Kruger is South Africa’s largest national park and one of Africa’s biggest, covering an area of 7,523 square miles. Kruger is also home to the Big 5 – lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant and rhino – and is one of the best places on the continent to see these formidable animals. Kruger National Park itself is quite busy, and traffic within the park can become quite cumbersome in the winter high season months. For Montanans, visiting Kruger in August is akin to visiting Yellowstone or Glacier in July and August; traffic jams, trail jams and the concentration of humanity can sometimes take away from the magnificence of the scenery and wildlife.
Flanking the parks Western boundary are the private concessions, which are undoubtedly the place to head for unspoiled wildlife viewing away from the crowds and traffic. These reserves are owned by freehold landowners and concession-holders with traversing rights. The fences that historically separated the national park from the concessions have largely been removed, so wildlife roams freely between park and reserve. The accommodations within the reserves afford supreme privacy and luxury, and the drives are led by highly-trained rangers running a continuous commentary on the wildlife and environment in this northern part of South Africa. The reserves restrict both entry and vehicles per sighting to 3 or 4, still a lot but far fewer than the 30 or so vehicles that may converge on a lion kill within the national park itself. Off-roading is also permissible within the reserves, meaning you’re encounters with wildlife are much more intense and likely.
Choosing a reserve is a tricky science and will often come down to budget and lodge availability. The 3 largest reserves are the Timbavati and Manyeleti in the north and the Sabi Sand in the south. Each of these reserves features the Big 5, as does Thornybush, a relatively small reserve next to Timbavati in the north. All will feature un-paralleled game viewing. The Sabi Sand reserve spans 163,000 acres, and is famed for being the most game-rich area in the country. It’s no surprise, then, that Sabi Sand lodges also carry the heftiest price tag of all the reserves.
We stayed in 4 lodges within the Greater Kruger area: Timbavati, Thornybush, Sabi Sand and Jock Concession, a small concession within the park itself. We witnessed 4 of the big 5 in each reserve, with Sabi Sand showing us the elusive leopard on our second to last night. I found all the lodges to be extremely high-end and unique, but Sabi Sabi Bush Lodge certainly pulled its weight in terms of luxury and the provision of creature comforts, such as air conditioning. With that being said, my taste is not that of luxury, and I found myself more drawn to the rustic and understated tents of Chapungu in the Thornybush reserve.
After 4 nights of safari, I imagined I’d be a little tired of the long days and the game drives, but that proved to be untrue and I was ready to head to Zimbabwe!