Spotting game on a self-drive Kruger safari involves a lot of luck, but good planning improves your chances considerably. Here are our 10 tips for an amazing Kruger experience.


Kruger National Park is one of the largest safari parks in Africa covering almost 20,000 square kilometres. It is one of the best places in the world to spot the big 5 and has more species of large mammals than anywhere else.

Since those animals can roam anywhere they want inside the park, spotting game on a self-drive Kruger safari involves a lot of luck. But with a bit of planning, you can help increase your chances significantly.

HOW TO SPOT THE BIG 5 ON A SELF-DRIVE KRUGER SAFARI?

Timing is everything when it comes to a self-drive Kruger safari – both time of year and time of day. You need to plan your visit for the right time of year and you need to be out spotting animals at the right time of day. Seeking advice is a big factor and you need to think carefully about where you want to stay.

Here are our top 10 tips to help you get the most from your self-drive Kruger safari.

TIP 1 / PLAN YOUR SELF DRIVE KRUGER SAFARI LATE IN THE DRY SEASON

Kruger National Park has two seasons. The wet season runs from November to April and the dry season from May to October. In the wet season, the land is green and lush and vegetation thick. The animals spread out over the plains and disappear into the bushy shrub.

The dry season parches the land, the vegetation dies and animals congregate around waterholes. As zebra, springbok and impala gather to cool off and quench their thirst, lions and cheetahs make the most of knowing exactly where their prey is going to be. This creates the perfect environment for a great game viewing experience. The later in the dry season you plan your self-drive Kruger safari, the drier the land and so, the easier it is to spot animals through minimal vegetation.

September and October are optimal for game viewing. But the later in the year you go the earlier the gates open, giving you more time to view animals, so October is better than September and, if the rains arrive a bit late, November better still.

We went in November, got lucky with the rains, and had an amazing self-drive safari experience.

TIP 2 / GET UP EARLY, REALLY EARLY

A self-drive Kruger safari is no time to be sleeping in, enjoying a well-earned rest. You need to be up early. Very early. Most predators, especially the big cats, sleep most of the day and hunt during the night when the temperatures are cooler.

Your best chance of seeing cats on the move, rather than sleeping in the shade under a tree or high up in the branches, is in the early hours of the morning when they’re back from hunting but still roaming around.

The gates of the Kruger camps open between 4:30 and 6:00 depending on the time of year. In November, we were able to exit the park every morning at 4:30. At this time – although the pain is real – we had some truly great game viewing experiences. Not only is the viewing better, but the roads are also quiet, the light is excellent and you’re maximising your time in the park. So skip that buffet breakfast and set the alarm for 4 am.

TIP 3 / CHECK THE ANIMAL SIGHTINGS BOARDS

Safari parks are a social activity. Visitors who have made some incredible sightings come back to the rest camp to brag about their adventures. As a result, many rest camps have notice boards with maps marking the location of which animals have been seen where. This can be a great help when planning your day and which roads you are going to take.

So before leaving in the morning or when stopping for a refuel, take a photo of the maps on your phone and plot a rough course to help give you the best chance of spotting the animals you want to see.

TIP 4 / TAKE YOUR TIME, DRIVE SLOWLY AND DRIVE ALL DAY

A self-drive Kruger safari is unlike a guided private game drive, where someone else is spotting and driving. Here you have to do all the work yourself. This means driving very slowly (30 to 40 km/h) and looking with extreme concentration. Not just gazing out the window like you would on a pleasant afternoon drive. A self-drive Kruger safari calls for intense looking; concentrating on a spot and checking for any movement, colour or shape that might not be a bush.

While self-driving is more tiring, and surprisingly so if you are concentrating for hours on end, the rewards are well worth it. The satisfaction we get from spotting a rare black rhino hiding in the scrub is intense. If you’re lucky, the other reward of a self-drive Kruger safari is that you could be the only people there.

TIP 5 / SEEK ADVICE AND FOLLOW OTHERS

Some days, as hard as you try, animal spotting on your own does not yield any good experiences, so it can be helpful to work with others.

If you see a group of cars pulled over when you’re out and about spotting animals, stop as well. This is a sure sign that there will be something to see. Interrogate them about what they’ve found, sometimes it’s not immediately obvious. We stopped at a group of cars to witness a delightful baby elephant rolling in the mud. It wasn’t until we looked out the other window that we saw that everyone was actually looking at a lion under a tree.

Another option is to follow the jeeps on organised drives run by the government camps. These jeeps are in radio contact with each other, so they’re able to cover much greater ground than an individual car alone. By following them you might increase your chances of some great spottings. The downside is that you may be jostling for space.

TIP 6 / BOOK YOUR SELF-DRIVE KRUGER ACCOMMODATION INSIDE THE PARK

When booking accommodation you need to decide whether to stay inside Kruger National Park or at one of the many lodges just outside the park.

The accommodation inside the park are Government Rest Camps which offer camping spots, basic rooms and semi-luxurious chalets. It’s also within the camps where you’ll find restaurants, shops and fuel for all your basic necessities while on a self-drive Kruger safari.

Outside the park is a much wider range of accommodation to suit different tastes and budgets. But, in our opinion, you should stay inside the park. Here’s why:

  1. The rest camp gates open 1 hour before the entrance gates to the park. So, if you stay in a Government Rest Camp inside the park, you get an additional hour of peak early morning game viewing.
  2. The best game viewing in Kruger is around the camps and the centre of the park, rather than on the fringes. So sleeping in the park allows you to drive around the best game viewing areas for longer each day.
  3. If you sleep inside the park you are guaranteed access to the park. In peak times day visitors can be denied access unless they reserve in advance here.
  4. The rest camps are good value with costs low and competitive. In fact, they offer some of the cheapest safari accommodation in the world.

7 / PICK YOUR GOVERNMENT REST CAMP CAREFULLY

Kruger National Park is big, taking well over a day to drive from north to south. Rest camps are dotted all over the park but you need to base yourself in a specific area. Different areas have better viewing opportunities for different animals, so you will want to pick a rest camp that is closest to your area of interest.

You can find a good overview of all the camps here or more detailed analysis here.

On our self-drive Kruger safari, we stayed one night in Olifants Camp and one night in Satara Camp.

Satara Camp, in the centre of the park, is known as cat camp and offers excellent opportunities to spot lion, leopard and even cheetah. We saw large numbers of lion and hyena and 2 leopards close to the camp. The road south to Tshokwane is a busy, yet excellent road for game viewing and we were lucky enough to see vultures and a jackal fighting over a carcass before a hyena ran in and stole the lot.

Olifants Camp is beautifully perched above the banks of Olifants River. Guided walks are on offer and the restaurant has good views, particularly at sunset. The area is good for spotting crocodile, hippo, and elephant. As you head south cats become more prevalent.

You will need to book accommodation well in advance, up to a year. But it can be done easily through the government website.

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8 / YOU DON’T NEED A 4WD FOR A SELF-DRIVE KRUGER SAFARI

The roads in Kruger are very good, the vast majority are sealed with only a few gravel roads over fairly short distances. No off-road driving is permitted, so a 4WD is not necessary for any self-drive Kruger safari. A better option is a hire car that is comfortable to drive for long periods of time.

A car with higher clearance may give you slightly better height to look down on the animals, but only marginally, and is certainly not necessary. More importantly, we spent a lot of time jumping into the back seat to take photos out the rear windows, so a car that’s easy to move around in is a good idea.

9 / PACK WISELY FOR YOUR SELF-DRIVE KRUGER SAFARI

Binoculars are important to see that paw up a tree, or rhino in the distance. Camera, a zoom lens and an unnecessary amount of memory space are essential for capturing special moments.

Kruger can be hot, sunny and bright so bring a sun-hat, sun-block and sunglasses to keep the glare out of your eyes. Not only can it be hot in the day but quite cold at night, so bring layers of clothing. A torch is needed to help get around the camp in the evening and South Africa is one of the few places in the world where our universal power adaptors didn’t work, you will need this one.

Kruger is a malaria risk area (although not a high one). The malaria-carrying mosquitoes are generally dormant between July and October, with the highest risk period between November and April. Pack plenty of mosquito repellent and light clothing to keep your arms and legs covered up at dawn and dusk when the mosquitoes are most active.

Depending on when you travel, you may want anti-malarial tablets but should weigh up the benefits against the side-effects. There are three types of malaria prophylactic medications available for the strains of malaria occurring in South Africa, namely Doxycycline, Atovaquone/Proguanil and Mefloquine.

10 / DOWNLOAD KRUGER NATIONAL PARK CUSTOM MAP

Finally download a Custom Map in Google Maps, for the area you will travel around on your self-drive Kruger safari. That way you can track yourself and see the road network, even if you don’t have access to data.

You want to explore as much as possible, but given the large distances and slow speed at which you travel, don’t get too far away from your exit gate or overnight camp. In particular, it is a good idea to be near your camp for the last hour of the day. There is nothing worse than spotting something and having to leave quickly because you need to rush back a long way before the gate shuts.

Our self-drive Kruger safari was one of the best game viewing experiences we have had. With a bit of planning it’s easy to maximise your chances of some great sightings. For a different type of safari, read our comparison of Kruger and Sabi Sands Private Game Reserve. Got longer in South Africa? Check out our detailed itinerary.

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Our top 10 tips for the perfect self-drive Kruger safari.

Our top 10 tips for a perfect self-drive Kruger safari.

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