wild dogs in Kruger
Wild dogs playing around

Kruger Park Safari – Different Options for Exploring Kruger National Park

Once the ‘business’ part of our South Africa trip was finished, it was time for the Kruger Park safari. This was our chance to see some of Africa’s wild cats in the wild. There are two options for exploring Kruger National Park: independently on a self-drive safari, and on an organized tour. We did both.

As part of our South African road trip, we made a few forays into the different parts of Kruger and the surrounding sanctuaries. And when an unexpected opportunity to spend a few more days in South Africa presented itself, we booked an impromptu organized safari. Our choice for a multi-day safari was limited by budgetary constraints, so we chose an affordable 4D/5N trip with Viva Safaris, mainly because it included a stay in a tree house.

Of all the wildlife destinations in Southern Africa, Kruger National Park is the most easily accessible. So whether you are coming for a week, a weekend or even just one night in the park, there are plenty of options to organize your stay.

Updated on 25 May 2019.

Kruger Park Safari with Viva Safaris

We arrived at Tremisana in Motlala Game Reserve in the late afternoon and went on an afternoon drive straight away. While we did not see much wildlife on the drive, we managed to spot two animals that we have not seen before: a Grey Duiker and Common Duiker along with a few Giraffes and Impala. After the game drive, we drove to Marc’s Tree House Lodge – our home for the next 5 nights. 

stenbok on Kruger Park Safari
Dainty little Steenbok dwarfed by a tall flower

If you don’t mind climbing up and down the tree all day, a tree house is a really fun accommodation option. Our house was fantastic. It was constructed around the tree branch, so we had a massive tree trunk growing through our room.

Our balcony jutted into the treetops above the Klaserie River that was lost somewhere below. At night we would hear hyenas howling somewhere nearby and occasionally we had frogs camping inside the room.

Balcony of the tree house at Marc's tree house lodge, Kruger park Safari
The balcony of our tree house at Marc’s Tree House Lodge

Day 1 – Lions & cheetahs

As fun as staying in the tree house lodge is, the lodge had one major downside – it was outside Kruger NP, lying in the Motlala Game Reserve, near the park’s Orpen Gate. And because the camp was outside the park, we didn’t have the opportunity to go on any night drives at all and missed out on a lot of sightings of nocturnal wildlife. 

The daytime we spent in the park, watching wildlife and exploring different parts of Kruger. On the first morning of wildlife watching in Kruger, we spotted a male Lion sleeping concealed in the high grass only a couple of meters from the road.

African lion on a Kruger Park Safari
Lion

The rest of the day was rather quiet in terms of wildlife sightings. We saw the usual ungulates, particularly the Waterbucks, but no predators.

However, on our return home, just a few kilometres away from the Orpen gate we spotted the rarest cat of all –  the Cheetah. It was a female with a sub-adult cub feeding on the kill in the tall grass. According to the official census, there are 200 cheetahs in Kruger, but they are rarely seen, judging by the fact that all sightings are marked on the map at the park’s headquarters.

The cheetahs were quite far away from the road, hence the poor images, but watching them through the binoculars, I could see every whisker on their beautiful faces. Even though many African mammals are quite large, a good pair of binoculars is a must for wildlife watching. Here is an excellent guide on choosing the best binoculars for safari

A highlight of a Kruger Park Safari - cheetah family at the kill
Cheetah with a cub feeding on a kill

Cheetah in Kruger

Cheetahs are amazing cats to see in the wild, but if you are looking for a more up-close-and-personal introduction, check out this ethical cheetah encounter in Zimbabwe.

Day 2 – Motlala Reserve game drive

It’s been raining all day and we had a free morning so we decided to explore the area around our guest house. We used the time to watch some very tame Nyalas that were living on the property, but otherwise, are very rare in the wild.  We also did some bird watching and spotted an African Paradise Flycatcher and a Yellow-Breasted Apalis.

Nyala with a calf
Nyala with a calf
Nyala stag
Nyala stag

In the afternoon we took a drive in the Motlala Game Reserve, but the only notable wildlife we saw was a Black Rhino with a calf, elephants and a small group of giraffes. The rest of our wildlife watching for the day was concentrated on frogs around the lodge, of which there were plenty of. In just over an hour we spotted five species: Banded Rubber Frog, Bubbling Kassina, Foam Nest Frog, Snoring Puddle Frog and Guttural Toad. The toad I found in our tree house!

Black rhino with a calf in Kruger
Black rhino with a calf
Young elephant in Kruger
Young elephant

Day 3 – Wild dogs and White Lions

Practically as soon as we drove through the gate this morning, we spotted a Leopard. Unfortunately, it was completely concealed in the grass by the time we arrived, so it wasn’t a particularly good sighting.

We spent 8 hours driving around the park but didn’t see any new mammal species. We did, however, amassed quite a bird list including Grey-headed Parrot, Saddle-billed Stork and  Kori Bustard.

Southern Carmaine bee-eater
Southern Carmine bee-eater

 

It was on the way home again, that we saw the most amazing animals of the day. A few kilometres from the Orpen Gate we spotted a young Leopard hiding in tall grass.

As soon as we drove through the Orpen Gate we saw a pack of Wild Dogs running across the road and disappearing into the thick undergrowth. 

And just as we thought that it couldn’t bet any better, our driver spotted White Lions behind the fence on the Timbavati Reserve side. The male disappeared practically as soon as we arrived, but the three females were happy to lounge in front of us for quite some time.

The rare white lions of Timbavati are world famous for their unique coat color. Wild white lions are rarely seen anywhere else, suggesting that the ‘white gene’ pool is almost completely unique to this area.

If there is one cat rarer than a cheetah in Kruger it is definitely the White Lion. Our guide has not seen them for 12 years.

The highlight of a Kruger Park Safari - the white lions
White lioness

Day 4 – Last Day in Kruger

On our last day, we were treated to watching a pack of 17 Wild Dogs lounging on the road right in front of our car and then going on a half-hearted chase after the herd of impala. The dogs didn’t catch any of the impalas, and it didn’t look like they really meant the chase – most of the dogs I saw had full round bellies.

Wild dogs spottend on a Kruger Park Safari
Wild dogs playing around

Wild dogs get a bad rap for their hunting style. Like in most social canid species that hunt in packs, their strategy is to run the prey down, biting it repeatedly during the chase, so it would bleed out and slow down. It does sound cruel in comparison to the cat’s style of ambushing its prey and killing it quickly by either dislocating its neck vertebrae or suffocating it. But nature IS cruel. All animal life has to kill in order to survive.

Wild dogs are actually very towards their pack members. Only the strong and healthy adults go on hunts. The young, the old and the sick stay at their camp waiting for the hunting party to return and feed them by regurgitating part of their own meals. The ‘stay at home’ mob compete against each other in their whining skills. The saddest sounding contender gets a meal first. Which means that the young usually eat well.

 

The rest of the day continued as a variation on the “large groups of animals” theme. We saw a huge herd of African Buffalo – probably close to 100 individuals, a huge herd of Impala and a large herd of Zebra.

Even Elephants came in large numbers. The most amazing site of the day, however, was of a single animal – a male Leopard spilling over a tree branch. It must’ve had a fight with another leopard or had an unsuccessful hunt that resulted in a large would on its thigh. We watched it rest on the tree branch, panting heavily and as it was climbing down, we noticed the injury. Life is tough on the African Savannah, even for the large predators.

Kruger Park Safari - African leopard
Leopard

As we were driving around the park later in the day we saw another Leopard that crossed the road right in front of our car.

herd of impala Kruger
Herd of impala

 

Other interesting animals we saw were White Rhino, Nile Crocodile and a Dwarf Mongoose. And of course an impressive amount of birds, including Black-shouldered Kite, African Fish-Eagle, Martial Eagle, Tawny Eagle, Brown Snake Eagle, Booted Eagle and Jacobin Cuckoo.

tawny eagle
Tawny eagle

 

Day 5 – Back to Johannesburg via Blyde River Canyon

The Blyde River Canyon is a spectacular spot. We drove past it four times during our travels in South Africa and we never had a chance to stop for some exploration. The wildlife is hard to spot from the lookout points, but we managed to find two species of lizards: Spotted Rock Lizard and Pungwe Flat Lizard.

Blyde River Canyon South Africa
Blyde River Canyon

Overall, despite staying outside of the main park, Viva safaris was a productive (in terms of sightings) and a fun option for a Kruger Park safari and we probably saw more wildlife than we would have on our own. We would never have spotted most of the leopards that the guides found for us, and we would certainly have missed the cheetahs and probably the white lions. As with most wildlife-watching trips, having an experienced local guide could make all the difference in the world.

Exploring Kruger National Park independently

If a group tour is not your thing, and you are happy to drive yourself, then a self-drive safari in Kruger is the perfect option. It will take a little bit more planning, as Kruger is an enormous place. It stretches for 352 kilometres from north to south and on average 60 kilometres from east to west. So what you have to choose is which gate you wish to enter the park from and where you would like to stay.

Kruger National Park Gates

You can enter Kruger National Park through one of the 9 gates:

Kruger National Parks map of gates and camps
Map of the gates and main camps in Kruger 

Gates in Southern Kruger

  • Malelane Entrance Gate
  • Crocodile Bridge Entrance Gate
  • Numbi Entrance Gate
  • Paul Kruger Entrance Gate
  • Phabeni Gate

Gates in Central Kruger

  • Orpen Entrance Gate
  • Phalaborwa Entrance Gate

Gates in Northern Kruger

  • Phalaborwa Entrance Gate
  • Punda Maria Entrance Gate

Map of Kruger National Park

Check out the map of Kruger National Park to orient yourself. The gate names are marked in red font on the map. 

We visited the park through the Orpen gate in central Kruger and the Malelane gate in the south. You can find the reports below.

Kruger National Park Camps

There many accommodation options in Kruger National Park suitable for any budget. In general, the camps fall in one of the three options: Tented camps (the most economical), Rest camps (comfortable) and Luxury lodges. Here are some of the main camps in each budget option:

Tented camps (also known as satellite camps)

These are rustic bush camps, with very basic facilities. Most of them do not have an on-site restaurant. So you either have to bring your own food or eat at other camps in the park. 

  • Balule Satellite Camp
  • Bateleur Bushveld Camp
  • Biyamiti Bushveld Camp
  • Boulders Bushveld Lodge
  • Crocodile Bridge Camp
  • Maroela Private Camp
  • Malelane Satellite Camp
  • Mopani Rest Camp
  • Roodewal Bush Lodge
  • Shimuwini Bushveld Camp
  • Sirheni Bushveld Camp
  • Talamati Bushveld Camp
  • Tamboti Satellite Camp

Rest Camps

Rest camps are the perfect balance between the budget tent camps and the pricey luxury lodges. They are the most popular accommodation option and get booked out early. So book as far in advance as you can. 

  • Berg En Dal
  • Lower Sabie
  • Skukuza
  • Satara
  • Olifants
  • Letaba

Private Luxury Lodges

If you are looking for a luxury style safari and exclusivity than the private lodges are for you. 

  • Camp Shawu
  • Camp Shonga
  • Hamiltons Tented Camp
  • Hoyo Hoyo Safari Lodge
  • Imbali Safari Lodge
  • Jock Safari Lodge
  • Lion Sands Narina Lodge
  • Lion Sands Tinga Lodge
  • Lukimbi Safari Lodge
  • Pafuri Camp
  • Plains Camp
  • Rhino Post Safari Lodge
  • Shishangeni Private Lodge
  • Singita Lebombo
  • Singita Sweni
  • The Outpost

Berg En Dal Rest Camp (Malelane Gate)

After our stay with Viva Safari, we visited a number of managed sanctuaries around Kruger National Park and returned for another Kruger park safari, this time in our own car and staying at Berg En Dal camp. 

Night Drive

Berg En Dal is probably the largest and most comfortable rest camp in Kruger. We arrived there in the late afternoon and went on a guided night drive. We’ve seen mostly Spotted Eagle Owls and Scrubhares, but also spotted a Spotted Hyena and a male Lion. The lion was not bothered by our truck and calmly walked on the road parallel to the truck.

Spotted hyena
Spotted hyena on a night drive
spotted eagle owl
Spotted Eagle Owl

He called out quite often and seemed to be listening intently for something in the night. The guide explained that there were two young males in the area preparing to challenge him with the intention of taking over his territory.

Other animals we saw on the night drive were: Elephant, Black-backed Jackal, Common Warthog and Water Thick-knee. There was a lot of wildlife around the campsite as well. We saw a Tree Squirrel, a male Vervet monkey with fabulously blue testicles, Rainbow Rock Skink, Striped Skink, Spiny Agama Lizard and some Natal Spurfowl.

Birds at Ber En Dal rest camp

In the morning as we walked to the restaurant for breakfast we saw a number of birds feeding on some fruiting trees. On closer inspection there turned out to be 5 species: Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill, Red-billed Hornbill, Cape Glossy Starling, Black-headed Oriole, Golden-tailed Woodpecker and Bennett’s Woodpecker. 

Yellow-bill hornbill
Yellow-bill hornbill

 

The large tree by our cabin turned up a male Vervet monkey with his brilliantly blue testicles. Such unusual coloration of his family jewels seems to attract not only Vervet monkey females but human wildlife-watchers as well :). Even a tree squirrel seemed to be interested. 

Tamboti Tented Camp (Orpen Gate)

Another time we visited Kruger for a one-day safari,  we stayed at Tamboti Tented camp and went for a drive in the park. The tents in the camp are very comfortable and the less developed nature of the camp provided for a more immersive experience. 

We spent most of the time on our drive looking for a leopard, but even though we found some fresh tracks on the road the cat itself eluded us.

However, we spotted Giraffe, Steenbok, Impala, Wildebeest, Chama Baboons, Mozambique Spitting Cobra, Bateleur (Red-billed Eagle), Yellow-billed hornbill, Lilac-breasted Roller, European Roller, Dove and huge flocks of Red-billed Quelea.

Steenbok
Steenbok

Timbavati Lodge

The third time we arrived in Kruger in complete darkness and opted to spend the night at Timbavati lodge (about 14 km from the Orpen gate). In the morning we went for a sunrise walk on the property but did not see much wildlife. Although, a proper walking safari in Kruger usually turns up quite a few sightings. But I was quite excited to spot a Bushveld Rain frog at the campsite.

These guys spend most of the year underground and only come out after heavy rains, just like the Truncate-snouted Borrowing frogs in Thailand, or a variety of burrowing frog species in Australia. During the walk itself, we saw a rather aggressive Zebra that chased us off the road, a Giraffe, some Kudu, a juvenile snake and lots and lots of Golden Orb Spiders.

Bushveld Rain frog in Kruger National Park
Bushveld rain frog

HESC & Kapama Reserve

Of all the wildlife sanctuaries we visited, that adjacent to Kruger National Park, the most interesting was Kapama. Our main goal for visiting Kapama was to see Hoedspruit Endangered Species Center. The Center is involved in the conservation of Cheetahs and Wild dogs, as well as Black-footed Cats. Unfortunately, the Black-footed cats were breeding at the time of our visit and we were not able to see them.

Cheetah cubs at HESC
Cheetah cubs at HESC

HECS has successfully released some of its hand- raised cheetahs on the adjacent Kapama property and reportedly these cats were doing quite well, even though they received no predation or predator-avoidance training.

Apart from cheetahs, HECS also works with wild dogs and vultures. We visited just in time to see the feeding of both species.

Wild dogs at HECS
Wild dogs at HECS
vulture feeding at HECS
Vulture feeding

Kapama Campsite

Overnight we stayed at the Center’s Tented campsite and went for a late afternoon game drive in Kapama Reserve. The area around the campsite was quite rich in wildlife. I saw a male and a few female Nyala, lots of birds including Common Scimitarbill and Yellow-Breasted Apalis and tracks of a largish cat, probably a Serval and some monkey prints.

There were also a few lizards around the campsite including Jones’ Girdled Lizard and lots of frogs calling at night. I could hear Painted Reed frogs but found only Red Toads and a Sand Frog on the campsite grounds.

Sunset drive

The beginning of the afternoon drive was quite uneventful: we saw some Wildebeest, two Waterbucks and two Elands.  Later on, a Giant Eagle Owl dropped its dinner (guinea fowl) on the roof of our truck.

Just before the sunset, our luck picked up and we found the resident pride of Lions. They have made a kill and it was the cubs’ turn to feed. We watched them until only one cub was left at the carcass tearing the last scraps of meat off the bone.

Then we went to see the kingly-looking male. It was amazing how close the pride let us approach, we were only 3-4 meters away from the cats, ready to leave at any sign of discomfort, but the animals totally ignored us.

During the night we spotted a Porcupine, a family of Jackals and then, unbelievably, an African wildcat!  We followed it off road for a little bit and it appeared to be quite unfazed. After a while, it did get bored with us though and jumped away.

African wild cat
The back end of the retreating African wildcat, Kruger National Park, South Africa

Thankfully we had a good look at the African wildcats at Jo’burg zoo, so we had a good idea what the front end of the animal looked like :)

African wildcat
African wildcat at Jo’burg Zoo

Moholoholo

Moholoholo is another wildlife sanctuary similar to others we already visited. What distinguishes Moholoholo from all other places is the man behind the place – Brian Jones.  He gives an intense and interesting presentation in a way of introducing visitors to his park.

Brian is heavily involved with vultures and centres his presentation around them. Being birds (and not mammals), vultures can eat diseased dead flesh and not get infected from it.  Even their feces are strongly disinfecting.

Vultures are able to fly for thousands of kilometres at high altitudes where the temperature is -40 C and there is almost no oxygen. These birds are able to recycle 90% of their oxygen. Quite a feat.

Around Moholoholo we spotted a Village Indigobird and a colony of Rock Hyrax – a species I wanted to see for a long time.

Moholoholo
Moholoholo
Rock hyrax at Moholoholo
Rock hyrax

Overall, we managed to see a good number of wild cats during our combined Kruger Park safari. Plenty of lion sightings, at least three leopards, a cheetah family and a rare treat – the white lions. Together with the African wildcat in Kapama, the trip turned up 4 wild cat species, which is pretty good going as far as cats go.

 

Kruger Park Safari – Different Options For Exploring Kruger National Park

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