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Kruger National Park vs Private Game Reserves

April 14, 2023  By: Gretchen

Many guests visiting South Africa have the Kruger National Park at the top of their ‘must see’ lists. What many first-time safari goers don’t realize is that the Greater Kruger National Park encompasses both the National Park and more than 20 private reserves. And while we are very happy to accommodate traveler’s requests, we nearly always recommend private reserves located either inside or adjacent to the national park.

mother and baby rhino

But let’s start with the basics: the Greater Kruger National Park is massive – more than 8,000 square miles in size, which is just a bit smaller than the country of Belgium. The western border of the park is home to massive private game reserves – famous names like Sabi Sand, Timbavati, Manyaleti, Thornybush and more – that encompass nearly 13% of Kruger’s total area. Africa’s Big 5 can be found throughout the ecosystem, though some areas have more wildlife than others.

Kruger vehicles

While the National Park and bordering reserves offer Big 5 safaris, the areas provide a different experience for travelers, based on the regulations set for each area. The National Park is busier – with self-drive tourists, as well as game drives conducted by local lodges and National Park rangers. Roads are paved, there are more regulations and restrictions for visitors and accommodation choices are limited.

elephants by game drive vehicle

The private reserves bordering the park have a range of accommodation options that offer privacy and exclusivity. Game drives in the reserves can go off road to follow an animal sighting. Guiding at the camps and lodges in the reserves is top-notch. We dig in a bit more to the differences below.

Zebras by water

Inside the park, safari-goers may cover significant distances on their game drives and all game drives must stay on designated roads and take place during daylight hours, though it is possible to book an evening drive hosted and guided by the National Park service, SANParks. The quality of guiding from SANParks can vary significantly. In addition to guided game drives, self-driving is allowed in Kruger, meaning there are more vehicles on the road (many driven by safari novices) and traffic congestion is common near popular areas and at sightings. Guided walks in the Kruger can also be booked with SANParks rangers. Up to 8 walkers may be in a group, and children are not permitted on walks. Night drives are not allowed.

Accommodation inside the Kruger National Park is limited and often basic. There are a variety of different camps managed by SANParks, with accommodation ranging from drive-in, self-service fenced campsites to luxury guesthouses. Most of these choices do not meet AAC’s standards for safari accommodations.

lions in road ahead of vehicle

Kruger forms part of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park and shares an unfenced boundary with Mozambique’s Limpopo National Park to the east, as well as unfenced boundaries with most of the private game reserves to the west. These private game reserves provide a very different guest experience in the same ecosystem.

outdoor bath with elephants

Travelers will find a more comfortable and exclusive game viewing experience in the reserves bordering the Kruger. The reserves and their luxury camps and lodges provide an unparalleled level of exclusivity and privacy. They also have a wildness to them, as most are unfenced and wildlife is able to roam freely. This can allow visitors to sit in the comfort of their tent or on a balcony and observe wildlife from within camp. Guests are escorted to and from their rooms before dawn and after dusk for safety.

lions on rock

Guides in the private reserves are among the top in the country and work to make the guest experience rich with incredible wildlife sightings, by imparting their deep knowledge of the area’s flora and fauna and sharing wonderful safari stories. The wildlife is well habituated to vehicles, making up-close encounters with Africa’s incredible animals not only possible but inevitable. The maximum number of vehicles allowed at a sighting may vary depending on the sighting and is often limited to two or three and never more than four.

game drive with snacks

Days follow a predictable pattern, even if what you might find on a game drive never is! Morning and afternoon game drives give travelers their fill of viewing wildlife while also being pampered with stops for hot tea and snacks early in the day and sundowner cocktails in the early evening. Vehicles are allowed to go off-road to follow wildlife, which can be a huge bonus when following Africa’s charismatic species. Walks are also possible, and we encourage guests who are interested to give them a try. It is a whole new way to experience the bush! In some areas evening and night drives are available.

meal with an elephant by camp

While back in camp or your lodge, you will want for nothing. Food is consistently wonderful (and all dietaries are easily accommodated when advance notice is given). During the middle of the day, you could take a dip in the pool or have a spa treatment in many lodges and you might even have the chance to work out in a gym to keep svelte while enjoying the abundance of delicious food on safari! Accommodations are typically fully inclusive, with all activities, meals and drinks included.

Which is right for you? Talk with one of our expert Journey Specialists to determine what is most important to you then start planning your customized South African Kruger safari!

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Photos courtesy Sebastian Canaves, Andrew Liu, Annakate Auten, David Tomaseti, Sabi Sabi, Londolozi, Diego Morales and Singita