Madikwe Safari vs Kruger Safari: How to Choose

While every safari to South Africa is special, your first step is choosing where to go. Many first-timers to safari or the country look at visiting either the Greater Kruger area or Madikwe Game Reserve, so I’ve broken down the key aspects of each for you to compare.

GREATER KRUGER MADIKWE
High season About July - October About July - October
Low / Green season November – June (summer rainfall) November – June (summer rainfall)
Size 180 000ha (not all accessible because of traversing rights) 75 000ha (all accessible except for 1 800ha Makanyane concession)
Landscape and terrain Open savannah and riverine forest Transition zone: bushveld to Kalahari Desert with acacia thickets
Main rivers Sabi, Sand, Timbavati and Olifants Groot Marico
Combines well with Cape Town, Victoria Falls & Mozambique Sun City, Pilanesberg National Park & Cape Town
Notable species Leopard, Large elephant herds, Large buffalo herds Eland, Oryx, Pangolin, Brown hyena, Springbok, Tsessebe, Red hartebeest
Off-roading Yes Yes but limited
Vehicle limit at sightings Yes Yes
Night drives Yes Yes
Road distance from Johannesburg About six hours About three hours
Airstrips Yes Yes
Commercial airports Yes No
Malaria precautions Yes No
Big 5 Sightings Yes Yes
Tented camps Yes No
Species and Big 5 Sightings

1. Species and Big 5 Sightings

SIMILARITIES

  • Both are very good Big 5 destinations but leopard sightings are considered more reliable in Greater Kruger. This is because the terrain and riverine forest is more suited to them – they love skulking around Kruger’s granite outcrops and in the branches of its massive leadwood trees.
  • There are limits on the number of vehicles that can be present at sightings in both areas. This is to ensure that the animals don’t get stressed out or hemmed in with no means of escape.
  • Guides will often share sightings in their radios. If you arrive at a special sighting – such as cubs or a kill – please do not badger, threaten or bribe your guide to get closer or break the rule on the number of vehicles allowed. Guides are very good about allowing everyone a fair turn and get fined or punished for breaking the vehicle limit. The animals’ welfare – as well as your safety - is always their top priority.
  • Both areas allow off-roading but guides in Madikwe tend to avoid off-roading unless there is a very exceptional sighting to be had. This may be because the terrain in Madikwe is still recovering from its agricultural past and preserving the vegetation as much as possible is paramount. Remember that plenty of very small but crucial species – such as dung beetles, tortoises, snakes and so on - live in the grass.
  • Wild dogs are making a come back from the brink of extinction (they were almost wiped out as entire packs were shot dead across Africa) in both Kruger and Madikwe. They are extremely vulnerable to diseases like rabies and pack longevity is precarious. Seeing them is a huge thrill especially if you’re lucky enough to find them on a hunt. Their clear collaboration, obvious intelligence, intense communication and sheer sure-footedness make them a joy to watch.

A focused leopard at Sabi Sabi in Kruger.

DIFFERENCES

Madikwe

  • There are generally very good sightings of the Big 5 but leopards are very tricky to find.
  • Because it encompasses different biomes, there is an array of unusual species connected to desert habitats here. Look out for prey like eland (the world’s biggest species of antelope), oryx (also known as gemsbok), springbok, tsessebe and red hartebeest.
  • If you are very lucky, you may come across pangolin (sadly now the world’s most-trafficked animal and under huge threat from poachers).
  • Madikwe is also home to the brown hyena, the rarer and larger cousin to the more common spotted hyena (known as ‘spotties’).
  • Birders will enjoy looking out for ostriches and kori bustards (the world’s heaviest bird that can still fly).
  • Only Sanctuary Makanyane has a restricted area in Madikwe – guests of all other lodges are free to go anywhere in the reserve (as long as they adhere to the vehicle limit at sightings) because there are no restrictions on traversing rights. Bear in mind, however, that moving from one side to another is slow going and may take a long time. Animals retreat during the heat of the day so your best sightings will be just after sunrise and just before sunset, which doesn’t give you lots of time to move far from your lodge.
  • Madikwe is the fifth largest reserve in South Africa at about 75 000 hectares. We suggest about two or three nights at different lodges in the south and north so you can explore the whole reserve thoroughly. This also gives you more time to find elusive species such as leopard, wild dog, brown hyena and pangolin.

Finding wild dogs with the Morukuru tracker-and-guide team.

Kruger

  • Kruger – along with the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania – has the most reliable Big 5 sightings on the planet. It is not unusual (but never guaranteed!) to see all five in the same day; some clients have reported seeing all of them in the same game drive!
  • Kruger is leopard heaven and guides know many of them so well that they’ve been given names. If seeing a leopard is on your bucket list, this is the place to be.
  • Because it is bigger and has more water, it supports much, much bigger herds of buffalo and elephant than Madikwe.
  • Clocking in at a colossal 180 000 hectares, the Greater Kruger area is the biggest conservation zone in the country. But, unless you have a lot of time, a very elastic budget and are willing to move between lodges or camps, it impossible to explore all of it.
  • There are very strict traversing rights in place. Your guide can only drive in the limited area available to them – they cannot go beyond those boundaries. So although Greater Kruger may be 180 000ha, you may be restricted to seeing 20 000ha or less of it unless you move to different accommodation in different areas. The wildlife, of course, can come and go as they please – you never know what wanders into ‘your zone’ overnight, awaiting discovery on your morning game drive. The sheer unpredictability of safari is what makes it such fun!

Hundreds of buffalo at Sabi Sabi in Kruger.

 

"Fantastic Southern African Safari & More"

We saw giraffes and zebras within 5 minutes of leaving Hoedspruit Airport and the safari hadn't even started. Our time at Arathusa Lodge was superb. Also had a tremendous time in Cape Town, Victoria Falls, Chobe Nat Park and Johannesburg. Definitely recommend Go2Africa and will use them again.
- John, Simi Valley, CA, USA

Landscape and Location

2. Landscape and Location

SIMILARITIES

  • Both are located in South Africa.
  • Both are accessible by road – we strongly suggest a transfer with a professional driver since the standard of driving in South Africa is extremely variable. Transfer drivers are also far more experienced in dealing with unpredictable circumstances, like three elephants in the road or a pride of lions sleeping near a gate!

The mountains and koppies of Madikwe.

DIFFERENCES

Madikwe

  • Madikwe is located in the North-West Province, about a 3-hour drive from OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, the transport hub for South Africa. Charter flights on private or shared light aircraft can be arranged to airstrips in Madikwe. There are no commercial flights to Madikwe.
  • Madikwe is so close to the border of neighbouring Botswana that in the very far north of the reserve you can detect the lights of Gaborone, the capital of Botswana.
  • It is a very diverse landscape because it encompasses not only dense acacia thicket and classic bushveld but also the transition zone to the Kalahari Desert, which goes on to make up the majority of neighbouring Botswana.
  • Most of Madikwe is not pristine, untouched bush but reclaimed farmland where indigenous species of fauna and flora have been slowly reintroduced. This means there are plenty of good roads, quite a few manmade dams and the remnants of past human habitation, like the ruins of Catholic mission and the occasional disintegrating windmill or farm gate. It is fascinating to see how nature can recover from agriculture, given patience and the right conditions.
  • Because it is a fairly arid environment, there is only one major river, the Groot (‘Big’ or ‘Great’) Marico. This is why the farmers built so many dams, to take advantage of good summer rains.

The ruins of a Catholic mission in Madikwe.

Greater Kruger

  • The Greater Kruger area consists of the Kruger National Park, which is open to all members of the public, and the smaller private reserves that abut it, such as Sabi Sand, Timbavati, MalaMala and Klaserie.
  • Only animals can move freely between the national park and the private reserves – guests are limited by strict traversing rights.
  • Kruger is about a 6-hour drive from OR Tambo in Joburg but there are commercial flights and a number of domestic airstrips around the area. Private charter flights are also available. If you have the funds, flying in is a wonderful way to secure more time on safari rather than spending almost a full day driving.
  • The south of Kruger consists largely of open savannah and riverine forest around the Sabi, Sand, Timbavati and Olifants Rivers.

Classic woodland around Dulini in Kruger.

Climate and When to Go

3. Climate and When to Go

SIMILARITIES

  • Because they are both in the north of South Africa, they follow the classic pattern of summer rain followed by a dry winter.
  • Green or low season runs from about November to April when there are generally short-lived thunder showers in the late summer afternoon.
  • These showers are a major boon for photographers: the rain washes the air clear of dust, giving you crisper images and more vivid colours. Animals also ‘pop’ more against the brilliant green grass and leaves. Tawny animals such as antelope and predators blend in far more against the brown vegetation of winter, giving photographs less contrast and dynamism.
  • Thunderstorms make for fantastically dramatic photos as you can get amazing shots of elephants, lions and other wildlife with lightning in the background. Remember, the animals don’t ‘go inside’ when it rains: they often simply continue doing whatever they were doing!
  • Green season is also when migrant bird species, such as European bee-eaters, are present, making summer a must-do time of year for birders.
  • High or peak seasons runs from about July to October when there is virtually no rain. Days are warm but nights and mornings can be very cool so pack accordingly. This time of year is popular because it is cooler, there are fewer insects about and wildlife don’t wander far from the few remaining sources of water, making them easier to find. The thinned-out vegetation also makes them much easier to see.
  • Green season offers lower rates and fewer visitors but the animals are harder to find; peak season offers the converse – higher rates and more visitors but the animals are easier to find.
  • When you choose to go will depend on your budget, expectations for your safari (such as birding or photography), health (you may want to travel when it is cool or avoid malaria prophylactics), your schedule and the availability of your preferred accommodation.
  • If you want to visit Kruger in high or peak season, it pays to begin consulting with one of our Africa Safari Experts up to a year or more in advance. The area is especially busy over the South African school holidays, which generally fall over July.

Madikwe: dense acacia thicket and strict vehicle limit at sightings.

DIFFERENCES

Madikwe

  • Because Madikwe is more arid and lies on the transition zone from bushveld to desert, malaria is not present and precautions are not necessary.
  • The slightly more arid climate means that summer days – although hot with afternoon showers – are not very humid.

Green season sightings with Morukuru in Madikwe.

Kruger

  • Kruger has far more bodies of water than Madikwe and is more humid – both of these elements means that malaria precautions may be advisable, especially during the wetter summer months. Remember that the mere presence of a mosquito or a bite does not mean that malaria itself is present – it takes a female mosquito from a specific species that is carrying the disease already to pass it on. Almost all visitors to Kruger return malaria-free (those undertaking major or prolonged visits to remote villages are most at risk – simple visits to local villages are very low risk).

A swing bridge at Dulini in Kruger.

Cost and Accommodation

4. Cost and Accommodation

SIMILARITIES

  • It is very difficult to give the average cost of a safari as there are so many variable elements such as when you travel, how long you stay, single supplements, additional activities, level of luxury you want and so forth.
  • Your personal Africa Safari Expert will work with you to get the most out of your budget. Some guests prefer less luxurious accommodation in favour of staying for more nights while others want a shorter but more extravagant safari. There are no rules and it is best to be open about what you prefer.
  • Rates are always higher in the dry winter season from about June or July to October.
  • Rates are lower during the wetter summer months between about November and April.
  • Both Kruger and Madikwe are suitable for families, couples, honeymooners and so on. Your Safari Expert will able to make suggestions for you and do the booking.
  • If you are travelling with children, ensure that the lodge can accommodate them as some have age restrictions. Looks for lodges with the following: fenced areas so animals can’t roam through, babysitters or kids’ clubs, age-appropriate activities and interleading family suites.
  • Be sure to work in the cost of extras like tips and drinks to your safari.
  • Almost all upscale lodges now offer at least some amenities like swimming pools or private plunge pools, Wi-Fi connectivity, spas, and sleep-outs or treehouses.
  • The standard of dining is very high in both and you can expect good food accompanied by excellent South African wines. Many now have permanent kitchen gardens to supply fresh herbs and vegetables.
  • In unfenced camps, you will be escorted by a guard after sun down. You never know what has decided to have a snooze outside your room while you were having dinner!

DIFFERENCES

Madikwe

  • Madikwe has no tented camps – all the accommodation is in fairly upscale lodges. Lodges have more permanent structures than tented camps and you won’t have that ‘under canvas’ feeling.
  • Lodges will have solid walls, often thatched roofs, full en suite bathrooms and conventional lights and electrical sockets. They are more like hotel rooms than tented camps.

Kruger

  • Kruger has a wider variety and style of accommodation compared to Madikwe. You can stay in anything from a very intimate tented camp to an incredibly extravagant lodge – the choice is yours.
  • Tented camps are generally less ‘luxurious’ and often use eco-friendly features like solar power and rainwater harvesting.
  • There are far more lodges with river views in Kruger than Madikwe, simply because there are more rivers in the area.
Combines Easily With...

5. Combines Easily With...

SIMILARITIES

  • Like anything in the world, you can combine your safari destinations as you please to stretch to the time and funds you have available.
  • Getting around Africa is surprisingly pricy. This is because infrastructure is scattered over long distances and there is low demand for air travel, especially. Your Safari Expert will always try and arrange your itinerary to make the most of existing routes or departure times.
  • We do not suggest self-drive journeys around Madikwe and Kruger unless you are a very experienced driver. Standards of driving are variable and road conditions can change. We prefer to arrange a professional driver for you: not only does this give you peace of mind, it allows you to enjoy the scenery and arrive at your destination truly relaxed. We only suggest self-drive journeys along South Africa’s Garden Route and in parts of Namibia.
  • After a long-haul flight, an overnight stay in Joburg allows you a good night’s rest before you set out for your safari. Hotels are of international standard but very reasonable because of the value of the South African rand. Safaris are all about pre-dawn starts and late nights around the boma fire so arriving rested really helps you to make the most of your time in the bush.

Cape Town is easily accessible from both Madikwe and Kruger.

DIFFERENCES

Madikwe

  • Many travellers like to combine Madikwe with Sun City, Africa’s largest resort, especially if they have young children. Sun City is about 1.5 hours’ drive from Joburg and about two hours’ drive from Madikwe, making it a useful halfway mark.
  • Sun City has plenty for children to see and do, and allows them to blow off steam after a long flight and before game drives where they have to sit still and be fairly quiet for long stretches of time. Golfers will also love hitting the Gary Player championship courses.
  • Sun City borders the Pilanesberg National Park which, while a public reserve open to day-trippers, can offer very good sightings especially for first-timers learning the ropes.
  • Because it is so close to Joburg’s OR Tambo International Airport, you can also combine Madikwe easily with Cape Town, Kruger, Victoria Falls and Maun, the gateway town to safaris in Botswana’s Okavango Delta.

The Royal Baths near the Palace of the Lost City at Sun City.

Kruger

  • The most famous area around Kruger is the beautiful Panorama Route and many travellers take a least a day or two to explore its landmarks like God’s Window (a scenic lookout over the border with Mozambique), Bourke’s Luck (a series of magnificent ‘potholes’) and the Three Rondavels (three hills shaped like traditional African thatch-and-abode huts).
  • There are a lot of stunning championship golf courses along the Panorama Route so golfers are spoilt for choice when hitting the greens.
  • There are direct flights from Kruger to Mozambique, an under-rated semi-tropical beach paradise with excellent small resorts and diving. A beach break is a good idea after a safari, which can be quite strenuous if you’re not used to early mornings.
  • Like Madikwe, it’s an easy trip back to OR Tambo to connect to flights across Southern and East Africa.