Kruger National Park

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World-famous Kruger National Park is one of the largest game reserves on the African continent, encompassing nearly 4.9 million acres (2 million ha). The park also is home to among the widest diversity of large mammals in the world, including the lion, leopard, cheetah, hippopotamus, rhinoceros, elephant, buffalo, giraffe, zebra, antelope, and wildebeest. We very much wanted to visit Kruger while we were in South Africa by boat in 2015, but the logistics didn’t work. On that trip, we instead spent a great day self-touring iMfolizi Game Reserve and were really impressed with the animals we saw. Although we had a fabulous visit to iMfolizi, only now that we have seen the best do we understand what we were missing. Kruger is simply amazing.

Eight years after our visit by boat, we were planning a return trip to South Africa, this one by air to embark on a flight to to Antarctica and then on to the South Pole. This was an ideal opportunity to spend a few days at Kruger beforehand. From Doha, Qatar, we flew to Cape Town for a night, and travelled the next day to Skukuza Airport in Kruger National Park to spend four nights at Lion Sands Ivory Lodge in Sabi Sand Nature Reserve.

Our flight from Cape Town to Skukuza was with the South African airline Airlink. We were expecting a budget airline experience, but Airlink was surprisingly good. Our checkin was smooth and efficient, the plane was clean and comfortable, and the included on-board food was good, with free drinks.

Sabi Sand is a group of private reserves adjacent to Kruger. With no fences between them, animals from Kruger roam freely through these private reserves. One of the major advantages of a private reserve is that off-roading and driving at night is allowed, whereas lodge safari vehicles in Kruger must stay on the road and can’t run at night. Many of the best sightings of our stay were off-road, often past sunset, so this dramatically improved our experience.

Lion Sands Ivory Lodge was a spectacular base for our safari, with excellent service. We stayed in one of eight beautiful standalone suites, with a private plunge pool overlooking the Sabie River, where we often saw animals such as hippos and water buffalo.

Meals were taken at the main lodge, and the food was diverse and delicious. We mostly ate outside overlooking the Sabie River and its resident hippos, while baboons picked fruit from the tree above us and cheeky monkeys stole decorations from the Christmas tree, thinking they were food. A couple of nights when the humidity was too high or rain fell, we instead enjoyed the air-conditioned indoor dining room.

The lodge runs two safaris a day, one early in the morning and one late in the afternoon that returns after dark, as these are the best time to spot wildlife. With our four nights there, we were expecting to do six safaris, but we were pleasantly surprised to have one scheduled for the afternoon we arrived and another the morning of our departure, for a total of eight.

Lion Sands uses Toyota Land Cruisers for their safaris, customized to support six passengers. The vehicles are comfortable and very capable, as we learned on the many off-road excursions we made. We rode in a covered truck back and forth from the airport, but the safari trucks had no covers to allow for off-roading through the bush. Our guide, Mendrew, drove the truck, while our tracker, Rainos, rode in a seat on the hood, looking for animal signs and cutting off any overhanging branches when we went off-road. Several times Rainos, occasionally with Mendrew, left the vehicle to walk into the bush looking for wildlife, often finding something to direct us towards.

The lodge was lightly occupied just before Christmas, so we ended up having private safaris the entire time with Mendrew and Rainos. This worked out well, as we were able to stay out late or longer those times when we came across an unusual viewing opportunity. For example, at the end of one evening trip our tour stayed late to watch a python swallow an impala, a rare opportunity made even more so in that the typical prey for the python is much smaller animals such as birds and rabbits. Another tour happened upon the same scene, but one of their visitors was afraid of snakes and they had to leave. Based on this experience, we likely would explicitly opt for a private tour should we do another safari.

Lion Sands also arranged several extras for us during our stay. We had two bush breakfasts with fresh coffee, juices and pastries, one served at the truck and another at Nick’s Place, a platform with sweeping bush views. One evening we stopped for drinks at one of their two raised treehouses, where you can stay for a night in the bush. And on Christmas Eve we had a special festive dinner complete with Christmas Crackers.

The highlight of the trip was, of course, the spectacular wildlife. We’d really enjoyed our visit to iMfolizi Game Reserve, but Kruger was on a completely different level. The diversity and number of animals was much greater, and we were able to get significantly closer to them. On our very first day we saw 4 of the Big 5—African buffalo, elephant, rhinoceros and lion—plus zebra, nyala, kudo, impala, hippo, and hyena. (The Big 5 are so-named by early game hunters because these were the most dangerous and difficult animals to hunt on foot.) And we got lucky in seeing a python swallow an impala.

We completed our Big 5 collection with several leopard sightings across multiple days, starting on our second day. One afternoon, we watched a leopard as it dragged an impala carcass quite a distance through the bush. It was not clear if this was caught or stolen prey. On another day, we followed a leopard as it carefully and methodically crept on an impala, staying silent and upwind. An impala is too fast for a leopard to chase down, so it must come within pouncing distance before striking. Dinner eluded the leopard that day, but witnessing the details of a big cat hunting was incredible. This was another example of where having a private tour was a real advantage. We watched the entire hunt over the course of an hour, while guests in another tour got bored and asked to move on partway through.

We love the big cats, and were thrilled to also come across several lion prides during our outings. Late one afternoon we found four sleeping lions who eventually woke up and ambled off down the road. We followed in the truck, letting them catch up, and they were so close we almost touched one by accident as it passed beside us.

We had many more animal sightings throughout our eight safaris, including more of the Big 5 and others we’d seen on our first day, plus giraffe, wart hogs, wildebeest and waterbuck.

We particularly enjoyed seeing some younger animals, including zebra, warthogs, elephants and wildebeest.

And the mammals weren’t the only interesting wildlife. Kruger is home to a wide variety of colorful and unusual-looking birds.

And when we could tear our eyes away from the wildlife, the bush scenery was spectacular.

Lion Sands Ivory Lodge is one of four properties operated by the MORE family in Sabi Sand, with several more on the African continent. We overall had a fabulous time on the safari and at the lodge, and definitely would consider staying at another MORE property in the future.

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Our routes through Sabi Sand are shown on the interactive map below. Click here for a full-page map.

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4 comments on “Kruger National Park
  1. Stu says:

    Great to see you came back to ZA! Thanks, this travel helps our economy bit by bit! Next time try you in the southern hemisphere again come visit the new Amazon offices in Cape Town, very interesting project and super green too! Take a couple more days and visit our amazing wine farms… Feb / March are warm and spectacular :)

    • Thanks for the feedback Stu. We have visited the Amazon offices in Cape Town but not the new ones. We’ll have to do that. We have also visited many of the wineries in the region and it was GREAT but we only saw a subset of them. We’ll be back for a continuation of the winery tour and the wind farms sound fun as well. Thanks for the pointers.

  2. Farit says:

    Cool, great! I don’t think you’ve seen so many beautiful animals in all your time sailing the oceans))

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