Ah, a South African safari. On many bucket lists and for good reason. The big skies, the open plains. The chance of spotting one of the “big 5”. It’s a different world, far removed from everyday life.
When planning out our first trip to South Africa, a safari was top of the list. S had been once to Kenya when young and still spoke of it glowingly. The closest I’d got was London Zoo. A little different. And so when working out our route driving from Cape Town to Johannesburg Airport, we saved a week for exploring around Kruger Park.
The largest game reserve in South Africa by far. It’s huge. I mean, at just under 19.5k square kilometers – it’s bigger than a lot of countries and about the same size as Slovenia. This is not something you are going to be able to “do” in a day. Not if you want to do it any kind of justice anyway. This really isn’t a day-trip kind of thing, especially if you dream of falling asleep to the sounds of the savanna. It’s worth spending some time here – and that means spending money.
So Can I Afford A South African Safari?
The minimum recommendation for a South African Safari is three nights. Giving you two clear days to explore a tiny part of the huge expanse. In line with our developing love for slow travel, we spent seven nights there in total.
Three different stays in three very different styles. And three very different associated budgets.
So yes – the short answer is that I firmly believe there is a South African safari experience for all budgets. As with everything in life, it depends on what’s most important to you as to what you will end up spending on a trip to Kruger Park. But doing your research will help your money go a lot further and get you the right experience for you.
So like all our travels, I had delved deep into investigation mode. It’s one of my favourite things to do and I will happily spend hours learning and researching about a place. Kruger Park was no different. There are an exhausting number of options available once you start looking into it.
But I recognise there are those of you who perhaps aren’t quite as travel obsessive as I can be. And so it seems useful to share my hard-gained knowledge. As when you go through it all, it really boils down to three main types of South African safari experiences to enjoy in Kruger Park.
Let’s take a quick look at what they are now.
Options For Your Kruger Park Safari Experience
At a high-level you can see the big differences across the three options. From price through to what you can roughly expect to get for your money. It’s a start. But what a table doesn’t give you is any sense of what difference that makes to the experience.
Fortunately, when we spent our seven nights at Kruger Park – we tried all three! Well, you know, anything in the name of research eh. But it does mean we have first-hand experience of each type. A real-life example of each to use to better describe what you can expect. And help you figure out which you would prefer for yourself.
Option One: Rustic / Cheap
Accommodation: Rest Camps
First up – staying inside Kruger Park itself. For this there’s only really one game in town and that’s the SanParks rest camps. These guys have an amazing website with everything you need to be able to research and book your stay.
There are also a handful of lodges within Kruger Park but these fall way outside the cheap/rustic price level. So here, I’m just talking about the main rest camps and their smaller satellite camps. With 20 or so camps to choose from – there’s a lot of choice.
After poring over them all, we choose Olifants as our base for two nights. This was partly because we were sold on the pictures of the view, perched on a ridge overlooking a river. And helped by being halfway up through the park, making it a natural circular stop between our other two choices.
We splashed out £50/night on one of the few rondavel huts (traditional thatched South African style ) at the front, ensuring we got to enjoy that view uninterrupted. And it was stunning.
The ‘bungalow’ as it’s called on the website (class BD2V) was much better than I’d been expecting to be honest. It was definitely basic but it was clean and came with an en-suite toilet and shower. Plus an outside kitchen as well as the obligatory ‘braii’. Which is South African for BBQ, for those wondering.
The beds were comfy enough, especially once we had rearranged the room into a double instead of the two single beds they come with. We had also packed our own mosquito net, since I’ve always been a bit of a magnet for the critters. Very tasty blood or something maybe. Regardless, it doubled up nicely as our self-named “bug-dome”. Doing a fine job of stopping me worrying about anything crawling on me in the night!
The camp itself had a few facilities. Such as a small cafe and shop for basic provisions. But you really want to bring your own food with you. We bought a cheap cool box at the start of our three week long trip and this worked perfectly. The huts all have electricity and so a fridge for that important chilled beer at the end of a hard day’s game viewing.
Which leads neatly into the other most important thing – what’s the game viewing like?
Game Viewing: Inside Kruger Park - Self Drive
Whilst the camps do offer guided game drives for an additional cost, we opted to do our own drive through the park. The roads are (mostly) paved and so long as you haven’t rented something tiny, hire cars will cope and are permitted if you stick to the paved sections. We’d rented a cheap version of a 4×4 and it worked just fine.
There are many (many) miles of roads and routes available in Kruger Park, with this link doing a great job of covering them all. Your best bet is to work out a good loop, taking in a few of the picnic spots.
Given the size of Kruger Park, the landscape and expected game viewing changes dramatically depending on the area you choose. South is known for being home to the big cats and generally richer in game. That’s why lodges tend to be more expensive down this end.
But everywhere is stunning and interesting and you only get to feel the true vastness of the space by exploring it further. We’d only been in the park for 5 mins before we were seeing “proper animals”. Zebras and impala everywhere. Giraffe heads poking out.
It’s one thing to dream about seeing all the wildlife, it’s quite another to have it suddenly in front of you. It’s honestly a little daunting when it’s just the two of you in your hire care, nobody else around for miles.
Both amazingly inspiring and yet at the same time you are conscious you are the guest in their world. It’s their rules, their right of way on the roads. You get some guidance on what to do and how to behave from the camps. But it’s a different matter entirely when it’s suddenly in front of you and blocking your way home..
This guy took over half an hour to finish snacking. He wasn’t in a hurry. He gave us a good look over when we first pulled up. A couple of times it seemed he was going to come closer and we had the car in reverse ready. But he settled down again. Phew.
Unfortunately he was also blocking the road back to the camp – and they had a deadline for you to get in by else the gate was closed. Just as we had decided we’d have to retreat and drive an extra 70 miles or so to make it back in time, he decided to shuffle (crash/stomp) off into the bushes and we cautiously crept by.
An awesome experience that won’t be forgotten. But also a big lesson in respecting nature and the fact we were on our own. A diy self-driving experience in Kruger Park is like nothing else we’ve done. It may be the cheapest option – but it’s also unforgettable.
Option Two: Variable / Mid-Range
Accommodation: B&B/Hotel/Guest House
Next up in price level – staying in a B&B or other such accommodation. These are outside Kruger Park itself and range enormously in what they offer.
The best ones will have a location near one of the gates in to Kruger Park, ideally looking into the park itself. There are nine gates, spread out from North to South along the South African park boundary. So it very much depends on how you plan your route through the park as to which one makes sense for you.
We choose to enter from the South at Malelane Gate. On the basis that this would give us the chance to drive through a lot of the lower Sabie ground before ending up at Olifants Rest camp. So we choose Pestana Kruger Lodge, which was under 1km from the gate. We treated ourselves to one of the deluxe rooms, which meant we literally had a balcony that looked into the park for £90/night.
This place was the perfect start to our South African safari adventure. With all the mod cons and convenience of being catered for, it was an easy way to mentally change gears. Our room was well worth it. Falling asleep to the sound of hippos munching on the grass below your balcony. And then waking up to see the park from your bed is a real treat.
The breakfast was delicious on the spacious terrace and we ended up eating dinner there too since it was more than reasonable. For lunch we snacked on our private balcony, washed down with a glass of rosé. It’s a struggle, travel at times…
We’d actually driven ~600 miles the previous day from the Northern Drakensburg mountains to get here. Now that was a struggle. But we’d done it so we could stay here two nights instead of one. As such, we really didn’t fancy driving into the park the next day, which is what most people do.
So we hung around for the day, taking up residence on the large sunny terrace. Just to see what we would see….
Game Viewing: Outside Kruger Park
And wow did we luck in that day! Having decided to spend the day relaxing and recovering from the longer than expected drive, we were treated to an amazing display right from the hotel deck. Even the staff couldn’t quite believe it, often getting their own cameras out to join us.
An entire herd of elephants had decided to make this corner of the park their home for the day. It was awesome as entire families snacked, played and generally got on with being elephants right in front of us. From the biggest to the smallest, they roamed – often coming so close you didn’t need a zoom camera at all.
There were easily 50 or more elephants that day. We certainly felt like we’d made the right decision to just hang around and enjoy a chilled beer on the deck.
It wasn’t just those guys either. Plenty of impala, a few giant crocs, lots of birds. Plus a pile of hippos that got lively at one point..
So we got lucky that day for sure. Had one of the best displays you could want and all without needing to drive anywhere.
It was literally the perfect start to a safari. Safe up high on a deck or your own balcony – it really paid off picking the right place to stay.
A B&B outside Kruger has the advantage of being a lot more luxurious than the rest camps inside the park. And usually you would combine that with a drive into the park itself, hence why it’s helpful to stay near the gates.
Though you need to wait until they open – unlike in the rest camps which can offer dawn and dusk drives. Apart from that, you are still exploring Kruger Park the same way. Just be aware you will be limited by the distance from the gate you can drive before closing time.
Option Three: Stunning/Luxury
Accommodation: Private Game Reserve
Last but in no means least – we come to our three night stay in a private game reserve. As if Kruger Park wasn’t big enough already, there are a large number of reserves and lodges managed or owned privately.
Some of these are actually still within the park itself, like this link here. Whereas most are around the borders, with either a so called ‘open-fence’ border with the park itself or entirely self-contained.
These range insanely. In price and in what they offer. Richard Branson’s Ulusaba Lodge is one of the most famous ones – setting a whole different meaning to ‘glamping’! But you won’t be exactly roughing it in any of them.
Prices are driven by three things in the main – location, size and ‘glamour’, for lack of a better word. South Kruger is well known for having a denser animal population and Sabie in particular is known for the big cats. So expect to pay a premium for lodges there in particular.
Size matters ( sorry fellas 😉 ) in that if a reserve is considered small, it can start to feel more like a very good zoo, than an ‘in the wild’ experience. It can really ruin the moment when you can see fences off to the side instead of more baobab trees and thorny bushes.
Unsurprisingly, I spent a lot of time researching this area. Finding somewhere that worked best for what we wanted. Something small, intimate in terms of other visitors. But large enough to still feel authentic. I don’t need frills like spas, never been my thing. But good food and wine – yes please!
And so I eventually landed on Serondella Lodge, part of the Thorny Bush Reserve Collection. Out on its own away and only 4 rooms, so a maximum of 8 people. But part of the bigger overall reserve so unrestricted game drives. Perfect. It wasn’t too shabby in the luxury department either..
I ended up finding a three nights for two deal with a bit of haggling. Turning a £300/night price tag into a £200/night deal. Which was an awesome deal when you think about what it covers. At the time it wasn’t the cheapest lodge I could find but it seemed worth it.
Two game drives a day, breakfast , lunch, dinner, snacks. Whilst alcoholic drinks were excluded (game drive cocktails apart!) the bar was surprisingly still just at local prices, i.e. stupidly cheap. Given you are in the middle of nowhere and a captive audience, that made for a nice change
Lucking in to one of the two rooms that looked directly over the watering hole was the cherry on the top. We would sit on our balcony between drives, enjoying a chilled beer. And nature would just wander on by to say hello.
I had nyala practically nibbling my toes. An elephant decided the bushes by our deck were the only game in town. Warthogs comically giving themselves a mud path. I could have sat there forever.
With such a small lodge, we were also spoiled rotten in a comfortable way. Coming back from one of the evening drives to find they’d put on a rose-petaled bath and dinner out on our private deck.
So yes, the food was also superb. They varied it every night from private dinner, to a boma braii and on the awesome deck overlooking the watering hole. This place would be a treat to stay at even without the wildlife.
But that’s the main reason we were here – so how did it shape up?
Game Viewing: Private Game Drive
The one big and glaringly obvious difference with staying on a private game reserve is that you are no longer doing the driving. It’s impossible, there are no real roads. Our mock 4×4 had been left far behind at the main lodge to be picked up on our return.
Whilst there are tracks across the reserve, even these are often forgotten as the the tracker follows the trail into the bushes. You get good at ducking at the right moment!
And that tracker really knows what he/she is doing. Plus the ranger with the gun, just incase. This means you get an awful lot closer to the wildlife than would be possible by yourself. One, because they can go off-road and two because you just wouldn’t feel safe doing this by yourself.
I mean, you get seriously close. Like when these two lionesses casually strolled past our truck on their way out to hunt that evening.
From the very first drive, it was one amazing experience after another. Our very first drive saw us watching open-mouthed as a leopard munched on his recent kill, oblivious to us onlookers. A cheetah sunbathing the next day, preening herself as the sun rose. Posing magnificently. So so many.
It’s hard to convey the whole experience when so much of it is about the sounds, the smells and the whole feel of it as much as a shopping list of what animals we saw.
I know some people who go armed with that check-list mentality – I need to see x, y and z for it to be a “good” safari. But I think that’s the wrong way to go about it. We actually did see all the Big 5 and more but that wasn’t our priority.
For example on one day, between drives, we had the opportunity to go with the ranger on a walking tour. Always known for saying yes to new opportunities, we leapt at it. And it was surreal how much more exposed you felt on foot out in the scrub. Totally reliant on the guy with the gun to know what he was doing.
Now I understand seeing a dead giraffe is not most peoples idea of a great South African safari experience. But it’s such a part and parcel of the harsh reality of life here. Experiencing both sides really brought home where we were and how much of a different world it is.
Watching nervously as the vultures landed nearby. They are really damn ugly birds and pretty scary actually. Wondering if any predators were on their way as we stood exposed in the grass. You couldn’t get any further from our usual reality. A strangely intimate moment. Returning to the lodge felt like breaking a spell.
At the other end of the scale of experiences was this..
At the end of every evening drive, the guys would pull out a cool box and prepare your choice of sundowner. Included, obviously.. This evening was made particularly special as we parked up near two rhinos who were gently grazing as the sun started to set.
They slowly edged closer and closer, curious about the shapes around the truck. The animals ignore the truck shapes as they are used to them. But human shapes, hmm, they need investigating. And so we sipped, spellbound in the moment. Until the ranger announced we’d better get back in the truck as they were becoming slightly too curious!
It’s one of those things you genuinely couldn’t predict – and all the more better for it. That £200/night felt surprisingly cheap for everything we’d experienced. Well beyond any expectations.
So - How Much Does A South African Safari Cost?
As you can see – there’s a huge variety in the cost of a South African safari. Which unsurprisingly goes hand in hand with the breadth of the type of experience.
So as ever, the answer is – it depends! You can spend a small fortune or keep it simple. It really all depends on what kind of thing you are looking for.
We loved all three of our different ways of experiencing our first South African safari. I wouldn’t want to forgo any of them to be honest. They were all so different and every single one of them worth what we paid for them – and more.
So if you have the time, I’d wholeheartedly recommend taking a little longer here and mixing at least two different types. It’s well worth your time – and your money.
If not, I hope I have helped to give an idea of the different types so you can make up your own mind which works best for you? Or have you been on safari already and have tips to add below? Would love to hear them – I’m already thinking of returning now that I’ve gone through all our many, many photos!
Otherwise – until next time.. 🙂