So smack at the top of your dream trips list is an African safari, yet whenever you flip through whatever travel magazine it is you subscribe to and see the prices listed for safaris, you whistle through your teeth, take a deep breath, and then renew your membership to the local zoo. Sure, seeing lions, zebras, elephants, giraffes, rhinos, and other creatures roaming freely across the plains of Africa would be awesome, but you just can’t justify throwing a huge chunk of your retirement fund or a year of your child’s college tuition at one trip, whether or not it’s the trip of a lifetime.
Fortunately, you don’t have to bankrupt yourself to make your dream trip a reality. Despite the fact that no one ever says so, going on safari doesn’t have to cost your life’s savings. In fact, it can be downright affordable. At South Africa’s Kruger National Park, one of the best known wildlife parks in the world, you can live out your safari dreams on a backpacker’s budget.
Here’s how to do it.
1. Book a flight to Johannesburg, South Africa.
Sure this part won’t be cheap, but be on the lookout for good deals. Don’t worry about time of year and all that rainy season/dry season nonsense. For instance, March, which is in the South African autumn, is an excellent time to go. Technically it’s still the rainy season, but on our visit, we didn’t see a single drop of rain. We also didn’t see the hordes of people that the park welcomes come winter. Everything is green, which some say makes animals harder to spot, but we managed to see everything from lions to rhinos to hyenas to warthogs. So harder? Maybe. But hard? Not at all.
(Upgrade option: Go first class. It’s a long way to South Africa!)
2. Rent a car.
Though plenty of safari outfitters will gladly let you pay them scads of money for the pleasure of having them driving you through the park, the beauty of Kruger is that it’s a self-drive facility. You are free to act as your own guide using your own car. Even better is the fact that all the roads are accessible to even the wimpiest 2WD, so book the cheapest car on offer (you don’t need AC when your windows are down the whole time so you can snap photos!) and call it good. We found the best deal through Around About Cars (www.aroundaboutcars.com), with a daily rate of $25.
(Upgrade option: Go ahead and get the 4WD if riding in a VW or Kia doesn’t feel safari enough for you.)
3. Pack your bags.
You don’t need much–a couple of pairs of comfy clothes (there are laundry sites in Kruger, which cost about $1 for wash and $1 for dry, so no need to over pack), a good pair of shoes in case you plan to do any of the walks offered by park guides, a camera with lots of digital memory, and a good pair of binoculars. A field guide to animals of South Africa is a nice addition. Pick one up at home or upon arrival. You’ll also want to buy the park map, which shows not only the roads and camps but also depicts the varying habitats and what animals you’re likely to find in each area.
(Upgrade option: Splurge on a nice zoom for your camera. Though you’ll encounter many animals at distances so small that any point-and-shoot will be able to capture their images, you’ll need a quality zoom to photograph some of the more elusive animals.)
4. Land in Johannesburg, pick up your car, and head to the nearest Checkers Supermarket.
The basic Checkers Supermarket is where you’ll stock up for your self-catered safari. Camping is the way to go in Kruger. It’s the most economical option, and hey, this is a safari, after all. Being close to nature is part of the deal. If you didn’t bring your camping supplies from home, you’ll want to get what you need at Checkers: a tent, sleeping mats, sleeping bags, a pot and pan, and a dish soap and sponge. Don’t worry; it’s cheap. The tent, at about 300 rand, will be the big purchase. While you’re there, pick up a cooler and some groceries for picnic lunches and a dinner or two, should you wish to cook.
(Upgrade option: Splurge on the air mattress. Your back will thank you for spending the extra 200 rand.)
5. Hit the road, destination Kruger National Park.
At a distance of 480 kilometers from Johannesburg, Kruger National Park can be reached in a day’s drive. The trick is deciding which of the many gates to enter the park from. My suggestion: head north, entering at Phalabora, and work your way south. The north is home to large populations of elephants, giraffes, zebras, and other easy-to-spot animals, so rewards will come quick and easy. Once you’ve gotten into your safari groove, make your way south, where, with patience and a bit of luck, you’ll locate lions, leopards, cheetahs, and rhinos.
(Upgrade option: With an extra day or two, make a stop at Blyde River Canyon, the third largest canyon in the world, on your way to the park.)
6. Pay your admission and enter the park.
At just 140 rand per day, admission to Kruger National Park is probably cheaper than admission to your local zoo! Seriously, that’s all it costs to enter into over 2.2 million hectares of wild lands filled with wild animals. Gate opening times vary depending on the time of year, but aim to arrive as early as possible for your best chance at seeing animals.
(Upgrade option: Opt for the Wild Card if you plan to spend more than six nights in the park or will be having an extended holiday in South Africa and visiting other parks. Good at all of South Africa’s national parks for one year from purchase, the Wild Card is an excellent deal at 1640 rand for a couple or 900 rand for an individual.)
7. Spend all day driving through Kruger.
With a park map in hand, pick your path based on the habitats and likely inhabitants that interest you most. Mix the paved roads with the gravel roads (all 2WD accessible), but don’t overestimate what you can cover in a day. You won’t be moving very fast as you stop to search for animals and snap photos. Picnic spots located throughout the park allow you to refuel without having to return to camp.
(Upgrade option: Spend part of a day or evening on one of the guided tours offered by the park. Options include morning and evening walks and sunrise, sunset, and night drives. At between 120 rand and 270 rand per person, the tours a good deal. To guarantee a spot, you’ll want to book ahead, especially for the tours leaving from the camps and gates in the south.)
8. Check into your overnight accommodations.
If you plan on camping, there’s no need, except during highest holiday season, to book a spot in advance, so roll into whatever camp is closest as gate-closing time nears and hand over 130 rand to secure a piece of land for pitching your tent. If you’re worried about roughing it, ease your mind. The campgrounds here have nice, clean bathrooms with flush toilets and hot showers; communal kitchen areas with electric burners, sinks, and hot water heaters; and grill areas. Some even have pools. You will also have access to the camp shops, where you can buy any food items you’ve forgotten or run out of, cleaning supplies, and souvenirs. If you don’t feel like cooking, opt for the camp restaurant, where you can enjoy a multi-course dinner for 135 rand. The bigger camps also have delis, where burgers and the like go for about 35 rand.
(Upgrade option: Skip the tent and reserve lodging at the campgrounds. Basic rondavels, which share bathrooms and kitchen facilities with the campground, start at 275 rand, and chalets with private facilities start at 640 rand. Make reservations in advance for any non-campground lodging.)
9. Repeat steps seven and eight to your heart’s content.
Stay until you see all of the Big Five (elephant, buffalo, lion, leopard, and rhinoceros). Or you’ve counted over 100 elephants. Or you’ve witnessed a kill. At Kruger, every day’s an adventure, and you never know what the sunrise might bring.