When Pete asked if I’d be interested in doing a self-drive safari, my first thoughts were, Hell yes! Is that even legal? The answer is yes – you can drive in your own vehicle through Kruger Park in search of big game. Sounds pretty awesome, right? Well, it was…although it did come with its challenges.
First of all, the park is HUUUUGE! I didn’t realize how large it was until Pete told me it looked about twice the size of Serengeti on Google Maps….and the Serengeti is absolutely mammoth. Something to know before you set your sights on seeing the entire park.
Second of all, trying to spot animals all day is tiring! Spotting animals (especially without a guide) is definitely a huge rush, but there were times when we drove for hours without seeing more than some birds. We had headaches by the end of the day, but we were still enthusiastic to drive again.
Besides that, here are some things you should know before doing a self-drive safari through Kruger Park.
We rented a car from Budget at the Johannesburg airport. We opted for an SUV, since we weren’t sure about the quality of the roads and also wanted to be higher up for better animal viewing. It cost $395 for the week.
The drive from Johannesburg to the Kruger Gate was about 4.5 hours along nicely paved highways. On our way to the park, we took our time and spent a night in the Protea Hotel by Marriott Waterval Boven Malaga (quite a mouthful) to break up the drive. We drove straight through on the way back.
Where to Drive?
We saw the most animals on our drive around the southern circle. This is the H4-2 tar road and the S28 dirt road, including the short S130 and S137 dirt roads in between. –> We got this information from this helpful website. On this route, we saw giraffes, tons of elephants, zebra, blue wildebeest, and more.
The conditions in the roads of Kruger Park varied, but were clearly marked on the map. You can purchase the map for R40 ($3) from the park entrance (at the gate) – and we definitely suggest buying this map. Our SUV was totally fine on all types of roads, but I’m not sure a sedan would do well on the dirt roads, given the amount of pot holes and rocks. If you’re nervous about your car on iffy terrain, I’d stick to the paved roads. However, we did tend to see more animals when we were driving on the more remote, dirt roads.
The Big Five
Supposedly, spotting a rhino in Kruger is very common. I still have a hard time believing this. Despite our sad lack of rhino, we were still fruitful on our search for the Big Five and saw all but the rhino and buffalo (honestly, we weren’t looking for buffalo as we don’t find them too exciting and saw them all over Uganda). A highlight: we couldn’t believe it when my mom spotted an elusive leopard in a tree right next to the road!
Where We Stayed
Probably the best thing about where we stayed, the Protea Kruger Gate, is that you can literally see the Kruger Gate from the hotel entrance. The hotel itself is gorgeous and mostly open air. My favorite feature was the wooden bungalows overlooking the Sabie River; hippo and elephant sightings were common!
Elephants – A Word of Caution
Chances are you will get really close to elephants. The map that we purchased from the gate gave us some advice for dealing with these massive creatures – and we’re glad we had the advice! We had a seriously adrenaline-fueled experience when we were driving along on a dirt road and came across a large family of elephants.
We watched them for a while as they crossed the road and went about their business, eating and pooping. However, one of the moms had a little baby, and we know they can be extremely protective. At one point, the mother didn’t like how close we were, so she charged right towards us, tilting her head from side to side, waving her massive ears at us.
Pete, the level-headed one in our car, sternly said: “Put the car into reverse.” Hearts beating fast, my mom followed his suggestion and backed up as fast as she could. Eventually, we were far enough away so the mother felt comfortable and returned to her family. We stayed there until they were out of sight. Moral of the story: don’t get too close to elephants! If they’re coming towards your car, back away to maintain a safe distance.
Any questions about Kruger National Park?