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Less costly safaris are within reach

Kruger National Park is rich with game, including giraffes. Kruger National Park is rich with game, including giraffes. (James F. Smith for The Boston Globe
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By James F. Smith
Globe Staff / October 25, 2009

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KRUGER NATIONAL PARK, South Africa - If I had reached my arm out from the open-sided, idling Land Rover, I’m sure I could have touched the leopard as it strode blithely alongside us just after nightfall. We were that close.

Until a few years ago, a night drive like this in the African bush was a luxury reserved for the wealthy few. It was the hallmark of plush game reserves in South Africa like Londolozi, which are still deservedly at the top of the tourism food chain. But at current all-inclusive rates of $650 a night and up - per person - not many could do more than imagine it.

Fortunately, for those heading to the 2010 World Cup soccer tournament next June and July in South Africa, the country boasts an alternative that is unique in Africa: safaris for the middle-class masses. And the timing would be just right - the best months to visit the game reserves are May to October, in the Southern Hemisphere’s winter.

The immense Kruger National Park, reachable by car from Johannesburg in four to five hours, has long been an affordable way for families to see all the riches of the wild, from lions and elephants to lilac-breasted rollers and gawky secretary birds. Many of the 21 overnight camps in the 111-year-old park offer comfortable but basic rondavels, cylindrical thatched-roof huts, for as little as $100 a night for a family.

You can also opt for one of the more luxurious camps built in the post-apartheid years to tap the growing international tourist market that shunned South Africa in the days of white-minority rule. In some of the fancier rest camps, you can spend $200 or more a night for a two- or three-bedroom fully equipped cabin, with a complete kitchen.

In recent years the park has added innovations that make the experience feel a lot closer to that of the luxury private reserves like Londolozi that lie adjacent to Kruger. The national park has added evening drives and hikes through the bush starting at dawn, led by skilled (and armed) rangers.

Kruger is the classic destination for South Africans arriving from the center of the country - with long days cruising slowly through the park’s hundreds of miles of roads, capped with an evening barbecue, or braaivleis in Afrikaans, of lamb chops and boerewors (farmer’s sausage) over a wood fire reliving the day’s viewing. Accompanied, of course, by Castle lager or a fine wine from the Cape.

The Kruger experience isn’t for everyone. For one thing, you usually drive yourself, in your own vehicle - and on the left side of the road. Or you book an all-in tour from Johannesburg, ideally in a small van but sometimes in a full-sized bus that feels removed from the animals and the land. You either cook for yourself or you eat in the family-style cafeterias in the major rest camps. Alas, some of those camps feel like small towns, with scores of cabins for visitors. It’s hardly the isolated wilderness experience of the luxury camps.

Nevertheless, the Kruger culture has absolutely grown on me in nearly 30 years of living in and visiting South Africa, since I first arrived there as a foreign correspondent in the turbulent 1980s. We make a point of organizing a family trek to Kruger every time we visit family in Johannesburg.

On a recent trip, we needed just two days in the park to tick off the big five - elephants, lions, rhinos, buffalo, and leopard. At one watering hole, we came upon an especially rare sight, about 50 feet away: lions feeding on a kill, and then strolling a few feet away to mate. The backdrop was a black rhino drinking and browsing a few yards behind the lions.

On our last trip, we stayed in two very different camps, just a few miles apart, that captured the range of the Kruger experience. Both were in the south of the park, which is closer to the main park gates and nearby airports - and I always found the game-viewing better in the south than in the more arid scrub to the north. We entered at dawn through the new Phabeni Gate, near Hazyview, one of eight main gates into the park, after spending the night at a pleasant family-run hotel in Hazyview.

After a long day’s game-viewing, we arrived at the tiny Malelane satellite camp on the Crocodile River on the southernmost boundary of the park. Just outside the gate were several playful elephants, and we could see hippo and crocodile on the riverbank, just beyond the electric-wire topped fence.

Malelane camp is so tiny that it has no full-time gate staff - you pick up your key at the nearby Malelane Gate. There are a handful of basic rondavels, sleeping two to four people, but no shop or restaurant. It’s utterly quiet and peaceful, and the huts are well equipped with pots and crockery for cooking out. We barbecued on the lawn. But be careful: We left our potato chips on the outdoor table for a few minutes - that was enough time for the cheeky vervet monkeys that live around the camp to swoop in and steal the chips, which they enjoyed in a nearby tree. (Do not feed the monkeys or baboons; it makes them aggressive.)

We moved for the next two nights to the relatively new Berg-en-Dal camp, just a few miles down the road. We stayed in a two-bedroom brick house in the complex of 92 units, with a bit of a suburban feel to it, for about $220 a night. Berg-en-Dal has a swimming pool, a conference complex, and a couple of restaurants of different price ranges. It boasts a fine dam that attracts a range of game in the dry months - we saw a herd of water buffalo one night. The area around Berg-en-Dal is hilly and rich with game, from towering giraffes to tiny, shy duiker antelopes.

Between the ultra-basic and the new, slightly too built-up camps, are the older but well-serviced camps with restaurants such as Lower Sabie, Pretoriuskop, and Crocodile Bridge. Also, the park has built a number of “bush camps,’’ smaller and unserviced yet very comfortable, including Biyamiti, one of our favorites, and Jakkalsbessie.

Well in advance, we booked an evening game drive, and a morning hike from Berg-en-Dal. Both were highlights of our stay. On the evening drive, our ranger-driver, Lourens Botha, explained the sounds and sights of the nocturnal bushveld. The next morning at dawn, he and fellow ranger Surprise Hlatswayo made a great team. Hlatswayo explained how the buffalo thorn plays a role in burial culture for the local Shangaan people and how the giant land snail lives for 20 years, carrying a shell the size of a fist. Botha explained the difference between the tracks of the big cats compared with other animals’.

He pointed out many herbs and their uses, and told us “everything is useful in the bush.’’ We saw a black mamba snake in a thorn tree, and a blue waxbill bird in the branches nearby.

Those moments are common in the luxury reserves, but were lacking in Kruger. The steady expansion of those add-ons in recent years has made the national park a much richer experience.

James F. Smith can be reached at jsmith@globe.com.

If You Go

Getting there

By air:

South African Airways, SA Express, Nationwide, and other smaller airlines from Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Durban to Nelspruit, the closest sizable town and the best airport for the southern section of Kruger National Park. Leave an hour to drive to enter Kruger at either Malelane, Numbi, or Phabeni Gate. Note strict gate opening and closing times, at dawn and sunset.

By car:

About 260 miles from Johannesburg to Malelane Gate, about four hours by car. Suggested route: Belfast, Lydenburg, and overnight in Hazyview, entering Kruger at dawn.

Entering the park:

Entrance fees are higher for foreigners than South Africans. The park charges a $20 per day conservation fee for adults, in addition to accommodation charges.

Where to stay

Kruger has a huge range of overnight rest camps. Prices generally range from about $100 to $200 per night per unit. Stay a couple of nights in one camp, and move to another. Book as early as you can. The camps fill up months in advance.

What to do

Most rest camps offer evening game drives ($25 per person) and morning bush walks (about $40 per person). Book far in advance; the activities fill up fast.

Online resources:

The official Kruger National Park website, which also allows you to book cabins directly, is www.sanparks.org.