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South African Safari on a Budget

My sister called me the other day saying "You didn't spend $6,000 per person when you took the family on safari in South Africa did you?" My answer was "Of course not." I proceeded to tell her exactly what we did spend and why we loved it. Although it probably wasn't as luxurious as the all inclusive safari would have been, it was everything we wanted and more on a budget that our family could afford.

Drive through Kruger National Park and photograph elephants, zebras, lions, giraffes, hyena, cape buffalo, rhinos and hunt for the elusive cheetah and leopard all for a fraction of the cost.

You don't need $6,000+ in addition to flight costs per person to experience a South African Safari. Drive through Kruger National Park and photograph elephants, zebras, lions, giraffes, hyena, cape buffalo, rhinos and hunt for the elusive cheetah and leopard all for a fraction of the cost. Stay in the park at camps with everything from safari tent accommodations to bungalows, family cottages and fully air conditioned guest houses. Pay about $50 per person to do a sunrise or sunset drive searching for animals with a guide or splurge a little more for a drive that includes a traditional South African braai (bbq) dinner.

So let's get into the details so you can get on with planning your once in a lifetime experience at a fraction of the cost.

When We Went

Late September during a drought

Pros - less crowded, not too hot, less bugs because of the lack of water, easier to spot animals because of the lack of foliage

Cons - not lush and green, low watering holes to non-existent, some lodging that had great viewing reviews online were barren of any wildlife because of the lack of water in that area

How We Got There

Delta flights from Atlanta to Johannesburg. South African Airways Airlink flights from Johannesburg to Nelspruit. Rental car from Nelspruit into and through the park. You could also drive from Johannesburg (approximately 5 hours) or take a shuttle or bus if you prefer a more economic option. I researched all of these extensively and chose the flights for convenience and was glad we did.

Learning to drive on the opposite side of the road and from the other side of the car - preparing for the 16 hour flight from ATL - 1 hour SA Airlink to Nelspruit - The customs line in Johannesburg was long and slow. A few hours later we finally got through. What day is it again??!

What We Did

Visited the Elephant Sanctuary to learn about and interact with the elephants

Self drive safari in Kruger Park

Guided sunrise and sunset drives in Kruger Park

A few of our sights while self driving through Kruger National Park, South Africa

Where We Stayed

Night 1 - we stayed near the park at Ashbourne bed and breakfast located in Hazyview. We reserved through Booking.com. I like Booking.com because they usually allow you to cancel or rebook without a problem which we actually had to do. Finding the place was a little tricky because road signs were scarce but they were super helpful. The owners wife brought some chocolate milk to our daughters before bed and we sat out overlooking the Sabi River Valley with a glass of wine. It should be noted that while they were accomodating to our children they said that they don't typically have children and it seemed like they would prefer not to because of the honeymoon suite. The entire property was filled with character and breakfast was delicious. These accommodations were not in Kruger National Park but a 20 minute drive away. We stayed here because it was near the Elephant Sanctuary that we visited on our first day which I highly recommned.

We reserved through Booking.com. I like Booking.com because they usually allow you to cancel or rebook without a problem which we actually had to do.

Ashbourne bed and breakfast in Hazyview - exterior and view

Night 2 - we stayed in a family cottage in Bergendal Camp, Kruger National Park. I really enjoyed this camp and so did our girls. The accomodations were sufficient and I loved the braai (grill) provided with each bungalow. Our neighbor came over to show us how it's done in true South African style. We saw giraffe, rhino, elephants, monkeys and actually took our one and only cheetah photo on the way to this camp. The camp has a pool and playground area for the kids as well as a small store, restaurant, and coffee shop on site.

Accommodations, braai, and fun at Bergendal camp in Kruger National Park, South Africa

Night 3 - we found ourselves over at Crocodile Bridge camp just on the edge of Kruger National Park. Here we stayed in a 3 bed bungalow with air conditioning. I rank this camp 3 out of the 4 that we stayed. It was small but sufficient. Not a lot of wildlife sightings here but we did get up close and personal with the monkeys. There is a small shop and coffee stand. No restaurant here. Oddly, I found myself enjoying the larger camps better than the smaller ones and I thought it would be the other way around when booking. For this reason (and also the fact that you may not want to backtrack each night) I recommend possibly booking various locations during your first visit.

The sunrise drive we took from Lower Sabie scored us our one and only leopard sighting of the trip.

Night 4 - we stayed in a 3 bed hut at Lower Sabie camp in Kruger National Park. This was my absolute favorite of the 4 camps we stayed in. The restaurant with deck overlooked the river for animal viewings during breakfast and dinner. Our girls loved the pool and the sunrise drive we took from Lower Sabie scored us our one and only leopard sighting of the trip. We would have missed that leapard in the tree without our knowledgeable guide. You can also book the braai drives here but unfortunately it was fully booked when we tried. If you really want this I suggest staying here at the beginning of your trip and the end. That way you can book the drive a few days in advance. We tried calling from Bergendal but the lady could never get through and didn't seem to care to help us. So sad.

Restaurant deck with viewing area and braai master at Lower Sabie camp in Kruger National Park, South Africa

Night 5 - we stayed in a 2 bedroom guest cottage at Biyamiti Bushveld Camp in Kruger National Park. This camp had great reviews for animal sightings and I was so excited to stay here. Unfortunately I cannot recommend it for several reasons. It was the most expensive of our accommodations in Kruger National Park and the absolute worst. It could be great during lush seasons but during the drought the only animals we saw here were an ostrich, monkeys, and impala. The staff were rude, they were working on the wiring so it smelled of burnt rubber and the units were running on generators so when we returned from our sunset drive the lights did not work and we couldn't cook, charge, or see anything. The sunset drive was so boring and the guide so unfriendly that our daughters fell asleep and I was just waiting for it to be over. There is no store here which is ok, but it was not stated on the reservation papers so we didn't buy all necessary supplies before arriving and had to drive an additional 30 minutes each way to grab our dinner. We were spoiled at our first 3 camps. It was a shame to end our amazing stay in Kruger National Park here.

Kruger camp rankings in order from our favorite to least favorite

Lower Sabie

Bergendal

Crocodile Bridge

Biyamiti Bushveld Camp

A few of our sights while self driving through Kruger National Park, South Africa

Know Before You Go

The currency is the South African Rand (ZAR). When we went $1 was just over R15. You can view the current exchange rate here.

The park charges conservation fees per night which are quite pricey for internationals. Currently it states that they are R304 per adult per day and R152 per child per day until October 2017. With the current exchange rate ($1 = approx R13) that comes out to almost $68 per day for a family of 4 (2 adults and 2 children). This is just for being in the park and does not include any accommodations or special perks. I thought we could buy the Wild Card for the SANparks cluster and save money but the only card available for internationals not holding a South African Residency/Work Permit is the International All Parks Cluster for R4,130 for a family. I missed that fine print and had to pay about $200 more than budgeted for these fees.

If you have time stop at a grocery store before entering the park to purchase your camp food and supplies. The hot dogs are NOT good. The ostrich burger wasn't bad and the warthog salami was interesting. They weren't my favorites but were decent and we always enjoy trying the local fare. They have typical food as well if you aren't feeling adventurous.

Be sure to allow more than enough time to reach your camp before the gate doors close.

They drive on the left side of the road, but the Nelsruit airport is small and the surrounding area is not super busy so you can get your bearings fairly easily. Just don't forget about those right hand turns, haha. We found ourselves in the wrong lane going the wrong way at our first major intersection. Oops!

Most people speak fine English, however do not expect customer service like we have in the states. They typically do not care if there is a problem with your purchase and in our experience do little to make it right. We experienced this with the Sanparks employees, the airline, and the bush veld camp. Even when we returned and contacted management of these organizations nothing was done to make it right.

Most people speak fine English, however do not expect customer service like we have in the states.

If you see cars stopped along the side of the road in Kruger you should stop too. This means they see an animal. If a lot of cars are stopped  it's probably a lion, leopard, wild dog or cheetah. We purchased a Kruger Park map and animal sightings book at the store in Bergendal. It was fun because it shared the number of animals in the park along with the types and made us appreciate a rare sighting much more.

Be sure to allow more than enough time to reach your camp before the gate doors close. We cut it close several times and ended up driving far too fast on dirt roads in order to make it in time. It takes longer than anticipated because sometimes you will need to stop for awhile to let animals pass or view animals you want to see. Plus, some roads are dirt and rough so you have to take it slower.

South Africans love to earn tips from helping confused tourists. If you are comfortable with this be sure to get enough small bills. If not,  when you exit the airport just take a seat for a minute and get your bearings. They will notice you standing there looking confused. I don't mind tipping for the help, but realized when a man was leading us down a back hallway to a back elevator that it may not have been the best decision ever. He did actually get us to our requested destination, but in the future I will take my above advice to avoid this if possible.

Book camps in Kruger early. You can do this online quite easily.

Book camps in Kruger early. You can do this online quite easily. I waited a bit longer than I should have and our daughters had to share a twin bed at two of the campsites because the only lodging left had 3 beds instead of 4. They weren't thrilled, but it saved me a little money.

What We Loved

All of the animal sightings. It truly is amazing to see. By the 3rd day our daughters had seen so many that they were like oh, it's just an elephant or just a giraffe. We were on the hunt for a leopard. One day we had to stop in the road and wait about 15 minutes for this huge giraffe to move. He didn't really care that we were there. Another day we drove about 25 feet away from a lion and lioness who had just feasted on a cape buffalo and were nearly in food comas. Such sleepy cats. The nearby carcass shared a different story from just moments before.

We came upon these lions just after feasting on a Cape buffalo - Kruger National Park, South Africa

Trying our hand at the traditional South African Braai (bbq)

The baby animals. They were so cute!!! Especially the elephants with their tiny trunks.

The elephant sanctuary in Hazyview. They rescued 2 elephants and we just loved getting up close and personal with them. We were able to feed them, touch various body parts, brush them, and even take them for a walk by holding their trunk in our hand. It truly was unforgettable. You can also ride the elephants here. We purchased the sundowner elephant experience tour and were able to watch the elephants swim while enjoying snacks and refreshments after our interactions with them. This was a trip highlight.

We were able to feed them, touch various body parts, brush them, and even take them for a walk by holding their trunk in our hand. It truly was unforgettable.

Feeding the elephants, walking hand in trunk, taking a ride, and walking to the elephant swimming hole - Elephant Sanctuary Hazyview, South Africa

Enjoying drinks and appetizers while watching the elephants play in the water - Elephant Sanctuary Hazyview, South Africa

What it Cost

Fees listed below are for a family of 4 (2 adults, 2 kids) figured with the 2017 fees and exchange rate during our stay of about $1 to R15. I did not include flight costs because I work for the airlines so our ATL to JNB flights were extremely discounted. I purchased our South African Air Flights with mileage points from our credit card. If interested, I put some links to credit card point options at the end of my "How I Afford to Travel" article. However, if you have great credit you may be able to find even better options just by googling or mail offers. Do your research. If you don't want to use points you can research flight costs on Expedia or Kayak but I always like to book directly with the airline. It's typically the same price but gives me better seating and service. The fare compare sites don't always send flight time updates properly resulting in missed flights and huge hassles to some airline customers.

You can research flight costs on Expedia or Kayak but I always like to book directly with the airline. The fare compare sites don't always send flight time updates resulting in missed flights and huge hassles to some airline customers.

Rental Car for 5 days (MQP airport) - $65 

(this was an economy car (Ford Fiesta) but if we rented again we would go larger. It was super tight. Book early for the best deal.)

Elephant Sanctuary Sundowner Experience - $372

1 Night Stay in Ashbourne Bed and Breakfast Hazyview - $82 (breakfast included)

Krueger National Park conservation fees for 4 days - $240

1 Night Stay in Bergendal (family cottage) - $155

1 Night Stay in Crocodile Bridge (3 bed bungalow, 4 beds were gone reserve early) - $130

1 Night Stay in Lower Sabie (3 bed hut, 4 beds were gone reserve early) - $58

1 Night Stay in Biyamiti Bushveld Camp (2 bedroom guest cottage) - $180

Lower Sabie Sunrise Drive (highly recommend) - $56 + tip

Biyamiti Sunset Drive (avoid) - $64 + tip

Total Cost for 5 Nights Stay in South Africa with self drive safari, sunrise/sunset safari drives with a guide, and an elephant sanctuary visit for a family of 4 - $1,402

Total Cost for 5 Nights Stay in South Africa with self drive safari, sunrise/sunset safari drives with a guide, and an elephant sanctuary visit for a family of 4 - $1,402 (immunizations, travel documents, food costs, and flights not included) Flight costs can add up so you can read more about how I afford to travel here.

So there you have it. No need to spend $6,000+ per person plus flight costs for a safari. We saw too many elephants to count, zebras, monkeys, lions, giraffe, cape buffalo, hyena, rhinos, hippos, crocodiles, impala, kudu, baboons, warthogs, wildebeest, hartebeest, an ostrich, a variety of birds, a leopard, a cheetah, a wild dog, and a jackal while in Kruger National Park.

We saw too many elephants to count, zebras, monkeys, lions, giraffe, cape buffalo, hyena, rhinos, hippos, crocodiles, impala, kudu, baboons, warthogs, wildebeest, hartebeest, an ostrich, a variety of birds, a leopard, a cheetah, a wild dog, and a jackal while in Kruger National Park.

Would you like an elephant kiss? We all said no thank you after watching our daughter get a big wet one, haha. Fortunately, she was a good sport - Elephant Sanctuary Hazyview, South Africa

Immunizations and Travel Documents

It's so important to research which travel documents and immunizations you need before taking a trip. Remember Tip #1

The cost of immunizations can add up quickly and most insurances will not pay for these so research the most affordable options near you.

You can research travel document requirements here.

You can read more about immunizations needed here. We got the following immunizations before going. Our daughters didn't need some of these because they had them routinely as babies. The Hep A/B is actually a 3-part immunization that takes months to complete so start early.

Hepatitis A

Hepatitis B

Malaria

Typhoid Fever

Rabies

The cost of immunizations can add up quickly and most insurances will not pay for these so research the most affordable options near you. (hint: it won't be your family doctor's office, think health clinics)

Also, be forewarned that they may give you far more information than you expected when you get your immunizations. This information may make you feel like you are traveling to certain death. Our daughter looked at me very concerned and said maybe we shouldn't go mom. Be wise about their recommendations but don't let it freak you out. Just like I say about travel alerts and warnings in Tip #1.

Enjoying some coffee before our elephant interactions, Vervet Monkey - these are everywhere and they will steal your food, elephant anatomy - Elephant Sanctuary Hazyview, South Africa

Don't Forget to Pack

In addition to your regular items remember to pack the following:

binoculars

camera with a zoom lens

bug spray (we also treated our clothes with Premarin and brought bug nets but found this unneccessary during our stay in a drought. During a wet season it may be a good idea)

sunscreen

A South African Safari is most definitely an unforgettable once in a lifetime adventure. I just priced a 5 day ticket for a family of 4 to Disney World as a fun comparison and it came out to $1480 just for the park admission. No flights, food, accommodations, etc. So, $1410 for a 5 night stay, park admission, rental car, 2 safari drives, and an elephant sanctuary visit is a steal!  If you're up for a new adventure what are you waiting for? Get planning and saving to make it happen! Feel free to leave any comments or questions below. 

Travel is an art, make it beautiful!

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