Kruger National Park, South Africa

July 16 – 27, 2019

After a week in Cape Town, we flew to Johannesburg where we picked up a rental car and immediately headed toward Kruger National Park. The rental we got was brand spanking new, with only 30 miles on its odometer. We were heading into the wilderness with a brand new car and needed to bring it back with no scratches on it. Challenge accepted!

We’ve heard tons of not-so-good stories about Johannesburg so we decided to avoid it. Crime rate is high and we are too naïve and unfamiliar with the common crime tactics to brave our way through it. We also learned that you should not be caught driving on the highway (or anywhere else) as soon as the night falls so we were trying to time our arrival to our first accommodation before the nightfall. Despite our best intentions and an attempt to get to our booking reservation during the day, we ended up in pitch dark, getting to the address shown by Google where our cabin was supposed to be, just to find an empty lot with no building on it. Our accommodations were nowhere to be found. Thank Goodness we had reception with our Google Fi service and could call the hosts who then directed us to their home, 8 miles away, totally off-grid, through pitch dark dirt roads, across some wobbly bridge to a cabin in the woods, half a way between Johannesburg and Kruger.

This was our first and only misstep along the way that thankfully for us, ended just fine, with no incidents. We woke up to beautiful scenery, sun shining onto the hills across from us, river (supposedly full of trout) running through the property, birds singing, etc. Our hosts were a white couple, hired hands, who worked at this farm 24/7 for a small salary and included accommodations. Their daughter and her family lived less than 2-hr drive away but they got to see her only once or twice a year due to their many work obligations and lack of financial resources and time. I was quite aware of how tasking their life was compared to ours.

From there, we drove to Kruger and entered the park in early morning hours, shortly after its gates opened at 6am.

We planned to stay at the park for 5 days and made reservations to sleep in 4 different camps.

Planning for this portion of our journey had to happen way in advance, when we were back in Seattle. I read dozens of blogs on this subject, got some advice from Peleka, talked with our neighbors, Mary and Jim, who have been to Kruger previously, watched numerous videos about where to go and how to make all the arrangements. I wasn’t sure we were up to a task of camping in Kruger, staying in cabins, tents and bungalows right in the park. Now, looking back, it all makes much more sense and I could now guide others to arrange the same. There is nothing we would change about our time in Kruger, except possibly extended our time in camps to a few more days in each location.

Kruger is the largest national park in the world, and it is one of Africa’s largest game reserves. It is approximately 220 miles long and about 40-50 miles wide. At an average driving speeds of around 20-30 miles per hour (max speed at 30 mph), it takes a while to cover big distances. We drove over 450 miles during our 5 days there, each day spending 5-7hrs of driving remote roads among wild animals at the super close proximity to our vehicle. I was a bit worried that our kids would not enjoy a lot of driving at these speeds for that many days in a row. To our great surprise and enjoyment, Petra and Maksim kept up their enthusiasm for spotting animals equally the same over each of those few days. We let Petra drive over 50 miles on dirt roads (automatic transmission) and she was delighted about that whole experience. Maksim used some of our driving time to draw and write and he even came up with a new comic book, inventing over dozen characters for his “North Wind Squad”.

I had to make plans for our time in Kruger back in January. We were about 2-3 weeks late to get the exact accommodations we wanted, for all of us to be together. We ended up needing to split up at some camps into two tents/bungalows. We stayed in a house (for 6) in Berg-en-Dal camp, in 2 tents (for 2) in Crocodile Bridge camp, in 1 tent (for 6) in Skukuza and 2 bungalows (for 2) in Satara.

All of the accommodations were really safe and comfortable and I would recommend them to pretty much anyone, even our more ‘used-to-fancier’ type of friends. Each camp has morning and evening game drives organized for a small fee but we’ve learned that joining those excursions was nothing better than driving the same routes ourselves. The only difference is that those excursions happen before or after camp gates open/close and that might provide additional opportunity to see more animals than during the day. . We made plans a couple of times to join those excursions but then ended up seeing those safari trucks and people in them all huddled up, freezing in a drafty vehicle, stuck with a group of 10+, following other’s agenda while we were in a warm, nice and comfortable car, free to get closer to some sights, stay longer, go wherever and whenever we wanted.
I’m certain that self-driving safari is the best experience I would recommend to pretty much anyone. Even though we didn’t bring good cameras on this trip, we believe that we still got good enough (for us) photos. We only used our phone cameras (iPhone 6s, iPhone 6 and Google Pixle XL) and a small first-generation, really old but solid, Sony RX100.

We saw all the Big 5 animals and their babies, all up close and personal – elephants, lions, water buffalos, rhinos and leopard. July and August are the most perfect time to be doing this sort of an adventure because most of the greenery is gone which makes it for great viewing opportunity. There is no danger of big rains and flooding. All roads are open and passable. There are almost no mosquitoes and less chance of malaria.
We have seen so many animals we didn’t even know existed. We spotted dozens of birds we’ve never seen before or known their names. Thankfully, we didn’t see any snakes. 😉

We drove right through the middle of a herd of over 100 water buffalos. That was a bit nerve-wrecking.

We watched a young, 14-month old leopard, until she strolled right by our back bumper.

We observed 3 lions feasting on a giraffe carcass (and 2 more resting/guarding nearby), less than 10 feet away from our car.

We followed 2 hyenas for a mile, just strolling down the road. We also watched another one eat her kill just 4-5 feet away from our car.

We were chased by an aggressive male elephant, but thankfully, it was only for 10+ adrenalin filled steps. Still, it was wild and too exciting for our taste. To add to that excitement, this happened moments after I first sat behind the wheel for the first time (and note, the wheel is ‘on the wrong side’ of the vehicle). I had to drive backwards to escape this elephant’s rush at us. I looked over my right shoulder as I was going in reverse, up the hill, repeating “I can’t see anything, I can’t see anything” not realizing that I’m looking on the wrong side of the car and not through the back window. This all added a bit of excitement to our elephant drama.

We were lucky to come across a wild life researcher and his photographery apprentice that were following a young leopard for months and knew everything about it and its mother. We ended up meeting up with these two fellas for dinner in one of the camps and learned a ton about different animals in the park, what some of their behaviors mean, where we could spot some hard to see species, etc. One fun fact is that it’s not a rare sight to come across lions feasting on their killright next to a road because lions have learned to chase their pray (with hooves) to asphalt where they slip and fall and are then easier to catch. Or that the elephants you gotta avoid are the lone males, called bulls, that look like they have something resembling “tears” discharging behind their eyes. That’s an elephant in the most aggressive state and those ‘tears’ are a tar-like secretion called temporin indicating that they are in musth, “teenage-like state” when they are highly aggressive and have the most reproductive hormones in them.

We purchased a nice and handy guide for Kruger called “Kruger Park Guide and Map” at the first camp we visited and we used it to circle pictures of all the animals and birds we saw along the way. We also mapped out every road we drove, leaving behind a nostalgic record of our most fabulous adventure so far.

Each morning, we would leave the camp little after 6am, drive around until lunch time, eat and rest for an hour and then go back for another drive until the strict deadline of 5:30pm when everyone has to return back to camp.

After 5 days of this constant driving throughout Kruger, we had all the intentions to go see a lot more of that region, several water falls, nearby towns, etc. However, we were tired. We chose to rent a house next to the park and just relax for a few more days. We ended up booking a place called Phumula Kruger Lodge, about 30 minutes from the Crocodile Bridge camp entrance. Since we had an annual pass to Kruger, we went back to the park a couple of more times but we slept outside of the park. Petra and I had a spa day, we rested, kids did some school work, we went on a quad driving excursion, etc. There was so much more we could have done with the rest of our time in that part of the country but after 4 months of intensive travel, we needed some down time. It turns out staying in Phumula was meant-to-be as we learned a few days later that Phumula actually means “rest” in Zulu.

All of this was done on a ridiculously (for safari) low budget. When I told friends of ours what I’ve budget for our 3 weeks in South Africa, they didn’t quite trust us that we could make it on that much money. They had other friends that were doing a similar trip at about the same time for almost double our budget. I gotta say that we did not skimp on anything, we ate whatever we wanted, we did all the activities we wanted to do, we stayed in nice and safe places, Petra and I had a spa day, we all rode quads outside of Kruger, we had surf lessons, we were at the park for 5 days, we shared many meals with others, ate in restaurants every day, etc. And with all this, we were 20% under budget for our almost 3 weeks there. The airline tickets could be pricey but once there, all other costs were lower than we expected.

/* edit*/ While cost of this trip was better than planned, safety was also better than expected. We were told some horror stories of car jackings, kidnaping, theft, violence and we experienced none of it. We did consciously decide not to go into Johannesburg and we drove from the airport to Kruger without stopping anywhere except at one designated gas station and our mid-point accommodations. While at Kruger, we never felt unsafe from people at any point. Pedja left his small flashlight, his prized possession, under a pillow in a tent of our second camp and cleaning crew found it and delivered it safely back to him. We had a couple of close encounters with animals, elephant and herd of water buffalos, but both were more nerve racking than dangerous. We were respectful towards animals, giving them their space.
If there is a downside to this South African adventure, it’s the fact that we felt like this was the least active vacation we’ve ever done. Your movement is limited by safety, either from humans or animals. In many places, you can’t just get out and go for a walk/run because it might not be a safe neighborhood. In other places, you might encounter a wild animal right outside the front door of your accommodations. In those 3 weeks, with the exception of hiking up Table Mountain and attempting to surf one morning, we were mostly inactive.

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