I feel the need to take a break from the Winelands for a bit. As you may recall, I am something of a “Bushbaby”, and since introducing Otto to the life, he has become one too! We tend to get bush withdrawal symptoms quite regularly. We then spend our time plotting to see how soon we can get back. For now, our break will be a virtual one, while I take you on a wildlife safari to the Kruger National Park.
The world beyond Cape Town
When I first moved back to Cape Town from the Mpumalanga bushveld in 2009, I was quite shocked at how few Capetonians even knew of the Kruger National Park, let alone had travelled there! I remember thinking to myself, “Gee, what an insular bunch. The world seems to end at the Karoo for them!” In conversations, I would explain where I’d come from and what I’d been doing for the past 10 years. I would be met with those polite, blank looks and the nod with a half smile. “Ah…yes…I know where you’re talking about…”. Not…!
So how far is it, really?
I couldn’t believe how little South Africans down this end of the country knew of our iconic Kruger National Park. Then I embarked on my mammoth site inspection of the luxury game lodges I was selling as a tour operator. And it hit me. No wonder Capetonians looked at me so blankly! The driving distance from Cape Town to the Kruger National Park is approximately 2000 kilometres. That’s give or take a few hundred, depending on where you’re going – the Kruger National Park extends from north to south for 360 kilometres.
Planning a journey for Capetonians and foreign visitors
So, our next few posts will focus specifically on this journey for the sake of those adventurous Capetonians who would like to experience one of the largest and most impressive game reserves in Africa. It’s also aimed at our foreign visitors with limited time, who’d like to see the best of South Africa in two weeks or less. The top three spots for these visitors are usually: Cape Town; the Kruger National Park; and Sun City.
Can I visit the Kruger National Park in a day?
As a tour operator, this question often came up, as many foreign tourists fly directly into Cape Town. A client once asked to travel from the Cape Grace to Kruger and be back in time for dinner. Umm…let me think if this can be done…no!
Many people do not comprehend the size of this country and the distances required to get from one place to another. They look at the map and think 15 centimetres on the map is doable in a few hours. You can do that in most European countries, but not here!
You’ll need to set aside a few days at the very least
The logistical impossibility of a day-trip from Cape Town to Kruger – even flying all the way in and back – would mean an entire day of just travelling.
I would only recommend a “quick day visit” if you were staying close to the Kruger National Park. You could then arrange a guided Open Vehicle Safari with one of the local operators such as Vula Tours.
This is a game drive on a specially modified open 4×4 vehicle, which mostly takes 10 people quite comfortably. You get the chance to see, smell and hear everything around you, at a higher vantage point than ordinary vehicles. Most of the private game lodges have now modified their game drive vehicles to take only six people. This means no-one has to sit in the middle, but that’s for another post!
Day tripping while in the area
These guys have experienced, qualified guides who’ll take you on a drive for a few hours (either half or full day options) and show you as much as possible in that time. They’re all in radio contact and will get you the best sightings in a limited amount of time.
Not only that, but they will also describe and explain in detail what you are seeing. They’ll give you interesting facts about each animal, bird, tree, insect or flower. You will also be given some insight into animal behaviour – which is a whole topic on its own. In addition, they can get you just the right angle for that winning National Geographic photo!
The guides on open vehicles will find sightings that most of us miss
In my opinion, this is well worth the money you will spend for a private safari. If you’re new to the park, you could drive for hours on your own, missing out on the best sightings. This is simply because you don’t know where or how to look. We’ll come back to this point in later posts, but the “how” is extremely important if you’re wanting to make the most of your trip. With the vastness of the Kruger National Park (almost 20,000 square kilometres in size), it is quite easy to drive through a densely wooded area, for example, and miss an entire herd of elephants!
So, no day visits from Cape Town then…
It is possible, as I mentioned, to fly all the way in. This is the quickest, easiest method to get all the way from the bottom end of the country to the top, though definitely not a cheap exercise. And most definitely not in a day, or even two!
Flying into Kruger National Park from Cape Town
This involves flying from Cape Town International Airport (CTIA – code CPT) on one of the local airlines, to one of four destinations: Lanseria (code HLA ); OR Tambo International Airport (ORTIA – code JNB); Skukuza (code SZK); or Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport (KMIA – code MQP).
If you are a regular flyer, you will know about the airport codes above. If not, this is just for your reference when booking flights. Online sites will always want you to confirm exactly which airport you want to fly in or out of by choosing the right airport code.
It is an approximate two-hour flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg, and then a connecting flight of an hour from there to Skukuza. This gets you right into the heart of the Kruger National Park. At best that can be a four and a half hour journey, with layovers and connections.
Slightly cheaper, but almost the same amount of time, would be to fly into KMIA (Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport) just outside Nelspruit.
Fly directly from Cape Town to Hoedspruit
You can also fly directly into the Eastgate airport in Hoedspruit (code – HDS) from Cape Town. These flights are operated by SA Express and Cemair and can be quite costly. The good part though is that these flights get you about halfway up the Kruger National Park and closer to the northern regions, which really should not be missed.
Why do I say this? Well, as I’ve mentioned, the Kruger National Park covers a distance of 360 kilometres from south to north, as well as some 80 kilometres from west to east at its widest point in the south. This means a great difference in vegetation and landscape due to geological formations as you drive through the park. As the vegetation and soil types change, so too do the various species of animals that you will find in each of these areas (more on that in later posts).
Next best: the fly-drive option
Our favourite combo is to fly from Cape Town to Johannesburg or to Lanseria, rent a car and then drive from there to the Kruger. We have a number of reasons for doing this. Firstly, it allows us to combine meetings with our agents in Sandton and then a few days’ break in the bush. Secondly, it gives us the comfort of cutting the bulk of the journey with a flight, but still allows us the excitement of the last part of the journey as a not-too-long road trip, to experience the spectacular beauty of the Lowveld. And lastly, it’s much cheaper. The flight to Johannesburg or Lanseria on one of our low-cost airlines (our favourite being Flysafair these days), is about a third of the price.
What vehicle to rent
It is also not necessary, in case you’re wondering, to rent a huge 4×4 for the Kruger part of your road trip. All of the roads are in beautiful condition, and even the dirt roads are in a better condition than some of those in our big cities! The toll road from Johannesburg to the Lowveld (and in fact, all the way through to Maputo in Mozambique) was built in the late 90’s and is known as the “N4 Witbank to Maputo Toll Road” (or Maputo Development Corridor Initiative) and is very well maintained. (Just for info, many of these place names have changed and Witbank is now known as eMalahleni).
This brings me to my next point – namely that you need to factor in the toll costs on any part of this journey. Be warned up front, folks – this easily runs into a few hundred rands each way. This is a great site for checking exact and up-to-date amounts: AA Toll fees
One other thing about car hire. While it’s not necessary to rent the biggest, most expensive, if your budget allows it’s a good idea to consider one of the SUV’s. The simple reason for this is height. I mentioned earlier in this post about the vantage point in the open vehicles. If you’re visiting the park in the summer rainy season, the bush will be thick and lush and the grasses tall.
There’s nothing more frustrating than arriving at a sighting of lions or leopard sleeping lazily under a tree in the midday sun – well, that’s what everyone in the other cars tells you they’re watching! – and you can see nothing over the grass or through the bush. You’ve been in the park for days and not yet managed to find a lion or a leopard. At that point, you’d gladly pay double the car rental!
And for the adventurous – the full monty road trip
If you’re really feeling like a good road trip, you have the time and would like to stop and explore along the way, then hopping in your car in Cape Town and driving to the Kruger National Park is the way to go.
My girls and I did this, but in reverse – when we moved from the bush back to Cape Town in 2009 – and it was one of the best trips of our lives. This, despite the fact that it was the three of us, our three cats and our fur-boy, Bullie – all crammed into my Toyota Tazz!
We travelled from White River (which is very close to at least two of Kruger’s main entrances) to Johannesburg. This is a distance of 360 kilometres and quite comfy to drive. We over-nighted there, then got back on the road and split the distance between Johannesburg to Cape Town into two equal parts.
Hanover in the Karoo is the exact half-way stop between the two, at almost 700 kilometres between both cities. The town itself is really quaint, with beautiful historical buildings, and the Hanover Hotel was a revelation – great rooms; great food and wonderful staff and hosts, as well as being well within the single mom’s budget!
The absolute bonus for us was that they were pet-friendly, and bent over backwards to make sure that our 3 kitties and our dog were all comfy and cared for. Bullet was even given the run of their back garden and pool area. AND they were all allowed to stay in the (massive) room with us. I have to just add here that our animals are part of the family and all live inside with us, always – so they are perfectly house-trained.
Other possibilities, of course, if you’re not travelling with pets or for a specific purpose like we were on that journey, include a stop-over at the Karoo National Park. This is a good way to start your wildlife/bush road trip and get yourself into relaxed mode early on in your journey.
So why does it take the same amount of time to drive the entire length of the Kruger National Park as it does to get there from Cape Town?
What you need to know is that if you fly or drive into Nelspruit (Mbombela) to start your safari in the southern region of the park and you want to get all the way to the top of the park in the North, this will take you a good three or four days of travelling at least.
Weird thought, huh – you can get all the way from Cape Town to the Kruger National Park, a journey of approximately 2000 kilometres, in maybe three days with two stop-overs; but it will take you the same amount of time to travel the entire length of the park! Why, you ask? Because there are very strict rules in place inside the park – to protect animals first, and visitors second.
Kruger National Park rules – well, some of them…
Firstly, you may not drive more than 50 km/hour on the tarred roads and no more than 40 km/hour on the dirt roads. Secondly, park officials monitor you very closely when entering, to see where you plan to get to that day. If you enter at the southern end of the park – Malalane gate, for example – at midday and you’re booked into Satara camp for the night, they’ll not allow you to check in for the simple reason that you would not make it by the time the camp gates close for the night.
The outside (main) gates to the park open and close at certain times, according to season; and the camp gates all open and close at certain times as well, usually opening a bit earlier and closing a bit later than the outside gates. This is for visitors who have been out for late afternoon drives, or who want to leave at first light for their first drive of the day.
Travelling on the outside
On a side note here: if you’re running late, it can be quicker to travel up along the western boundary on the outside of the park. That is, either along the R40 between Nelspruit (Mbombela) and Ba-Phalaborwa, or the R36, through Ohrigstad and Lydenburg (Mashishing). Having said that though, you need to be very wary on these roads of cattle, goats and other animals wandering freely. More hazards include slow, un-roadworthy rural vehicles and worst of all – VERY BAD potholes!
Driving times and distances
Although your speed limits in the park are 40 and 50 kilometres respectively, these are maximum speeds. You look at the map and you see that the distance between Malalane gate and Satara camp is only 156 kilometres. That’s peanuts, right? And you have five hours before the camp gate closes. That’s a piece of cake, right? So if you do your quick calculation, 156 divided by 50 kilometres an hour, should get you there in about 3 hours, tops? Wrong!
In the Park’s distance-and-time table (available on their website: Sanparks.org), they recommend a driving time of 6 hours 15 minutes for this journey. That’s allowing for a “game-viewing” speed of under 30 kilometres an hour. BUT…it does not allow for absolutely amazing sightings, like lions lying on the road, or walking ahead of you, when you want to sit for at least half an hour – to watch them; get great photos; and maybe see if they just may, possibly, might want to catch that warthog just waltzing right past them there…! (more on animal behaviour in future posts).
And…what if there are elephants!
It also doesn’t allow for a bull elephant in musth, walking across the road right as you calculate you have just enough time to get in! Not only does he take his sweet time, he then turns and walks towards you. One of the first rules in the park is not to disturb or aggravate animals, at any cost. This applies especially to elephants, and in particular to mothers with babies or to moody bull elephants. This is the only one of the Big 5 animals that you’re not safe from, even in a vehicle.
So, he’s walking down the road at you, flapping his ears and swinging his head with those enormous tusks. You’re reversing for your life, praying that you won’t go off the road into the bush, where you’ll be screwed…
Once he’s forced you back where you came from, kilometres down the road, he gets bored and ambles off into the bush. This massive animal is swallowed up by vegetation in an instant. And you’re left wondering if you imagined it all. Was there really an elephant there half a second ago? And dammit, now we’re going to be late for camp and in for a really hefty fine!
And that’s why, if you do it right, it takes so long!
These are just some examples of why your time really does become “Africa time” when you’re in the bush. If you’re also a bird lover, and interested in flowers and trees, and you love your photography, you can expect to cover a maximum distance of about 30 kilometres in a three-hour drive! That’s if you’re doing it right.
I often watch the newbies driving into the park and racing off at the maximum speed. They’re the ones complaining bitterly later on, when you all get back to camp, that they’ve seen nothing! Well, it’s no wonder.
So, those are the basics of getting to the Kruger National Park from the other end of the country. In the next posts, we’ll focus more on the “being there” and the pure joy that is the Bush Experience.
Don’t forget – we’d love to hear your comments and feedback, as well as your own experiences. Please send us any comments or questions you may have, or follow us on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube; sign up to receive new posts; or click on the Booking.com search box to book your next adventure!
Until next time!