A Kruger self-drive experience

Matthew Franklin wrote about his Kruger self-drive experience after he hit the road last month and spent a few days alone in the famous national park, driving himself through South Africa’s most celebrated wildlife area. The Kruger takes up almost 20,000 square kilometres and it has the world’s largest remaining population of rhino. The park is prime self-drive territory, offering encounters with the Big 5 and many other species to tourists driving their own vehicles and staying in the park’s various accommodations. Here’s Matt’s story!

Day 1: Stellar start

As the dawn breaks on a cool, wet spring morning in Hoedspruit, the atmosphere is right for a day of exploration.

As I pick up my hire car and head to Orpen gate, the excitement builds and builds, the rain slowly hitting my windshield but getting lighter and lighter as I get closer to the gate. When I arrive, it is an overcast, cool day, perfect for game viewing.

We started by talking to people passing by and one gentleman mentioned two cheetahs resting just off the road ahead. I thanked him and zoomed off to see if they were still there – luckily for me, they were. They were surprisingly relaxed, given the amount of people around them. I managed to sneak in and get a good position and watched them for a good ten minutes. They are by far my favourite big cat and it’s always so special to see them in the wild. Perfect start to the day.

As we moved deeper into the park we came across a large pod of hippos. This was an extra special sighting because there were three young male hippos playing and testing their future battle skills by jumping and biting each other. The most adorable part was that none of them had their teeth yet – just a lot of gum and just as much attitude to go along with it!

While moving onto the next sighting – lions at a buffalo kill – I came across a group of four Southern ground-hornbills which is such a fantastic sighting. I remember the first few years that I came to Kruger, there were hardly any sightings of these amazing birds, but now over time their numbers have started to improve and they are becoming more common to see.

After watching these birds and noticing people drive past, uninterested, I moved onto this buffalo kill. It was a young buffalo that had been taken in the early hours of the day. By the time I got to the kill, the lioness was sleeping peacefully with a big, full stomach next to her prize. I’m sure she finished it off as the day went on.

There was a beautiful moment when I saw a mother spotted hyena suckling a youngster outside of her den just off the road. It was so amazing to see her outside during the day and to see a cub so young. Both were relaxed with myself and two other cars watching them.

To finish off the first day, I came across some very nervous fellow self-drivers reversing away from a very confident bull elephant that took great pleasure of pressuring them back! Thankfully, they stopped before he got too close to them and he went around. To get out of his way I moved my car to the other side of the road to allow him to walk around me, but instead he walked to my parked car and moved so close that I could have touched him through my open window. It was an absolutely perfect way to end my first day in Kruger.

Day 2: Locking in the Big 5

After a long (but not long enough!) sleep, I was up and ready to start the search for the remaining Big Five members to complete my goal of seeing them all. The day started with a magnificent sighting of a white rhino bull. I could not believe my luck! He was so relaxed and so calm right next to the road, and even better, I had the sighting all to myself as it was early morning and other visitors were few and far between. I watched him as he slowly moved through the bush with his head low, hovering up the grass beneath his feet. He was a very relaxed and content rhino.

After leaving the rhino I moved off through the park, keeping an eye out for wildlife. It was a sunny, warm morning, so I knew there was only a small window before the big cats would disappear into deeper bush to hide from the blazing sun.

Dehorned white rhino bull.

As I continued my search, it got hotter and hotter. I knew I had to find them soon, and suddenly I came across a bridge that had an almighty backlog of traffic with no way around it, so I sat patiently and waited. Finally, one of the cars coming the other way stopped and I asked what was happening. It was the best news: not one but two leopards were asleep in a tree just off from the bridge! This was the news I was hoping for. My Big Five was complete and finished off with my favourite one of all. It was a tough sighting, the foliage was thick, but I saw them, resting peacefully in trees. What an awesome sighting.

After that, I decided my small Kia Picanto could probably, most likely, quite possibly handle the off-road parts of the park, and off I went. It was exactly what I needed and wanted – finally away from the tar roads, I was able to sit quietly and listen to the bush and just absorb the wildlife around me and I loved every second. And the car, well the car did fine, crawling along at a slow speed, but I did not mind, we managed to see a herd of zebra, wildebeest and buffalo all looking for shade to relax in. As we crossed a river there were some fantastic elephants crossing the river next to me, I watched them as they crossed and then moved up onto the ridge to get a good look at them walking towards me. It was incredible to see them enjoy the water and feed on the reeds that were still so green. The best thing of all there was a magnificent bull that had some of the most impressive tusks I have seen. Can never get enough of elephants!

As the day came to a close and I was heading towards the gate, I came across a clan of about 10 young hyenas. They were so wonderfully curious of what I was doing. Stopping in front of them, they approached my car, sniffing all around the vehicle and seemingly trying to work out where I had been and what I was. It was the perfect end to a perfect few days in the Kruger, the last of my year-long journey in South Africa and I could not be happier with what I saw and where I stayed.

My accommodation

I stayed at Nkambeni Safari Camp and it was incredible. Just outside Numbi gate, it’s a tented camp with a great main lodge. The rooms are very comfortable – you forget that you are in a tent! The beds were extremely comfortable and I slept very well. The breakfasts were top class and the staff were extremely friendly and were great to talk to. Especially as a solo traveller, I could not recommend this lodge more as an overnight destination while driving through Kruger.