Is it just me or has Safari always been the ultimate, unobtainable holiday reserved for billionaires? If you agree, then I’m happy to report that it doesn’t have to be that way.
I can only speak for our family, I can only speak for South Africa and I can only speak for Kruger National Park but you can certainly save a lot of cash by planning a DIY Safari.
Kruger National Park is located in the east of South Africa, it is one of Africa’s biggest game reserves and boasts 149 species of mammals including the big five (elephant, lion, leopard, buffalo and rhino) as well as 500 species of birds.
How to get there:
We flew into Johannesburg International Airport and drove to Kruger park by rental car. It takes around 5 hours and you need to be aware that driving in South Africa is not that easy. It is left- hand driving (in case you're not used to that) and there's a lack of multi-lane highways. You often have both people and cattle walking on the roads and you will likely be going through busy market towns which is very fascinating but slows you down significantly . If you drive to Kruger from Johannesburg, make sure you have enough time to arrive by sunset! You will not want to be driving after dark – especially on your first day!
Alternatively, you can take an internal flight and land much closer to the park, namely at Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport airport – located roughly 60 K from Paul Kruger gate. From here, you can rent a car or book transportation via your hotel.
A mere 3-4 day visit to Kruger National Park will guarantee you the real safari experience. You will see a huge variety of wildlife so you don't have to take a 2-week holiday – although it is highly recommended to explore other parts of the breathtaking and really interesting South Africa!
You have 2 options:
Stay right by one of the gates or inside the park. We went for the amazing Protea Hotel by Marriott right by Paul Kruger gate – literally right by the fence! We could observe elephants around sunset from the hotel’s viewing deck overlooking the bush.
Although we loved our hotel, it was impossible to see more than the southernmost tip of the park in one day – simply because the park is huge and the speed limit is 50 k per hour so you can’t go far in one day since you stop frequently to watch the wildlife. There are plenty of options to stay inside the park at one of the many SAN Parks rest camps. They offer basic accommodation (and some of them even camp sites) as well as a restaurant and other facilities.
You can see so much on your own! We had not driven more than 5 minutes from Paul Kruger gate before we saw the first Zebras and giraffes grassing right by the road. On our self-drive day, we saw: Elephants (at least 100!), Zebras, giraffes, buffalos, crocodiles, hippos, and warthogs. A one-day entry ticket was roughly 30 USD per person for foreign nationals.
Kruger National Park is so well-organised! Buy a map at the entrance for 80 Rands and remember that you have to be out by 5.30 (in autumn – time varies) so plan around that! You have other options if you stay inside the park.
It is recommended that you go on at least one guided game drive inside the park. The guides have years of experience and are really knowledgeable. BUT you do not need a private guide! The organised big open jeeps (for up to 20 people) are perfect for wildlife watching. We did a sunrise tour and a sunset tour. They each lasted 3 hours and each cost around 40 USD per person. You can book the tours at any hotel, guesthouse or lodge. The guide (who also drives the jeep) is in contact with his colleagues and decides on an ad-hoc basis where to take you depending on where the best wildlife sightings that specific day . We were particularly lucky during the sunrise tour (from 5 am to 8 am). In addition to elephants, zebras and giraffes, we saw a big group of lions, a group of 10 wild dogs chasing an impala for breakfast - and a family of white rhinos around 4 metres from us.
The cost - and where you can save:
No, a flight to Johannesburg is not cheap – especially when you, like us, live in Asia. But from Europe, it won’t cost you a fortune. There are various options for around 500 euros per ticket.
Transportation is where you could be spending a lot of money unless you rent a car. The self-drive experience inside the park is great and very easy so consider a rental for that reason. You will also be able to discover beautiful places outside the park that way. We did a day trip to the village of Grasskop and the magnificent Lisbon falls. However, it is also possible to order full-day guided drives in the park – as well as trips outside park at almost any hotel.
We did splash out a little on accommodation because Protea Hotel Kruger by Marriott had been recommended to us by a friend – and we did not regret it!
It cost us around 300 euros per night for a family room for 4 people but it included half-board! Great breakfast and a wonderful buffet every evening which was served outside in a true African setting and included a large variety both African specialities and western dishes. Many organised safaris include very exclusive and expensive lodges that certainly bump up the price.
On the safari part of our trip to Kruger, we spent around 30 USD per person for the self-drive visit and 40 USD for each of the 3-hour guided drives. Altogether, we spent less than 500 USD on the safari experiences - again for 4 people.
I was quite surprised to learn that a DIY safari is entirely possible and I'm happy to provide you with more details about our amazing South African experience.