Safari South Africa Destinations: Southern Kruger National Park

C. Fraser Claire

Our Kruger National Park Safari Starts in the South: From Malelane and Crocodile Bridge, Through Lower Sabie and Skukuza to Pretoriuskop

Something changes the moment you go through the gates at Kruger National Park. Seatbelt off, windows down, the world is left behind.

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Safari South Africa Destination Inspiration: Southern Kruger National Park - by The Safari Store

In Southern Kruger, the transition away from city and civilisation is seamless, the most natural thing in the world – as if shopping malls and Big 5 game reserves were natural neighbours everywhere. This is especially so when entering from Malelane Gate, where the town of Malalane and surrounding farmland suddenly become wild mountain bushveld and exciting river roads.

Southern Kruger is home to some areas that are akin to safari Disneyland. Lower Sabie and Skukuza are two of the bigger camps in Kruger. With busy restaurants and services, they really are hubs within the park. The easy access at Southern Kruger makes it a mecca for day trippers or short-stay safari-goers looking for a wild escape. This means you'll often encounter a buzz of people and sightings. That said, Kruger will always find ways to show you the meaning of space if you will let it.

Berg-en-Dal, Malelane Satellite Camp, Biyamiti Area, and the Road To Crocodile Bridge

My eyes scanned the rockfaces like rolling stones. These boulders meant the rare chance to see Cape Vulture. Very distant big birds dotted the sky way up high and far away like lost kites sacrificed to the sun gods – never to be seen again.

In a single year, I had the good fortune to stay at Berg-en-Dal in winter and then to camp at Malelane in the hot summer months. The first visit was a taste, an overview. We were there for a single night. The summer camping trip was time to explore the clockwork of the place – using it as a base for long day drives and remote work days from camp. We developed an appetite for leopard spotting before breakfast and laptop screens for the rest of the day - although fellow campers spotted leopard being chased by baboon from camp, so it wasn't a half bad place to be. →

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Lions Near Berg-en-Dal Rest Camp, Kruger National Park by The Safari Store

Summer Sightings and Storms
One afternoon, up into the boulders we climbed in the baking haze of summer afternoon heat. The non-descript colour of the sky hid the invisible ink that issued afternoon storm warnings. Until bough-bending winds blew up, everything willed a break in the heat with stillness. My eyes saw the cream wood of great fallen trees, but my brain registered otherwise. Look twice. What I thought to be a huge and shattered tree trunk was actually a line of sleeping lions – legs akimbo in a range of slumbering poses. The males were simply gigantic, felled by the heat in a great panting mass too lazy to move out of the sun. We would see the great hulk of these males again over the days. As the sky split in astounding, slow motion lightning strikes, the night later gave way to roars I imagined coming from these incredible beasts.

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Cheetah Between Lower Sabie and Malelane Gate, Kruger National Park, by The Safari Store

The Biyamiti road takes you along the river. The further you go, the quieter it seems to get – with occasional glances at ‘civilisation’ across the river boundary. We drove for hours and hardly saw a soul, following Jock of the Bushveld pointers that gave the bush an historical context of trade routes and early settler life. We took it slow, photographing water birds and klipspringers, remarking on the beauty of the place as it unfolded before us. Before we knew it, we had seen big herds of elephant, long and dusty lines of buffalo, and plenty of antelope.

A storm was gathering and the sky behind us was ripe shades of purple while everything in front of us was bathed in white sunshine. A single car was stopped on the road ahead of us and its occupants told us of two cheetah hidden in the long grass. They drove away and left us to decipher fur from yellow grass, fleck of spot and flick of ear from movement of blades in the breeze. My breath was hot while I waited. A mantra for patience – on safari, everything can change in a moment.

And they were up and moving – fast and focused even in their walk, on to the road behind us. The road was sepia in the sunlight, offset by the distant dark clouds and the moving forms of these graceful cats. A slow hour with the world’s fastest land mammal. →

Bateleur - Kruger National Park Birdwatching by The Safari Store

Birdwatching: The Most Peaceful Pastime
On our New Year family safari, I surrendered the stress of the year out of the car and into the stratosphere on the wings of birds. Lilac-Breasted Roller, Rattling Cisticola, Yellow-Throated Longclaw. This is a language I would hear anew through children the next day. Steve’s niece and nephew joined us in the car – Kruger maps and checklists at the ready. No pressure. His nine-year-old niece: “I want to see all the rollers.” “What starling is that?” “I already have a White-Backed Vulture.” I’m scared. As the days have gone by, she’s identifying families and noticing diagnostic features in a rather advanced way. I knew it before, but this confirms it – I started birding 30 years too late.

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Lower Sabie

Looking out from the restaurant on the deck at Lower Sabie, the view is always alive with birds, hippos, and the snaking scales of crocodiles in the Sabie River. Two of the busiest sightings I have ever experienced have been a stone’s throw from this point.

If you think human activity is a deterrent for cats, let this be empirical of the contrary - a leopard in a tree in full view of the bridge to the camp and a lion down a bank, seemingly desensitised to the hubbub of cars around it. The energy of these sightings makes driving away feel like you’re breaking through a forcefield and out into a barren outer space – but sometimes this is where wonder is at its greatest.

Onward – and Tory, who had been quietly looking for game in the back of the car, shouted the words every safari-lover can’t wait to hear, “Cat in tree. Cat in tree!” An incredible male leopard, reclining on a high branch, opened eyes charged with the light of intrusion. In a breath, he padded lightly down the trunk and melted into the grass. With ‘the fire of thine eyes’ that scored through the cover of grass, ‘leopard, leopard burning bright’ certainly applies.

On my first drive along the length of Kruger, we went from north to south. On this trip, around Lower Sabie, I saw a line of elephant bulls like lithograph against the mountains – part of the silence, part of the spectacle. Years later, it is as if they have left a trail in the grass that leads me to that moment in memory so perfectly every time I think about the area. →

Leopard Near Lower Sabie Rest Camp, Kruger National Park, by The Safari Store

I saw a line of elephant bulls like lithograph against the mountains – part of the silence, part of the spectacle. Years later, it is as if they have left a trail in the grass that leads me to that moment in memory so perfectly every time I think about the area.
Elephants Near Lower Sabie Rest Camp, Kruger National Park, by The Safari Store

The Language of Tusk and Trunk
we heard the smash of tusk and watched two bull elephants having a conversation about dominance in a language of tusk and trunk. To watch this is to know power in the same way one can feel it in avalanches, flooding river rapids, and erupting volcanoes. At peace, there lies a mystery within these amazing creatures, but things shift in a moment of power.

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Male Lion Near Lower Sabie Rest Camp, Kruger National Park, by The Safari Store


Skukuza is Kruger HQ – and a veritable safari city. It is the largest camp in Kruger National Park and that means the full suite of activities and facilities are available to you. It has a choice of restaurants, access to a an airport – and a nine-hole golf course, two swimming pools, and a spa. This is resort life (lions on the green have been photographed on a few occasions), but there’s something about Skukuza that keeps it grounded.

The drives around Skukuza are beautiful – situated around the Sabie and Sand Rivers, with drives that move through exquisite thicket, woodland, and grassland areas. For me, the inselbergs in the area are dramatic and unforgettable – a hint at what’s to come as you make your way south to Berg-en-Dal. One of these inselbergs is the Stevenson-Hamilton Memorial – and you can get out of your car to walk dwarfed among the rocks in this undeniably soulful place. →

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Kruger Shalati, Kruger National Park Lodges Near Skukuza Rest Camp

Kruger Shalati: The Train on The Bridge
One of the landmarks in Southern Kruger is Kruger Shalati - a bridge and train carriage hotel over the Sabie River that is a relic of 1920s safari glamour. This hotel and its scenic location pay true homage to pioneering safari-goers in Kruger National Park.

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If it’s history you’re after, why not stay in one of the oldest camps in Kruger – the oldest opened to visitors? Pretoriuskop, while having all the SANParks comforts, gives you that feeling. A great circle of huts feels like a camp layout of yesteryear. Pretoriuskop was originally a stopover for the migrant traders in the 1800s.

Beyond the camp, clusters of granite outcrops and mountains connect this Kruger history with the local chief, Manungu, who ran a trading post for traders, as well as the ancient art of the San, which can be seen on rockfaces in the area.

The dense bush in this area has its own stories – evolving daily. Our afternoon drive was scorching yellow sunlight through thick tree canopies and a forest floor buried in green. This was the rainy season – emerald indeed. The forest gave hints of animals like the ripped pages of a letter: the eye and heart-shaped muzzle of a waterbuck, spiralling kudu horns above shaking leaf matter, a flash of feather lost with its call.

“You drove straight past a leopard,” a fellow game driver told us. “It walked right behind your car as you drove past.” We turned around in time to see black tail tip, rosettes on slinking golden fur, and white ear spots walk into a clearing and then become one with the patterns of the forest. The evolution of these stories happen in a moment, happen behind you, happen all around you – and all become part of your own history by living them. →

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Hyena Cub Near Biyamiti Bushvled Camp by The Safari Store

Wild Dogs in Kruger National Park by The Safari Store

A Spattering of Painted Wolves
If life imitates art, painted wolves or African wild dogs are a species of convergence. On the hunt, they exhibit a marvel of speed and distance, which is why a sighting of resting wild dogs right on the roadway makes for some wonderful portraits.

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Stevenson-Hamilton Memorial Site Near Skukuza, Kruger National Park

The Area Around the Stevenson-Hamilton Memorial Lookout
James Stevenson-Hamilton was the first warden of Kruger National Park and a man who has an enduring legacy for conserving the area of Kruger National Park as we know it today. He was called 'Skukuza' - a Shangaan name meaning 'he who turns everything upside down' for the myriad ways he fought for the retention of truly wild reserves in South Africa. He remained at the park until his retirement at 80 years old and his ashes are scattered at a lookout point in an area punctuated with beautiful boulders.

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View on a Self-Drive Near Biyamiti Bushveld Camp, Kruger National Park, by The Safari Store

Cast Your Eyes Northward
The scale and scope of Kruger National Park makes it an exciting safari destination. Looking out at the views from the south of the park, it is amazing to think of the great swathes of wild Kruger - and neighbouring Southern African countries - that await you.

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Giraffe Near Malelane Gate, Kruger National Park, by The Safari Store

If you're self driving Kruger National Park, make sure you leave enough time to get back to camp or out of the gate before closing time - and factor in the time it might take to spend time with early dusk sightings along the way. Time is always stretched when you're racing the gate with wonderful wildlife around!

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Three-Banded Plover Near Biyamiti Bushveld Camp, Kruger National Park

Don't Forget Your Bird Book
There are more than 500 bird species in Kruger National Park. If you're a bird lover, every moment of your game drives in Kruger National Park will be colourful and filled with the energy of identification and appreciation of South Africa's beautiful birds.

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