04:30am. Here in the Kruger National Park,
we always rise before the sun.
But ask any guide or Kruger enthusiast and they’ll tell you that no matter how many sunrises you see in the park, each one will always be different!
Today, there’s a striking orange, yellow and blue-ish hue over the bush. And it’s made for the perfect start to our exciting, 8-hour drive from Pretoriuskop Rest Camp in the south of the park, to Phalaborwa Gate in the north…
Despite being Kruger fanatics - as the Kruger Wildlife Safaris Content Team, which consists of me - Nicole - and my colleague, Brad, we’d never actually been to the north of the park. (Shameful, we know…)
It’s unexplored territory for us, but that only seemed to add to the excitement and anticipation of our impending, full day Kruger safari.
You definitely can’t explore Kruger Park on an empty stomach though, so after filling up on a sweet and satisfying cold breakfast (we’re talking watermelon, grapes, berries, muesli and yoghurt) and a hot one, filled with yummy, wholesome scrambled eggs, bacon, sausages and tomato, we jumped in our car and set off for the north!
Driving out of the gate at Pretoriuskop Rest Camp, we couldn’t help but chat about the wildlife that we wanted to see on the drive.
The Big 5 on a single game drive is always a must, but I also hoped to see lesser seen animals, like the southern ground hornbill, klipspringers or wild dogs. For Brad - he was just hoping for a truly phenomenal lion sighting.
And so, we eagerly set off towards our first stop - Skukuza Rest Camp. One of the most intriguing aspects of this drive is admiring the ever-changing Kruger landscape as you move from area to area. In no time at all, we’d seen dry, open grassland and small clusters of trees become thick, dense patches of greenery.
As for the most exciting sighting on this part of our Kruger Park safari? Vervet monkeys! Yes… vervet monkeys. We managed to spot an entire family - moms, infants and the like - playing, eating and sleeping on the side of the road.
Trust us when we say that it’s an incredible privilege to be able to just watch them interact with one another and go about their daily lives without a care in the world.
There’s also the fact that it has a picnic area, the Stevenson Hamilton Memorial Library, a golf course and even a delightful restaurant with a viewing deck, where you can often spot animals gathering around the river (aka Sabi River) to rehydrate during the day.
If you’ve never been - we suggest you go!
After stopping for a few minutes to refuel and to just smile at passersby at Skukuza (it never hurts to show a little genuine South African cordiality...), we continue our journey.
It’s approximately a 42km drive from Skukuza Rest Camp to Tshokwane Picnic Site. The most exciting part of this leg of our trip, though, has to be the drive along Sabi River! The scenery around it is simply spectacular.
It always amazes me how drastically the terrain can change along one stretch of road.
Sabi River has several sand dunes and rocky structures in and around it, and is lined by lush, green bushes and tall trees. It’s also a great place to see all sorts of animals, who stop by for a drink of water throughout the day.
We happened to see a giraffe and several elephants along the water’s edge when we passed the river.
The heat and humidity is particularly palpable here but the view is completely worth it!
And we also can’t stress enough the importance of staying hydrated - Kruger Park, which spans over both the Mpumalanga and Limpopo provinces in South Africa, receives a generous amount of sunshine, so a bottle of water - or three - is a must-have when you visit the park.
The terrain closer to Tshokwane is interesting as you’ll see plenty of termite mounds along the way (side note: you’ll see even more of them later on, when we get closer to Phalaborwa Gate).
The view steadily changes and becomes more dense with trees, even though they’re not as lush as the ones around Sabi River.
In our experience, dry riverbeds are a great place to spot leopards… but we end up seeing another member of the Big 5 when we drive past this riverbed. Basking in the Kruger sun, we spot several lions relaxing on the rocks, and they draw in a considerable audience too.
Then, just after the riverbed, we see another lion sitting in the shade - although this one is well-hidden and all we can really make out is his eyes and mane, which look impressive despite how little we can see of him.
If our Kruger safari had ended there, we would have been content. Lucky for us, it didn’t…
Shortly after our lion sightings, we start to pass open grassland that seems to look extra golden in the Kruger sun today - in Brad’s words, “the grass has more gloss here.” He isn’t wrong.
We manage to spot an animated family of guinea fowl (aren’t they always though?), moving through the grass. We decide to just stop, embrace the silence and admire the scene in front us - one that’s truly calming and tranquil.
We also both agree that the best part about this leg of the trip is the solitude in this section of the park - not another car in sight!
Unfortunately, sitting here and staring - awestruck - at the bush forever just isn’t an option so we get moving and soon, we’re passing only patches of grass with tall trees and red, sandy terrain - like I said before, the varied landscape in the park is just fascinating.
There are also many more birds here, which really adds to the classic Kruger safari experience!
Before long, we arrive at a lively and bustling Tshokwane Picnic Site.
Tshokwane is definitely a welcome sight in the midst of the Kruger heat...
This quaint trading post and picnic site, with its natural and vintage decor, has everything one needs to find relief from the intense sun and refuel (gastronomically speaking) for the journey ahead.
There are restrooms, a coffee shop and a place to grab a bite to eat while you take in the surrounding scenery. We decide to take a walk through the souvenir shop too - you can never have too many Kruger momentos, after all.
The Sightings Board is also definitely worth a look-see!
After some much needed ‘stretching of legs’, we hop back in the car and head towards our next marker on the map - Satara Rest Camp.
No, not us…
It seems we weren’t the only ones seeking relief from the midday sun - not even five minutes after we leave Tshokwane Picnic Site, we spot several cars stopped around one spot. “This is a big sighting, I’m sure of it!”
Driving towards the sighting, Brad and I decide to speculate on what we think it might be. He says it’s a leopard, I say it’s cheetahs. As it turns out… we were both wrong!
Relaxing under the shade of several trees, we see between three to four lions, sleeping and concealed, slightly, by the surrounding foliage. Better still, this sighting can’t be more than 10 feet away from the road!
Lions really are glorious animals, and the truth is, you’re only able to truly comprehend how big they are when you see them up-close.
Our lions (yes, they became ours the moment we saw them…) were hiding from the midday Kruger sun and we had an almost perfect view of them!
After lingering around this special sighting for a few minutes in the hopes that they would wake up and perhaps acknowledge our presence (unfortunately, the most we saw was one lion nudge another one with its paw and then go back to sleep), we carried on towards Satara Rest Camp.
One thing I have to mention here is that the topography on this part of our journey is varied but ridiculously-beautiful - a mixture of green and gold, with flat terrain, then mountainous terrain and then flat again. It definitely made for some fantastic landscape photography opportunities!
Should you decide to follow in our footsteps and explore this section of the park on your next Kruger safari, be sure to take a slow drive past the dry riverbed that you’ll come across on your left, on this route - we saw a big and beautiful elephant taking a cinematic slow walk through it… it was just magical!
Several kilometres down the H1-3, we come across an appealing detour - towards a giant Baobab Tree. Curiosity gets the better of us (we are on this road trip to discover the unique sights and sounds of the Kruger National Park after all), so we take it… and boy, are we glad we did!
The drive towards the Baobab Tree takes us over a sand bed through forest-like foliage with tall, green trees all around us. The area is shaded, tranquil and home to a few of the Kruger’s more well-known and common animals - think chacma baboons, warthogs and impala - and it’s brilliant to be able watch them calmly move around one another without a care in the world.
Eventually, this peaceful scene opens up and in front of us, we see an incredible Baobab Tree, also known as the ‘upside down tree’. It’s sheer size when you’re right next to it, is enough to take your breath away. Trust us when we say that this is a sight you don’t want to miss!
After snapping a few photos and just staring in awe at this giant tree, we head back towards the main road - and then it’s about another 25km to Satara.
To many, Satara Rest Camp is known as a ‘big cat camp’ - this is because the surrounding terrain is open and lush and, thus, ideal for antelope to graze. This then tends to attract three well-known and highly sought-after cats - lions, leopards and cheetah.
If not for that reason (although it’s definitely a good reason), we suggest you stop here anyway on your next road trip through the Kruger Park - Satara has a secluded yet rustic charm to it, and one that needs to be experienced first-hand.
As we drive through the entrance at Satara, the first thing that catches my eye is how busy it is! It’s a surprise to me simply because we haven’t seen that many cars on the road. Having said this, it’s clear that this particular rest camp is ideal for families - we see a huge play area, jungle gym and swimming pool soon after we begin our walk through the camp.
The restaurant at Satara is sizeable and has a variety of food and drink items on the menu. The more I look around, the more I think to myself, ‘It’s so nice here!’
Unfortunately, we still have much to see on our drive, so we stretch our legs for a few minutes, grab something to eat and get ready to hit the road again.
It’s easy to see why the area around Satara is known for its spectacular sightings from the moment we leave the camp… just a few kilometres down the road, we come across the biggest herd of zebra that I’ve seen in all my time in the Kruger!
Needless to say, we spend a few moments just watching these cool, calm and collected animals graze in the golden grassland. Just then, we see several giraffe and wildebeest emerge from behind the trees in the distance to graze alongside the zebra… almost like a scene from a movie.
It’s easy to feel like you’re a million miles away from civilization and my only thought at this point is, ‘This is definitely what a game drive in the world-renowned Kruger National Park is all about!’
While we don’t really want to tear ourselves away from this spectacular showing, we have to or we won’t make it to Phalaborwa Gate before it closes.
I have to say though - this is easily my favourite moment of the entire road trip! And something I’m sure I’ll always remember.
Kruger Park is pretty rigid when it comes to opening and closing times at the various gates (and for good reason). If you’re going to embark on a full day game drive like the one that we’ve just done, be sure to get an early start so that you have enough time to experience all the amazing sightings that the park offers.
If you ask me what my second favourite moment of this drive is, it’s definitely what comes next!
As we carry on along the H1-4, the terrain becomes more dry and arid and we almost feel like we’re in a completely different National Park. Before long, the landscape on either side of the road is brown, rocky and sandy - a complete 180 to the scene that we saw before this.
However, this doesn’t last long… as we come upon the mighty and magnificent Olifants River. You can certainly see why they named it this - it’s easily one of the most epic and stunning sights in the park! Our journey takes us over the river, which in itself is rocky in certain places with crevices and green patches here and there.
Guests are able to get out of their vehicles on the bridge, which is ideal for taking those Insta-worthy photos. Take our advice and ensure that you have enough time to be able to stop here and just enjoy the scene in front of you… we certainly decide to do so!
As we continue past the bridge that runs over the Olifants River, the river continues to run alongside us amidst varied terrain that goes from mountainous to flat and tree-filled fairly regularly.
Letaba Rest Camp is the next and final stop on this road trip, before we reach Phalaborwa Gate. While we opt not to stop here, it’s certainly worth a stop. A particularly popular reason is the Letaba Elephant Hall - a museum of sorts that pays tribute to this mighty member of the Big Five.
It also showcases the ivory of eight of the Kruger National Park’s greatest tuskers, which includes six of the famous Magnificent Seven.
Along this part of our journey, we managed to see two well-known and often sought-after bird species - the Southern ground hornbill and the Saddle-billed stork. This part of the park is known for its brilliant bird sightings.
As we pass Letaba Rest Camp and continue along the H9, Brad and I can’t help but notice the staggering number of impala and buffalo along our route.
It’s fascinating and we stop a few times to simply watch and appreciate them. The buffalo, of course, give us their signature, stern look as though we owe them money - a comical quip that we often hear from our Kruger safari guides.
The closer we get to Phalaborwa Gate, the more I see that the landscape is littered with termite mounds of all shapes and sizes… it’s quite a nice change to what we’ve seen on our game drive so far and reminds me just how much the park has to offer in terms of individuality and variety.
Along the way, we pass several elephants, giraffe and waterbuck and I’m reminded that the ‘plant-eaters’ in Kruger Park are just as exciting to spot as the predators because they have their own unique behaviours and quirks. Let’s be honest, I doubt you’ll find anything more entertaining than seeing a baby elephant roll around in the mud in order to cool off!
Be sure to stop at Sable Hide, which is located about 10km from Phalaborwa Gate. Not only could you spot several bird species here, but also wildlife that frequent the dam at the hide, when they need to quench their thirst during the day.
Before long, we arrive at Phalaborwa Gate - the final point on our 8-hour, full day game drive through the Kruger National Park.
As we wave to the friendly SANParks staff at the gate, before exiting the park, I can’t help but smile as I think back on the day.
It’s been an incredible one, filled with numerous unique and really special sights and sightings. It’s also easy to see why people come from all over the world to spend time exploring this well-known and truly unique game reserve.
And as we reflect on all that we’ve seen and experienced, Brad and I agree that one thing is certain - we would gladly do this road trip again!
Testimonials and Guest Reviews
I did the 2 night, 3 day camping safari. The guides, camp, food, tents, drive times all exceeded my expectations. The guides are really knowledgeable and friendly. The camp has a welcoming atmosphere, laid back flow with excellent chefs. There is a shop where you can get anything you need. I don't recommend adding on the night drive it is hard to see anything.
Our tour of Kruger, Swaziland and Hluhluwe was a wonderful holiday. The organisation was superb and the expertise of the guides was first class. It is hard to absorb everything we saw and learned, from baby elephants and lion cubs to wild dogs, over 100 bird species and many, many rhinoceros families. The guides, particularly Olivier, were patient, knowledgeable and clear
Just arrived from a trip of a lifetime with Kruger wildlife safaris. It has been a dream of mine to do a safari since my grandfather introduced me to the world of travel when I was young. From the moment your picked up in the private transfer van & taken to the camp that's located in southern Kruger national park I knew this was going to be a great experience.
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