Self-drive Kruger safari with kids: the beginners guide

I won’t pretend to be an expert on Kruger, one of the largest and best-known national parks in the world. There must be millions, if not squillions, of words already written about this amazing place – not to mention the many photographs taken and published by Kruger-lovers around the globe.

No, I certainly am no expert, after all, we have only been once and then for only six days. However, as a total beginner, there were a few things I would have found useful to know before we left – especially for those who, like us, were taking children. So, here is my guide to how to survive a Kruger self-drive holiday with kids.

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Warthoglets – December is a great time to go to Kruger to see lots of newborn animals

Plan plan plan

The first thing you need to do before booking your trip to Kruger is to plan ahead. A long way ahead. If you are self-driving and staying in SANPark (South African National Parks) restcamps (as we did), you may need to book your accommodation up to a year in advance. If you are staying in private lodges (which are a lot more luxurious but not what this particular post is about) you can probably book closer to the date of travel. But the restcamps are extremely good value for money starting as low as £20 a night – which is what makes Kruger so accessible. And so affordable.

You may be stuck with certain dates to visit the park/South Africa depending on the age of your kids. But even so it is worth looking at what different times of the year are like: the summer (the northern hemisphere’s winter) can be extremely hot in South Africa: temperatures in Kruger have been reaching up to 43 degrees celcius this week. The winter tends to be a lot chillier at night but can still have lovely sunny days. There also tends to be less vegetation, making it easier to spot wildlife. School holidays will always be the busiest time – take a note of South African school holidays.

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Where to stay?

So once you have decided when you want to visit Kruger, I suggest you start thinking about how long you want to be “on safari” for and which camps you want to visit. To help with this, have a look at the SANParks website – their Kruger section is a wealth of information, including forums where you can ask any question you like. I also used guidebooks, maps, personal recommendations, TripAdvisor…..

Even so, it can be incredibly confusing to decide where to go. For a start, think about distances. As a rule of thumb you will probably travel at about 25 mph in the park – speed limits are low on all the roads and you will have many interesting things to stop and look at along the way. Five or six hours in a car at a time is enough for most people, so you probably won’t want to travel too often between distant camps.

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Braai’ing at the Oliphants rest camp

For our first trip we decided to stay at just three camps – Lower Sabie for one night, Oliphants for two nights, Satara for two nights and then back to Lower Sabie for another night. This gave us the chance to explore the more popular southern part of the park, which is best known for having a higher number of animals. We thought with children it was better to see as much as possible – going for any length of time without sitings could get a little tedious for them.

In terms of what is on offer at the restcamps, the SANPark website has all the details. Accommodation includes very nice rondevals and bungalows (ranging from 2-bed up to larger family guesthouses), cheaper rooms without kitchens, permanent tents and campsites. We always went with the rondavels, which each had bedrooms, bathrooms, fans and aircon, kitchenettes and somewhere to sit outside with a cold beer and watch the sunset. They weren’t luxurious, but they were comfortable and clean.

Location of the rooms can also be important. In some camps, for example, you can stay right on the perimeter with fantastic views of rivers, out onto the park, or the sun setting in the evening. Take a look at the maps to see where each bungalow is placed and chose the one closest to the views. At least, that is what my recommendation would be!

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Elephants on their way to the Oliphants river, viewed from our bungalow

The bungalows all come equipped with plenty of kitchen equipment – pans, cutlery, plates, various types of glasses, Braai tongs etc. Also dish clothes, washing up liquid, all sheets and towels…..the only thing they didn’t have which we would have found very helpful was a colander for draining pasta and potatoes…

Eating?

As with all holidays, mealtimes are very important. As we were self-catering we knew we would have to bring a certain amount of food into the park with us. We also didn’t have much room in the car so we decided to divide our meals between cooking for ourselves and eating in the restaurants in the camp (all the ones we ate at were run by the local franchise Mugg and Bean, which is generally pretty good). We had a large ice box, bringing a ready cooked meal for our first night and then some frozen meat for subsequent nights. We were able to re-freeze ice packs every night as each kitchenette included a fridge freezer.

There are shops selling food in the camps but they are quite basic so don’t rely on them to stock up too much. They did have quite a lot of wine and beer choice though! We bought bread, rusks, frozen yoghurt, milk and other bits and pieces in the rest-camp shops and also restocked on the one occasion we left the park to try and get our car fixed (a long story!).

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Cheeky monkey at a picnic stop

Most days start early so we made sure we had coffee, hot chocolate, flasks, rusks etc so could stop for a coffee break after an hour or two at one of the picnic or get-out stops. Many South Africans have a full-on cooked breakfast mid-morning but as nice as it looked, it also seemed like quite a faff. Sitting with a cup of coffee or picnic lunch watching elephants washing in a river below was certainly worth doing though!

Getting around

Of course if you are doing a self-drive safari, you need something to drive around in. We drove our seven-seater car up from Pretoria as my parents were staying so we needed the space. If you are coming from overseas, you will need to hire a car. The roads in Kruger are excellent, all either tar or relatively smooth gravel (with some corrugated parts). You won’t need a four wheel drive but I would get the most comfortable car you can afford – you will be spending a lot of time in it!

Many people fly into Johannesburg and hire a car from the airport. If you do this, be aware that it is a long drive to Kruger so you might want to plan to stay a night in Joburg before you leave for the park or along the way. There are lots of places on the road to stop to eat, stock up with food and fill your car with petrol. There are also petrol stations at some of the larger rest camps.

Another choice is to fly to one of the airports near Kruger, from which you can pick up a hire car. This cuts out a lot of travelling if you are only in South Africa for a short time, but of course adds cost for the extra flight.

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You won’t need a big car to see the big animals….

We did come across one breakdown in the park, plus heard stories of a few more, so make sure you know what to do if you did get car trouble. There is a mechanic based in the park (at Lataba) who will come to you if necessary. We know this because the airconditioning in our car stopped working halfway through the holiday. We did try and get it fixed but in the end we just went with the open-window option. It probably made for a better experience as we really were up close with the sounds, sights and even smells of the bush! But make sure you have some way of communicating and keep the numbers of the camps and parks with you at all times, particularly as you get closer to dark.

Also make sure you get a good map and/or route book. We used this one that I bought in Pretoria before we left for Kruger – it details every single road in the park, with information about what you can see and a star rating to give you help in planning your route. There are smaller and cheaper versions available to buy in the park itself.

You can also book game drives and walks (although the walks are generally only for children aged over 12) from the camps at very reasonable prices. The evening and night drives in particular can be a great way to see the park after dark as the camp gates close to the public after sunset.

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The sun sets on 2015

What will you see?

This I can’t tell you because this is the beauty of the self-drive safari. You just never know what is round every corner – it could be an empty road, or it could be a road full of baboons or zebras!

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You will almost certainly see plenty of these:

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But hopefully you will also see some of these

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As well as the above, plus another two excellent leopard sightings, we also saw plenty of lions – including two who just trotted out of the bush ahead of us and disappeared up the road with us following slowly behind; two serval; lots of hyena, countless hippos, giraffes, zebras, wildebeest, buffalo, elephants, impalas, steenbok, kudu, waterbuck, crocodiles, monkeys, baboons, mongoose……it really was non-stop wildlife.

My parents, who came with us, are big bird fans and managed to clock up around 120 different types of birds during the week. Even though the rest of us aren’t so keen, there were some birds that we all agreed were interesting enough to stop for:

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Ground hornbills – sort of half turkey, half crows….with red faces….

And what about the kids?

Of course, all parents know that when they plan a holiday they have to make sure the children will be happy – or everyone will be miserable! A self-drive holiday like this can be difficult with small kids: generally you will be in the car for hours at a time; you can only get out at designated spots so no unscheduled toilet breaks; and there isn’t an awful lot to do at the camps in between drives. Here are my tips for taking kids on a self-drive safari with you:

  • Don’t take your children at all unless you know they are ready for it. I don’t want to give an age as every child is different, but I wouldn’t have taken our just-turned eight year old before this year.
  • Book camps with pools, especially in the summer. We found a dip in the pool after a game drive was a fantastic way to cool off and also for the kids to let off steam. Some of the pools were less busy, and nicer, than others – our personal favourite was the one at Oliphants as it wasn’t too crazy. Satara, on the other hand, was bursting with people. We were there at the busiest time though.
  • Have lots of pens, paper, books, tablets etc in the car to keep your children amused when pickings are sparse outside the window.
  • Don’t forget snacks, especially for the early morning drives. We found the behavour of our youngest improved dramatically once we had given her something to eat in the morning. Always keep lots of water in the car too. We took hot chocolate to make for them at the morning stops when the adults had coffee.
  • Invest in some child-friendly binoculars and possibly a camera for them before the trip. Make sure they have got the photo they need before moving on – we learned from our mistakes that to do otherwise could lead to tantrums! There are bird and animal-spotting guides for children available in the shops at the rest camps, as well as lots of books, some games etc.
  • Remember that malaria can be an issue in this part of South Africa. There are generally more mosquitos in the summer when it usually rains more (although not this year, when we are in the middle of a pretty devastating drought – which did at least keep mozzies to a minimum). Some people chose not to take any prophylactics at all and just use spray and cover up as much as possible. We decided to use the pills, but certainly speak to a health professional about it before you chose what to do.
  • Be flexible!!  I know this is such a cliche but this should be the case for every holiday with children and in particular something like this. You may want to get up at the crack of dawn every day to get the best chance to see animals; but it might not work out if your kids won’t get out of bed. You could take it in turns to stay behind with the children if there are enough of you. If the children are getting grouchy in the car, try and find a place to get out for a stop and let them move around a bit. If this doesn’t help, consider calling it a day.
  • If things do go a bit pear-shaped, remember that you are still having an experience that you will almost certainly all look back on fondly. Your kids will be gaining so much from being in a place like Kruger and observing the animals in their natural habitat that you can forgive the odd difficult moment knowing that the overall benefit to all will be immense. Kruger is a very special place and any child who gets to go there is very lucky indeed 🙂

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Enjoy the small things

Finally, I wanted to mention something that I think is so important to your overall enjoyment of a self-drive safari, which is not only to look out for the “big stuff” (the predators, the Big 5, the rhinos etc) but also to enjoy the small moments. Some of our favourite memories from our holiday included watching a newborn wildebeest calf wobble to its feet as the vultures and jackals circled, then trot off after its mother leaving disappointed scavengers in its wake; a water hole surrounded by frustrated zebra desperate for a drink but unable to get close to the water thanks to the group of hyenas who had taken up residence in the pool; and a group of monkeys including tiny babies bouncing all over Satara rest camp early one morning like a group of rowdy pre-teens, the older ones jumping up and down the trees and rough-and-tumbling with each other, the youngsters mimicking their elder siblings from a much safer height…..

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Baby monkeys learning to play

All in all, it was a magical holiday. Not only did we see a fantastic variety of wildlife as well as plenty of beautiful scenery, we also spent some really quality family time together away from all distractions like phones and computers (there is wifi and signals at the camps but I decided just to turn my phone off for the duration!). It was a real escape, a perfect opportunity to recharge our batteries and the best possible start to our first full year in South Africa.

I have already started planning our next trip there!

Have you been to Kruger, or on a self-drive safari? Do you have any tips to add? If you have any questions please don’t hesitate to ask me 🙂

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The perfect safari?

When we came to South Africa we knew we would see animals. Probably quite a lot of them. And so far we haven’t been proved wrong. It has been an animal smorgsboard from day one.

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This baby elephant was just a few days old. I wasn’t allowed to take it home

But I don’t think I believed we would ever have such a great time as we did in Madikwe recently – a fantastic, malaria-free (this is important because the most-famous park, Kruger, isn’t), “Big 5” game reserve just four hours drive from Pretoria.

Madikwe is a well-managed park: to “safari” there you need to be staying at one of the lodges, and the guides all coordinate so there is never more than two vehicles at a siting at once. Sometimes they keep it to just one. This certanly gives the reserve an air of “exclusivity,” although I can’t pretend you don’t pay for this privilege.

Anyway with  30 lodges to chose from, it wasn’t going to be easy to decide where we would spend our three nights in the park. But luckily only a few are regarded as “child-friendly”, with several not accepting children at all. Plus, we had heard wonderful things about the Bush House – and in particular it’s underground hide, which allowed you to get within spitting distance of the elephants. So close in fact that often all you could see were their feet!

We stayed for three nights in Madikwe, and went on six game drives in that time (three in the morning, three in the afternoon). Each drive lasted more than three hours so in total we spend more than 18 hours sitting on our bums in an off-road vehicle. But it never felt that long – there was so much to see that the time always passed quickly, plus the stops for Amarula-filled coffee in the morning and sundowners in the evening helped!

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Amarula with your coffee? I won’t say no!

We were woken every morning at 5am by a tap on the door from our trusty guide Greg. Now usually it’s impossible to get our younger daughter out of bed at 6am to go to school – but here she was up and dressed in no time each day: although the drives were long (and she ended up taking a book to occupy herself during the quieter moments!), she was excited as the rest of us to see what that morning would hold!

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Baby zebra foal – probably just a few hours old.

Each morning’s game drive followed a similar pattern – we would usually try and follow up on one or two leads that Greg had already established from communicating with other guides, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Once we had a good “sighting” under our belts, he would take us on a drive somewhere different each day – before stopping for coffee with the much-welcomed Amarula addition. We were incredibly lucky and saw some fantastic animals during our three days – like this leopard:

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This guy was found because of his rather ostentatious dinner hanging in a nearby tree – leopards are well known for dragging carcasses up trees and leaving them there for when they feel like a bite to eat later. Nevertheless, we would never have spotted him hiding in a nearby bush, their camouflage is fantastic. It is at times like these that you really appreciate the skills of your highly-trained guides.

We also found a number of lions during our stay – two brothers who seemed to “rule the roost” one evening, a group of ladies another and finally another small pride complete with cubs on a third outing! It really did feel like quite a privilege.

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As well as the “big” sightings, we also enjoyed seeing some of the smaller animals in the park – like a rather large scorpion spotted by my husband, a weedy little snake seen by me, a leopard tortoise viewed by us all and this pair of dung beetles rolling their dung (the male apparently doing all the work!) first sighted very proudly by my youngest daughter:

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We saw so much it is hard to choose which pictures to share, but there were two sightings that probably stood out (as well as the leopard). The first was our amazing encounter with the park’s only pack of wild dogs (70% of the reserve’s dogs were sadly wiped out last year by rabies).

Greg had heard there were dogs in the area so we headed in the direction they had been briefly seen and patrolled slowly up and down the track by the bush, looking and listening for signs that we were in the right place. Suddenly – a howl! Greg and another guide made a little foray into the bush (we all stayed sensibly on the truck) and found exactly where they were! The pack had just killed a kudu and were in the process of chowing down. Apparently this is a quick process and they would be gone within ten minutes. So, beating back the thorn bushes as best we could, the vehicle drove into the bush and within metres of the dogs. Thanks to the great way the park is manged, they show no fear at all of the trucks – allowing us to get some brilliant photos (which would have been even better had our longer lens not decided to jam the day we arrived in Madikwe!)

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Wild dog pup proudly shows off his kudu ear!

We observed the wild dogs for about five minutes before moving off and allowing another brave truck to make the thorny-route into the clearing where they were polishing off the remains of their dinner. A truely magical experience!

The other sighting which will remain with me was of a caracal. A caracal is a lynx-like wild cat which is apparently rarely seen. As we came across it quite by chance, this spot really did feel very special:

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We were able to sit quietly and watch this beautiful cat as it made its way round in circles, marking its territory, completely nochalent about the car full of humans sitting and watching him go about his business!

So all good things must come to an end and we finally reached our last night at the Bush House. We had had some great game sightings but, due to the fact that it had recently, rained the lodge’s waterhole was quieter than usual (the game finding their water in other places). However, the last night came good and we had a parade of animals – elephants, rhino and a huge herd of buffalo – making their way down to the hole. It was truely a magnificant way to end an amazing holiday!

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If you are visiting South Africa I can thoroughly recommend the Bush House (even families with younger children can be accommodated – a Dutch family staying at the lodge with us had organised private game drives with their three-year-old). We will be going on a self-drive tour to Kruger later this year, malaria tablets and all. I am sure it will be a totally different experience, not least of all trying to work out how to feed us all for six days! But if it is ease and relaxation you are after then look no futher than Madikwe.

 

Pilansberg: our first proper South African safari

I realise that for many people who have been to South Africa, or other bloggers that live here, what I am about to describe will be pretty tame stuff. There is so much to do and see here, and so many people writing about it and photographing it, that you have to do more than just describe a trip to see some fairly commonly spotted animals at an easily accessible gamepark to get noticed.

But I don’t care.  I don’t profess to be some big travel blogger trying to make a name for myself. I’m not hoping to get my pictures picked up by National Geographic, or shared on some viral travel site. I just want to describe a brilliant day where we saw some beautiful and magnificant animals in their natural habitat and which led to my youngest daughter laughing with such delight that she just forgot, for a moment, that she really doesn’t want to be here.

Pilansberg is the closest “proper” park to Pretoria – ie one that is a full day out of game-spotting, that has lodges and such attached should you so wish to stay close enough for those early-morning drives. If you have seen the film Blended, this is the park they visited.

Our day started at some ungodly hour – 5.30am or something horrendous. Coffee was downed as we bundled the girls into their warm clothes (it’s winter here remember and although the days are bright and sunny, it gets pretty damn cold at night!) and set off through the still-sleeping city. Thanks to the lack of traffic we were on the motorway out of town pretty quickly and watched the sun rise behind us as we sped past the little settlements scattered along the side of the road.

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(Note: as well as being a fantastic opportunity to see wildlife, getting out of our little expat bubble world in Pretoria gave the children a chance to see a bit more about what life is like for the average South African. I am sure I will write more about this another time.)

When we finally arrived at the park gate, we found a rather long queue outside the ticket office – which seemed to be moving verrrrrry slowly.. When we finally got to the front, we realised this was because every car coming in had to have their numberplate noted and phone number of the occupants taken. I guess this is because they need to check that everyone has actually left the park at sundown…yup, we’re not in Disneyworld now…..

Anyway, we finally bought our tickets, got back into the car and off we went…

Only to meet by the side of the road just a few minutes in:

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Yes it’s a rhino! Ok it’s not the best picture of a rhino but he/she would insist on hiding behind a bush. And I wanted to include it because it was the first “proper” siting of the day….

But things only got better because just around the corner from this rhino was….

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Yes, he was in the road. And yes, he did start walking towards us flapping his ears….luckily he then decided to take a turn off the edge of the road and strode past our car just metres away. My youngest daughter, who had professed that elephants were what she wanted to see most in South Africa, laughed with complete delight. It absolutely made the whole hassle of getting here worthwhile.

Anyway we spent around 7 hours in the park in total and saw a huge number of animals, including lions (hard to spot but for the throng of cars and safari trucks by the edge of the road), warthogs, monkeys, lots more elephants, giraffes, zebras, lots of “antelopey things”, more rhinos (including a mum and her calf), hippos, a fish eagle, hornbills, loads of birds we couldn’t identify (that will have to wait until granny and grandpa are here!). wildebeest…..Anyway, here are a few of the highlights:

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I have more pictures but I realise that I will probably be boring you if I put up too many! I am very conscious that we will be seeing a lot of wildlife over the next couple of years and I don’t want to be that person who everyone moans about – oh no, not ANOTHER picture of a flipping elephant! But this was our first and it was a fabulous Welcome to SA so I thought I would share it with you. There’s still plenty more to see (cheetahs, leopards, closer views of lions, chameleons, dung beetles, bushbabies, meercats, all the creatures of the sea like the whalesharks and the manta rays….) so I am sure I will post some more pictures from time to time. But for now, I will enjoy the memories of our first South African Safari.

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