Kruger National Park: Big Game, No Pain

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Kruger is quite the place. You drive in through one of the four gates to the 20,000 square km reserve, and at once, your childhood movies and picture books come to life. Families of elephants take their sweet time crossing the road in front of your vehicle and giraffes saunter around snacking here and there. For even the tamest of animal lovers, it’s a blissful experience.
I never doubted any of the above was true, but I did doubt that I would be able to afford it as a recent college graduate (and “poor college student” doesn’t even apply anymore, wah wah). Across Africa, the ability to see wildlife in an authentic way (read: not in zoos, or not in private game parks which are sorta glorified zoos (with sometimes questionable ethics) in my opinion) often comes with a huge price tag. A quick Google search of game reserves in Kruger National Park can bring up lodging options between $500 and $10,000 a night, per person. YIKES.

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As enticing as the luxury tented safari camps and champagne game drives do sound, I just don’t have that kind of cash at this point in my life. Refusing to take no for an answer, I decided to do some research. Oh, so the drive from Johannesburg to Kruger is only 4 hours? On open freeways? And car rentals are about $10/day? AND, accommodation just outside the gate is far more reasonable? Animals, I’m comin’ for ya!

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One of my favorite things about Kruger was the fact that it gave me hope for the natural world, that we haven’t screwed up every corner just yet. The park is teeming with beautiful animals, most of the individual animal populations are healthy (with the Black Rhino excepted- Chinese poachers have been hunting him like crazy for the alleged medicinal properties of his tusks) and the certified guides are reverent and respectful of the animals at all times. People are strictly forbidden from getting out of their vehicles, which I was sad about at first but fully understood by the end of the day.

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A 5:15am wakeup never felt so good!

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First sighting: a white rhino!

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A yummy bush breakfast at Tindlovu, one of the only spots within the park. So good!
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LEOPARD!!

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Trip highlights:

  • Sitting out by the pool at River House and seeing a family of ellies bathe in the river in front of us!
  • Driving alongside giraffes in the park
  • Spotting a LEOPARD in a tree! Our seasoned guide, Chris, noticed that there was an impala carcass in a tree (mind you, there are THOUSANDS of trees that look exactly the same to the untrained eye…) and made a note of it, saying that we would come back around 4pm to see the big cat return to its kill. Sure enough, we drove up at 4pm and there was the leopard, sitting majestically in the tree next to the carcass. We watched him for about an hour, mesmerized.

The nitty gritty:

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  • Flew in to Johannesburg O.R. Tambo International Airport
  • Rented an economy car from Avis (luckily my friend Annabel could drive stick so this saved us some money! Shout-out to Annabel for driving 8+ hours that weekend as I controlled the tunes with my questionable offline Spotify playlists)

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  • Stayed at River House Lodge, Malelane, Mpulalanga, South Africa, at the southern edge of Kruger, near the Malelane Gate.
    • Situated scenically on the Crocodile River, it’s a place where you’re pretty likely to see some hippos, rhinos, and elephants strolling by as you sip your tea in the morning or wine at night!

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  • Bonus points for a sweet host, Johan, a cross between a rugged cowboy and a doting Dutch grandfather.

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  • Did a fabulous game drive from 5:45am-5pm with Chris Herbst, the Santa Claus of Zimbabwe. He’s been leading game drives like these for 30+ years throughout Zim, Botswana and Kruger. His knowledge about the animals and their feces, tracks, eating habits, markings, maturity and more was just astounding.

The budget:

  • Car rental ZAR 800 total for three days (just under $50 total, split between two people)
  • Accommodation ZAR 1400 (just under $100 for two people for two nights)
  • Game drive ZAR 1400 ($100 per person- seems steep, but worth every penny)
  • Dinner at The Deck in Malelane- right by the River House Lodge ($10 per person for steaks, bottle of wine, desserts- hit the spot after a long day of game-driving!)
  • Most expensive part of the trip: our many gas station stops for snax on snax 🙂 IMG_3699

Pro tips:

  • Avis was a great company to rent the car from. We used the Sandton Gautrain location because my friend lives near there. Just a note though- they will try to charge you an exorbitant weekend rental fee, so make sure you show your boarding pass if you flew in to Joburg earlier that day to get out of this!
  • The drive itself was pretty predictable and smooth, but as always in RSA, be cautious when pulling over to take pictures or stop for gas. Lock car the car and you’ll be fine!
  • Stay in one of the top floor rooms at River House- they all have views of the Crocodile River!

Kruger, I’ll be back.

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Some helpful links:

http://www.krugerpark.co.za/Kruger_Park_Game_Viewing_Routes-travel/malelane-gate-game-viewing-routes.html

http://www.krugerpark.co.za/Maps_of_Kruger_Park-travel/explore-kruger-park-ten-best-game-drives.html

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