Of all the must-sees on the collective bucket list of exotic travel experiences, few sites are more accessible and more user-friendly than South Africa’s Kruger National Park. Three separate airports (Phalaborwa, Hoedspruit and Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport) receive one-hour flights from Johannesburg, and Kruger’s southernmost gate is only 260 miles by car from Johannesburg’s shopping enclave of Sandton.
Private camps permit guides to drive off-road, giving clients more of an opportunity to get up close and personal with the Big Five. // (C) 2009 Jeppestown
But Kruger National Park has a problem of misperception with most American travelers. Namely, that the safari experience is exclusive and prohibitively expensive. Having recently returned from a one-week stay in Kruger, however, I’m pleased to report that one doesn’t have to break the bank to enjoy the infinite thrills of a safari.
Private Versus Self-Guided Safaris
Let’s be honest: There are absolute delineations between the private safari experience and the numerous self-drive options for exploring Kruger National Park. The private option is pricier, for sure, but the private safari camps provide personalized service via knowledgeable, trained safari guides piloting relatively comfortable, open-top Land Rovers. The private camps also permit guides to drive off-road (a practice strictly forbidden within the public confines of Kruger), allowing guests to practically curl up and snuggle with the Big Five. Clients exploring self-drive options in Kruger will find that binoculars and zoom lenses often come in handy. Finally, most of the private camps offer four- and five-star luxury tent or cabana accommodations, complete with butler turndown service, afternoon tea, executive chefs, sundowner cocktails and more.
Ngala Tented Camp
I kicked off my time in Kruger in style with a two-night stay at AndBeyond’s celebrated Ngala Tented Camp. True to form, within an hour of arrival, I found myself seated in a Land Rover, surrounded by three of the Big Five. Elephants with babies in tow stretched out their trunks to catch a whiff of my eau de Pantene. Ominous cape buffaloes chewed their cud, disinterested. A rhinoceros scraped at the dirt. A hyena lapped from a waterhole swimming with hippos.
A bit of advice I received from a fellow travel writer came to mind: “Everything in Africa bites, but the safari bug is the worst of all.”
Ngala camp consists of six spacious safari tents, each handsomely outfitted in dark, rich wood interiors with outdoor showers, private wooden decks, freestanding bathtubs, large beds, hardwood floors and accents such as table lamps and wall sconces perhaps best defined as African mod.
Camp cuisine is superb as well. The global cuisine that Chef Oscar turns out using local ingredients in his tiny bush kitchen in this remote corner of Africa rivals the swanky dishes served by celebrity chefs in Las Vegas. A highlight of my stay at Ngala was the nighttime cocktail party for guests, complete with champagne, cosmopolitans and grilled ostrich filet, set amid flickering lanterns beneath the stars in the African outback.
A Self-Drive Through Kruger
At current high season rates of approximately $875 per person, per night, however, a private safari camp like Ngala won’t gel with every aspiring Attenborough’s budget. So, I spent the next three days exploring the public face of Kruger National Park. Self-guided, behind the wheel of a snazzy red two-seater Hyundai, with my African mammal identification guide in hand, I must say, I was honestly surprised by how little of the safari experience was sacrificed in the step down to Kruger economy class.
Despite my limited experience as a game tracker, I managed to check off all of the Big Five within my first 24 hours in the park. I even came across a pride of lions that had killed a giraffe by the side of the road. The only animals that seemed conspicuously absent were fellow Americans. Although off-road driving is forbidden, I found decent roads to just about every waterhole and riverbank worth visiting, eliminating the need for off-road bravado. Both small and four-wheel-drive car rentals are available from all three of the nearby airports, as well as the centrally located Skukuza Rest Camp within the park.
The park’s 26 overnight camps are strategically situated within the most stunning areas of Kruger, in many cases besting views from the most exclusive private safari lodges. Accommodations range from camping facilities and bungalows to multi-family guesthouses, putting the cabins and campsites at most U.S. national parks to shame. Spacious bungalows average about $100 per night and include private baths, kitchenettes, barbecues (braais in South Africa), private patios (with views in some cases), private parking and air conditioning/heating.
Camps offer fun activities such as walking trails, outdoor movie theaters and museums. Rangers lead numerous game drives, nature walks, night drives and lectures throughout the day.
Restaurants are more than anyone would expect from a national park. I had one of the best steaks of my life while watching elephants amble by from the restaurant patio in the popular Skukuza Rest Camp. General stores stock everything from camera equipment to souvenirs, fresh produce, firewood and many of the same South African wines poured at the private luxury camps. Service in the park, however, is lacking, and ranges from mildly pleasant to virtually incompetent, so visitors should be at least somewhat self-sufficient.
So, if you’re looking to turn your clients on to a great deal, the self-drive experience at Kruger has got to be one of the best, most rewarding travel offers on the planet. But the luxury safari in private camps like Ngala, where the tents come with butlers, there are personal guides to lead the game drives and the champagne flows freely under the stars on warm African nights, is still an unforgettable experience. And the safari bug, from my experience, bites a little harder when there’s champagne involved.