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.
Inside 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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
Me 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
Props 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).
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.
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.
Rest in peace, Tim.