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Kruger National Park – The Ultimate Guide to South African Safari

Two young elephants play fighting with tangled trunks in Kruger National Park

Kruger National Park – The Ultimate Guide to South African Safari

Nestled in the heart of South Africa, Kruger National Park oozes with untamed wilderness and astonishing biodiversity. This iconic conservation area spans nearly 20,000 square kilometers, making it the largest safari in Southern Africa.

A baby rhino with the words "Ultimate guide to safari in Kruger" superimposed

Kruger National Park South Africa

Kruger is a sanctuary for Africa’s most magnificent wildlife. In this ultimate guide to a South African safari, we’ll talk about how to get to Kruger, where to stay, what animals you can see, how much it costs, how to maximize your chances of spotting the Big Five, and much more!

A giraffe eating leaves

Is it Worth Visiting Kruger?

We’re surprised anyone actually asks this question, but yes, yes, and YES! Kruger National Park is definitely worth visiting.

An elephant mother and calf grazing

Being able to get up close to Africa’s biggest animals is one of the best experiences we’ve ever had. It’s honestly hard to imagine anyone who wouldn’t enjoy a trip to Kruger.

Kruger National Park Map

You can find a comprehensive list of Kruger National Park maps on the official website.

They have maps for some of the key locations like the gates, camps, and rest stops.

Kruger National Park Gates

There are 11 entrance gates in Kruger National Park, 9 from South Africa and 2 from Mozambique. Each gate provides access to different areas of the park, and the choice of gate often depends on which direction you’re coming from and going to, as well as any plans you have within the park.

Pafuri Gate – Located in the far north, near the Limpopo River, this gate provides access to the northern and remote regions of the park.

Punda Maria Gate – Also in the northern part of the park. A quieter and less-visited gate.

Phalaborwa Gate – Situated in the northern part of Kruger, near the town of Phalaborwa. This gate provides access to the Mopaneveld region.

Orpen Gate – Located in the central-western part of the park, this gate is named after Eileen Orpen, who was instrumental in the establishment of the park. It’s a good starting point for game viewing in the central region as well as finishing point if you’re heading to the Panorama route.

Paul Kruger Gate – This gate is in the central-southern part of Kruger and is one of the most popular entrances. It’s named after Paul Kruger, a former president of the South African Republic.

Phabeni Gate – Located in the southern part, near Hazyview, this gate is easily accessible from major cities and provides access to the southern region of Kruger.

A rhino mother and calf grazing together

Numbi Gate – Numbi was formerly a popular gate, but due to rising crime rates including the murder of a German tourist, it’s highly advised not to use this gate. There is talk of permanent closure after drawing international outrage.

Malelane Gate – Located in the southeastern part, Malelane Gate is close to the town of Malelane and offers access to the scenic southern areas of the park.

Crocodile Bridge Gate – Also in the southeastern part, this gate is known for its proximity to the Crocodile River and the rich wildlife along its banks.

Pafuri Border Post – This is one of the two border posts that connect Kruger National Park to Limpopo National Park in Mozambique. Located in the far north, it allows visitors to travel between the two parks and experience a cross-border wilderness adventure.

Giriyondo Border Post – Giriyondo is the other border post that connects Kruger National Park to Limpopo National Park. It’s located in the northeastern part of the park and provides access to a remote and less-visited area.

Getting to Kruger

By far the best way to get to Kruger is to rent a car and drive. If you’re looking at making a bigger plan for the country, check out our South Africa Road Trip – 3 Week Itinerary.

If you’re arriving from Johannesburg direction, then Phabeni Gate is a good option. But if you want to do the Panorama route and end further north in Graskop or Hoedspruit then Orpen Gate is probably best. Mawusi Bush Lodge is a great place to stay in Hoedspruit, it’s located inside a private game reserve, and we saw a huge family of mongoose, a warthog, a duiker, bush babies, and hornbills from the porch outside our room!

From the south Malelane Gate is a popular choice, plus the accommodation options near there are excellent. Like Riverview Inn where you can see crocodiles and elephants in and around the river, from the hotel garden.

Kruger National Park Accommodation

There are a number of camps and hotels within Kruger National Park. Near Skukuza is a good option as it’s centrally located in the park and there are a few options.

There are affordable choices like Burchell’s Bush Lodge or Rixile Kruger Lodge, right up to the luxury end like Nkuhlu Tented Camp and Kruger Shalati. Shalati is definitely one to add to the hotel bucket list – it’s a train stationed on a bridge with pools overlooking the river and savannah. You can watch animals roaming wild, right from the comfort of your bedroom!

A disused viaduct bridge train track with a hotel on the train

For an even more luxury safari option, there are also some private game reserves adjacent to Kruger National Park. Along with Kruger Park they make up the Greater Kruger area, and animals can roam freely between these privately owned reserves and the larger national park. Some of the most popular private stays include Sabi Sand Game Reserve, Timbavati Game Reserve, Balule Nature Reserve, and Kapama Game Reserve.

Kruger National Park Animals

Kruger has a bewildering variety of wildlife boasting 148 mammal, 505 bird, 118 reptile, 53 fish, and 35 amphibian species.

The Big Five

The main animals on everyone’s checklist are Africa’s famous ‘Big Five’. The animals that make up the big five are lions, leopards, elephants, rhinoceros, and buffalo. And you’re in luck because Kruger is home to all five!

A male lion standing amongst bare trees with a fixed gaze

There are an estimated 1,700 lions, 1,000 leopards, 13,750 elephants, 2,000 rhinos, and 37,000 buffalo. With these huge numbers, there’s a really good chance to see all five in one trip to Kruger National Park.

You might be wondering how or why the ‘Big Five’ came to be. Why was it limited to five? How aren’t some other large animals like hippos, giraffes, and cheetahs not included?

The history of the big five started with big game hunting in the African bush. Those five were considered the most sought-after due to their strength, size, aggression, and the danger they posed to the hunter.

While hippos are certainly large and dangerous, they weren’t typically hunted. Giraffes are clearly large enough to make any “big” list, but they are far more docile, and don’t present as much danger. Cheetahs, while large, fast, and incredibly dangerous to their prey, don’t have the same reputation for aggression that lions and leopards have.

Outside the Big Five

The Big Five has been crafted into a great marketing tool to draw crowds to African safaris, and though it’s exciting to cross each one off your list, there’s so many more animals to enjoy.

Two hippos lying on the riverbank, a third walking past

Some highlights for us were the hippos, giraffes, hyenas, warthogs, families of mongoose, the tiny dik-dik, and the enormous eland. We didn’t see any cheetahs, but I’m sure they would have made the highlights reel if we had.

A zebra facing the camera in very long, dry grass
A brightly colored lilac-breasted roller perched on the tip of a long branch

You’ll also find crocodiles, painted dogs, zebras, baboons, unique birds, and many antelope species including bucks and wildebeest.

Tips for a Successful Game Drive

Here are 10 tips and tricks that we found useful on our game drives. We saw the Big Five as well as most of the other large animals in just one day, using this strategy.

  1. Go during the dry season: South Africa’s winter months (May to September) are drier than the rest of the year. After less rainfall, the vegetation is less dense, allowing easier viewing. Added to that, animals tend to congregate around water sources since it’s scarcer.
  2. Drive near water: Combining this with point 1 is a winning combination. The animals need water each day and so sightings near rivers are very common. There are a few rivers and tributaries near Skukuza as well as a few along the Malelane – Skukuza Rd.
  3. Drive slowly: It’s hard enough to spot animals while driving as it is, but speeding around is going to make it even more difficult.
  4. Look for stopped vehicles or groups of vehicles: The benefit of a busy park is that there are many eyes on the same road.
  5. Follow the safari jeeps: Professional game drivers are navigating the park in large safari jeeps, and to them, spotting animals is like taking candy from a baby.
  6. Check the boards at rest stops: At each of the main rest stops there are boards with magnets showing where people spotted each animal. These can be very useful if you’re trying to find a certain animal.
  7. Drive all day: Aside from stopping for snacks and toilet breaks we drove from dawn ‘til dusk and it paid off. We saw a lion within a minute of entering the park and didn’t complete the Big Five until we spotted a herd of buffalo very late in the day. We also saw our first hyena as we were leaving.
  8. Vary your route: Kruger is a vast area, and some animals tend to stick to certain landscapes and habitats. By covering a large portion of the park you increase your chances of seeing more species.
  9. Stay overnight in the park: By staying in the park instead of arriving via a gate in the morning, you not only start in a central location earlier, but you also have a chance of seeing game in the evening from some of the camps.
  10. Know animal behavior: It helps to know some typical behavior and routines that the animals you’re looking for follow. Doing some research before you go, or building up experience on safaris can be useful. For example, scanning the horizon is always a good technique, but leopards spend much of their time in trees, so glancing up into the canopy increases your chances of “spotting” one. Sorry, we couldn’t resist!

Final Thoughts on Kruger National Park

A journey to Kruger National Park is not just a safari – it’s an immersive encounter with the untamed beauty of South Africa. This ultimate guide has taken you through the gates, explored the diverse accommodations, and delved into the rich tapestry of wildlife, from the famed Big Five to the lesser-known wonders of the African wilderness.

Two gazelles with horns touching faces together

Kruger beckons with its expansive landscapes and the thrill of witnessing nature’s grandeur. As the sun sets over the savannah, leaving behind a day filled with memorable sightings, it becomes evident that the answer to the question, “Should I visit Kruger?” is a resounding yes. For those seeking an unforgettable safari experience, Kruger National Park stands as the epitome of South Africa’s natural wonders.

Kruger National Park FAQs

What is the best month to visit Kruger National Park?

The best time to visit Kruger National Park is during the dry winter months from May to September for optimal wildlife viewing.

How expensive is Kruger?

Kruger’s costs vary, but daily entrance fees range from 16 to 32 USD per person, making it one of the most affordable African safari national parks. Additional fees apply for accommodation and activities.

Is Kruger National Park close to Cape Town or Johannesburg?

Kruger is closer to Johannesburg (approximately 4-5 hours by road) than to Cape Town, which is a considerable distance away.

What is Kruger famous for?

Kruger is renowned for its diverse wildlife, including the Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, rhinoceros, buffalo), and its vast wilderness.

Is Kruger National Park safe?

Kruger National Park is generally safe, but visitors should follow park rules and exercise caution when encountering wildlife.

Is Kruger National Park crowded?

Kruger can get crowded during peak seasons, so booking accommodation and game drives in advance is advisable.

How many lions are in Kruger National Park?

Kruger National Park is home to an estimated 2,000 to 2,500 lions.

Is Kruger National Park better than Serengeti?

Kruger and Serengeti are both exceptional wildlife destinations, with unique features, making one better depends on personal preferences.

Is Kruger National Park malaria free?

Kruger National Park is in a low-risk malaria area, but precautions like mosquito repellent and prophylactics may be recommended in some seasons.

Is Kruger National Park fenced?

Kruger does have fences, but they are porous, allowing wildlife to roam. The park also shares borders with private reserves that are unfenced.

Where is Kruger National Park?

Kruger National Park is located in northeastern South Africa, spanning the provinces of Mpumalanga and Limpopo.

Can you self-drive in Kruger National Park?

Yes, self-driving is allowed in Kruger National Park, offering visitors flexibility in exploring the park at their own pace.

Can you stay inside Kruger National Park?

Kruger offers various accommodation options, including rest camps, lodges, and private concessions, allowing visitors to stay inside the park.

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