The infrastructure for tourism in South Africa is well-developed; exceptionally so on a continental scale. Independent travel here is straightforward relative to almost all other African countries. This section deals with getting here, and getting around when you get to the Kruger region.
The nation has a mature scheduled flight network. Its focal hubs are Johannesburg (non-stop flights to 82 cities) and Cape Town (27 cities); these are the destinations for almost all international flights and where you make onward local or regional connections. Substantial investment and redevelopment upgraded these facilities to world-class standards for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, including the high-speed Gautrainrail link to Johannesburg (15 minutes to the Sandton business district) and from Johannesburg to Pretoria (35 minutes). Many international airlines are present.
From America the only direct flights are operated by SAA from New York and Atlanta (Delta) to Johannesburg. These routes are amongst the longest regularly operated sectors in the world, taking seventeen hours. Other operators provide indirect Northern American services. Some offer stop-overs in Europe (see below); some stop only to refuel in North Africa in Dakar (Senegal) or the Cape Verde Islands (amongst these, watch out for periodic offers on SAA from Washington where return flights can sell for under $900 including tax and surcharges). Refuelling takes an hour and no disembarkation from the plane is permitted.
Europe is served better by virtue of its closer geographic proximity. Regional feeder airlines provide services to SA via hubs such as Amsterdam Schiphol (the Netherlands), Frankfurt (Germany) and Charles de Gaulle in Paris (France). From these and other large cities, routing to Africa via a Middle Eastern hub often offers the cheapest flights: try Emirates (via Dubai), Etihad (Abu Dhabi) and Qatar Airways (Doha).
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London Heathrow in the UK originates the most direct flights and has the most operators with British Airways, SAA, and Virgin offering one or more daily flights each to Johannesburg and Cape Town (Virgin operates only northern hemisphere Winters on this route). The number of outbound flights and the extensive network of Northern American flights makes London a good stop-over point en-route to Southern Africa from the US or Canada. If you are flying from the UK and not near London then you will almost certainly find cheaper flights from your local airport via another European hub rather than going via Heathrow. Go here to check if Turkish, Egyptian or Ethiopian have regional return flights for £400, and then come back here to sort out your Safari.
The flag-carrying South African Airways has been pulling back from flights to the Asian continent (recently China and India) but has formed a new alliance with Etihad to code-share on their routes servicing the region. SAA claims this adds 27 cities to its network. As before, Singapore Airline and Cathay Pacific (Hong Kong) continue to fly to their hubs and beyond.
South African, Quantas and Singapore Airways dominate the market from Australia and New Zealand.
Long haul tips
Domestic and Regional Flights
SAA continues to dominate the South African airline market in terms of seat numbers and range of destinations through its franchises, wholly-owned SA Express and the privately-held Airlink. In the last few years competition has brought about the establishment of low-cost airlines on domestic and regional routes. Operators include Mango (owned by SAA), kulula (run by Comair alongside British Airways domestic operations). These offshoots share maintenance programmes with the master brand's mainline fleets. flySafair and cemAir come from long heritages of operating as charter services across the continent and are using this track record to develop the domestic scheduled market. New low-cost operators FlyAfrica and fastjet are starting to open up international routes (Zimbabwe and Tanzania respectively).
New entrants have introduced a different splash of colour to the market
Prices on key routes such as Johannesburg-Cape Town halved in the first full year of competition with these new entrants. Whether structurally lower fares are sustainable remains to be seen. A number of new entrants (1time, Nationwide, Velvet Sky) have gone bust trying to undercut SAA.
Once in Johannesburg or Cape Town, the easiest way on to the Kruger National Park and the Central Lowveld is to fly. South African subsidiaries Airlink and Express connect to a variety of local airports.
Skukuza Airport is the new kid on the block. Inside the Park close to the largest government restcamp which has the same name, Airlink built this facility with partners including the nearby Lion Sands luxury Lodge family. Airlink currently operates daily flights from Johannesburg and Cape Town in to this unique commercial landing strip.
Guests at MalaMala and adjacent private lodges in the Sabi Sand will also find a twice-daily scheduled Federal Air service from Johannesburg directly into a smaller sister landing strip (airport code AAM) in the Reserve. This is operated by a twin-engined prop and as luggage space is limited there is complementary storage at O.R. Tambo. It costs about twice the price of scheduled flights to the other airports.
Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport is between Nelspruit and White River at the foot of the Kruger; this is convenient for the private reserves of the Sabi Sand Reserve, and the southernmost gates to the Park itself: Paul Kruger, Numbi, Crocodile Bridge and Malelane. KPMIA is the only local airport benefiting from some budget airline coverage (currently Nationwide, but potentially Kulala.com and others over time). This tends to make it a cheaper route than others where competition does not exist.
Further north, and convenient for the Central Kruger and the private reserves of Timbavati, Manyeleti and Kapama, is Eastgate Airport outside Hoedspruit. This currently receives daily flights from Johannesburg and Cape Town; some of the latter arrive via Sun City making a stop-over here or at the Pilanesberg National Park a possibility en route.
Slightly further north still, and highly convenient for the town of Phalaborwa and its gate to the Park, is Phalaborwa Airport. This benefits from the presence of the mine nearby in having more flights during working weekdays than Hoedspruit. There is usually little to differentiate between internal flights to these two airports on price; the location of your first Lodge will determine which is closest if there is a choice of flight available for your dates.
A long-hoped for possibility has been that either Kruger Mpumalanga (representing the eponymous Province) or Hoedspruit (Limpopo Province) will start receiving direct flights from abroad. To date, these have been limited to charter arrivals but there is the potential for the market to develop.
South Africa has an extensive and high quality road network. Car rental is straightforward and reasonable value. Certain countries' drivers are supposed to carry an International Driving Permit (in addition to your regular license) which is available from your national equivalent of the UK's Automobile Association. These will often be asked for if you encounter a Police roadblock as there are implications for insurance if you fail to carry one.
You can find rental outlets at Kruger Mpumalanga, Hoedspruit and Phalaborwa airports. Booking in advance is essential. If you plan to go into the bush for an extended period where you will not need a car, then be aware that cars can be delivered and collected from places that are accessible to the general public for a modest charge.
Should you wish to drive up to the Lowveld from Johannesburg, then it can be expected to take between four and six hours to get to most reserves between Sabi Sand and Phalaborwa. It is a pleasant drive, and you can take in the Panorama Route as you go; Long Tom Pass is another spectacular option. These distractions will inevitably slow you down.
Hoedspruit - Endless Road. You get the idea.
Having got within striking distance of your destination, be aware that the safari lodges will, without exception, be prepared to meet you at an airport. In order to get the most from your visit (if you are lucky enough to be visiting one), it may be well worth dropping off your vehicle at such a facility, and getting collected.
Some lodges really are hard to find (a function of their remoteness), with the Gowrie Gate to the northern lodge of Sabi Sands being a particularly stressful one to locate if you have just fallen off a series of aeroplanes. You will also enjoy your first game drive en route to the lodge if you make this choice, and the structure and intensity of the safari experience is such that you will not miss having a vehicle with you.
Like any country, you will find some local characteristics in driving around, and some particular to the Kruger area. If you are new to all of this, you may find it helpful to read our suggestions for driving yourself in the Kruger National Park.
With such a large country to navigate around, you will find that South Africans tend to drive fast. Whilst tempting to join in, be aware that the country has one of the worst road fatality rates in the world. Instead, if you are approached rapidly from behind by a vehicle, you might contemplate (and it is considered polite) using the margin of the road, if available, to allow the driver past.
A significant cause of road mortality in and around the Kruger is accidents involving animals. A large antelope through the windscreen is something to think about, but problems are also caused by smaller species such as families of warthogs making wild dashes across roads that are apparently "fenced out" of adjacent reserves. Be further aware that the road margins are common land and are used to graze cattle, goats and donkeys. The latter are particularly ignorant of road etiquette and a major source of problems.
Animal related road accidents occur most frequently at night when visibility is low. As this is also the time when the (remote) chance of encountering crime on the roads is highest, you would be well advised to arrive at your destination before dusk. Also be aware that many reserves may prove difficult to find without the assistance of daylight.
We would also recommend taking full insurance on rental vehicles in light of these factors.
RESOURCES FOR THE INDEPENDENT TRAVELLER
- Read our description of safari accommodation choices in and around the Kruger and explore our secure, on-line lodge booking service covering Mpumalanga and Limpopo Provinces
- Explore the Park itself, the Blyde River Canyon, and the region's other leading attractions
- Find some inspiration in Kruger2Canyons.com's Specialist Interest Safaris
- Read about the Greater Kruger region's social and conservation history
- Read about the Kruger's local towns and facilities.