Doing the Kruger in style

Last month we took a hike through the Kruger, exploring this beautiful national treasure on foot. This month, we take a different approach, exploring the park and surrounding areas in the comfort of the Kia Carnival.

The Kruger National Park is often described as the “best place on earth” and as sworn Kruger addicts, we concur. We have both travelled quite extensively and have been privileged to reside in other countries, and we loved every adventure that came with it. However, South Africa – and particularly the country’s crown jewel, the Kruger – beckons us back, time after time.

“Three days in the park is too short,” says Anton when we started planning. “Thirty days would be too short for you,” I quip and immediately notice the longing in his eyes. Longing for days gone by, when his parents would pack the VW Microbus and the Ventertjie to the brim and traverse the park from north to south for up to three weeks at a time…

“Snap out of it,” I say. This time around we only have four days, so best we make the most of it. First up – pick a vehicle that can get us there and back without any issues and with enough space for all our luggage. Luckily for us, the all-new Kia Carnival was recently launched. It would be the perfect adventure partner for us and our friends, Annelien and Christo Möller. It could also swallow all our luggage without having to tow a trailer. And – bonus – it is a bus of sorts, so Anton could get his nostalgia fix!

Car sorted; we phoned SANParks to book – only to realise that our intended coincided with the traditional “Kruger holiday” break. No luck in the park, then! Now back in the day this would have been a massive problem as accommodation options were very limited – if you didn’t get a spot in one of the rest camps, you stayed home. Nowadays there are a myriad of options available – from ultra-lux lodges in and around the Kruger, to self-catering camps and chalets scattered near the various entrance gates. Of course there is also the Greater Kruger area, which includes places like Timbavati and Sabi Sands Game Reserves. “But that’s not the real Kruger,” Anton complains again. “Snap out of it,” I hear myself say again. After a quick search onTrip Advisor and a chat with the good folks at The Phoenix Collective we identify two stunning lodges. One just inside the Numbi Gate – Mdluli Safari Lodge –which allows for self-drive in the park and the option to explorefrom a game viewer; and the other a fairly new camp in the exclusive Sabi Sands Game Reserve called Umkumbe Bush Lodge, where game drives and sundowners with a perfect view would be at the order of the day. Best of both worlds, then.

And speaking of the best of both worlds, can we take a moment to behold the Kia Carnival. Is it a bus? Is it a SUV? It is, seemingly, whatever you want it to be. This sleek and luxurious people mover was designed with big families in mind, obviously. But it was also designed for people who appreciate good build quality, solid performance and technological advancements. It is a vehicle for everyone, catering to any large family’s needs and giving each the space (quite literally) to explore their adventures.

“With this size and the fuel price, it’s going to break the bank,” grumpy complains again as the Carnival is delivered for our test period. This time I tend to agree – it’s probably going to be quite thirsty on the intended 1 200km roundtrip. Much to our surprise, though, we averaged between7 to 7.5 litres/100km. What a joy! And that’s not even considering the comfortable drive, ergonomic use of space and general head-turning appeal of this vehicle (read our full driving impression towards the end of this article).

Let the adventure begin

Heading to the south of the Kruger National Park is always a highly anticipated adventure, especially when the end destination is a trip into what promises to be the heart of tranquillity. Mdluli Safari Lodge is accessed via a tree-lined private road just after entering the park through the Numbi Gate. Having said that, when choosing the self-drive option, you are regarded as a day visitor and the relevant rules and costs apply. On arrival at the lodge, you are greeted by the super-efficient and incredibly friendly team members at the reception and ushered to the beautiful lounge area.

What grabs my attention, though, is the beautiful half-moon shaped infinity pool. Annelien and I immediately agree that this is where you’ll find us for most of our stay– it is simply stunning! Here you can sip on a refreshing cocktail (their strawberry daiquiri slushies are to die for and perfect to combat the sweltering Lowveld heat) as you attempt to spot any of the Big Five. We saw plenty of birdlife and a group of about 15 giraffes (we are told it is called a “tower” of giraffes – I do love that, since this majestic “model” of the bush is my favourite animal!).

The tent itself is glamping at its best! Fully air-conditioned with a lovely view of the surrounding bushveld, the attention to detail inside the tent is impressive – from the crisp white king-sized bed and plumped cushions to the voluminous veil-like mosquito net, which lends a sense of romance. We also loved the outdoor shower and the deck, boasting a pod chair – perfect fora long, lazy afternoon with a book or your bino’s searching for birds or game. I could easily make myself at home right here, but it was time to explore on our first game drive.

We meet up with our guide, Sonny boy, and drive to a beautiful sunset setting near the Transport Dam for a sundowner. I absolutely love sunset in the bush, when everything turns a beautiful golden colour. As the sun disappears behind the dam and a bloat of hippos frolic about, I finally start relaxing – this truly is the “best place on earth”!

Back at the lodge after a scenic but not super successful game drive in terms of sightings, we chatted with Mdluli Safari Lodge Executive Manager Chris Schalkwyk. He tells us that the lodge – situated on an 850ha piece of land within the Kruger – opened its doors in January early 2020, just 6 weeks before the first lockdown.

“It’s taken years of dedication towards the realisation of this project, heavily dependent on a harmonious relationship between tourism, the community and the environment and opening was a proud moment,” he says. “But then Covid hit – hard. The tourism industry in its entirety suffered, but we have been blessed with South African tourists visiting and we are quickly becoming a favourite for both local and international guests,” he beams. The lodge benefits the 45 000-strong Mdluli residing in the surrounding area. During the development nearly 200 labourers from the community – both men and women, many of whom had never worked before – from the community were employed, giving them an income and developing skills. Currently nearly 90% of the lodge’s employees come from the community.

We spent two nights at this gem, allowing ample time for self-drives into the park as well as a second game-drive, this time early in the morning with guide Lewis. As we hopped into the “Kruger Uber”, he excitedly shared that the “Pretoriuskop wilddogs” had been spotted. We headed out in pursuit, taking in the crisp morning air and enjoying the privilege of calling this “work”! Within 20 minutes, we spotted the pack of dogs – jogging along one of the gravel roads, in a flurry of what seemed to be preparation for a hunt. Traffic was quite congested at the sighting though, so we headed to one of the koppies near Pretorius kop for a delightful coffee stop, with nature showing off its splendour through the dense, green bushveld.

After our morning drive, we were treated to a splendid breakfast overlooking the beautiful park before we headed to the pool for a day of relaxing and recharging. It was just what the doctor ordered, and we left Mdluli the next day, refreshed and ready for what turned out to be quite the eventful day!

Kruger politics

Our second destination on this bush breakaway was Umkumbe Bush Lodge, located in the Sabi Sands Game Reserve, which is considered the premier wildlife reserve in South Africa. This was to be our first visit to the area and while we were excited to get there, we opted to take a leisurely drive through the park to enjoy all that the Carnival has to offer.

The plan was to head north from Numbi gate to the Kruger gate, exit the park and then head to Sabi Sands while stopping at a couple of popular lookout points and picnic spots along the way. However, just an hour or so into our drive, the management of Umkumbe Bush Lodge phoned us to report that there was political unrest and protests at the Kruger gate and that we should head to Skukuza, where someone would meet us with further instructions. All very clandestine and adventurous!

Still, we enjoyed a leisurely drive through the park and again popped in at Transport Dam in the hope of seeing some game. And true to form, this favourite spot delivered – we arrived at a scene reminiscent of The Lion King (sans the lion, though!). It was a flurry of activity as waterbuck, zebras, hippos, warthogs and a large variety of water birds converged. Simply lovely – and the Kia’s large windows proved to be perfect for game viewing! Next up was Mathekenyane Hill on the Granokop Road, a beautiful koppie where you can get out and admire the panoramic views. Parked here, the Carnival again drew some inquisitive looks and the wide-opening electronic sliding doors offered a great seating position for some photographs with our heavier, longer lenses.

Hereafter we stopped at Skukuza for lunch and an ice-cold beer, while awaiting further instructions on how to get to Umkumbe Bush Lodge, since the gate to Sabi Sands was now officially closed. Umkumbe owner, Thinus Potgieter, was brilliant though – making sure we knew what was going on at all times and advising us what to expect. He arranged for one of the game viewers to collect us at Skukuzu airport, where we sadly had to leave our bush limo for the night as the route we intended taking was not suitable for non-4×4 vehicles.

This was a pity as I was looking forward to stretching its gravel legs, but upon returning home we made sure to go play in a bit of mud in a quarry close to home. As such, we can attest to the Carnival’s impressive performance in muddy, gravel conditions–it just does not have the ground clearance needed for rougher terrain, though.

So, there we were, waiting for our “Kruger Uber” at Skukuza airport. About 15 minutes later guides Gabe Harmer and Juan Malan arrived, quickly moved our luggage onto the game viewer and treated us to a drive through some spectacular areas in the Sabi Sands Game Reserve en route to Umkumbe Bush Lodge. We spotted more of the bush models, as well as elephant and had a great sighting of a woolly neck stork. We were, however, in a rush as other guests were waiting for the uber to take them on a late-afternoon game drive.

Arriving at Umkumbe Lodge Bush (which translates to rhino), we hardly had time to take in the stunning set-up before we were rushed off to our game drive. And what an experience this was – there were a few international guests who were also stranded but happy for the additional chance to find the leopard they had been stalking for a few days. And boy – did Gabe do his utmost to find us our leopard. While we never saw it that evening, the exhilaration of the “hunt” for this elusive cat was spectacular and incredibly informative. The staff at this lodge is undoubtedly its secret weapon in ensuring its success as a luxury bush camp experience on this unspoilt 800ha of bushveld. Every single one of them takes an interest in you and your needs, delivering before you even verbalise it! Truly five-star service!

Back to the game drive: we spent a good 20 minutes at a sighting of what we were all convinced was a very scarce juvenile Bat Hawk. Turns out it wasn’t (it was a fairly common Brown Snake Eagle), but the passion and intensity of the guide and his intern from Holland, Abel, was something to witness. Another highlight on this afternoon trip was a group of fighting zebras – I simply love the intense extremes of nature. In one corner of the property there is peace and tranquility and then, just around the corner, nature comes to life! We also spotted the lodge’s namesake – always a privilege due to their threatened status (and this one still had its horn in place – spectacular!). It is a sad reality that dehorning of rhinos is now a necessary requirement to protect these animals. Thinus tells us that their dehorning will start shortly.

What dreams are made of

Having a sundowner with a zebra leisurely strolling by and hyenas skulking just outside the light circle is what dreams are made of. Well, my dreams in any event! We do live in the most beautiful place on earth and places like Umkumbe Bush Lodge take it to the next level. Driving back to the lodge we again stalked the leopard and enjoyed the quarrel between Abel and Gabe to see who could spot the most chameleons while driving (I think Abel won with four, but Gabe will vehemently deny that the student has become the master!). The evening was spent around the boma fire, enjoying a scrumptious braai under the stars and chatting late into the night about our love for the bush and nature.

Umkube Bush Lodge is located on a piece of land that had been in the owners’ family for decades before they decided to develop it as a luxury escape from the daily hustle and bustle of the city. Resting comfortably under a canopy of indigenous trees in the southern stretches of the Sabi Sands Game Reserve, this intimate lodge offers all the creature comforts from home and is the first of its kind in the reserve. According to Thinus, Umkumbe Bush Lodge can accommodate up to 12 guests in six luxury Meru-style tented suites, each on a private raised wooden deck nestled in nature and named after different indigenous trees found in the region. The main area of the lodge features a boma, bar, swimming pool and expansive viewing decks, and is furnished with local artefacts.

But we still had a date with a leopard and at sunrise the next morning, we were at it again. Gabe was determined to show Eden, one of the international guests with us, his first leopard. Again, the “hunt” was probably more exciting than any sighting could have been. Even if Gabe did not get word from another guide that an intruder leopard was spotted in the area, we would have felt it – the bush became alive right in front of us and heightened our senses. Impalas snorting to the left, monkeys gave alarm calls and birds were aflutter to the right – it was clear something was up and as we turned a corner Annelien and I were fortunate to see a glimpse of the elusive intruder. Again, not the best sighting but now we could tick off our Big Five for this trip!

The time spent at Umkumbe Bush Lodge was too short and it was with heavy hearts that we bid the stunning viewing deck from where we enjoyed a delicious breakfast before departing a sad farewell. As The Lion King song goes: There’s more to see than can ever be seen… More to do than can ever be done… We will definitely be back – we have a date with a leopard, after all.

Behind the wheel: Space, the final frontier

Normally big people movers tend to be expensive, thirsty, and difficult to manoeuvre. However, with the Kia Carnival we were pleasantly surprised. The Carnival SX Limited we drove was an absolute delight!

It came as no surprize that this well-rounded vehicle took the top honours as AutoGuide’s 2022 Family Vehicle of the Year, with its impressive interior capacity, modern design and extensive safety features hailed as a winning recipe. This vehicle is all that – and so much more. The Carnival is designed to make any drive a pleasure, be it on the long road or for urban driving – and the fuel efficiency impressed, comfortably sitting between 7 litres/100km on the highway and a respectable 8.1km/100km for city driving. For a van of this size, that’s impressive in anyone’s books! With its 72-litre fuel tank, it’s great for longer trips – you can clock at least 800km before you need to start looking out for a fuel station.

The Carnival is powered by Kia’s new ‘Smartstream’ 2.2l CRDi turbo diesel engine, developing a respectable 148kW at 3800 rpm and 440Nm of torque peaking between 1 750-2 750rpm. Combined with its 8-speed automatic gearbox, it has enough oomph when needed and cruised impeccably throughout. The well-tuned suspension made light work of road imperfections and it handled the passes en route to the Kruger with aplomb.

Comfort-wise, there is certainly nothing to complain about. Driver and passengers were content with ample leg and headroom and lumbar support seating. Thanks to electronic seat adjustment and tilt and telescopic adjustment for the steering, anyone is sure to find a comfortable driving position. Carrying up to seven people (and yes – we tried!), it is the perfect vehicle for big families – or as is the trend nowadays, multi-generational families sharing the same space. Everyone from grandpa to the grandchildren will be happy! Throughout the cabin, you will find USB ports – seven in total (so no fighting about who gets to charge their device while travelling with a bunch of connectivity-obsessed teens!).

We particularly liked the dash which, unlike the trend sweeping across manufacturers to have everything digital, offers an analogue speedometer and rev counter with a centre digital readout providing the necessary vehicle feedback. The elegant interior has quality materials throughout with high-gloss black surfaces and strategically placed chrome garnish. The 12.3-inch touch screen infotainment system, which is Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatible, is neatly moulded into the dash and easily reached from the uber-comfortable driving position.

The highlight of the Carnival (and the reason most people would consider it) is, of course, the massive interior. There is ample luggage space when all three rows of seats are up and if you fold the back seats away, you essentially have a high-end panel van offering 4 110 litres of cargo space. The cavity behind the back row of seats (when in use) is a particularly clever use of space (all seats up, the Carnival boasts a cavernous 1 139 litres of storage).

This is a rather long vehicle yet driving it you never feel like you’re driving a hearse – looks and performancewise it is quite appealing. Parking this baby could be a challenge, but a decent 360° camera and crystal clear images displayed on the huge 12.5-inch infotainment system counter any concerns. And if the camera is not enough to guide you, the multitude of parking sensors will ensure you find your spot without struggle!

A plethora of safety systems are offered on the model we tested. Highlights include parking distance warning, rear crosstraffic collision-avoidance assist and forward collision-avoidance assist, which uses a front view camera and a front radar to detect oncoming vehicles, pedestrians, or cyclists ahead. By warning the driver and automatically applying the brakes, FCA helps to avoid or reduce the severity of an accident. Adaptive Cruise control and Lane Keep Assist are all standard on the SX (LTD) and SXL. The Carnival will comfortably tow 1588kg braked and 454kg unbraked.

Model line-up & pricing

  • 2.2 CRDi EX 8AT 7-Seater: R799 995
  •  2.2 CRDi EX+ 8AT 8-Seater: R879 995
  •  2.2 CRDi SX Limited 8AT 7-Seater: R999 995
  •  2.2 CRDi SXL 8AT 7-Seater: R1 024 995

Travel guide

Mdluli Safari Lodge

Located only five hours by car from Gauteng, inside the south-western region of the Kruger National Park, Mdluli Safari Lodge offers luxurious tented experience and reprieve from the city. Its 50 custom-designed tents each have an en suite bathroom and outdoor shower and can comfortably sleep a family of four. Their various packages (including or excluding game drives) can be tailor-made to suit any budget. Scrumptious breakfasts and dinners are included in the rates, and the restaurant and bar offer a competitively priced menu during the day. The lodge can accommodate events, conferences, and special functions such as weddings and also offers bush braais and Big Five bush walks.

CONTACT: +27 78 687 2546| reservations@mdlulisafarilodge.co.za | www.mdlulisafarilodge.co.za | Social media: @MdluliLodge

Umkumbe Bush Lodge

Nestled near the seasonal Sand River, in a beautiful, forested thicket in the wildlife rich Sabi Sands Game Reserve which forms part of the Greater Kruger area, Umkumbe Bush Lodge offers the only luxury glamping experience in the reserve. The lodge can accommodate up to 12 guests in six luxury tent suites ranging from standard to superior. Included in the rates are two guided game drives with complimentary sundowners or coffee stop, as well as walking safaris, offering visitors the chance to get up close and personal with nature.

CONTACT: +27 78 825 3999/+27 82 500 8837 | reservations@umkumbebushlodge.com| www.umkumbebushlodge.com | Social media: @umbkumbe_bush_lodge

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