Since my time in the Philippines (2013), I have been trying to avoid travelling as a tourist with pre-packaged tours but more as a backpacker. I find that the pre-arranged tours don’t give me a lot of opportunities to learn new things from locals while travelling as a backpacker does. This option also gave me the freedom to be spontaneous and sometimes, skip the planning. However, I’ve learned after a few mistakes that you can’t be too spontaneous while travelling in South Africa. There needs some sort of planning and research effort put into each trip and even more so when you don’t have a car because getting around in South Africa is a mission.
I was lucky because, for most of my trips in South Africa, I was able to travel with friends who had their own transport. This allowed us to be flexible: take a spontaneous trip to Durban without having any idea what we wanted to see, choose a random hiking trail and get lost in nature at Giant’s Castle or explore new natural wonders near God’s Window in Mpumalanga.
Getting lost in the Drakensberg
Waterfalls, natural pools, Blyde River Canyon and God’s Window
Kruger National Park is one of the must-see things in South Africa but I was trying to avoid it almost the entire year I was living here. I heard so many things about it that made me feel it would be overcrowded with tourists, things like phone apps that allowed you to locate animals you want to see, busy roads and traffic jam near the gates of the park, overpriced food and accommodation that would need to be booked months in advance, etc.
With only one month left and still wanting to do one last trip, I decided to give Kruger a try anyway. So I started my research and found out that few others before me have taken a trip to Kruger without a car and succeeded. I decided to follow some of their advice while also choosing some activities of my own and share that research below for other fellow travellers looking to visit Kruger but don’t have a car.
Phalaborwa is one of the small towns on the edge of Kruger. It is primarily a mining town and the safari business isn’t as developed and competitive as in Hazyview or White River, the small towns near Satara and Skukuza, the more popular camps inside Kruger. But because of its proximity to the park, there are quite a few hotels and lodges about a 5-minute drive from Phalaborwa Gate. It is also located north of Kruger so the region has thicker bushes and some small hills and mountains, pretty much leopard territory. Further south of the national park, where Satara and Skukuza camps are located, the landscape is more savannah-like, cheetah, rhino and hyena territory. However, this does not mean that you cannot see the Big Five (lion, elephant, leopard, buffalo and rhino) in Phalaborwa because the region also has them, just more of some than others.
There are only 2 bus companies that go there: Translux and City to City. Buses depart around 8AM from Park Station and arrive 4.30PM. Although Phalaborwa is only a 4-hour drive away from Jozi, it takes the bus 8 hours because of multiple stops on the way. Coming back to Jozi would also take another 8 hours so if you plan to take the bus, make sure to put aside 2 full days of travel. If you take the bus, it will drop off and pick up at the Engen gas station in town. Alternatively, you can book a domestic flight there or rent a car and drive to Phalaborwa, depending on your budget.
Driving through the mountains and valleys of Limpopo. These are still part of the Drakensberg mountain range.
There are many lodges and guesthouses around Phalaborwa but the ones I found that are fit for a backpacker’s budget are:
I chose to stay at Elephant Walk because it was the most convenient and affordable. It is a 20-min walk away from Phalaborwa Gate of Kruger or just a 5-minute drive.
If you do not have a car, most companies that you have booked activities with will offer to pick you up at your accommodation. If you do have a car, leave it at the accommodation and do the tour. Sitting in an open vehicle will allow you to see better and just focus on animal sighting rather than having to drive around yourself. The tour guides will also take you to gravel and dirt roads where they know you would more likely spot animals.
My favourite activity that I did in Kruger and by far the best value-for-money activity ! Elize is a lovely lady who runs her own local safari company. She organizes many activities such as full-day safari, cultural visits to the villages nearby where you can try locally-made foods, overnight safari drives from north to south of Kruger, etc. She is very passionate about nature and she will also tell you about Kruger and the different animals in the park, how they behave. My experience in the African bush with Elize was absolutely wonderful and next time I’m back, I will definitely do an overnight trip with her through Kruger! She also introduced me to a lot of the local food which I will talk about in the next post.
South Africa National Parks (SANParks) has organized full-day safari, half-day safari, bush walks as well as night drives. However, you would have to book and arrange ahead of time and if there are not enough people doing the same activity, it won’t be taking place. Travelling alone, I was at a disadvantage because I wanted to do some of these activities but they weren’t taking place.
The bush walk has a minimum of 4 and maximum of 8 people participating. The night drive (minimum 2 people) is from 4.30PM to 7.30PM (after sunset) and this will allow you to see the big cats better since they come out at night to hunt.
Call the Phalaborwa Gate to book activities because their website does not give helpful information: +27 (0)13 735 3547
They also have full-day safari, morning safari drive, sundowner safari drive and bush walk activities. Attention: there is a difference between a sundowner drive and night drive: sundowner is from 1.30PM-5.30PM and is not much different from what you see during the day. The night drive is the one from 4.30PM-7.30PM.
And because I always love having multiple options, here are some more that I found.
- Nandzana (used to be Eco Trek): nandzana.co.za
- Olifants River Safaris: olifantsriversafaris.co.za
- Sefapane Lodge and Tours: sefapane.co.za (I find their activities a bit overpriced and they catered more to foreign tourists)
Some of these companies may or may not provide all the activities that I have listed: some don’t do the bush walk and some don’t do the night drive. This is because the park gates close around 5.30PM (winter) or 6.30PM (summer) and some of these companies are not certified to do certain things because they need to have the skills or expertise that the SANParks staff have.
Hope this information was useful and when you’re in the bush, enjoy every moment of it!