As vacation travelers, Blanca and I have very seldom returned to a destination. There is a wise old adage: You can never go back. If you had a great time somewhere, leave it at that and leave your memories intact. Any revisit often just seems to be a 'been there done that'. I understand that you might disagree because there can be a comfort in returning to a place that you really enjoyed. Paris is like that for us. No, it is never the same as our first trip in 1999 but it is now like an old pair of jeans. It fits and it is comfortable.
Africa is different somehow. Not all of it, of course. One visit to the souks of Marrakech was enough, but the Sahara? Hmmm.
And then there is Kruger. The sounds, the smell, the tamed wildness of this Lowveld park is very, very addictive. We HAD to go back.
Sure, for many who experience Kruger via an all-inclusive private reserve, 3 – 4 nights is enough. It was for us as well. Like any resort anywhere, each day is only a slight variation of the regimented style that they deliver. 5:30 game drive, 10:00 breakfast. 16:30 game drive. 19:00 dinner alternating between on the deck or at the bomba. Repeat every day. They essentially deliver the game to you via guided drives in an open-sided Toyota Hilux safari jeep with a personable guide, who is in radio contact with his network of other personable guides driving their load of tourists to pre-determined sightings. No they don't chain the animals to a tree, so each drive is different, but their shared resources guarantees a great way to see the most in the least amount of time.
For us however, the real magic of Kruger was in self-discovery. After our first visit last year in May 2016, we wanted to go back. But not to a private reserve. We wanted to go deep into the public park. You see, we had uncovered a whole new type of travel experience that excited us. You are the intrepid explorer in the wilds of Africa. You leave the safe haven of the camp and you drive out on the roads yourself, eagerly anticipating that next find. Busy tar roads with a traffic jam of cars angling for a good view of a sighting. Or lonely gravel back roads where you can have them all to yourself. A guide doesn’t point that herd of elephants out, you find them. What a thrill - each and every time. Even though the roads are all well-traveled and even when another carload might have gotten there first, it is EXCITING!
Kruger National Park is part of a chain of parks run by the South African government and financed by the public purse. Just like Algonquin Park in Ontario, Canada or Yosemite in California. It is a vast area that is fenced to keep the natural animals in and invasive species out. No hunting is allowed although - controversially - there is hunting in some adjacent private reserves on the western border that have taken down their fences to boost game stocks and DNA intermixing. But I won't get into that here, other than to mention that the only Kruger Private Reserves that have totally disavowed hunting are Sabi Sands, MalaMala and Manyeleti, if that is important to you.
Accommodation in the park itself is fairly basic at best. You don't go for fine dining and fancy living. Just like any national park, you can just go rent a space and pitch a tent and do it yourself. Or you can take your tent trailer and do the same. However they have added another layer by having bungalows, rondavels and larger guest houses that you can rent daily. With friggin' maid service!
But this is not 4 Star accommodation with a selection of poofy hypoallergenic pillows, king sized beds and room service at your beck and call. It is a collection of small clean stand-alone bungalows with decent spacing between to allow some privacy. Functional rooms - think 2.5 Stars maybe up to 3.5 Stars on a North American scale, with twin beds, a shower, a kitchen with utensils, and a braai. No TV. No Internet. Often no cell service. So leave your laptop and your selfie stick at home. But the maids do make up the room daily with fresh towels supplied and the braai is always cleaned.
And don't go expecting fine dining. The 12 largest rest camps (as they are called) have restaurants that are a mild step above chain fast food with only one having a real restaurant that is actually pretty good. And even it is part of a chain. These larger camps also have a store with food (for cooking) and camping supplies as well as liquor and souvenir knickknacks. And a gas station to fuel your ride.
Below these camps are a couple of tiers of smaller camps that strip away some of these services. Bushveld camps don't have stores, gas or restaurants and they only have 12 to 15 bungalows. The maid services remains, however. And below this there are rustic camps that are even more basic. See the map on next page.
All in all, you have to set your expectation levels accordingly. We aimed for a start with the normal full-service rest camps and finished with 9 consecutive nights of bushveld camps. So let's call it semi-camping . . . or Kamping in Kruger!
The how is easy. SanPark is the management organization of all South African parks. They have booking offices that you can phone or email and they have a detailed website for info and for booking. www.sanparks.org. You can book 11 months out and it is highly advisable to book as early as you can. Kruger (and several other parks) are extremely popular with South Africans as well as the rest of the world.
They also have a heavily moderated forum that is a fountain of park information. Trip Advisor also has a Kruger-specific forum.
The What to Do
You drive the network of paved (locally called tar) and unpaved (referred to as dirt) roads in search of whatever you find.
Sorry, there are no rapids to kayak. No bungie jumping. No ziplines. No lakes to swim in (although numerous camps do have swimming pools). They have added bike tours at one camp and special 4X4 off-road tours in a few very specific areas recently but that's it.
Most camps have guided game drives - morning, late afternoon and night. Some offer game walks although you typically don't see much game because animals generally don't like people on foot. These activities all have an extra modest cost and have minimum attendance requirements and age restrictions.
Next Up: Berg-en-Dal Rest Camp
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Trip Report: Leaf Leopards & Stone Lions: Kamping in Kruger