Kruger National Park Self-Drive
As first published in the May 2018 issue of Road Trip Magazine. Click here to read it or download.
Luxury travel writer BRIAN BERKMAN (@BrianBerkmanZA) has visited many top-end private lodges within Kruger National Park’s environs. Now, for the first time, he drove himself through the wilds and opted for more affordable options.
The tolls aside, the N4 from Johannesburg to Crocodile Bridge Gate in Kruger National Park and onwards to Shishengeni Lodge is an uneventful five and half hours.
The Hyundai Accent Sedan from Avis impressed with its extremely responsive clutch and comfortable interiors. Not sure we made 0 – 100km in 10.2 seconds but it was pretty zippy and had plenty gumption when it came to overtaking.
After endless prodding, we managed to connect the Bluetooth to the iPhone hands-free to enjoy our own music but sound quality was clunky with some interference and we had to re-pair the phone each time the engine started.
Stop at Milly’s directly on the N4, about two-and-a-half hours in to your road trip for Seattle Coffee, Caltex Petrol and famous trout pies. They also offer accommodation and two restaurants. There’s a deli and a convenience store so give yourself time to explore.
The journey down the escarpment into the Lowveld is a pleasure. By the time you pass the lush greens of Belfast and enter Nelspruit you already feel you’re in the bush.
We’ve made the trip into the Sabi Sand reserve many times but then handed the car keys to the valet and experienced the park entirely from the back of a luxury game drive vehicle.
This was the first thing we noticed about Shishengeni – a private lodge but within the Kruger National Park gates. After parking the vehicle ourselves and taking our luggage to reception, we wondered which other things would separate this lodge from others that typically bill three times as much a night.
The main lodge building at Shishengeni is set into the trees and on two levels. The individual suites, accessed by raised timber walkways, are very comfortable and spacious. They would benefit from better lighting and Wi-Fi in the suites and not just the public areas. We loved the outdoor shower and private deck from which we watched elephants and Nyala. We had two guided game drives while we were there and felt well taken care of by Solomon Lubisi. He was born nearby in the area outside Kruger Gate and has the bush in his blood. He was excellent at finding game, including a leopard that leapt from its tree in front of us to hunt impala. The first morning drive, after a 5am wakeup, followed the same route we took when we drove to the lodge ourselves but we saw plenty before a coffee stop at the Crocodile Bridge Rest Camp and used toilets there. The cuisine offering was really impressive. As the lodge wasn’t at capacity when we visited, rather than set out a buffet, each table was brought a large platter with various options. Aside from loads to eat, we found the food delicious and vegetables, in particular, elegantly cooked.
For the Afternoon guided drive we took a different route and called in at Shawu, Shishengeni’s intimate five-suite camp along the water where hippos and crocks were lolling about.
Departing Shishengeni for Skukuza en route to Kruger Gate and onwards to Protea Hotel Kruger Gate, by Marriott we programmed Google Maps.
There is no mobile reception in parts of the park – nada, and only mobile data as you approach Skukuza. This makes downloading new maps when you hit a Road Closed, as we did, just short of your destination, a challenge.
A sedan like the Hyundai lacks height and a clearer view from the open-sided game vehicle. Photos taken through the windshield all have a reflective tinge and wing mirrors get in the place of images snapped from the side windows. We most enjoyed parking at right-angles to the waterholes where we managed to snap Marabou Storks, and busy yellow weavers nesting nearby. If the government feels they need to change Kruger National Park’s name then Impala National Park will work well. What a pleasure seeing great Impala herds at eye-level. It is is a wonderful feeling. Less wonderful is being towered over by giant elephants or being surrounded by buffalo which happened as we turned a corner.
The Protea Hotel Kruger Gate, by Marriott, is 60-seconds from the gate and a fantastic resort property set amid massive Jackalberry and Marula trees. There is a deck that watches over the Sabie River. Rooms are neat and wonderfully functional with walk-in showers, Wi-Fi throughout the resort and with views into the forested gardens. We were awoken at dawn by Vervet monkeys running along the awning and a cacophony of bird song. The buffet lapa dinner, a feast around a fire pit fit for kings, must not be missed. The hotel can organise game drives and other park-based activities from R574 per person.
Bring your own slippers, coffee plunger, binos and a good guide book and extend your stay by a week with what you’ve saved.