One of our favorite trips of all time has to be our May 2015 trip to South Africa and Swaziland. My uncle had expressed interest in 2014 in going to South Africa the following year and I said, count me in! It took a little more convincing on Julio’s part, mainly because we had to take almost 3 full weeks off of work, but in the end, he didn’t regret it. My uncle’s friend and two of my girlfriends from back home in Maryland came as well.
Our first priority was booking flights. In September/October of 2014 the Ebola scare was in full force, and we were considering cancelling the trip altogether. We decided it was worth going, mainly because Ebola was being found only in north-west Africa and we were going to the southern tip. We kept our eyes on flights for months; my uncle had been tracking United flights for 6-8 months prior to purchase. In the end, we each spent around $1100-$1200 round trip. While South Africa was definitely one of our more expensive trips (the total came to about $2400 per person, plus spending money), the pre-departure purchases were spread out over the course of 5 months as we booked our flights, rental cars, accommodations, and excursions. Plus, we compared our costs to the prices of group safari tours and found that planning our own personal trip was longer and cheaper.
Kruger National Park in northern South Africa is definitely a must see for anyone seriously considering an African Safari. While a trip to the Serengeti in Kenya is much more expensive and can only be done as a group tour, Kruger allows guests to drive their own vehicles around the park and provides numerous “rest camps” where people can book a relatively nice bungalow or a basic campsite for the night. While we didn’t camp in actual tents, our huts contained basic necessities including cots to sleep on and a shower, and there was a cooking area for each hut.
Doing our own self-guided Safari was amazing, and yet could get very boring at the same time. There were sightings boards at each rest camp where people could mark with magnets where they had seen certain animals that day. Obviously everyone wants to see the Big 5 in one day- rhino, water buffalo, leopard, lion, and elephant. The vastness of the actual park makes it a little difficult to spot some of the animals, especially lions and leopards. Our first morning in Kruger we got up at sunrise and drove north a few kilometers. There were several cars parked on the left side of the road and when we stopped to ask, a couple told us there was a lioness and her cubs on the ridge “just there.” The ridge ended up being so far away you had to use binoculars to see a blurry lioness sitting there, and we weren’t able to spot any cubs. That being said, we did luck out one morning after breakfast when a leopard literally ran out into the road in front of our car. He stopped alongside some bushes, sniffed them for awhile, and headed back into the brush.
The distance between the rest camps is usually a few hours of driving (the speed limit on all of the roads inside the park is between 40 and 50 kph) so driving from camp to camp can be a drag since it seemed that the majority of our sightings were located within the first 10-20km outside of each rest camp. Our 5 days in Kruger definitely contained a lot of driving time, but it was so incredibly worth it. A lot of the time we would see animals standing directly in the road, mainly elephants and giraffes. Our favorite rest camp Lower Sabie had an excellent restaurant that looked out over the Sabie river, and every meal we got to enjoy hippos, water buffalo, and crocodiles relaxing in the sun.
Some tips on planning for a Safari trip, whether self guided or with a tour group:
- Book in advance. The rest camps at Kruger were very popular and reviews on trip advisor said they booked between 6 and 8 months before their trips. We were able to book our huts 5 months before, but there was limited availability at Lower Sabie.
- Get vaccinated. South Africa required us to have updated hepatitis A, thyphoid, and we had to take malaria pills while we were there. Google a travel doctor or go to a local health center as a lot of regular physicians won’t have these vaccines.
- Bring your camera/GoPro/tablet. Photo opportunities literally jump out at you. While I was slamming on the brakes when the leopard came out into the road, I was frantically whispering “get your cameras!! Get your cameras!!”
- Bring binoculars. We had a pair available in both cars and even had a pair of walkie talkies to communicate if we were slowing down for an animal spotting.
- Bug spray. We treated our clothes beforehand with a heavy duty Deet spray, and wore 30% Deet every day. Julio got eaten alive, but the rest of us escaped with only a few bites.
- Take a guided sunset/night tour. At the rest camps, the gates closed and locked at sunset but you could pay to take a sunset tour with a group which provided us with a chance to see the nocturnal movements of the animals and hopefully spot the predators that are most active at night.
- Go out at sunrise when the animals are active. If you decide against paying for a sunset tour, get up as soon as the gates open and head out for a morning drive. A lot of the animals are still very active and there’s not a lot of cars on the roads yet to scare them off.