Self drive through the Kruger National Park
Sawubona… or hello in Zulu….
We picked up a brand new Hyundai ix-35 or the now popularly known Hyundai Tucson (recently launched in India) from Avis Rent-a-Car, ZA and could get a manual transmission – petrol version. I was initially a bit apprehensive of the 2.0 ltr engine as I was sure to be doing a lot of climbs around the Blyde Canyon region and wasn’t too sure of the capacity of the engine to manage steep turns. Unfortunately, I wasn’t entirely wrong. Even on the beautiful empty stretches of highway between Nelspruit and Hazyview (a town bordering Kruger), it was a task trying to get the ix-35 to stretch its legs. However, I soon got used to keep the engine revved to the medium range, where there was genuinely smooth cruising and lesser engine noise. I would think that the diesel options would give a far higher power throughput on intended higher speeds. Anyhow, I must compliment Hyundai 100% on the overall design, interiors and internal space in the ix-35. Loads of boot space, great back seat space to stretch out your legs and a very nice seating and console for both the driver and co-passenger. The AV console paired within seconds to my phone, and it was Alanis Morrissett all the way into the wild.
First timers on such self-drives, please try and book your car well before you actually land up in South Africa, because half the traveling world who land up here use self-drives, hence a perpetual scarcity of last minute hires. Also, if you are doing Kruger, you must know that Avis is the only brand having their counter at Skukuza Camp (the main camp in Kruger) as well as the Skukuza airport, right inside the national park. Not that booking through any other brand will lead to any problems, but why take the risk. Budget, recently taken over by Avis also serves the purpose but they have an office outside the main gates.
Anyhows, getting back to the drive, we made our way to Blyde Canyon through the Panoramic Route, which they say, is one of the most beautiful drives in SA. Lots of interesting stops along the way and if you are even vaguely interested in photography, this drive could be your chance at producing some jaw-dropping landscape photos. God’s Window, the 3 Rondavels, several waterfalls and the beautiful valleys you would pass through, makes up for the tiring 2 hour drive from Nelspruit. We landed up at Blyde Canyon Lodge and were pleasantly surprised to see few zebras grazing just outside our cottage door. We were told that these and few deer and wild boars freely roam the estate and peacefully co-exist with the guests. By then I was really famished, and very wrongly enquired with the hostess, if the zebras were good to eat as well.. much to her alarmed reactions.
Next day, after exploring the region for the entire morning and afternoon, we made our way to the Paul Kruger Gate in Kruger National Park, where all visitors have to pay the daily conservation fee, which serves to upkeep the national park. If you are in Kruger for over a week and are a family of 3+, it makes sense to buy the annual family Wildcard which works out cheaper than daily pass rates. Do the research.. visit www.sanparks.org to check such details and also book your accommodation in the various campsites inside Kruger. It is advisable to book the accommodations at least 6-8 months in advance as all inside camps get occupied very fast. The private resorts outside the park are frightfully expensive and also need you to drive for longer periods of time to get to the interiors of the parks.
We had booked a 3 bedroom cottage with kitchen and private toilets. Accomodation with common facilities are more in number and are usually booked by larger groups. The cottages are self-contained and air-conditioned, and are generally maintained quite well, considering you are in the middle of the African bush. We had some baby bats in the room who didn’t disturb us at all but we had to make sure all food items were well covered or locked up. We did have few night visitors as well while having our dinner on the porch, so better keep lights on or keep a torch. I wish we had known how to Braai (barbeque) and as that’s so common in SA, I will surely learn it before my next trip in May this year.
There are 2 ways one can go on game drives in Kruger, one of course is a self-drive (6am to 6pm) and the other, in a camp vehicle for sunset drives or night safaris. My suggestion is to do both, as during the day one can drive around well laid out roads and earmarked tracks and on the camp drives, go into zones which normally are out of bounds to the day drivers. The Big 5 or simply put the main draws of the park are lion, elephant, rhino, buffalo and leopard and if you are lucky enough, spotting all of them on a single drive is quite possible, if you plan your routes well. The safaris, on the other hand, come with constant radio updates from other vehicles on lion spottings which are more or less kind of guaranteed viewing. Of all the animals, the elephant turned out to be the most dangerous of them all, and especially if you come face-to-face with a massive male tusker on heat, you better reverse your life out of there before he decides to turn you and your car into blubber. As far as the vehicle goes, I have realized that no matter what people say and what reviews suggest, it is always better to hire a higher vehicle like a SUV or a cross-over like ix-35 as due to the longish grasses across Kruger, it is always better to get a higher viewing point especially while on a self-drive. Also, there are speed limits of 50km/ph on tar and 40 km/ph on gravel roads which are very strictly monitored, so make sure you don’t mess with the laws. The ix-35 ambled along quite well at 50 km/ph on tar on the 4th gear keeping a constant speed at all times, but on gravel, it’s a 3rd gear all the way. Make sure your tires are in good shape as getting off the vehicle to change a flat could lead to a very satisfying lunch for a predator lurking nearby.
Our drives included many sightings of lions, and their various moods. One special, yet funny incident involved an amorous lioness trying to get the male to respond and since he was in no mood to comply, the entire episode was quite humorous with the lioness trying all sorts of antics for over an hour, till both decided to doze off. We got chased by a bull elephant on musth (heat) and had our heart-stopping moments trying to reverse for over a kilometer till he decided to let us go in peace. We had bush-babies (like small koala bears) peering into our porch and baby pythons crossing our paths (we didn’t wait for mama python to show up). All in all, every drive we took rewarded us with awesome sights, both in form of animals as well as nature. The blood red skies of the African sunsets are to be seen to be believed and the early morning skies are dramatic beyond description.
Food in Kruger come in 2 forms.. one is from your kitchen in the cottage (supplies either from Hazyview before entering the park, or from the super markets in the main camps which stock just basic stuff), or the restaurants in the main camps which serve buffets and a-la-carte menus. The Mc Donalds of Kruger is the Impala deer and in order to keep their population under control, you would find it on almost every menu in any of their restaurants. A very poor joke by the waiters there is .. “Impala is Fast Food.. coz they run very fast” .. cheezy but understandable.
Kruger has fuel stations in the main camps like Skukuza and Satara in the mid-south region of the park. We have yet to cross Satara Camp as that itself is 2-3 hours away from Skukuza, and knowing that if one is not back before the camp gates close, its a stiff fine straightaway. You will do something like 50-60 km per day if you venture out twice on self-drives so a large tank vehicle always helps reduce trips to the fuel stations.
Our 5 nights in Kruger were spent between Skukuza and Lower Sabie camps, the latter being much nicer but more popular for bookings. The Avis deal included SDCW or Super Cover which included tires, windshield and theft. Tires can get heavily tried on the gravel roads so it makes sense to pay a bit higher on insurance and take the Super Cover. We left the car at the Skukuza airport as we flew back to Johannesburg from there, thus having to pay a one-way charge till Nelspruit, our pick up location. But that was worth it as we saved a lot of time and could get back to OR Tambo International Airport in Jo’berg on time for our return flight.
Before ending this article, I must point out one very important observation. South Africa has always been regarded as a very unsafe country to see on one’s own and news articles keep popping up stating highway robberies and car smash-and-run incidents. We drove around the Western Cape, Garden Route, Mpumalanga, Blyde Canyon and Kruger and never did once feel any threat to our lives or belongings. Needless to say, one needs to be careful by not displaying jewellery or expensive cameras/phones while traveling in remote locations, and if bad luck does lead to a situation, just walk away calmly without feeling the need to act the hero. I am looking forward to visiting this beautiful country again next month with a slightly more varied itinerary and I am happy to help anyone who needs any information on self-drive adventures in SA. Till we meet again on this page.. cheers and “Hamba Kahle” as our friends will wish in Zulu.