In December of 2016, my friend Jenny casually mentioned that South Africa was on her bucket list to my friend Jess and I. We wanted to take a girls trip so I volunteered to look into a potential itinerary and was still not that intrigued by the destination. WOW, was I wrong! Even though I was not impressed, I was itching to travel so in February, being the great dictator friend that I am, I all but forced Jenny and Jessica to buy round trip tickets to Johannesburg for the following April. Because I was such a
tyrant enthusiast, we did so many things on this trip that it requires a two-part blog post.
We all met at JFK and departed on a looooooong (18 hours) flight to Nelspruit (closest airport to Kruger), with a short layover in Johannesburg. Upon arrival in Nelspruit, we were picked up in a van by a guide from Wild Wings Safari with whom we booked a 3-day safari excursions and were driven to Kruger National Park (about a two hour drive). You know that famous Battle at Kruger YouTube video? Yup, that happened right where we went! The package included a two nights’ stay within the park, all food/meals, non-alcoholic beverages, and five-six group game drives for about $700. Our accommodations in the Skukuza Rest Camp were by no means luxury but we slept within the walls of the park so we didn’t have to waste anytime waiting in during peak morning hours. See our hut/bungalow below:We started our first game drive as soon as our group entered the park. It was CRAZY to see all these wild animals roaming around with no fence. The animals at Kruger are left alone for the most part -park rangers only interfere if an animal is having a human-caused issue. For example, if an animal get stuck in a manmade well, park rangers will rescue it. If on the other hand a tree falls down and pins an animal, they would not be rescued. The park tries hard to replicate a wildlife existence for the animals and it’s noticeable, especially once you see a hyena gnawing on a gazelle carcass.
After our first drive, we went back to our bungalow to take a nap and relax and were picked up for the afternoon drive around 6 PM. This was one of my favorite drives because we saw a huge elephant crossing the street, Pumba (warthog), lots of birds, kudu (an antelope of sorts), deer, a mamma and baby hippos, an a vulture. The coolest was seeing hyenas begin to hunt as the pack caught a scent. I reached so far out of the car to take a picture I am genuinely SHOCKED I still have limbs.
That nights’ dinner was in a restaurant located inside Skukuza. This was when it hit us like a ton of bricks that everything in South Africa is obnoxiously inexpensive. Bottle of restaurants most expensive champagne, filet mignon, and appetizers all for under $30 a person? Yes, please!
We got up at the crack of dawn (literally, it was barely light out) and headed out on an early morning game drive. This was by far one of my favorites. After watching the sunrise on top a cliff, we saw baby hyenas just waking up (they look way cuter in the morning than when they’re hunting), a big rhino, zebras, and lions. We also saw the famous “Battle at Kruger” spot and witnessed two bucks fighting and ramming into each other. It was no battle between lions and buffalo but we cheered them on nonetheless. This drive lasted six hours and by the end, we were pretty over it. Nevertheless, after napping, relaxing, and playing cards, we went on another night drive but didn’t see much.
Dinner was prepared by our tour guides, which seemed like it would be awkward, but we had a good time – asking questions about the park and talking about Jessica the Hippo and Stouffel the Honey Badger Houdini. There was also talk of a hyena that got into the base camp so we had a lively discussion regarding how we would defend ourselves.
On our last day in the park, we did another early morning drive (when will this end?!) before heading out to Johannseburg and then Cape Town. At the end of this drive, we ended up seeing four out of the five “Big Five” – lion, rhino, elephant, and buffalo. At one point, we heard from other safari groups that there was a mamma and cub leopard hiding on a tree earlier but were now on the move. We drove around the park some in an attempt to spot them but in Jenny’s opinion, our tour guide did not try nearly hard enough to find them. To say she was disappointed is an understatement of epic proportions.
As you can see, this post does not contain even half of the amount of shenanigans I usually get myself into (just you wait until Part 2). That’s because a) Kruger had neither reception nor Wi-Fi, so we had zero connection with the outside world and b) there is LITERALLY nowhere to go out in a 200 mi radius (trust me, I checked). In a way, it was kind of nice to be totally disconnected. Plus we were so exhausted from jet lag and getting up early that a 9 PM bedtime sounded like heaven (always does for Jessica). Kruger provides South Africa’s most real and authentic safari experience. It was 100% worth the cost, the energy, and the trek. However, if doing pretty much nothing but safari drives for three days does not interest you, I would recommend skipping this portion or doing a smaller safari near a major city. There are some smaller parks near Cape Town but based on my research, those seemed more like a zoo and didn’t contain nearly as many animals as Kruger.
- Start getting your shots early. I had no idea all the shots and pills that are recommended – tetanus, malaria (pills), hepatitis, typhoid, etc. (pretty sure Jenny didn’t get any of the above because she’s likes to live life on the edge).
- If you plan on traveling to Kruger, make sure you REALLY love animals because that will be your main source of entertainment for a few days.
- Bring warm clothes no matter the time of day you go. I wore UGGS for the morning drives and a t-shirt in the afternoon.
- Bring items to entertain yourself in between game drives – cards, books, games. We also frequented the gift shop quite often.
- Book your safari WELL in advance. We got lucky but usually accommodations within the park itself sell out a few months ahead of time.
- This particular safari company does not use fancy tools or sensors to spot the animals and doesn’t communicate with other safari tour guides. Overall, this didn’t impact us much but at times (see lack of leopard spotting above) , it would have been helpful.
- If six game drives is not enough, the park itself offers guided “bush walks” and “night walks”. The guides are obviously armed in case of emergency but I wanted to live to see the rest of South Africa.
- Bring binoculars – we didn’t have any but were able to borrow some from someone in our group and they were extremely helpful in seeing a rhino herd in a deep watering hole.