Kruger, South Africa: Trip Planning

We have been to South Africa back in 2012 and visited Cape Town, Sun-City, Garden Route and combined the trip with a Victoria Falls (Zambia and Zimbabwe) and Kenya. But at that time we skipped a safari in Kruger as we did a week-long safari in Kenya. That trip had inspired me to start Flexi Travels. Since then I’ve been planning many trips to South Africa including Kruger for my guests and even directed them with step by step directions. Normally we don’t go back to a country so soon, but I really wanted to do a safari in Kruger. So I actually planned a trip to Africa specifically for it.

Panoramic View of Kruger

Index

Kruger Trip Planning Essentials and a comparison between the Kruger National Park and the Kruger Private Reserve
Our Detailed Itinerary and Trip Report – Part 1 – Satara Rest Camp in the Kruger National Park
Our Detailed Itinerary and Trip Report – Part 2  – Elephant Plains in the Kruger Private Reserve
Various Possible Routes to Elephant Plains

Our Kruger Itinerary in Brief

Day 1 – Fly to Johannesburg and stay overnight at an airport hotel
Day 2 – Drive to Kruger, do the Panoramic Route and stay outside the Kruger National Park in Hazyview
Day 3 – Enter the Kruger National Park, do a full day safari and stay at the Satara Rest Camp
Day 4 – Satara Rest Camp – Morning and evening safari
Day 5 – Drive from the Satara Rest Camp to Hippo Jessica, then drive to the Sabi Sands Reserve and stay at the Elephant Plains Game Reserve
Day 6 – Elephant Plains Game Reserve – Morning and Evening Safari
Day 7 – After the morning safari, drive back to Johannesburg and stay overnight at an airport hotel
Day 8 – Fly to Namibia for the next leg of our trip

Kruger National park and/or Kruger Private Reserve?

When planning a trip to Kruger, the biggest decision is whether to stay at the Kruger National Park or the Kruger Private Reserve. It can be a bit overwhelming in choosing where to stay as there are hundreds of accommodations with a wide difference in prices.

Kruger National Park covers an area of 19,485 square kilometres with 12 main rest camps and around 10 smaller camps. If you’re going for just a few days, choose one of the popular main camps like Lower Sabie, Satara or Skukuza. I would recommend Satara as it is known for its frequent lion sightings. For availability and booking, check their official website. It is easy to book online or by sending an email to their reservation department.

Kruger Private Reserve is made up of many private reserves like Sabi Sands, Thornybush, Timbavati, Kapama and many more. Before choosing any private reserve or camp, it’s best to read reviews on TripAdvisor and check for frequent animal sightings at the camp. Sabi Sands Private Reserve is one of the best reserves for Big 5 sightings which in turn has numerous lodges. It can be really expensive to stay here but one of the more affordable ones is the Elephant Plains Game Reserve. It gets booked months in advance, so I would recommend blocking the dates before booking the flights. I stayed here and was blown away by every single thing – animal sighting, rooms, food, service and can’t even find one single fault. For booking, you can email me at [email protected] and I can try to get you a good deal.

Kruger National park vs Kruger Private Reserve

  • Kruger National Park (NP) offers budget accommodations in the range of 1300 ZAR per night for 2 adults whereas the Kruger Private Reserve (PR) start at 5000 ZAR per night. Elephant Plain in Sabi Sands cost around 8000 ZAR per night for 2 adults.
  • Price of accommodation in NP is for room only and does not include any meals. There is a restaurant on site for meals or you can self-cater. PR has 3 meals included in their price. Satara had a restaurant which offered decent pizzas or people preferred to use their braai and have a nice barbecue meal whereas meals at Elephant Plains were absolutely delicious.
  • NP rates do not include any safari. The best option is to self-drive within the park. Additionally, you can go for a guided night or day safari in a 20 seater bus at a cost of 250 ZAR per person. PR includes 2 safaris a day with a ranger in an open safari vehicle (8 seaters) and a bush walk
  • I wouldn’t call the rooms at Satara basic. They were nice, neat and clean and had a good bathroom too. Rooms also had a patio, full kitchen and braai facilities. The best part was the vibe and feel of the camp with everyone cooking barbecue around. Obviously, Elephants Plains had luxurious rooms with a patio overlooking the waterhole and a super luxurious bathroom.

But you don’t go to Kruger for the room or the food. Why pay so much more for a private reserve? A Lion is a lion, how does it matter where you see them?

I would think the same until I experienced two days of safari in Elephant Plains. The main difference is that in the private reserve they are allowed to drive off-road. On paper, it doesn’t sound a big deal. But in reality, this is what made a huge difference and our money totally worth it. In NP, you can see animals only from the main road. So it depends on how close you can get to them or how long you can see them, depending upon the animal movement. But in PR, once an animal is spotted, you can get so close that you feel you can just stretch out your arm and touch them. They follow the animals and their movement until you’re satisfied and happy. Also, they can drive through bushes and trees to get you the best view of the sighting without disturbing the animal.

So I would recommend 2 nights stay at the Kruger National Park followed by 2 nights stay at the Private Reserve (If budget allows) to experience best of both worlds.

Lions at Satara

We spotted 3 Lions right by the road near the Satara Rest Camp

Lions at Elephant Plains

A pride of 11 Lions walked right by our jeep at Elephant Plains

Flights

There aren’t any direct flights to Johannesburg from Mumbai. Cheaper options are Air Seychelles, Kenyan Airlines and Ethiopian Airline. We chose Air Seychelles as we wanted to do a stopover in Seychelles. If transiting through Kenya or Ethiopia, do check for Yellow Fever requirements before booking the flights. So our flights were:

Mumbai to Johannesburg via Mahe
Johannesburg to Mahe
Mahe to Mumbai

This multi-city flight cost us Rs. 43,000 pp which in my opinion was a good deal considering we did a stopover in Seychelles. Usually Kenyan or Ethiopian airline is cheaper than Air Seychelles.

Review

Air Seychelles was just about fine – the food was edible, decent seat width and pitch, and 2 of the flights were on time and 2 of them were late by an hour. However, in spite of getting empty seats, we could not make the best use of it as the handle between seats would lift only half way, making it very uncomfortable to sleep. Mahe airport was very small, packed to the full capacity and had somewhat dirt toilets. There was a Burger King which had delicious veg burgers and 1 other small place serving snacks.

SIM Card

It’s very easy to buy a local SIM card at the airport and would highly recommend buying one before leaving the airport. There are 2 options:

Vodacom store on arrivals

I had read online that they sell a SIM card for 105 ZAR which gives no airtime and then you can buy 1GB of data for a cost of 149 ZAR. When we arrived at the store there was a huge queue, so couldn’t check on the prices.

Woolworths store on the second floor

After clearing immigration, you arrive at the arrival hall where you see all the taxi drivers and tour operators waiting for their guest. From there, take an escalator on the left-hand side to the next level, walk 2 minutes and you will find this store on the left-hand side (There is an information centre where you can ask for directions). It’s a supermarket where they sell SIM cards at the cashier counter. They were selling SIM card for 115 ZAR which included an airtime of 115 ZAR. Additionally, we bought 1 GB of data for 149 ZAR. One thing I’m not sure but I think it should work is that use the 115 airtime to activate a data package. The woman at the counter was very helpful and did all the installation and activation of the SIM card for us.

Best Time to Visit

South Africa is a year-round destination and best time really depends on what you prefer. Personally, I would say the best time to visit is from June to August. It is mild winters with pleasant weather. At this time of the year, there is virtually no rainfall in the Kruger Park. For Cape Town, this is a low season and it is not perfect for a beach holiday as it gets some rain. On the other hand, most hotels offer low season prices and I prefer this weather than to the hot summers. It is also the whale watching season.

October to April is the summer season. In can be very hot and humid in the Kruger Park and it is the rainy season too. However, it is a good time to visit Cape Town with the warm and dry weather if you are after a beach holiday.

Car Rental

I normally prefer renting a car from international companies like Avis, Hertz and Europcar as I’ve rented with them in the past and didn’t face any problems. In my experience, these companies usually offer newer cars, have a desk at the airport for easy pick-up/drop-up and most importantly I haven’t found them fussy about small scratches on the car. On picking up the car, they mark scratches on a piece of paper. On return, usually they just have a look around the car, check fuel and let you go. At least till now, I haven’t seen them checking every single scratch on the car. 

I go to each of their websites, check prices and book whoever offers the cheapest price.  They don’t ask for a credit card guarantee and offer unlimited kilometres.

NOTE: Go to their international website (.com) and book the car there. If you go to their local website (.co.za) or try to rent one at the airport, they would not provide unlimited kilometres or charge a hefty price for the same. Make sure to book the car in advance with unlimited kilometres. Also, a credit card is required for renting a car. Debit cards are not accepted by car rental companies.

I’d booked a Toyota Corolla through Avis. It had the biggest boot space in this class of vehicle and easily fitted our 3 check-in bags, 1 carry-on bag and 3 to 4 handbags. But the car was a bit too low for the mud and gravel roads of Kruger. I would suggest if you are 4 people, choose a car with a higher ground clearance. Other than that, our experience with Avis was good as always.

Driving in Kruger

Loved driving in the Kruger National Park

Driving Rules and Tips

  • Driving in South Africa is on the left-hand side of the road like India and Britain.
  • Indian license is accepted and there is no need to get an international license. However, if you want it as a safety precaution, it is easier to get from any driving school in India. The cost is around Rs. 2000-2500 including their service charge.
  • While renting a car, always ask for a free map from the rental company. It serves as a great back up to GPS.
  • The seatbelt is compulsory for all passengers.
  • The general speed limit on national highways is 120km/h, on secondary (rural) roads it is 100km/h and in towns, it is usually 60km/h unless otherwise indicated. Check the road signs and obey the speed limit at all times.
  • Fuel prices are around 15.8 Rand per litre.
  • Roads are well maintained and we found it easy to drive in South Africa.
  • Do not drink and drive.
  • While leaving from the airport, there is a STOP sign. Make sure you stop there. It is commonplace for police to wait and catch tired tourists.
  • Avoid driving in the night. We didn’t follow it and drove from Graskop to Johannesburg in the night. It was the scariest drive of our lives. It became pitch black within half an hour of sunset and most parts of the highway didn’t have any street lights.
  • Thieves have been known to employ various methods to make a vehicle stop, enabling them to rob the occupants. One such method is the placing of large stones in the middle of the road. In this circumstances, it is prudent to carefully drive around the stones or obstacle, rather than stop the vehicle.

GPS

I would recommend buying a GPS instead of paying hefty fees for renting GPS on each of your road trips. We bought GPS in Greece and since then have used it for several of our road trips. Before each trip, it’s best to download a map of the country and store all the destinations, hotels or sightseeing places in favourites which you’ve planned to visit. In case you can’t find any specific place on GPS, it’s best to search GPS co-ordinate of that place on Google and store that in GPS. This saves valuable holiday time.

In South Africa, GPS worked in most places. Even in the Kruger National Park, it worked just fine. At times, it would take you through a longer route or a different route. So it is best to pre-plan the route you want to take and enter the next main town in GPS so that it follows the route you want to take.

Note: Do not use GPS for driving to Sabi Sands as it doesn’t follow the right way. Instead, follow the map given by the hotel.

Currency

From India, we found the best was to take a travel debit card loaded in ZAR. There are tons of website offering this card and rates were almost the same as that available on www.xe.com or Google. I compared many online websites like www.doorstepforex.com, www.bookmyforex.com, www.centrumforex.com and eventually chose www.orientexchange.in as they offered the best exchange rate.

I didn’t find one place which didn’t accept a card on our trip. Even when we would order food from a restaurant to be delivered to our hotel, delivery guys would get a machine so you can pay by card. The same travel debit card can be used to withdraw money from the ATM, however, there might be some extra charges. We found one ATM operated by Bidvest in the airport at arrivals which charged 50 ZAR on withdrawal of 5000 ZAR.

The other good option is to pay by credit card if you have a credit card which offers around 2.5% or less for foreign transaction charges. Many cards in India charge 4% transaction charges.

Traffic Police and our experience

Police Number – +27(0) 82 451 7044

I’d read a lot of stories over the years on the internet that police stops tourist with no reason and demand money in terms of a fine. Fortunately, it didn’t happen with any of my clients yet. As for rules, it is good to know that it is strictly illegal to pay cash to a traffic officer or any other official on the roadside. Legitimate fines should be paid at a police station. I’ve heard that now this has become very rare but in case you are the unlucky one, then tell the police that you will pay at the police station or send it to the car rental company. Should you face any problems, call the above number and car rental company immediately.  Don’t let them intimidate you.

Our Experience

When we were driving from Graskop to Johannesburg, we left at 5 pm and it became dark in no time. Most of our drive was in pitch black with no street lights. But the good part was that there was a lot of cars around. Around 9 pm, when we were one hour away from Johannesburg, we saw some light flashing from behind. We turned back and to our shock, it was the police car. We stopped on the side of the road and after a few minutes, three inspectors approached our car. Obviously, for the first few minutes, we were terrified, we were within speed limits and thought that we were following all the laws. All these years, I have warned my clients about not to pay any cash or get intimidated by the police and thought now it’s my turn to actually try it.

But then they asked for all of our passports, driver’s license and to show them the boot. Kapil and I got out of the car to give them our passports which we had kept in the boot and also to show them the boot. I told the woman inspector, I’m scared and she responded that we are here for your safety.  At that, I breathed a sigh of relief and thought it was just a random check. They just had a brief look at our documents, asked questions like where were we heading and how did we find South Africa and then left. All this ordeal was carried out in a very friendly manner by them and afterwards, I felt very safe to drive the last bit to Johannesburg.

Planning a trip to Kruger?

Check out all the other posts in Kruger series:
Our Detailed Itinerary and Trip Report – Part 1 – Satara Rest Camp in the Kruger National Park
Our Detailed Itinerary and Trip Report – Part 2  – Elephant Plains in the Kruger Private Reserve
Various Possible Routes to Elephant Plains

Disclaimer: This is not a sponsored or a free trip – We have paid for all our Holiday expenses but I spend a lot of time researching for the best deals and at times do get a discount as I run a travel business as well. However, this post contains some (not all) affiliate links. Any purchase made through the links will help support this blog at no additional cost to you. Thanks for your support!

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