If a once-in-a-lifetime trip to see elephants frolicking in the mud, a lioness grooming her cubs or springbok bounding through the air is on your bucket list (and really, how could it not be?), head four hours east of Johannesburg to 7,500-square-mile Kruger National Park, home to one of the world’s most diverse wildlife communities.
Plan your visit when viewing is best: June through August (African winter, when the bush is thin.)
The Starting Gate
Start the morning in Joburg and then drive 412 miles east to Protea Hotel by Marriott Kruger Gate. If you’d rather get there as a passenger, shuttles to the park kick off from Johannesburg Tambo Airport.
Once checked in to your private two-story villa, stroll along the walkways nestled among the forest canopy. South Africa’s a birder’s dream, with more than 200 bird species, from the yellow-billed hornbill to the giant kingfisher, so keep your camera finger ready for priceless photos.
Wild Cocktail Hour
At dusk, settle into a swinging chair on the hotel’s bar deck, and bring binoculars because animals like antelope and zebras stroll past the hotel’s private reserve along the Sabie River. This makes it one of the world’s only cocktail hours that includes epic wildlife on view.
Follow the dinner drum to Lapa Restaurant to dine under the stars amid ceremonial fires. Book your stay on a Saturday night to experience local entertainment, including Zulu dancers or an African choir.
Stroll back to your villa for a good night’s rest while dreaming of spotting the big five: Lions, leopards, rhinoceros, tigers, elephants and Cape buffalo.
Safari So Good
Take advantage of the Kudyela sundeck breakfast buffet and then head 300 feet to Kruger National Park for a Safari-Express guided tour, where your ranger takes you straight to the heart of the wildlife, from treetop-towering giraffes to prides of lions, in an open-air vehicle.
They’ll provide you with water for the hot afternoon, but bring a lunch for your picnic break. Be forewarned: Curious baboons are prone to drop down from ancient African trees to check out newcomers, especially if you have snacks.
Communing with Elephants
Unleash your inner Dr. Doolittle by booking an elephant tour. Meet, groom, shake the trunk of, feed and probably get sprayed by gentle giants with memories better than ours. Once acquainted, mount one of Kruger’s massive but well trained elephants for a once-in-a-lifetime ride into the African bush.
Take a break for lunch (provided) at Hippo Hollow, where you can watch families of elephants cool down with a mud-bath. Or book an evening elephant ride downstream, disembark, and while your ride is splashing with its friends and family, sip a glass of wine.
Endangered Species Centre
Kruger was founded to protect South Africa’s most precious natural resource — its wildlife. Visit Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre to learn about conservation efforts for at-risk species, from king cheetahs hunted for their pelts to white rhinos, whose horns are prized by poachers.
The sanctuary land for Kruger was set aside in the 1800s by South African President Paul Kruger to preserve endangered wildlife. It officially became Kruger National Park in 1926, and its game wardens still fight to help a widely diverse array of species thrive.
Tribal African Revival
After mingling with splashing hippos and elephants, end your day’s excursion at Kruger Gate by cooling off in the outdoor pool. Then luxuriate with Dee’s African Spa’s deck-side Tribal African Revival massage before you enjoy another evening of wildlife-spotting from the deck lounge.
Dine on local specialties catered to your villa’s private outdoor lounge area while soaking in the unforgettable night sounds of Africa, from wild dogs to nocturnal birds. Finally, retreat to the air conditioning of your villa and take advantage of Wi-Fi to send photos of your eye-popping adventures to the folks back home.
First-time visitors to Kruger often become regulars. If you’d like to return for a longer trek, the park offers safaris for as long as a month, and Kruger Gate awaits.