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How to Plan the Ultimate Kruger Safari Experience as Curated by a Safari Expert

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1 month ago

Kruger National Park is widely considered to be the best game viewing in South Africa on account of it having the highest density of animals (including predators). The world has cottoned on to this, which means Kruger is very popular and usually very busy, particularly in the south where there is the highest concentration of animals and the Park is most accessible.

It can be difficult to cut through the noise when it comes to booking the perfect safari in Kruger. That’s why we’ve done the legwork for you. The tips and views in this article have been sourced from experienced safari guides who have been working in Kruger for years, so you can rest assured that you’re getting the latest and best information to make your trip exciting and memorable.

Before you book your safari: FAQs

Should I be worried about all-inclusive lodges?

Unless you choose a more budget-friendly lodge (like the self-catering properties in Kruger National Park itself), most safari lodges will include two game drives each day, one in the (very early) morning, and one in the late afternoon/early evening.

Most higher-end lodges are all-inclusive. If the word ‘all-inclusive’ frightens you, you should know that it’s nothing like the Cancun-style all-inclusive resorts. Kruger’s high-end, all-inclusive lodges are incredible experiences in and of themselves. And all-inclusive really means all-inclusive: all meals, drinks, and game drives with both a ranger and a tracker. This is the reason why accommodation prices in the private reserves appear significantly more inflated than usual.

If you notice a considerable difference in overall cost between the lodges you are comparing, make sure you’re comparing apples with apples. It’s likely that the cheaper lodge isn’t all-inclusive, and given that you’re more or less stuck at the lodge for a few days, you will almost certainly face highly inflated prices for food and drink at the cheaper lodge and possibly pay more than you would have at an all-inclusive lodge.

Having said that, there is a huge variety of lodges in and around Kruger National Park, and the vast majority of these are incredible (at least in the private reserves) and you will almost certainly have an unforgettable experience.

Is a private game drive worth it?

This is an easy ‘no’. To be clear, by “private”, we mean a game drive without others who are not in your party. Generally speaking, game drives usually only accommodate six people (though it can be up to nine in busy periods) so you may think that it’s best to book a private game drive.

The truth is that a private game drive doesn’t materially improve your experience. Whether you see animals is dependent on so many factors, not least the skill and experience of both your ranger and tracker.

Some places allow you to book a private vehicle for a game drive but the expense of doing so is usually outsized (over $1,000 a day). That price tag is also on top of your lodging, so it adds up very quickly. It’s just simply not worth it. The Big 5 aren’t going to be compelled to reveal themselves to you any more in a private drive than a normal group drive.

Can I rent a car and do my own game drive?

Yes, you can rent your own car at Hoedspruit Airport (and at Nelspruit Airport) and drive into Kruger to do your own game drive. This article assumes that you will stay at a lodge that organizes game drives which is normally a far superior experience given the experience of the trackers and rangers.

For what it’s worth, it’s always the case that rental cars flock to a sighting once it is made known, which can significantly reduce the enjoyableness of the experience. You won’t have this problem at a private reserve.

We think the best way to go on safari is with a knowledgeable local guide. If you do choose to rent your own car and do it yourself, there are plenty of chalets, camping options and fancy lodges in Kruger National Park.

And if you do rent your own car and try to do it yourself with little success, you can usually get a spot on a game-viewing vehicle with a guide without staying at a lodge if you ask your lodge to arrange.

How long do I need for a safari?

This is a very difficult question to answer as it depends entirely on your desire to see animals. Sometimes you can get lucky and see the Big 5 in one viewing, and other times you’ll go days without seeing much at all. Ultimately, a lot of safari game viewing is sitting on the back of a safari vehicle which can become tiring.

The sweet spot is usually three nights so that you can get at least six game drives. This gives you a good chance of seeing the Big 5 (and hopefully something exciting like a kill) but isn’t so long that it’ll break the bank or risk boredom setting in.

Which are the best private reserves in Kruger?

There are quite a few private reserves to pick from immediately around Kruger. The best are Sabi Sand, Thornybush and Timbavati.

Of these, Sabi Sand is considered the best game reserve in South Africa. Sabi Sand is unfenced to Kruger but very luxurious and exclusive which means you will almost certainly see all the animals you want to see (yes, lions) without there being so many other people and cars around.

Where to Stay: Outside Kruger National Park in a Private Reserve or inside Kruger National Park

A much better experience can be had if you stay in the private reserves surrounding Kruger rather than in the National Park itself. The reason for this is simple: in the private reserves, your guides are able to go off-roading to search for animals.

Local tip: In the private game reserves, you’ll have the chance to get very close to the animals (sometimes frighteningly close).

Choosing a private reserve is also a more ‘exclusive’ game-viewing experience because only visitors staying in the private reserves can go on game drives in private reserves. Within Kruger National Park, on the other hand, it is an unfortunate reality of mass tourism that there are often busloads of people, and there is very little control over how many vehicles can be at any particular animal sighting.

At a private game reserve, it’s usually no more than three safari vehicles at any one time. And that’s essential for keeping the magic of the safari experience.

Private reserves also offer bush walks and night game drives which aren’t possible in the National Park. Night game drives really are a gamechanger (forgive the pun), if for no other reason than most animals hunt at night so you have a higher chance of experiencing action that you’ll never forget.

Traveling to Kruger

Flying is certainly the best way to travel from Johannesburg (JNB) to Hoedspruit Airport (HDS) just outside of Kruger, and flights tend to be very cheap between JNB and HDS. Though there are plenty of commercial flights to Hoedspruit Airport, a number of the best safari lodges will include a charter flight.

It’s usually a huge timesaver (in addition to being the best way to start your safari adventure) because these chartered flights on light aircraft can fly you directly into the reserves and land on private airstrips.

The safari lodge you choose will determine where you fly into. Your lodge can help you arrange flights, but if they don’t, you should always consult them to determine which flights are best to book. The sequence of events is to book your lodge and then your flight. Virtually all lodges will arrange transfers to and from the airstrips.

Nelspruit Airport and Skukuza Airport

Nelspruit Airport (NLP) is located just outside of the city of Mbombela and is considered the gateway to Kruger National Park. This is the airport that most budget travelers will fly into and then rent a car at the airport. The best alternative is Skukuza Airport (SZK) which is considered to be one of the most exclusive airports for Kruger. It is designed for you to be picked up from and is right in the middle of the park.

And if you’re renting a car, consider a stop at Blyde River Canyon for some of the most dramatic natural scenery in South Africa.

The Ultimate Guide to Kruger’s Private Reserve Safari Lodges

Safari is a magical experience, and the quality of accommodation that you choose will have an outsized impact on just how magical safari is. To manage expectations, the reality with safari is that you will be sitting down in a car and moving very little all day which means it’s the bells and whistles (i.e., amazing food, great facilities, beautiful views) that really count to make the experience memorable on the whole.

Ultra high-end/luxury

Tengile River Lodge (Sabi Sand)

Tengile River Lodge is the true luxurious safari experience that you see in photos that you will blow you away. Tengile River Lodge is operated by andBeyond who are known across the industry for delivering grade A experiences. The facilities are immaculate and are right across from the Sand River which means there’s a good chance you’ll casually see spot animals drinking or bathing at the river.

If you’re worried about getting the same food every day at an all-inclusive lodge, you absolutely will not grow tired of the food on off at Tengile River Lodge. There is massive variety in the cuisines offered (everything from local to international cuisine), and the staff make an extra special effort to create little surprises.

We won’t be surprised if you finish your safari experience at Tengile River Lodge and say it is some of the best service and nicest accommodation you’ve ever stayed at. If not the best, this is one of the best Kruger lodges that money can buy.

Singita (Sabi Sand)

Singita operates the Ebony Lodge and Boulders Lodge on the Sand River, and Castleton in the interior of the reserve. All of Singita’s offering is over the top in terms of the quality of service and luxuriousness. The team takes service very seriously (they know that it’s the service which can make or break a safari adventure).

This is a team that anticipates what you want before you’ve even thought of it yourself.

Ebony Lodge and Boulders Lodge are special for their locations on the water, and both are romantic and kid-friendly. Boulders Lodge is also beautifully designed with a seamless integration into the surrounding nature. Get yourself excited to see lions, giraffes and hippos while you’re enjoying the magnificent food on offer.

Royal Malewane (Thornybush)

Royal Malewane operates three luxurious safari lodges in the Thornybush reserve, namely the Malewane, Farmstead and Waterside. The Malewane is the oldest and most well-known of the offering, but all are exceptional stays and are some of the best Kruger lodges.

The kitchen team at Malewane deserves a special shoutout here for being able to cater to virtually any need, whether gluten intolerance or kosher. They’ve got all the comforts you need sorted so you can just enjoy the tranquillity and soft noises of the animals in the background.

Waterside is the newest lodge in Royal Malewane’s portfolio. They’ve taken all of the lessons learned and created a stunning experience that you simply won’t forget. They’ve capitalized on the natural environment in a way that only experienced hands know how to do, including perfectly positioning your soaker tub to face the view and the animals that pass by.


Ngala Tented Camp (Timbavati) (Reopening October 2024)

Another andBeyond property, Ngala Tented delivers what it promises, which is a first tier luxurious experience with all the trappings of an amazing safari lodge. Your entire experience will be expertly crafted without even realizing it. From the coffee delivery at 5 am to get you going for the morning drive, to the massages and bush walks in the afternoon to keep you happy and active.

Game drive at Ngala Tented Camp

It doesn’t matter which ranger or tracker you get at Ngala Tented. You’re guaranteed to get an incredibly experienced duo who will take you deep into the bush (driving over trees if need be (don’t worry, they rejuvenate the environment)) so that you can see the action. Their collective experience and ability to work as a team means you’ll get some of the best sightings.

Ngala Tented also offers the treehouse experience which is in an entirely different class. If you’re looking for the perfect honeymoon experience, the treehouse is it. There is something magical about your own private, multistorey treehouse in the middle of the bush, and that’s why Ngala Tented is one of the best Kruger lodges.

Londolozi Game Reserve (Sabi Sand)

If you’ve ever seen the iconic photo of the woman in the bath looking at a herd of elephants at a watering hole only a couple of dozen metres away, it’s likely Londolozi. It’s all about the little touches at Londolozi, from the airport pickup, to the gin tasting, to the persistent trackers and rangers who want to make sure you see everything while you’re there.

The Tree Camp is beautifully designed and is the perfect place for a family or a couple looking for a private experience and is one of the best Kruger lodges.

Ulusaba (Sabi Sand)

Ulusaba is owned and operated by Richard Branson’s Virgin Hotels group. They operate two lodges in Sabi Sand: the Ulusaba Rock Lodge and the Ulusaba Safari Lodge. If you’re wondering whether we can trust the Virgin group with your safari experience, the answer is a resounding yes. Every detail is executed perfectly – and the food is particularly tasty.

The Rock Lodge in particular is architecturally stunning and will leave you hanging for more. It’s not often that a lodge is as spectacular as it looks in photos, but we can say with confidence that Ulusaba Rock Lodge and Ulusaba Safari Lodge are indeed just as spectacular as they look in photos.

Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge (Sabi Sand)

From the moment you’re picked up at the airport to the very end of your stay, you’ll feel the warmth and attentiveness of the team at Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge by andBeyond. The woodwork is stylish, everything is carefully selected, and the kitchen team is all about keeping the magic of the safari going. It’s another andBeyond property, so you know it’s going to be exceptional.

The philosophy at Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge is to educate its guests on everything they see, which is why your rangers and trackers will be at pains to explain what the animals do. There are no fences around the lodge so you can get very up close and personal with some of the animals.

Try to get one of the first five suites so you have direct view of the watering hole where the animal gather – they’re some of the best Kruger lodges for the best price.

Saseka Tented Camp (Thornybush)

The staff at Saseka Tented Camp go out of their way to attend to your needs and create a special experience. Beyond the amazing service, Saseka boasts amazing views from the main lodge from where you’ll be able to see animals casually walking. Let the team do what they do best here which is to go the extra mile to make sure you have an unforgettable experience.

Medium Class

Kirkman’s Kamp (Sabi Sand)

This is a superior safari experience without the price tag that you’ve no doubt seen. Kirkman’s Kamp is operated by andBeyond so you know you’re getting a team who knows exactly how to make the safari experience incredible. You’ll get attentive service and exceptional food, all set within a luxury camp.

Elephant Plains Game Lodge (Sabi Sand)

Expect beautiful rooms with amazing views at Elephant Plains Game Lodge – and passionate staff to make sure you have the best possible experience. This is truly one of the best Kruger lodges in the whole Kruger area without a premium.

Tintswalo Safari Lodge (Manyeleti)

You’ll be very pleasantly surprised by the quality of the experience at Tintswalo Safari Lodge given the incredibly reasonable price (as far as the best Kruger lodges go). The team here has created an experience that far exceeds expectations.

Kapama Karula (Kapama)

Set on the Klaserie River, Kapama Karula has cemented its position as one of the best Kruger lodges for getting basically everything right but somehow maintaining a relatively affordable price. You can absolutely trust the team at Kapama with your safari experience, and you will not be disappointed by the delicious food, great drinks and the unforgettable sunsets.

Get in touch with us via WhatsApp if you’d like us to connect you with experienced safari guides.

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