Have you ever been fed South Africa safari stories when you were a kid going to the zoo? Stories of how you would get to see animals prowling in their natural habitat without fences.
Well, a safari in South Africa would turn those stories into reality. A typical safari in South Africa has no man-made boundaries, with animals free to roam wherever they please. A “real-life” zoo, it should definitely be on everyone’s bucket list to go for a safari in South Africa.
My post ” 4 Things to Do When Traveling to South Africa“, mentioned the 3 recommended ways to enjoy a South Africa safari. Firstly one could rent a car and self-drive through the safari parks, searching for animal sightings (which they term as “game”) on their own. You would also need to plan for your own accommodation and guided tours yourself.
This option is my favorite. It not only allows you to control your budget but is a free-for-all experience that is to your own discretion. With a free reign of exploration, how adventurous you want to be is in your own hands!
Another option would be booking a stay with a luxury lodge. Luxury lodges like Sabi Sands Game Reserve are areas of a safari park cordoned off for private enjoyment. These lodges plan all of your activities and meals for you. Guided tours with experienced guides will often guarantee you sightings of The Big 5.
You could check out this piece by “On The Luce” for a comprehensive write up on one of the game lodges, Naledi Game Lodge in South Africa. Lucy details about a detailed day one can enjoy if they pay for a luxury lodge, a good piece of information if you are keen.
Another option is to engage a local tour company like Heritage Tours and Safaris. These tour companies can plan for your accommodation depending on your budget while at the same time they would arrange guided drives by local guides.
As a personal preference, I feel that a large part of the fun in a South Africa safari comes from self-driving. To have your own anonymity to explore is akin to a Pokemon exploration! A self-drive would also be the cheapest option if you plan well.
As this post focuses on a beginner’s guide to safari in South Africa, it would be focused on a self-drive in Kruger National Park.
- Pick your safari in South Africa with SANParks
- Kruger National Park: The beginner’s choice
- What Car to Rent?
- Routes and Rest Camps in Kruger National Park
- Basic Itinerary for beginners to Safari in South Africa
- Day 0: Hazyview and driving tips
- Safari Tips
- Day 1: Skuzuka Rest Camp and Guided Sunset Drive
- Day 2: Skuzuka Guided Bush Walk and Satara Rest camp
- Day 3: Sabie River Drive to Crocodile Bridge Rest Camp. Guided Night Drive
- Day 4: Checkout
Pick your safari in South Africa with SANParks
- Pick a SANParks (The managing body for all of South Africa safari parks) of your choice: This post picks Kruger National Park
- Choose rest camps that you want to spend you night in in Kruger National Park: This post picks Skuzuka, Satara, and Crocodile Bridge
- Choose the type of accommodations in these rest camps: This post picks bungalow and tents with communal facilities.
Different SANPark has different concepts and experiences. For instance, the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park leans towards more of a complete wilderness experience. This may be in the form of lesser tourists, more untarred roads, and lesser amenities in their rest camps.
The accommodation in rest camps varies from campsites to safari tents with communal toilets, to the more comfortable bungalows and even cottages. Do take note that a daily conservation fee is to be paid too.
Different SANParks and rest camps also may have varying activities. From the more common guided night drives to the rugged overnight bush walks, you should pick your choice base on your interests and experience.
For beginners though, I would strongly recommend the Kruger National Park.
Beginners would find it easy to navigate the tarred roads which are well-maintained. They can then enjoy the option to drive on untarred roads into the wilderness when they are more comfortable. Sightings of animals are common, with amenities throughout the park for your convenience.
Whichever safari you choose in South Africa, you would still be able to spot game. The difference would be the difficulty of driving and spotting sighting. Thus start easy, find The Big 5, before you move on to something more advanced on your next trip!
Kruger National Park- The Beginner’s Choice
Through my experience in safari in South Africa, Kruger National Park packs the most bang for buck.
I would suggest a 4 days 3-night stay in Kruger for starters. As one is only allowed to drive between 5 am to 6 pm, you would need to take note of your check-in time. Entering Kruger National Park (except Crocodile Bridge gate) would still require about an hour or so drive to the nearest rest camp, so do take note of this!
The southern part of Kruger National Park has also more Big 5 sightings, while the northern part is more for bird sightings. As such I would recommend for beginners to start with the southern part to accomplish The Big 5 checklist. A route between the rest camps of Satara, Lower Sabie, Skuzuka, and Crocodile Bridge would also be good, particularly for beginners looking for the full South Africa safari experience.
What Car to Rent?
A basic small sedan costs about 40 USD per day after taking into account one-way drop and all administrative charges. Depending on your comfort level, I would also highly recommend a small car if sightings in safaris are your main goal.
A small sedan would get you through tight spaces in the safari parks. Many times when there is a good sighting, it would also be easier to navigate to get better a better view as many cars would be cramping around the sighting.
Discover Cars was my go-to car rental company when venturing on a South Africa safari. They provide excess coverage at very competitive rates which I would suggest is a must-get due to the untarred roads in safaris.
These untarred roads have stones and rocks that can hit your car when you drive through them. Discover Car was also prompt in returning my deposit after the trip, without any random deductions. Some companies have a habit of deducting petrol costs even if you just pumped maximum petrol! So you can rest assured with Discover Cars as it did not happen during my trips there.
Routes and Rest Camps in Kruger National Park
Satara, Skuzuka, and Lower Sabie are considered big rest camps with plenty of amenities to enjoy such as cinema and swimming pools. You also would not have to worry about your meals due to the presence of restaurants in these camps. Big 5 sightings are also aplenty in the areas surrounding as river holes like the Sabie river run through the route.
One could start their South Africa safari by flying in at Eastgate Airport or Mika Airport before renting a car there to enter Kruger Park. Or if you are coming from Johannesburg or other cities, you could choose to drive in through Orpen Gate (Satara camp as a start), Paul Kruger Gate (Skuzuka camp as a start), or Crocodile Bridge Gate (Crocodile Bridge camp as a start).
For instance, an option can be a night each in order, from Satara Camp-Skuzuka/Lower Sabie- Crocodile Bridge or vice versa. Suzuka-Lower Sabie-Crocodile bridge can also be another option for a shorter route. What I had done on my most recent trip was Skuzuka-Satara-Crocodile Bridge which I found to be quite thorough as I managed to cover most of the important areas of Kruger National Park.
That said, you could also station in one camp while traveling around it as sightings are never guaranteed even if you move around. Just make sure that you do not mind the repetitive routes and food within the same restaurants!.
Basic Itinerary for beginners to Safari in South Africa
- Day 0: Drove from Johannesburg (set off at 2pm) to Hazyview (reached at 9pm) and stayed for a night
- Day 1: 5am, Drove through the Phabeni Gate to reach Skuzuka Camp. 430pm Guided Sunset Drive
- Day 2: 5am , Morning Walk at Skuzuka Camp till 9am. Checked out at 2pm and drove to Satara Camp
- Day 3: 5am, drove to Lower Sabie along the Sabie River . Lunch at 1pm at Lower Sabie, before driving to Crocodile Bridge at 5pm and Guided Night drive at 8pm
- Day 4: 5am, Check out
Day 0: Hazyview and driving tips
During my latest trip, I had set off from Johannesburg Airport towards Kruger National Park. I took off around 3pm in the afternoon for an estimated 4 hours drive to Hazyview. From Hazyview to Skuzuka camp would take around 1.5 hours, thus the plan was to spend a night in Hazyview as Kruger National Park forbids driving after 530pm.
Keep in mind that Park gates close at 17h30, and the speed limit in the park is 50km/hour, so be sure that you have ample time to reach your camp once inside the Park. If not, you could just choose to take a rest right outside the park akin to what I did at Hazyview.
Do take a look at this map for the recommended scenic route I drove from Johannesburg.
The Sanbonani Hotel was a pleasant stay after a long drive. The rooms were decently sized for a double room at 50 USD. Combined with the presence of a swimming pool and a restaurant opened till 10 pm, the hotel allowed us to fully wind down after the long drive.
I would also recommend setting off earlier than what I did. The roads in South Africa are not very well maintained. It gets dark early at around 5 pm during their winter (June to August), and the presence of potholes and unlit roads make for a challenging drive if you are a beginner.
Unlike road trips in other countries, South Africa also has a high presence of road crime. Stories of roadblocks being set up for robberies and armed thefts at petrol stations are common.
A tank full of petrol is highly advisable before the sky turns dark. This would reduce the need for you to make stops at petrol stations. Being an Asian, it makes me even more conspicuous there and I was pretty nervous whenever I had to take a pit stop at night for a refuel.
Thus do try to drive straight to the hotel when the sky turns dark, and drive slowly to avoid any potential unseen potholes. Do not stop unnecessarily and keep your windows locked. You would not be able to enter Kruger National Park anyway even if you cut back around half an hour of traveling time by speeding, so the risk is really not worth it.
Before you enter your first South Africa Safari Park, do take note of the following tips.
- Sightings are the most common in the early morning. Animals are mostly prowling the parks when it gets cooler in the morning and at night, but retreat to rest when the sun is out in the late morning/afternoon. Try to get up early and adjust your body clock to suit a South Africa safari experience.
- Game drives are the common term used to describe a safari drive to see animals in their own environment.
- Take your time and drive slowly. Remember that your goal is not to cover areas, but to spot sightings while driving.
- Driving near water holes and rivers are a good way to spot game.
- Leopards and Cheetahs are by far the hardest to sight among the Big 5. They hide in trees and camouflage themselves, so do keep a lookout in those trees!
- Do not be afraid to venture to untarred roads as they have lesser tourists and more of a private feel for your drive. You would also be able to enjoy quiet privacy if you do spot a sighting there.
- Make use of the sightings maps in your rest camps before starting your self-drive.
- Try to book only one activity a day (guided walks, guided drives), and allocate enough rest time and time for your own drives. The beauty of a South Africa safari is best experienced in a self-drive!
- Take note of the speed allowed on the roads! There are hidden cameras in place that would result in a fine.
- Stock up on snacks such as salads, veggies, and water to keep you alert and hydrated for your drives. Restaurants inside rest camps are mostly western cuisine which may get too dry for your throat if you are not used to having it for every meal.
- Do not clog around game sightings for too long! Let everyone have a chance. I cannot emphasize how many times inconsiderate drivers have spent hogging sightings to themselves and denying everyone a chance to enjoy the sightings.
- Do not venture out of your vehicle for any photo opportunity you might be thinking of. It is illegal and it is disrespectful to the animals to venture into their natural habitat. No feeding too!
- Always leave a good distance between big game and your vehicle. Big game like elephants, rhinoceros, and hippopotamus are dangerous and can charge at your car to cause serious damage if they feel threatened.
Day 1: Skuzuka Rest Camp and Guided Sunset Drive
Hazyview to Skuzuka
The drive from Hazyview to Phabeni Gate is relatively fuss-free with the morning lights. Reach the gates early as there would most definitely be a long queue when the gate opens as everyone wants to get in on the morning sightings. We reached at about 530am (gate opens at 6 am) and there was already a long queue ahead of us!
After the gate attendants check your booking documents, your safari adventure will begin! Just be prepared with your camera as a sighting like an elephant and giraffe would pop out anytime!
I remember my first ever sighting during my first trip was a giraffe crossing the road. It was spectacular to see it completely in the wild with no fences like in the zoos. Until today, the sight remains as one of the most vivid memories throughout my travels.
We took our time to slowly explore the roads on R536 and S1 along the Nyamundwa Dam before checking in to Skuzuka at 12pm. This was to ensure we made full use of the early morning drive to spot as much game as possible. Sightings drop when the scorching sun is at full swing in the afternoon, so do take a break then.
Skuzuka Rest Camp
Skuzuka rest camp is one of the most popular and big rest camps in Kruger National Park. It has the largest gift and grocery shop in the whole of Kruger National Park. It also has a swimming pool, nail salon, and spa center for your downtime. All these make for good relaxation during the afternoon when sightings are less common.
We booked a bungalow for our stay here. It consists of a basic room with your own parking slot, a private toilet, and a small kitchen for cooking. Air conditioning and hot water is also provided. Very sufficient for a relaxed stay and costs around 70 USD per night. This was considered a little splurge before our tented stay the next day which comes without a private bath.
After our second drive from 1 pm to 4 pm on the H3 and H1-1 roads, we proceeded to head back for dinner to prepare for our Guided Sunset drive at 430pm. It is restricted to drive in South Africa safari parks by ourselves after 5 pm. Thus the only option to experience game sightings in the evening would be with a Guided Sunset Drive or a Guided Night Drive.
These are 2-hour tours where you would be taken on a South Africa safari drive by an experienced ranger who doubles up as a tour guide. These drives would be conducted in a typical safari jeep as seen below.
Guided Sunset Drive
These tours cost around 30 USD but I would say it is a must-spend. It provides you with an experience you cant otherwise enjoy on your own. A Sunset Drive allows you an extra 1 hour of driving outside of the stipulated 530pm no-drive time.
It is also different from a Night Drive, as it is not as dark and easier to spot games. Game starts to increase their activity in the early evening weather, thus do join them for a day or two.
Day 2: Skuzuka Guided Bush Walk and Satara Rest camp
Skuzuka Guided Bush Walk
We started Day 2 with a Guided Bush Walk in the safari park. Guided walks are a way for one to experience walking in the environment where the game resides. A guided walk costs around 50 USD and is about 4 hours long.
During the trip, the ranger would walk you through an educational experience. Other than just soaking in walking in the natural habitat of the game, I managed to learn many facts about the lives of the different animals and their interaction with the environment.
As animals could sense us walking from afar, they would mostly wander off being we can be near them. As such, do taper your expectations as a guided walk is more of an educational experience than being able to see animals up close.
Accompanied by two experienced rangers who are armed, it is a safe experience which I recommend doing if you have the fitness.
Satara Rest Camp
After our morning walk and a short lunch, we proceeded to drive up one of the most popular roads on H1-2 and then H1-3 to Satara camp.
Satara camp is also one of the major rest camps in Kruger National Park with swimming pools, and a grocery stall and gift shop for your leisure.
We picked the more budget Safari Tents for our stay here. This option came with a communal toilet and a communal kitchen without air-conditioning. These tents cost 30 USD for two and would be one the most budget option other than booking a site and setting up your own campsite.
Even though they come without air-conditioning, the cold air in the African night is sufficient enough for a good night’s sleep. The communal toilets and communal kitchen are also aplenty and more than sufficient for everyone in the tents. If you are looking for a good budget option, you would not go wrong here.
Day 3: Sabie River Drive to Crocodile Bridge Rest Camp. Guided Night Drive
Sabie River Drive
We set off early at 5am for our morning drive to Lower Sabie for our lunch break. This was done through taking the S100 to S37 to H1-3 to Tshokwana to H1-2 to H12 to H4-1 to Lower Sabie route.
Tshokwana would be a good pit stop for breakfast as their restaurant serves excellent coffee and their famous African Bush breakfast.
The H4-1, in particular, is one of the most popular roads in the whole of Kruger National Park. This is due to it being right next to the Sabie River where animals congregate for their water fix. This drive never fails to amaze me time and again on every trip I pass through here, with big game sightings common.
Lower Sabie Rest Camp was the pit stop for lunch. Again another major rest camp in Kruger National Park, dining at its Mugg and Bean restaurant would provide you with a splendid view of Sabie River. When you are lucky you might even spot some game drinking from the river.
After lunch was a straight drive along H4-2 (sometimes venturing to untarred roads) to Crocodile Bridge rest camp for a quick rest before our Guided Night Drive.
Crocodile Bridge Rest Camp
Crocodile Bridge is a small camp without a restaurant. It has only a simple grocery stall that closes early and is more often used as an entry/exit point for travelers from Kruger National Park. As we managed to get a tent near the fence, we even managed to spot a wild Impala which had wandered right behind our tent!
Guided Night Drive
The Guided Night Drive in Crocodile Bridge holds fond memories for me. It was where I managed to witness a Lion resting right smack in the middle of the road for a good 20 minutes.
Animal sightings are common in the nightfall. Though a Night Drive would pitch-black as compared to Sunset Drives. The experienced guides would pin-point the game to you with torches in the pitch-black surroundings. As a South Africa safari drive can get very cold in the evening, do make sure you are well covered up.
A night drive is not only a chance for you to spot sightings, but it is also a way to experience the natural South Africa safari serenity in complete darkness. With only the stars as your source of light, and the animals being the source of sound (no other cars would be around your tour), you would be able to soak in African nature at its purest.
Day 4: Checkout
As the Crocodile bridge Gate is the exit point of Kruger National Park, you could choose to wake up later as no game would be seen from your route hereon. Exiting from Crocodile Bridge Gate gives you a direct route to Swaziland if that is your next port of call.
There are many ways to enjoy a safari in South Africa. Yet, a Kruger National Park 4 days 3 night with the mixture of activities I have listed would most definitely give beginners a good introduction to the safari experience in South Africa.
“When you look a wild animal in the eye, it’s like catching a glimpse into the soul of nature itself”
― Paul Oxton
The experience of a safari in South Africa is unlike any other wildlife experience due to its vast areas and game being able to roam freely. Being able to view these animals in their most natural environment allows one to delve deeper into nature. It is an addictive process that makes you want to come back for more of this serenity.
Sabrina Lovino has some absolutely amazing pictures in her write-up of her South Africa safari adventure. Do check them out if you are still not convinced about the magic of a South Africa safari.
Of course, I am only scratching the surface as most of my drives in Kruger has been focused on the Southern part from Satara camp and below. As such, I would appreciate any comments and suggestions on routes and must-see experiences in other parts of Kruger from your experience.
Do comment if you feel any information is lacking, and I would most definitely appreciate any tips to make my next trip even better.