Over 100 years old, covering nearly 20,000 square kilometres and home to The Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo), Kruger National Park in South Africa is one of the oldest, largest and most popular safari parks in Africa.
Which is why I chose Kruger for my first ever safari. As a complete newbie, I had zero experience planning a safari, which might lead you to conclude that I spent months planning my trip. That wasn’t how it worked out.
I booked my flight in decent enough time – got myself a great Black Friday deal with Virgin Atlantic from Heathrow to Johannesburg. Bought a South Africa guidebook. Sourced some suncream (hard to do in winter in England). And then Christmas happened, which meant that by the time I got around to boarding my flight in early January, I didn’t have much else planned. In fact, I booked my first night’s hotel in South Africa using the airport wi-fi while standing in the immigration queue at Jo’burg airport.
It was a busy time and I’m usually much more organised. But I’m sharing this so you understand that on touch down, I had zip-all planned and I still managed to pull together an amazing, last minute, budget-friendly Johannesburg safari to Kruger National Park.
In this post I’ll share with you:
- Details of my trip (highly recommended) and what the itinerary included.
- Recommendations for booking your safari.
- Why you should take a safari from Johannesburg.
- Why I decided to take a tour instead of doing a self drive in Kruger National Park.
- What to look for when choosing between the different Kruger National Park tours on offer.
- Where to stay in Johannesburg (I tested 4 places).
- A safari packing list.
Quick Book Details
If you want the highlights, this is the tour I booked and I’d definitely recommend it: 4 Day Classic Kruger Park Safari by Viva Safaris. My South Africa Safari Cost: around £550-£650/$675-$800 (I did a last-minute room upgrade and also paid in rand, affecting the price.). The same company does longer and shorter safaris on the same website as above.
Here’s where to stay in Jo’burg before your trip
Here’s my tips on how to plan a Kruger safari from Johannesburg. First…
Kruger Safari Itinerary
Here’s a day by day run through what was included in my tour.
Day 1: Johannesburg to Balule Private Game Reserve
Pick-up in Johannesburg
The hotel pick time was slated as 8:30 am to 9:00 am and the driver rolled up at 8:45 a.m., which was perfect. We picked up a few other solos and couples and were on the road in good time. It was a small, safe mini-van and, best of all, the group was the group we’d spend the next few days with – no bus swapping or hopping.
Toilet stop at Nando’s
Why on earth am I mentioning a toilet stop at Nando’s? Well, have you ever been to a Nando’s with this view in the back garden (picture above)? If you’ve gone against my advice and are doing a self drive, you can find the view (and toilets) at Nando’s Alzu Middlesburg.
Lunch at Mayfly
We stopped for a quick lunch at Mayfly in Dullstroom – broad menu and decent enough food. Best of all, they were well geared for quick service and crunching out individual bills for tour groups. As tour food stops go, this was pretty decent. Lunch wasn’t included in the tour price.
All in, the drive time from Jo’burg to the safari lodge was about 6 hours with stops. We arrived around 3 p.m.
Check in to Treminsana Lodge on the Balule Private Game Reserve
I was delighted with Tremisana, especially given the price I’d paid. A good-sized, clean room with en-suite, a/c and fan and a mosquito net. There was a cute pool that was big enough for a dip, sun loungers, tropical gardens and a breakfast area where you could sit and watch the more friendly (hoping for breakfast scraps) wildlife play.
We had a couple of hours at the lodge that passed in a blink. After a slick check-in, look around, quick change into long trousers (mosquitoes) and a long top (evening chill), it was time to set off on the first real safari activity of the trip.
Sunset game drive around Balule Private Game Reserve
We had 3 hours to spot some wildlife on that first evening and we almost immediately came across some lady lions waking up, doing a few cat stretches and getting ready to hunt their dinner. We saw some nellies too, but they didn’t compare to the lionesses (I’m a cat person, miaow).
The ranger was excellent and I immediately saw the upside of being on a private reserve – the land mass is smaller and easier to get around, the rangers were fully tuned in to where the animals would be at which time and we had the place entirely to ourselves.
Braai bush BBQ
When it turned dark, we drove to a small area that has been set-up for a braii (South African BBQ). Huddled around a small table, with no light other than the sky and our torches, it was one of the best meals and experiences in South Africa. The braii was included in the safari price. Veggie options were available.
Night at Tremisana Game Lodge
After years of travelling to many nature spots, I have come to realise that while I very much love being in nature during the day and at night, I don’t love having nature in my room with me, especially after dark. From the tarantula that thought it was ok to hang out in my bathroom in Nicaragua (it was NOT ok), to the hand-sized bugs that were big enough to lift up my mosquito net in rural Jamaica, I’ve lost too many hours of sleep wondering ‘what was that’ as I hear something scuttle across my room in the dark.
For that reason, I was delighted that Tremisana lodge was sufficiently sealed that I could rest easy, and rise early, fully refreshed to enjoy my safari.
Day 2: A Day exploring Balule Private Game Reserve
Sunrise drive and bush walk
I’m not a morning person but even I can see the benefit of hauling ass out of bed to see some animals, which I did at 4:30 a.m. because Day 2 started with a bush walk.
The walk took place on the private game reserve – on the Balule plains – and the ‘chat’ in the truck made me realise that we were about to wander into animal territory where their rules applied and any humans who represent a threat could be swept away by the swing of a trunk or the swipe of a paw.
The ranger had a rifle but not wanting to cause the ranger to use it, we cowered behind him like little ducklings on their first outing. Having appreciated the enormity of the elephants up close the night before, my heart was pounding more than I expected, but in a wow way.
After a while, my fear settled and I was able to tune into the bush talk, learning about the plants, habitat, food chain and a few survival skills.
Eventually, we found ourselves at a beautiful watering hole where we got to snack on a picnic of fruit, nuts, crackers and juice while we watched hippos give us the evil eye. I believe the correct survival technique if they come out of the water is PANIC.
Brunch and chill-out time
There was a full hot breakfast of eggs, bacon, sausage and toast ready for us when we got back, which I didn’t really need after the snack pack but who can resist the smell of bacon?
We then had a few hours to chill during the heat of the day. I should have slept but I instead spent my time watching baboons monkeying around at the back of the brunch spot.
Afternoon game drive and transfer to Marc’s Treehouse
This is where my safari went slightly off track. You see, when I booked, I had two choices: 1) stay at Tremisana Game Lodge for 3 nights (about £50 extra in total) or 2) spend 1 night at Tremisana Game Lodge 2 nights in a treehouse on the fringe of Kruger National Park.
At the time, the treehouse sounded like a good idea so at 2:30 p.m. our group was split and half of us went on an afternoon game-drive before heading on to Marc’s Treehouse.
The game drive itself was great. Zebra seemed to be the flavour of the afternoon but the drive felt like it started too early (still too hot) and ended too soon – because we had to get on the road to the treehouse.
The transfer was about 1 hour along a long, flat, paved road and included an early stop at a gas station for snacks because we were now on a strange eating schedule and the next meal would be dinner at the treehouse.
Check-in at Marc’s Treehouse
This was the least impressive part of my safari and the reason I only recommend staying at Tremisana Game Lodge.
Yes, the room I eventually ended up in was ok but I had to move room twice and pay for an upgrade in order to get an ‘ok’ room.
I won’t belabour the point but here’s what I didn’t like (some of it my fault):
- after looking at so many safari packages online, I’d ended up booking fixed tent accommodation rather than a room in an actual treehouse (my mistake). I’ve stayed in a fixed tent before and it was fine. At Marc’s treehouse, the tent was a cell-sized, damp mosquito pit. It was oppressive enough for one person, let alone if I had been two.
- the tent was also very far from the main lodge – about a 20 minute walk each way. As a solo traveller, I felt too exposed to both nature and humans out there on my own.
- the outdoor toilets and showers were pretty spread out. I would have been ok with this, but it’s not for everyone.
- I therefore decided to upgrade. But, having agreed to pay more for a treehouse a 10 minute walk away I got inside and found the the bed was covered with parts of the roof. (Note: I’ve slept in more than one bed – mainly in India – where the bed clearly hadn’t been changed since the last occupant (hairy beds!), i.e. I’m less fussy than most. So I trust me when I say that bed number 2 at the treehouse could not be slept in).
- I was told the bed would be changed and ready for me after dinner. It wasn’t touched so after another 20 minute back and fore hike in the dark, I had to negotiate another room change. It was now late and I was exhausted from the sunrise bush hike.
- feeling like (and being treated like) I was an unreasonable Goldilocks, I was finally offered treehouse 2/bed 3, which was just right…except…
- it was a rustic treehouse which had all the right cracks and crevices to let the great outdoors indoors, which, as you know, isn’t for me.
Conclusion: I wish I’d paid the extra £50 up front to stay at Tremisana Lodge for the 3 nights.
Amidst the room hopping and changing, there was dinner, which was perfectly lovely. It was a larger group than at Tremisana, which made for a more festive mood, the food was fantastic, the cooking staff excellent and although I’d been spoilt at Tremisana (where the food was, IMO, fractionally better), there was not a thing wrong with dinner.
A couple of other benefits of staying the 3 nights at Tremisana – on Day 2 you get a late lunch. Then the game drive leaves a bit later and includes a sunset stop with sundowners. There is no time lost at Kruger National Park either, just a one-hour earlier start on Day 3. On Day 4, you get that hour back as you’re one hour closer to Johannesburg.
Day 3: A Day on Safari in Kruger National Park
Safari in Kruger National Park
Day 3 was the big day I’d been waiting for – a full day inside Kruger National Park – and it didn’t disappoint. We entered from the Orpen Gate and between the excitement of racing through the park, off-road to find a pack of lions and getting caught up in a giraffe-ic-jam (more funny when I said it in my head), it was the kind of day that stays with you for a lifetime.
The rangers were superb, sharing intel and it felt like there wasn’t much down time – we went from seeing one pack or herd of animals to the next.
If you only have one day to take a safari from Johannesburg, I’d definitely get to Kruger National Park because it really is teeming with wildlife.
Did we see the big five? Sadly no. We were missing the elusive rhino and leopard. And I’m only half sure I saw a cheetah…far off in the trees. Everyone else in the group was confident they saw it through the guide’s binoculars but in hindsight, what I saw looked more like a Cheeto. But so what? the number of animals I saw far surpassed anything I’d ever seen in my life (apart from when I was young and went to a zoo or two).
Lunch isn’t worth much of a mention – we were offloaded along with all the other tourists at the Kruger National Park food court/plaza – the same kind you find at any major tourist attraction. I opted for pizza because it was cooked fresh rather than served from a warm metal dish, and I was happy eating average food in order to maximise time in the park. Lunch wasn’t included in the tour price.
Shopping at Kruger National Park – if you’re looking for souvenirs, there is a handily placed souvenir shop opposite the food court. Otherwise, there are stalls with handicrafts at the Blyde River Canyon stop on Day 4. Prices were about the same at both. If I was shopping (I wasn’t), I’d have put my money in the hands of the locals on at the canyon.
All in, we spent a whole day (around 8 hours) animal spotting in Kruger National Park and then we returned to Marc’s Treehouse (wishing in my head it was Tremisana) for dinner and my final night’s
sleep bug watch. Dinner was included in the tour price.
Day 4: Blyde River Canyon, the Three Rondavels and back to Jo’Burg
Early morning bush walk and breakfast
I felt like I was on a blend of two itineraries at this point and after speaking to the ranger and realising the walk was just local to the camp rather than in the wild/animal terrain, I decided to take the extra time in bed/for breakfast. The best big animal spotting had been done the day before and I didn’t need a rehash of which plant is best for toilet paper if you get caught short.
Three Rondavels and Blyde River Canyon
I was actually ready to head back to Jo’burg by Day 4.
As far as I can tell, almost all tours drive back via the Three Rondavels and Blyde River Canyon. Apparently the canyon is one of the biggest in the world and unlike most canyons which are brown and arid, Blyde River Canyon is lush and green. Bonus: in the middle of the canyon sits the three sisters or three rondavels – three round hut shaped peaks that add the perfect contrast to the depth of the canyon.
I hadn’t heard about the canyon until I booked my safari so it was a sightseeing surprise.
We had about 45 minutes at the canyon which was plenty of time to take pictures, have a short wander and do some handicraft shopping.
Drive back to Johannesburg
And then we hit the road back.
Lunch was a return visit to Mayfly – the same place we stopped on the way out of Jo’burg and were it not for the fact I wanted to have one last meal with the group who had become friends over the past few days, I would have broken from the pack and got lunch up the road at a tasty looking Belgian waffle place.
Hotel drop off: returning to Johannesburg we did a drop off in the logical order of ‘closest first’. And this time my bed for the night was at the airport because the following day I was up, up and away to the next stop on my African adventure – Zimbabwe (blog post coming soon).
Planning a Safari in Kruger National Park
Why visit Kruger National Park?
I don’t think you need a long list because these reasons are very compelling:
- Kruger National Park is one of the largest safari parks in Africa (a little smaller than Belgium to give you a sense of its size).
- The sheer size means it’s teaming with tens of thousands of animals.
- Kruger has the ‘Big 5‘ that safari-going tourists covet: lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo.
- It’s really accessible – just 5-6 hours from Johannesburg International airport.
- The trip I went on was in a malaria-free zone.
Assuming you’re going on safari to see animals – Kruger park’s size and wealth of wildlife sets you up for success.
Is Johannesburg safe?
I was incredibly surprised by how safe I felt in Jo’burg, even as a 5ft tall solo female traveller. In fact, I enjoyed the city so much, I ended up spending almost a week there across two visits.
I wrote about safety as well as what to do in Johannesburg.
However, if the fear is too much, just check into an airport hotel. The safari company will pick you up the morning of your trip, and take you back there at the end, meaning you can swerve Jo’burg completely.
I’ve got details on where to stay in Johannesburg at the end of the post.
Should you visit on a self-drive or take a tour?
As a solo traveller on a budget, I definitely considered a self-drive. Especially when my first attempts to book a safari failed. But it was a couple in my guesthouse in Knysna that ended that idea. Yes, they’d paid only car hire and park entry fees but my heart ached for them as they explained how they’d driven around for two days and hadn’t spotted a single animal (well, perhaps a few antelope but there are so many in the park you’d have to have your eyes closed not to see them).
Conversely, every person I met who’d been on a safari with a guide had a glut of animal pictures to show me.
Having taken a safari with a guide, here’s why I’d recommend going on a package tour instead of a self-drive:
- The rangers have vast experience of the park – they know where the watering holes are, they know the feeding times, the sleeping times, how to approach without scaring the animals off and also safe distances to park.
- The rangers share intel on their walkie-talkies so if one ranger spots a pack of lions, everyone can race there to catch a glimpse.
- The rangers will keep you alive (barring your own idiocy) – all those ‘and then he got mauled’ stories were about tourists on self-drives who got out of their car to take a selfie.
- There’s a chance to go on a bush-walk, something that’s not recommended without an experienced ranger packing a shotgun (see above reference to ‘and then he got mauled’).
- The rangers have such keen eyes – they could spot a giraffe on the moon. In contrast, I’m only seeing the same giraffe if he steps over (or on) me.
- You’ll learn about the park and the animals including the proper names, enriching your whole experience.
- The safari companies plan your day for maximum animal sightings – left to my own devices, I’d have gotten up late, gone safari spotting during the day (when many animals sleep) and spent the night wondering why I hadn’t seen a single giraffe.
- You won’t have to do the driving, horizon scanning and photo taking all at the same time.
- You can do other things (read, snack, nap) on the drive from Johannesburg to Kruger National Park.
That’s probably enough to convince you, right?
What does a good itinerary look like?
I love the Internet. But damn it has too much information sometimes. Do even 15 minutes of research on booking a safari from Johannesburg and you’ll drown in 3 day/2 night, 4 day/3 night, 5 day/4 night, tented accommodation, lodge accommodation, private reserve, within and just outside Kruger safari combinations.
And I was doing this research last minute when, presumably, over half of the safaris were already booked.
In the interests of research and wanting to experience the different safari options, I ended up booking what I call a ‘combination’ safari – one where I got to experience both a private reserve that bordered Kruger National Park as well as spending time within the park during the same tour.
I opted for a 4 day/3 night safari which included the following (and I would recommend it as a checklist of things to look for when booking your tour):
- time spent on a game drive within Kruger National Park.
- at least one night’s accommodation within Kruger Park so I didn’t have to get up early to ‘commute’ to the park motorways. (As it turned out, there was a better alternative – explained below.)
- time at a private reserve – because I wanted to compare and contrast the two safari experiences within the same tour without booking two separate trips.
- a drive at sunrise to see the African sun rising over the park while the wildlife wakes up.
- a sunset drive – because this is the best time to spot the lions as they wake up to start their evening hunt.
- an early morning bush walk – this was a bit more adrenaline fuelled than I imagined. I hadn’t quite appreciated that not all safaris offer this because of the risk (you’re wandering around in animal territory). You can skip this activity if it scares you.
- safari in an open game viewing vehicle. I saw many tinted-window vehicles and although they would have had lovely a/c, viewing would have been terrible, especially for the half of the bus on the inside seats.
- a braai in the bush – a local South African BBQ eaten away from camp in the middle of the bush by torchlight.
- a combination of accommodation – I wanted to compare a lodge and the more rustic option of a treehouse (conclusion: stick to a lodge).
- return transport including hotel pick-up from Johannesburg – the idea of hiring a car for the long drive to Kruger from Joahnnesburg didn’t appeal to me.
- a visit to Blyde River Canyon and the Three Rondavells – a spectacular canyon located between Johannesburg and Kruger National Park.
- a semi-reasonable price – at around £500-£600, my four day, three night safari was on the cheaper side and I definitely feel like I got my money’s worth.
- ability to book online and get a confirmed reservation – I tried more than once to book directly with a company (in a bid to save costs) and I didn’t hear back. Yes, it was peak season and I was last-minute. Perhaps they were too busy taking tourists to see animals to reply to emails but it left me swinging in the South African wind.
If this sounds like your kind of safari and you don’t need more details, book here but do see my note below about the lodge versus treehouse option.
Booking your safari
If you want to book the safari I booked (with the recommended Tremisana stay for the full three nights), here is the 3-night Kruger Safari.
The other tour I seriously considered was this one with Intrepid Travel. I’ve been on a few of their other tours around the world and always had a top-notch experience. The itinerary is quite similar but with more time in Kruger.
Where to stay in Johannesburg
If you do want to spend a little time in Jo’burg before your safari, Maboeng was a great, safe, gated area with lots of bars and restaurants that were safe to walk to at night. I stayed at both of these places and would recommend them:
Hostel in Jo’burg – Curiocity Backpackers is located on a safe street in Maboneng within walking distance of plenty of bars and restaurants. Dorms and private rooms are available and the hostel has an on-site bar.
Hotel in Jo’burg – 12 Decades Arts Hotel If you prefer a quieter vibe, the 12 Decades Arts hotel also offers well-priced accommodation in a creative space just down the street. All the rooms are ‘penthouse’ and differently themed. I had a beautiful 1920s themed room with furniture to match. All in, it was one of the nicest hostel rooms I stayed in during my month in South Africa.
If you prefer an airport hotel, I stayed at both of these and again they are both recommended:
Airport Hotel – Premier Hotel I tried two airport hotels. First, Premier Hotel which I chose because of its proximity to the airport and free airport shuttle. My room was clean and spacious and they served a comprehensive breakfast (I love an egg station!). There was also a nice patio to sip a drink and acclimatise to Joburg’s altitude.
Airport Hotel – Aviator Hotel I tried before flying to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. It’s cheaper than the Premier Hotel and although the hotel has a cool, vintage airport theme going on, you need earplugs because the rooms are not well sound-proofed and you’re right under the flight path. If you’re there for some solid shut-eye, I’d recommend spending the bit extra for the Premier Hotel.
Safari Packing List
I wrote a whole post about what I wish I’d packed (this is a good example of me getting it wrong so you don’t have to). You can read it here in my guide to What to Pack for Safari.
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