Let's start with the similarities first. The Kruger National Park and the adjacent private game reserves share the same bush and wildlife. There are no fences between Kruger and the major adjoining game reserves such as the Sabi Sands, Timbavati, Klaserie, Balule and Manyeleti. The animals are free to roam wherever they want within this huge conservation area of over two million hectares. So the wildlife is exactly the same, but there are slight differences in game viewing and in the safari experience.
The Kruger National Park has a huge network of public roads (some of them tarred) that are used by tour operators as well as by the general public (self-drive clients). This provides advantages and disadvantages. The advantages are that you can cover large distances and see a greater variety of landscapes and vegetation types. It also means you can expect to see a variety of animals, often in greater numbers than in the adjacent private reserves.
Two disadvantages of Kruger's roads are potential vehicle congestion (especially near the bigger camps in peak holiday seasons), as well as having to stay on the roads during game drives. No vehicles are permitted to go off-road in the Kruger. Having said that, the animals in the Kruger are used to vehicles and you will often have good sightings right on the road or next to the road.
In the private reserves, the bush and animals are similar but the game drives are limited to a specific traversing area, and will not cover large parts of the game reserve. This puts a natural limit on the number and variety of animals you might encounter on a typical game drive. Also, private game lodges follow a set daily schedule and game drives are limited to two drives per day, lasting about three hours each. Balancing this out, private lodges offer the advantage of being able to go off-road to get closer to the animals, and most lodges continue their afternoon game drives after sundown as a night drive. Many lodges also offer the option of a bush walk as an additional activity.
Another difference is the accommodation. Usually, private safari lodges offer more luxurious accommodation and a more upmarket experience, compared to the standard bungalows in the Kruger National Park.
Having said all that, it is impossible to say which option is better and where you will have the best sightings. Some people prefer our Kruger National Park open vehicle safaris with our legendary safari guides. And in general, you can expect to see greater numbers and variety of wildlife in Kruger itself. Others prefer the private lodges with their more luxurious accommodation and the ability to go off-road during game drives. The wildlife is similar, and either option can deliver exceptional game-viewing opportunities – but there is always an element of luck involved.