Footloose and Fence-free: Our 7 top Kruger spots

Posted on 2 June 2021

When it comes to Kruger, everyone has their favourites; a treasured camp from childhood, a best spot for a sundowner, a top waterhole that’s provided outstanding sightings. While we love a good old-fashioned trip to the Kruger Park, the surrounding reserves offer equally great spots for a holiday you’ll feel nostalgic about for years.

Words: Lauren Dold | Photography: Supplied

AfriCamps Hoedspruit is well positioned in the Lowveld for exploring both the Greater Kruger region and the Blyde River Canyon.

The area to the west of South Africa’s favourite park, and the properties that make up the Greater Kruger or APNR (associated private nature reserves) have much to offer in the way of privacy, exclusivity and exceptional wilderness experiences. Fewer people, fewer cars, less competition for sightings and the help of expert trackers and guides make these reserves worthy of any wildlife lover’s bucket list.

Leopards have excellent eyesight, owing to their adapted retinas. It’s estimated that leopards can see seven times better than humans, in the dark. (Photo Nicholas Smith)

Each of these camps and lodges offer something distinctive, for couples, families and groups of all kinds. And as tour operators reduce prices to attract more South Africans, there’s no better time to experience them.

Best for Exclusivity

Abelana River Lodge, Abelana Game Reserve

With 15 000ha of private traverse, the chances of seeing another vehicle at newly opened Abelana are slim. After years of hunting on the property, the game is skittish but I found this made the sightings we had all the more special. With no other commercial operator on the property, the usual ‘radio rush’ sightings are not guaranteed. That said, on our drives we were lucky enough to come across a rhino and her calf, as well as elephant, a male lion and an abundance of plains game.

Abelana has a 10km stretch of the semi-perennial Selati River flowing through the reserve.

Owned by the Mashishimale community, Abelana means ‘to share among each other’ in Northern Sotho. Just 25km from Phalaborwa, this private reserve benefits the community by hiring local people exclusively and supporting community owned businesses outside of the reserve.

Each of the 20 river-facing suites is well appointed, with indoor and outdoor showers, private deck overlooking the river, and air conditioning. I was delighted to find that there was no Wi-Fi, and scarcely any signal in the rooms so I could truly unplug and unwind.

Giant kingfishers nest in tunnels that they dig into riverbanks, which can be up to five metres deep. (Photo Sarah Crone)

A giant kingfisher startled me awake one afternoon, chattering happily on my private deck.

A dammed stretch of the Selati River stands in front of the lodge, attracting wildlife and an abundance of bird species. I stayed in suite 12, and was warned that at night, hippos often graze between suites 12 and 13. As the camp is unfenced, lodge staff, armed with torches, accompany guests to their rooms after sunset.

The suites at Abelana are totally private, with air conditioning, a ceiling fan and a mini bar fridge that is always well stocked.

On our evening drive, our guide, Victor Breytenbach, stopped the vehicle near a riverbed and motioned for the other guests and I to hop out. ‘Follow me, I just want to check something…’ After a few steps through the thick river sand, we found we’d been surprised by the Abelana staff. Beneath an enormous sycamore fig was an impressive evening feast, a far cry from the usual biltong-and-beer-on the bonnet affair. The selection of expertly prepared snacks was matched only by the selection of gin, poured and garnished by a dedicated barman. As the sky turned pink I wondered, not for the first time, why gin tastes so much better in the bush. Back in my lodge that night, I happily fell asleep to the sound of a hippo grazing on the grass just outside.

Insider Tip: No need to hold back on the freshly baked cookies in your room, they get magically replaced all the time!

From R7 500 pp sharing, including meals and game drives, plus R100 per day community levy
061 952 4302

Best For A Getaway With Friends

Nyala Sands, Balule Nature Reserve

On the banks of the seasonal Mohlabetsi River, Nyala Sands is a small and homely exclusive-use camp. There are four, two-sleeper chalets, plus a dining room and lounge in the house, with a kitchen in the middle. You can choose a catered or self-catering option, and if you do choose the latter, the Nyala Sands staff are there to help with making fires and washing up. The kitchen is well-equipped with fridges and freezers, a dishwasher, microwave, electric stove and double eye-level oven.

The decor at Nyala Sands is inspired by East African and Moroccan influences, with the kitchen in the heart of the space.

The waterhole in front of the lodge, illuminated by a floodlight at night, means the game viewing starts long before a drive and continues all evening.

Nyala Sands has all the mod cons including Wi-Fi (if you like) and a splash pool not quite big enough for cannon balls, but good enough for cooling off in the Lowveld heat.

The perennial Mohlabetsi River (meaning ‘sweet waters’) flows in front of Nyala Sands in the rainy season.

Insider Tip: Manager Nicki Giles says the pool doubles as a jacuzzi, just ask about the secret switch!

Self catered, exclusive use R9 000 (for up to eight people) including meals and game drives, plus a R190 pp conservation levy
061 523 5041

Best For Self Catering

Thornybush Nkelenga, Thornybush Game Reserve

Nkelenga felt like home from the minute my family and I stepped through the gate. Overlooking a big dam, Nkelenga is a private, partly tented camp in the Thornybush collection that sleeps eight comfortably but can accommodate 12.

Next to three elevated Meru-style tents, an old thatch house with a deep verandah and beds in the loft made Nkelenga feel like a childhood holiday but with the luxury of wonderful Thornybush staff members to help.

Big-game sightings at Thornybush are common, but strict policies ensure sightings are never overcrowded.

Nkelenga means ‘fever tree,’ and three of those pale green beauties stand tall and proud in the garden, surrounded by the kind of lush green lawn that makes you want to play a game of garden cricket, with a swimming pool to cool down in afterwards.

Wildlife around the camp was plentiful. From the lawn we spotted a massive rhino bull that came to quench his thirst on a hot afternoon, and elephants came and went as we sat safely under the shade of a fever tree in our Adirondack chairs.

A solitary hyena has very little chance against a pack of wild dogs, who work together like a well-oiled machine.

Our guide, Kilmon Ndhlovu, and tracker, Orlando Mawelele, were accommodating and well versed in the ways of the wild. We had exceptional sightings on game drives, kicking off with a pack of 19 wild dogs playing boisterously in a muddy waterhole and terrorising a pair of hyenas. On our evening drive we saw lion, leopard and wild dog in the space of half an hour, all on a single road. Our drive schedule was up to us (no 4:30am wake up for me, thanks) and with a well-appointed kitchen, we had control of our schedule, which you often don’t have at high-end lodges.

A mighty Lowveld thunderstorm settled over us on our second evening. We moved our party inside and sat round the large dining room table in the old house, playing games by candlelight as the storm cut our power. Later we parked ourselves on the verandah and watched the lightning paint the sky, gathering the courage to dash to our tents. We fell asleep to the comforting sounds of rain on canvas and the smell of wet earth through the mesh windows.

Insider Tip: Kids love the adventure of sleeping in the loft in the main house, which has four single beds

From R13 000 per night sole use, including game drives. Max 12 people, plus R495 pp conservation levy
011 253 6500

Best For Large Groups

Kapama River Lodge, Kapama Game Reserve

Made up of 64 rooms, Kapama River Lodge is the largest lodge on the Kapama property, accommodating well over 100 guests. Despite this, the design and flow of the lodge maintains a sense of privacy and exclusivity for guests. I was concerned it may feel vast and impersonal but found the opposite to be true. I was greeted by name by passing staff members, had time at the swimming pool all to myself, and enjoyed quiet afternoons in the cool of my room. At night, (after I’d devoured the nougat placed on my pillow) all I could hear were nightjars and the resident leopard sawing his way down the adjacent drainage line, oblivious to any human noise.

Zebras live in small hierarchical family groups, comprising a dominant stallion and a harem of mares and their foals.

Having grown up just 20 minutes away in the town of Hoedspruit, it was a pleasure to go on an early morning guided walk in the veld I knew and loved. In single file behind our incredibly knowledgeable guide, John Mbetse, we stopped to identify wild flowers, admire a giant land snail, and watch termites carefully build up their mound.

Kapama is literally across the road from Hoedspruit’s Eastgate Airport, making access from Joburg and Cape Town easy. The safari starts immediately, as guests are fetched from the airport in open game drive vehicles.

evening meals at Kapama River Lodge are served on a deck overlooking the river, or candlelit in a section of dry riverbed in front of the lodge

Insider Tip: Book one of the first floor spa suites, which have verandahs that open onto the bush.

From R2 500 pp sharing for a spa suite, including game drives and meals (until 30 June)
015 793 8700

The spa at Kapama has five treatment rooms, a swimming pool and a mini gym.

Best For Families With Children

Klaserie Drift Misava camp, Klaserie Private Nature Reserve

Not only are children allowed at this camp, they’re encouraged to visit. Run by a couple with young kids, the family-friendly ethos at Klaserie Drift sets it apart from many other high-end lodges.

Bring binoculars to the swimming pool as the river attracts all sorts of animals and birdlife.

The designated kids programme means children can learn about the surrounding ecology while having fun painting, playing games and baking animal-shaped cookies. For mom and dad, the rim-flow pool, well-stocked bar and spa menu are equally attractive. The newly built family suite has two adjoining rooms, ideal for slightly older kids who might want some privacy.

We were lucky enough to stay in both the River View and Garden View suites, and while both were very elegant and comfortable, the River View suite has an added view, bath and outdoor shower. In the Garden Suite, I took advantage of the watercolour paint set provided in our room, taking inspiration from the beautiful aloes that grow on the property.

Lion cubs are particularly vulnerable in their first few months and only develop hunting skills at about two years of age. (Photo Nicholas Smith)

Lunches, prepared by chef Njabuliso Mholi, are served on the poolside deck overlooking the Klaserie River. As I enjoyed the meal, I was mesmerised as a pair of saddle billed storks sailed by almost at eye level. The swimming pool above the river was easy to slip into but I found it difficult to drag myself out as I sat, submerged, watching a herd of elephants cool themselves in a bend in the river. The lure of a game drive was enough to get me out, and we set out to get closer to the elephants as they played in the water. A highlight was having two hyenas stroll across the plain where we stopped for sundowners, whooping as they skulked off into the bush.

Insider Tip: Guide Emily Whiting says Kwhati Garden View also has a secret river view and offers sightings at the water hole; it’s the only Garden View suite with an outdoor shower (as well as an indoor shower and bath).

The attention to detail at Klaserie Drift is outstanding. Staff place a weather forecast for the following morning on guests’ pillows each night.

R7 400 pp sharing for a Garden View suite
R9 400 pp sharing for a River View suite, including meals and game drives, plus a R190 pp conservation levy
063 507 4834

Best For Glamping

AfriCamps Hoedspruit, Klaserie Dam

Known countrywide for their affordable glamping accommodation, AfriCamps Hoedspruit offers a Lowveld safari experience that won’t break the bank.

Situated on the Klaserie Dam, the camp has 11 tents, each with a deck and two bedrooms that sleep a total of five, an open-plan kitchen and dining area, an indoor fireplace, private braai facilities and air conditioning and a wood-fired jacuzzi. From the deck you can spot zebra, nyala, kudu, waterbuck or bushbuck, but if it’s Big Five you’re after, the camp offers game drives into the Kruger Park.

AfriCamps tents are equipped with both indoor and outdoor fireplaces.

Bring a fishing rod, as the dam is a popular catch-and-release fishing zone where you may hook carp, bass, bream or barbel.

From R1 340 for two people sharing plus R275 per additional adult and R175 per child in low season (1 March to 30 September)
021 300 5694

Each tent has a wood-fired ‘hot tub’ or splash pool in summer.

Best For Camping

Bushwillow Creek Ranch, Hoedspruit

On a 600ha game farm 12km outside Hoedspruit, Bushwillow Creek Ranch is a small, newly opened spot to pitch your tent. With two separate camps, Camp Nguni and the Lazy Lamb venue, the farm is great for families.

Camp Nguni can accommodate up to eight tents, including caravans and rooftop tents, ideal for a private family weekend. There is also a small splash pool, kitchen and bathroom facilities with hot running water, and a lovely braai area under a false marula tree.

Without big game to worry about, Bushwillow Creek is totally kid-friendly.

Base rate for two adults is R600 per night plus R150 per additional person. Kids 4-12 years cost R75, and kids three years and under stay free.

The Lazy Lamb, slightly more upmarket, can be hired as a venue as well as a campsite. It overlooks a dam, which is a good place to cool off in the Lowveld heat.

This camp can accommodate four to six tents, and like Camp Nguni, is booked out on a sole-use basis. On foot or by bicycle, guests are welcome to explore the farm roads, from where you’re sure to see loads of plains game, including eland and sable antelope. The farm does not have dangerous game, making it safe for kids to run around (although the occasional leopard or pack of wild dogs does move through the property). The birdlife is also abundant, so don’t forget a pair of binoculars.

Did you know?

Greater Kruger is made up of the Kruger National Park plus the surrounding reserves of Timbavati, Klaserie, Balule, Sabi Sands, Manyeleti, Kapama, Umbabat and Thornybush, also known as the Associated Private Nature Reserves (APNR). Most of the fences between these reserves and Kruger came down in 1994, adding some 180 000ha to the total area under conservation. In total, Greater Kruger covers nearly two million hectares.

From 1928, visitors to Kruger had to pay the princely sum of five shillings to enter the park. For an added fee, they could hire a game ranger to escort them through the park. They were also charged to cross rivers on pontoons.

The park is home to:
147 mammal species,
114 reptile species,
507 bird species and over
2 000 plant species,
330 of which are trees – some truly magnificent specimens among them.

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