How to Plan a Self-Drive Safari

Before thinking about taking yourself on a safari where you are driving around a park with completely wild animals, I would strongly suggest going on a proper safari with a trained field guide so that you can watch and learn how to behave around the animals. Field guides (as in the people) can tell you so much about what to watch out for with certain animals and things to think about when you’re driving. I’ve been lucky enough to go to Africa a few times with long stays, so I’ve been on safari vehicles with professional guides a lot (probably in the hundreds if I count all the days I’ve spent on trucks at volunteering places). My boyfriend had never been to Africa before, but luckily, I had. And having been studying wildlife for the last 8 years of my life I have a fairly solid knowledge of animal behaviour.

So now that you have been on safari, you’re thinking of how you can go back, but for much less money. Safaris, especially at private lodges are fairly pricey, so volunteering is a cheaper alternative to go and spend longer in Africa. But you want to be relaxed and not have to do any work as such, right? So, you start thinking about a self-driving safari in the Kruger National Park! Today we’re going to discuss many of the things to consider when booking your self-drive and why it’s worth the extra effort.

Kruger National Park map, taken from a downloadable PDF booklet.

First of all, look at all the different camps and accommodations within the park. My boyfriend and I decided to book our accommodation first as the Kruger is such a popular destination that if we didn’t book it when we did, we wouldn’t have anywhere to stay. We booked the accommodation and everything else 6 months in advance and a lot of the camps were already filling up, so we would strongly recommend starting to plan and book about a year before you plan to go. I luckily had a map of Kruger Park from one of my previous visits, which was incredibly helpful in planning which camps we wanted to stay at. You have to be aware of the distance between each camp, due to the limit of speed you can drive through the park with the obvious activity of game viewing, it can take a while to get to certain locations. We based our route on a couple of camps I had been to before, but also where we would enter the park and leave the park. I’ll talk more about the specific places we stayed later on. 

The next thing we did was book the flights. We wanted to make sure we could actually get to the correct country for our holiday, so we looked at all sorts of flights to find the best deals. We also had to plan for a connecting flight so that we didn’t have to take the 6 hour drive from Johannesburg to Kruger. We flew with British Airways from London Heathrow to Johannesburg, and then a connecting flight with South African Airways from Johannesburg to Nelspruit (Kruger Mpumalanga Airport, which you can see on the map above). 

From there, we had to think about how we were going to get to and around the park, so we looked at rental cars. You can book special tours with professional guides; however, those would be more expensive and you wouldn’t have as much freedom. We booked a fairly small car as it was the cheaper option. I recommend getting a car with a SATNAV to get to the park as the route is a little confusing if you don’t know where you’re going. I had printed out a route from google maps before we left which did the job, but a SATNAV would have been better. The car was fairly good but it was very low down (we ended up with a sedan style car) which made some viewings difficult, so definitely consider hiring a taller car even if it’s a bit extra money. We drove from Nelspruit Airport to Malelane gate which ended up taking nearly 2 hours.

The camps we stayed at were: Berg-en-Dal, Lower Sabie, Letaba, Satara, and Skukuza. I think for the next trip we have decided to stay at less camps for more days. The first two nights we stayed at Berg-en-Dal, as this was the best camp situated nearest the gate we used to enter the park. We looked at Crocodile Bridge, however they didn’t have a restaurant and we knew we wouldn’t feel like cooking after 24 hours of travelling. That’s totalling all the time waiting at airports, flying, and driving to the park. Berg-en-Dal was nice, but it was a rather small and quiet camp with not much going on. The S110 road loop around the camp and the Matjulu watering hole, did offer fantastic sightings, albeit with a lot of other visitors around. We then went to Lower Sabie, which we only stayed at for one night. We now wish we had stayed at that camp for quite a few days, so we’re planning to book more nights there on the next visit. We then went all the way up to Letaba which was pretty much a whole day of straight driving. Letaba was a beautiful camp, but there really wasn’t much wildlife near that camp. Letaba is toward the north of the Kruger which is the less touristy area. This means there are far fewer cars which is nice; but, from our experience, you may also not see very much either. After Letaba, which we stayed at for 3 nights, we drove back down to Satara. Satara is a very good camp and I have been a day visitor here quite a number of times before. From here there are lots of routes you can explore, or even visit Orpen rest camp for the day. Our last camp was Skukuza, this was decided so we could fly back to Johannesburg from Skukuza airport. We’re now thinking that we might fly into Skukuza next time as it is only a 20 minute drive to the camp, rather than the nearly 2 hour drive from Nelspruit to Berg-en-Dal.  

The flights home included a short hop from Skukuza to Johannesburg, and then the long slog of the Johannesburg to London Heathrow over-night flight. The over-night flight is about 11 hours long, sometimes 10.5 hours if the wind is with you. I have now done the long flight between London and Johannesburg 10 times and the even longer London to Cape Town flight 4 times. Sitting in economy class is doable, but I would strongly suggest wearing pressure stockings to help stop the blood from pooling in your feet too much. On long flights like this, it is important that you get up and move around every so often; there are many people who will just sit for the whole flight which is incredibly bad for your health and can greatly increase the risk of developing blood clots internally. 

With the flights, accommodation and rental car, our total cost was about £3000, or £1500 each. This is incredibly cheap for 10 days in Africa. If you booked the same length of stay at a private lodge, you would be talking at least 3 times the price. This cost doesn’t include food, however, there are restaurants at most of the main camps and a shop at every main camp. We used the restaurant for all of our dinners, costing about R250-R300 (About £12-£15) each time for the both of us. Our dinners were mostly either burgers or steaks and the food was absolutely incredible for how little it cost, especially since these sometimes included an alcoholic drink. Think of how much a steak or burger would cost you in the UK, about £10-£15 (at least) each! We also had breakfast a few times at the restaurants, but otherwise, we quite easily found cereal, milk, and bread. The shops were fully stocked with meats, veg, fruit, and other basic necessities to make fairly healthy, filling meals. There are little kitchens in some of the bungalows and communal kitchens for the bungalows that don’t have them, so be sure to check when you’re booking. 

We are hoping to go back again in the next couple of years, maybe for two full weeks rather than 10 days. We’re probably going to stay at fewer camps but stay at each for 5 or so days so that we’re not constantly moving around. We’re strongly considering renting a bigger car, as ours was quite low down and made it difficult to see right next to the car and down some of the gullies. I hope our experiences talked about here will help you feel confident when planning your own self-drive safari. If you have any questions at all, feel free to, post a comment, send me a message on my Instagram @miniwildmol, or send an email to miniwildmol@gmail.com, I’d be more than happy to offer more guidance. I look forward to hearing about your adventures in the future, and maybe we’ll cross paths one day. Look out for next week’s post when I share my advice on what to pack for a safari/wildlife holiday. 

To book your accommodation in the park, use the Sanparks website. The rental car company based at the local airports is Avis, so make sure to book your car through them.

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