Kruger National Park in South Africa is possibly the world’s most famous safari and birding tour destination. Leon Marais, a wildlife photographer and safari guide with Lawson’s Birding, Wildlife and Custom Tours, knows the park well and offers his expert tips on getting the most from a visit there.
Kruger National Park is situated in the extreme northeast of South Africa and makes up a large portion of South Africa’s border with Mozambique. It runs from about 25 degrees south along the Crocodile River in the south to about 22 degrees south along the Limpopo River in the north.
The park was inaugurated in 1898 by the President of the Transvaal Republic, Paul Kruger. At that time it was known as the Sabie Game Reserve and it was much smaller in size. In 1926 it was joined to the Shingwedzi Game Reserve to the north and at that point it became known as Kruger National Park.
The first motorists were allowed to enter the park in 1927, for an entrance fee of £1 (sterling was the country’s currency at the time). Pretoriuskop in the southwest was the first area open for these day visitors. There were no overnight facilities initially. At one point it was proposed that they also be charged for photographs, in order to raise extra revenue. And only revolvers were permitted for reasons of personal protection!
These days, there are two ways of doing a Kruger National Park safari – self-drive or on a guided tour. The former is cheaper and allows you to choose where to go in the park for yourself. A guided tour, however, gives you the expertise of a local professional and the advantages of an open-sided safari vehicle. Plus the opportunity to just sit back and let your guide handle everything for you, of course.
Big numbers on a Kruger National Park safari
Kruger covers a vast area, being approximately 20,000 square kilometres (7600 square miles) in size. From top to bottom the park is 380km long and it averages 54km in width. If you include the adjoining private reserves to the west and the Limpopo National Park in Mozambique to the east, you get to an incredible figure of around 35,000 square kilometres (13,500 square miles) of wildlife rich country!
Photo credit: Leon Marais, Lawson’s Birding, Wildlife and Custom Safaris, Hippos
The Park offers an incredible number and diversity of animal and plant species. There are 336 types of trees, 49 fish, 34 amphibians, 114 reptiles, 147 mammals, and more than 500 birds. Of course, for most tourists the big mammals such as Elephant, Lion, Leopard, Cheetah, Rhino, Giraffe and Hippo are the main attraction. But for those with a broader interest there is plenty more to savour.
When you’re on Kruger safari or a birding tour, predators are always the most exciting to see. Kruger contains these in abundance – from big cats to Spotted Hyena, African Wild Dog. There are also smaller species such as Honey Badger, African Wild Cat and Black-backed Jackal. Raptors are well represented, with no fewer than 34 species present, plus a few vagrants.
Photo credit: Leon Marais, Lawson’s Birding, Wildlife and Custom Safaris, Secretary Bird
Overall, the avian life is superb, with daily records for a birding trip in the summer reaching over 120 species. Combine such productive birding with unexpected and exciting encounters with big mammals, good infrastructure and easy access, and you have a wildlife destination hard to beat.
Kruger’s special habitats
Kruger National Park falls into a woodland savanna biome. However, this landscape is far from being a uniform one. Its aspect, rainfall regimes, and the underlying geology promote around 20 specific vegetation types.
These vary from the Pretoriuskop Sourveld of the southwest, characterised by tall ‘thatching’ grass, dense vegetation and marshy areas, to the open Knob-thorn Savanna of the south-central regions and the extensive Mopane Veld of the north.
Photo credit: Leon Marais, Lawson’s Birding, Wildlife and Custom Safaris, Elephant
In general, first-time visitors find the countryside to be much less open than they expect. Many people’s view of the African countryside has been coloured by the fact that most African wildlife documentaries are filmed on the grassland savannas of East Africa.
Each of Kruger’s vegetation types hosts specific birds to look out for, so to really get a feel for the park the birding visitor should aim to stay in at least three camps or regions.
Photo credit: Leon Marais, Lawson’s Birding, Wildlife and Custom Safaris, Lilac-breasted Roller
Game viewing is generally better south of the Olifants River, while the far north has the most bird species. But this does not make a huge difference, especially to the first-time visitor. The south-central region is my personal favourite, but you can have an incredible experience anywhere.
When is the best time to visit Kruger National Park?
A Kruger Park safari or birding tour can take place at any time of the year. If you want to maximise your birding, however, then mid to late South African summer is the best time to visit. This stretches from November to the end of March. It is when the resident birds are breeding and the Palearctic and Intra-African migrants are present. Some, however, such as Southern Carmine Bee-eater, only arrive from December onwards.
Photo credit: Leon Marais, Lawson’s Birding, Wildlife and Custom Safaris, Cheetah
If you want to maximise your mammal viewing, then the dry season is the best time to visit, which is July to November. If you want a good compromise between the two, then choose October or early November. Overall, though, any time is a good time in Kruger!
This part of South Africa has discernable seasons. Summers (November – April) are generally hot and humid with average daily highs of around 32 ºC (though it can peak in the high 30s), and lows of 19 – 20 ºC. This is also the rainy season, which brings thundershowers in the afternoon or evening or extended light rain.
Occasionally unusual weather phenomena can result in very heavy rain over an extended period. Local flooding is possible under these conditions, but such things are pretty rare and there hasn’t been a major one since 2013.
Photo credit: Leon Marais, Lawson’s Birding, Wildlife and Custom Safaris, Kruger Safari Game Drive
Winters (June – August) are mild and dry. This is the cool dry season with very low humidity. Average daily highs are around 25 – 30 ºC and lows around 10 ºC. The temperature can go down to single digits, though, so be prepared for it, especially if you are doing open vehicle safaris!
September – October is another season altogether – the hot dry season, which combines the temperatures of summer with the dryness of winter.
Staying in Kruger National Park
For the keen birder and wildlife enthusiast, a Kruger National Park safari should last at least five days. Ideally, your time should be divided between two or three rest camps to give you a good overall experience. For example, some of the camps in the south and south/central section, such as Berg-en-Dal, Skukuza, Lower Sabie and Satara combine well with a broader regional route. From that camp you can take a trip to see the southernmost naturally occurring Baobab tree. If your holiday time is two weeks then this will allow you the opportunity to visit other parts of the country, too.
Photo credit: Leon Marais, Lawson’s Birding, Wildlife and Custom Safaris, Lukimbi Safari Lodge
To do the whole park from top to bottom, or vice versa, you need at least two weeks. This will give you the chance to cover it reasonably well and not just have a slew of one-night stops. But, if you are on a tighter time frame, then even two or three days make for an enjoyable experience. There’s easy air access via Skukuza Airport.
There are 16 main camps in the park, four satellite camps, five bushveld camps, three bush lodges, two overnight hides, a rustic campsite and 11 private lodges. So there’s plenty of choice for accommodation.
The main camps offer chalet and camping options and most of them have restaurants, fuel stations and shops. So all you need to bring is your personal gear. The restaurant meals are pretty cheap when converting to sterling, dollars or euros. Or you can book rondavels (as the chalets are known) with kitchenettes. The shops stock fresh and frozen foods, so self-catering is another option. Guided morning, sunset and night drives, as well as bush walks, are on offer from the camps.
Photo credit: Leon Marais, Lawson’s Birding, Wildlife and Custom Safaris, Satara Chalets
The satellite camps, bush lodges and bushveld camps are more basic, offering more or less the same rondavel or chalet accommodation. However, they are much smaller and have no shops or restaurants.
The 11 private lodges offer luxury accommodation and the full private lodge package – 5-star food, service and accommodation, plus guided activities. They operate within Kruger National Park but are situated on exclusive concessions. As a result, they offer access to vast areas that aren’t open to the tourists staying at the ‘public’ camps.
Photo credit: Leon Marais, Lawson’s Birding, Wildlife and Custom Safaris, Lower Sabie Restaurant
A final option is to stay at hotels and lodges just outside the park and go in on day visits. This is not ideal, though, so its really only relevant if you can’t get a booking within the park.
Are you interested in a Kruger Safari or Birding Tour?
Leon Marais is a specialist wildlife guide for Lawson’s Birding, Wildlife and Custom Safaris. This offers a wide range of safaris and birding tours to Kruger National Park. For more information, contact Lawson’s Birding, Wildlife and Custom Safaris.