We’re back home from South Africa, and wow, it exceeded our expectations in every way. There is so much to see and it deserves a lot more than the 12 days we gave it. The wildlife is incredible, the scenery is incredible (and unknown outside of SA; we weren’t prepared for coastal drives that rivalled Big Sur!). As we expected, South Africa is cheap. Partly because it’s not that wealthy of a country, and possibly because their currency crashed from 7 rand/$1 CAD to 12 rand/$1 CAD (though unfortunately it’s back down to ~10.5, which is still a great deal). Yet even knowing all that, it was way way less expensive than I had previously thought. In fact, if you want to be a lazy tourist that makes no effort in avoiding being ripped off, I would say that it’s one of the the cheapest destinations in the world – cheaper than Thailand.
Overall, Thailand is a cheaper country than SA; after all, SA is mostly first-world. We spent very little money in Thailand, but it took some active work – hours of research, mainly. Thailand has $20/night hotels, but if you want comfortable accommodations up to Western standards you’ll be charged close to Western prices. If you want Western food, you’ll be charged Western prices. If you eat at a random restaurant in Sukhumvit (a touristy section of Bangkok), you’ll pay higher prices than you pay at home. If you go somewhere super touristy and you don’t do any research, you are pretty well guaranteed to get ripped off. Even if you’re in the islands, somewhere like Ao Nang, the restaurants on the main road will charge Western prices. Car rentals are Western prices. Going to an elephant sanctuary was crazy expensive (but still worth it).
South Africa is a different story. YOU CANNOT GET RIPPED OFF IN SOUTH AFRICA. Even if you try – even if you make zero effort to save money. We ate all our meals at high-end restaurants in rich neighbourhoods, surrounded by luxury cars and rich white people. We payed around $7 a meal. We stayed at the best hotels we could find, in the best areas, in a nice room. We never payed more than $100/night (which is on the high end for us, but we got so much value for our money). In Kruger National Park, the rest camps have one restaurant. You can either cook your own food, or eat there. Every customer is a tourist, and it’s a captive audience (literally; they lock the gates in and out of the camps at night so you don’t get eaten by lions). You would think that they would rip you off, but they don’t – main courses are $5-$10.
Anyways, onto Kruger! We had five nights for a self-guided safari in Kruger National Park, and it was wonderful in so many ways. We saw more wildlife than we imagined possible, and all while easily staying on a budget. African safaris are normally ridiculously expensive; you stay in a luxury lodge, go out on guided game drives 2-3 times per day, all meals and transport is included, but you’ll find yourself paying $500-$2000 per person per day. There are some cheaper safari lodges for around $300-$400 per person per day, though not so many and not so luxurious. There are also camping safaris, but those still cost around $150-$200 per day!
On the other hand, Kruger National Park is one of the few places in Africa where you can have an independent self-guided safari. We didn’t try to be frugal at all; we stayed in private bungalows in the best locations, had three meals a day at restaurants, and ordered whatever we wanted. Our total all-inclusive cost, including accommodation, transportation, food, and park fees, was around $100 CAD/$75 USD per person per day.
The first thing we had to do was book accommodation. In Kruger, you have two options: inside or outside of the national park. Inside the park there are many fenced-in “rest camps” with varying accommodation options, including tents for camping, huts with communal bathrooms, private bungalows with ensuite bathrooms, and a few large cottages. We stayed in the bungalows, which cost between R1000 and R1200 per night (around $100 CAD/night) for two people. They are well-maintained and clean but quite basic.
Regardless, in my opinion staying in the park is much better. You’re right in the middle of the action surrounded by wildlife, with no boring drive to and from the park. Since you are forced to leave the park or be inside your rest camp from sunset to sunrise, staying at the rest camps means that you can get out earlier and stay out later than those staying beyond the park’s boundaries. This also means that you have access to the reasonably priced sunrise, sunset, and night guided game drives and the morning walk operated by the national park. We stayed three nights inside the park, one each in Satara, Berg-en-Dal, and Lower Sabie rest camps. These are all in the southern section of the park (which is huge – larger than Israel!), which has the most wildlife.
The downside is that since staying in the national park is such an attractive option, and the prices are very low by African Safari standards, the rest camps get booked up very quickly. As in you should book 11 months in advance, which is the earliest possible. We only booked this trip about two weeks in advance, so I stayed up all night looking for last-minute openings due to cancellations. We got lucky and I was able to book 3 separate one-night stays out of our five nights. For the other two nights, I booked the Sabie River Bush Lodge on hotels.com for $105 CAD (R1100) including tax per night. But this included free breakfast and dinner for two! This hotel is really nice and luxurious, a much better value than the bungalows in Kruger, which are basic and don’t include food. But SRBL was 19km from the gate to Kruger, so we had some extra driving to do each day, we couldn’t return to our hotel in the middle of the day, and we couldn’t do any early or late activities. But since it’s such a better value, I would recommend it for two nights, with the rest of your nights inside the park. There are other options outside of the park, most of which are cheaper, but they tend to be even further from the gate, at least in this area of the park.
After booking accommodation, you’ll need to book your car rental. Most of the roads in Kruger are paved, and even the dirt roads aren’t bad. Any cheap small car is good enough. Ours cost was R250 ($24 CAD) per day, but we upgraded to a Corolla so that we could fit all our bags in the trunk (since we would be stopping on the way to/from Kruger). A smaller car would be even cheaper. Automatic cars would be a little more expensive. Don’t worry about driving on the left, it’s not that difficult. My only issue is that I would tend to drift too far to the left side of the lane, since I’m not used to having half the car to my left. Also I would always walk to the wrong side of the car when getting in. Gas is a little more expensive than it is in Canada, but you’ll be driving slow (max speed in Kruger is 50 km/h) so you won’t use that much gas.
Getting to Kruger is also relatively easy and cheap. It involves a boring five hour drive from Johannesburg Airport, a major international airport (that’s easy to get to on points!), which is pretty accessible for a remote African safari. If you have a bigger budget and don’t feel like driving, you can fly to Nelspruit Airport (MQP), a two hour drive from Kruger.
Lastly, you need to pay the park conservation fees, which you can pay at the gate. The cost is R280 per person per day for foreigners. You could also buy a “Wild Card,” which gives you unlimited access to all SA National Parks for a year. We bought a “couple” Wild Card at the gate, which is R3005 ($286 CAD) for two people. This covered our six calendar days in Kruger, and also covered our visits to Boulders Beach and Cape Point near Cape Town.
Trip report coming soon!