manage it.

The Kruger is better than our American national parks in at least two ways: first, because much more lodging is available inside the park, and second, because the Kruger imposes strict limits on how many vehicles are allowed in at any one time.

The vehicle upper limit is determined by the number of overnight accommodations booked in the Park (out of a total available of about 2,500) plus a certain number of day-trippers. Thus, you’re not going to be bumping into a lot of people all the time. Imagine limiting the number of cars in a state the size of New Jersey to 5,000, and you begin to get the picture.

By contrast, no such limits exist in U.S. parks, which is why Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, and Yosemite are bumper to bumper in the summer months.

Except for the national parks, there are no remaining wilderness areas in South Africa. The entire country was tamed by the late 19th century. Thank God for the foresight of South African President Paul Kruger who in 1884, like Teddy Roosevelt did in the USA, put aside massive areas of real estate that would later become national parks for future generations to enjoy. The Kruger is the largest such South African park.

KRUGER PARK IN DETAIL

The Kruger is located in the northeast corner of South Africa, its south end some 500 kms (about 300 miles) due east of Johannesburg. The park is long (about 250 miles north to south) and thin (about 60 miles east to west). The long eastern side forms the national border with Mozambique, and the narrow north end borders Zimbabwe across the mighty Limpopo River, one of Africa’s great watercourses.

HOW TO GET THERE

To get to Johannesburg from the US, there are several options, the best (but often expensive) being South African Airways. SAA has nonstop flights from JFK and from Washington Dulles, and they code-share with United. At almost 15 hours these are some of the world’s longest flights. Flying back to the USA, strong headwinds force a refueling stop in the Cape Verde Islands off the hump of Africa, making the return trip even longer at about 19 hours.

Bad as that sounds, the USA-to-Jo’burg nonstops are preferable to the alternative of going first to Europe (a 6-10 hour flight), and then flying down from there (a 12-13 hour flight). Using the European connection, most flights from the USA arrive early morning, requiring an exhausting all-day wait for the evening flights to Johannesburg. You’ll regret it unless you plan to stop over in Europe for a few days in each direction. For us such stopovers compromise valuable and scarce vacation time we’d rather spend in Africa.

Delta also flies direct now to Jo’burg from Atlanta.

Once in Johannesburg, we never stop over. Jo’burg, the principal business center, is crime-ridden and short on tourist attractions. We connect to the next commuter flight from Johannesburg to Kruger Mpumalanga Int’l Airport near Nelspruit, airport code MQP, which is nearest to the Park. It’s a one hour flight, and there are three or four such flights each day on South African Airways Express and other carriers in each direction. The cost is as low as US$200 round trip if purchased alone, but we always buy it as part of our international ticket.

RENTAL CAR

Remember this is a DIY experience, so renting a vehicle is a must. Be choosy about what you rent because you’re going to spend a lot of time in it driving. We rent a VW Kombi. National/Alamo has the best deals these days, about US$100/day in 2007 (Hertz and Avis also have offices at MQP airport). The VW Kombi van, no longer sold in the USA, is ideal for comfort and good game viewing: lots of windows, lots of room and storage space, and sits relatively high off the ground. A very similar Mercedes-Benz van is available, too.

National/Alamo has excellent service and friendly staff based at the KMIA (MQP) airport. Once on the ground, proceed to the National/Alamo desk inside the beautiful thatched-roof airport terminal to pick up the keys. Then throw all your stuff into the VW Kombi, and off you go.

Two special notes to drivers: First, South Africans drive on the left. It takes a few minutes to adjust, so be careful, especially to stay in the left lane on right turns. Second, almost all rental cars, and certainly both the VW and Mercedes vans, come with manual transmissions ONLY. So you need to know how to shift gears and use a clutch. All vans and cars are air-conditioned, and almost all have electric door locks and windows.

During our two weeks in the Park in 2007, we put about 1500 miles on our VW Kombi, so it’s best to book an unlimited mileage rate before leaving the States if possible. Rates are high if booked in South Africa. Rental rate plans are expensive when you pay by the kilometer. Oddly though, and contrary to the above advice, this year we found that the best deal was an in-country unlimited KM rate with National booked directly with MQP staff via email.

GETTING FROM THE AIRPORT TO THE KRUGER NATIONAL PARK (AND BACK)

The Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport is relatively new, having opened in 2003. The airport, which is in a rural area not far from the town of Nelspruit, lies about 40-50 kilometers distance from the Kruger National Park. Successful navigation to the park requires a halfway decent local map, several turns, and a little knowledge of the road system.

From the airport you can drive to one of four nearby gates to enter the park: the Paul Kruger Gate, the Numbi Gate, the Malelane Gate, or the Crocodile Bridge Gate. You should plan your first night or two in the Park to stay at one of the four rest camps closest to those four gates: Berg-en-Dal Camp (near Malelane Gate); Lower Sabie Camp (accessed via Crocodile Bridge Gate); Pretoriuskop Camp (close to Numbi Gate); or Skukuza Camp (through the Paul Kruger Gate).

Malelane Gate is closest to the KMIA airport, and so we usually book our first and last nights at Berg-en-Dal Camp. That ensures our drives between airport and Kruger will be relatively short.

Signage when leaving the KMIA airport mainly directs you to the Malelane Gate of Kruger National Park. Malelane is the gate to enter if you are booked into Berg-en-dal Camp for your first night. Malelane Gate is a 50 minute drive from the KMIA airport, but that’s just to get the gate where you enter the Kruger Park.

From Malelane Gate to Berg-en-Dal Camp is at the much slower Kruger Park speed of 50 KPH, and takes about 40-45 minutes more. So figure an hour and a half from the airport to Berg-en-Dal through Malelane Gate, and the same back to the airport on your day of departure.

We have specific driving instructions available from the airport to Malelane Gate should you need them, but all the rental car companies at the airport will give you directions. Good local maps are not easy to come by; ask your rental car company rep for a map when you pick up your car before you leave the airport.

The maps I am referring to are only to get you from the airport to one or another Kruger gate. Once you enter the Kruger Park, you will need only an official Park map for the entire period you stay within the park boundaries. The local area map will come in handy again when you need to drive back to airport as you leave the Park.

IMPORTANT CAUTIONARY NOTE: I am repeating this, but you need to plan your first and last nights in the Kruger at one of the four camps mentioned above that are relatively close to the KMIA airport. This is critical to guarantee that you will get to your first rest camp from the airport before the gates close and that you will get from your last rest camp back to the airport in plenty of time to return your rental vehicle and to check in for your flights home.

Remember that the very slow speeds allowed inside the Kruger (50 KPH on tarred roads) will considerably add to the driving time coming from, and returning to, the airport. You must plan accordingly. Only Berg-en-Dal, Lower Sabie, Pretoriuskop, and Skukuza rest camps are within reasonable driving range of the new airport (MQP).

DIY SAFARI IN ACTION

Driving around in the Kruger National Park, even though it is 19,000 square kilometers (about 7,000 square miles—as we’ve said, roughly the size of New Jersey), is not dangerous in the way we described if you attempted to make your own way around game parks in Botswana and Zimbabwe.

Driving through the Kruger is in fact doable by anyone with a decent vehicle because the park was designed to be strictly do-it-yourself.
About 750 kilometers of main roads are tarred, and there are some 1,200 kilometers of unpaved gravel roads, all improved and well drained.
All roads yield great game viewing opportunities. Rugged SUVs are not required. Any 2WD car is capable of traversing the excellent road system (many South African visitors bring their Mercedes and BMW sedans). Speed limits in the park are 50 kph (31 mph) on tarred roads and 40 kph (25 mph) on dirt/gravel roads.

ACCOMMODATION IN THE KRUGER

There are 12 “rest camps” (their term) in the park, each cordoned off from the wilderness by electrified elephant fences. The animals are in their natural state, and you are the one in the zoo!

All camps maintain first-rate facilities. Each has a well-stocked grocery and sundry store, a restaurant, camping facilities, a gas station, and lots of “bungalows” in several sizes, called rondavels.

Bungalows are stand-alone, sturdy brick buildings, usually circular, complete with all the modern conveniences (toilets and showers, wash basins, hot and cold running water, electricity, and refrigerators). All are air conditioned and heated. Three-bed rondavels now cost about US$70-80/night. “Family huts” with 5-6 beds and full kitchens rent for about US$100-120 per night. Linens and towels are furnished fresh daily. It’s like going to a hotel made up of private bungalows.

NEW DAILY CONSERVATION FEE VERSUS SANP “WILDCARD”

Thanks to recommendations made by consulting firm McKinsey & Company, the Kruger instituted in 2004 a daily “conservation fee” for each person entering the Park in addition to other fees for one’s car and for overnight accommodation. Since the Kruger had been an outrageous bargain prior to charging the conservation fee, we have not found the new fee a deterrent to visiting.

However, it can become expensive for a family of four staying 13 nights and 15 days, as we did in 2007. But there is an alternative that could lower this cost for you, depending upon how many family members are traveling together and for how long: South African National Parks (SANP) sells something called a “WILDCARD” which allows unlimited entry for 12 months into any South African park, including the Kruger, and there are nonresident and family WILDCARD options. Currently the cost for a non-South African family is R1795 per year, or about US$257. That’s a much better bargain than paying the conservation fee for a family of four for two weeks, which comes to R4680, or about US$671.
So, when planning your trip, be sure to investigate which calculation is the cheaper option for you and your family. Both SANP and private reseller booking services will be well-versed on this subject. Lorna at Mpumalanga Promotions (MPromo@sanparks.org), for example, can quickly tell you which way to go to save money in satisfying the daily conservation fee requirement.

BOOKING

Email and Internet are now the preferred means of booking accommodations in the park. You can do it directly through SANP (South African National Parks) or use a reseller—prices are the same. We used—and highly recommend—a firm owned by an ex-Kruger wildlife biologist called Mpumalanga Promotions. Email Lorna at MPromo@sanparks.org.

BOOKING ON THE WEB

Reservations can also be made via the Internet directly with South African National Parks if that’s your pleasure. SANP has a great website (go to http://www.parks-sa.co.za/ and choose the Kruger Park from among the parks listed).

At the website, you’ll find most everything you’ll need to know: park regulations, maps, detailed info on types of accommodations available in each of the 12 camps, rates and fees, and online booking forms.

Even if you use our recommended reseller (Mpumalanga Promotions), the SANP Kruger website has a lot of basic information and maps that are useful planning tools.

GAME DRIVES & ANIMALS

You drive yourself, as we’ve said, in search of animal life. Here’s the drill:

You get up early, drive out of your camp, and use maps (available for sale in all the stores) to navigate slowly to look for game.

Depending on the time of year, camp gates are opened at 4:30, 5:30, or 6:00 am and closed at 5:30, 6:00, or 6:30 pm. You must be back inside your camp before the gates close or risk getting thrown out of the Kruger Park.

Furthermore, you are not allowed to get out of your vehicle except inside camp gates, and you must not violate the speed limits. This is to prevent you from getting eaten or trampled by the lions, elephants, hippos, and the like; but mainly it is to protect the animals from you.

However, there are several places (well-marked) outside the camps where it is permissible to alight from the vehicle (at your own risk). These sites include a number of picnic areas, bird hides, bridges, and scenic spots.

The Kruger is home to an incredible variety of wildlife, virtually every lowland African mammal, bird, reptile, and insect you can think of. It’s almost impossible to describe; the magic of it must be experienced.
This is not a visit to Yellowstone where you might see a few moose or bison. You will see scores of wild African animals in the Kruger, many of them within a few feet of your vehicle. It’s relaxing and awe-inspiring.
We saw a remarkable diversity of game in 15 days. See just below for a listing of some of the species seen during this trip.

Our daily habit was to go on a leisurely morning drive of two hours or so, and then to head into whatever camp was closest for breakfast. This gave our kids a chance to run around.

After an hour or so of rest in the camp, we’d go off again for a late morning game drive, punctuated by a midday stop somewhere else, and then finally on to our camp for the overnight stay. As we said, extremely relaxing. And we saw lots of animals.

SPECIES SEEN
Mar-Apr, 2007

§ African Fish Eagle
§ African Spoonbill
§ African Wild Dog
§ Bataleur
§ Black-backed Jackal
§ Black Korhaan
§ Blue Wildebeest
§ Buffalo
§ Bushbuck
§ Carmine Bee-eater
§ Chacma Baboon
§ Chameleon
§ Dwarf Mongoose
§ Egyptian Goose
§ Elephant
§ Fracolin (various)
§ Giant Kingfisher
§ Giraffe
§ Goliath Heron
§ Gray Lourie
§ Gray Stork
§ Ground Hornbill
§ Grysbok
§ Hamerkop
§ Helmeted Guineafowl
§ Hippopotamus
§ Hoopoe
§ Impala
§ Kori Bustard
§ Kudu
§ Lappet-faced Vulture
§ Leopard
§ Leopard Tortoise
§ Lilac-breasted Roller
§ Lion
§ Long-tailed Shrike
§ Malachite Kingfisher
§ Maribou Stork
§ Nile Crocodile
§ Nyala
§ Ostrich
§ Pin-tailed Whydah
§ Red-billed Hornbill
§ Reedbuck
§ Rock Kestral
§ Secretary Bird
§ Sooty Mongoose
§ Spotted Hyena
§ Steenbok
§ Tawny Eagle
§ Tsessebe
§ Turtles
§ Vervet Monkey
§ Warthog
§ Waterbuck
§ White-faced Duck
§ White Rhino
§ White Stork
§ Yellow-billed Hornbill
§ Yellow-billed Stork
§ Zebra

But who was counting? Well, we were! Over the 15 days we were in the Park there were so many animal species that we missed seeing a few of them. For example, I realized we had seen a Malachite kingfisher and several other birds only after reviewing my digital pictures.

We meticulously kept track by recording every sighting on our game spotting record (an Excel spreadsheet). Though we sometimes drove for hours without seeing any animals, we nonetheless saw from 10 to more than 30 species every day (discounting the last day when we had to return to the airport fairly early to check in for our flight to Johannesburg).

We have not yet calculate our mileage averages for 2007, but in 2002, we drove an average of 145 miles per day (or about 5 hours per day at 25-30 mph). This broke down in 2002 to having seen an average of 3.4 species per hour of driving, or about one species for each 8.5 miles of driving. Our 2007 trip will yield similar statistics. The simple fact is, the more miles driven, the more animals seen.

CLIMATE & WEATHER

Remember that the seasons are reversed because it is south of the equator. The Kruger Park straddles the Tropic of Capricorn, with the northern third in the tropics, but even the southern two-thirds is warm to hot most of the year.

Summer months are very hot (January is mid-summer in the Southern Hemisphere), with daytime temperatures topping out in the upper nineties Fahrenheit, and evenings dropping to the seventies. Humidity is moderate (posted as 75% one day at Satara).

Summer is the rainy season, which can span the entire period of late December to early March. The heaviest rainfalls usually occur late in the season when typhoons coming in from the Indian Ocean just to the east sometimes drench the Kruger Park.

Such really bad storms are not common, however, and most rainstorms come and go quickly. A day or two of overcast skies bring down the unrelenting high summer temps and keep the predators moving around during daytime hours. This can make for some very good midday game viewing. On such an overcast day during this year’s trip we saw several male lions, and on another such day, a leopard.

During the spring and fall months, nighttime temps are in the 50-60s Fahrenheit, with days in the upper eighties. Thus April-May and October-November are pleasant weather months, not too hot or cold. Days are typically sunny and bright six days out of seven.

Even in the winter (June-August) the Kruger is warmer and sunnier than the rest of South Africa. And the park is not at all crowded in winter (excepting holidays).

Camp gates in December and January open at 0430 and close at 1830, owing to long summer days. Mid-summer is very green in the lowveldt. All that foliage can make animals hard to see, and the plentitude of water sources disperses them, too. During a highly unusual period of consecutive rain days on this trip we nonetheless saw a lot of game, which demonstrates how every season is a good one in the Kruger.

Another advantage to going in the South African summer or early fall is new births. It is normal to see many animal babies in these seasons, and indeed we did see lots of young zebra, impala, giraffe, warthog, and hyena (newborns and cubs several weeks old). The opportunity to see the young ones coupled with the lush green of the veldt makes the Southern Hemisphere summer or early fall our favorite time to visit.

REST CAMP INFRASTRUCTURE

Signs just inside each camp gate lead to the accommodation office for overnight check-in. Computerized reservation records are accessed by camp staff, who in turn assign your accommodation based on what you reserved and paid for.

Gasoline filling stations are available in every camp, and are always sited conveniently near the camp entry gate. Stations can also handle minor repairs, fix flat tires, and so on.

Car washes are usually available adjacent to the gas stations. After a dusty game drive on gravel roads, it’s good to wash off the windows. Clear window glass is essential for best quality viewing.

All camps have a combination grocery store and sundry shop. Most camps have cafeterias and restaurants, and several camps have swimming pools. Many kinds of drinks, bottled water, and South African beer are available in the shops, the cafeterias, and the restaurants, but are cheapest in the camp shops.

OBTAINING MAPS TO DRIVE BY

The camp store is the first place to head on arrival to purchase maps and guides to the birds, animals, and trees you’ll be seeing. (Remember this is a DIY adventure.) Maps are usually prominently displayed near the registers. Ask if you don’t see them, as every shop carries a pretty good supply. The basic map book costs about US$6 and are well worth it.

WILDLIFE AND ECOSYSTEM GUIDES

You can’t tell the players without a scorecard, so look for the pocketsize Struik guides to South African mammals, birds, insects, and snakes. The little Struik books are not comprehensive, but they are adequate, simple, and inexpensive references to help you identify most creatures you’ll see. Each species features a drawing and a short write-up. The official map books all have good drawings of various wildlife and trees as well.
Some map books go into considerable detail about the flora, fauna, and geology, dividing the Kruger up into a number of Eco-zones with descriptions and drawings of each area and the wildlife that frequents them. We carry the basic map for driving, and two or three of the other guides for reference.

For the serious bird-watcher, the bible in this part of the world is Robert’s Birds of Southern Africa. It’s a hefty and expensive tome, but worth it if you always wanted to be an ornithologist. The profusion of bird life in the Kruger is absolutely astonishing. Even the Struik pocket guides offer several specialized bird books to choose from (Common Birds, Raptors, etc.) There are also special books to identify what South Africans call “LBBs” (little brown birds).

GROCERIES AND CURIOS

All normal grocery supplies can be obtained in the camp shops, including fresh milk and eggs. Prices are very reasonable. Shops also sell a wide variety of interesting curios, maps, post cards, postage stamps, and miscellaneous supplies such as over-the-counter drugs, pots and pans, ice, firewood and charcoal (for doing your own cooking), and so on.

Curios include very collectable Zulu-made baskets (now quite expensive at $35-100), woodcarvings, woven items, tanned animal skins, and more. Each store seems to have a slightly different stock of curios, making it fun to rummage through the aisles and racks of each one.

This tendency of each store to make its own decisions (apparently) about what they stock beyond the usual staples of milk, meat, bread, and eggs makes it sometimes hard to find the things you want. For instance, on our Easter 2000 visit, our son was still in diapers, but we could not find any Pampers (or equivalents).

In 2002 we noticed almost every store had disposable diapers, yet we had to try six camp shops before locating the equivalent of an Igloo cooler to buy for keeping things cold in the VW van. (After all, afternoon game drives can be mighty hot and dry, making one thirsty for what the South Africans call “sundowners.” Nothing worse than a hot beer.)

EATING OUT IN THE CAMP RESTAURANTS AND CAFETERIAS

Food in the camp restaurants is good, plentiful, and reasonably priced. At the cafeterias, a variety of sandwiches and meat pies (sadly, infrequent game pies) are offered. In the restaurants, kudu, buffalo, impala, ostrich, and warthog are intermittently featured on the dinner menus, and there’s even a drinkable (and cheap) wine selection. If game is not your, well, game, there are beef, chicken and fish options on every menu. All are good.

LIFE INSIDE THE CAMPS

All 12 camps afford good walkways and places to stroll inside the fence. Letaba is probably our favorite for open spaces. It is a large, beautifully landscaped camp, very shaded, with many long brick and paved walkways. Hence, it’s a great place to hide from the serious midday heat between morning and afternoon game drives.

All camps thus offer opportunities for at least a little exercise (badly needed after hours in a vehicle), though not all camps are uniformly shaded. Satara, for example, has extremely good game viewing nearby, but is almost devoid of shade despite being quite a big facility. Midday hours during summer months at Satara are best experienced indoors.

Many camps are nestled adjacent to rivers with stunning views. At those places some of the best game viewing is across the electrified fence by the restaurants. Our favorites in this regard are Letaba and Shingwedzi, next to the rivers for which they are named. Olifants camp is beautifully situated on a high bluff next to the Olifants River. Lower Sabie and Skukuza are also located by rivers.

We have enjoyed seeing an elephant eating grass just a stone’s throw away from the fence at Shingwedzi and watching seven waterbuck stroll out to get a drink of water at Letaba. Also at Letaba, several families of steenbok and bushbuck (two of the small deer-like creatures generically called “buck” in South Africa) have taken up residence inside the fences and are quite tame. Some of them slept adjacent to our accommodation and would readily approach us looking for handouts. At Pretoriuskop Camp, we saw a large herd of Impala munching grass between the huts.

So why are wild animals inside some camps? Even with high and electrified fences surrounding each camp (making each camp an island of human civilization in the African wilderness), animals do sometimes breach the enclosure. Thus it’s best to be careful when out for a stroll, day or night. Baboons and Vervet Monkeys prowl some camps, a fact that has led to the installation of special lids and catches on trashcans to keep out animal marauders.

For the same reason, it’s a good idea to wedge a chair against the refrigerator door at camps with primate invaders (since fridges are typically outside on the bungalow porches). At Olifants Camp this trip, for instance, we lost cheddar cheese and butter from our fridge after a Vervet Monkey raid because we forgot to put a chair in front of the fridge door. Also hyenas, and, very rarely, leopards, can get into the camps despite the fences, and a watchful eye is called for.

Even animals that stay outside the fences can startle. One night at Lower Sabie during our April 2000 visit, my wife, our son, and I were walking back to our bungalow in the dark after dinner when a ruckus broke out among some people adjacent to the camp fence. We strolled over to see what was going on just as a powerful flashlight came on and illuminated a huge hippo munching on grass not ten feet from us outside the fence. It was enormous when seen so close. Our then-toddler son was overjoyed at the sight of this hulking monster, and enthusiastically rushed over to claw at the fence in a futile attempt to get even closer. Thank God he could not since hippos are notoriously ill tempered. In fact, they kill more humans in Africa every year than any other animal.

MEDICAL & HEALTH ISSUES

The major medical danger in the Kruger National Park is malaria. (In parts of equatorial Africa, there are much worse maladies to worry about, but not in South Africa.) The drug Larium (Mefloquine) is routinely prescribed as an anti-malarial. It’s a pill taken once a week beginning one week before entering a malarial area and continuing four weeks after leaving. It can be made up for kids, and it’s safe for children and adults. Consult your physician for advice.

My wife and I have taken Larium off and on for more than ten years whenever we were traveling through a malarial area. We have never had any side effects or bad reactions, and we’ve never gotten malaria. In some parts of the world Larium is losing its effectiveness, but it still works well in South Africa. Ask your doctor for Larium alternates.
In 2000 we sprayed our son’s ankles and middle at dusk with insect spray to keep the mosquitoes off, and he didn’t get bitten. In 2002 we did not need to do even that, as few mosquitoes were in evidence anywhere, and usually only at dusk. I was back at the Kruger with a group of friends from New Orleans in 2003, and none of us had a problem with the little buggers. In 2007, even after several days of rain, mosquitoes were not a problem.

The Kruger maintains a Malaria Hotline with a recorded message about current malarial conditions in the park. Calling direct from the USA, the number is 011-27-82-234-1800.

Another important health caution for travel in southern Africa is protection against Hepatitis A. Our family has taken the two-injection series that lasts for life. You can start the series and get adequate protection, or a single injection of Immune Globulin will protect against Hep-A for three months. Both options are widely available in foreign travel clinics, public and private.

Make sure the family shots are all up to date, too. These include typhoid, tetanus, and polio. Always contact your county health department’s “foreign travel clinic” (almost every urban county has one) for the most up-to-date advice on precautions.

And it’s always a good idea to check the CDC Web site at http://www.cdc.gov/ and then click on “Travelers’ Health” at the home screen. The CDC maintains the most up-to-date health advice on worldwide travel, including Africa.

As a further precaution, we drink only bottled water, soft drinks, and beer in developing countries, and we don’t eat uncooked vegetables (because they might not be properly washed). We ask for meats to be well-cooked. We wash or peel fresh fruit in South Africa before eating. Food prep in park restaurants seems OK (we’ve never gotten sick).

TAKING CHILDREN

A trip to the Kruger is perfect for family vacations and kids of all ages. The first time we took our son he was just 17 months old (April 2000). He went with us again at three years old (February 2002), and in 2007 we took both our children: our son (now 8 years old) and our daughter (now 3).

We took macaroni and cheese mixes with us for the kids, along with plenty of crackers, Cheerios, and rice cakes. None of that weighed much or took up much room. However, there was plenty of local food for children to eat which was safe, good, and fairly nutritious in the park restaurants, such as grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches, hamburgers, French fries, fish sandwiches, pasta, fresh bananas, apples, and so on.

On our 2000 trip when our son was still in diapers, we also took plenty of Pampers, and bought more in the Jo’burg airport before going down to the park. Though we found disposable diapers in park shops on this trip, it would be wise to take a back-up stock if you need them.

Of course we made frequent stops for the kids. We planned about two hour intervals for game viewing in the VW van between stops at camps. Stops often coincided with a meal, and we always gave them (and us) plenty of free time to roam around.

Don’t be shocked, but we did not buckle either child in during most of our game drives.. We never let them out of their car seat at home, but in the Kruger, where everyone is driving 25-30 mph (and that’s the maximum, remember), it was safe to have kids on the loose in the van (usually being held by one of us). Most of the time we were literally creeping along, and whenever we saw an animal close by, we pulled over by the road and stopped for awhile to watch. Thus kids are OK not tied down every second, as every South African knows; kids in the Park are routinely given a pass on seat belts by all families because of the very slow speeds.

Long overseas plane trips are hard on everyone, but particularly so for young children (and their parents). I resign myself to being temporarily sleep-deprived. There is no other way, unfortunately. Having plenty of toys and games and other distractions helps to keep kids occupied.

POVERTY & CRIME IN SOUTH AFRICA & ITS IMPACT IN THE KRUGER

Crime linked to high unemployment continues to worsen in South Africa and sometimes reaches inside the Kruger. Skukuza camp parking lots have long been patrolled to prevent break-ins due to the camp’s proximity to outside areas. The chance of a theft is low if you exercise the same reasonable caution as in the USA. Keep valuables out of sight when leaving your vehicle, and lock the doors.

All vehicles in South Africa are equipped with what are called “immobilizers” to prevent anyone starting the car without a key. Rental cars usually come with alarm systems.

On Kruger adventures, we tend to live out of the vehicle. However, we take everything of value out of the VW Kombi and into the bungalows with us every night (cameras, binoculars, suitcases, cooler, etc.).

Despite this precaution, in 2002 we experienced a clumsy and bungled attempted break-in to the rear door lock of our VW van at Satara. When we reported it to the camp’s management, they were genuinely shocked. This incident was a first at Satara. Such a thing has never happened except at Skukuza and at that camp only rarely. Our 2007 trip went off without any such incidents, nor did we hear of any.

In fact it used to be so safe in the Kruger that most camps north of Satara didn’t even have keys for the bungalow locks (e.g., Punda Maria, Letaba, Shingwedzi, Olifants). However, all do now. We advise an ordinary and prudent degree of caution to prevent theft no different from that appropriate for the USA. Do you lock your car when you go to the mall? Please do not overreact on this subject just because it’s Africa.

WHAT TO TAKE & MISCELLANEOUS POINTERS

Camera + Long Telephoto Lens – Take one good camera strictly for wildlife pictures. Until 2007, I always used a traditional film camera, a Nikon SLR with a Nikkor F5.6 80mm-300mm zoom. Lenses longer than 300mm cannot be held steady without a tripod or window mount. Even with a 300mm, you should lock the shutter speed at 1/250th of a second. At shutter speeds slower than 1/250th of a second you will get blurred shots using a handheld 300mm lens. Most modern SLRs feature such a shutter speed priority setting; find the one on your camera, and set it to 1/250th. Take only the single telephoto lens, and leave it attached to the camera body (unless you are a pro or aspire to be one). Taking just one serious camera and lens saves space and weight, and you don’t need but one long lens anyway. In 2007 I took a good digital camera for the first time, a Nikon D70S, with the same long lens (described above) attached. I was very happy with the results (about 600 shots), though it took some getting used to.

Snapshot Camera – Take along a second small digital camera for family pictures and snapshots up close. This one should have a decent flash for fill, interior, and night shots. I took a Fuji digital with a large capacity memory card and took 400 pictures on one set of batteries.

Extra Batteries – Buy an extra set of batteries for both cameras and take them with you. You can live without the snapshot camera if you have to, but you’ll kick yourself if you run out of juice for the SLR/telephoto rig. I admit this time I did not take an extra Nikon battery because of the expense, but I never found the bottom of its capacity!

Film – For traditional film cameras, I prefer Fuji 400 print film for long lens game shooting, and I buy 36-exposure rolls if I can get them unless 24-exposure rolls are on deep discount sale. 100 or 200 speed film has slightly better color qualities, but those film speeds are not sensitive enough for picture-taking at early morning and late afternoon low- to mid-light conditions using a long F5.6 lens locked at 1/250th shutter speed. The current generation of Fuji 400 print film produces stunning color and is much improved over, say, ten years ago. (However, this advice is becoming obsolete as digital technology continues to improve.)

Take Lots of Film – If you do shoot traditional film, buy twice as many rolls of film as you imagine you’ll ever need. I took 26 rolls in 2002 and 24 rolls in 2003. Film is available in the Kruger shops, but it’s more expensive, and the film speed you want may not be in stock. You’ll be surprised how many pictures you take. Film is small and light (remove plastic canisters from boxes before packing) and thus won’t take up much luggage space or add significant weight.

Binoculars – We carry two full size pairs of 10x50 Nikon binoculars with us on Kruger trips (one 5° and one 6.5°). Yes, they are heavy, they are bulky, and they consume a fair amount of valuable luggage space. But they are indispensable. When stopping by a water hole for a half-hour to watch animals come and go, some will be near, and others will be distant. You and your companions will both have the field glasses up. When something exciting happens, such as lions suddenly on the attack, sharing a single pair of binoculars is just not an option. Borrow an extra pair of field glasses if you must, but take two.

Guidebooks & Maps – Knowing where you’re going is a must, so buy a map book of the park first thing. We covered maps in a short section above. Wildlife, flora, and Ecosystem guides were discussed on the same page. We strongly recommend familiarizing yourself with the animal and bird life in the park before you arrive because this is a DIY safari with no local experts to explain things. As we’ve said, the Kruger is home to an astonishing diversity of species. Keep the guides handy up front in the vehicle as you drive. You’ll find you will be referring to them constantly.

Clothing – In summer, spring, and fall, take shorts and tee shirts or Polo shirts, and Teva sandals. Bring long pants and long-sleeve shirts for evening dining and the odd cool night (also handy for sunshade). Baseball-style caps or broad-brimmed hats are a must for sunshade all year. A light jacket is a good idea for all seasons. In winter take clothes to layer on or off as cold mornings turn to warm midday temps and back again as afternoons wane, and pack a medium-weight jacket and a sweatshirt.

Cattle Class or Business/First Class – Would you prefer to experience one of Dante’s seven levels of hell flying in coach or repose in a seat you might actually be able to sleep in? If you can wangle a seat in one of the upper classes, do it. There are many ways to escape from coach short of buying full fare business or first class tickets. For example: frequent flyer upgrades or tickets, special promotions, travel agent-only discounted business fares, and second-person-flies-free deals. Ask me for advice if all else fails. Air fare may be the most expensive part of your trip, and only you know whether you can tolerate coach and save a lot of money. My hat’s off to you if you can; I freely admit that I am too old to suffer 12+ hours in the back of the bus any longer.

Bypass Johannesburg – We’ve said already that it’s better to go straight to the park with the shortest possible layover in Jo’burg. Several airlines, including South African Express (part of South African Airways) fly to the Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport (airport code MQP). Be sure to ask for a through fare to MQP when booking reservations.

Sunscreen – Appropriate for every season. Remember that the Kruger sits on the Tropic of Capricorn. Don’t leave home without it; available in camp stores if you do.

Insect Repellent – Ditto. Mainly for mosquitoes. Yes, the Larium will prevent you from getting malaria, but it doesn’t keep bugs from biting. Also carried in most stores.

Igloo-type Cooler – We always try to buy a cooler in the park at one of the shops. But park shops are not reliable purveyors, so there’s no guarantee. However, you can probably borrow one from National/Alamo or whomever you choose to rent your vehicle from (National keeps one for us from year to year now). Coolers are no more expensive than in the USA and very useful (as we said above) for keeping water, beer, soft drinks, and food cool in the vehicle while on game drives. You’ll be spending most of your days driving, and it’s good to stock the cooler with ice, drinks, sandwiches, and snacks. Ice is available at all park shops.

DIY Game Drive (Planning) – Remember that the vehicle is your principal means of seeing game and that you’ll be spending a lot of time in it. Plan game drives accordingly. Take along food, snacks, drinks, extra clothes, wildlife and bird guides, maps, extra film, and toys (if you take kids). Don’t forget both cameras and both pairs of binoculars. We take our passports, money, and airline tickets with us everywhere. Before heading out, check your camp’s “sightings board” (a map of the local area around the camp with multi-colored pushpins showing what animals other visitors have seen nearby and where). Plan the game drive by consulting your map book and estimating the time according to the distance to be traveled. We use a rule of thumb of about 40 kph (South African vehicles measure speed and distance in kilometers).

DIY Game Drive (Execution) – Speed limits are 40 kph on gravel roads and 50 kph on tarred roads, but you’ll find yourself slowing down and stopping often to look at things. When you do stop, it’s OK to stay on the edge of the road. Everybody expects to find other folks stopped looking at wildlife, and what little traffic comes by will go around. When coming to a stop, turn off the engine (unless it’s so hot you must keep the A/C going), and roll down the windows. You’ll find most animals (except giraffes, which are shy) adjust instantly to the vehicle if it’s not running, and you can enjoy watching them in the peace and quiet of the natural world. The only exception to this practice is for elephants. If you round a curve and see an elephant on, or close by, the road, keep the engine running. Some elephants are not tolerant of vehicles. If the one you approach makes threatening gestures (head shakes, trumpeting, and/or aggressive stance in your direction with ears held wide), it’s possible your vehicle is about to be charged. In that case, it would be prudent to jam it into reverse and back up quickly.

Extra Bag – Take an extra nylon duffel bag for baskets and curios, the lightweight type that can be folded and squashed up so it doesn’t take up much room on the way over. You don’t think you’ll be buying souvenirs in such quantities that you’ll need an extra suitcase? Don’t kid yourself: you will. Take the bag and be prepared.

Stick Shift Proficiency – I have already mentioned that most rental cars in South Africa have manual transmissions (including the VW and Mercedes vans). We were surprised to hear from rental car reps that some Americans arrive not knowing how to drive a stick. If you are one of those people, be sure to reserve a car with an automatic.

Advance Payment for Kruger Accommodation – You will be asked to pay for your overnight accommodations before arrival. If you book more than a month in advance (advisable), the park requires 50% up front, and the remainder 30 days prior to your first night in the Kruger. Payment can be made by MasterCard or Visa (American Express is not accepted for some reason). You’ll get full instructions when you book.

Foreign Exchange – Wait until arriving at the Johannesburg International Airport to change dollars into South African rand (their currency). As soon as you come out of customs and immigration, there is a large open meet-and-greet area surrounded by exchange banks and services. Rates are similar one to another, but it’s still a good idea to compare rates before deciding. Airport rates in Jo’burg are, unlike some countries, very reasonable, and we advise changing your money there. For a two week trip, we changed about US$1,400 into rand, which was more cash than we needed, and we had rand left over to change back to dollars at the end of the trip. If you need to change money inside the park, you can do it, but you’ll get a very bad exchange rate. Or worse: In 2007 we found, for the first time, that many camps didn’t have enough cash on hand to exchange any money at all.

Forms of Payment Accepted in the Park – Cash in local currency is good, of course, but all Kruger facilities (shops, filling stations, restaurants, and booking offices) accept MasterCard, Visa, and American Express. We paid cash for some things and charged others (e.g., gasoline, car washes, baskets, groceries, sundries, meals, and rental car). Remember that accommodation is prepaid. We find that overseas American Express charges show up in US$ at reasonable exchange rates, so we use it as much as possible.

Laundry Facilities – Every camp has a coin laundry with washers and dryers. You’ll need to buy your own washing powder, available in every camp store. We use a local African brand called Omo because it dissolves easily in water and can thus be used for hand washing of clothes without an automatic washer. Be sure to take a handful of 1, 2, and 5 rand coins when heading for the laundry. NOTE: There is a new 5 Rand coin now in circulation, and it’s a bit heavier than the old R5 coin. We found many camp washing machines would accept ONLY the NEW coin.

Cooking - If you prefer to do your own cooking, every bungalow has its own charcoal barbecue grill just like the American versions. Charcoal and wood for cooking are available in all camp stores. As we’ve said, many bungalows (and all family huts) have hot plates or stoves. There are also shared cooking facilities (consisting of electric burners and boiling hot water) in every camp available when a kitchen isn’t included in a bungalow.

Permanent Tents – If you want the experience of camping without having to haul all that equipment to Africa, some camps offer large permanent tents built on a concrete pad that rent for less than a bungalow. Tents are available, for instance, at Letaba, each with four single beds, a big electric fan, lights, and a refrigerator.

Sunglasses – For those who like them instead of squinting.

Enclosed Bungalows (Rondavels) – In case it wasn’t clear from our description, all Kruger accommodation is fully enclosed. Only bungalow porches are either open air or screened.

Sprechen Sie Deutsch? – English, French, German, and Afrikaans versions of maps sit side by side in stores. If you speak only English, be sure to get the right one.

SUMMARY

South Africa’s Kruger Park is unique in its accessibility and affordability to anyone who can drive and wants to see African wildlife. If you’ve always dreamed of going to Africa but never thought you could afford it, now you can. Sure, it’s more expensive than a trip to Las Vegas, but it’s an experience like no other.

Please contact us if you have questions. We love South Africa, and the Kruger Park in particular, and we’ll do what we can to answer your inquiries. You can email me at waallen3@gmail.com.

5 Comments:

Blogger Judy said...

Kruger Park will never leave my memory. First visit was in 1985 and we were able to go many more times while we lived in SA for four years. An outstanding variety of wildlife...and the driving is easy (just remember it's on the 'other' side of the road.)

5/18/2007 8:38 PM  
Blogger robert and laura malone said...

Great Blog! Thanks for the tips. We arrive July 3rd after the 32 hour transit you warned against, using our frequent flyer miles. This will be our third trip to southern Africa, but have yet to visit much in South Africa other than Cape Town. We stay in our tent mostly in hostels and bush camps.
Question.... Do you have suggestions on a place to camp half way to St Hluhluwe Umfolozi from Joberg? We have heard should not drive at night...

6/29/2007 7:49 PM  
Blogger William A. Allen III said...

To Robert & Laura Malone:

Thank you for your kind comments.

No, I'm sorry that I cannot suggest a place to camp as you asked. But I can confirm that it is not prudent to drive after dark, and I strongly advise you not to do so.

Thanks again for reading the blog!

6/29/2007 9:05 PM  
Anonymous Peter said...

This is a really insightful blog! Thanks for sharing your knowledge :-) I've been searching for information about self-catering and food options in Kruger National Park and you've given me a lot of answers along with http://www.kruger-national-park-guide.com/kruger-park-food.html. Thanks again :-)

10/16/2010 5:14 AM  
Anonymous Nash said...

Kruger park is definitely the best!!! thanks for your rich article

10/18/2010 6:50 AM  

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