It’s not just the Big Five that people come to see in South Africa’s superlative park, but the area’s star-studded skies and galaxy of game lodges
South Africa’s premier national park, covering two million hectares of bushveld and grasslands, is a must for lovers of wildlife and luxe safari lodges. Established in 1898, the Kruger (or ‘the KNP’, as locals call it) is home to the Big Five (lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants and buffalos). There are also 507 species of birds, 114 reptiles, 34 amphibians and 336 trees. Early human inhabitants left a legacy of bushman rock paintings and Iron Age archeological sites, especially at Masorini and Thulamela. Today, adventure-lovers can absorb all the action from the park’s camps, private lodges and hotels, pitched either outside its boundaries or on private concessions in the wildlife-roamed hinterland…
Run by the Kemp family on the Hoedspruit farm their grandfather bought back in 1937, this is a great stepping stone to the nearby KNP. Stay in one of three bush camps: Woodland Kingfisher, the smallest, has outside bathrooms and an open-plan kitchen and a traditional lapa (thatched roof on wooden poles) and boma (circular enclosure, often around a fire). The Pied Kingfisher is a cottage with a fully equipped kitchen, and the Giant Kingfisher, intended for big families, has an open-plan kitchen and a pool and play area.
All-suite River Lodge offers five-star accommodation near KNP, styled in earthy shades with cool, tiled floors. Ask for a Spa Suite, set among the russet bush willows, with floor-to-ceiling doors and frameless windows showcasing a view, even in the bathroom. Meals are served around a fire in the Rhino Boma or opt for romantic dining in a dry riverbed in front of the lodge under the star-bright African sky. The wine cellar has more than 600 of South Africa’s best wines.
Pestana is 70m from the southern entrance to KNP and 800m from the major Malelane Gate. Its gardens overlook the Crocodile River, where you can spot hippos and antelope. After a day exploring the Panorama Route, playing golf at the Malelane course, or relaxing at the pool or spa, take a sunset safari through Kruger with guides who know the bush and its creatures backwards. The Buhlebethu Restaurant serves local favourites for lunch (chicken salad with avocado, steak rolls), and often a buffet spread at night, with specialities such as roasted pineapple salad with ginger.
Choose between comfortable thatched river chalets or garden ones on the banks of the Sabie River at Hippo Hollow. It’s a good place place to return to after a day’s game viewing at KNP, a 10-minute drive away. After cooling off in one of the two pools, you can still catch the game in action, as elephants have their afternoon drink from the river below the Hippo Hollow Restaurant and giant hippos graze on the lawn. Sip a Hippo Mudslide or Hollow Bug cocktail, then dine on the likes of crocodile kebabs with red chilli, ginger and coconut-cream sauce, twice-cooked springbok with cherry-tomato chutney, and spiced banana pancakes with vanilla ice cream.
On the Sabie River, barely 10 minutes from the KNP, this lodge offers family activities from golf on a nine-hole course to tennis, trampolines, outdoor chess and three swimming pools. Sleep and dine under thatched roofs in spacious two-, three- or four-bedroom self-catering chalets and a restaurant with a stone wall and fireplace. Native gardens are alive with birds, impala and the occasional hippo. The lodge’s mantlepiece is full with awards – for good reason.
This private slice of wilderness next to the KNP is home to rare white rhinos and white lions – the owners run protection programmes for both, and care for young orphaned rhinos, too. Elandela is also known for its leopard sightings. There are two luxury lodges on the banks of the Klaserie River, with views of the game that come to drink there and spectacular sunsets over the nearby Blyde River canyon. Elandela Lake View Lodge is designed for adults, with some beds romantically canopied by nets. Elandela River View Lodge is child friendly, its seven suites designed for families and groups. Fine-dining cuisine is available, as well as traditional boma braais, prepared with local produce.
On a 25,000-acre private concession in the heart of the KNP, amid riverine forest on the banks of the N’waswitsonto River, Imbali affords some of the best game viewing in the world. The camp, with its 12 spacious suites, lies along the animal movement pattern, spying a passing parade of elephant, antelope, lion, buffalo and wild dog. The lodge is located on the site of a 400-year-old African settlement, and reflects its heritage with patterned tapestries, leather sofas and thatched roofs, pierced by the occasional tree. Arrange a game walk with a qualified guide, then dip into your private plunge pool (or the main one), before an indulgent high tea. Later, a three-course table d’hôte menu is served under the stars, or in the boma with your guide.
This family-run private lodge was one of the first to open in the area. Set on 9,000 acres of bushveld adjoining the KNP, Tshukudu has 20 spacious ensuite rooms, simply decorated with splashes of colour and beds draped in mosquito nets. There’s also a self-catering camp, Marula, with African-style safari tents or cottages, and a communal kitchen. Friendly staff will light a fire in a traditional boma for your evening meal. There are open-vehicle game drives twice each day with skilled guides – and Blyde River boat cruises, horse safaris, white-water rafting (in season) and hot-air ballooning can be arranged.
This is one of two lodges in the 30,000-acre Timbavati Private Nature Reserve – part of the Greater KNP, famed for its distinctive white lions, the result of a recessive gene. Simbavati River Lodge is your family-friendly base for exploring the area – with children of all ages welcomed in the eight luxury tents and three chalets, a pool to cool off in and books and games available in the main lodge. There are two game drives a day, the last followed by a boma dinner above the Nhlaralumi river, where the animal sightings continue.
Sustainability and community engagement are at the core of this 28,000-acre private concession in the Kruger, with 150 luxury tented suites overlooking the bush, each with air conditioning and a private outdoor shower under the sky. A big dining area offers à la carte and buffet spreads, and there’s a boma for evening braais, where African dance shows and serenades by marimbas (traditional percussion instruments) can be arranged. Nkambeni is a community project, helping support the local Nkambeni people through feeding schemes and water tanks, and encouraging anti-poaching education in the community.
This game lodge combines luxurious accommodation and fine-dining meals with Big Five sightings on a private concession in the northern area of Sabi Sand Game Reserve, adjoining the KNP (there are no fences between them). A small, personal family-run lodge on the dry Manyeleti riverbed overlooking a watering hole, it accommodates a maximum of 24 guests, so you’ll never feel part of the herd. A bush walk is included each day, along with two game drives, and there are two swimming pools, a gym, a games room and a quaffable wine cellar.
This is one of four family-owned lodges on a 25,000-acre, award-winning private game reserve, spanning Sabi Sand Game Reserve and the Kruger. The other lodges are Lion Sands Ivory Lodge, Lion Sands Tinga Lodge, and Lion Sands Narina Lodge. All blend five-star sophistication with spacious interiors overlooking the bush. At River Lodge, a deck frames a long turquoise pool with oversized loungers for relaxing after a bush walk or game drive, before an evening of hearty local fare and South African wines. Don’t miss the ‘astral safari’, where your field guide will introduce you to constellations you’ve never seen before, given the clear night sky.
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