The Best Budget African Safari: Mphongolo Wilderness Trail, Kruger Park

This African walking safari blows away anything on your bucket list – for less than $50/day.

Somewhere along the way, the authentic Safari experience that David Livingston inspired has turned into nothing more than a ride at Disneyland.  Now, a typical luxury safari involves sitting in the back of a van with leather seats on your way between all-you-can-eat tourist buffets.  You are packed-in like sardines with a bunch of Asian tourists and mega-zoom lenses all day in the fleeting hope to get the picture of the Big 5 animal that will amaze and wow your friends at home.  They won’t know you couldn’t see that lion with your naked eye, right?

You're not going to get this close to the wildlife on your typical safari

You’re not going to get this close to the wildlife on your typical safari – Photo by Chris Weseloh

 

The Dirty Secrets of the Package Safaris

For all of those people who have a luxury African Safari on their bucket list I’m about to ruin it for you.  You better have a huge zoom lens because most animals avoid safari vehicles like the plague.  And there will be hoards of safari vehicles, vying for the best spot to see the giraffe off in the distance.  To create those “million-dollar stories” about spotting a rare big game cat burst into a sprint and kill their prey —  well, those private game reserves actually drug the antelope and release it near the lodge where the cats are trained over time to find their easy meals, right next to the outdoor fireplace on the back deck of the lodge.

Now, I know everyone who has spent $1000’s a day on a luxury safari is screaming blasphemy right now, but they don’t know what it’s like to step outside of the vehicle; to trod on the same ground as the animals and be enveloped by the sounds, scents and rhythms of wild Africa.

 

You can walk amongst heards of zebras who have no fear of humans

You can walk amongst heards of zebras who have no fear of humans – Photo by Chris Weseloh

Kruger Park Wilderness Walking Expeditions

Kruger Park in South Africa is perhaps the most well protected of Africa’s large parks, but most tourists get only a fleeting glimpse of this spectacular and diverse park.  If you confine yourself to roads you can’t possibly penetrate the thriving heart of this diverse ecosystem.  While the rest of the tourists have retreated to their lodges to find chocolates on their bed and rose petals floating in their hot tubs, the African wilderness comes alive.

A walking safari affords you the ability to walk safely through heards of elephants.  You can watch Hippos fighting to the death over the watering holes, quickly vanishing in the dry season.  You walk in the tracks of great migrations of buffalos and impalas and see big cats feasting on their fresh kill.  You will never forget the feeling of your heart beating out of your chest as you peek timidly around a termite mound to look these highly-territorial white rhinos in the eye in the open field.  Don’t worry, two armed rangers will be by your side at all times, showing you how to gain insights from their shit and sense the mood of the creatures to safely navigate around these bus-sized creatures.

I can no longer appreciate a typical African safari after this experience.

These hippos are fighting to the death over this shrinking waterhole.  It is normally not safe to get this close, but they are distracted

These hippos are fighting to the death over this shrinking waterhole. It is normally not safe to get this close, but they are distracted

A Genuine African Wildlife Experience

The rangers in Kruger Park have spent a lifetime mapping out the best trails to take through the park and can quickly adjust to find the best wildlife experiences of the day.  After camp is setup, you can climb up to the nearest rocky outcropping to pick fresh marula fruit and bask in the early evening calm.  Bull elephants with huge tusks are silhouetted against the intense, fiery sunset, their ears waving as they meander toward their nighttime resting spot.  The nocturnal animals begin to sing the songs of night, hyenas begin laughing in the distance, lions roar their evening calls to mark their territory.  Soon, you will bask in the glow of a campfire amidst a canopy of glowing stars to listen to the rangers’ outlandish tales from a lifetime in the bush.

With the first drop of morning light, the bush awakens in the morning mist.  You will likely find leopard tracks surrounding your tent.  Screaming vervet monkeys will be swinging from the treetops.

 

These armed rangers have spent a lifetime scouting out the best trails and are skilled in tracking animals to find the action

These armed rangers have spent a lifetime scouting out the best trails and are skilled in tracking animals to find the action

Advanced Survival Techniques

Wilderness adventures are one of the biggest trends in travel but this one isn’t for the faint at heart.

This is definitely a no-frills adventure.  You are cut off from the outside world.  No bathrooms, no roads, no cell phone coverage.  Just you and the richest ecosystem of large animals imaginable.

The trail is 4 days, 3 nights with 2 experienced, armed rangers.  You carry everything with you into the bush, cook your own food and leave without a trace.  Water is collected and filtered from natural pools and water sources throughout the park, and you dig your own poop hole.  They will teach you how to bathe in crocodile streams.

I promise you have not felt an adrenaline rush like staring one of these beasts in the eye in the open field -

I promise you have not felt an adrenaline rush like staring one of these beasts in the eye in the open field – Photo by Chris Weseloh

 

As he shows here, there is a lot you can learn about rhino poop - and it could save your life

As he shows here, there is a lot you can learn about rhino poop – and it could save your life

How to Book:

Given the high popularity and extremely limited availability, you should book well in advance, although there are sometimes cancellations you can scoop up at short notice.  The trail is open from February through November to avoid the intense heat and rains of the Summer.  Book directly with SANparks to save money, send an email to cheneigh.coverdale@sanparks.org  See the following link for a list of supplies and safety precautions.

If this is too adventurous for you or if sifting through rhino poop isn’t your thing, Kruger Park has a variety of more tame options. Kruger Park Safari and Adventure Options

These majestic bull elephants are actually overpopulated throughout Kruger Park

These majestic bull elephants are actually overpopulated throughout Kruger Park – Photo by Chris Weseloh

 

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About the author: Brad Bernard

 

Brad Bernard has traveled through 92 countries to find off-the-map experiences and authentic adventure travel. He pushes his own personal boundaries by travelling experimentally. Brad’s personal quest to find the most extreme and unique in travel has bred misadventures and moments of enlightenment alike. You can read his craziest stories on his adventure travel blog

Website: https://plus.google.com/+BradBernard340/