It’s been five nights of staying in South African’s largest national park consisting of 19 485 sqkm or 2 million hectares of undisturbed wilderness. From my luxurious bed in my tented suite the evening is alive with sound – the distinctive whoops of hyena calls, the eerie howls of jackals. Closer there’s a loud splash and the low grunt of a hippo. Right outside my tent there’s the methodic crunch, crunch of leaves, then the snap of a twig. There is nothing that comes close to the exhilaration of being out in the wild where animals roam free as they have for centuries. And the Kruger National Park is the quintessential place to have this true safari experience. It is home to the Big Five and is known for its extraordinary animal sighting opportunities. But its sheer size can make planning a trip to the area daunting with its abundance of luxury lodges and wildlife experiences. To make this task easier we tried out three very different lodges, in the South, East and North of the park to appreciate the diversity of the Kruger.
Hanging out a train carriage scanning the riverbed below, I’m instantly transported to another era, one that offers the slower pace of train travel. Although in this case the train is stationary and the carriage is my beautifully appointed suite where from both the king-size bed and opulent bath you can spend hours game viewing from a uniquely elevated vantage point. Kruger Shalati is easily the most unique and luxurious place to stay in the Kruger park situated next door to Skukuza, Kruger’s biggest camp.
Stationed on the disused Selati Bridge above the Sabie River, the iconic ‘Train on the Bridge’ has been re-envisioned and restored, paying homage to khaki-clad travellers who ventured into the reserve back in the day via rail. It’s a reminder of the time of James Stevenson-Hamilton (the original warden of the reserve), where travelling into this wilderness in the early 1920s would entail an overnight stay in the exact place where the hotel train is currently located.
There are 31 rooms (24 carriage rooms and 7 in the nearby Bridge House) although, if possible, it is truly an experience to stay in one of the carriages in the luxury locomotive with floor-to-ceiling glass windows looking down on the river. To make the most of the spectacular vista, there’s a dedicated viewing deck and a swimming pool jutting out beyond the train tracks. Unaware of the people watching from the bridge or train itself, our stay included watching huge breeding herds of elephant with moms and babies meander from sandbank to sandbank grazing, drinking and bathing in the river water. We witnessed a young elephant playing chase with a warthog who bravely and surprisingly stood its ground. Hippos and crocodiles sunned themselves on the lazy banks and buffalo, monitor lizards and even leopard were spotted passing through.
Adjacent to the Selati Bridge, looking across the majestic Sabie River, Kruger Shalati’s reception and dining areas offer the opportunity to truly experience Shalati’s outstanding service where you can savour the vibrant flavours of African cuisine or sip on a drink in the firepit boma. A couple of nights spent here is one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences that is guaranteed to stay with you long after you’ve left.
Getting there: Fly directly to Skukuza airport from Johannesburg or Cape Town and a transfer will take you to Kruger Shalati in 15 minutes.
It’s only been 24-hours and two game drives and we’ve already spotted the Big Five at Klaserie Private Nature Reserve on the eastern border of the Kruger Park. Our guide, Khutso, is an excellent tracker, braking suddenly to listen to alarm calls of birds and baboons then flying into the bush in our trusty game vehicle to discover a pride of lions cooling themselves under the Acacias or to track a leopard strolling purposefully through the thick bush.
Unlike inside the Kruger National Park, the rules in the surrounding private reserves allow for more off roading so sightings can be closer and more thrilling. We watched a hyena chase a baby giraffe closely followed by the giraffe’s mother. Both mother and baby managed to escape into the thick bush. Only moments later a female buffalo, part of a huge herd grazing in an opening, went into labour before she disappeared into a ditch to give birth.
Klaserie Drift Misava Safari Camp is situated inside the reserve and if you’re looking for exclusivity, you can’t beat this intimate five-star boutique safari lodge. Here you’ll find a retreat away from many of the bigger lodges with only four garden-view rooms and two opulent villas overlooking the river. An infinity pool and open-air bush bar offer views across the river gorge below where there are frequent sightings of buck, elephant and buffalo coming down to drink and the heart wrenching sound of fish eagles regularly flying past.
Meals in the main restaurant or outdoor boma overlook a small waterhole and being a fenced camp you can watch hyena and even leopard walk past as you’re sitting down to eat. Misava has an air of tranquillity about it and with the excellent service and superb cuisine this is as exclusive and intimate as the bush can get.
Getting there: Fly direct to Hoedspruit airport from Cape Town or Johannesburg and a transfer will pick you up and take you directly to the lodge.
The further north you travel in the Kruger, the wilder it gets in terms of landscape and the quieter it gets in terms of cars and other signs of human life. It is said that there are fewer animal sightings here and this perception might be because there are fewer cats in the area. But this was certainly not our experience.
Our stay at Return Africa Pafuri Camp, situated on the banks of the Luvuvhu river, offered unmatched animal sightings where sipping on a drink from the deck we saw huge herds of animals, including elephant coming to play in the nearby waters so close you could hear their splashes and trumpeting. Crocodiles, buffalo and a host of other animals were frequently present on the river and visible from the camp itself. Not to mention the frequent visitors who come to snack on the trees outside your tented suite. Though you’d be remiss to shelve the game drives. The 26 500 hectare Makuleke Contract Park borders Mozambique and Zimbabwe and is by far the most diverse area of the Kruger with almost three quarters of the Park’s bird, mammal, fish, amphibian, reptile and tree species being found here.
But it’s the landscape that is so utterly breathtaking – a jaw-dropping river gorge, an abundance of Baobab trees including one of the biggest in the park and a seemingly neverending Fever Tree forest. A lucky few have been known to use this forest as a wedding destination, although you’d have to keep a watchful eye out for the many elephant and buffalo that meander through the luminous trees. The infamous Crooks Corner, where South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe meet, recalls numerous stories of the times when outlaws and smugglers would hide out here to escape the law by easily moving between borders as long as they made it safely past the hippos and crocs.
Pafuri Tented Camp offers 19 luxury tented suites stretching along the Luvuvhu River on raised wooden walkways – each offering views of the water. In between your scheduled morning and evening game drives you can spend lazy hours at the camps bush bar, swimming pool, firepit and al-fresco dining area where, unwinding beneath the branches of the giant trees, you’re bound to be visited by the many animals that wander through the unfenced camp. We stumbled across elephant and buffalo while walking back to our suite as well as being visited by mischievous Vervet monkeys and the resident bushbaby in the dining area. Staying at Pafuri tented camp offers an authentic safari experience reminding you of what it might’ve once felt like to live in a time where humans and animals lived side by side.
Getting there: Fly to Hoedspruit and take a transfer. Or talk to Pafuri about a chartered flight to the Pafuri airstrip.
Flying direct on Airlink or CemAir from Cape Town or Johannesburg to Skukuza takes all the stress out of getting to the Kruger Park. The airport is located in the park itself right next to Skukuza. Small and easy to navigate this delightful airport already shouts ‘bushveld safari’ in terms of design and décor. From here you can hire a car if you like to self-drive or get a transfer to one of the nearby camps.
If you’d like to be higher in the park or closer to one of the private reserves or concessions bordering the Kruger, you can also fly Airlink or CemAir direct from Cape Town or Johannesburg to Hoedspruit Eastgate Airport. Again you can hire a car or a transfer can shuttle you directly to your lodge.
by Susan Newham-Blake