Kruger Safari – Private Concessions vs Private Lodges

Lions mating at Simbavati River LodgeI am aware that choosing a Kruger safari can be a confusing issue. Many people want to visit the Kruger Park and then find themselves bewildered by the choices. Do they stay at a rest camp or opt one of the Kruger luxury lodges which are private concessions within the Kruger National Park? Or do they go for one of the private game reserves which are adjacent to the park such as one of the Sabi Sands lodges or Timbavati? There are so many options to choose from that this is where I think a specialist tour operator that knows the various areas and camps can really prove their worth. But then I would think that, wouldn’t I?

One question we are often asked is the difference between a Kruger safari staying at one the Kruger Luxury lodges within the park itself and the lodges in the Sabi Sands or Timbavati private game reserves? Having just been on holiday with MY family and stayed at both types, I thought it would be worth demonstrating the differences using actual examples.

I first stayed at Simbavati River Lodge, a private game lodge in the Timbavati Game Reserve which has open borders with the Kruger National Park. (This means that the wildlife is free to wander in and out between the Kruger Park and the reserve allowing for natural animal movement.) Simbavati River Lodge is a great little lodge, well priced with friendly staff and great food. Being well in the middle of the Timbavati, it offers great game viewing and on our short two night stay we saw a LOT: several sightings of lion, buffalo, elephant of course, white rhino and even a leopard up a tree carefully preserving its impala kill from the waiting hyenas below. However the ‘piece de resistance’ was the pack of wild dog on the move clearly looking for their next meal.

Leopard at Simbavati River LodgeFor all of these sightings, we went off road – the 4×4 vehicle left the gravel track and headed into the bush to get closer to the sightings. We were in an open vehicle and so everyone had a great opportunity to get photos and because we could go off road, we had more flexibility to position the vehicle (if the animals were stationary, as lions often are), so that people on both sides of the vehicle could see the action. Furthermore as you may know, the private lodges in South Africa strictly limit the number of vehicles at a sighting to 2 or 3 at any time so you never feel that you are crowding the wildlife. Finally all the lodges in the immediate area work together (using radio contact) to communicate their sightings. This means that visitors get to see a lot more as you have several ears and eyes in the bush looking for the wildlife. All in all an excellent short stay in the bush !

As we left, I did wonder how our Kruger safari at one of the Kruger private lodges could top that? It didn’t exactly beat it, but it did provide a wonderful contrast and that’s always enjoyable on a holiday, especially if this is your first time on safari in South Africa and you want to see as much as possible.

We next headed to Rhino Post Safari Lodge which is one of the Kruger luxury lodges in the southern part of the Kruger National Park itself about 30 mins drive north of Skukuza. Private concessions are allowed to conduct game drives on their own concessions and also on the public roads of the Park. They have to abide by the rules of the park – with some notable exceptions. They are allowed to stay out in the Park after the self-drive visitors have to be out of the Park or back in their restcamp grounds (which ranges from 5.30pm to 6.30pm depending on season.) They are allowed to stop for sundowner drinks and get out of the vehicle and, within their concessions, they can go off road for prime sightings (though this is highly regulated and so does not happen very often at all.)

Rhino Post was another super little camp with only 8 rooms, 4 on each side of the main lodge which overlooked a dry riverbed. The rooms are well-appointed with ball and claw bath, outdoor shower and private deck. The food was excellent in their stylish dining room. Recommended!

With the exception of Singita Lebombo & Singita Sweni, and The Outpost in the far north of the Kruger, which tend to stay in their own concessions for game-viewing, staying at one of the Kruger private lodges is not an exclusive experience. Most of the private concessions will use the public roads for game-viewing because that’s where the game is! (There is a reason why the roads were built where they were many decades ago..) So on your game drive in an open vehicle you will definitely see people driving around in their own vehicles and if there is something good to see, quickly a number of cars will be there – as if by magic.

So what’s the attraction? It sounds like the game lodges in the Timbavati and Sabi Sands will always have the edge. The answer lies in the history of the Kruger National Park. This Park was established back in the early 1920’s back when the private game reserves were still private ranches and farms. The Kruger is massive and has a wide variety of terrain which in turn attracts different wildlife to its diverse areas. The southern and central part of the Kruger are blessed with broad beautiful rivers which are the lifeblood of the Park and essential for the wildlife as the winter dry season continues. When the park was created, they were able to build roads which run alongside these rivers for kilometres and kilometres. (As opposed to the patchwork of private farms which comprise the private reserves where everyone builds their own network of roads and tracks.)

So the game-viewing can be very good indeed with large herds of elephant and buffalo grazing by the rivers and plentiful game. Unlike the private game reserves which tend to be bushier, the eastern Kruger has large open tracts of land ideal for cheetah which are extremely rare to see. Yes it’s not exclusive as there are so many vehicles. But there is a wicked delight in finding one of the few black rhino still in the wild (Only 450 left in the world!) as the sun was setting and seeing that the poor self-drive visitors only had time to glance at it before heading back to their restcamps as the gates were closing at 5.30pm. Leaving us to enjoy this magnificent creature at our leisure.

After 5.30pm the park became serenely quiet as two vehicles from Rhino Post were the only vehicles left (baring the odd park ranger vehicle). We stopped in enjoy our sundowners and admire the view and then began our night drive. The Rhino Post vehicles were also on radio communication and so when we happened along a magnificent lion strolling along the road roaring in a blood-chilling manner right by the vehicle, we were able to let the other vehicle know about it. Stunning!

Wild Dog on Kruger SafariThe following morning we were treated to another memorable and lengthy sighting of a large pack of wild dog hunting using one of the park’s side roads. Sightings of wild dog like this are immensely rare and we had seen two packs within 2 days – almost unheard of… We stopped for morning coffee at a glorious picnic spot in a remote area of the park overlooking an immense hippo filled lake. I also have to confess that I rather liked the camaderie amongst the park’s visitors as peope wind down their windows to tell you want they had just seen on a particular road. Though there were no radios, the bush telegraph seemed to work almost as well at communicating the good sightings.

I hope that this personal view of the differences between the private game lodges and the private concessions helps you. Of course the ideal would be to have 2-3 nights in both types of camp. Then you get the best of both worlds! Contact us if you want assistance planning your Kruger Safari….

Note: The images used were all shot by me so please excuse the less than perfect photographic prowess but it does give you a sense of what you may see…

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Kate Bergh is co-founder of Cedarberg African Travel, a specialist tour operator for Southern and East Africa.

She heads up the South African office, having lived in South Africa since 1993. Her home looks up to the Cedarberg Mountains, where she enjoys hiking and cycling, when she’s not out discovering new places to visit, with her three children in tow. Kate has travelled extensively throughout the region to Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Namibia, Botswana, Mozambique and Zimbabwe as well as most areas of South Africa. She also loves history, meeting people and a good thriller...

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