Is this the best-value park in Africa? By Emma Gregg
Safari snobs can be sniffy about Greater Kruger. Sure, it’s popular, but isn’t it just for celebrities, backpackers and daytrippers? Is it actually any good? With everything from opulence to the bare basics on offer, there’s a multitude of ways to find out. What’s constant is the potential for exciting wildlife encounters. When, for the sake of comparison, I sampled two very different Greater Kruger safari experiences – one of which cost over five times more than the other – both delivered sightings which took my breath away.
On a shoestring: Skukuza
It’s marula season in Kruger National Park, and Skukuza Rest Camp is scattered with windfalls. Even the vervet monkeys can’t keep up. “There’s no chance of going short of vitamin C at this time of year,” says Elliot Nkuna, the South African National Parks (SANParks) ranger who is our guide for the afternoon.
We’re due to go out on a bushwalk, but Elliot and his second, Lucky, lead us towards a vehicle. “I want to introduce you to a different world,” says Elliot, “so we’re going to head well away from the camp. It’s only when you leave the noise and disturbance far behind that you can begin to have your own dialogue with the bush.”
We turn down a track and stop beside a little pool, close to a patch of trees. Elliot runs through the drill – how we must walk, the signals we must follow, the circumstances under which he or Lucky will fire a rifle shot.
I scan our surroundings. There are no animals to be seen. It’s a beautiful spot, one of a dozen or so that the rangers visit in rotation, to minimise the impact on each. Just standing here feels totally different to bumping along in a vehicle. I inhale. The light seems brighter, the air richer.
“Is it dangerous?”
“Yes, it’s dangerous. There’s no room for any mistakes.”
Suddenly, I’m filled with doubt. This is, after all, Big Five country. Elliot and Lucky are at the top of their game and I’m willing to trust them completely, but what if the unthinkable were to happen? Is it really worth risking injury or the life of an animal, just for a walk in the bush?
I gather my resolve and we set off. But we’re barely into our stride when Elliot signals. He’s spotted an elephant that was hidden from us before and, shockingly, it’s close. Alert to the wind and every undulation of the terrain, he leads us to a raised spot and whispers that it’s safe to turn and look. My heart is thumping. The elephant seems huge. But apparently it’s preoccupied, and we have little to fear. There’s a clue in the branches above its head – marulas. Elephants love them.
Once we’re well out of range, I ask Elliot to talk me through what just happened. He’s lucid, professional, reassuring and clearly totally in control. But my mind’s still whirling when, after sunset that day, I climb aboard one of the rest camp’s 20-seater safari vehicles for a night drive.
I’m not expecting much, wildlife-wise. The vehicle beside us is stuffed with beer-happy backpackers, and the party atmosphere is catching. But once we’re out of the gate, cool, misty darkness falls like a cloak and everything changes. While some night drives feel like a trip home in the back of a taxi, this one is different. We don’t have a spotter, and it’s up to us to see what we can find.
The chatter fades to whispers as together, we concentrate. Our driver and guide Thomas has handed out spotlights and we take turns to swish them along the roadside, picking up the glow of tiny eyes – a civet, a lesser bushbaby, a spotted eagle owl. An acacia thicket reveals some impalas, tucked away. Wary of the dangers of the night, they keep watch.
Time zooms by and we’re almost home, satisfied, when a primeval whoop brings us to a halt. The headlights pick out three lions in the road ahead. Beyond them is a coalition of hyenas. “Just watch,” says Thomas. “They’re inveterate enemies.” We’ve blundered into a face-off.
The hyenas have a den nearby and they’re not impressed by the lions’ presence. Just as we creep forward for a closer look, it all kicks off.
The hyenas advance on the lions, laughing crazily. The cats dash into tight formation right beside us, crouched down with heads lowered, lionesses on the outside, juvenile in the middle. Reverberating from their throats is a long, low growl that crescendos into a Harley Davidson-like roar. In unison, they bare their terrifying teeth. The hyenas, defiant, prance and screech. We watch, astounded. “If that juvenile got separated, it could be in trouble”, says Thomas and steers us deftly away.
In style: Sabi Sand
The day after that cliffhanger, I leave Skukuza and head north into Sabi Sand, the patchwork of smart private reserves beside Kruger National Park’s western flank. My first taste of how the other half lives will be a game drive with expert ranger and photographer Paddy Hagelthorn of Savanna Private Reserve.
Originally from Zimbabwe, Paddy is an old-school guide with an eye for detail and a voice as rich as your favourite pudding, soaked in vintage port. Within minutes of leaving the lodge, he has regaled us with the history of the property and pointed out a pile of elephant dung full of marula seeds.
“Much of what elephants eat doesn’t get digested,” he says, “so while on the one hand they destroy forests, they’re forever planting them, too.”
The dung is fresh, and sure enough, there’s a bull around the bend. It shakes its ears and gives us a stroppy-teenager stare. Immediately, I have a flashback. It’s just a few metres away. “Don’t worry, he’s backing off,” says Paddy. “He knows he’s still far too small to tackle us.”
Continuing along the track, Paddy unwraps the bush before our eyes, pointing out flurries of guineafowl butterflies, named for their delicate spots, and a hippo, cheerfully spraying dung in our direction. Next, as if it were the most normal thing in the world, he finds us a pair of leopards mating in a grassy dell, and brings us astonishingly close.
A rapid radio exchange in Shangaan, the rangers’ lingua franca, tells us there’s something else in his sights. In a sandy river bed, we find them – a pack of wild dogs, alert and on the move. They bound into a deep, grassy thicket and Paddy wrestles our open vehicle up the bank in pursuit. A long, terrible scream tells us the dogs have got something and we find them making short work of it: a young duiker. They scamper around our wheels in a frenzy of noisy excitement, their pungent, metallic musk filling the air.
The following day, I explore the beautiful, wooded Lion Sands reserve with Duane Rabie, a young field ranger who has also worked in the national park. “I’ve been visiting all my life,” he says. “The park is beautiful, with so much history, and it’s a privilege to work there. But I’m in awe of some of the rangers here in Sabi Sand – they’re extremely professional and totally involved – and we get to work with top trackers, which really adds something.”
Duane may be young, but he’s talented, identifying birds with ease, bringing us so close to white rhinos we can read every wrinkle, then pausing under a marula tree in which a leopard has stashed an impala. The cat glowers down with golden eyes, but not at us – it’s focused on a hyena, lurking in the vegetation close by. “Sometimes they’ll stake out a cache for days at a time,” says Duane. “They’ll wait for it to decay, hoping something will drop.”
As a final flourish, Duane lets us in on a secret that he’s only just discovered. He nudges the vehicle along a sandy gully and there, blinking in the late afternoon sun, lies a lioness with six inquisitive cubs, barely five weeks old. “Even for me,” he says, “this is something very, very special.”
There are countless reasons why both the vast, state-run Kruger National Park and the private reserves adjoining it have such appeal. With over 12,000 elephants, 1500 lions and the largest single population of rhinos in the world, this is a region truly blessed with wildlife. It’s highly accessible, with direct flights from Cape Town and Johannesburg. It has facilities and activities for every budget and some of the best rangers in the business.
Kruger has always been a hotspot for cheap self-drive safaris, and with the rand continuing to sag, it’s better value for visitors than ever. You can pick up a hire car for under £30 per day at any of the four airports, or drive from Johannesburg to reduce costs further. The daily conservation fee of ZAR248 (about £14) compares well to the entrance fees for Africa’s other blockbuster reserves, and within the park there’s a good scattering of South African National Parks (SANParks) camps offering basic accommodation for a snip – a simple en suite bungalow with cooking facilities works out at between £23 and £45 per person per night. Camping as little as £6.
For those who prefer to measure value by how much a safari offers, rather than how little it costs, Greater Kruger’s private reserves and concessions offer a dizzying choice. Here, where luxury accommodation is the norm, many can boast something exceptional, be it a historical connection, a legendary guide or a one-of-a-kind special feature.
There are no fences between the reserves and the park, but some reserves have exclusive traversing rights so the only people you’ll see on your game drives are your fellow guests. Private lodges within the park have access to the main park as well as to the prime bush on their doorstep. You’ll need deep pockets to stay at the best of the private pads but to their devotees, they’re worth every penny.
For those with a sense of adventure, a self-drive safari can be intoxicating. If you’ve ever been on a commercial drive and spotted an animal before your guide, you’ll know how satisfying it can be to find things for yourself.
But for the best chances of seeing something amazing, you’ll want to head out with an expert. Either spend at least part of your stay at a lodge where activities are included, or book a SANParks game drive or bushwalks, which can cost from as little as £12 per person.
The value challenge
Keen to sample Greater Kruger’s private reserves and concessions, but not sure where to start? We challenged specialist tour planner Pulse Africa (www.pulseafrica.com) to design three sample six-night safaris with very different price tags, each representing fantastic value within their class. The approximate prices (as of June 2014) are per person, based on two sharing, including meals and activities but excluding international flights.
1 Affordable, with excellent hospitality, immersed in the bush
Africa on Foot (Klaserie) and Notten’s Bush Camp (Sabi Sand). Three nights at each, including drinks at Notten’s, with seven days’ car hire from Johannesburg.
2 Luxurious, with superb wildlife-watching
Tintswalo (Manyeleti) and Savanna (Sabi Sand). Three nights at each, including drinks, with scheduled flights from Johannesburg and
3 Extravagant, but totally worth it
Lion Sands Ivory Lodge (Sabi Sand) and Royal Malewane (Thornybush). Three nights at each, including drinks, with flights from Johannesburg and air transfers.
DIY game drives in Kruger National Park: tips for first-timers
• Which vehicle? In the dry season (May to September), you’ll be fine in an ordinary car. But when the grass is lush you’ll see more from a vehicle with higher clearance.
• Get your bearings Buy a map and check the latest sighting reports to choose where to go.
• Set your alarm Prime yourself for some early mornings. The first and last hours of daylight tend to be best for wildlife-watching.
• Stay safe Unless you’re at a designated rest stop, remain in your car and don’t lean out of the windows or sunroof, no matter how tempting it may be. For close-up views, use binoculars or a powerful zoom lens.
• Keep your eyes open As long as you’re not blocking the road, don’t be too eager to dash off once you’ve photographed an animal you’ve spotted. Look closely, and you might discover clues which reveal another, hidden nearby.
• Take your time Relax and don’t try to cover too much ground.
• Don’t lose track of time Remember the entrance and camp gate closing times. You don’t want to be stung with a late arrival fee, or fined for breaking the speed limit.
• Mix it up You’re not allowed to self-drive after dark, so treat yourself to a guided night drive from one of the SANParks camps. Book in advance.
• Get online The KNP forum on the SANParks website is a great resource.
You don’t need to have been to Greater Kruger to have strong opinions about it. Strangely, misconceptions and half-truths pop up all the time. Here are some of the most common ones.
MYTH: It’s really dangerous
Thanks to YouTube, millions have seen self-drive tourists getting into scary situations in Kruger. In December 2013, a young couple panicked when a bull elephant in musth approached their car. It attacked before they could find reverse gear. According to park officials, who later killed the elephant as a precaution, the couple were not to blame for this highly unusual incident. However, tourists do take foolhardy risks. Recently, kids were filmed leaning out of a car window within springing distance of a pair of lions, prompting rangers to restate the obvious – it’s crucial to treat wild animals with respect.
In February 2014 tourists had the harrowing experience of spotting a rhino that had been badly wounded by poachers. To raise awareness, they posted a video of it online. It’s hard to watch. However, encounters like this are very rare. While the knowledge that poaching is occurring daily is bound to colour your experience of Kruger, it’s unlikely to affect you directly, and by visiting the park, you’re helping to prevent it.
MYTH: It’s really tame
Yes, it’s accessible. And yes, thanks to decades of exposure to vehicles and well over a century of protection, the animals aren’t exactly shy. But this is emphatically not a zoo. With so many species competing for food, water and territory, you never know what real-life dramas you’ll witness.
Significantly, Greater Kruger is enormous. At over 8000 square miles, it could swallow a small African country whole. Lying within a UNESCO biosphere reserve, its varied ecozones support diverse fauna which roam freely between the park and the private reserves. Only a tiny fraction of the park is regularly seen by tourists – approximately 0.3 per cent, according to SANParks – and swathes of bush remain thoroughly remote.
Broadly speaking, the north is wild and quiet, with forests of baobabs and fever trees, elephants, giraffes and the best birding in South Africa. The southern section is the busiest, but you could scarcely call that tame, either. It’s big cat country.
MYTH: The roads are all tarmac
In fact, there are plenty of gravel roads and tracks with little traffic. However, all the main roads in Kruger National Park are hard-surfaced, making it easy for self-drivers to explore.
“The distances here are so huge that without the infrastructure, logistics would be a nightmare, especially in the rainy season,” says Nikki Meyer of Rhino Post and Plains Camp in the Mutlumuvi Concession, just beyond the tarmac.
Throughout the national park off-roading is banned, a policy which may frustrate some but has lasting conservation value. While some argue you can never feel totally immersed in nature on a tarmac road, the animals seem to disagree. You’ll see almost as much from the quieter roads as you will at the waterholes. Understandably, many animals find tarmac more comfortable underfoot than the bush. Lions often stretch out on roads to warm themselves on chilly evenings, or pad along the tarmac to avoid the dew-soaked vegetation.
MYTH: It’s one big traffic jam
The first thing most visitors notice about Kruger National Park is its spaciousness. But when a pride of lions decides to sprawl across the road, jams can build up out of nowhere and tempers can fray.
While rangers in the private reserves have well-oiled systems by which they share sightings, taking care that the animals aren’t crowded and visitors don’t miss out, there are no equivalent protocols within the national park. In a recent poll, the majority felt there should be. For now, the key is to be patient and considerate.
MYTH: It’s not a true wilderness
Those who feel nostalgic for an age before roads and bridges were built, water sources were managed, radios were invented and wild animals were bought, sold and translocated, might experience a twinge of regret at how elusive the wilderness can seem in some parts of Kruger. But it’s there, if you know where to look.
There’s mobile coverage in most camps, but you’ll be spared the chirrupping of phones to some extent, as calls are banned on game drives. Skukuza has an airport, but noise isn’t excessive and light pollution is only a distraction in certain areas on Greater Kruger’s fringes.
Habituation divides opinion. Go on a game drive in a top private reserve and you can’t fail to notice how relaxed the animals appear, even at very close range. The rangers in these reserves have invested years in the delicate process of getting lions and leopards used to vehicles from an early age. “Cubs tend to follow their mother’s behaviour,” says Duane Rabie at Lion Sands, “so if she’s relaxed, they will be too.”
If you’re longing for something totally natural and grounded, head for the remoter regions. Some camps, such as Balule, have a true lost-in-the-wilderness vibe. For the adventurous, there’s the Lonely Bull Trail, one of several four-day walking and camping adventures led by a SANParks ranger. “I’ve worked as a back-up guide on one of these trails in the past, and it was an amazing experience,” says Duane. “To do all of them would be a dream.”
For those who’d rather not backpack, Wilderness Safaris offer the four-day Pafuri Walking Trail, which uses a fly-camp in the beautiful Makuleke Concession as a base for bushwalks. Or, you could spend several days exploring Selwane and Letaba on horseback with Out in Africa Encounters, staying in lodges and camps en route.
MYTH: Professional naturalists don’t take Kruger seriously
Kruger isn’t just a playground for tourists. Serious research goes on here too. Much isn’t reported outside scientific circles, though, because it’s esoteric or, in the case of ungulate counts and other quantitative surveys, routine. However, some findings are both accessible and compelling. In the 1990s University of Pretoria zoologists radio-tracked Kruger cheetahs and discovered that their preferred hunting ground was woodland fringes where they could stalk under cover, give chase in the open, then retreat back to evade scavengers. Previously, it was assumed that cheetahs preferred open savannah – largely because most studies had taken place in the Masai Mara.
Researchers sometimes gather data from visitors. The Endangered Wildlife Trust is currently monitoring the breeding success of savannah vultures in Kruger, and asks anyone who spots a tagged vulture to email programme manager André Botha (firstname.lastname@example.org) the date, time, location, tag number and photos or notes on what the bird was doing. The Percy FitzPatrick Institute would like similar data on martial eagles (email@example.com).
MYTH: It’s hard to know how much your stay will actually benefit local communities and the environment
Sustainability has never been higher on the agenda in Kruger. SANParks’ responsible tourism strategy involves making parks greener by restricting higher-impact activities to certain zones, switching to renewable energy and enabling local communities to harvest resources such as timber, grass and medicinal plants in a sustainable way.
SANParks also plans to boost revenue and counter elitism by allowing controlled development in Kruger, including new conference hotels at Skukuza and near Malelane. While these have been fervently discussed, they have yet to materialise. Those behind the plans insist that, though large, they’ll be eco-friendly, but some sceptics argue that’s a contradiction in terms.
In the private reserves, Fair Trade Tourism has certified three properties with outstanding social and environmental practices: Umlani Bushcamp and Motswari in Timbavati and Sabi Sabi in Sabi Sand. Other camps with strong green credentials include Garonga in the Makalali Conservancy and Hamilton’s in the Imbali Concession. Lion Sands, Savanna and many more reserves support small-scale community projects.
MYTH: Visit in the rainy season, and your trip will be a wash-out
In January 2012, January 2013 and March 2014, floods in parts of Kruger damaged bridges, roads and camps. The disruption was so dramatic that you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s best to stay well away from October to April, just in case. But outside the flood season, the rainy months can be truly beautiful, with young animals peeping out of the lush vegetation and woodland kingfishers calling from the trees.
Emma flew with South African Airways and travelled with: Pulse Africa, Skukuza Rest Camp, Savanna Private Reserve, Lion Sands Game Reserve and Rhino Walking Safaris.
Of the 1004 rhinos that South Africa lost to poachers in 2013, over 60 per cent were killed in Kruger National Park. In early 2014 the park’s 9000-odd rhinos were being poached at an average rate of 13 per week. Commenting on the crisis, veteran regional ranger Louis Olivier recently confessed that field rangers are no longer just conservationists – they’re also soldiers.
With rhino horn worth over US$65,000 per kilogramme and between 12 and 15 gangs of poachers operating in the park at a time, the problem is not going away. Some gangs allegedly draw in corrupt vets, police officers and ex-rangers, while others simply rely on bush skills and guile, smuggling horn straight across the border into Mozambique, where arrests are rare. The slickest operations can deliver to their most lucrative market, Vietnam, within 48 hours. Attempts to appeal to the consciences of buyers on environmental and animal welfare grounds have had little effect, but it’s hoped that an agreement between South Africa and Mozambique might signal a brighter future.
For now, you can’t fail to be moved whenever you encounter a rhino in Kruger. Tourists, by their very presence, help eliminate poaching. During my visit I met several people who had come specifically for the rhinos, and were thrilled at how many they had seen.
Anti-poaching posters and merchandise are hard to avoid in South Africa, and are prominent in shops within the park. You may also, as I did, see anti-poaching units mobilising by vehicle or by helicopter – strong evidence that a dedicated conservation effort is in full swing. However, despite regular injections of cash, tracking equipment and expertise, the taskforce is stretched to the limit.
According to Johan Jooste, the retired army Major General who commands the SANParks Special Projects unit, the physical and psychological pressures on Kruger’s 500 anti-poaching rangers are severe. “The incursions are now relentless and taking their toll on our resources,” he says. “But we have men and women who are dedicated and fully committed to the cause. We are determined to win this war.”
The private reserves play an important part in the fight, financially and logistically. Some reserves, such as Londolozi, have begun to monitor the bush with night-flying drones equipped with heat sensors.
“Everybody’s chipping in,” says Nick Leuenberger of Lion Sands, who is convinced that ecotourism is an effective engine for conservation in Greater Kruger. “We all know that we’re facing a serious situation, and the more resources we devote to it, the better. Just by going out on a game drive, you’re playing a part in deterring poachers.”
Global financial assistance is crucial, too, so South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs is taking steps to root out ineffective rhino conservation charities in a bid to ensure that funds don’t go to waste, and SANParks runs a rhino adoption scheme (www.sanparksadopt.org) that aims to be totally transparent, with donations going direct to their dedicated anti-poaching fund.