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Kruger National Park (KNP) and the Greater KNP offer some of the very best (and affordable) safari experiences in Africa. Here you will find plenty of traditional resorts offering wildlife safari experiences as well as a very good self-drive environment and facilities managed and operated by SAN Parks.
A big question, when visiting this part of South Africa is whether you should self-drive or just stay at a private reserve. Many like both options!
Why do Self-Drive?
First and foremost, this is a significantly cheaper option, as accommodations usually come at much lower prices than those found in the private reserves. This quickly translates into much cost savings or being able to spend more days in the park.
Second, you have more flexibility about what to do, what time to get up in the morning, what roads to drive, where and when to eat, etc, potentially making this a better option for self-reliant travelers. Also, there is a real sense of self-satisfaction when you actually find the wildlife on your own without the assistance of professional guides and their off-road jeeps. This can be very rewarding.
The drawbacks are that you must compete with many other drivers and vehicles on the narrow paved roads within KNP, during the holidays and peak-times, this can potentially mean traffic jams if wildlife sightings are found, particularly near the rest camps. You are not allowed off-road to chase down an elusive leopard or see that rhino obscured from view, behind a tree 80 meters away. Also, you are responsible for the vehicle. Something happens to your rental car, for example, you're probably going to have to pay up for the damages!
Lastly, your accommodations will not likely be as nice and you might need to prepare/cook your own meals compared to staying at a private reserve lodge.
Why stay at a Private Reserve?
By staying at a private reserve lodge, you are able to avail of the generally nicer accommodations, have meals provided, often next to a campfire as you are able to share stories about what game viewing took place during the day. Some private reserves even come with spa options.
The real benefit of the private reserve option, however, is the safari experience. In the private reserves, you are usually led by professional/ experienced trackers and drivers, using off-road capable jeeps. Thus, you will more likely be able to spend quality time, up close with wildlife compared to self-drive trips, where you are restricted to driving on the designated roads within the national park. This is an important difference as certain wildlife are shy, elusive and spend much more time away from the main roads. Being able to track, follow and pursue them off-road, can be the difference between spending 20 minutes watching a leopard with its kill up in a tree and not even seeing the leopard altogether. While is very possible you will see all members of the Big Five and many other animals in the national parks from the main roads and viewing areas, opportunities for spending quality time with wildlife are simply better with the private reserves.
There are drawbacks to the private reserve lodges as well. First, you are trading the decision making flexibility of the self-drive option for the more fixed schedule of the private reserve schedule/itinerary. Also and most importantly, are costs. Private reserves are not a cheap option. Instead, they can easily cost 3,5 or even 10 times what you might spend on a self-drive experience. This means you do have to pony-up in order stay at a private reserve lodge and you might need to consider staying fewer days compared to a self-drive trip.
So which to choose?
To each his own when it comes to making the decision about whether to self-drive in KNP or opt to stay at a private reserve lodge in Greater KNP. If costs are an important consideration, a self-drive experience should be highly considered. Also, for those who prefer self-reliant style travel or simply want the freedom and flexibility of driving on their own, the self-drive experience might be more preferred. For those with limited time and the budget to work with, the private reserve lodge experience is worth considering. Also, for those who prefer a step up in the comforts, services side of travel and/or those who want to maximize their wildlife viewing opportunities, the private reserve experience is probably the better way to go.
Third Option: Why not try both?
A third option is to try both options by spending a few days at a private reserve as well as attempting some self-drive game viewing as well. This allows you to experience both and the chance to decide which is better and preferred for your future trips to KNP and/or Greater KNP.