We visited South Africa in Aug 2015.
Kruger National Park
Our first stop up on reaching South Africa (landing in Johannesburg) was to head out to the Kruger National Park (KNP), for our long awaited safari. The park is huge and there are many things to consider while planning a trip there - so we will try to highlight some of the important parameters below:
Private Game Reserves
Here, it is important to understand that KNP consists of a government maintained park (as part of the South African National Parks), and a Greater Kruger National Park area which mainly consists of the private game reserves.
Link to a tripadvisor post (link) which we found very helpful while researching the differences between KNP and the private game reserves.
To cut a long article short, area wise KNP is larger; but here you will have to rely on either driving jeeps yourself or jumping into overcrowded (shared) jeeps for your safari. Also, you will have to stay at lodges / inns - where the best you can hope for is a bed with or without food.
This is in contrast to the private game reserves where you can live in luxurious tents / chalets / suites - all in the jungle - enjoying guided safaris and gourmet food. Clearly, the more you are willing to pay, the more luxury you can enjoy inside the jungle.
So here it is more of a decision between may be your budget and your sense of "roughing it up" in the wilderness.
Of course, everyone goes to a safari to see animals (and birds) in their natural habitat - so the variety of animals one can expect to see is a big deciding factor.
Variety of Animals - Big 5
The most relevant point here is that there are currently NO boundaries (physical fences) between the KNP and private game reserves. So the probability - at least the theoretical one - of sighting an animal in KNP and private game reserves is the same. The same applies to choosing among the many private game reserves, where some of the more prominent are: Timbavati, Balule, Sabi Sands, etc.
While talking about the animals, everyone here refers to the Big 5: Lion, Leopard, Elephant, Buffalo, Rhinoceros. Basically, the 5 are referred to as the Big 5 because it seems that they are most dangerous to hunt. One might be surprised to find Buffaloes in this list, however it seems that they can be really revengeful if you somehow manage to injure them without killing them.
Of course, the Big 5 is a marketing term, and you can expect to see many animals in addition to the Big 5: Zebras, Giraffes, Hippos, Steinbucks, Antelopes, etc. But please understand that this a Safari and not a Zoo - so you are never "guaranteed" to see anything - at the same time you may end up seeing much more than you bargained for. For instance, we found the antelope (below) giving us a perfect pose on the very first day of our arrival (while driving to the lodge), while running away from us on almost all the remaining days when we took safaris.
The final point which might influence your decision is the location / distance of the reserve. It is basically a 5 hour drive from Johannesburg to KNP - if you decide to go there by car.
A more convenient option is to take a (1 hour) local flight from Johannesburg to Hoedspruit / Nelspruit. Note that given the size of the KNP, even Hoedspruit and Nelspruit are quite far distance wise, so please make sure that the lodge you have booked is close to the airport you are flying to.
Pondoro Game Lodge
We stayed at the Pondoro Game Lodge which is in the Balule game reserve - and we can absolutely recommend it.
A typical day at Pondoro used to start at 6 am in the morning with the morning safari drive. Safaris were on a open jeep with a guide / driver and a tracker. Our guide and tracker (Rulani and Andries) were absolutely wonderful. Rulani always gave us a brief description of the animals / birds we sighted - which was very helpful for us city people. Both were very friendly and absolutely motivated to provide us the best safari experience. We still remember the time when Andries went out on foot in search of lions, and after half an hour we saw a family of lions heading our way with Andries following them calmly with a stick in hand.
As mentioned before, sighting an animal in a safari requires careful tracking - similar to hunting. So Rulani and Andries were basically tracking animals by their footprints and droppings. There were many times when one of the other jeeps (at times belonging to a different lodge) would report a sighting and Rulani would race our jeep there so that we also got a sighting. This resulted in wonderful sightings of a group of lions hunting a pack of hyenas, a group of lions resting together at evening, and a leopard drinking water (it seems leopards are even more difficult to sight as they usually move alone and tend to avoid jeeps). Below are a couple of videos of the above activities:
Some of the other animals we managed to see include zebras, elephants, buffaloes, giraffes, hippos, etc.
We have to mention here that even after being on a safari, and having seen lions / leopards at close range; we still find it very difficult to believe that the animals did not attack us. The guides gave us many reasons, ranging from the animals not being interested in human meat, to having weak eyesight due to which they see the jeep with people in it as one large animal (which they are afraid to attack). Whatever the reason might be, we can safely report that we weren't attacked even once during our 4 safaris trips. So do not be afraid! but at same time be always alert as exceptions may occur at any time :)
Robbie and Lize maintain the lodge as a family home and you are always made to feel very welcome. Returning from the morning safari (around 9 am), there is a luscious breakfast waiting for you. It is indeed an exhilarating experience having breakfast out in the open, with the sound of a stream flowing nearby, where different animals often drop by for a drink.
After breakfast, you are free to relax, roam around a bit and explore. The cottages are beautifully designed with modern amenities such as air conditioners, fully equipped bathrooms; and a bit of wilderness such as showers and a jacuzzi out in the open. So you might be taking a shower when an elephant decides to drop by for a visit :)
Below is a video of a group of baboons enjoying our jacuzzi.
After a light lunch, one is again ready to leave on the evening safari - which lasts another 3 hours - often returning after sunset. During sunset, there is usually a break where you can enjoy drinks in the wilderness under the setting sun.
Up on returning from the evening safari, a 3 course dinner awaits you under candlelight settings - again out in the open if weather permits. Below is a pic of our dining lounge.
We had an absolutely wonderful time at Pondoro, and would definitely return if and when time permits !!