There are places that stick to your mind forever. For us, this place is the Kruger National Park. Perhaps it’s because it was our first safari and the first time we immersed ourselves into an entirely different level of wilderness. An experience that I would recommend to everyone! If you are willing to try this feeling but you are concerned about the budget here’s a piece of good news: a self-drive safari in the Kruger National Park is the most inexpensive safari experience you can plan! But first… read our latest post to know how to plan a safari trip to Kruger National Park on a budget. Keep reading if you want to know the best self-drive itineraries and routes in the Kruger National Park!
Driving in the Kruger National Park
First things first. Before planning a self-drive safari in the Kruger National Park you should know that you won’t need a 4×4 to drive through the park. The main itineraries in the Kruger National Park are on sealed roads. The rest are well-maintained dirt roads – and here is where you will have the best encounters! However, a car with a higher profile will give you a better view of the bush and more chance to spot wildlife. We booked our car with Budget at Johannesburg OR Tambo Airport and paid €245 for a 6-day rental. You can search in Rental Cars for the best deals. You’ll need a credit card in the driver’s name for a deposit and an international driving license.
Some practical info: while in the park you won’t be able to leave the vehicle unless in a designated area such as picnic spots or rest camps. The main paved road has a speed limit of 50 km per hour and the dirt roads a speed limit of 40 km per hour. The slower you drive, the more you’ll see. Wildlife blends naturally into the environment and can easily be missed if you are speeding. Lastly, there are many gas stations available inside the park but they can be spread out. If you see a gas station fill up, don’t let your tank get too low.
Read my full guide to driving in South Africa here.
Itineraries in the Kruger National Park
During our 4 days self-drive safari in the Kruger National Park we explored three areas: south-east of the Park where there’s more chance of seeing the Big Five – elephant, leopard, lion, rhino, buffalo – the Sabie River that has one of the highest concentrations of leopard in the world and the central grasslands with the highest lion population in the park. So here’s the best self-drive routes and our suggested itineraries in the Kruger National Park.
DAY 1. Itineraries near the Lower Sabie Rest Camp
On our first safari day, we woke up before sunrise and we entered the Kruger from the Crocodile Bridge Gate, after spending New Year’s Eve in the dreamy Buckler’s Africa Lodge, overlooking the park (we really recommend it!). Early in the morning is when most of the action happens in the animal world and starting the day early means having the best sightings. After a few minutes drive we were already staring at cheetah, warthog, giraffe, zebra, impala, and lion – which are quite easy to spot near Crocodile Bridge. Also, wild dogs are regularly seen along the H4-2, particularly in the early morning!
Crazy right? There’s more chance of seeing the Big Five here, in the south-east of the park than just about anywhere else in Kruger. Water is available all year round from the two main rivers – the Sabie and the Crocodile – and the terrain retains water in pans long after the rains have gone.
Tip: if you want to be constantly updated on the animals’ location during your self-drive safari in the Kruger National Park check out the sightings boards at the camps and download Latest Sightings, an app that allows visitors and rangers to report the animal location and the time of the sighting live.
Following the main sealed road, the Gomondwane Road or H4-2, we arrived at the Lower Sabie Rest Camp where we stopped for lunch. Remember, during the middle of the day the wildlife rests so make sure you use this time to rest as well and go back on the road in the late afternoon. Later on that day we ventured off the beaten path on Nhlowa Road, a dirt road where white rhino are invariably seen grazing. The drive itself is worth going. It’s wild, lush and deserted. We crossed many waterholes along the way and we had some great encounters. Don’t miss a stop to the Hide Nhlambanyathi (Zulu for “the buffalo’s water hole”) on the river Nhlowa and, once there, be patient. Along this road, we spotted a huge white rhino. The African sun was setting on the savanna grassland and the light was bright and warm. He – all the rhinos look like he to me – was grazing calmly. We were the only one there and perhaps this made the encounter even more magical. We turned the engine off and waited until we were fully surrounded by wildlife. The rhino on our left, a herd of elephants to the right, a few giraffes in the background and hundreds of colorful birds flying all around us. It was truly spectacular!
Fact: Rhinos and crocodiles go back quite a long time. The rhinos ancestors have been traced back to 50 million years ago. The black rhino is more primitive and rarer than the white rhino and very hard to spot. The crocodile ancestors are much older, something like 200 million years old. They even survived the mass extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago!
DAY 2. Itineraries near the Skukuza Rest Camp
On our second day, we drove from the Lower Sabie to the Skukuza Rest Camp looking for the leopards known to inhabit the area. We had no luck and the rain didn’t help the sightings but this is definitely the best area to spot these elegant cats. Another highly recommended itinerary in this area is the Sabie Sands Loop that goes around the confluence of the Sabie and the Sand Rivers (H1-2, H12, and H4-1). This area is highly populated by lions and driving the loop early in the morning will give you a better chance of coming across a kill from the night before.
Safari tip: Stop at waterholes, on river banks or shade points. These are often the most rewarding sites as you will witnesses the central role that water plays in an animals life. When stopping, leave the car running until the animals settle before turning the engine off.
DAY 3. Itineraries near the Satara Rest Camp
The third day we tried our luck in the grassland. Here lives the highest lion population in Kruger. And a huge amount of prey: herds of zebra, buffalo, impala, giraffe, and wildebeest. On the way to the Satara Camp, we did the N’wanwitsontso Loop (S86), a 4km detour that offers a good chance of seeing a lion.
Once in the Satara area, we followed the N’wanetsi River along the S100, stopping at the Shibotwana and Nsasane waterholes then south on the Gudzani Road (S41). On the way back we followed the H6 which has good waterholes, the Sonop, and the Shishangani. Lions are often seen at dawn drinking at Girivana Water Hole on the S40, 12km from Satara Rest Camp.
Safari tip: some of the best game sightings can be experienced at night but it is forbidden to drive in the park after sunset (gate and camp closing times vary depending on seasons. See the times here and make sure you allow plenty of time to get to your camp or gate before sunset). Take a torch and walk around the camp’s perimeter fence or book a night drive with the local rangers! We went on a sunset drive and it was totally worth it!
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There are places that stick to your mind forever. For us, this place is the Kruger National Park. Perhaps it’s because it was our first safari and the first time we immersed…