Many overseas visitors are unaware of the differences between the public facilities offered within the Kruger National Park by the National Parks Board, and the more expensive private game lodges in the private reserves adjoining the Kruger (Sabi Sand, Timbavati, Manyeleti, etc) which are considered part of the greater Kruger area.

In short, the public rest camps offer less expensive and less luxurious accommodation, and generally most visitors arrive in their own car and drive themselves (unless they have booked through a tour operator who will include game drives on an open safari vehicle). Vehicles have to stay on the road at all times and need to be back in camp by sunset. There are no limit on the number of vehicles per sighting so you can sometimes encounter traffic jams (especially when the big cats have been sighted).

By contrast, the private game lodges in the greater Kruger Park and the private reserves surrounding the park which share an unfenced boundary with Kruger offer more expensive accommodation with all meals and game drives included. In addition to the greater level of service and luxury (including things like spas and private plunge pools), there are several key differences from a game-viewing standpoint: 

  • Game drives are conducted by teams of professional rangers and trackers in open Land Rovers (in Kruger, operators that use open safari vehicles also use professional guides but no trackers).
  • Vehicles can drive off-road while tracking animals, so it is possible to track down the "Big 5" and get great close-up sightings of leopard and lion, for example. In some reserves like the Sabi Sand, your chances of seeing a leopard up close are much better at a private game lodge.
  • Some of the more expensive lodges limit the number of people per vehicle to 6 so everyone gets an outside seat for optimal viewing.
  • Night drives enable you to see nocturnal species and offer the best chance of seeing the big cats on the hunt
  • Sightings are generally limited to 3 vehicles at any time. The upside of this is that you won't have a crowded sighting. The downside is that other vehicles may be waiting just around the corner to enter the sighting, so your viewing time at the sighting may be limited to 15 or 20 minutes (or you may be in the vehicle around the corner, waiting to enter the sighting which can also be frustrating).

For those who prefer a less expensive option, the Kruger National Park has a number of spotlessly clean rest camps with accommodation to suit every need. These range from basic huts and tents with communal washing facilities to more luxury bungalows with en-suite bathrooms, fridge, stove, utensils, etc. The main rest camps, such as Skukuza, have car hire facilities. All camps now offer early-morning and night drives, mostly on open 20-seater trucks conducted by one of the Kruger Park's staff. All the bigger camps have a restaurant and small supermarket. Many of the camps have swimming pools for those hot summer days. For those who enjoy a closer to nature experience there are a number of small bushveld camps, all of which have simple but amazingly located accommodation. However, you need to take your food with you to these bushveld camps so stock up at one of the larger camps before you go.

Other differences between the Kruger National Park and adjacent private reserves are often overlooked. Kruger is huge and you are likely to cover a much greater distance in the national park, which allows you to see a range of different habitats, scenery and vegetation types. In the private reserves, your game drives will be limited to a specific traversing area (relatively small compared to the vastness of Kruger). In general, the number and diversity of animals you can expect to see in Kruger is greater than in the private reserves.

Getting to the greater Kruger area is easier than ever. You can drive from OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg (JNB) - this takes approximately 5 hours on well-maintained roads. You can also fly directly from Cape Town, Durban, Johannesburg, or Livingstone (Zambia) to KMIA (Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport, MQP), hire a car there, and drive to the park (about 2-2.5 hours to the southern campsites, longer to the ones further north). Depending on when you arrive in the region and where your campsite is you may need to overnight in one of the nearby towns such as Hazyview if you are self-driving into Kruger, as you must be in your rest camp before sunset and speed limits in the park are (understandably) low. Alternatively, you can book a safari package through a tour operator with road transfers and game drives included.

If you are staying in one of the private reserves, light aircraft transfers are also available directly to the lodge airstrips from Johannesburg or KMIA. The flights are an adventure in themselves - they come in quite low on take-off and landing, and you can often see elephants, giraffes, and other wildlife. Some of the more luxurious lodge airstrips (such as Singita and Sabi Sabi) have a little 'departure lounge' with refreshments.

If you enjoy a game of golf, you may want to try a round at Skukuza (the main Kruger rest camp) or the Hans Merensky Estate near Hoedspruit, where the crocs and hippos give a new meaning to the term 'water hazard.'