Factors to Consider
The first thing to understand: Kruger National Park is huge! At 7,523 square miles (19,485 sq km), it's about the same size as New Jersey, Israel, or Wales. Roughly oblong-shaped, it extends 220 miles (360 km) north to south and averages 40 miles (65 km) east to west. That's a lot of turf! It also contains five distinct habitats, each with its own specific fauna.
Hence, there are things to consider while planning a trip:
- How many distinct animal and bird encounters you want to have, and how much of the park and its diverse ecosystems you want to experience
- Whether you intend to have a self-drive experience, an organized guided safari, or both
- Rest camps and/or lodges where you are planning to stay, and the distances between them
- Speed limits of 30 miles per hour (50 km) on paved roads and 25 miles per hour (40 km) on dirt roads
- Frequent stops for wildlife interactions, including animals on the roads
If you want a self-drive safari, either a half or full-day guided safari at the beginning of your trip can arm you with knowledge and context that make your self-drive experience more rewarding. Plan on a minimum of two days. If a guided safari isn't in your budget, note that SANParks (the government agency responsible for operating South Africa's national parks, including Kruger) offers short morning and afternoon game drives from each camp and entrance gate.
You don't need a 4WD vehicle for a self-drive safari in Kruger. Main roads are paved, and most unpaved secondary roads are in good enough condition for two-wheel drive vehicles. Be advised that unpaved roads are often closed during and following heavy rains.
Kruger is divided into three sections: northern, central, and southern. Since the different ecosystems parallel each other, north to south, it's quite possible to experience several distinct ecosystems in any of the three zones. However, southern Kruger is indisputably wetter and more game-rich than the Limpopo region of northern Kruger.
Within Kruger National Park, there are several private concessions. These exclusive-use, unfenced concessions command some of the prime Big Five wilderness areas and guarantee the best crowd-free game viewing. They also offer safari activities not permitted in the rest of the park, such as guided nature walks, off-road drives into the bush, and spot-lit night drives. These are far more personalized and specialized guided experiences and are not necessarily as expensive as you may think.
Kruger in 1 Day
If seeing this vast national park in one day seems far-fetched, consider that many South African day-trippers make the journey. It's far from ideal, of course, especially if you've flown such a long distance to explore South Africa in-depth. However, it's doable if you only have limited time.
Driving in the park at night is not allowed (hence you won't get to experience Kruger after sundown). Gates open and close at strict times, and day visitors are restricted to certain areas, which can limit how much game viewing you'll experience. Still, you can still see quite a lot. Please note that this option is only suitable if you're already staying close to Kruger National Park.
Start your day early and arrive at any of the 10 entrance gates before they open. If you plan on a self-drive safari, pick up a map at the entrance gates indicating the location of day visitor areas, picnic areas, rest stops, etc. Otherwise, well in advance, book a morning guided open-vehicle safari tour to learn about the park and wildlife ecology from a knowledgeable ranger. Morning drives leave from entrance gates a half-hour before official gate opening times, giving you a head start on other day visitors. Fleece blankets and ponchos are provided, but dress warmly with layered clothing.
After lunch, spend the afternoon exploring in your own vehicle. Don't try to cover too much ground. Realistically, with only three or four hours, aim to explore from your entrance gate to the nearest exit gate. The Malelane Gate is the most convenient entrance if coming from Johannesburg or KwaZulu-Natal.
Kruger in 2-3 Days
With two or three days, you can experience most of one section (north, central, or south) of Kruger. It's best to base yourself at a single bush camp or lodge and spend your time either exploring on self-drives or enjoying organized safaris and various other activities at your camp or lodge.
Private concessions are best for the latter, as they offer bush walks, night-time game drives, and specialized activities such as birding. Lukimbi (in southern Kruger) and Imbali (in central Kruger) are good options. You can fly into one of the three airports serving Kruger and transfer to your lodge or, alternatively, fly by charter plane to any of 21 private lodges—such as Sabi Sabi or Londolozi—with their own airstrips.
If you are planning a self-drive trip, here is a great option for a quick visit to Kruger from Johannesburg: follow the “Panorama Route" via the Victorian-era Pilgrim's Rest gold-mining town and Lisbon Falls, then pass by the gorgeous Blyde's River Canyon and iconic Three Rondavels. Allow six hours of driving plus time for sightseeing. Enter Kruger National Park at Orpen and continue to your lodge.
On day two, get an early start with a morning guided game drive. Then, spend the rest of the morning exploring the area around your lodge. The hot afternoon hours are best spent relaxing around the swimming pool. When temperatures fall with the sun, take an evening or night-time game drive before enjoying a traditional South African dinner. Depart your lodge the next morning (day three) and drive south through Kruger National Park along HI-3 via Skukuza, exiting the park here or farther south at Malelane. From Malelane, it's 250 miles (405 km) back to Johannesburg.
Chat with a local specialist who can help organize your trip.
Kruger in 4-5 Days
With four to five days, you can really maximize your game-viewing opportunities and take time for one or two more diverse activities as well. Spend your first day in Greater Kruger by visiting the gorgeous Blyde's River Canyon and iconic Three Rondavels, then visit the Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre to learn about their animal rescue and conservation programs. Spend the night at Kapama Private Game Reserve. The next morning, enjoy your first game drive, followed by an afternoon guided bush walk at Kapama.
After another early morning game drive on day three, drive the short distance to Kruger National Park, entering via the Orpen gate. Spend two full days exploring the park. Escape the crowds and head north to Olifants for at least one night. This site offers stunning views over the eponymous river, its banks thick with game. Then, continue north to Mopani, leaving time to explore the exotic birds and Shilowa heritage sites. Take the Tropic of Capricorn loop and visit the Nshawu pans to enjoy the best bird sightings in the area. Exit the park on day five via the Phaloborwa gate.
Kruger in 1 Week
From Johannesburg, follow the N-4 to Nelspruit, stopping for a visit at Chimpanzee Eden, run by the Jane Goodall Foundation. Although Southern Africa does not have native chimpanzees, this educational experience is memorable. Continue to Hazyview to spend the night.
Begin day two with an early morning hot-air balloon flight over the Sabie River Valley of Kruger National Park. Then, head to nearby Sabi Sands Game Reserve, where you'll stay for two nights (accommodations are available for every budget). Adjoining Kruger National Park, this reserve shares the Big Five and other game and is especially renowned for leopard sightings. Spend two days enjoying early morning and sunset off-road game drives and game walks.
On day five, enter Kruger National Park proper at Kruger Gate, near Skukuza. Then, follow the route in the 4-5 day itinerary above, driving north to Olifants for one night, then continuing north to Mopani. Exit the park on day seven via the Phaloborwa gate. Visit the Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre to learn about their animal rescue and conservation programs. Then, head back to Johannesburg via Blyde's River Canyon and the Victorian-era Pilgrim's Rest gold-mining town.
Kruger in 10 Days
With 10 days, you can escape the crowds and explore the relatively little-visited northern section of the park. Follow the one-week itinerary detailed above for the first six days. Then, on day seven, drive north from Mopani to Shingwedzi. Although northern Kruger has far less animal density than the south, Shingwedzi is renowned for its elephants.
Follow the Shingwedzi loop drive into the Shingwedzi floodplain system (allow four hours)—a riverine forest with plenty of buffalo and waterbuck (lions are often active late in the day, preparing for their night-time hunt). This area also boasts sensational birding at Kanniedood Dam. Spend the night at Shingwedzi Camp.
From Shingwedzi, the only road north is the H1-7. On day eight, follow it and detour for game-viewing on the unpaved 13-mile (20 km) Mphongolo Loop—one of the best drives in all Kruger. This will take you through magnificent riverine forests, foraged by huge elephant herds (leopards and lions are also commonly seen).
Continue to Pafuri Camp for the night. Tucked into Kruger's far northeast corner, at its juncture with Mozambique and Zimbabwe, this is considered the most ecologically diverse and scenically attractive area in Kruger National Park. Spend your last day relaxing on game drives and exploring the area's attractions. On day 10, exit the park via either the Pafuri or Punda Maria gates.
Kruger in 2 Weeks
Two weeks provides a chance to explore Kruger National Park from one end to the other and to spend time in one or two private game reserves adjoining the park.
From Johannesburg, follow the one-week itinerary for the first four days. On day five, head north via Blyde's River Canyon and Three Rondavels. Then, visit the Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, and spend two nights at Kapama Private Game Reserve. The first morning there (day six), you'll enjoy a game drive, followed by an afternoon guided bush walk at Kapama.
On day seven, drive north to enter Kruger National Park at the Pafuri gate and follow the 10-day itinerary in reverse order, with nights at Pafuri Camp and Shingwedzy Camp. From Shingwedzy, drive south via Mopani. On a self-drive safari, take the Tropic of Capricorn loop and visit the Nshawu pans to enjoy the best bird sightings in the area. Then, continue south to Olifants for at least one night.
On day 10, continue south into the park's most visited, game-rich, and mountainous southern section. Spend two days and nights in one of the private concessions enjoying bush walks, night-time game drives, and specialist activities such as birding. Sabi Sabi and Londolozi are good options and provide you with a chance to spot white rhinos (largely absent in the north). End your tour by flying from Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport to Victoria Falls for two nights.