“Stop!” I shout. My husband, Jon, hits the breaks. A tiny trunk emerges from the branches of the marula trees at the side of the road; a much larger trunk and curved tusks follow. The elephants’ bodies sway forward, huge feet silent as they cross the tarmac just in front of us. We reverse — we know never to get between an elephant and her young — and there they stand, mother and baby, calmly taking us in while we stare back from behind the windscreen.
The assumption is usually that to see elephants like this, you’d have to pay a hefty price for the privilege. And to some extent that’s true; the words ‘affordable’ and ‘safari’ rarely sit alongside each other. But here in South Africa, a safari is possible on a budget. In Kruger National Park, a night in the park’s northern tip at Singita lodge, a brand loved by Oprah Winfrey and Leonardo DiCaprio, will set you back close to £2,000 per night, per person. But there are far more affordable ways to immerse yourself, too — with a campervan and budget camps loved by South Africans, all for around R330 (£15) a pitch.
For 10 days, that’s our plan. What we lack in detailed facts from expert guides, meticulously prepped negronis and butter-soft cotton bed linen, we plan to replace with second-hand wildlife books, £1-a-can Castle lagers and a dining table that converts into a bed that isn’t quite long enough. Our home is a slightly bruised, converted Mercedes Sprinter, which we pick up from Maui Motorhomes at Johannesburg airport. It’s about as conspicuous as it gets: Tippex white and with an engine that sounds like a tractor.
Going solo — without the comfort of a guide or more traditional 4WD — is new to us. We creep forward in the queue at Kruger’s Malelane Gate, one of many around the park and the easiest entry point, with trepidation. Leaflets stuffed through our window tell us how to spot signs of bull elephants in musth — a term used to describe when their testosterone levels spike, causing them to secrete a pungent-smelling substance from their temples and become aggressive. “Never exit your vehicle,” a guard tells us at the barrier. “You never know what’s watching.”
Plenty of campervanners choose to pitch up at one of the numerous and inexpensive campsites outside Kruger’s borders. But we decide that Berg-en-Dal Rest Camp, just a 15-minute drive inside the gate, is a better bargain. For a few quid extra, this gets us lovely hot showers and a location right in the action where we have the chance to see animals like giraffes just beyond the fence. As we park up at a central pitch in the camp’s shaded woodland, we find plenty of South Africans on holiday, their elaborate camping set-ups worthy of admiration. There are fairy lights strung along a washing line, huge barbecues and fridge freezers temporarily relocated from kitchens, transported in trailers to plug in amid the bush.
The following day starts at 5am, when many of the park’s animals will be stirring and hunting in the cooler temperatures. We knock back a black coffee and take a road, any road, driving until we see something. Sometimes it’s subtle: a fish eagle in a tree in the distance, its bright white chest puffed out with feathers; or a rarely seen leopard tortoise, slowly making its way across the road, seemingly oblivious to the looming white van’s occupants watching its slow and steady, somewhat risky journey across the tarmac. Later we spot a pair of black-backed jackals, their long, bushy tails trailing behind them.
At other times, the wildlife is hard to miss: we see dozens of zebras nipping at each other’s tails, the extended tongues of giraffes wrapped around the huge thistles of acacia trees and herds of skittering, skinny-legged wildebeest. Sometimes, we pull over and just watch it all unfold. In the late afternoon sun, we see a hyena mum curled up in a den at the side of the road, her eight curious cubs peering over the verge with rounded ears and wide eyes. At another point, two white rhinos make an appearance, their big behinds slowly ambling along beside us before they make a crossing inches from our bonnet.
Admittedly, driving here in Kruger, compared to the private corners of the luxe lodge reserves, can at times feel a little like a huge wildlife theme park. At one point, we find traffic jams and cars crisscrossing the road, parking up to see a pride of lions snoozing in the shade of a tree. But at other times it feels like it’s all ours: seemingly endless roads, empty for hours, dotted with giraffes, zebras and herd after herd of elephants.
Into the unknown
We leave Kruger on the advice of a fellow camper who suggests we seek out a less-famous part of South Africa, around 300 miles south. We bounce over gravel, swerve to avoid potholes, slide along clay tracks and that afternoon find the discreet turning for Mkuze Game Reserve.
While its campsite doesn’t have the facilities we came to appreciate in Kruger — creaking doors and leaves blowing through the abandoned-seeming shower rooms make the setting feel like something you might find in a horror film — it does feel more authentic and intrepid. Perhaps, I think, as we jump at every crack of a twig outside the camper after dark, a little too intrepid.
After another day of searching for wildlife, but finding not much more than antelope, we push on to our next stop, the neighbouring country of Eswatini. We’re intrigued: bordering one of the world’s most famous wildlife destinations, yet holding so little glory of its own.
Crossing the border is calm and easy: a quick glance at the passport and a smile and wave at the gate. Then things immediately feel different: the big concrete supermarkets, frequent petrol stations and tourists of South Africa are gone. Instead, barely maintained roads weave their way down green valleys, car wash owners wave in a bid for customers and kids grin at the rare sight of a clueless foreign couple frowning at a map.
Valley of Heaven
Our stop for the next two nights is the predator-free Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary, where things feel relaxed — so relaxed that a mother warthog, in a hospitable spirit, warms her belly and her numerous babies by the campsite’s firepit every night. The name of its location in the Ezulwini Valley, meaning ‘valley of heaven’, is spot on: towering eucalyptus trees border the edge and provide a shady forest for our parking spot, while a clay path cuts through a field of wildflowers dotted with antelope and brown house snakes. Even the serpents here are harmless.
In the morning, we hike a trail uphill towards Execution Rock, which isn’t as foreboding as it sounds, stopping to see the sun rise and watch antelopes roaming the valley below. We spend a few hours here with Stu, a local guide who we booked in advance through the camp’s reception. He teaches us all about the plants and herbs we should seek out if we ever get lost in the wilderness, plucking sour pink waterberries from a bush as he raves about their iron-rich flesh.
“I left Eswatini once — it was for work,” he tells us, his round belly jiggling as he laughs through his story. “I went to Durban and ate doughnuts! I jumped in the sea. I walked around at night, before they told me not to. A wonderful place,” he says, eyes shining. “But nothing like here. Nothing like the bush.” He’s right; there’s a feeling here, out in the bush yet away from predators, that creates a rather addictive, meditative calm.
Three days later, we say a reluctant goodbye to Stu and cross the border back into South Africa, then head south for 200 miles to the St Lucia Game Reserve and iSimangaliso Wetland Park, an area as popular for its beach as its hippos. After the early starts in Kruger, we keep our time at Sugar Loaf Caravan Park relatively chilled, slowly sipping cups of coffee to rouse our senses each morning on our fold-out tables and chairs beneath the awning of the camper.
One morning, we head into St Lucia town and pay R250 (£11) each for a two-hour boat trip along the estuary, seeing hundreds of hippos and crocs basking on the banks. On another, we book a guided trip around the reserve, grateful at the chance to sit back, digest facts and discuss rhino poaching with a pro called Greg, who steers us away from aggressive buffalo and tells us to stay still while white rhinos graze at the side of our jeep. In the afternoons, we cool down on the dune-lined beach, dunking beneath the waves and drying off on the sand while snacking on crisps and drinking neon-coloured fizzy drinks.
Ten days on the road seeing rhinos and elephants shows us that being on a small budget isn’t a huge compromise. In fact, when I remember that baby elephant’s tuft of hair and giddy skips across the road, as seen from the front seat of our rented camper, I’d say it might be even better.
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