Answers to all of your questions about doing a Safari vacation in South Africa! [+ free safari planner]
Going on a safari is a once in a lifetime trip that most of us put on our bucket list but somehow always postpone because we think we could never afford it. Well, think again! You don't have to spend thousands and thousands of dollars to go on a safari. In fact, there are several ways you can plan this trip in an affordable fashion. Through this post, I'm answering all your questions to plan an epic vacation in Kruger park!
For us, we had the chance to go on a safari before a business trip. The hubby needed to go to Johannesburg for a conference and I decided to tag along and so we decided to extend the trip to include a safari. Extending your business trip can sometimes lead you to great adventures!
PSST: This posts contains shameless references to the Lion King. You have been warned!
3 major Misconceptions about going on a safari
Before going on our trip, I had the misconception that going on a safari needed to be for at least two weeks. And in a way, those are the packages that are being promoted. However, you can do small trips, we did 4 incredible days but you can even do smaller trips of 2 days. So you don't need to book your 2-week annual vacation going to a safari, you can only use a few days. Even before a business trip!
Every time we googled a safari vacation, we were blown away by prices. And this is one of the reasons why we always postponed one of these trips. Well, in fact, doing a small safari trip in a private lodge can be affordable. It cost us around $150 per day per person for an all-inclusive lodge with 2 drives per day.
I was really surprised that the word safari is still heavily linked to hunting. At work, when I asked for my vacation days, my coworkers were always double checking to make sure I wasn't going on a hunting trip. No, we did not go hunting! The only thing I was catching were great photo opportunities with the astonishing creatures.
Why choose Kruger park?
We did our Safari in Kruger park. It is approximately a 5-hour drive from Johannesburg and it is one of the largest game reserves in all Africa, covering more than 20,000 square kilometres. Kruger park has been a World Heritage Site since 2001 and it is said to be one the oldest wildlife reserve in the World. It has over 3,414 species of flora and fauna. And of course, the big 5! If you are lucky, you can see them all on your trip. The big 5 are rhinos, lions, leopards, elephants and cape buffalo. Sadly, the leopard was the only one that we did not have a chance to see.
Plus, South Africa is a great country with so many things to do! Please, don't go to the country for just a safari, go an explore the different cities and natural wonders the country has to offer!
Self-driving safari, private reserve or concessions, what are all these?
What are these types of safaris and which one is the right for you? Kruger park has different types of safaris and they can change your budget and yor experience drastically.
Like the name says, you will be driving with your rented car through the park. You can do this a one day trip or several day adventures. The park has several camps where you can stay.
The two main perks for these types are that you can go at your own rhythm and it is the most budget-friendly option.
All you need to do is pay around $28 per person per day for non-South African residents to enter the park. You get to drive your own vehicle on designated park roads. You can camp or stay in self-catering accommodation. You will need to do some groceries before. Also, you will need to bring all this extra gear like sleeping bags.
The counter side of this is that you can't do any off-road or night drives and that you will be seeing the animals through your small car window. Since most of us don't have much knowledge about how to spot animals, your chances of spotting them will be slimmer.
Guided tours are done in private or small groups. They are done in open vehicles so you can see the animals better. The guides are very knowledgeable and they will know where to go and the best time to do the drives. You can do these by staying on the park's accommodations or by doing a tour. You can mix and match between a self-driving tour and a guided tour into your vacation length.
Concessions and private REserves
What are they and what is the difference between these 2?
Concessions are private lodges inside the national park. These accommodations are on the more high-end side of the spectrum.
Private reserves are adjacent to the park and offer an exclusive experience. Here, you can go off-road in an elevated open vehicle and get close to the animals. With this type of vehicles, you have no obstructions to see all the animals that you want!
These are all-inclusive experiences and you will do your game drives with very knowledgeable and passionate guides and trackers. Plus, you will be able to do night drives. This is where we got the chance to see 2 lions roaring. These are, of course, more expensive but don't be fooled, some can be affordable, specifically if you are doing just a couple of days. We took this latter option.
So why did we chose a private lodge?
First of all, we are not the camping type and quite frankly, camping near lions, hyenas and snakes is really out of my comfort zone. In fact, just the thought of doing this, scares the hell out of me!
Since this a once-in-a-lifetime experience, we decided that we needed to go all-in. I liked the fact that we were taken care of by an extremely talented team of guide and tracker. They were super knowledgeable, they knew everything about the animals, their behaviour and the park geography. This was definitely a big plus! With them, we learnt so much! For example, did you know that elephants can know where there is underground water? They dig it up and by doing so, they can provide water to other animals in drought times. Isn't nature just fascinating?
The tour includes 2 game drives per day. However, keep in mind that in some drives you will have no luck and you will not see any animals, as they roam freely. In the afternoon drives, you will get a chance to stop out in the bush for a drink. These are fun and completely unexpected. The team has some refreshments and you get to enjoy the views. This is definitely a unique experience. I know that this sounds scary, I know that on our first stop I was but you get used to it. After all, you trust your guide that they will not stop next to Scar’s hyenas!
Now, let’s talk about the accommodations. The lodges are beautiful! Generally, they are for a very restricted number of guest most of them are for around 10 to 20 persons. They are built for you to watch as many animals as possible. One of the walls of our bedroom was fully windowed and there was a pond at proximity. When waking up, you could see some animals drinking water. The lodge has a large balcony where you could see the vast open spaces. There was a big pond where we saw animals drinking or taking bath during our relaxing times. I was like a child looking at the Pumbaa taking bath and chilling. Yes, I said Pumbaa and not warthogs. The packages also come with the meals so you don’t have to worry about cooking. Some lodges even have a private chef.
How will your day unfold in a private game lodge?
Here is a general overview schedule (some can change depending on the type of safari and lodge that your book) :
5 a.m. wake-up
5:30 a.m. Coffee and biscuits
6 to 9 a.m. game drive (most animals are more active in the hours right around sunrise)
9:30 a.m. breakfast
Relaxing time or pool time. I would suggest bringing a good book. Unless you book a safari and yoga or another type of niche safari, these will be long downtime!
4 to 7 p.m. evening game drive. These drives also include a drink somewhere out in the bush. These drives can turn into a night drive if the rangers get a clue of an animal. Or you will go on a separate night drive.
Dinner this will most likely be braai, South-African barbecue.
Walking safaris, why do them?
These are bush walks that you do with an armed ranger. In these walks, you will pay closer attention to details and to smaller animals. Here, you will get a chance to see tracks closer and better understand how the tracker and the guide track he animals that we see. You will appreciate smaller creatures and plant life.
At first, we were hesitant to do these as we felt it was unsafe and we did not want to end up in a situation where the ranger had to choose between our lives and the animals. After all, these are wild animals and we are intruding into their territory. However, our guide put us at ease during our stay and we completely trusted him and his love for animals.
Best time to visit Kruger national park?
There is not a right or wrong time to visit Kruger but each season has its perks.
Winter - Dry Season
In winter, the bush is dry and you can see animals at a longer distance since you don't have all the foliage covering them. Also, the water is more scarce, the rivers are lower which means that the animals will be easier to see since they will be all drinking water at these very specific places. The weather is nice, not too hot and a little chilly. We went at the end of this season, around mid-November.
Summer - Wet Season
This is the lower season which means that probably find better deals! Keep in mind that the landscape will be lush and full so seeing animals will be more difficult. However, you will get a chance to see cute newborns, hi baby Simba! And of course, wet seasons is the equivalent to a lot of rain!
How many days should you spend at Kruger?
This will be up to you, your time and budget. I thought that 4 days was more than enough. We got a chance to see all the animals that we wanted. I would think that doing a 2 or 3-week safari in the same place will be a little long.
What to bring to your packing list?
If you are doing an all-inclusive safari will need to bring the following:
Warm jacket for game drives (even in summer). You will be waking up at 5 am and trust me, you will get cold!
Think about bringing different layers if you get cold. That way, as the sun goes up, you can peel off your layers. The lodge also offers you blankets if you get extra cold!
Comfortable walking shoes for your walking safari.
Earth tones clothes for your walking safari. I had a bright pink sweater for the rest of the drives so don't worry about having to buy clothes when you are in the vehicle. No need to look like Indiana Jones, just grab brown, green, beige tops and bottoms for your walking Safari.
Sun Hat and sunglasses
Camera with Zoom Lens. I had a 200mm, however, you can also take great pictures and videos with your phone, depending on how close you can get.
Insect repellent. (We did not need it)
Binoculars. If you have very fancy binoculars, by all means, bring them. If not, the lodge would most likely provide them
Umbrella or rain coat for the raining season
Is there a risk of Malaria in Kruger national park?
The park IS a malaria area. However, the risk of contracting malaria is low in the park. But DO NOT take the chance and take your preventative measures. Meaning, you will need to buy in advance anti-malaria medication. Don’t forget that you will need to take the pills 1 day in advance of going to the risk area. This medication does come with some side effect, it will most likely give you mild stomach-ache.
You do need to tip in South Africa. In general, you tip the staff around USD $5-10 per person per day. It is expected that the tip is given at the end of the trip.
Which tour operator to take?
Take the one that you feel more comfortable with, the one that can be tailored to your needs, budget and time. There are a lot of tour operators so don’t forget to look up at the reviews. The only thing I would suggest is to look up for a sustainable tour and lodge. This way you will be lowering the impact on the environment. Our lodge was fully equipped with solar power. We did not have any cellphone or internet connection, so be warned!
But most importantly, why going on a safari?
I just hate when people say, why do you need to go all over South Africa when you can see elephants at the zoo! Seriously, the zoo? -_- First of all, a safari is not an animal cruelty activity like zoos can be. The animals roam free on their natural habitat. You will be enjoying watching the circle of life at it fullest.
For me, going on a safari is a very humbling and thrilling experience. It was all about contact with these endangered animals. I consider myself extremely lucky to be able to see these animals as I know that in around 2 decades, the rhinos that we saw will be extinct because of us, humans. Our guide was very involved in animal conservation and this was very eye-opening. If you care about animals, please consider seeing what this foundation does and how you can help protect these beautiful animals.
Practical information for South Africa
South Africa has some of the cleanest tap water in the world! So ditch your plastic bottle and use your reusable bottle!
The currency of the country is the South African Rand (RAD). Rands can be easily found abroad at the currency exchange office. Also, South Africa has a well-developed financial system and extensive bank network so you will be able to pay with your credit card there in most of the places.
In South Africa, the power plugs and sockets are of type D, M and N. The standard voltage is 230 V and the standard frequency is 50 Hz. You will see that the plugs are characterized by 3 round pin forming a triangle.
Are there any questions and answers that I have missed? Drop them below and I will try my best help you :) Or if you have other suggestions for inserting Lion King reference, I will be happy to add them.
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