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Planning an Independent & Budget Safari to the Kruger

I hope this travel guide is filled with useful information about enjoying the Kruger National Park and its surrounds, for those curious people travelling to this region independently, ethically and on a small budget.

The Kruger National Park is a fantastic choice for going on safari, and you'll find it in South Africa's Lowveld region.

Where is the Lowveld?

The 'Lowveld' is in the East of South Africa, and is an area consisting of low-lying broad valleys made up of grassland, savannah and open woodland, with a sub-tropical climate. It is perhaps most well known for the world-famous Kruger National Park, a 2-million-hectare game reserve and the ultimate safari destination.

A girl watching a family of elephants through binoculars
Watching the elephants

Earlier this year I was lucky enough to be invited to this part of the world by Kathy; my long-distance bug and bird-loving friend whom I volunteered with in Cameroon with the Chimps way back in 2017. She regularly spends several months at a time out there, renting a little timber cottage in Grietjie Nature Reserve.

South Africa has always felt like a very exciting place to me, and after several years cooped up by travel restrictions, I jumped at the opportunity to spend two weeks in the bush.


An Independent and Budget-friendly Safari to The Kruger National Park and its Surrounds

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Getting There:

FOR TRAVEL INSURANCE I normally have a browse on Travel Supermarket and choose a cheap policy with a high Defaqto rating.

  • The closest international airport is OR Tambo in Johannesburg. I flew there directly with Virgin Atlantic from Heathrow, which was an 11-hour flight that cost £550 return.

  • As I landed too late for the last shuttle East, I booked one night at Protea Hotel by Marriott OR Tambo. There was a free shuttle from the terminal, and it was excellent value. The food was brilliant, the rooms were super comfy and they have a lovely garden and pool. This was £60 per night including breakfast.

  • I pre-booked a SWIFT Kruger shuttle, which departs OR Tambo every day at 7:30am. This was £60 each way and can be booked online, there is an option to fly to Phalaborwa, but the bus was more wallet-friendly. It was a 7-seater with a luggage tow behind, it wasn't exactly on time but the driver was friendly. There's not much to look at on the way if I am being honest, although I did see an Ostrich at the service station.

  • The SWIFT shuttle arrived at the Grietjie Gate at approx. 2pm. Kathy picked me up from here (any lodge owner would offer the same pick-up service as you're not allowed to move about on foot once on the reserve).

  • Kathy rented a car from Phalaborwa for the duration of my stay with her, it cost £50 per day and it was completely necessary to get around. The fuel was very reasonable, I think it only cost about £40 for my entire 2 weeks.


At the lodge

There are lots of options for independent and budget-friendly safaris in the Kruger National Park, and I chose to stay outside the park itself in Grietjie Nature Reserve.

Grietjie is a privately owned nature reserve, which is split into 18 different plots. It is a gated reserve protected by an all-female anti-poaching unit called 'The Black Mambas'.

One of these plots is named Mfubu Lodge, owned by Olga, my host. The lodge is 18 hectares and is made up of the main house where Olga lives, three cottages, and the main camp which has a kitchen, bathroom, and a couple of bedrooms connected by a boardwalk.

Kathy and I shared the Timber cottage, set up on stilts, with a patio and fire pit below. It has a beautiful view of the Olifants river and a dinky little separate shower room. We had to keep the sliding doors to our cottage closed at all times, as a vervet monkey stole a loaf of bread when my back was turned and from then on the whole troop knew I was a weak human. They pooped everywhere too!

A vervet monkey trying to edge closer to our food storage in a nature reserve near Kruger
The Vervets forever edging closer to our food storage

Vervets only tend to steal food they like the look of, it's the Baboons that are the real terrors. Mfubu shares a driveway with CARE, a baboon sanctuary that looks after several hundred orphaned baboons, and this also attracts wild troops to the vicinity.

The loud morning cacophony of baboon sex and breakfast drifting over from the sanctuary was quite something! Luckily we had no run-ins with these fellas.


Not sure what to pack for your trip to South Africa? Check out the I Dream of Mangoes article:


Things to do on the reserve, when not on Safari in the Kruger


Each morning at sunrise we walked the perimeter of the lodge, before the heat of the day seeped in and the animal prints on the dusty ground wore away. We couldn't get too close to the river's edge, as crocodiles can lunge 2m out of the water!

We were able to walk the length of the plot, but you must be in your car to go further afield. This is because of the animals (most dangerously and prolifically: elephants). It felt very obvious to me that we were on their turf, and on their terms.


I LOVE the sounds of the bugs and birds. In Cameroon, the noises of the forest were DEAFENING. Grietjie was not quite on that level, but still magnificent.

With no urban sounds to contend with, it was soon easy to recognise individual animals, and Kathy has a special talent for recognising bird calls. At night the mammals were more vocal, and I soon learned to distinguish the haunting moan of a lion, the woo-woo of a Hyena, and the distinctive saw-cutting-wood groan of a leopard.

Sunset over the Olifants River
Sunset over the Olifants River



It's really just about being in it. There are no itineraries or attractions. One of the most exciting parts of the day was the misty bush walks in the mornings, with binoculars imperative. We had so much fun tracking prints and comparing them to our identification book. This was an excellent resource called 'Game Ranger in your Backpack' - check it out here.

On one such morning, as I was padding along, I thought I saw a big grey bum up ahead, but the sunrise was blocking my vision. What was it? Elephant, Rhino, Pig?

Nope, it's definitely a massive hippo! She was maybe just 4m away (too close). All that was running through my mind was 'What do you do when you encounter a hippo? Run? Play dead?' I just froze. She looked around, shook her head side to side, those cute little ears flapping, and then waddled down to the river with a sense of purpose, but not panic.

I learnt later that if you're between the hippo and the water they feel exposed and that's when they can be aggressive, luckily for me, the river was on the far side of us. A once in a lifetime encounter.

Hippos swim during the day, and normally you can easily spot the big V shape on the water's surface before seeing the glossy tops of their heads glide along. They then come on land to graze at night, and they are SO LOUD when they chomp up the vegetation. We were lucky to have a hippo mow through our garden one night while we were on the balcony drinking wine. Pooping and flap-fanning her tail to scatter and 'poo-spray' very inconsiderately everywhere.

The days were long and warm, spent reading by the pool. I loved watching the birds bathe by our cottage in the afternoons, and the big herd of elephants play fight in the river. The babies are so clumsy, and the mother is never far. One day three giraffes came strolling gracefully past the pool where I was chilling - we saw the big fella crocodile and the beautiful tortoise with a cracked shell that lives in Olga's garden.

Our alarm clock was the Verreaux Eagle Owl, every morning without fail. One of my favourite birds was the Lilac-breasted Roller, they are stunning. I stroked a beetle. Lazy days. Endless Impala.

I was very aware I was in THEIR space so I tried to be respectful as much as possible. The animals seemed to be extremely nervous when I was on foot, perhaps they mistook us for poachers. However, when we were in the car they seemed completely unbothered.


Other things to do when not lounging on the reserve, or trying to decipher ''which animal did that poop?''...

  1. Kruger National Park - So I guess when you're planning independent and budget travel to the Kruger National Park this is the main event! When spending 10 days in the Lowveld region I felt that two days of game drives in the Kruger was enough.

  2. Jessica the Hippo (I would probably advise against it). This was quite odd, and I didn't understand the appearance of the second hippo, who by the way apparently ripped someone's intestines out and the victim preceded to leave a one-star review on Trip Advisor...

  3. Hoedspruit Saturday Market + Wine Emporium

  4. BRAAI - Fire-cooking and wine, this was a highlight and a necessity during 'load-shedding' (the daily power cut).

We often drove to Phalaborwa to buy food and wine*, this is a mining town and isn't the most pleasant place. Hoedspruit was much nicer and worth driving a little further.

*The wine here is very, very good, and very, very, cheap.

A lovely lioness in Kruger National Park
A lovely lioness in Kruger National Park

A note on safety

  • Don't go out of the reserve after dark (for fear of people).

  • Don't stumble around the reserve at night (for fear of animals).

  • Keep your car's doors locked, and don't pull over (even for police, they'll follow you to a busy farm or town if you keep your hazards on and indicate you understand they want you to stop).

  • Don't get into a conversation at cash points.

  • Try to find out if there are any shops to avoid, notably the SPAR by the Kruger gate at Phalaborwa.

I never felt unsafe, but I also didn't take any risks. This only goes for the bush, I don't know the ropes for big cities like Johannesburg.

An elephant family in the Kruger National Park
An elephant family in the Kruger National Park


There are plenty of shops in both Phalaborwa and Hoedspruit. You can get most things. Just because of the daily load-shedding, I would keep it as simple as possible.

Fire-cooked food is epic, but we didn't want to light it up every single night because of the wood use and smoke. We especially loved cooking skewers and having a nice fresh side salad. Again with load shedding, it's hard to keep fridge items fresh.

The cafes and restaurants didn't look to be up to much. 'Sleepers' in Hoedspruite had a really lovely vibe, the food was OK, and the wine and beer were excellent. Everything was half the price of England, if not less.



To be honest, I didn't mingle with many South African people as we were pretty rural, so I can't comment on the culture in much detail.

What I did find was that the service was impeccable, everyone was super polite and friendly. However, it was hard not to feel like everything was White-owned with Black labour. I had heard minimum wage was very bad, so I tipped really well, in cash, for everything. It was really well appreciated.

There were lots of lovely hand-made crafts at the monthly Saturday Hoedspruit market, notably, the gorgeous JOEN bags made by Kathy's friend Sylvia, check out their Facebook here.

The market also had the best honey I have ever tasted, plus giant bags of dried mango, tasty craft beer, and a local band. Kathy will disagree with me on this but I just love Afro-pop music, it always has such an uplifting melody and always makes me feel happy.


The entrance to Mfubu Lodge in Grietjie Nature Reserve
The entrance to Mfubu Lodge in Grietjie Nature Reserve


The Take-Away

I love nature, animals, food, and something new, so SA gave me all of this. Something about wild animal encounters is just so heart-racingly exciting, and here you don't feel like you are intruding. You are respectfully cohabiting for a short time.

Mfubu Lodge is a sanctuary where the animals clearly feel safe - and Olga the owner loves them and gets just as excited about a sighting as she did 25 years ago when she first moved there.

Be prepared to be quiet when on safari. If you're loud, you'll take away from the natural sounds, probably scare off the animals, and annoy Olga! The pace here is SLOW - but living in a city, this was perfect for me.

The journey from the UK to the Kruger took 50 hours door-to-door (it's really far) but I loved every part (going out, not so much coming back). If I were to redo it, I would combine the trip with another one or two legs. Perhaps Capetown, with the vineyards and Kelp forests, or the natural wonders of Kwala-Zulu, or even scuba-diving in Mozambique.


Any questions please hit the comments. A big thank you to my dear friend Kathy for sharing this very special place with me. Here she is enjoying the view...

A lady nature watching in Grietjie Reserve South Africa

Thank you for reading my article on planning independent and budget travel to The Kruger National Park and its surrounds - it truly is an amazing region of South Africa!

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For more inspiration for backpacking in Africa, check out some of my other posts:

Happy Travels




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