There are two very distinct ways to safari in South Africa. You can choose to self-drive or you can stay at a lodge, most of the time a very luxury experience, that provides game drives with your stay.
So which one do you pick?
During my trip to South Africa, I got a chance to try both ways. Here are the pros and cons of each, and what to expect from each.
Pros: Self Driving
You decide what your day will be like. Waking up early? Sleeping in?
Driving all day? Taking a long nap? The choice is ultimately yours.
Self-driving through Kruger is the best budget option for anyone traveling to South Africa. Save your money, stay somewhere near a gate and spend that money on extra time in South Africa.
Choose Your sightings
If you want to sit and stare at an elephant right alongside the road all day, you can do that. With just you in your car, you have no one to answer to. Group game drives are great, but you have to keep going and can't just sit and stare at nature for hours.
It is incredibly safe
Rest assured that as long as you don't feed the animals, or get out of your car, driving yourself through Kruger is extremely safe.
Surreal feeling you can't capture elsewhere
While driving with a guide and tracker may lead you to some AWESOME sightings, there is nothing like turning the corner on a huge giraffe in the road and the feeling that you found this yourself. Sure you didn't track it, and you could definitely argue that it is pure luck, but that exhilarating feeling is there and you can't capture it anyway else.
See more of the diverse landscape
If you stay at a lodge you are pretty limited to only experiencing the land around them. Some lodges have to be extremely careful and only drive around the specific land that they are allowed to be on. Kruger park has an incredibly dynamic landscape and it changes every 20 or so kilometers. Spending time exploring much more of the park is very realistic if you are self-driving and staying in different hotels along the way.
Cons: Self Driving
You will be limited to the sightings that happen close to the road since you can't go off-road and track animals prints you may spot.
Rare sightings are less common
A guide and tracker duo really know how to find things and sometimes are even working as a team to track harder to spot animals. If you want to look for a harder to find animal, like wild dog, it probably won't happen
At the end of the day, driving the park aimlessly relies on a lot of luck. Luck that animals are in the area, close to the road, or easy to spot.
No Guide or Tracker
There is a reason they get the big bucks, they know what they are doing and can spot small animals, or tiny tracks, that you would easily miss.
Too much flexibility
Just like complete flexibility was a pro, it's also a huge con. If you don't want to wake up at dawn you don't have to since ultimately it's up to you. And that may mean you could miss out on some of the best sightings.
You have to actually drive
If you book a tour or stay in a luxury lodge, all the driving is done by your guide. And spotting done by your tracker. You just get to sit back and relax while they do the work.
Much more planning
Once you decide to self-drive you have to plan everything, from what time you wake up to how long you are staying out to where to eat everyday.
Staying at Luxury Safari Lodges
Cons: Lux Safari Lodge
Obviously, the cost is one of the main concerns for most people. I mean, who doesn't want to stay in complete luxury? But these things are expensive, like ridiculously expensive.
Only see one area of the park
Like I stated before, Kruger is a diverse park both in plantlife, landscape, and wildlife. If you stay in a lodge you are pretty restricted to only viewing a couple of square miles of land.
Did I mention it is extremely expensive?
Pros: Lux Safari Lodge
Nothing to book or worry about
All you have to do is arrive and leave everything to them. Food is served at specific times. Game drives go out every day, twice a day. And very little planning or coordination needs to be done on your end.
Lodges are allowed to drive off-road on their reserve, allowing for more unique sightings.
Extremely qualified guides & trackers
The lodges have the best of the best. One of our trackers spotted a tiny chameleon while we were driving about 30 km/hour in the pitch black. It truly is amazing the things they can spot.
They keep you on a schedule
Wake up calls won't be missed, dinner is never a minute late. Nothing to worry about once you check in.
Coordination between guides
Throughout our stay at Lukimbi, none of us had seen lions, and our guides were determined to get us a sighting before we left. Our last morning there all 8 guides coordinated a game plan to track lions. We all set off in different directions, fanning out from the lodge. They communicated over radio any tracks, or droppings any of them could see to try and find a lion pride in the area. Only 30 minutes into our drive, the trackers caught a hot trail and we all converged together for an epic lion pride sighting: 3 females and 2 juvenile males. We even got to witness them hunting a buffalo. That would never have happened outside a lodge experience.
You really do see amazing things
From a white-tailed mongoose to a wildcat defending itself against 5 cheetahs, you get to see sightings you would never spot on your own.
Hopefully this has helped you decide between the two very different options inside Kruger National Park.
Does this make you want to self-drive through South Africa? Check out my guide to Kruger National Park here. The guide includes everything from how to get to Kruger to how to plan your drive to where to stay. Also, check out the article on Kruger Campsites for a quick tour.
Does this make you want to stay at a Luxury Safari Lodge? Read my reviews of Lukimbi and Lion Sands Ivory Lodge. Also, check out my article on what to expect at a luxury safari lodge in South Africa.
No matter which you choose I can promise you will have a great time.
One last thing... even though researching ahead of time is great, I definitely recommend bringing a guidebook along with you. Here are some books I recommend...
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