Motorhome travel: A campervan trip to the Kruger National Park
Words and photos by Tracy Brooks
My husband, Alan, and I are bush babies – and lucky ones at that, because our home in White River, South Africa, is less than an hour’s drive away from the magnificent Kruger National Park.
We like to call the park our ‘local’ and pop in as often as we can. In fact, it was during a camping trip there at Lower Sabie that we made the firm decision our next camping bed was going to be in a campervan.
We’d spent the usual who-knows-how-long erecting the tent and setting up our campsite when a retired couple pulled in next to us and within minutes had their chairs out and gin and tonics poured.
“That’s it,” Alan muttered. “I’m going over to find out how they do it.” Several beers later his investigation into campervan life was completed and we spent our last night under canvas!
Our home-build Peugeot Boxer campervan, affectionately called Henry, has done us well and we feel it is the only way to travel game reserves in South Africa.
Many of the roads in Kruger are tarmac and the gravel roads are well-graded so the campervan drives very comfortably indeed, with the added advantage of us being seated quite high, making for better game viewing.
Another benefit of campervanning in the game reserve is the on-board space and facilities. Picture the scene – we set out from the rest camp around 4pm, fridge stocked with chilled beer and tonic water and a bag of ice.
Parking at a sundowner spot, preferably overlooking water, we open the side door, pour refreshments and sit comfortably inside on our camp chairs (getting out of the vehicle is forbidden in South Africa’s parks and game reserves), camera and binoculars at hand waiting for the animals to arrive for their sundowner drink. Perfect!
One long weekend, we went a bit further north in the Kruger Park than we usually do and drove up to Orpen rest camp. Orpen is in the centre of Kruger but as the Park is so big, it takes several hours to drive up there. One advantage of getting out of the more accessible and popular southern part of the park is fewer camps and people, so we had our sightings all to ourselves.
Bagging a prime spot next to the camp fence so we could face the bush and keep an eye on anything passing, we set up the gazebo and laid out chairs, table and barbecue. This manoeuvre secures our site when we leave camp to go on game drives because the downside of carrying your bed, goods and chattels on your back, so to speak, is returning after a drive to find your idyllic spot hijacked by a tent!
Camping alongside the fence also provides a ringside seat for the nightly hyena patrol. Drawn by the aroma of steaks and sausage sizzling on the evening barbecues, they restlessly pace the perimeter. This is as close and wild as you’ll ever want to get to a hyena; be thankful for the strong barrier keeping them out. Please, whatever you do, don’t be tempted to toss a bone or a sausage over the fence.
These animals are dangerous and being fed by campers encourages hyenas to view the campsite as a source of food. There was an incident a few years ago when a hyena, emboldened by human feeding and no longer fearing people, broke through a fence and dragged a young lad out of his tent.
We were rewarded on this particular trip by a pack of seven female hyena ‘aunts’ taking a young female pup out on her first ‘hunt’ along the fence.
The tiny creature, an adorable mini-hyena the size of a poodle, was terrified of the campsite lights and noise and had to be encouraged by the aunts to come out of the shadows and keep moving. Am I alone in finding the beasts rather pretty? They have lovely soft eyes and sweet furry round ears, but I wouldn’t attempt to pat one at any price…
This is a good area in Kruger to see plains animals such as zebras and wildebeest and, judging by the number of teeny little warthogs, hoglet season was in full swing. We saw plenty of babies desperately running after mum or being dragged along as she tired of feeding and they weren’t letting go of that teat!
We had wonderful elephant sightings and saw a few elegant giraffes but, with the dams being rather low when we were there, other than storks and the occasional basking crocodile, the waterholes were bereft of animals and we saw no hippos, which is unusual.
Our average day in Kruger begins just as dawn cracks open. Filling the thermos with coffee, we rumble through the camp gates and drive towards a picnic spot, bird hide or waterhole. Coffee and rusks keep us going for an hour or two while we watch the indigenous Kruger residents graze, pad, slurp, burp or otherwise get on with their own morning routine.
When our own tummies begin grumbling, we pull into a picnic site and ignite the portable gas barbecue for a fry-up – eggs, sausage, bacon and tomato, mopped up with a slice of bread. This is a leisurely activity as there is usually an assortment of animals, reptiles and birds skulking around to entertain.
Sometimes, monkeys can be a real nuisance but you only lose your breakfast to a marauding ape once before you learn to properly close cool boxes and the campervan doors. The hornbills are cheeky, though, and will brazenly sit on the table, head cocked, waiting for a crumb or two.
All this hectic activity is exhausting (OK, that’s an exaggeration!) and by this time, almost noon, the day has warmed up. The game disappears to wherever they go when it’s hot and they’ve tired of curious tourists and cars. We head back to camp for a snooze and, if the camp has a swimming pool, will have a refreshing dip before packing the cool box with snacks and drinks, buy more ice if needed then go out for a late afternoon sundowner drive.
The rest camp gates close at sunset, which is our signal to return and light the barbecue fire. The bush comes alive with night sounds – snuffles, grunts, branches cracking, the call of hyenas and, if you are lucky, lions.
Fragrant smoke wafts through the campsite as people get their dinners on the go, bottles of wine are opened and there is a hum of chatter about the day’s sightings and experiences. The hyenas begin their nightly fence patrol, I head for the shower and look forward to turning in after a long day of unwinding in nature.
After one final sweep through the bush with our red-lensed spotlight in the hope of seeing an elephant, it’s time to clamber into Henry and get some shut-eye before our next early rise. Every day in the park is different, you never know what is around the corner or gazing at you from behind a screen of leaves and twigs, which is why we will never tire of this marvellous experience.
Top tips from Worldwide Motorhoming Holidays
The experts at the Camping and Caravanning Club know their stuff when it comes to planning awesome road trips around the world, so we asked them for their top tips on exploring South Africa in a campervan:
“If you’re a bit worried about driving abroad, South Africa is a great place to explore as they drive on the same side of the road as in the UK. Another advantage of travelling here is that South Africa is only one hour ahead of us, so you won’t have to recover from jet lag, meaning you can start your adventure sooner!”
“One of the nicest things about travelling through the game reserves is that you can just pull up at a watering hole, put the kettle on and relax, and watch the animals through your campervan windows.”
“Whatever it is that you’d like to see and do, our travel specialists have all been to South Africa and can offer first-hand advice and tips as to how to make the most of your time there. We can help you to plan your own holiday and ensure your hire campervan is suited to your requirements and booked through reliable and reputable suppliers. And, if planning isn’t your strong suit, why not join one of our Escorted Tours of South Africa?"
Lisa Addleton, Camping and Caravanning Club