The Kruger National Park: From Crocodile Bridge to Crook’s Corner
The Kruger National Park has always captured my imagination and I have returned countless times. An expanse of wilderness the size of Wales set aside for the wilds and animals of Africa. In November 2017, I was fortunate to do something I have wanted to do for a long time. To complete one continuous trip over 13 days through the Kruger from the southern border to the northern boundary of Pafuri. Sure the Kruger has changed a lot since my first visit, but it is still a magical place.
To take in every region, I started from the Malelane Gate on the southern boundary and gradually worked my way up through Berg-en-Daal, Talamati, Letaba, Shingwedzi, Punda Maria, eventually leaving through the Pafuri Gate. Lots has been written about the Kruger and where to stay and how to find the best game, so I will try not to repeat what has already been said, these are my tips for anyone planning to get the most out of a visit.
You don’t need a lot of equipment to take great photos in the Kruger. Most sightings are fairly intimate and the dense bush usually means that an animal is obscured from sight a few metres in. Lens wise, I would recommend having at least one lens in the 200 to 400mm range to capture close ups and a wide angle lens to capture the animals in their environment. These days, most DSLRs are excellent, so you can’t really go wrong. Just bring what you have.
A window beanbag is needed to rest your camera and lens on, as you will have to shoot out of a vehicle. If you use larger lenses, I would recommend renting a door bracket system or setting up a tripod and Wimberley head inside the vehicle. I generally don’t use a flash, but you can set up a remote system on a remote trigger to shoot out of your windows.
The roads in the Kruger are excellent, so you can visit in just about any type of vehicle. You will be spending a lot of time in the car, so my only recommendation is that you use something comfortable and spacious.
There are no ‘photographic rules’ you must follow when shooting in the Kruger. My only advice is to consider the context of your shots carefully. The bush in the Kruger is full of natural clutter and vegetation which can ruin photos. Keep your subject separated from the background where possible. Avoid high contrast situations which bring deep shadows and white highlights into an image, which usually means the bright hours between 10am to 3pm. Most importantly, understand the animals you are photographing and try and showcase their behaviour. Tight shots are great, but they get boring. Use lines to draw a viewer into the image. Use complementary colours to make your images pop.
Most importantly, respect the animals and other visitors. You are photographing wild animals and they can be unpredictable. Never try to create a photo by chasing an animal, feeding it or throwing things (yes, I have witnessed all of the above). Be mindful of others and allow them to share in the excitement of a sighting. You will always walk away with new friends if you do this.
Where to Stay and When to Go
The Kruger has a variety of accommodation to suit different budgets. You can camp or stay in the relative luxury of a fully furnished house. Where possible, I would recommend staying away from the bigger camps like Skukuza, Lower Sabie and Satara. They have the convenience of shops and restaurants, but the ancillary noise of the restaurant and surrounding camp drowns out the sound of the African bush. The bushveld camps of Biyamiti, Talamati and Shimuwini are my favourites (although I would caveat this by saying that a troop of baboons outside your house, as happened to me in Talamati, can be even noisier than a generator).
African Wild Dog, Talamati, Central Region
Canon 1Dx, 500mm, 1/500, f/4.0, ISO 400
There is no best time of year to visit. Each time of year presents its own opportunities. Winter is great for photography, as the sun is generally lower on the horizon, allowing for a longer golden hour. The bush is also not as thick as winter coincides with the dry season. The downside is that the bush tends to dry out and not be as attractive in parts. Summer, starting from November is great for birds and generally heralds the start of the mammal birthing season. You also get the emerald green of the summer growth showing through. My only word of caution is that summer, starting in November brings the rains.
You will need time to visit the Kruger. My recommendation is that you try and stay for at least seven days and in different camps if possible. The next questions is, where do you go?
The southern region of the park is popular. So much so that you are likely to get crowded out of many sightings. If you stay off the tar roads and away from the popular Skukuza and Lower Sabie routes, there is a lot to see as most of Kruger’s large mammals can be found in the south. The S114 and S23 roads near Biyamiti are recommended. The H4-1 around Lower Sabie is always productive, although it can carry a lot of traffic. The region around Lower Sabie is also good for eagles, kingfishers and bee-eaters (during the summer months). Baboons always congregate along the Sabie River road and they can make great photographic subjects, with behaviour resembling that of a feuding family at times.
Just be prepared to battle through crowds of people during peak holiday periods. The south of the park has always been the most popular region, but SANParks recent decision to increase accommodation capacity is having a detrimental effect on the overall experience, with more noise, more traffic and queues at the most popular sightings and venues.
Central Kruger is popular with visitors seeking the big cats. The thorn thickets give way to open savanna, allowing for better photo opportunities. The H1-3 and H1-4 road leading to and out of Satara always has big cats present. For other game, the S100, S125 and S126 are always productive. Expect plenty of zebra, wildebeest, elephants and various antelope species. In the central region you can focus on getting of your classic environmental shots, showing the animals amongst the open savanna.
Elephant, Punda Maria, Northern Region
Canon 1Dx, 500mm, 1/640, f/7.1, ISO 320
The stretch of tar road just outside the Letaba rest camp running along the river is one of my favourite stretches of road. You always get good mammal and bird shots here and can stay out late until just before the gates close to capture those wonderful golden hour images. The S47 running along the Letaba River is also another scenic route, and makes for a good morning drive, with lots of birds and antelope present year round.
Most people say the north of the Kruger is very quiet, with little big game. This could not be further from the truth. You can find big game in abundance north of Shingwedzi, together with a multitude of bird species. This visit saw no shortage of buffalo, elephants, antelope and big cats. The best thing about the north is that it is quiet, allowing you to position your vehicle where you choose and not worry about having to let other visitors and traffic pass.
Baobab Tree, Punda Maria, Northern Region
Canon 5D Mark II, 16mm, 1/125, f/16, ISO 1250
The S56 outside the Shingwedzi Rest Camp is great for a morning or afternoon drive. The jewel of the north however is the S63 road leading to Crook’s Corner. Flanked by a magnificent fever tree forest, and weaving between the trees, the road is a bird lover’s paradise. Four hours on the S63 produced some of my best photos of the trip. At the end of the road, you are presented with the aptly named Crook’s Corner, the intersection between South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique.
All in all, I spent 13 days working my way through the park, travelling hundreds of kilometres and capturing thousands of images. Sure a lot has changed, but the Kruger National Park is still a magical place where time stands still. It is a place every serious wildlife photographer must visit.
If you are planning a trip to South Africa and a visit to the Kruger National Park and would like tips on where to stay and how to get most of your time, please feel free to contact me via the contact link at the bottom of this page.
All questions are welcome.