Kruger Park Safaris: Public vs Private Ultimate Guide

The Kruger National Park is arguably the oldest wildlife reserve in the world. It was proclaimed in 1898, made a World Heritage Site in 2001 and today covers an area the size of Wales. The ‘Kruger area’ and a ‘Kruger safari’ comprise the massive national park itself (it spans a colossal 19 500km² / 7 500mi²) and the park’s surrounding private reserves, which consist of household names like Timbavati, Sabi Sand and Thornybush and others like Klaserie and Manyaleti. In this helpful guide, we explain the differences between a safari in the national park and the private reserves plus why our clients prefer going private.

Private Reserves vs National Park

1. Differences Between the Kruger Private Reserves & the National Park

Ownership Privately owned and managed Government owned and managed
Admission Only guests of the private reserves Public
Self-drivers & Tour Buses No Yes
Guided Game Drives Yes (with private guides) Yes (with park rangers)
Guided Walking Safaris Yes No
Night Game Drives Yes No
Star-bed Sleepouts Yes No
Private Pools Yes No
Big 5 Sightings Yes Yes
Self-catering Accommodation No Yes
Off-road Game Viewing Yes No
Access to National Park Yes Yes
Access to Private Reserves Yes No
Public Camping No Yes
Vehicle Limit at Sightings Yes No
Shoestring Backpacker Budgets No Yes

There are fewer vehicles at sightings in private reserves.

It is important for you to decide which works better for your preferences, budget and what you expect to get out of your safari. Remember, because there are no fences and the animals are free to roam as they please, sightings in both the park and the reserves can be equally sensational. The difference is in how you experience those sightings.

BEST FOR First-timers, honeymooners or discerning travellers who want almost guaranteed sightings of the Big 5. Experienced travellers who love back-to-basics camping and self-driving.
ACCOMMODATION Luxurious lodges with swimming pools, air conditioning, wine cellars, Wi-Fi and spas. From simple chalets to camping in tents with shared ablutions.
SIGHTINGS Excellent – the lodges are mostly in the south which has a high concentration of leopards. Plus guides share information about a small area, making it easier for them to find game. The area is known for seeing all of the Big 5 in a single day. Up to you. You will be driving and spotting, plus there is no limit to how many vehicles will be at sightings.
DINING The best safari food in Africa. Award-winning chefs serve up inventive dishes and fine South African wines. Up to you. Some rest camps have kitchenettes or low-key canteens but most people self-cater. There are few restaurants or shops so ensure you bring sufficient supplies and remember than refrigeration is limited.
RANGE Limited to your area and whatever traversing rights are in place. Up to you. You can choose to drive as much or as little as you like.
HOW BUSY Even when lodges are full over peak season, guides limit numbers at sightings. The park is very busy with holidaymakers and day-trippers over major South African school holidays (December-January, Easter and June-July). Busses are allowed in and the number of vehicles at sightings is not controlled.
CHILDREN Some lodges are unfenced and have an age limit. Facilities for children may be limited but some lodges are very child-friendly. No age limit but facilities are limited and not all rest camps are fenced.

The pool at Simbavati Hilltop Lodge.

What We Suggest

Chat to your Africa Safari Expert about your budget and expectations so he or she can tailor-make a Kruger safari that’s optimised for you. The private reserves give you a more relaxing vacation by far since you are not driving yourself, cooking all your own meals, washing up, dealing with laundry and so forth. They are pricier but if you’re flying all the way to Africa for a once-in-a-lifetime safari, it may be better to splurge a little than have your time taken up with punctured tyre or becoming frustrated because you can’t find any animals (rocks can look surprisingly elephant-like while cheetahs are almost impossible to find if they’re lying flat on the ground in the shade).

Almost all the private reserves lie in the south of the park, which is lusher, hillier and more forested than the north. This makes the south world-famous for intense and unforgettable leopard sightings, as the prefer thicket, dense trees and boulders to open savannah.

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See the Milky Way on night drives.

Reasons to Visit

2. Reasons to Visit Kruger

  • The Kruger to Canyon Biosphere is the third-largest in the world.
  • You can experience savannah, grassland and forest species and landscapes.
  • 517 recorded bird species – the birding between Parfuri and Punda Maria in the north of the national park is extremely rewarding (253 residents, 117 non-breeding migrants and 147 nomads).
  • Large concentrations of the Big 5 including about 17 000 elephants and 2 000 lions.
  • Every visit contributes to vital conservation efforts.
  • The oldest conservation area in Africa.
  • Easy logistics from Johannesburg, Southern Africa’s international airport hub.
  • Excellent infrastructure for first-timers to Africa, including English-speaking transfer drivers and some of the most highly trained guides in the world.

Wild dog at Notten’s Bush Camp.

Best Things to Do

3. Best Things to Do on a Kruger Safari

Kruger is primarily a safari area and the focus is definitely on seeing the game. There are limited cultural and historical excursions to be had, and these may only be possible if you are in the area – the park is enormous and it may be far to drive to a significant site.

Some important sites in the Kruger Park include:

  • Letaba Elephant Museum
  • Albasini Ruins of a 19 century Portuguese trading post
  • Masorini Living Museum
  • Thulamela archaeological site
  • Stevenson-Hamilton Memorial Library

If you stay at luxury lodge in one of the neighbouring reserves, then you have a greater choice of activities, depending on the specific lodge, of course:

  • Guided stargazing
  • Interactive kitchens where you learn to cook with the chef
  • Wine tastings
  • Tennis
  • Archery
  • Guided nature walks
  • Working with researchers or conservationists
  • Sleep-outs or fly-camping

Singita Castleton has its own tennis court.

If you venture outside the park and reserves, then you can see the magnificent Panorama Route, which comprises sites like:

  • God’s Window – a scenic lookout. On a very clear day you can see over the Mozambican border.
  • Blyde River Canyon – a beautiful series of hollows and hills.
  • Lisbon, Mac-Mac and Berlin Falls – three of the loveliest waterfalls in this lush area.
  • Bourke’s Luck Potholes – strange rock formations created by swirling water over millions of years.

God’s Window.

Things to do round Kruger include:

  • Playing golf at top-rated courses such as Leopard Creek and Malelane
  • Hot-air ballooning
  • Visiting the Sudwala Caves, considered among the oldest in the world
  • Seeing Pilgrim’s Rest, a 19-century alluvial gold-mining town

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Seeing the Big 5

4. Seeing the Big 5 on a Kruger Safari

Seeing the Big 5 – elephants, lions, leopards, buffaloes and rhinos – is at the top of every first-time safari goers list of things to see.

The Sabi Sand Private Game Reserve is renowned for its sightings of the Big 5. Our clients have frequently reported to us that they have seen all of the Big 5 on a single game drive! But please bear in mind that, no matter how hard your guide and tracker work, these are still wild animals with minds of their own. They can wander off, leave their territory, elect to stay hidden – it’s the sheer unpredictability of nature that makes safari so exciting.

Lion at Notten’s Bush Camp.

For the best chances of seeing the Big 5, here are our expert tips:

  • Go at peak season. The grass is thinner and lower, and animals don’t wander far from the few remaining water sources. This makes them much easier to find and see.
  • Use a professional guide with a tracker. Unless you are very experienced, it’s very hard to drive your own car and try and spot game. Leave it to the professionals.
  • Visit a private reserve in the south. Leopards prefer the thicket and boulders found here, giving the area its ‘a leopard a day’ reputation.
  • Take binoculars. A pair of good ‘binos’ with the best quality lenses you can find will really help you to see that elusive leopard fast asleep in the brand of a leadwood tree.
  • Tell your guide that you want to see the Big 5. South African guides will try their best to deliver what you want so be sure to mention that you’d love to see all of the Big 5 during your stay.
  • Manage your expectations. Animals like to conserve energy because they are acutely aware that they don’t know where their next meal is coming from. So buffalo, elephant and rhino are likely to be grazing peacefully while lions and leopards hunt at night and rest during the day.
  • Choose a private reserve where you can on night drives. Being out after dark gives you a better chance of seeing active lions and leopards as they wake up and start preparing for a night of hunting. Not being able to see much will heighten your sense of hearing, making it easier to detect lions’ contact calling or a leopard’s distinctive soft ‘coughs’.
  • Go on every game drive offered to you. The game drive you don’t go on is inevitably the one where everyone else sees lion cubs or an elephant giving birth or a rhino mom chasing off a leopard… you can sleep, rest or get your nails done when you’re back home!

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Buffalo at Mala Mala.

When to Go

5. Best Time of the Year to Go to Kruger

The safari is controlled by rainfall. The Kruger falls in the Lowveld, which has a rainy summer (October to May) and a dry winter (May to October).

WHEN About October to May About May to October
SEASON Green or low season Peak or high season
RAIN Yes, late afternoon thunder showers No
MALARIA Low risk Very low risk
COST Best rates available Premium rates
AVAILABILITY - BOOK BY 3-6 months before travel 9-12 months before travel – top lodges book out fast, especially over July and August

Green Season at Sabi Sabi.

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Best Trip Ideas

6. Best Kruger Tours & Safaris

Because it is close to Southern Africa’s main travel hub of OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg and is ringed by regional airports, Kruger is easy to combine with other desirable high-profile destinations like:

  • Cape Town, the Winelands and Garden Route
  • Mozambique
  • Botswana
  • Victoria Falls

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Best Accommodation

5. Best Kruger Accommodations

There are plenty of lodges and camps scattered across Kruger and its adjoining private reserves – the trick to choosing is to chat to your Africa Safari Expert in detail about your needs and preferences. Let them know if you’re travelling with young children, like to socialise with other guests or if you want inter-leading rooms. They will then be able to match you up with the best possible accommodation for you.

Sabi Sand Game Reserve

Ngala Private Game Reserve

Thornybush Private Nature Reserve

Kruger vs Others

9. Kruger vs Serengeti vs Masai Mara vs Botswana

All of these are premium safari destinations and you will have a wonderful time no matter which one you choose. Your choice will depend on your budget, when you can travel and what you want to see.

*By Botswana, we mean the Okavango Delta, Moremi and Chobe, not the Kalahari.

LANDSCAPE Mixed Mostly savannah Mostly savannah Mixed
PRIVATE AREAS Yes - reserves and concessions Yes –conservancies and reserves Yes - conservancies Yes -concessions
MALARIA Low risk Low risk Low risk Low risk
HIGH SEASON About May to October About May to October About May to October About May to October

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Leopard cub at Sabi Sabi.

Health & Safety

10. Health & Safety Tips

The Kruger is one of the safest safaris areas to visit in the world, especially for solo or female travellers. There are numerous reasons for this:

  • It has excellent infrastructure like well-maintained roads and communications.
  • There are daily direct flights from Johannesburg if you don’t want to drive (we can also arrange a registered driver).
  • The lodges in the private reserves host thousands of international travellers every year and have everything in place to ensure a comfortable and safe stay.
  • Although the park is gigantic, there are sizable towns like Nelspruit, White River and Hoedspruit outside the border with clinics and doctors.
  • English is spoken very widely.

Treetop star bed at Little Garonga.

While on safari, please always adhere to the following rules:

  • Do not walk around with an escort after dark, especially if you are staying in an unfenced camp. Lions, leopards and hyenas are all active at night and may be attracted by cooking and other smells. Even if you have to leave the boma to retrieve an item like a jacket from your room, tell the staff and let one of them walk with you.
  • Do not approach animals, no matter how cute or docile. They are still wild and unpredictable – even a monkey can give a painful bite and a zebra an excruciating kick.
  • Although Kruger is a low risk malaria area, discuss this with your travel clinic doctor. Be sure to tell him or her if you are going scuba diving at a beach destination afterwards as some anti-malaria medications can affect divers.
  • Moderate your alcohol intake. Wake-up times for morning game drives are quite early, especially in summer, so it’s best to limit how much you drink.
  • Be careful in the sun. The African sun can be brutal for those not used to it and sunstroke will leave you feeling awful. Wear a hat, sunscreen and sunglasses.
  • Never, ever leave food in your room. Monkeys and baboons love to find exciting new snacks and some have learnt how to open doors or unzip tents. Lock your door or zip up your tent when you leave (they won’t approach when you’re around as they fear humans). If you do have food, let the staff know and allow them to make arrangements for it’s safekeeping.

Watching elephants at Tanda Tula.

Past Travellers' Stories

2. How Our Other Travellers Experienced Kruger

Since our founding in 1998, Kruger has consistently been one of our most popular destinations. We’ve helped thousands of clients explore this part of Africa – here are just a few recent examples:

The Jennings and Littlewood Group

‘100% recommend! Anja was very personable and gave us excellent service. She tailored the itinerary to exactly what we wanted. All the guides we had during the holiday were very friendly, informative and helpful. Fantastic holiday, couldn't have asked for more. Thank you. Cape Town is a great city, we particularly enjoyed sand boarding and quad biking. Safari in Kruger was amazing! Highly recommend. Zimbabwe was also a very special experience, from visiting an orphanage to standing next to the thundering waters of Victoria Falls.’ – Nicola Jennings

How Nicola Jennings and Gillian Littlewood incorporated Kruger into their vacation:

6 days Welgelegen Boutique Hotel, Cape Town, South Africa

4 days Tanda Tula Safari Camp, Timbavati Private Nature and Game Reserve, South Africa

4 days The Elephant Camp, Victoria Falls Town, Zimbabwe

The Grays’ 30th Anniversary Celebration

‘Go2Africa were amazing from start to finish. I was looking to book a trip to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary in style and we decided South Africa would be a lovely option. From the first point of contact and throughout our agent Shelley Hess got back to us very quickly, made suggestions and gave us options to make sure that our itinerary was the best it could be to suit our requirements. Tailor-made. Everything was very efficient.

‘We were undecided at first as to whether to book our holiday ourselves as we thought it may work out cheaper but on contacting Go2Africa found that it worked out about the same and so it was a no-brainer really. After all they know their country best and, wow, did they deliver! Although this was more money than we would usually spend on a holiday, it was a special holiday to us and everything needed to be right. This was the main reason we decided to contact an agent actually in South Africa. I did have a rough idea as to where we wanted to stay but Shelley guided us along the way and put together an amazing itinerary for us.

‘Everywhere we stayed they were aware of our anniversary celebrations and we were showered with sparkling wine and petal surprises! We started off on safari in Sabi Sand, then flew to Cape Town where we stayed in Camps Bay for a few days before staying at Tintswalo Atlantic, which is situated at the start of Chapman’s Peak Drive for a couple of nights. Outstanding! Then on to the Winelands, Hermanus for shark-cage diving and whale watching, which was in season, followed by the Garden Route and finishing with another safari in the Eastern Cape. This holiday was worth every penny; lifelong memories made. We are very grateful to Go2Africa and Shelley Hess in particular. Thank you for making this holiday a reality. You’re a star!’ – Helen Gray

How the Grays incorporated Kruger into their South African vacation:

5 days Notten’s Bush Camp, Sabi Sand Private Game Reserve

4 days Camp’s Bay Retreat, Cape Town

3 days Tintswalo Atlantic, Cape Town

3 days Le Petit Ferme, Franschhoek

4 days Ocean Eleven Luxury Guest House, Hermanus

4 days Hog Hollow Country Lodge, Plettenberg Bay

3 days Pumba Water Lodge, Pumba Private Game Reserve

The Mah Family

‘Our group of six persons went on a 10-day tour with Go2Africa. It consisted of four days of safari, two days sightseeing along the Panorama Route and two days of city tours in Johannesburg and Pretoria. The safari portion was divided into two nights at Kapama Southern Camp and two nights at the Protea Hotel Kruger Gate.

‘The itinerary was well thought up and great credit must be given to Anja Naude, who had also previously whipped up another great tour for us in Botswana and Victoria Falls. Anja was always prompt to reply to my queries and accommodate our requests. She's very professional in her approach and gives sound and helpful advice. She arranged for competent bird-watching guides for us to give us a complete and satisfying safari experience.

‘We would highly recommend her and Go2Africa and, in fact, have given their contact to our other friends who are going to Africa next year. Great bird-watching and wonderful sightings of the Big 5 and numerous other mammals. Excellent evening stop for "sundowners" in the wild and great spot-lighting to see leopards and lions as the begin their prowl in the night. Very comfortable lodges at Kapama Southern Camp and at Protea Hotel Kruger Gate. And excellent food.’ – Mah family

How the Mah family incorporated Kruger into their South African vacation:

1 day City Lodge OR Tambo, Johannesburg

3 days Kapama Southern Camp, Kapama Private Game Reserve

3 days Protea Hotel Kruger Gate, Kruger National Park

3 days Outlook Lodge, Johannesburg