'How to make the most of your time in the Kruger National Park' is sponsored by the great people at Africa Odyssey, who offer tailor-made safari and beach holidays to Africa.
The Kruger National Park bridges the Mpumalanga and Limpopo provinces in north-eastern South Africa. Being the country's largest unbroken wilderness area, this game reserve offers a premiere safari experience and is a favourite amongst national and foreign visitors alike. It offers an unparalleled game viewing experience, and there is that intangible quality about being in the bush that offers rest for the soul.
After being privileged to have spent a fair bit of time in the Kruger National Park, we have put together a list of our seven best tips to help you make the most of your Kruger National Park experience.
1. Set your alarm by the birds.
Animals are most active in the early and late hours of the day, and tend to avoid the peak midday heat by hiding out in the shade. This is especially true of predators like lions and leopard. The most rewarding game viewing times are therefore before 10am or after 3pm. You might be on holiday, but set that alarm clock for an early morning start and you won't be disappointed!
On that note, we'd really recommend that you overnight in the park if possible. Even if your accommodation outside the park is close to a gate, there are still the delays associated with travel time and the gate entry process that cut into your best viewing hours. There are plenty of well-equipped camps throughout the length of the Kruger National Park offering accommodation that ranges from camping to luxurious lodges and even a wealth of restaurants, so there is something to suit everyone's taste.
2. Go with a guide.
Just being inside a game reserve is a great experience. We have found though that this is greatly enhanced by having a guide show you around. In fact, this is one of our favourite things to do when we're in a game reserve. Someone who knows the bush intimately will be able to point out things that you never would have noticed by yourself. This could range from animals that are well-camouflaged and are easy to miss, to passing on information about why a certain insect does what it does, or how the different faunal and floral components of the bush interact with and affect each other.
Some of the favourite things we have seen have been with a guide - from the scratch marks that a leopard leaves on a tree while preparing for its evening hunt, to how dung beetles count their steps and use the sun to navigate, to pointing out rare birds. Whatever it is, you will end up seeing far more, learning far more and come away appreciating the bush far more than you ever had before.
Although there are plenty of private companies who operate in the Kruger National Park and offer guided safaris for day visitors, we would recommend booking a guided experience with the park rangers. These include guided bush walks (not suitable for young children) and game drives, and can be booked at the camp reception.
3. Get out on foot.
Following on from the point above, a guided bush walk is a great way to experience the Kruger National Park. These walks generally take place to coincide with the peak hours of animal activity, in the early morning or late afternoon. Although the idea of being out on foot amongst wild animals might sound a little daunting, in our opinion, that is exactly why you should do it! Viewing game from a car removes an animal's 'wildness' - you can drive right up to a lion because you are completely protected inside your vehicle! On the other hand, there is nothing like coming across an elephant on foot to make you really appreciate its size! On top of this, in a vehicle you miss out on the sounds and smells of the bush. There are also countless incredible smaller sights that are impossible to see at 40kmph. When you are on foot, your senses are heightened and adrenalin levels raised. Being out in the same environment as the game you are viewing is a completely unique experience.
For obvious reasons, bush walks are only available as a guided experience, with guests escorted by an armed game guard. Although they are armed, the game guards rely first on their trained instincts and knowledge of animal behaviour during encounters with wild animals, making sure that both man and beast enjoy the encounter unharmed. Bush walks are also not suitable for young children, given the possibility of encounters with dangerous game. When out in the wild, size counts!
4. Change your attitude!
It's not all about the big five! Whilst these animals are Africa's charismatic and iconic beasts and are always a treat to spot, they are only a small piece of what makes up the bush. If you open yourself up to seeing the beauty and value in some of the smaller things, then your time in the bush will be truly life-changing.
For example, take some time to watch an antelope or giraffe browse. Notice how they move upwind as they are feeding on the trees? This is because the trees that they are feeding on release a chemical compound to make their leaves bitter and unpalatable to the browsers. Trees downwind pick up on this scent and respond by making their leaves bitter in anticipation of an attack by a hungry herbivore. The best way for a giraffe to enjoy a tasty meal is to outwit the plants' chemical defense strategy by moving upwind towards 'unarmed' trees.
Next time you are in the Kruger National Park, why not go prepared? Read up ahead of time on some endemic plants or rare birds that might be in the area and make it a game to spot some of these natural treats?
5. Be prepared.
Make sure you pack some game-viewing essentials. Unless you are really lucky, chances are the game you sight will be a fair distance from the road. Binoculars are number one on our list of things to pack for a day in the park.
Added to this are guide books, especially if you are doing a self-drive through the Kruger National Park. Our bird book is always close by, and a book on animal spoor is always fun for something different if you are going to be driving on dirt roads.
Because you will be spending a good few hours in a vehicle, don't forget water and snacks, especially if you have taken our advice and set off on an early morning drive. With that early start, there are a few extra hours in between breakfast and lunchtime and no one wants to cut a drive short just because your belly is growling louder than the lion outside your window!
The Kruger National Park has plenty of restaurants within its rest camps, but why not rather pack a picnic and visit one of the picnic sites instead? This is a great way not only to beat the crowds, but also a chance to take in Nature instead of the vinyl chairs and tiled floor of some tastefully-decorated restaurant! Just a note of caution: Look out for scavenging monkeys and baboons who frequent picnic sites, especially if you have small children. Never encourage their behaviour by feeding them, and be responsible with the rubbish that you throw away. Make sure that it is disposed of in a monkey-proof bin, or if one is not available, take it home with you instead.
6. Take a hint.
Trying to find animals in a wilderness area of almost 20 000 km² - almost the whole size of Wales, and then on top of this trying to narrow this down to animals visible to the road, really comes down to luck. Luck, and being in the right place at the right time.
You can give yourself a head start with the right place criterion by checking the sightings boards at any of the Kruger National Park rest camps. These boards are updated daily and area record of the latest sightings. Because of their behaviour patterns, chances are that if an animal was spotted in one area in the morning, it won't have moved too far from that locale by that afternoon.
These days, visitors also update real-time sightings online. Follow @ on Twitter for the latest shared sightings in the Kruger National Park. The only downside to this is having technology interrupt your day out in the bush. We also find though that knowing what others have seen, and then potentially not having a similar sighting too may make you feel like you've lost out and detract from the great day out that you are in fact having already.
7. Buy a Wild Card.
Like many of South Africa's game reserves, the Kruger National Park is run by SAN Parks (South African National Parks). To make visiting South Africa's national parks more affordable for frequent visitors, SAN Parks has produced a Wild Card. For an annual membership fee, Wild Card holders get free entry into SAN Parks' reserves. The Wild Card can be bought for different game reserve clusters depending on your area of interest, or for all SAN Parks and is definitely a good investment if you plan on spending a lot of time in the bush. It would also make a great gift for friends or family!
Share your best tips!
We hope that this list of tips will enhance your safari experience in Kruger National Park. If you think we have missed some out, why not share them in the comments below? The Kruger National Park is just one of South Africa's truly incredible game reserves to visit, and we hope that that is exactly what you will do!