Don’t want to be cooped up in a tour bus with sweaty strangers? Don’t want to fall in with other people’s schedules? Is your idea of a perfect holiday to get away from people? If you agree with most of the statements above, read on.
South Africa as Self Drive Destination
South Africa is often referred to as “The World in one Country”, for the tremendous diversity of her landscape and people, this microcosm of modern-day Africa will surprise and charm you around every corner. In addition to outstanding landscape and wildlife, South Africa has an excellent road system and the best tourism infrastructure in Africa, making it the ideal destination to explore on a self-drive holiday. Forget the limitations of tour groups and flight schedules, embrace the freedom that comes with your own transport and let the adventure begin!
Where to Start?
Most visitors to South Africa will arrive at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city, and the pulsating heart of the South African economy.
If you are anxious to see some of the country’s renowned wildlife, you will probably have your sights set on the famous Kruger National Park, which is situated at the extreme north-eastern corner of the country, approximately 5 hours from the city by road.
If you have less time but still want to enjoy an authentic wildlife experience, the Pilanesberg National Park, just 2.5 hours by road from the airport, is another option.
It is easy to pick up your rental vehicle at the airport and all the major car-rental companies are represented, although it is always advisable to book your vehicle in advance so that you are assured of getting the category of car or van that will suit you best.
What to See in Johannesburg
Escaping to the Wilderness – What to See Along the Way
It is perfectly easy to drive to the Kruger National Park in one go and be there by mid afternoon. The distance varies between 420km and 535km, depending on which route you choose and which camp you are going to, and the drive will take you between 4 and 5 hours on good roads. You need to head out of Johannesburg on the N12 towards eMalaheni (previously Witbank), where you will join up with the N4. If you do plan to go directly to the Park a great place to stop for lunch is the charming little country town of Dullstroom, in the heart of trout-fishing country.
Dullstroom is also a good place to stop overnight and a good “base” for exploring the majestic Panorama Route, on a more leisurely itinerary. There are several good places to stay, ranging from budget self catering to five star luxury.
The Panorama Route is one of South Africa’s most outstanding scenic drives and a must-see add-on to any visit to the Kruger National Park. You can do a day-trip or even a half-day trip, but there is a lot to see and do and a couple of days would be ideal, particularly if you have never been to the area before. The route encompasses mountains, waterfalls, extraordinary rock formations and the Blyde River Canyon, which is the 3rd largest canyon in the world. Be sure to plan your itinerary to include stops at Bourke’s Luck Potholes, an incredible other-worldly landscape of deeply gouged circular potholes formed by centuries of swirling water, and God’s Window, which is probably one of the best view-points in the country. Stopping for lunch at Harrie’s Pancakes in Graskop is a South African tradition you should not miss!
The Kruger National Park
This is without doubt the country’s most famous wildlife destination – a vast unfenced wilderness that stretches along the border of Mozambique for 360km from north to south. The Park encompasses a wide variety of habitats and eco-systems, each one attracting and supporting an over-lapping diversity of animal and bird life. To fully appreciate the diversity you should visit more than one area and we suggest you spend a few nights in at least two or three different camps.
Some visitors choose to stay at one of the many resorts and hotels outside the Park, driving in on a daily basis, but to experience the real ethos of the Kruger we definitely suggest that you stay at one of the rest camps or Lodges inside the Park; you will save a great deal of time (and money) driving backwards and forwards, and have more time to enjoy the outstanding wildlife. There are camps and lodges to suit all budgets. You could choose to camp in one of the well-equipped campsites, splurge on one of the indulgent and very luxurious lodges on the private conservancies dotted along the unfenced western boundary of the Park, or anything else between these two extremes.
The Pilanesberg National Park
Conveniently situated within an easy 2 hour drive from Johannesburg or Pretoria, the Pilanesberg is South Africa’s fourth-largest National Park and offers visitors with limited time the opportunity to enjoy an authentic wilderness experience and the chance to see the Big Five. If you have a little extra time on your hands you can visit the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site and the Sterkfontein Caves en-route, or opt to spend a few pleasant hours strolling around Hartbeespoort Dam on your way to the Park. The De Wildt Cheetah Sanctuary is also worth a visit.
The Pilanesberg is dramatically situated in the saucer-shaped depression of an ancient extinct volcano and is home to over 7000 animals, which are quite easy to spot on a self-drive safari. All the Big Five can now be found here (Lion were re-introduced to the park several years ago) and it is not uncommon to catch a glimpse of four out of five on a guided game drive (the Leopard remains elusive!). Elephant are commonly seen, often really close to the main rest camps and Rhino and Lion are also often encountered, particularly on a guided game drive. There are several places to stay inside the Park, including Batgatla Resort, Selous Bush Camp, Manyane and Buffalo Thorn Lodge. Bakubung Lodge and Kwa Maritane are also good choices just outside the gates of the Park; both overlook the wilderness and offer day and night drives and atmospheric Boma dinners under the stars.
Hints and Tips for Travel in South Africa
Malaria is still a major problem in Africa; Kruger National Park is situated in a Malaria Zone and you need to start your medication in good time. Even if you are using Malaria meds, make sure to bring insect repellent and wear long sleeves after dusk. Pilanesberg is free of Malaria risk.
Sun: we know you love the sun, but you don’t want to ruin your holiday with painful sunburn! Hats and sunscreen are mandatory – don’t leave home without them!
Cash: Make sure to carry some cash with you (but don’t flash your bulging wallet around!) Most shops in the cities will accept credit cards but you need cash in the rural areas, especially if you are buying souvenirs and local crafts.
Is self drive better than an organised tour?
Undoubtedly! Having your own transport gives you the freedom to follow the road less traveled, stop when and where you like and spend extra time at great sightings, snapping that special photo! You can still enjoy organized game drives within the Parks if you want a break from driving.
Is it safe to self-drive?
Yes. (Of course normal disclaimers apply to this statement as one can get robbed in the safest country in the world as well). Provided you take a few standard precautions. Never leave your valuables displayed in the vehicle – lock everything in the trunk when you leave the car. Never pick up hitch-hikers and preferably do not drive around at night. Inside the game parks, always respect the animals’ right of way and never leave your vehicle unless you are in a designated safe area.
Do I need an International Drivers’ License?
No – any valid International Drivers License is acceptable provided it bears the photograph and signature of the holder. If in doubt, check in advance with your Car Rental company.
Is it easy to drive in South Africa?
Generally yes! We drive on the left side in South Africa, which takes a little getting used to for visitors from Europe and the USA. The roads and signage are generally tarred and in good condition. Do not exceed the speed limit, never drink and drive and watch out for reckless pedestrians!
What type of vehicle is best for game viewing?
Generally speaking, the more elevated you are, the easier it will be to see animals in the long grass, so preferable choose a SUV, van or similar that will give you a little extra elevation. You do not need a 4X4 in either Kruger or Pilanesberg, as you are not allowed off-road.