Elephants and giraffes in Kruger National Park.
Elephants and giraffes in Kruger National Park. Corno van den Berg

Kruger: it’s an extraordinary wilderness.Dutchman Francois de Cuiper was the first white man to visit this area. Later on, hunting brought mass slaughter, but also ensured the establishment of the park. As far back as 1898.

Kruger National Park is one of the best-known safari locations in the world. It has been a protected area as far back as 1898. The reason; all the white rhinos had been shot, as had many other species. Nowadays, there are extensive plans to expand the park across the South African border and join with other national parks in Zimbabwe and Mozambique. It will be the largest national park in the world; Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park. Kruger is truly a groundbreaking nature reserves.

The park is covered in ‘bushveld’, as far as the eyes can see. This is a dense overgrowth of brushes and trees, with some open plains here and there, which are better known as savannahs. Only the silhouettes of various animals may be visible on the horizon. But they hardly move, as if they don’t want to attract attention. Or perhaps they don’t want to disturb the tranquillity. This is the true Kruger: a piece of wild Africa, which will become even wilder in the coming years.

This is exactly what Francois de Cuiper saw back in 1725. The Dutch explorer was the first European to arrive here. He was on an expedition for the Dutch East India Company, to explore new territories. At Gomondwane, De Cuiper and his men were attacked and chased away by the local people and the region was left in peace for decades afterwards.

Hunters heard the stories of the many animals and made their way into the African inland. Over one hundred years ago, the situation changed drastically. Weapons became sophisticated and killing animals became easy. The slaughter of hundreds of animals was quite common in this part of Africa. The plains became increasingly devoid of life and at the end of the nineteenth century, the need arose to protect the environment, even if the purpose was to preserve the hunt at first.

Eye contact with a male lion...
Eye contact with a male lion… Corno van den Berg

The people’s council of the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek or ZAR (South African Republic) prohibited hunting in crucial parts of the park. Nature was left alone between the Sabie River and Crocodile River. Paul Kruger, who was president of the ZAR at the time, established the Sabie Wildlife Reserve. The year was 1898, a time when nature protection was non-existent in many countries. Despite the regulations, the project failed. Especially when the Second Boer War broke out in 1899. This lasted until 1902, after which this part of South Africa became a British colony.

British Chief James Stevenson-Hamilton was appointed to be the first park ranger of the area. This nature lover managed to increase the protected area. He also made sure that the rules were strictly complied with. Which made it possible for nature to slowly recover.

The British built a railway line in 1916 that made it possible for the public to visit the park. The concept of ‘going on safari’ was born. In 1926, the area received the status of a national park, the first in South Africa. The park was named after one of its founders: Paul Kruger.

Must-do! tips:

Base your route on earlier sightings
The guide (or you yourself if you doing a self-drive) will have to choose what route to take. It can depend on the number of days you are there, on the weather and perhaps also on sightings of animals the day before, for instance wild dogs, lions, rhinos, leopards and cheetahs.

If you want to learn more, ask your guide what he bases his choice on. Or have a look at the maps at the rest camps for recent sightings. You will see that a safari mostly depends on luck, but that you can often help luck happen just a little. Besides this, you can point out that you wish to go in search of cheetahs or that you want to see many elephants, for example.

Follow a park-ranger course
There is a lot to learn about the animals and the rich eco system in Kruger NP. It is possible to take a multiple-day course to be a park ranger. It is adapted for tourists and you will learn about animal behaviour, about the role the various seasons play and how you can track the animals.

Besides this, you will hear a lot about threats like poaching, and the role of tourism becomes more clear. It’s certainly worthwhile, especially for someone with a lot of interest in nature.
More information: www.krugerpark.co.za/Specialist_Safari_Tours-travel/28-day-eco-training.html

The sunset in Kruger National Park South Africa.
The sunset in Kruger National Park. Corno van den Berg

Go on a walking safari
The ultimate way to experience these kinds of wildlife areas is on foot. Following the guide and a park ranger, you will experience nature much better than any other way. You’ll follow paths used primarily by animals, and encounters are quite common. Maybe with elephants and zebras, or even with lions. There are various trails that take from one day to several days to complete. You’ll spend the night in lodges, where you will be able to freshen up.

These walking safaris are very popular, so you need to book as far as a year in advance. But there are also are several privately owned nature reserves where you can book walking safaris.

Go on a night safari
When the evening falls, the diurnal (daytime) animals retire and the nocturnal animals become active. The darkness makes this an entirely different experience. From a jeep, a spotter use light to spot the reflection of an animal eyes, or maybe a silhouette, or movement. Anything could cross your path here, from an elephant to an elephant shrew (a kind of mouse). You can also encounter more typical nocturnals such as the aardwolf and the common genet.

Ask if you can have a try at spotting. You’ll realise how difficult it is. When you book your trip make sure your itinerary includes night safaris. These are not allowed in the park, so they take place in the surrounding private reservations.
More information: http://greater.krugerpark.co.za/Kruger_Park_Game_Viewing_Activities-travel/kruger-night-game-viewing.html

Enjoy a ‘sundowner’ cocktail
The name says it all, this drink is enjoyed at sunset. At the end of the day, you can process all you’ve seen during the day, and exchange experiences with your fellow travellers. Generally it is taken at a location with a view of the horizon, to watch the sun go down.

Depending on how many clouds there are, the sky may color a beautiful red. It’s a delightful and relaxing way to conclude a safari day. This is mostly done at the private game reserves and a perfect moment for photos.

Take a self drive safari
During most safaris you are driven around by a chauffeur/guide. However, you can also get behind the wheel yourself, determine your route, and stop for as long as you wish when you meet a herd of elephants, for example. The chances are that you may miss some animals, because you don’t have the trained eye of a guide, but the sense of freedom is greater.

There are various options, including a rental car to travel from one lodge to the other. You can arrange this yourself or have someone arrange it for you. Be aware that close encounters with animals are common in Kruger National Park.

Go camping near wildlife in Kruger
Kruger NP is world famous for camping. There are numerous possibilities, like pitching your own tent at one of the various campsites, but you can also spend the night in more permanent tented camps, which provide a lot more luxury. These camps vary from basic to 5-stars.

It may be an idea to combine the different sleeping arrangements on a multiple-day visit, so one night you’ll sleep among the animals and hear their sounds in a tent,  and switch to a nice comfortable bed, where you can enjoy magnificent views the next night. The options are many.

Help research the wild dogs
The wild dog is one of the most extraordinary animals in Africa. In Kruger and its immediate surroundings, scientists have been researching this predator for a long time. Wild dogs can cover distances of up to 50 kilometers.

Tourists are encouraged to report their encounters with these animals, so the scientists can determine behavioural patterns. So be sure to write down the exact location, the number of animals you encounter, and perhaps state which direction they are going.
More information: www.brandsouthafrica.com/governance/sustainable/wilddogstudy

Search for the ‘Little Five’
If you go on safari for the first time, you will want to see the Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo & rhino). But even if you have been on safari before, these five remain popular. But there are also the ‘Little Five’, closely connected with their bigger counterparts.

They are the ant lion, leopard tortoise, elephant shrew, buffalo weaver and the rhinoceros beetle. You probably won’t see them all, but it is interesting to search for these animals as well.
More information: www.brandsouthafrica.com/tourism-south-africa/south-africa-animals/from-big-five-to-little-five

Relax during an open air picnic
The hot afternoon hours are mostly spent relaxing, just as many animals do. In the various lodges you can enjoy lunch in the open air, and the food is prepared over a wood fire. You will have unforgettable views. Another advantage is you can spend all day in the field and directly experience how the animals deal with the climate. It is possible to arrange these meals in advance when you book your trip.

Make the most of your photos
If you go on safari, you take a lot of photographs. It’s not always easy to capture the landscape and the animals in the right frame, especially in bright sunlight or in limited light when evening falls. There are countless tips on the internet to help you improve your photos, not only in terms of a better result, but also regarding equipment and whether you really need all the bells and whistles.
More information: www.eyesonafrica.net/safari-photography.htm

Go on an elephant safari
The African elephant is bigger than his Asian counterpart. For a long time, this animal was difficult to train. Nowadays it is also possible to go on safari in Africa on the back of an elephant. It is not permitted in the park itself, but you can go in the surrounding nature reserves.

You may meet other animals. It’s interesting to see the interaction between the animals, especially with other elephants. These safaris often take place in the early morning or late afternoon, the best times to take photographs. Please consider that this is not to everybody’s liking. Some people think that elephants shouldn’t be used for this. Of course, it’s up to you.

Find the white lions of Timbavati
Timbavati Game Reserve is part of Kruger NP and it is the only place in the world where you find white lions in the wild. These are not albino lions – they miss a gene, which causes their skin to be white. There are only a few of them alive, so people come here from all over the world to see these wonderful animals.

Een groene meerkat in Kruger NP.
A meerkat in Kruger NP. Corno van den Berg

Best time:

The region Kruger NP is in has two seasons. The dry season starts in May and goes until early October. In this period, the vegetation will be limited and many animals will be near the waterholes, so it’s easier to spot them.

The wet season runs from late October to April. The animals will be more difficult to spot because they will be more scattered and the vegetation will be denser. Also, many roads will be difficult to access, if at all, after a heavy rain.

However, this season also has its charm, with its thunder clouds and the births of many baby animals.

Make sure you are properly informed and well prepared for your trip.

Be aware!

Many tourists don’t know Kruger is in malaria territory. Check with a doctor beforehand whether you need malaria pills.

In the past couple of years, there have been several incidents with tourists who had gotten out of their car to take photographs or make a video-recording. This has led to some serious injuries. Never leave your vehicle without the approval of a guide when you are on safari. If you are on a hiking safari, be sure to listen to the instructions of the park rangers.

How do I get there?

There are various ways to get to Kruger NP. You can get there from Johannesburg, but also from the Victoria Falls in Zambia.

From Johannesburg it is at least a 400-kilometer drive to the Kruger National Park. However, some of the park entrances are at over 600 kilometers from the city.

Many of the more expensive lodges have landing strips and direct connections with the Johannesburg, and flying will enable you to have an extraordinary view of the landscape when you arrive and depart. It in will also save you a lot of time. Enquire about your options when making reservations.