South Africa Safari – Greater Kruger National Park (5 day trip)

Trip Overview: a 5 day safari trip in the Timbavati Game Reserve and Klaserie Nature Reserve adjacent to Kruger National Park in South Africa. This itinerary included stays at two different safari camps (two nights at each camp). During the trip we had several day and evening game drives and were able to see a variety of large mammals and birds. The game reserves are connected to Kruger National Park are known for their populations of Big Five safari animals. We saw many lions, rhino, elephants, and buffalo during our trip. The only member of the Big Five that we missed was the leopard. Overall this was a very nice trip with several exciting sightings. We visited these game reserves in early September of 2019.

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Itinerary:

Jump to Day 1: Arrival at the Timbavati Game Reserve
Jump to Day 2: Timbavati Game Reserve
Jump to Day 3: Transfer to Klaserie Nature Reserve
Jump to Day 4: Klaserie Nature Reserve
Jump to Day 5: Depart Klaserie Nature Reserve

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Preparations:

Click here to read more about South Africa and Kruger National Park safaris

Destination overview:  South Africa is a great safari destination because it is easily accessible via the Johannesburg airport and because there are many affordable safari providers. Kruger National Park and the several private game reserves adjacent to it are excellent spots for a safari because all members of the Big Five (lions, leopard, rhino, buffalo, and elephants) live in the area, in addition to cheetah. Thus, visiting South Africa is a great way to see a variety of large mammals and predators.

Safari goers have the option of visiting Kruger National Park or any of the several private game reserves that are connected to the park. Animals are free to roam between Kruger and the game reserves, so you have the opportunity to see many of the same species in throughout the entire Greater Kruger area. Kruger NP is very popular with visitors who want to do a self-drive safari. The roads in Kruger are well maintained and mapped, making it is quite easy to navigate yourself through the park. Individuals visiting the private game reserves typically stay at private game reserves and go on guided safari game drives. The land in the game reserves is privately owned, so you cannot self drive in these areas. Note that there are also guided game drives available at several camps in Kruger.

If you self drive in Kruger NP, you have the luxury of travelling at your own pace and looking for animals that suit your particular interest. Some people love this freedom and enjoy tracking animals on their own. This is also the lowest cost option as you do not need to pay a guide. The disadvantages are that you cannot drive off-road to get closes to animals, you may struggle to find interesting animal sightings, and you cannot self drive at night (you must leave the park before the gates close in the evening).

At the private game reserves, you will pay more to stay at a safari lodge, but have the benefit of going on guided safari game drives. The professional guides can more easily find and identify different species and typically have the ability to drive off-road in order to get close to animals. Guides will also take you on evening game drives when you stay in the private reserves. Many lodges in the private reserves also provide the option to do a walking safari. The primary disadvantage of staying in the private game reserves, aside from cost, is that you may need to share the safari vehicle with other guests and they might have different interests that you (perhaps you enjoy finding birds and they just want to see lions). Another disadvantage is that there are some property rights issues in some reserves and thus certain safari lodges only can drive in certain areas of the reserves. Your guide may hear about an interest animal sighting nearby, but your lodge may or not have access to that specific area.

In the end, we decided to visit two different private reserves: the Timbavati and the Klaserie. We were not interested in self-driving and liked the idea of being guided by a professional. Both saw a nice variety of animals in each reserve, though we did not see any leopards or cheetah during our stay.

Click here to read more about Logistics

Logistics: The primary route to the Greater Kruger area is a flight into Johannesburg followed by either a 3-5 hour drive to Kruger or a 1 hour flight and short transfer. We chose to fly from Johannesburg airport to the Hoedspruit airport so that we would not need to rent a car and drive. From Hoedspruit we took a shuttle transport to our safari lodge in the Timbavati Game Reserve. If you are self-driving, you can either rent a car at Johannesburg and drive the full route, or you could fly and then rent a car in Hoespruit or one of the other small airports in the Kruger area. Each day there are only a couple flights from Johannesburg to the Kruger airports. Be sure to time your flights into Johannesburg correctly, such that you are able to catch your connecting flight into Kruger.

Click here to read more about Preparations

Preparations: Visitors from most countries can enjoy visa-free access to South Africa for 30-90 day. Some countries may be required to pay a visa fee and submit and application, so be sure to check your government website. The other main preparation we completed before arrival were getting medication to prevent malaria and getting the requisite vaccinations. Many malaria medications require you to begin taking the medication several days before arrival into a malaria zone, so be sure you look into this early.

 

Supplies: In our experience, it was only necessary to have two sets of safari clothing. You may even be fine with one set of safari clothing depending on the length of your trip. For our 5 day trip, we did not want to do laundry, so it was helpful to have an extra set of safari clothes to use after we moved to the second camp. Long story short, it is fine to wear the same shirt and pants on multiple game drives. There is no need to buy 4 pairs of expensive synthetic tan shirts and brown pants (unless you want to). You likely want to bring some clothes to change into for dinner as well. There is no need to dress up at most lodges/camps, but many people find it nice to change out of your sweaty, dirty safari clothes when you get back to camp.

For safari clothing, it is best to choose synthetic fabrics that breath well since it can be hot towards the end of the morning game drive and at the beginning of the afternoon/evening game drive. Long sleeves shirts and pants are great for sun protection, but you could also wear short sleeves and use sun screen. If you plan to do a walking safari, you want to choose clothing that is neutral in color (tans, brown, light green, etc). For game drives, the color of your clothing does not really matter. Typically, some comfortable pants and a neutral colored hiking shirt work well for most people. You also may want a wide brimmed hat to protect your neck from the sun.

It is a good idea to pre-treat your game drive clothing with permethrin spray repellent several days before your trip. Permethrin acts to repel mosquitoes and ticks and, once applied, lasts for several weeks. You may also considering using DEET or picaridin repellent spray each day to help fend off tsetse flies, which have painful bites.

For shoes, if you only plan to do game drives, you can really wear any type of shoes from sandals to hiking boots. You only really leave the safari vehicle for bathroom breaks and sundowner drinks and are not allowed to walk far from the guide. If you are considering doing some walking safaris, plan to bring comfortable hiking shoes. On the walking safaris you cover anywhere from 3-6 miles.

The main other essential items you will want are a pair of binoculars and a camera with optical zoom. Binoculars are great for viewing birds and for getting an up close view of far away animals. You do not need a large pair, but even a travel size pair is helpful. For a camera, I suggest bringing DSLR or mirror-less camera with a lens that goes up to 300 mm zoom. If you use a smartphone only, you will struggle to really capture the animals in your photos. You will rarely get close enough to take detailed pictures with your phone and you will struggle to take phones in dusk and evening lighting. A phone is great for capturing the landscapes, but a camera with a 70-300mm zoom will let you capture the animals.

 Below is a list of the gear recommended for this type of Kruger National Park Safari:

Safari clothes

Safari gear

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Day 1: Arrival at the Shindzela Tented Camp in the Timbavati Game Reserve

After our short flight into Hoedspruit airport and a ~1 hour drive, we arrived at the Shindzela Tented Camp in the Timbavati Game Reserve. The drive from the airport to the lodge was about half on paved roads and half on dirt roads. Some other guests drove themselves to the lodge and said it was not too bad of a drive (though a very small car would be a little more challenging). Along the drive we saw some animals (baboons, giraffe, zebra) providing a nice start to the safari adventure.

We were lucky and arrived at the safari camp around 3pm, shortly before the safari vehicles were to set off on the afternoon/evening game drive. We quickly took our bags to our tented accommodation and then jumped in the vehicle for the first game drive.

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Our tented camp at Shindzela in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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The pool area at Shindzela in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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The boma area where dinner is served at Shindzela in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Safari vehicle at Shindzela in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park

Overall this game drive ended up being relatively slow, but we were able to spot a pair of male lion brothers. The guide mentioned a few times that the game drive was unusually slow and uneventful, so I think we were just unlucky.

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Map of our afternoon/evening safari game drive in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Pair of zebras in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Scrub Hare in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Red-crested korhaan in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Eastern yellow-billed hornbill in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Two male lions in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park

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Male lion in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park

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Day 2: Shindzela Tented Camp in the Timbavati Game Reserve

This day marked the 1st full day of our South Africa safari in the Timbavati Game Reserve. A typical day on this trip at Shindzela Tented Camp consisted of an early wake up around 5:45am. We then grabbed some coffee and set off on the morning game drive at 6:15am. After a ~3 hour game drive, we returned and breakfast was served at 10am. After breakfast, everyone headed to their tent to freshen up.

In the afternoon, you can hang out by the pool, relax at the bar, or enjoy your tent. Lunch is served at 2:30pm and there is tea and coffee at 3:30pm. The afternoon/evening game drive heads out at 4:00pm. This game drive returns to camp around 7:30pm and dinner is served at roughly 8:00pm. During the afternoon/evening game drive the guide stops for a drink break at sunset, so you can drink a beer or sip a cocktail.

We had a very productive game drive in the morning on this day. We came across a couple rhino and then encountered a pride of lions that had killed two wildebeest. It was spectacular to see the wildebeest kill and then watch a variety of scavengers (eagles, vultures, hyena, etc.) arrive to eat the scraps in real time.

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Map of our morning game drive in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Crested barbet in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Male greater kudu in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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White rhino in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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White rhino in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Dark chanting goshawk in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Lioness and cub in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Lioness in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park

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Lioness and cub in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Lion cubs eating a wildebeest in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Lioness in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Lion pride in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Lion pride in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park

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Hyena cleaning up scraps of a wildebeest kill in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Tawny eagle in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park

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Hooded vulture flying in to eat scraps from the wildebeest kill in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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White-backed vulture flying into eat scraps in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park

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Impalas in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park

After the end of the morning game drive we spent the afternoon near the Shindzela pool. From the pool chairs, you get a nice view of the man-made watering hole next to camp. Several animals visited the watering hole, which made for a nice afternoon break. There was a fun interaction between a small group of african buffalo and some elephants.

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Warthogs drinking from the Shindzela watering hole in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Africa buffalo approaching the Shindzela watering hole in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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African buffalo drinking water from the Shindzela watering hole in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Elephany encounters the buffalo at the Shindzela watering hole in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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The rest of the elephant herd approaches the Shindzela watering hole in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Elephants drinking from the Shindzela watering hole in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park

After lunch and tea, we set off on the afternoon/evening game drive. We stopped by the lion wildebeest kill we saw in the morning and the lions were still eating. Many of the lions looked stuffed with distended bellies, but they continued to eat nonetheless. Along the drive we also had a nice sighting of 3 rhinos and came across elephants and a herd of wildebeest. To cap the drive off, we saw a honey badger and genet in the dark while on the way back to camp.

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Map of our afternoon/evening game drive in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Giraffe in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Impala in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Lion pride with a wildebeest kill in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Very full and sleepy lions in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Elephant in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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White rhino in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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White rhino in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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White rhino in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Pair of rhinos in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Rhino in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Grey heron in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Duiker in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Herd of wildebeest in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Wildebeest in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Honey badgers in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Genet in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park

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Day 3:  Transfer to nThambo Tree Camp in the Klaserie Nature Reserve

This day started much the same as the last day, with one exception. After the morning game drive and breakfast we packed up our bags and were transferred via shuttle to our next camp, nThambo Tree Camp in the Klaserie Nature Reserve. The transfer was relatively short and we saw some animals along the way. Our game drive at Shindzela on this morning was relatively uneventful. We saw a variety of different animals, but also spent a fairly large chunk of time trying to track the lion pride we saw the previous day. Unfortunately, we were unable to find any of the lions. The guide said there were lion paw prints scattered all over the place, which indicated there may have been a territorial battle that night.

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Map of our final game drive in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Water buck in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Hippos in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Giant eagle owl in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Encountering a herd of wildebeest in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Herd of wildebeest in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Pair of male greater kudu in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Herd of african buffalo in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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African buffalo in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Buffalo in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Steenbok in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park

After taking the transfer to nThambo Tree Camp in the Klaserie Nature Reserve, we checked into our accommodation and then relaxed during the afternoon. We arrived around noon, so we had time before lunch and before the afternoon/evening game drive. As with Shindzela, nThambo has a pool and watering hole. However, there were fewer animals exploring the nThambo watering hole. Our afternoon/evening game drive at nThambo was also a bit slow (like our morning drive this day). The guide heard there were lions in the area so we spent much of the drive tracking lion prints. We were not able to find the lions though and thus did not see too much variety this evening. However, we found a black mamba snake and had a very cool owl sighting.

We were a bit frustrated at this point because much of this day was spent driving around looking for lions (on both the morning  drive at Shindzela and the afternoon/evening game drive at nThambo). One disadvantage of  more affordable safari camps like these is that you share the safari vehicle with several other guests. If certain guests are very interested to see one type of animal and other guests are interested to see a variety, the guide can have a hard time pleasing everyone. This can lead to a little tension if the game drive is slow or if one group of guests is more vocal than the others. Unfortunately, the only way to avoid this potential issue is to stay at a more expensive safari lodge where you can have a private or 4 person game drive (rather than a 6-8 person game drive).

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Map of our first afternoon/evening game drive in the Klaserie Nature Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park

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Zebra in the Klaserie Nature Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Kori bustard in the Klaserie Nature Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Kori bustard in the Klaserie Nature Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Giant eagle owl in the Klaserie Nature Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Black mamba in the Klaserie Nature Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park

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Day 4: nThambo Tree Camp in the Klaserie Nature Reserve

The schedule at nThambo Tree Camp was similar to that at Shindzela Tented Camp. We woke up early in the morning, had a quick cup of coffee, and then set off on the morning game drive. The drive this morning started off slow, but ended up being very nice after we encountered a group of five large rhino. This was a great sighting and since we were the first vehicle to find the rhino, we were able to stay and observe for quite a while. We also encountered a large herd of elephants on our way back to camp.

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Map of our morning game drive in the Klaserie Nature Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Water buck in the Klaserie Nature Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park

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Pearl-spotted owlet in the Klaserie Nature Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Rhinos in the Klaserie Nature Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Rhinos in the Klaserie Nature Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Rhinos in the Klaserie Nature Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Rhinos in the Klaserie Nature Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Rhinos in the Klaserie Nature Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Rhino in the Klaserie Nature Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Female greater kudu in the Klaserie Nature Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Elephants in the Klaserie Nature Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Elephants in the Klaserie Nature Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park

After the afternoon break and lunch, we hopped in the vehicle for our afternoon/evening game drive. Our guide told us that there was a mating pair of lions spotted within the Klaserie Nature Reserve, but noted that it would be a long ~50 minute drive to get to them. We had the choice of making the trek over there or sticking to a more traditional game drive. All guests agreed it would be interesting to see the mating pair, so we went with the long drive option. In the end we found the mating pair and were able to see them mate, which was very neat.

The drive was indeed long and bumpy, but it was worth it since the other guests had not yet seen any lions. The one unfortunate part of this adventure was that we were only able to observe the lions for ~10 minutes. This was a popular sighting, so the safari vehicles had to take turns to see the lions and thus you were limited in how long you could stay. Luckily we saw the lions mate during our turn at the sighting, but the whole experience was a little rushed.

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Map of our afternoon/evening game drive in the Klaserie Nature Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Zebra in the Klaserie Nature Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Mating pair of lions sleeping in the Klaserie Nature Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Pair of lions in the Klaserie Nature Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Mating pair of lions in the Klaserie Nature Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Mating pair of lions in the Klaserie Nature Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Male lion makes his territory after mating in the Klaserie Nature Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Male lion takes a nap after mating in the Klaserie Nature Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Lioness takes a nap as well, in the Klaserie Nature Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Sunset in the Klaserie Nature Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Tarantula Hawk dragging a paralyzed tarantula across the road in the Klaserie Nature Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Tarantula, paralyzed after being stung by a tarantula hawk, in the Klaserie Nature Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park

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Day 5: Depart from nThambo Tree Camp in the Klaserie Nature Reserve

This morning was our last game drive. We had considered doing a walking safari on this day, but the weather was too windy and guide did not think walking would be safe. We started out on the game drive and saw some giraffes and elephants. Then, the guide heard over the radio that there was a large pack of wild dogs hunting within the reserve. We again that choice between a long, bumpy drive to try to see the dogs or to stick with the normal game drive. None of the guests had seen wild dogs in South Africa, so we decided to race to the dogs.

The drive was very fast and bumpy, but we eventually made it to the area were the wild dogs were hunting. By the time we arrive they had already killed a small impala and were nearly done eating it. The pack of dogs was quite large with roughly 10 adults and 15 pups. Overall it was a very cool sighting and worth the long drive.

We saw a few additional animals on the drive back to the lodge. Then, we packed things up and headed to the Hoedspruit airport for our flight back to Johannesburg, ending our South Africa Safari.

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Our final morning game drive in the Klaserie Nature Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Giraffe in the Klaserie Nature Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Elephant in the Klaserie Nature Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park

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Hippo and Hamerkop in the Klaserie Nature Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Wild dog in the Klaserie Nature Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Pack of wild dogs eating an impala in the Klaserie Nature Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Pack of wild dogs eating an impala in the Klaserie Nature Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Pack of wild dogs eating an impala in the Klaserie Nature Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park

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Pack of wild dogs eating an impala in the Klaserie Nature Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park

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Impala in the Klaserie Nature Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Elephant in the Klaserie Nature Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Young elephant in the Klaserie Nature Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Bachelor wildebeest in the Klaserie Nature Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park
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Zebra in the Klaserie Nature Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park

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Here are some similar trip reports!

Zambia Safari – South Luangwa National Park (8 day trip)

Patagonia Circuit Trek – Torres del Paine National Park (80 mile loop)

Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu – 5 Day (46 mile)

Banff National Park Hiking Highlights

 

 

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