Hoedspruit is becoming the new gateway to the Kruger National Park, the largest national park in South Africa, and there are a plethora of reasons why. “The Kruger,” as South Africans know it, is one of the most world-renowned national parks to spot wildlife. It is the quintessential park to have a wildlife safari in and around South Africa. However, given the popularity of the Kruger finding the sweet spot can be difficult without totally going broke. We found refuge in Hoedspruit. Hoedspruit is well serviced, safe, clean, has much to offer outside the park, and the Orpen gate to Kruger is conveniently close by. The undeniable feature of the region is the awe-inspiring Blyde River Canyon, which dominates the horizon. The large expanses of natural landscapes filled with wildlife extend beyond Kruger to the neighboring private game reserves of ThornyBush, Timbavati, Guernsey, and Klaserie that are easily accessible in the Kruger region. The addition of animal rehabilitation centers into a safari trip into the lowveld does not even require entering the Kruger. Read on to find a guide to both the Limpopo region around Hoedspruit and a guide to Kruger National Park. (Click on either of the links below to jump to the section).
It was our first day of exploration in South Africa, we were eager and excited as we drove into our lodge near Hoedspruit. We entered Hoedspruit though the Erasmus Pass, an incredible road that winds along the outer parts of the stunning wooded Blyde River Canyon. The drive to Hoedspruit and the surrounding area takes about five – six hours with stops from Johannesburg. We’d advise getting an early morning start if driving from Joburg and take in some good sights of the Drakensberg as you pass through. Also, one should definitely stop at Millies off the N4; it is a venerable institution and has a great restaurant serving up fresh river trout. Once we had descended from the Drakensberg and entered the lowveld, we immediately began to see wildlife. At first, it was just some warthogs along the road, but then it turned into a full roadblock of baboons sitting across the road. However, once we had passed through Hoedspruit and continued on through the region filled with private game reserves we began to see all nature of animals. Zebras, elephants, buffalo, wildebeest, impala, giraffes, and all matter of birds were seen just as we made our way to the lodge. We couldn’t believe it we hadn’t even started our safari yet, and we had already seen so much.
Cheetah Paw Eco Lodge
Our first stop on our endeavor into Africa certainly did not disappoint. Our arrival alone lived up to the hype. We chose to stay on one of the private game reserves around Kruger and we were treated to a terrific bush experience. Our hosts, Doris and Juergen, at the Cheetah Paw Eco lodge we’re an absolute delight. Offering us everything you could want out of hosts; warm, helpful, and interesting! Our entry into Cheetah Paw started off with a relaxed main lodge and a cold drink on arrival.
Cheetah Paw itself has a pool, a large viewing deck, free WiFi, a TV in the main lodge (if you still like watching the news these days), and a bar. However, our favorite part of the lodge would have to be the boma. A boma is an enclosure, that was used heavily in some of the African Great Lakes regions back in the day. Now it is the perfect place to have a traditional South African braai. A braai in the boma around a campfire is one of the quintessential moments to have in the bush. For those non-South African’s out there a braai is essentially a cook out done over hot coals and the main dishes to be served are boerewors (sausage), steak, and pap (maize). The proper way to finish a day is to have a “sundowner” from the back deck as you watch the sunset over the Drakensberg.
The rooms at Cheetah Paw Eco Lodge are tented chalets offering everything you could need. The allure of staying in the bush is anything, but sitting in a traditional hotel room. We made it criteria to find accommodation that would allow for an immersive experience. The word tent is definitely not exciting, but as the “glamping” trend continues staying in tented accommodation is increasingly luxurious even on the affordable end. Which is exactly what we found at Cheetah Paw. Our tent had everything we could need with a massive comfy bed, two seating areas, his and her sinks, outdoor and indoors shower, and a view looking right out on to a watering hole. That’s why we gave a big pass on a hotel near Kruger National Park, we came to see nature.
Private Game Reserves
Private game reserves offer advantages that cannot be found in Kruger National Park. Guests are afforded lower occupancy rates, competitive pricing(sometimes), greater freedom, and a more personalized experience. They also allow for a longer safari experience with more variety and less time sitting in a car staring at the bush hoping for an elusive cheetah or bushbuck. Private game reserves determine their own rules and have a smaller number of visitors, allowing them to seek out the wildlife in the bush. Going down an old dirt road or through the bush for a while to catch a glimpse of wildlife is no problem here. The guides in these reserves also have a much better idea of where to find the animals so tracking down rhinos or leopards might be no problem, and you’ll likely see the Big Five on any given day. No guarantees – it is wildlife after all!
Guernsey Private Nature Reserve
Our base at Cheetah Paw was within the Guernsey Private Nature Reserve. The Guernsey Reserve does not have the big five, which means you can take a walkabout by yourself without fear of predators. However, you should always stick to the roads since there are a number of venomous snakes in the bush. One other note of caution is to consult with your hosts before doing so, the neighboring reserves do have the big five and a fence isn’t always the best way of containing a wild animal.
There are a number of rehabilitation centers in the Hoedspruit area that specialize in the conservation of the animals that once lived in abundance. We visited two rehabilitation centers and enjoyed both immensely. They offer visitors a chance to learn more in depth about certain breeds and see them up close. All the while the visitor’s entrance fees go towards saving the wildlife they come to see. The HESC, or Hoedspruit Endangered Species Center, specializes in the rehabilitation and breeding of Cheetahs. Which is Tasha’s favorite animal! They also have a pack of African dogs, some rescued rhinos, and various other animals in need of a home. The second rehabilitation center we visited was the Moholoholo Rehabilitation center. They take in all manner of animals, but our favorites were a large number of birds of prey they have and the infamous honey badger. (If you don’t know about the honey badger, do yourself a favor and give the video a watch)
If you’re looking for some spectacular views and a wonderful photography experience then look no further than the Panorama Route. Along the route, you traverse the third largest canyon in the world and the largest wooded canyon. Does the Grand Canyon have trees? Nope! A full day tour of the Panorama route typically includes the Three Rondavels, Burkes Luck Potholes, God’s Window, the Pinnacle and Lisbon Falls.
The most convenient gate into Kruger National Park from Hoedspruit is the Orpen gate. From here your journey into Kruger begins.
Our Guide to Kruger National Park
It’s pretty hard to begin planning for your first safari without coming across Kruger National Park. It is the largest South African National Park and has one of the highest densities of wildlife of all the national parks. Kruger is home to approximately 517 birds, 147 mammals, and 118 reptiles. The park itself is the size of Wales or Israel, so it could be its own lion ruling country. Visitors to the park are offered a wide range of services. The park offers guided drives, bushwalks, backpacking trails, and golf. With a park that size, we’ve made our guide to Kruger to help any visitor out. To start there are a few questions you need to ask yourself about your Kruger Park safari. Such as, do you drive yourself or hire a guide?
Self Drive or Guided?
This is the question a lot of people end up asking themselves. Should you drive yourself through the park or hire a bush guide with a safari truck? Our advice, as well as many others more experienced than ourselves? Do both! To get the best experience we firmly believe in doing both self-drive and a guided tour. You get the best of both worlds. With a self-drive you are afforded the ability to stay in a climate controlled comfy car, move at your own pace, explore, and have a more relaxing experience. The game drive offers you an expert who is connected to the “bush telegraph” and will find animals that you would miss on your own.
Tips for Self Drive
- Arrive early. There are a number of reasons to be the first at the gate. There are a max number of visitors let into the park each day. You want to see as much as possible.
- Bring a thermos with coffee or tea to keep warm in the mornings.
- Drive slowly and keep your eyes peeled on the bush, you will see anything that is on the road.
- Don’t be afraid to ask passing cars about sightings. It’s an unwritten rule to share information with others about interesting animal sightings.
- Pick up a map at the gate. (As of July 2016 the cost is 40 Rand)
- Make sure to pack a lunch or prepare for a braai. The main camps do have food and some of it’s not too shabby. However, the best experience comes from stopping at the more remote picnic spots and having a meal in the bush.
- If you see several cars stopped it’s almost always a sure sign that there is an interesting sighting. Approach with ease and someone will eventually let you in, and even point out where to look.
- Bring binoculars and a telephoto lens for optimal viewing and photography.
Tips for Guided Tour
- Dress Warm! This is a must. Driving around at the crack of dawn in an open-air vehicle is cold.
- Tip your guide. South Africa is a tipping country and should do likewise. From our understanding, 10% is always a good ballpark for a tip.
- Ask questions. Seriously, if you’re paying an expert to drive you around use your resource and ask away. Don’t squander your guide to Kruger.
- Don’t go too photo happy. It’s something else watching a safari truck pull up with a load of tourists and then the sound of all the cameras that go off. Just tone it down, and enjoy the sights.
- Grab a warm cup of coffee or tea for the morning.
- Pack binoculars and a telephoto lens for viewing and photography.
- Always verify what’s included before booking. We always make sure to know what we get in order to avoid an unpleasant surprise. Is lunch or breakfast included? How about the conservation fee?
- We are happy to say that Kruger is also wheelchair accessible!
The Rules at Kruger National Park
- No getting out of your vehicle!
- 50 km is the strict speed limit. You’re there to see wildlife not kill an animal with your car.
- Stay on the road.
- Do not feed or disturb animals.
- Stay on time. The gates and rest camps open and close at set times; make sure to adhere to them.
- Do not lean out a sunroof or window.
- This should go without saying, but DO NOT LITTER. However, we see it time and time again all around the world.
- Get more information at SANParks website.
Conservation Fee/ Kruger National Park Prices:
RSA Citizens: 66 Rand per adult/ per day 33 Rand per child/ per day
SADC Citizens: 132 Rand per adult/ per day 66 Rand per child/ per day
Foreign Nationals: 264 Rand per adult/ per day 132 Rand per child/ per day
Five Things to Spot
- “The Big Five” – Lions, Elephants, Buffalo, Leopard, and Rhino
- “The Little Five” – Buffalo Weaver, Elephant Shrew, Leopard Tortoise, Ant Lion and Rhino Beetle.
- “Birding Big Six” – Ground Hornbill, Kori Bustard, Lappet- faced Vulture, Martial Eagle, Pel’s Fishing Owl and Saddle-bill Stork.
- “Five Trees” – Baobab, Fever Tree, Knob Thorn, Marula, Mopane.
A Map of Kruger National Park
(Click on the map of Kruger to enlarge.)
Where do you sleep at night?
For visitors to the park, they have two options, much like the guided or self-drive dilemma. Do you stay in Kruger National Park or do you stay in a lodge located outside the park? The short answer is both, but that’s not necessarily the case. It all depends on budget, time, and interests when selecting your Kruger park lodge. Each has distinct advantage and disadvantages. We chose to stay outside the park so we could explore the Hoedspruit area and because we loved Cheetah Paw Eco Lodge (I mean it has “Cheetah” in the name). Personally, I think if you have some time a great option would be to self-drive through Kruger for a few days before dropping your car off and spending the end of your trip in one of the private reserves. Why? You’d likely be disappointed in the accommodation if you stayed in the park first, not that it is anything short of a terrific experience, just hard to compete with the private lodges.
Private Game Reserve
The accommodation here tends to give you a lot more bang for your buck and even goes all out to super luxurious. If you’re looking for that famous 7-star experience you can find it in a number of private game reserves. We were in search of that sweet spot ourselves. We wanted all of the creature comforts we could ask for, great hosts, comfortable rooms, a highlight of the surrounding bush, and an affordable price. That’s what we found at the Cheetah Paw Eco Lodge. There are a number of private game reserves in the Limpopo region. You can select from Thornybush, Klaserie, Timbavati, Sabi Sands, and smaller ones like Guernsey (that’s where we stayed).
- Higher availability
- Better Accommodation
- Better Food
- More intimate
- Not necessarily stuck in camp or a car
Kruger National Park
Asides from the few high dollar private lodges, Kruger park lodges in the park that remain booked accommodation in the park is rather basic. It totally gets the job done, and very few will complain if they know what they’re getting into. You are after all in the park before anyone else and in the park after everyone else. Which is a big deal when the best time for viewing wildlife is in the morning and evening. Staying in the camps is extremely popular, and most camps even sell out as soon as they release the dates up to a year in advance. Some of the most popular camps are the Lower Sabie, Skukuza, Letaba and the Satara.
- Cheaper (asides from the few private camps)
- You’re inside THE park
- Lots of wildlife
- Days worth of driving and activities.
Plan Your Trip to South Africa
We rely on a few trusted websites that help save us money and time when booking hotels, flights, and car rentals. Check out some of our preferred partners below:
Accommodation in South Africa: We like to use Hotelscombined to compare various booking engines and make sure we are getting the best possible deal. To feel more at home in South Africa we use Airbnb. Here is a coupon for your first stay! Here are the most popular destinations in South Africa: Cape Town, Johannesburg, Knysna, and Stellenbosch.
Flights to South Africa: Compare airlines, dates and prices all in one place with Skyscanner.
Car Rental in South Africa: Auto Europe is a car rental booking service that compares all the major brands like Hertz, Avis, Alamo, and Europcar.
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Water: We found the water in South Africa fine to drink, if you want extra assurance then we love traveling with our Lifestraw Go Waterbottle
Guide Book: Sometimes it’s nice just to have a real book in your hands when traveling. We recommend picking up a Lonely Planet to get you through the wireless nights.