How to have a Kgalagadi bushwhacking experience on the cheap

2018-06-19 14:07 - Susan Erasmus
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I returned from the Kgalagadi three days ago after a nine-day round trip with a friend who loves game watching as much as I do. And yes, two women can do this on their own.

We had the trip of a lifetime.

We met some wonderful people and we saw lions - one walked past our unit in the tented camp at 07:00am. Also, cheetahs on a springbok kill, four leopards, raptors, giraffes, foxes and jackals, an African wildcat hunting, a tame genet, and so much more.

We didn't camp, but we did manage to keep costs down. You have to accept that holidays are going to cost money, but you can stop this from being ruinous.

We took all our provisions (except firewood), borrowed some equipment, stayed in chalets (some basic and one grand) and wilderness camps, slummed it a bit here and there, and stayed within budget, while having a wonderful time.

And we did it on the cheap.

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Here's how we did it – and you can too.

  • Plan your trip carefully

This is going to take time. Go to the SANParks website and study the maps, look at the various accommodation options and their costs, check the distances, and work out a budget.

Decide whether you want to camp, or stay in chalets/safari tents, and budget accordingly. Choose your companions carefully, and make sure you are on the same page as far as what you expect from the holiday.

Bookings should be done long in advance, as the Kgalagadi is small, and accommodation – even camping sites – fill up quickly. Keep looking if you have no luck – there are often cancellations.

  • Camping is by far the cheapest option

In the traditional rest camps, two people pay about R280 to camp per night (sites with power points cost about R50 more) and for each additional adult you pay about R90 more. A campsite can take up to 6 people, so it works out at just over R100 per adult per night. Kids stay for about half the adult price. The ablution facilities are generally very clean.

The Kgalagadi gets freezingly cold in winter and very hot in summer – at those times camping is only recommended for experienced and well-equipped campers. Essentials year-round include a decent tent, a built-in ground sheet, the right sleeping bags and camping mattresses, and appropriate clothing.  

TRAVEL PLANNING: Camping Packing List: Hits, misses and hacks

  • Borrow equipment

Don't buy things such as binoculars, a special cooler bag, bird books, fancy torches, a tent or a special sleeping bag with a -10°C rating if you are never going to use these again. All these things are expensive, and will probably end up gathering dust at the back of a cupboard unless you plan to do these holidays annually. Ask around and see what you can borrow from friends and family.

  • Buy second hand equipment

All the things mentioned above can be bought second hand on OLX at a fraction of the brand new price. And the good news is, you can sell it all again when you get back – and probably get back just about all your money. This cuts the costs of the equipment for the trip enormously. The other possibility is to rent camping equipment for the trip.

QUIZ: Which type of traveller are you?

  • Cut out everything that is called 'luxury'

Some people go to a game reserve, because they want spa treatments, three meals a day laid on, and their own private game ranger to show them around. If that's you, this article is not aimed at you. The luxury lodge in the Kgalagadi costs over R9 000 per day for two people sharing a chalet. That was almost the cost of my whole 9-day holiday.

  • You don't need a 4 X 4

You do need a car with relatively high clearance, though. I did it in a 2006 2 x 4 Hyundai Tucson, and it was perfect. But we did see a guy in a Hyundai i-20 and he seemed to be managing well, as well as a few people in normal sedan cars. There are a few roads that are only for 4 X 4 vehicles, but don't let that put you off. There's quite enough to see on the normal roads.

  • Stay in Sanparks accommodation

In the Kgalagadi that is all there is (except on the outskirts of the park), but in many other game parks you do have a choice. Privately run establishments may be grander, but they are much more expensive. If your SANparks accommodation is clean, you have a restful campsite, or a chalet with a decent bed, and a veranda on which to relax, what does the rest really matter? You are out on the road most of the day anyway. The odd ugly duvet cover or chipped tile in the bathroom won't kill you.

WATCH: Lionesses lick raindrops from campers' tent window in Kgalagadi

  • Do a game drive with a guide

Check the price first as I have heard in some parks these drives can be pricey. We paid R306 each for a 2.5-hour sunset drive – and we turned out to be the only ones on the game drive vehicle with a lovely guide called Andries Thys. What a bonus. And we saw lions who walked right past the vehicle. The guides give heaps of fascinating information, so do try and do at least one of these.

South African citizens have to pay R83 per adult daily conservation fees. If you stay in the park for more than 6 days, it will pay you to buy a Wildcard (Sanparks cluster) for R545. This will give you access to 21 of the parks for a whole year. There are Wildcards for couples (R940) and families (R1 150). It's a bargain.

  • Take your own food

Apart from Tweerivieren Camp, there are no restaurants, and the shops in the main camps are eye-wateringly expensive. (R150 p/kg for beef mince and R89 for a bottle of Van Loveren River Red). These shops are for emergencies, such as when you lose your toothbrush, or you discover that you left the salt at home. Plan your menu carefully in advance. Tinned and bottled foods, rusks, pasta, rice, veggies such as potatoes, mealies, butternut and onions all travel well. Buy some frozen meat at the Kalahari Vleishuis in Keimoes on the way – in a cooler bag it should last about three days. Chalets have freezing facilities – camp sites do not. Definitely take your own drinks. But not your own wood – it takes up too much space in the car. Just buy some there, even though it isn't cheap.

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  • The more, the merrier

If a family chalet can take six people, fill it up. The same goes for camping sites. It brings down the cost per head significantly. In Mata-Mata and Tweerivieren respectively, the no-frills family chalet with own kitchen and bathroom) will work out to R377 – R385 per person per night if all 6 beds are occupied. The Family Desert Tent at the Kalahari Tented Camp (worth saving for) will work out at R571 per adult per night. The Wilderness camps are not cheap, but what an experience. Try and sleep at least one night in one of these. Urikaruus was amazing.

  • Petrol is expensive

There's no getting around this. A heavily laden car will also use more fuel. If you take all your provisions with you and you do not have a trailer, 3 is the maximum number of people you could fit into a normal car for a trip such as this one– at a squeeze. Petrol in the park is also pricey – but you might not have any choice. Factor in this as the major expense after accommodation costs. We spent about R3500 on fuel from Cape Town to the Kgalagadi and back. And then you also use fuel to drive around in the park. But it is still a lot cheaper than flying into Upington and renting a car, which many people do.

WATCH: A safe self-drive safari guide all bushwackers should check out

  • Slum it on overnight stops 

You need a bed, a shower and safe parking. Not much more. You are generally so tired from driving, you'll be in bed by 9, and away by 7 in the morning. Find a place that's clean and basic and inexpensive, such as the Oude Herberg Lodge in Kenhardt, where we stayed en route both ways. Double rooms for R550 per night – that's less than R300 per person. (Family rooms R650 for 4 people!).

  • No souvenirs

A stuffed toy lion in the park cost over R300 – almost the same thing cost R100 in the city. Don't be suckered into buying souvenirs of any kind. They are enormously expensive. Take cellphone pics instead. They will cost you nothing.

  • Do a kitty system

This is the easiest and fairest way of keeping track of how communal money is spent. And it eliminates the stressful process of trying to remember who paid for the firelighters, and the tinned tomatoes and the fuel top-up.

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