Kevin and I loved our time in Cape Town, but we were excited for the next leg of our journey: Kruger National Park. I was originally planning to do an organized safari set up by a tour company or our lodge. But then Kevin asked something wild and unexpected — why don’t we drive?
Okay, I even have to admit this seemed crazy. Like the kind of plan that would end with international headlines, “American Guys Rent from Avis and Get Eaten by a Lion: What WERE They Thinking?”
Plus, I wasn’t so confident about the source of this brilliant idea. The advice was given to us on a flight from Mexico by a surly flight attendant (who, not surprisingly, Kevin eventually charmed). She said the self-driving safari was her favorite thing in Africa. Though, she also mentioned almost getting robbed in Johannesburg. So I’m guessing the bar may have been a little low?
Regardless, I went online and made a reservation. And thought, this is definitely not the time to “Rent a Wreck.”
We flew direct from Cape Town to the tiny town of Hoedspruit, located just West of Kruger National Park and just 30 minutes North of the Orpen Gate at the park. The airport in Hoedspruit is essentially a tiny brick hut with a few leopard skin seats (classy!). Within 5 minutes, we walked off the airplane and to the Avis rental car service. They not only had my reservation ready, but even upgraded us to a SUV. We recommend getting the extra collision insurance (which they didn’t push at all). We asked if cars come back destroyed, and without skipping a beat, they answered “every day.”
DAY 1: Hoedspruit
We arrived in the afternoon and decided to head straight to our first animal experience: Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre. This animal rehabilitation centre makes a great start to the trip and is just 30 minutes driving from the airport (including us getting lost!).
The centre run tours several times throughout the day, each lasting around 2 hours. And the price is just $11 USD per adult! Following an introductory presentation, we hopped aboard the safari vehicle where our guide led us through enclosures with cheetahs, rhinos, wild dogs, lions, antelope to name just a few. We can’t recommend this enough – a must do!
By the end of our tour, it was pitch dark but somehow we managed to find our hotel. Located just 30 minutes from the animal center, Unembeza Boutique Lodge was by far the nicest place we stayed during our 2 weeks in Africa.
We arrived just in time for dinner, which was a multi-course gourmet affair. Each table was set with a candle and our fellow diners came dressed in style. Let’s just say, our style was more “safari gear” and dust covered! But nobody seemed to mind – though, luckily the lighting was very low.
Rates vary depending on the room, but we ended up spending $150 USD total. The several course dinner, which we highly recommend, was $60 USD total including everything and wine!
DAY 2: Hoedspruit to Pretoriuskop Rest Camp in Kruger National Park
I mapped out the route on Google Maps before heading out by car. I was excited yet nervous about driving – hitting an animal, driving on the left side of the road, running out of gas! I thought of it all, but Kruger National Park is very easy to follow and all the roads are paved.
It’s a long day of driving (about 7 hours), but that’s what you’re here for right? The night before, we asked the Unembeza Lodge to prepare our breakfast (which was delicious) and hit the road by 6 AM. You need an early start — especially since the gates close at all accommodations in Kruger at sunset (make sure to check that exact time upon entering the park since it varies throughout the year). With all our stops, we BARELY made it in time to the Pretoriuskop Camp (clocking in just 30 minutes before the gates locked!).
The main entry from Hoedspruit is Orpen Gate (located just 30 minutes from the hotel). Upon driving through the gate, you will need to stop at the Kruger registration office to fill out forms and show your reservation at one of the lodges (print these out!).
There was barely anyone around when we arrived, so starting the day early is the way to do it! We drove only a few more minutes, before I made us pull over. Not to take a picture of an animal, but I was excited to see they had shopping along the way. Seriously!
After buying a postcard with animals, I figured it was probably best to go find some. So we topped off the gas tank (get gas whenever you see it!) and hit the road once again. At each rest camp along the way, other tourists will mark where they saw animals and what kind. We didn’t see every animal that was marked, but definitely more than we expected!
We recommend a stop at the Lower Sabie Rest Camp where you will find popular cafe chain Mugg & Bean. This place is a zoo with people! Every tour group seemed to stop here. But it was one of the best (and only) spots in the park to get a sit-down meal located along a riverbank with hippos, crocodiles and elephants wandering around you.
There is a full menu – about 5 pages long including dessert. No roughing it here!
It took us forever to get served – honestly, factor in a lot of time since the wait staff was beyond overworked. In total, we probably were at the Mugg & Bean for 3 hours! But it wasn’t a bad place at all to be. They even had a shop – where we bought a hippo carving (that we’ve been admiring throughout the trip, but oddly, was cheapest inside the park).
We wrapped our never-ending lunch and drove a few more hours before making it to our final stop: Pretoriuskop Rest Camp. This is one of the official lodges you need to book in advance with the national park. Our room was $20 USD for the night, but let’s just say it was a little rustic for us. Luckily, we got a room upgrade (paying $95 USD). Not quite worth the price tag, but better than the other option. This camp is the very first in the park so not quite as plush as the others in the park.
After checking in, we grabbed a bite to eat at the Whimpy Burger at the camp and joined an evening safari tour (pre-booked and run by the park service). This is a definite must-do. And a completely different type of experience as your fellow safari riders have spotlights and search for nocturnal animals. The highlight? Driving upon a pack of hyenas all within feet of our faces!
DAY 2 – Pretoriuskop Camp to Nelspruit
We did it! And didn’t even get trampled by an elephant. Driving is an exciting way to explore Kruger and totally recommended. We made the last leg of our trip and dropped off the car at Nelspruit International Airport. Once again, it’s a tiny airport but had enough shops (for me) and a good cafe (for Kevin) to keep us happy before the next leg of our travel: Zambia!