In the height of the African summer heat, my husband and I got off the grid, took it slow, and fell into the beauty of the African bush and her abundant wildlife for a surprisingly inexpensive, self-drive, self-catering week in the Kruger Park. We decided to follow the example of the animals themselves, and travelled from water hole to water hole … well in our case, from swimming pool to swimming pool.
Punda Maria Gate to Punda Maria Rest Camp – 8.6km
The sweat dripped off our bodies as we walked the short distance from the gate reception to our car, by mutual agreement we were driving straight to Punda Maria Rest Camp for a swim, but the bush had different plans for us. It took us an hour and a half to make the short journey to our first camp … but how could we not stop to watch buffalo, elephants, and a Mamma warthog with her babies going for a cooling swim?
And as for our swimming pool at Punda Maria Rest Camp? Surrounded by trees and sculpted with gently trickling water rockeries, this pool is utterly perfect for wallowing.
Today’s highlight: the baobab trees and a matriarchal herd of elephants winding their way out of the hills to graze on the sweet green grasses in the vlei … a magical ending to a sunset drive on the Mahogany loop (S99).
Good to know: don’t be put off by the communal veranda at the Punda Maria Rest Camp; the two nights we spent here were very sociable affairs with our fellow travellers from all over the world. The sundowners, the braais, the shared dinners and easy chats under the African stars were intoxicating.
Punda Maria to Shimuwini Rest Camp – 171km
An overly ambitious day’s driving for Kruger Park explorers! I don’t recommend it at all. Rather break the trip at Sirheni or Shingwedzi, especially if, like us, you amble along, taking loops, stopping for creatures great and small and breathe in the views along the route … oh, and take and a not-so-short short cut. Although, the excellent game sightings along the Mphongolo Loop (S56), the remarkable river views, and some of the Kruger’s most beautiful big trees made it all worth it in the end.
The Shimuwini Bushveld Camp swimming pool: blissfully quiet and private compared with some of the larger camps in the Kruger, this swimming pool wraps around its very own boma.
Today’s highlight: Sipping our sundowners while listening to the hippos voicing our initial grumpiness (that long day’s drive), and watching the resident reedbuck and his family come down to drink while squirrels made vain attempts to steal our snacks. Oh yes, and that super-herd of over 100 elephants meandering along on both sides of the road on our way here.
Good to know: There are 15 self-catering units at Shimuwini Bushveld Camp with rolling lawns leading down to the Letaba river. And despite the rude staff that checked us in, I would book two nights here in future. It’s heaven for a day spent drifting around the swimming pool, chilling next to the river, and letting the animals come to you.
Shumuwini Bushveld Camp to Mopani Rest Camp via Letaba – 104km
We spent the morning looping down the Letaba River on S133, S131 and S47 towards Letaba through a bushveld dotted with pretty stands of dainty little yellow, orange, and white flowers. Outside Letaba Rest camp we re-joined the H1-6 towards Mopani Rest Camp, driving along what we decided to call the elephant road; never have we seen so many elephants on a single stretch of road.
The Mopani Rest Camp swimming pool: a huge, sparkling, undulating, invitation of blue, lined with indigenous African trees.
Today’s highlight: despite all the elephants, it just has to be the zebra standing in the middle of the road, baring his teeth and shaking his head to ensure that his friends who were taking a mud bath behind the car had some privacy.
Good to know: Mopani Rest Camp is a delight, designed to blend into the sides of a couple of koppies on the Pioneer Dam, it’s layout has been carefully crafted around the trees and bush, giving many of the perimeter units a sense of absolute privacy. Our west-facing patio looked out over the dam, making it the perfect sundowner spot while listening to the honking of Egyptian geese and guinea fowl as we all settled in for the night.
Mopani Rest Camp to Olifants Rest Camp – 82 km
The day was turning into a scorcher, so we made a beeline to Olifants Rest Camp; an old favourite of our family’s to wallow away the heat of the day in the swimming pool. Olifants is built on a hill in a bend of the Olifants River with views in both directions, and there’s plenty of game coming down to the river to drink.
The Olifants Rest Camp swimming pool: all new, the centrally located Olifants Rest Camp swimming pool is a very welcome addition to one of our favourite camps.
Today’s highlight: the lovely Italian couple who flagged us down on our afternoon drive to tell us about a pack of wild dogs snoozing next to the road a couple of kilometres away … actually this wild dog sighting is the highlight of the entire trip!
Good to know: We stopped off for a picnic in the day visitors area at Letaba, but it’s really not to be recommended; a lovely facility but it’s built at the back of the camp with no views over the river and little chance of a cooling breeze.
Olifants Rest Camp to Satara via Timbavati Picnic Spot – 102 km
We drove down the S-39 along the Timbavati River, driving through a changing landscape to the more open savannah around Satara and stopped off at the not-to-be missed Timbavati Picnic Spot to cook brunch.
The Satara swimming pool: framed by acacia trees, thatched lapas and verdant lawns, this pool with its figure 8 design is actually two pools … which somehow makes you want to try both (and we did, even though the smaller pool is for little kids)!
Today’s highlight: a porcupine, the grumpy female hyena marching down the road muttering to herself, the woodland kingfisher diving in and out the water with us at camp, the two honey badgers on our patio … and waking up to a beautiful African sunrise (finally; our lazy has been strong till now).
Good to know: Satara Rest Camp came as a bit of a cultural shock after our laid-back trip so far; it’s well laid out, but it’s enormous, and very busy with tons of tour buses.
Have you done a trip to the far North of Kruger Park?
Where is your favourite Kruger Park swimming pool? Let us know in the comments below.
Kruger Park Final Tips:
It is well worth the effort to plan your day trips via the picnic spots with a basket filled with scrumptious goodies. All of the picnic spots in the Kruger have a constant supply of hot water for tea and coffee, as well as gas skottel braais for rent (you do need to pay in cash).
Kruger Park Accommodation
Do buy a Wild Card, the saving is worth it. Book online at www.sanparks.org. It’s an excellent website with (almost) everything that you need to know and comes with a discount for online bookings.
Bring your own braai tongs, a small cooking pot, a good knife, a bottle opener, drying cloths, and a small table cloth. Otherwise, all the facilities that include communal kitchens have braai grids and fridges.
Kruger Park Cell phone reception
Excellent in the larger rest camps and Southern Kruger, and blissfully non-existent away from them.
And, if you do this trip in reverse ending up at Punda Maria and you have some time to spare, why not head across to Mapungubwe National Park?
I am very grateful to the team at What She Said who were the first to publish this travel guide and who encouraged me to write about our trips.
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DISCLOSURE: I have no commercial relationship with SANParks or any of its affiliates. All photographs, experiences and opinions expressed in this blog post are my own.