Ray's family at Kruger Elephant Museum

Kruger, Top to Bottom: Secret Places and Random Tips

Before my recent trip, I hadn’t fully grasped how large the Kruger National Park is. The park is 19,500 square kilometers (7,523 square miles), spread over a pipe-shaped area 360 kilometers (220 miles) long and about 65 kilometers (40 miles) wide.

Our route through the Kruger, with all the rest camps and picnic spots where we stopped along the way. The camps where we slept are marked in red.

I also hadn’t grasped how much there is to do in the Kruger, beside the obvious game-viewing.

Kruger is so vast that traveling between rest camps is an experience in itself. We stayed in four camps over seven nights, starting in the northernmost Punda Maria camp for one night, then on to the Shingwedzi and Satara camps for two nights each, finishing at the massive Skukuza camp for two nights. (Note that booking accommodation in the Kruger is a special skill requiring a blog post of its own. Ray’s mother is an expert — maybe I’ll ask her to do a guest post.)

The Kruger rest camps are historical, iconic places worth exploring in their own right.

Chalet at SataraA thatched Kruger chalet. This one is at Satara, one of my favorite rest camps.

Inside a chaletInside a Satara chalet, in case you’re wondering what the inside looks like. Most of the Kruger chalets we stayed in are set up more or less like this, although this particular one was my favorite. A chalet like this costs about R1400 ($105) per night for two people. More information here.

Also, there are dozens of interesting spots throughout the park where visitors can get out of the car, check out ancient ruins, peak over the edge of a bridge, make/buy a meal, read historical plaques, or simply gaze at the view.

View from Mlondozi picnic spot in KrugerWatching an elephant cross a dam (lake) at the Mlondozi picnic site, between Skukuza and Lower Sabie rest camps.

Ray and his family are clued in to lots of quirky Kruger sights and activities that others seem to overlook. Among other things, I thought I’d use this post to share some of the cool places I discovered with them.

Secret Places in the Kruger

1) The Elephant Hall (Letaba Rest Camp)

The Elephant Hall is a museum devoted to elephants, at the Letaba Rest Camp in central Kruger. The museum has an incredible collection of elephant tusks and stories of the giant “tuskers” who have lived and died in the Kruger during the last century. I was amazed by the cross-section of an elephant’s foot (huge!) and the preserved elephant’s heart, about the size of a beach ball.

Apparently the museum is usually empty, which is a shame. But we happened to show up at the same time as a school field trip and were engulfed by hoards of giggly teenagers eager to photograph themselves, each other, and us. It was fun.

Ray's family at Kruger Elephant MuseumRay’s mom and brother participate in a giggly schoolgirl photoshoot at the Elephant Hall.

2) The Kruger National Park Museum (Skukuza Rest Camp)

This museum, in the Skukuza Rest Camp, has to be the Kruger’s best kept secret — perhaps because there is almost no information about it online and the official name seems to vary. (The sign inside says Kruger National Park Museum, but I’ve also seen it referred to online as the Stevenson-Hamilton Memorial Library and the Stevenson-Hamilton Memorial Centre.)

Anyway, this museum was very recently refurbished — clearly at a significant expense — and has aesthetically pleasing, fun, informative, and culturally sensitive exhibits about the history of the Kruger Park. It also includes a library full of beautiful old books covering every wildlife- and nature-related topic imaginable.

Despite being smack-dab in the middle of the Kruger’s busiest rest camp, which houses thousands of visitors at a time, we were the only people in the museum. Please show it some love the next time you’re at Skukuza;  it’s a perfect way to pass those mid-day hours when the animals are sleeping, and so much more peaceful than Skukuza’s noisy restaurants.

Library at Kruger National Park Museum in SkukuzaThe library at the Kruger National Park Museum.

3) The Dog Cemetery (Skukuza Rest Camp)

The dog cemetery is just outside the museum at Skukuza, but deserves an entry of its own. This lovely little garden consists of gravestones of dogs collected throughout the Kruger Park over the decades. The graves are touching, commemorating the extraordinary lives and achievements of working dogs in the park.

Dog cemetery gravestonesTessa was a foster mother to three lion cubs! The half-cropped grave on the far right reads, “Buster: Died fighting a mamba in this garden.”

4) The Stevenson-Hamilton Memorial (southern Kruger)

Kruger is full of interesting memorials and historical plaques, usually beside little parking areas with signs inviting visitors to “alight at your own risk”. We stopped at many of these, but the Stevenson-Hamilton Memorial near Skukuza was the most beautiful (and heart-stopping).

Heather at the Stevenson-Hamilton MemorialMe standing in front of one of the huge boulders at the Stevenson-Hamilton Memorial. James Stevenson-Hamilton was the first warden of the Kruger National Park; his ashes are scattered here. (Photo: Ray)

Ray and I discovered this spot during one of our last evening game drives. The rocks loom far above the rest of the landscape and we climbed a winding dirt road to reach the memorial.

Even though visitors are allowed to leave their cars at the memorial, I hesitated. “This seems like a perfect place for leopards to hang out,” I said, looking around at all the underbrush. We were the only ones there.

But Ray convinced me. We took the path around the side of the huge rock to look at the plaque honoring Stevenson-Hamilton, then walked a bit further to one of the nicest viewpoints we’d seen all week.

Viewpoint at Stevenson-HamiltonThe viewpoint at the Stevenson-Hamilton Memorial. (Photo: Ray)

As we walked back to the car, I couldn’t shake my uneasiness. “No leopard!” I called into the bush. “No lion!”

As we were unlocking the car to get back in, another car screamed around the corner and pulled up next to us. The man in the driver’s seat was wild-eyed. “We just saw a leopard,” he gasped.

Ray thought the man was joking and didn’t jump into the car as fast as I’d like. But this wasn’t a joke. The man held out his camera screen and there it was.

We drove up and down the mountain a few times but couldn’t find the leopard. I suppose that might be a good thing in this case.

Anyway, the Stevenson-Hamilton Memorial is beautiful and I recommend the view. But please do alight at your own risk.

A Few More Kruger Tips

1) Don’t miss the northern Kruger.

Yes, the north is further away for most people, and it’s a bit quieter animal-wise (only a bit though). But I still like the north more than the south. It’s wilder, much less crowded, and has amazing birds and baobabs.

Elephant in northern KrugerAn elephant near the Punda Maria Rest Camp.

If you decide to go north and stay at the Punda Maria camp, I highly recommend the Russell Guest Cottage: a historic house that once served as the Punda Maria police quarters, and is now one of the park accommodation options. The cottage sleeps four and costs R2450 ($184) per night. Book well in advance.

Porch at Russell Guest Cottage in Punda MariaThe huge screened porch in the Russell Guest Cottage.

2) Prepare for crowds in the South.

We visited Kruger during low season, but the southern part of the park was still crowded. I rarely noticed the crowds though, except in a couple of instances.

The first was when we tried to sit down for a meal around mid-day at the Skukuza and Lower Sabie rest camps. Those camps are insanely busy and I recommend avoiding their restaurants and shops as much as possible. (The chalet areas are still quiet, thanks to the clever layout of the camps.)

The only other time I noticed the crowds was around lion or leopard sightings.

Traffic near lion sightingThere’s a lion around here somewhere. I only saw cars.

When you see a pile-up like this — unless it’s the only opportunity you’ll ever have in your life to see a lion — I recommend driving right on past.

3) Use the picnic spots.

Mid-morning breakfast at a picnic spot is a hallowed Kruger tradition. We got up early every morning, left the camp by 6:30, drove around for three or four hours, then stopped at our planned picnic spot for a “fry-up”: fried eggs, bacon, mushrooms, tomatoes, and a wondrous thing called “fried slice” — store-bought bread fried in bacon grease. (Fried slice is best with maple syrup.)

Morning fry-upMorning fry-up.

Each picnic spot has a full-time attendant, who rents out gas burners to visitors. Each spot also has dishwashing facilities, bathrooms, and access to boiling water. (Just don’t go to the Afsaal picnic spot near the Malelane gate. They charge R5 for boiling water and that’s ridiculous.) Watch out for greedy birds and monkeys.

Lady and nyala at Pafuri picnic spotAt the Pafuri picnic spot. The northern Kruger is the best section of the park for nyala-viewing. Apparently the nyalas also enjoy human-viewing.

Ray’s mom knows every picnic spot in the park and we stopped at all her favorites. My favorites were Mooiplaas (near Mopani), Mlondozi (between Skukuza and Lower Sabie), and Tshokwane (between Satara and Skukuza), which has a charming albeit busy restaurant in addition to a picnic spot.

4) Don’t bother with night drives.

Self-drivers must be off the road and inside the gates of their camps by about 6:00 p.m. and can’t leave again until 6:00 a.m. (Times vary slightly according to the time of year.) So the only way to see Kruger at night is by booking a SANParks night drive.

We did one night drive, and although we had one amazing sighting of an African wildcat, I do not recommend it. The night drives consist of about 30 people cramming into the back of a huge safari truck like a herd of cattle. The driver hands out a few big flashlights and tells everyone to yell if they see something.

Every few minutes the driver yelled, “Look in the trees! Look on the ground!” and otherwise said nothing. People yelled out when they thought they saw something, the driver jerked to a halt, backed up a few feet, and then everyone strained to see something — anything — in the dark. In every case but one, we saw nothing.

African wildcat in KrugerProps to Jack, Ray’s brother, who spotted this African wildcat and saved the night drive from being a waste. I had never seen one of these before. I love how it steadfastly refused to open its eyes, or even get up and run away, despite 30 people oohing and ahhing and shining flashlights in its face. That’s so…cat.

5) Don’t feed the animals. And don’t get out of the car.

This seems obvious, especially the second tip. But believe it or not, we saw one idiot get out of his car in the middle of the road, within spitting distance of a LION. I had a short “discussion” with this man and was dismayed to find that he was either American or Canadian (probably American).

Guy outside his car in the KrugerGo back to Trumpland, buddy. (Photo: Ray)

Leaning outside of the car in the KrugerThis is also not allowed. (Photo: Ray)

Not only do you put yourself at risk by doing this, but you also risk habituating the animals to humans. Also you can get fined lots of money. So don’t.

6) Don’t obsess over the Big Five.

The Big Five includes lions, leopards, elephants, buffalo, and rhino. No one really knows why the Big Five are the Big Five. Do yourself a favor and don’t get obsessed with seeing all five. You’ll drive yourself crazy.

That said, I have to brag that I did see all five for the first time ever. No decent lion or leopard pictures to show for it though.

Baby Big-FiverA baby Big-Fiver.

Waterbuck in KrugerWaterbuck are not part of the Big Five but they’re still freaking cool.

I could say much more but 2000 words is enough.

I dedicate this post to Tim Couzens, Ray’s father, who passed away in October 2016. In addition to being an accomplished South African writer, historian, and pioneer in the field of African literature, Tim was a die-hard Kruger lover and went there every year with his family. That family misses him very much.

In addition to being a family vacation, this Kruger trip was a tribute to Tim. We visited all his favorite places and Di, Ray, and Jack regaled each other (and me) with countless stories and memories of their dad/husband. I’m fortunate to have been part of it, and I’m fortunate to have known Tim.

Tim and Di in NyangaTim and Di in Nyanga, Zimbabwe, in November 2014.

Rest in peace, Tim.

Sunset in the Kruger

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22 Comments

  • Reply Gail Scott Wilson August 15, 2017 at 4:02 pm

    Beautiful blog Heather. I lived just outside Phalaborwa for a few years and a trip into the park via the Letaba gate was almost a weekly, weekend activity. Our fence was also virtually the park fence so sitting in our yard we could watch the animals. Very special place.

    • Reply 2summers August 15, 2017 at 4:05 pm

      That must have been amazing 😍

  • Reply Stephanie August 15, 2017 at 5:01 pm

    Such lovely tales. And yes, such a beautiful wide open space to visit. I too love the north and have to say that’s where we will return to in the future. We had pretty good sightings “up” there — though to us, any sighting can be magical (and we are bird nerds too, so good birding makes us happy).

    We went for Easter week in 2016 and I was prepared to feel like I was in Disneyland from what people were saying about the crowds. Only twice did we ever have more than two cars on a sighting (one was a lion in the shade next to the car) and the other was a trio of cheetahs sighting that we came back to 45 minutes later and had all to ourselves.

    I’ve been to Yellowstone in the summer and found Yellowstone much worse actually. I also LOVED the library and the dog graveyard – two highlights of our trip for sure.

    I will have to disagree with you on the night drive though… But it totally depends on your guide. We went out of Sirheni and because someone had recommended going with Paul, we did. I think Paul was half lion himself. He took us out on various dirt roads that the public can’t go on (there were only eight of us in the vehicle – six were my family) and flashed his light everywhere but was very respectful to the animals, never directly shining on them. We saw lots of night time creatures including a lion, a leopard, an African wildcat, a large spotted genet, a jackal and a civet. One of the best things he did was take us into the middle of the field and turned off all the lights and sounds and made us sit and appreciate the vast wilderness we were in with lightning bugs flashing and listening to all sorts of night time sounds with zero light pollution. You really felt like you were in the middle of nowhere. So, if you ever return, stay at Sirheni (which is also a really cool small camp without any amenities), and try to go on trip with Paul, he’s well known throughout those northern parts.

    Now, to booking my next trip to Kruger…

    • Reply 2summers August 15, 2017 at 5:04 pm

      Oh wow! That certainly sounds amazing and nothing like the experience we had. I will definitely try a night drive from a smaller camp next time then.

  • Reply Di Brown August 15, 2017 at 5:44 pm

    What a beautiful tribute to Tim, who sounds like he was a lovely man and true nature lover.
    Love your tips and take on Kruger, spot on. If you plan on going again, please send me your physical address as I would like to post you some detailed Kruger Park maps that we made back in the day when I was a map maker.

    • Reply 2summers August 15, 2017 at 5:46 pm

      Oooh! That would be AMAZING 😍😍😍

  • Reply UnderAnAfricanSun August 15, 2017 at 6:25 pm

    Oh Heather, how lucky you are to have a Kruger loving family! I really enjoyed reading this as you really “get” the Kruger magic. I love all the secret places you went, though I still need to get to the museum at Skukuza. I was so moved by the dog cemetery. And Stevenson-Hamilton is the only place in the entire park that I will not go alone. I always get the hibbie jibbies there thinking of Stevenson-Hamilton and the possiblity of leopards crawling around in the rocks there. At least with the Frenchie maybe one of us will make it out to report the attack, haha.

    Unfortunately I totally agree about the night drive at Satara. The only one I ever did was there and it was just like you described. It was so frustrating with the passengers having to look for the animals as the people with the lights were just all over the place. Then a couple of people insisted for a looong time that the set of eyes they found was a leopard when the animal was the size of a Kudu. They would NOT let us move on ugh…

    There is also a (at least one) resident African Wild Cat in Satara camp. We have seen her several times and she is very relaxed. The first time we saw her we were walking through the camp after dinner on our own night walking safari. The Frenchie had seen something but didn’t tell me and then I saw something move. He says, oh it’s just a cat. I say, what, that’s no ordinary cat, that’s an African Wild Cat! His reply was, oh, I thought it was strange someone brought their cat to Kruger! We still laugh about that one.

    Thanks so much for sharing your stories from your trip. It was a beautiful tribute to Ray’s father.

    • Reply 2summers August 15, 2017 at 6:29 pm

      I need to read more about the history of Stevenson-Hamilton. Did something happen in that particular place?

      Funny you mention the Satara cat. During one of our nights there I was CERTAIN I heard the sound of a cat meowing outside our window. Do African wildcats meow?

  • Reply UnderAnAfricanSun August 15, 2017 at 6:45 pm

    That’s a great question about the memorial. I have Stevenson-Hamilton’s book “the Lowveld” from 1929. I haven’t gotten to read much of it yet but I will let you know if I find anything there. He was a fascinating man. Not sure about the cat meowing, it could have been but I have never heard one before. Good questions!

    • Reply 2summers August 15, 2017 at 6:46 pm

      I suppose I should research it myself. This post already took so long though.

      • Reply UnderAnAfricanSun August 15, 2017 at 6:49 pm

        Haha, I understand. I have a few Kruger posts in the works but it takes me so long to try and narrow down all I want to say that in the end I never get finished…

        • Reply 2summers August 15, 2017 at 8:52 pm

          Hahahaha.

  • Reply tenneymason August 15, 2017 at 9:14 pm

    Fascinating

    • Reply 2summers August 15, 2017 at 9:33 pm

      Th Kruger is the the SA version of our Bethany Beach.

  • Reply autumnashbough August 16, 2017 at 1:02 am

    LMAO at the wildcat. “Screw you, humans. Come back with food and we’ll talk.”

    What a great resource you’ve put together. 🙂

    • Reply 2summers August 16, 2017 at 11:45 am

      I’m guessing that cat is pretty used to be stared at by humans every night and just doesn’t give a sh*t.

  • Reply Brenda Reiss August 16, 2017 at 1:29 am

    What a lovely post! Your enthusiasm and kind heart show through. The last time I was in The Kruger park was in the 60’s. I had heard recently that it was suffering the kind of popularity we see here in the US at the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone. How delightful to read of your lovley visit.
    I read Tim Couzens’ obituary. What a loss! I will look for his books but tell his family that someone who doesn’t know them sends condolences and best wishes.

    • Reply 2summers August 16, 2017 at 11:51 am

      Thanks so much for the comment, Brenda. I think the Kruger’s popularity is similar to the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone, but perhaps not quite as crazy because 1) SA just doesn’t have the same levels of tourism that the US has, and 2) Kruger tourism tends to be a bit more spread out across the year, compared to the US national parks where 90% of the tourism happens in summer. I could be wrong though.

      Thanks for the kind words about Ray’s dad. He was an extraordinary person!

  • Reply Meg August 16, 2017 at 7:39 am

    It always surprises me how tourists get a booking in Kruger but where most of my friends and family have to book a year in advance! Keen to hear Ray’s mum’s tips on how to get a booking.

    • Reply 2summers August 16, 2017 at 8:32 am

      She does book very, very far in advance. But I know she also made lots of changes after the initial booking. She checks the website constantly and jumps on openings as soon as they pop up.

  • Reply MapleAndMarula August 16, 2017 at 11:06 am

    I love this post- I’ve been to Kruger 3 times and couldn’t agree with more about everything on here. We especially enjoyed the elephant museum- I could have spent a little longer in there, but 6 and 3 years olds kind of encourage you to hurry up sometimes.

    One quick tip re: booking that you touched on in another comment is to ABSOLUTELY use the online booking system. It’s live, so as soon as someone cancels (it happens often), their spot opens up. If you have a full day to sit and refresh the reservations site over and over again, it can be done.

    I managed to book 4 nights over Easter weekend in Kruger (one of the busiest weekends) just the week before we left by camping out on the website. It took me several hours over 2 days, but it worked.

    Booking ahead is recommended, but last minute trips can be done if you have the patience.

    • Reply 2summers August 16, 2017 at 11:07 am

      That’s great advice! Thanks.

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