Nature and Wildlife Photography in Kruger National Park, South Africa

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Many nature photographers dream about going to Africa one day to indulge in shooting the abundant wildlife, birdlife and landscapes it has to offer, and to soak up the feeling that is uniquely Africa. When one is finally ready to get the dust and dung of Africa on one’s feet, a decision must be made about a specific destination visit.

In Southern and Eastern Africa, there are about seven well-known safari countries: Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa. I have intentionally left Uganda and Rwanda out of this shortlist since they are mainly of interest for primate safari trips.

Several factors may affect which country best suits the photographer’s interests, such as cost, possibilities for traveling independently, length of trip, preparation time, resident wildlife, seasons and the political situation.

The main reason for my choice has always been cost. Although Kenya and Tanzania undoubtedly boast the highest numbers of wildlife and arguably offer the best chances of seeing as many species as possible, it is rather expensive to get there and travel around. For a photographer, the best way to go would be to book a special photo safari, such as those offered by several NatureScapes.Net members. The huge expense of such a trip, however, simply cannot be justified by some people, including myself. And as I do not want to get stuck in a normal tourist vehicle with non-photographer tourists (and guides!), the second best option would be a self-drive and that unfortunately more or less rules out Kenya and Tanzania.

Therefore, as I started making plans for a two-week African holiday in October 2007, I soon decided to travel to South Africa’s Kruger National Park. Why? South Africa is a well-developed country which can easily be traversed by a 2-wheel driven rental car. Car rental, accommodation and entrance fees are relatively inexpensive and can all be booked online. And most importantly: Kruger is world famous for its excellent numbers of a wide range of wildlife and birdlife species.

Kruger National Park: The Practicalities

Kruger National Park is located in the north-eastern-most corner of South Africa and directly borders neighbouring Mozambique. At 400 kilometres long and with a surface area of almost 20,000 km2, it is about the size of Wales and one of Africa’s largest parks. It was founded as Sabie Game Reserve in 1898 by President Paul Kruger, and nowadays boasts a dazzling 507 species of birds and 147 species of mammals, including the famous Big 5.

Getting There and Around

From Johannesburg International Airport, it is an easy 4-5 hours drive to one of the southern or western gates of Kruger National Park. All international car rental companies are represented just outside the arrivals terminal. Of course, one should book the vehicle ahead to prevent a disappointing start of a long-awaited trip! About 10 kilometres from the airport in the direction of Kruger is a hypermarket where food, drinks and camping equipment can be acquired. Alternatively, it is possible to fly to Kruger/Mpumalanga International Airport from either Johannesburg or Cape Town and pick up your rental vehicle there.

Travelling around within the park independently is very easy, as all main roads in the park are tarred and the gravel roads are maintained very well. Only the special 4×4 trails, which need advance booking anyway, cannot be negotiated by a normal vehicle. In the rainy season (October – April), the gravel roads can be in a bad condition with mud and potholes and the like, and a rigid vehicle is very useful. Sometimes these roads are simply closed for the day (or longer).

Fuel is available (cash only!) in all main camps. For this trip, I used a regular sedan, which worked out fine. Although at times I wished for more clearance to make spotting easier, the lower shooting angle of a sedan makes smooth backgrounds easier to achieve than from the higher vantage point of a 4×4.

Accommodation and Facilities

The park is host to enormous numbers of visitors all year round, either day visitors or overnight guests who stay the nights in one of Kruger’s many main camps, satellite camps, bushveld camps or private (luxury) lodges. Accommodation types in the government run main camps and satellite camps (which are all fenced) vary from family bungalows to camping areas. I chose the most basic types of permanent accommodation. Even these simple safari tents and huts offer the visitor a fridge and air-conditioning, but cost very little at 15-25 euros/night.

Every accommodation type has a private braai area where one can have a nice barbecue with boerewors (a local specialty sausage), steaks and kebabs. Meat, groceries and all other necessities, as well as photo books and the typical cliché souvenirs, can be bought in the camp shops which are found in all of the main camps. For people in the camping areas, there are small kitchenettes equipped with electric plates and taps with boiling water.

If you are of the opinion that “holiday” and “cooking your own meal” should not be in the same sentence, all main camps have restaurants with great food at very affordable rates.

Between the main camps, there are designated picnic areas where one can have breakfast during the early morning game drives or just relax and wait for the afternoon light without having to go back to camp. Here, complete braai equipment can be rented and cool drinks and simple snacks are sold.

Accommodation in the park are best booked in advance through the website of Sanparks (see below), which shows real-time availability, especially in the holiday season when most camps are booked to the last bed. Proper planning can help keep you from having to spend the night in your vehicle somewhere in a corner of the camping site. Staying more than one night in a camp enables you to get to know the area better and provides you with the opportunity to go back to that special last minute sighting the next day!