Sunday, March 3, 2019

Kruger National Park - Who is in the cage now???

By Kathy
Actual Dates: October 5th – October 17th

The short answer to the question is that we are in the cage now. It is like being in a zoo but inverted.

We are now to the part of our adventure that the whole trip really centered around…..seeing the big animals! We said for years that it was on our lifetime bucket list to take the kids to Africa to see the animals in their environment. We didn’t really know how this would happen or what the details would be but we talked about it often and especially when we heard stories of the elephants and rhinos being poached. Now we just had to figure out the details of how this could be a reality. When I would think about seeing animals in Africa I would immediately think of going on a safari in a lodge where they feed you amazing meals and drive you around to look at animals in the early morning and evening. I had no idea what that would look like or how much it would cost but we assumed it would be affordable even if we went with a place that served normal meals and had more basic accommodations.  After some research we learned that it costs a lot! Based on our budget we could go for exactly 2 days. This is the part of the story where we are very thankful to have met our South African friends on SV Panache and SV Cool Runnings in the Bahamas. They enlightened us to the way South Africans travel to see the animals. The answer was to visit Kruger National Park and self-drive either in an RV or a rental car. Could this really be done? Could we pull this off? Would we still see animals if we were the ones driving around?

We made it!! 

The Beast (aka our cage)! We rented a 6 person RV from Maui Rentals in Johannesburg. From the picture it looks like the rental RVs you find in the states but in reality it was much smaller. I am still confused how 6 adults would actually fit in this RV. But the great thing about it was that they optimized space with the design and we had plenty of room to store our bags, clothes, and food.

The Beast!

Chillin' in the RV before bedtime
On the road!

Kruger National Park is a special place. It is one of the biggest national parks in the world. The park is larger than some countries so the size alone is mind blowing. In the park they have rest camps. Some are big some are small. Most have accommodations, camp store, campgrounds, and a restaurant. Once we started looking into the park website and after some trial an error we were able to figure out a set of camps that we wanted to visit that had RV accommodations.  We purposely left about three days open at the end thinking that we may leave the park and see some of the other sites around the area. 

It took us 12 days to go this far! You can't even see the rest of the park on the map.

Camp – a area enclosed with high electrical fence that is guarded and the gates are closed from sundown to sunrise to keep you in and the animals out. It is a really big deal if you are not in the camp when they close the gates.

Then entrance gate into the Berg-en-dal rest camp
You do not want to mess with these gates

After a provisioning run and a long drive from Johannesburg we made it to the town just outside of the main gate pretty late at night so we stayed at a little RV park that tested the shocks on our RV with the rocky road to get into the camp. The next day we provisioned even more because we didn’t know what to expect in the park once we went in and we were not planning to leave the park for at least 8 days.

The next morning we entered the park with our packed RV and lots of excitement of what we might see! It only took about a ½ mile until we found the first of the Big 5 – a herd of elephants!

We were greeted by a herd of elephants just beyond the gate!

Our first baby elephant sighting!!

This is the part of the story that I have had writers block for a weeks. How to organize the writing about our time in Kruger to give you an idea of what it was like to visit. We have lots of little stories and 100s of pictures so this was a challenge.

Camp Life: 

Each night we were in one of the park camps. They were situated around the park so that you could easily make it to the next one with a day drive (remember – you can’t drive around after sunset!). We stayed in the largest camp and one of the smallest and a few in between. The largest, Skukuza, had a conference center, a restaurant, a big camp store, two pools, camp kitchens, laundry, and  a spa (I was excited about that). The smallest, Tsendze, had no electricity, a bathroom and of course a braai but that was about it. They didn’t even have a place you could check in and the gate was self-guarded meaning that the campers were responsible for opening and more importantly closing the gate. A lot of the camps had big camp kitchens which was something new to us. The kitchen was centrally located in the campgrounds and had several burners, a big sink, hot water and lots of counter space. You can find several campers cooking some good smelling food every evening in the camp kitchen. Sam even followed the smell one night and ended up with a good one pot meal recipe and an invitation to a campsite to roast marshmallows after dinner. I should mention that we were a bit of an oddity in the campgrounds. Almost everyone was a local so we got a lot of questions about how an American family ended up vacationing in the camp grounds. Everyone thought it was fascinating that we decided to see the park this way.

Pool fun at Skukuza. That is the nice quiet day spa in the building right behind the pool!

Some of the huts you can rent in Skukuza

Sam waited the whole trip to visit this pool in the Berg-en-dal camp

A little friend checking out my shoes

Just a glimpse of one of the camp kitchens

We would alternate cooking out on the braai or eating out at the restaurant. The kids loved looking in the gift store because each one had a different selection of items. They were told they could only choose one stuffed animal so pick wisely! Sam had actually bought his stuffed animal on Day 1 in Africa at Table Mountain so he was in a bit of a conundrum when he faced the piles of stuffies in the camp stores.

Sam in charge of the braai
A little boerewors on the braai for dinner

Hanging at the Letaba Rest Camp

When you decide to not wear shoes around the camp
A nice evening in the Lower Sabie Rest Camp - a book, wine, cheese, and bug spray
A little game of cards while we wait for breakfast in Satara

The Schedule:
If you want to see the animals you need to think about their natural schedule. That means getting out of the gates by 5:30am-6:00am in the morning and finding a spot to rest in the afternoon. The animals were resting at that time so we should too! Then you drive around close to sunset before the gates close. Having the RV meant that getting out early was pretty easy. Just unplug from power and go. The kids could sleep while we made it out of the gate and started on our way.

The RV was great for seeing the animals!
Loved seeing the animals from the RV. Yes, I did drive it too!

We were so close to them!

Emma and her elephants!

Stretching our legs:
You could spend hours driving between the camps and not leaving your car but the park had rest stops along the way. Some were pretty basic with just a bathroom and a few picnic tables. Our favorite ones had little restaurants where we could grab a late breakfast.

Found this sign in the bathroom at one of the picnic sites along the way. 

A great view from one of the rustic picnic sites

Tshokwane - Our favorite picnic site for a little breakfast.

A little muscle is needed to put your dishes away before the monkeys take them away. A cheeky monkey took a piece of bread right from our plate. 
A big pancake at Lower Sabie after a very early morning drive!

Exploring beyond the camps:
The park had some very well kept roads. The main ones were paved and easy to navigate and off of the main roads would be dirt roads that were a little rougher especially in the RV. We were so happy we decided to go with an RV. It basically meant we had a much bigger cage to roam around in while we were driving. The kids could move around freely and we had lots of windows to look out of when we saw the animals.  It was also a big plus to be able to lay down and take an afternoon siesta at a watering hole. On the map it looks like each camp is pretty close to one another but you drive so slow and stop so often to watch the wildlife it can take several hours to make it to the next camp.

The signs were easy to read to navigate the park.

Nice paved road but sometimes you had to watch out for grooming baboons!

Time to clean the legs

The rest of the roads were pretty nice dirt roads but a little bumpy in the RV.
A view from our favorite afternoon watering hole

The animals from the RV:
It turns out that our fears of not seeing animals was completely unnecessary.  We saw so many animals and it was amazing to see them roaming the lands. There were two items that made it to the list of “must haves” when you are driving around the park on your own. A couple of pairs of good binoculars and a good animal identifier book. We found both at the Skukzua camp store and we definitely put them to good use. Every time we would see a new animal the kids would look it up in the book and read all about it. It was so cool to watch them learn this way. Emma started the trip trying to tally up how many animals we saw in the park. She had a page for each kind. We saw so many animals that after a few days of trying to count she stopped. We have so many pictures of animals it was hard to pick some of our favorites. It was also hard to pick a favorite animal but by the end of the trip everyone pretty much had a favorite.

This was one of our favorite finds when we were driving around. It is really hard to see but it is a lioness eating a water buffalo right off the road. It was amazing to watch but hard to photograph. 

Family Favorites:

Sam – Black-Backed Jackel. Sam is in a bit of a pickle here since the Jackel eats his other favorite South African animal – the Dassie.

The Black Back Jackel. He was pretty far away so we had to use a little zoom lens to get a picture of him.

Jack – the Rhino. Every time we saw one they looked peaceful and gentle. He was also shocked to hear about what the poachers do to them.

Emma – the Elephant. Emma fell in love with these gentle giants when we visited in the sanctuary and her love for them grew in Kruger. She wants to go back and study them in the future.

Kathy – I have two -  the leopard and the impala in the tree. Both have something to do with the leopard. The leopard was majestic and just amazing to watch. We also learned that the female leopards are amazing mothers. When you found an impala in a tree it meant that a leopard was nearby and that they were using the tree as there pantry. It was crazy to picture them pulling that impala up the tree.

Loved the mother and baby playing!

Impala in the tree!

Dan - The leopard. He picked the same animal I did and said it was because they are the ultimate hunters. 

The cats were so hard to spot in the wild. It took a while for us to finally see this one on the tree.  You gotta look close!

Game Drives:
It is a myth that you  have to go to a private safari to get a good game drive. Turns out that all if the big camps in Kruger offer games drives several times a day. We took several 3 hour games drives while we were in Kruger. Some in the early morning (4:45am!!!) and some in the evening (4:30pm). Since it was during the time when the gates would be closed we would be the only ones in the park driving around. The rangers would tell you some very cool facts about the area and each game drive from the different camps went a different route so one from the Skukuza camp was completely different from the one from the Satara camp. The guides were knowledgeable and knew the area. The cats were very hard to spot so it was great to have a couple of good drives where we found some cats. Let’s back up just a little. There also two very different types of rangers in the park. There were the customer facing ones that did the game drives and interacted with the visitors and there were other rangers that looked like the military that carried armed weapons and patrolled the park for poachers. Sadly, the rhinos are still being poached on a regular basis in South Africa.

The game drive vehicle

Our ranger telling us about the drive

Emma and Jack are ready!

We are ready to see some animals!
The early mornings catching up on us. Sometimes you were so tired in the evening drive you missed a few animals

Sometimes it was cold. The ranger ended up inviting the boys to sit in the cab with the heater before the end of the drive.
Early morning drive that led us to a lioness and her cubs

An evening drive led us to this group of snoozing cats. Taking a nap before heading out to hunt in the night. 

They really could not have cared that we were sitting right there!

Bush Walk:
Some of the camps also offered a bush walk. You had to be 13 years old or over to do this so Emma and I did it one morning while Dan and the boys went on a game drive. The bush walk is exactly how it sounds….we were walking in the bush. After about 10 days of being very careful not to leave our car it was weird being told to leave the vehicle. We were pretty much out in the open in the park. We had two armed rangers with us. One was more of the guide and the other was strictly there to monitor our surroundings.  They did a good job of not telling us all of the rules until we left the camp and were parked at our starting point. I think some of the people in our group would have opted to stay in the camp if they heard the rules before we left.  Here are some of the rules:

1.     Walk in a straight line
2.     Do not talk
3.     If we are told to climb a tree, do it without question
4.     If you see an animal, do not run
5.     If the ranger leaves you, just stay where you are. Do not follow them.

We were also told we may or may not see animals. As it turns out we did not see animals. We tried to track some elephants but there were too far away. Instead this walk turned into more of an ecology tour. We learned about footprints and how animals mark their territory. We also took a look at a huge termite mound and we were surprised to find them very fascinating. Emma and I also nicknamed this walk the poop walk since we talked a lot about animal droppings and how to track the animals. It was really wild being out in the open not knowing if there was something lurking in the bush.

Emma leading the pack

Checking out the damaged tree and trying to figure out what happened

Emma and the termite mound

Yummy snacks before we head back

Out in the wild!

In the end, the kids loved the park so much everyone voted to spend all of our days in the park. We re-visited some of our favorite camps and we were treated so to some very cool sightings as we were leaving the park. One was a small group of rhinos napping right next to the road and another was a beautiful male lion sitting under a tree. We had seen a few male lions but every time we saw them they were sleeping. We saw him about 1 mile from the exit gate and it was a great way to end our time in Kruger. We will always remember this special place and experiencing this together.

These guys were right next to the road on the way to our last camp

An amazing sighting to end our time in Kruger!!!

Final stuffie count- A little more than we expected. The boys ended up spending their money on an extra one!

Photo Album:
We really have a ton of pictures. It was so hard to pick the ones out to include in this post so I wanted to end this one with a few others for you to enjoy!

There were thousands of impalas!

Seeing elephant herds never gets old

A little afternoon snack of tree branches

Check out the birds hanging out on the giraffes. A symbiotic relationship.

The baboons heading into the mountain for the night

The hyena - these guys were pretty creepy

The beautiful kudo

Hippos peeking out of the water

You always think of the big animals when you think of Africa. But they had some very cool looking birds too!

An ostrich and her babies. You have to look close. They are the same color as the dirt on the side of the road.

It was fascinating when we would see bones. Always trying to guess the animal and what may have happened. 


  1. Oh my gosh. What a wonderful account of your African adventure. It is easy to see why it is the kids favorite trip.
    Your photos are terrific. Loved reading this!

  2. What an amazing wonderful trip. I can't even imagine what it was like to see it all in real time.