Greater Kruger National Park - November 2018
Part 1: Self-drive safari staying at Letaba and Satara rest camps (7 nights)
After the usual overnight flight from London Heathrow (Virgin this time, much better than BA I might add!) and a connecting flight from JNB to Phalaborwa, we finally stepped onto South African soil once again. While our bags were unloaded from the aircraft I collected the Nissan X-Trail hire car which would be our vehicle for the duration. This trip took us away from the cold, wet and dark UK November and into a very hot and very dry Kruger. The summer rains were late this year and with a lot of dams already dry and and grazing looking very sparse we were not sure what to expect as we headed toward our first rest camp at Letaba...
Sunday 11th November 2018
First things first and a cup of tea and a slice of chocolate cake was in order at the Wild Dog Cafe at Phalaborwa gate! While I enjoyed my tea (so very British), I completed the entry forms and after a quick stamp and check of the Wildcard we were ready to go. We could see giraffe just beyond the gate which was a nice welcome but it kind of ruined the ‘which animal will we spot first?’ game we always play. :-)
Heading East on the H-9, our first stop was Sable Dam to see if any elephants might be coming down to drink. Sure enough a breeding herd were drinking and enjoying their afternoon mud baths as we arrived. After watching their antics for a little while, we continued on and found yet more elephants (a couple of bulls this time) heading toward the waterhole at Masorini.
To make the journey to Letaba more interesting I diverted up on the S132 where we saw lots of Kori Bustards and then East on the S131 in the direction of Letaba once more. As we neared camp a Hyena with young pup were lying close by the side of the road and did not seem to mind us joining them for a few minutes….
After a quick stop at Letaba camp to collect the key to our accommodation, we headed back out down the S46 following the river and enjoyed the sunset.
A handsome kudu bull was happily browsing as I re-familiarised myself with my camera gear.
Another hyena walked close by our vehicle as we headed back to camp, clearly off to find some food during the night.
Monday 12th November 2018
First morning in Letaba and was greeted with a beautiful African sunrise and lovely golden light for photography. Heading North on the tar towards Mopani for breakfast it was very quiet both in terms of vehicles and animals and a lack of the migratory bird species. Despite this we still saw plenty of warthog, giraffe, zebra, impala and waterbuck. A lone hyena was the only carnivore around. A trio of Ground Hornbills made for an interesting bird sighting.
Reaching Mopani camp and it seemed like there had been some recent rain, with green grass starting to show and the odd puddle of standing water. The view for breakfast overlooking Pioneer Dam was beautiful as always and we enjoyed the birdlife and hippos snorting while eating our bacon and eggs.
After spending some time relaxing back at Letaba camp catching up on sleep and wandering around with my camera, we headed out to follow up on a previous sighting of lions on a buffalo kill just off the H9 earlier that morning. Despite searching the area we had no luck and the total absence of vehicles told me they were no longer around. After consulting the map I decided to head up to Mingerhout Dam which was a road I had not travelled before.
At the Mingerhout lookout a pair of nyala were waiting to greet us and the second half of the drive along the S47 from the dam to Letaba was lovely with nice scenery along the river and an assortment of animals.
A large family of elephants were making their way along the riverbed and a large group of male buffalo (Dagga Boys) were heading back up the bank nearest to us.
Two kudu bulls were very relaxed and happy to browse just a few feet from the car- normally they are can be skittish around vehicles. A marabou stork had found a roost as the sun started to set while a large group of babboons made their way across the H1-6 to where they planned to spend the night.
The last rays of sun lit up a young waterbuck as we headed back to camp before gate closing time at 6.30pm.
While having dinner a resident genet was to and fro from it's home in the roof in the restaurant, it's ringed tail going up and down the support poles. Very nice to sit a watch with a cold Castle in hand. After a full day exploring the park sleep came quickly.
Tuesday 13th November 2018
Up and out just after gates opening, we headed South following the Letaba river towards Oliphants rest camp. Plenty of general game with numerous sightings of waterbuck, impala, kudu and buffalo as well as lots of hornbills hoovering up bugs.
The ever-present morning hyena also point in an appearance as well. Among some of the more rocky areas a large group of baboons were foraging for breakfast but one old guy was happy just to sit in the shade.
I took a few images of what I assumed to be a steenbok but after close inspection I think was actually the much more elusive Sharpe’s grysbok.
As we rounded a bend a car had stopped ahead at the side of the road and the driver held his hand up to tell us to stop. Not sure why, we waited patiently a little way back and turned our engine off. Soon enough a female elephant appeared from the bush close by the car and wandered into the road in front of us. What made this sighting very special however was was what followed close behind her- a new born calf! The little one was still very unsteady on it’s feet and tumbled over a few times but mum was there to help as it dried off in the morning sun. I was surprised at now relaxed she was with us being so close but she was content to graze on nearby bushes while junior adjusted to this big new world. A beautiful moment and it was a real privilege to witness.
As another car came up from the other direction Mum decided the show was over and slowly moved off into the undergrowth and we continued on our way.
Breakfast was enjoyed with another beautiful view, this time overlooking the Oliphants river. Heading back via the tar road we stopped and got out on the bridge and spent some time watching the birds and animals below us. A yellow-billed kite was constantly circling and I got a couple of nice shots in flight.
After a rest back at Letaba we headed out once again for our afternoon drive. Crossing over to the north side of the river we headed to Matambeni Hide where hippos and waterbuck congregated in the riverbed.
All was serene until another solitary waterbuck appeared to challenge the herd bull and a wrestling match then ensued. I’m not sure whether the existing male or the newcomer won the battle but after a few minutes of crashing horns one of them was sent packing.
After all this excitement we headed up to the Longwe Lookout to enjoy the view and a solitary baobab tree caught my eye. Heading back down to Engelhard Dam we spent some time watching the hippos and trying to guess where they would pop up next.
On the way back to camp we saw a cute steenbok grabbing a snack before bed as well as a Red-crested Korhaan preparing to roost. A beautiful African sunset finished off another great day in Kruger.
Wednesday 14th November 2018
Up once again at the crack of dawn with a mission for this morning’s drive- try and find the wild dogs that had been sighted on the Mopani to Phalaborwa road (H14) the day before. Knowing how far these animals can cover in a single day and given my zero success with the Kruger dogs I did not hold much hope but I always like to have a plan to start the day with, even if it changes soon after leaving camp!
Heading north from camp and enjoying our coffee as the day began to break a car had stopped ahead and we could see dark shapes moving at the side of the road. Had the dogs come to us? Not quite, but as we got closer we could see a group of lions moving through the bush.
As the light level increased we started to see lions all around us and we eventually counted 6 females and 3 males. One of the males was lying very close to out car and I only noticed him when one of his (I assume brothers) went over to wake him up. For a while it was just us and the original car and we got some very close up views of this beautiful cats. A great start to the day and our first cat sighting of the trip.
After enjoying our coffee with the cats we continued north on the H1-6 until turning left on the H14. By my estimation the dogs were last seen approx 25kms down the road toward Phalaborwa. I haven’t driven this road before despite previously staying at Mopani camp but it is a route I would recommend and try again.
Nice scenery and a quiet route on tar with little traffic. With no sign of the wild dogs we enjoyed spending time with a large buffalo herd and groups of elephant close to the road. In addition to the big herbivores, we also saw a dwarf mongoose who was not very shy at all and seemed quite curious as to what we were doing.
Time was getting on and as I started to think about what I would have for breakfast I spotted movement in the bush to my right and had to do a double-take when I saw a line of about 6 or 7 wild dogs trotting along about 100 yards in the bush parallel to the road- I’d finally found some, my first ever sighting of wild dogs!!
I would drive ahead to a gap in the bush and we would wait for them to come along before repeating this a few times over the course of a few kilometres. They had been heading to a water source and stopped briefly for a drink before heading off- unfortunately away from the road. This was all near Boulders camp- maybe there is a regular pack in this area? With the dogs constantly moving and a lot of bush between us I wasn’t able to get any good images but at least managed one ‘proof shot’.
While trying to (unsuccessfully) relocate the dogs we happened across a hyena den under the road with youngsters of various ages. They were very cute and it was great to sit and listen to the various noises they make when playing together.
After all these great sightings we were quite late for breakfast so headed to Mopani camp for another enjoyable breakfast overlooking the dam. Given our luck so far this morning we decided to continue our time in the Mopani area and explore the Capricorn loop in the hoop we may find some tsessebe, eland or even cheetah. We found some tesessebe fairly easily and one group even had young ones with them, something I had not seen before.
Continuing the drive and we came across two very large elephants, one bearing a set of very long tusks. Another vehicle joined us and after chatting with the driver it turned out he was Aat Vuik, the person responsible for the Tuskers of Africa website. I have used this site many times before to identify some of Kruger’s big elephants so it was nice to be able to thank Aat in person for his hard work. As a result we were able to identify the bigger elephant as Kaleka, a good natured, 60 year old bull.
Given our extended morning drive (about 8 hours!) we decided for a more ‘local’ excursion later in the day. We relocated the lion pride from the morning as they had only moved a few hundred metres from where we saw them earlier. They were all looking very flat so decided to follow up on another tip of lions on a kill in the riverbed near Nhlanganini dam. We found them fairly easily but they were quite distant and not doing very much so headed back up to explore the S47 once again in the hope of finding a leopard given our luck so far in the day.
We drove along the river in the opposite direction to last time and came across another vehicle that was staring intently into the bush even though we could not see anything ourselves. They had earlier seen a leopard cross the road and head into the bush where it was now laying.
Despite only being about 30m away it took us ages to locate it even with the South African gentlemen trying to help us. After much laughter and moving cars up and down the road we found it but the camouflage in the undergrowth and the dense bush conspired against us for a good photo. I got another ‘proof shot’ anyway as it was our first spotty cat of the trip and I did not know if there would be another.
As the sun started to set we headed back to the lion pride where they were starting to become more active as the temperature dropped a little. A couple of them even got up enough energy for a bit of mating! Going by how handsome the males of this pride were, I expect there will be some very beautiful cubs being born soon.
One by one they gradually started to move off down towards the riverbed, no doubt to get a drink before going off hunting. Reluctantly we took that as our cue to head back to camp before the gates closed but what a great end to a great day!
Thursday 15th November 2018 (Moving Day)
After a very enjoyable 4 nights at Letaba it was time to move to our next camp- Satara. Before we did that though we headed out for our last morning drive in the area, taking an anti-clockwise loop on the S47 toward Mingerhout Lookout and then south down to the S131.
Compared to the day before it was a fairly quiet morning in terms of sightings but the golden morning light made for some nice shots of the giraffe and impala along the river. I did manage to spot a sleeping side-striped jackal which was another first for the trip but unfortunately he was up and off before I could take a picture.
Back at camp and after a nice breakfast and packing up the room it was time to leave Letaba and head South.
We pootled down the tar in no real hurry, enjoying the scenery as the mopani bush gave way to more open grassland. I was surprised to see the Ngotso Dam was gone, on our previous trip we had witnessed a massive congregation of elephants and was one of our favourite sightings. It will be interesting to see how these management decisions will pan out in the coming years.
After a pit stop and a coffee at Satara we decided to head down to Tshokwane picnic stop for a lunch of wors. Following the riverbed towards Tshokwane and we saw a handsome fish eagle grooming himself in a nearby tree.
The place has changed a lot since my last visit with much better facilities and a cute little shabby-chic coffee shop. The monkeys and baboons were also not a problem so lunch was a nice relaxing affair.
Next stop was Orpen Dam, somewhere I have never been to before and another nice place to sit and enjoy the sights and sounds of the bush. The road down to the dam was very corrugated though!
Heading back up the S35 and S37, Sweni hide was our next stop where just a thin layer of wood separated us from a herd of elephants browsing in the trees next to the hide. Between Sweni and the N’wanetsi lookout we located a single male lion resting in the shade. Although when the previously unseen lioness got up we realised that they were going through the mating process. They headed off into deeper bush for more privacy and we continued up to the lookout to enjoy the views.
There were many elephants dotted around the hillside, gradually making their way down to drip at the river, which was reduced to a series of pools due to the drought. One of the youngsters had not quite managed to work out how to use his trunk yet so got his mouth down to the water instead.
The picnic stop and lookout at N’wanetsi is a nice place to just sit and admire the scenery and being at the top of a hill there is normally a nice cooling breeze.
We spent the last part of the day exploring the area around Satara, heading to Girivana waterhole for sunset. We stopped at Nsemani Dam expecting to see water but it was just sun-baked mud with no signs of life, none of the hippos we saw on our last trip. It all looked a bit sad but a brown snake eagle perched on a nearby tree provided some interest and after waiting patiently I managed to get a shot of him as he took off.
With the sun starting to set we headed back to Satara camp for some takeaway pizza and a bottle of wine after another enjoyable day cruising around Kruger.
Friday 16th November 2018
The S100 heading east from Satara is a popular road with good chances of cat sightings so that was where I headed on my first morning drive out of camp. I’m not sure whether there were any cats around as most of the first hour was spent driving towards the sun and it was difficult to see much ahead of us. I made a mental note to factor in driving direction for sunrise and sunset in future! The lovely golden light was great for photography though and a handsome waterbuck posed very nicely for an environmental portrait.
Our route took us north along the S41 before turning left again along the S90 back towards Satara in an anti-clockwise loop. A large troop of baboons had been drinking at Gudzani waterhole and we watched as they headed back to the bush crossing the road around our car. One youngster was a bit camera shy and went running to mum for comfort while a nearby zebra watched on with interest.
Crossing a small stream we watched a green-backed heron perched very still just above the water waiting for a small fish to pass his way. In the few minutes we sat there he didn’t move an inch. It was only after viewing this image on a bigger screen that I realised there had actually been a pair, with another bird in the bush to the left.
Back into the grasslands and it was a comparison between big and small.
Nearing Satara it was time for breakfast. After our coffee, bacon and eggs it was we decided to take advantage of the laundry facilities in the campsite and get some washing done. While the clothes dried I enjoyed another of my favourite Kruger pastimes- looking at the map. When I'm not out in the park I am normally planning the next drive.
I decided for our afternoon drive to do an anti-clockwise loop from Satara, heading west on the H7, south on the S36 then east on the S125 and north back to camp on the H1-3