There is a magic to the Kruger National Park in South Africa, of that there is no doubt.
The Kruger National Park is an ancient and wild place. The lineage of the grazing and browsing herds, the sandy paths of the great beasts of the lowveld have been millennia in the making. This is not the place of re-introductions and re-wilding. It has always been wild, very wild in fact - and beneath the veneer of Krugers' modern infrastructure lies the Africa of old. I decided to try out a Kruger Park Self-Drive Safari for myself to see just how amazing Kruger is - and to share with you a few tips from what I learned along the way. This is a report on Kruger, written from within Kruger.
Top 7 Kruger Self-Drive Safari Tips:
1. Go your own way:
For intimate sightings I urge you not to use apps or sightings reported on social media. Sightings boards in camps are the closest you should come to replying on second-hand information. While many have heard of the potential for traffic jams around lion and other high profile game sightings in Kruger, at times - over the past weeks - the Kruger has felt as though it should be called Kruger Private Game Reserve as I have enjoyed world-class sightings with no other cars present. Not even truly private game reserves are able to offer that all the time. The difference I believe is in my approach. The Kruger is vast and so I always choose smaller, less used tracks and roads to seek out the special sightings which Kruger has to offer to all wildlife enthusiasts. I also do not use social media at all to assist in finding wildlife, nor any of the apps which suggest the best routes to take. Look at maps of the Kruger and try find roads which follow rivers - even if they are completely dry rivers as often elephant create small pools of water in the driest of riverbeds. The taller trees along the water courses also offer shade to the tallest of the tall, giraffe, and a place for cats to sleep through the hotter hours of the day either in the branches of, or in the shade of these trees - such as the Jackalberry, Marula, Apple-leaf, and Sycamore fig. To sum up - do not be a herd animal and take a risk and go it alone. It really pays dividends in terms of the intimacy of each and every sighting.
2. Use simple-to-learn signs and sounds to find predators:
Wildlife alarm calls and tracks will point you in the direction of predators such as cheetah, leopard, and lion. On this self-drive Kruger safari I found a large, bear-like male lion on a kill simply as I found a herd of impala which were not looking at us, but across an open plain. For once I did not need to use my binoculars as he was pretty close to the road. The amazing thing was that many other cars had driven past the same spot but no one had looked to see what the impala were looking. I spent a good amount of time over the next two days watching the male lion as he finished his warthog meal, and then as a final denouement chased off a few prowling hyena before walking off into the distance. Thank you impala for showing me where to look.
On another occasion a journey of about 12 giraffe were all looking at a tree located some way away from the road. A quick scan with our binoculars later and I spotted a coalition of two male cheetah under the tree and I was treated to incredible interactions between the cheetah, and the zebra, giraffe and guinea-fowl who were keeping a close eye on the coalition. At one stage the two males chased after the zebra herd who - we later discovered - included a young zebra with rather bad cuts on her hind legs. On the same day as I am writing this - from Mopane Rest Camp in the Kruger - I came across a lioness with two cubs in the Tsendze river bed after hearing baboons barking and then seeing them scatter up into any trees they could find. I had to scan for a few moments with my binoculars, but I was rewarded with an intimate sighting of the lioness and her two, fluffy, young cubs.
To sum up: if you see prey species all looking in the same direction, you should look in the same direction too; and if you hear prey species - for example baboon, monkeys, squirrels, impala, zebra, or kudu - alarm calling, then there is a high chance that there will be predators about. One thing to note is that sometimes the primates do call when they see other rival troops - but if they are calling from the tree tops then it may also be that they have spotted a predator. Try work out where they are looking and spend a few moments scanning that area with your binoculars. If you are not sure what these animals sound like, then YouTube has short clips of most animal calls and it is well worth taking a few moments to familiarise yourself with prey species alarm calls.
Above: I spotted these giraffe all looking in one direction, which led to finding a coalition of two cheetah males. You are able to just see the tops of their heads on the right of the image and to the left of the dark green Acacia tree. I would never have spotted them if I had not seen the giraffe looking to interested in something which was not me.
Above: This is one of the two male cheetah found after noticing giraffe all looking in the same direction.
Admittedly tracking wildlife is a little more difficult as terrain - and the soil type - are constantly changing. That said, as soon as I find a road with soft sand, even if only on the edges, then I will usually slow the car down a bit and scan the sand with the naked eye to see if I can spot any cat, rhino, elephant, buffalo, or dog-shaped tracks. Having a book which details some animal tracks is handy to keep in your car, and Mike Unwin's book 'Southern African Wildlife: A Visitors Guide' has a section on tracks and signs which will come in handy. You never know, you may get lucky and figure out that the pattern in the sand is actually a track by wild dogs, which tells you which direction the pack was headed in - and which then leads you to find a pack of these beautiful painted wolves. I was lucky enough to see wild dog hunting impala in the Timbavati river area of the Kruger on the Kruger 2020 self-drive safari on which this article is based.
3. You are an animal, so think like one to enjoy more sightings on your Kruger self-drive safari:
For example if you are thinking "I am so thirsty and hot and all I want is to drink something and find some shade," then there is a good chance that Kruger's wildlife species are thinking along those same lines. During the hotter hours of the day scan under trees and bushes to find animals escaping the hot sun, and visit watercourses and waterholes where animals will congregate to drink and cool off - as we do as humans in bars, cafes, and restaurants.
4. The choice of car - and speed at which you drive - matters:
Choose a car with good clearance and which is taller than a normal sedan. The higher you are in the car, the better the chance that you will see more wildlife over tall grass and bushes. Game drive at speeds slower than the speed limit in Kruger - which is 50 kph for tarred roads, and 40 kph for dirt roads. Speeds of around 20 to 30 kph simply allow your eyes more time to look for wildlife, and pick up on an unfolding scene which you may have missed at higher speeds. You give yourself more chance at slower speeds to pick up on the signs and sounds I mention in point 2 above. Whenever I see someone driving at the speed limit I know that either they are responding to a sighting they have seen on an app or social media, or they are moving from camp to camp and have not worked out the drive time to do so and so have to rush. On that note, please do time your move from one camp to another carefully as the Kruger is a huge reserve at over 300km (200 miles) long, and 40 to 80km (25 to 50 miles) wide.
5. To game drive like a pro, learn from a pro:
The Kruger is a wonderfully well-thought-out national park and most camps offer game drives and bush walks. I recommend that you go on at least one game drive in each camp where you stay, and one bush walk. You will get to meet the fantastic rangers - who are usually from local villages - and who specialise in their respective areas. You will learn more about the local culture, the local usage of plants and animals, and of course learn more about the area in which you are staying. Ask the ranger for some insider tips on where to find your favourite species, which could improve your own self-drive game drives. With regards to walks, you will get to see parts of the park which roads do not go to, adding a depth of understanding about what the area looks like on the ground. There is also nothing better than walking in the bush.
To get more out of your Kruger National Park Self-Drive Safari - and to read into each species you see - I also recommend taking simple bird books and wildlife guidebooks to enrich your sightings.
6. Practice ubuntu:
Ubuntu is a simple African concept which is based on the premise that people are only people through other people - 'I am because we are.'. Kruger is staffed by some wonderful, gentle, polite people. You will add value to your own experience of Kruger by being gentle and polite - even if something goes wrong with a booking or someone makes a mistake. By being friendly and genuine to all Kruger staff you may also get a few extra insider tips, or be offered a shadier campsite. Even if there is no tangible benefit to you, holidays are simply better without conflict and nastiness and so I implore all who read this to treat Kruger staff with respect and kindness. Assume that everyone is doing their level best to make sure that you have a good time - simply as they usually are doing just that. Obey the park rules, tip good service, and never forget: people are only people through other people.
7. Sightings etiquette:
In busy areas of the Kruger, sightings may become over-crowded with cars, which partly explains my advice in point 1 about going your own way. I will usually simply drive past those sightings, but always make sure that if you do so that you are patient and polite as you make your way past. Also do not drive past if you are going to have a negative impact on the animal(s) being viewed by other Kruger safari-goers. Do not be the person who causes a herd of Cape buffalo to stampede across the road, or a leopard to run off into the bush. If the animal is close to the road do not try to go past and rather try get a good view and just enjoy the sighting. My rule of thumb is based on my time as a guide in private reserves: the first car at a sighting dictates how close any other cars are allowed to get to an animal. Do not push past another car to get closer.
If you are the first car at a sighting - as you have applied some of the skills I have mentioned above - then give yourself a pat on the back. It is a rewarding feeling being the person who finds an animal, rather than someone who just responds to the animals which others have found. If you are a "finder" set the distance which you feel comfortable with between your car and the animal. Be sensitive to their space and if unsure give them more room, rather than less.
Other cars may drive up to where you are enjoying your sighting and here I apply a simple rule: if someone asks what I am looking at, then I tell them and I do my best to point out where the animal is. If someone drives past without stopping then I do not try to get their attention. I have had people flash their lights and hoot at me to tell me to stop and view what they are seeing. I understand the pride in finding an animal and the joy of sharing, but flashing lights, hooting, and calling out definitely is not showing sensitivity towards the animal which you are viewing.
Now, not everyone is going to have read my Kruger guide before going on a self-drive safari and so you may have people pulling their car in front of you. It is really bad manners, but it is usually due to ignorance rather than any malice. Please do not shout at them, but rather try to reposition your car to get a good view of the animal. Often if this happens I will simply leave the sighting and go in search of other animals to find. For me a pure Kruger sighting is one where I find an animal - and then view it on my own.
In closing I also offer one extra piece of sightings advice: elephants are bigger than you, they are bigger than all cars - so give them a little extra space. If they trumpet in your direction, start to shake their heads, pluck off branches and then drop them before eating them - back off a little more. They are the one species I am most wary of on foot, and in a car - simply as they are so powerful. By giving them the space and respect they deserve you will hopefully not witness their power, and witness their gentler, close-knit familial side.
Kruger Park Story Links: Kruger Park: Top 7 Self-Drive Safari Tips | Kruger Park: Top 7 Self-Drive Safari Packing Essentials
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