Kruger National Park, March 2015
Itinerary: Berg-en-Dal, Lower Sabie (3 nights), Satara (3 nights), Mopani (3 nights), Punda Maria (2 nights), Letaba
Day 1 - Getting There
After a few hectic weeks at work, SO (significant other) and I were counting down the hours until we left for Heathrow for my latest/her first trip to Kruger National Park in South Africa. I wanted to show her this special place on Earth that had already provided me with so many wonderful experiences and explore some areas new to me as well. Also, the person that first took me to KNP trip died a little while ago (RIP Joe Rigby) so this was a chance to remember him and the good times spent together there many years ago.
I opted for Premium Economy seats on the overnight BA flight from London on the basis that I would need to get some sleep ahead of a long day driving from Jo’Burg to the KNP (entering at Malelane). Although there was more room and the service was far nicer I don’t think it was worth paying the extra for as I still didn’t get much rest but the excitement of getting to Kruger helped me get through the following day.
After some long queues at passport control and sorting out the car hire we were finally ready to depart on Sunday morning. I have done the drive before but whether it was tiredness or changes since last time, we managed to head the wrong way and ended up on a tour of the JNB ring road trying to find our way onto the N12/N4 East. After about an hour of wrong turns and detours, toll beeps and ‘are you sure you know what you’re doing?’ looks, we managed to get back to where we should have been going.
The rest of the drive was fairly straightforward and without any complications and I started to relax and enjoy the ride and beautiful scenery as we headed east while SO napped the kms away. After picking up some supplies at the supermarket in Malelane we were finally ready to head up the road toward the gate. Speculating on what animals we might see first, SO opted for Elephants and I plucked for Impala thinking that would be a safe bet. We parked the car to walk to the reception building and crossing the road just 50 yards the other side of the gate were a small group of Ellies with young ones in tow. I tried to argue that this didn’t count as first sighting as we hadn’t entered the park officially yet but had to concede to SO eventually. I didn’t even have my camera handy at this stage- doh!
With the sun shining and a great welcome from gate staff and animals alike it was time to cross the barrier and head into KNP for what promised to be a wonderful couple of weeks. Even though we'd had a long journey from London we couldn't resist an afternoon game drive before we headed for camp.
The first 'official' animal in the park did turn out to be our good friend Mr Impala and while SO said hello I planned a route that would take us a couple of hours before we headed to our first camp, Berg-En-Darl. We saw plenty more Elephants as we started to explore as well as Kudu, zebra and warthog. We also came across a couple of dagga boys cooling off in a stream and having a good old scratch.
A good rhino sighting was on my list for the trip so to see a 'crash' of Rhino's, with a little one in tow was a good start! I also managed to spot a leopard walking through the grass at a distance. Not near enough to get the camera out (especially as the big lens was still packed) but a good omen of things to come.
So, with 4 of the big 5 already sorted in the first couple of hours in the park we made our way to Berg-En-Dal for a cold beer and a good night's rest! :-) But the fun didn't stop there as while walking through camp for a nice meal at Tindlovu restaurant we also saw Spotted Genet's running around and Bushbabies in the trees.
With a nice chicken schnitzel and tuna salad in our tummies it was finally time for some well-earned rest!
Day 2- Early Morning Drive
Feeling much more human after a hot shower and a good night's sleep my alarm was set for an early morning drive. I was awake before my alarm and making the coffee while SO came to. We took our italian style espresso maker that sits on the stove and brought plenty of good strong coffee so always had a nice brew to take with us in the mornings (decanted into travel mugs).
We were out of the gate just past 5.30 and us and a couple of other cars moved slowly through the still dark bush, enjoying the smells and sounds of the dawn. Magic!
We saw plenty of firsts for the trip, giraffe, wildebeest and bushbuck and saw a few slender mongooses (mongeese?) darting across the road. Too fast and dark for piccies though.
As we explored the park it seemed most of the game seemed to be very sleepy that morning. A hyena was quite happy where he lay just off the side of the main road...nice to see our first predator up close though.
And I couldn't resist yet another European Roller shot as the light was so nice...!
After a comfort break at Afsaal it was back to BND to pack up the bags for the next leg of the journey- on to Lower Sabie. (After bacon, eggs and coffee by the dam of course!)
Day 2 - Onwards to Lower Sabie
After breakfast and a quick look at the rhino exhibition it was time to leave Berg en Dal, a lovely camp in very nice surroundings. Hopefully we'll return at some point in the future.
We had all of the rest of the day to make our way to Lower Sabie so took it slowly and explored the southern areas of the park, popping into Skukuza for a while en-route.
It was very hot, peaking at 44 degrees C at one point in the afternoon and we were very surprised by how much game was out and about- probably searching for water to drink and cool off in.
Along the Sabie river we saw a few nice raptors including a martial eagle and a fish eagle. A group of elephants led by a female with some unusual/deformed tusks led her group down to a waterhole for bath-time while a lone bull elephant got hot and bothered trying to chase the warthogs away from 'his' waterhole.
As we approached late afternoon we reached Sunset Dam, just along the road from Lower Sabie camp so spent some time watching the crocs, hippos and giraffe go about their business. Popping up the road to the river crossing we first smelt and then saw a dead hippo in the fast moving part of the river but due to the position nothing much had touched the somewhat bleached and bloated carcass yet.
With the heat still high we checked into Lower Sabie and began to unpack for the next few days.
Dinner was at Mugg and Bean on the river deck followed by a good night's rest in preparation of another busy day in KNP- but this time we would be on the lookout for some cats.
Day 3 - Lower Sabie Morning Drive
An early start and a welcome drop in temperature as we left Lower Sabie towards Skukuza for a planned breakfast stop.
We were keen for a lion sighting and we were soon rewarded as this old fellow was walking (strutting might be more appropriate) down the road to us.
We stopped the car and let him come to us and was amazed how big he was as he passed by just a few feet from my window. He seem unconcerned by us and continued on his way, no doubt causing some mini traffic jams behind us.
Our next predator sighting soon followed as further along the main tar road a very ear-chewed hyena was sniffing the air, whether for friends or foe we are not sure, but we spent some time with this much misunderstood creature before it headed off into the undergrowth toward the Sabie river.
Lot's of movement on the road itself revealed a large group of banded mongooses darting to and fro so another new species for us and the trees along the Sabie river were rocking with the antics of the vervet monkeys...
Near Skukuza and with a growing appetite we noticed a few cars had stopped together as a we moved slowly closer one of the drivers pointed out a large leopard in deep cover at the base of a tree with a fresh kill (a large male baboon). When they had arrived a little earlier the cat had been dragging the baboon across the road into cover and was now recovering it's energy before trying to haul it into the tree. Although we could see pretty well the undergrowth did not make for a good picture so one for the memory only.
So with some great predator sightings in the bag it was time to check out the "Cattle Baron" restaurant at Skukuza for our breakfast. After a nice meal and a look around the shop for souvenirs we continued our journey back to Lower Sabie along the north bank of the river taking in the Marula loop (S83) and the S30. As we crossed to the north side a Giant Kingfisher was drying off on his perch.
And further along the way our interesting sightings continued with a huge herd of buffs led by this fellow...
Three Ground Hornbills were busy searching for bugs and one was very interested in us too, coming very close to our car. Our final break was at the (quite overcast) Mlondozi Dam for a cold drink and a stretch of the legs before heading back to camp.
While chatting we realised that we had actually had a 'Big 5' morning, as we had also seen rhino and elephants along our journey as well. We retired to our bungalow for some rest and to recharge our batteries for our first Sunset Drive later in the day.
Day 3 (Pt.2) Sunset Drive
After a fairly long morning it was nice to just relax around camp. I really like when you are staying in place for a few days and you come back from a morning drive and the camp is really quiet as the accommodation is prepared for the next wave of visitors. Just the cleaning ladies chatting to each other and the birds singing.
The weather coudn't really make it's mind up and went from overcast to beautiful sunshine and back again.
The view from Mugg and Bean was great at lunchtime though.
After we retired for a post lunch nap, I was watching/listening to the birds outside our bungalow and there seemed to be a right old racket coming from one of the small trees near the boundary fence by the river. After a while I thought I would investigate and see what sort of birds they were. I walked toward the tree and as I got to about 5m away a bloody big green snake dropped straight out of the air and sped off under the fence toward the river. Not sure what it was, probably harmless (maybe not) but as things quietened down straight away I guess it was after eggs or chicks in the tree. I'm glad I didn't get there a few seconds earlier! I figured I would go and have a nap after all!
It was soon time to report for our sunset drive and Travis was to be our guide for the evening. Introductions out of the way we started off and hadn't got out of the camp before we stopped for our first sighting, a Brown Snake Eagle atop the gate flag pole.
Crossing the Sabie river for the upteenth time that week we saw that the dead hippo we had seen the day before was now in a more accessible spot and the crocs were having a field day. Some very big ones were ripping huge chucks off the carcass and we figured there would not be much left come morning. As the drive continued we saw some interesting sights such as rhino, waterbuck, a pearl spotted owlet and baby kudu.
As the darkness fell we weren't quite prepared to see our torches pick up someone standing at the side of the road. There were a few tense moments as everyone wondered what was going on (possible poachers?) but a few young men had managed to roll their car and the wreckage was about 50 yards off the road, apparently due to brake failure. Travis checked they were not injured and we set off to get help from the rangers. I was always under the impression the safari vehicles had 2 way radios but not this one and we had to keep stopping every few hundred yards to try and pick up cell reception. Someone was finally reached and soon after a ranger vehicle passed us on the way to pick them up and sort things out. Knowing that was dealt with we could get back to the drive but it was certainly a strange and worrying scenario.
On the way back to LS we saw a hippo on the wander, some elephant, a black-backed jackal trotting along and a glimpse of what we thought was a serval (however I think now it was more likely to have been a civet or large spotted genet). We will never really know as Travis didn't get as good a look as the rest of us. We also saw a porcupine and scrub hare which were new species for us so that was pretty cool too.
As the drive came to a close we had a quick supper at Mugg & Bean then we were ready for bed after a very busy and interesting day.
Day 4 - Lower Sabie Morning Drive via Crocodile Bridge
Up early as usual and ready to go at gate opening with our fresh coffee in travel mugs in case of urgent braking
Making our way along the tar towards Croc Bridge things were fairly quiet although still plenty of European rollers keeping us company, this one using the road surface to knock his breakfast on the head.
We saw a few larger groups of wildebeest and zebra on the open grassy areas further south so it was probably not a surprise to see a young male lion walking towards us down the road in the distance! And no other cars around... HOWEVER as we made our way towards him a ranger/parks vehicle sped past us, way above the speed limit and barely stopped as the poor lion had to dive out of the way into the ditch/thick bush at the side of the road. When we got to where he was he didn't seem too worried and was strolling off into the bush but I was very angry at what seemed pretty dangerous and inconsiderate behaviour by the parks vehicle. Hopefully there was a good reason but I was still pretty disappointed a great sighting had been spoilt. A few KMs further on were a few cars who had spotted some flat lions in the distance but they seemed pretty settled so we didn't hang around. I guess the young male might have broken off from this main pride..?
After another coffee at Crocodile bridge (very nice too) we popped to the hippo pools and the ever-present Daniel was happy to show us the bushman art and the lovely view. Here he is with SO...
A lovely man and I'm sure will be missed as he was retiring shortly after our trip. Glad to have got a chance to meet him! Read more about Daniel Mabasa
After saying goodbye we had a nice tour of the S25 seeing many interesting bird sightings. This ground hornbill seemed to be 'refereeing' a contest between two impalas...
The area along the Crocodile River also seemed to be a good area for giraffe and we saw lots of small groups browsing the trees.
Of the other big guys not shown we had good sightings of rhino, elephant and buffalo so we were just missing a leopard for another big 5 morning. Would we be lucky again?? Well on the way back we did see a spotty predator but alas it was a 'flat' hyena! With our own bellies rumbling we left him to doze and headed back to Lower Sabie for yummy Eggs Benedict at the Lower Sabie Mugg and Bean.
Day 4 Cont. - Lower Sabie Afternoon Drive
Even though it was still very hot we thought we would venture up to Nkulu picnic spot and enjoy an ice cream there before the kiosk closed. As always we stopped by at Sunset Dam to see what was going on and was surprised to see hippos out and about in the heat of the day as well as a line of Yellow-billed Storks having a paddle.
It was almost closing time as we reached Nkulu and we enjoyed an ice-cream and lovely views of the river on the staged terraces as vervet monkeys played among the empty tables. Another group of people arrived and were looking around and I heard one of the ladies say to another "look at the baboons, they are such a problem at these places"- to which I said to my SO, "silly woman, doesn't know the difference between a vervet monkey and a baboon! We haven't seen any baboons here." Famous last words! Within 30 secs a large furry beast jumped on the table from behind us, grabbed our small cool bag and made off to a safe distance to ransack the contents. (That was the last time we sat next to each other at a picnic spot, from then on we sat opposite to see over each other's shoulders!)
Mr B soon realised that suncream, freeze blocks and water were not that interesting and I managed to grab our bag back as he lost interest. With the scary moment now turning into a funny moment we decided to get back on the road and see what we could find before sunset.
We decided to see what was happening at one of the local waterholes and was greeted by a very tranquil scene with many animals coming and going as the sun started to go down. We watched impala, giraffe and warthog coming down for drinks while a rhino wallowed and a croc basked in the sun.
Woodland kingfishers were coming and going above us as a Hammerkop and Dikkop explored the edge of the waterhole. It was lovely to turn the engine off and just enjoyed the sights and sounds- bliss!
As it was starting to get late we regretfully started heading back but we hadn't gone far before we saw our first Nyala of the trip (not a great photo, just a bum heading into the bush - sorry).
Luckily this little Steenbok was much more obliging.
There were quite a few cars at N'watimhiri waterhole as we passed and we assumed they were enjoying the sunset as we couldn't see any 'action'. As we were nearly past I told SO to stop as I wanted to check something with the binos...sure enough, the lump I thought looked out of place was a leopard sitting on a mound overlooking the WH! While taking a few (dozen) pictures another car was leaving and said to us how cool the leopards (plural) were...!!?? We hadn't yet seen the other one on the other side who was lying in the shade! With leopard number one happy to sit in place we watched number 2 get up and go down for a drink.
Such beautiful animals! We could have stayed for hours but as he made his way off behind some bushes it was our cue to get back to camp before the gates closed. A great end to a great day! Another 'Big Five' day as well!
Day 5 - Morning Drive from Lower Sabie
This day was a 'moving day' as we would be leading up to Satara but before we left I fancied a quick drive south toward Crocodile Bridge.
As the dawn broke to reveal another beautiful morning we came across this small fellow which I think is a Common Duiker? Although a bit skittish I manage to get a couple of shots for ID purposes...
We saw a few more Ground Hornbills which always interest me and a very large Kudu bull investigating us.
A hyena pair were thoroughly entertaining and seemed to be thinking about jumping on our car at one point! They were content to wrestle each other though instead. One seemed to have a scar on his forehead so I've named him Harry the Hyena after Harry Potter.
We had a great view of a rhino as he visited a waterhole and was close enough to hear him drinking. It always amazes me how quietly these large animals can move around...
As we had a long drive ahead of us we called time on the Lower Sabie part of our trip and popped back to camp to pick up our bags for the drive to Satara, via Skukuza and Tshokwane.
Day 5 (Cont.) – Transit to Satara
After packing our bags and saying goodbye to Lower Sabie it was time for one last stop at Sunset Dam as we headed toward Skukuza for a spot of brunch. N’watimhiri was looking pretty with various animals taking a drink- a very different scene to the empty waterhole with just the two leopards we had seen there the previous evening.
A few miles down the road I could see a familiar shape crossing the road in the distance- another leopard!
Maybe it was one of the ones from the night before? When we reached the leopard it was slinking into the bushes heading down toward the Sabie river so no chance of a good picture.
The here one minute/gone the next nature of Kruger fascinates me. As we moved off another car passed quickly in the opposite direction and were probably oblivious they were probably less than 10 metres from such an animal. You never know what is in the bush! We reached Skukuza and unfortunately the food and service at Cattle Baron was poor this time around (was really nice first time) which was a bit of a shame. Still, the view was lovely and the sun was shining so hey-ho!
After picking up some new binos for SO and a few extra supplies we headed across the Sabie and Sand rivers once more and headed north, next stop Tshokwane picnic stop.
Before the scenery and landscape began to open up and gave way to bigger trees and grassy plains, we got our first really clear view of a nyala strolling across the tarmac. Not the best pic but easier to see than among the thick scrub they normally frequent!
By the time we reached Tshokwane it was really hot and some kudu were enjoying a drink in the river at the back of the picnic site. It was lovely to be so close to these animals without the confines of the car.
Back in the car for a cruise along the H1-3 up to Satara. The scenery was lovely and it was refreshing to have longer lines of sight and bigger landscapes to enjoy.
At Kumana Dam we saw plenty of buffalo and this one tusked old chap who seemed very ‘jolly’. I know we should not anthropomorphize wild animals but that was how I thought he seemed anyway!
As we neared Satara another car had stopped and my dozing SO soon awoke to my cry of ‘lion’!
This beautiful lady was trying to stay cool in the heat after having a drink from a small waterhole and as we thought it unlikely she would move for a while we headed on.
After checking in at Satara we popped out to Nsemani Dam to watch the sun go down (although it was clouding over by this time) and spotted a hoopoe getting ready for bed.
Back at camp and with takeaway Debonairs pizza and M&B salad we said goodbye to yet another 'Big Five' day and started to think about routes for the next few days around the Satara region.
Day 6 - Satara Morning Drive
Top of my Kruger wish list was to see wild dogs. I know this is a special one and you need a fair bit of luck but I planned to hit the H7 hard over the next couple of days in search of the pack near Orpen.
Leaving at gate opening we saw the local hyena waiting for us in the darkness. We had only gone a few km's further when we came across two male lions strolling along the tar as dawn began to break. One was constantly sniffing the road and looking up ahead, whether for prey or his pride we could not be sure.
Although this was a great sighting we didn't stay with them for too long as I wanted to get down toward Orpen while it was still cool and the light was still too low for any good photos anyway.
Unfortunately slow consumer telephoto lenses don't really cut it during these periods. Luckily the sun gets out quite quickly and there is normally plenty of light to play with- quite often too strong and harsh!
Things were pretty quiet after the initial flurry of predators but we did spend some time with some giraffes who were sparring with each other.
They take it turns to hit each other with their necks in a very polite manner. I have seen this before on TV but never in the wild. It was quite amazing to hear the noises as they thumped each other...
After a short break at Orpen we returned via the S106 where I had been lucky with a great cheetah sighting in the past. Alas it turned out to be pretty unproductive this time around. Although we didn't get to see any dogs or spotty cats we still had an enjoyable morning with larger herds of zebra and wildebeest, buffalo and elephants and some kudu and waterbuck as well. On the bird front, a trio of ground hornbills were very entertaining.
After breakfast at Mugg & Bean I had a little wander around the new camp, taking pictures of the birds and animals that had decided on Satara for their home. These shots were all taken within 20 metres of our bungalow.
Day 6 (pt.2) - Satara PM Drive
After a relaxing few hours in camp it was time to head back into the bush to see what we could find in a different area. This time we headed north along the H1-4, turning west onto the S127 to Piet Grobler Dam and Timbavati picnic spot for a break and then following the Timbavati river south back to the H7.
We had another good view of a steenbok which I first mistook for a young impala- doh! And further along we spotted another colourful bird, a carmine bee-eater. As we neared the riverbed and dam a family or waterbuck welcomed us, Dad looking protectively over his herd.
While at Piet Grobler Dam the iconic African fish eagle was posing nicely on his perch.
Leaving Timbavati we saw a green/grey snake cross the road and climb into a small tree and many kudu as we followed the river along.
Back on the H7 after a lovely drive through some very pretty areas (would def recommend this route) and with the sun coming down we stopped at Nsemani Dam to enjoy the view and reflect on yet another great day in Kruger.
Day 7 - Satara Morning Drive
Up early as usual with the excitement and anticipation of an early morning drive in Kruger!
Fuelled by fresh coffee we headed into the pre-dawn darkness of the bush. Our local hyena was still hanging around near the camp gate as he was yesterday.
After saying a quick hello we continued on our journey and after a while I spotted two shapes moving though the bush that I believed to be rhinos.
We had been really lucky with rhino sightings and as this pair were a bit further away and the light was still limited I didn't intend to stop. However on closer inspection I could see these were the rarer black rhino variety so I tried to get a few pics. The light was still very low so the quality is quite poor.
Some days seem to have an animal theme and this day was certainly a day for big elephant bulls.
This chap wanted to get from one side of the road to the other and didn't want to go around the car that was in his way. Despite some head shaking and trumpeting the tourists really were not getting the hint and I was waiting for the inevitable..!
Luckily they finally moved aside and Mr E could continue on his way. He was much happier after that and went back to grazing in the long grass.
There was a lot of activity back at Nsemani Dam, with some young hippos testing their strength while a large group of waterbuck kept an eye on their little ones. The impala bucks were not sure whether to drink or join in the sparring...
On the way back to camp this African harrier hawk was trying very hard to reach something inside the trunk of a dead tree. Given the squawks and screeches I think it was probably a nest of smaller birds. After a while he gave up and flew off, defeated.
After spending time with another big boy we were ready for some breakfast so made our way back to M&B at Satara.
Day 7 (pt.2) Satara Afternoon Drive
As we had a fairly quick drive this morning we thought we would have a long afternoon and take a picnic to N'wanetsi picnic spot.
Along the way we spotted another Kruger first, a lappet-faced vulture. After a nice drive along the S100 and S41 enjoying general game we arrived at the the picnic spot for a bite to eat. As we were tucking into our tuna sandwiches a great shrieking, roaring and trumpeting was heard from just beyond the bushes. Everybody became a bit nervous and we thought we would continue our lunch up at the viewpoint given our previous baboon incident.
All the noise was down to some ellies in the valley below and what a beautiful view from up high! With the sun shining and a cooling breeze this is a perfect place to stop- very special.
We stayed there for a while watching the elephants down below and enjoying the lovely view.
Heading west I planned to do a big loop along the Sweni river to Muzandzeni picnic spot for a comfort break.
The S126 was a road I had been keen to do while in the area but although it was a nice route the road condition was very bad- probably the worst of the week. Bumping along at very slow speeds was taking most of my concentration so not much seen on the animal front. However on arrival at the picnic site this big fellow was there to greet us drinking straight out of the nearby water tank.
Back at Nsemani Dam and a fish eagle was looking majestic on his perch while this young prince was asking us to tickle his belly.
En-route back to Satara and as we neared camp a few vehicles had stopped for buffalo in the road. We didn't understand the full story until I saw a swish of a lion's tail in the bushes on the left.
Apparently the lions had been stalking the buffs for a while but their cover had been blown so they sloped off down into the riverbed.
With that we also sloped off back to camp for a cold drink and to pack up for our next morning's drive up to Mopani.
Day 8 - North to Mopani
A lovely sunrise greeted us as we prepared to say goodbye to Satara.
Plenty of giraffe, zebra and wildebeest were grazing the grassy areas and among the different herds we spotted another rhino, our upteenth of the trip. Hopefully they will stay safe and their numbers increase for future visitors to enjoy. As we finally headed North toward a breakfast stop at Olifants we had some great moments beginning with a close encounter with this large bull.
A couple of cars at the side of the road suggested something interesting...sure enough a group of flat lions were hunkered down near the river. Luckily one of the ladies kindly sat up to give us a better view.
As we approached Ngotso Dam I spied a few elephant, and as we drove closer a few turned into several, several turning into dozens. Before we knew it there were elephants everywhere we could see across the dam. As some quenched their first and moved away their place was taken by more. I don't know how many individual animals we saw in all but over the case of half an hour I reckon there were a few hundred! Truly a mega-herd and the biggest group I have ever seen.
After spending a while taking in this fantastic scene we reluctantly continued on our way as we still had a long journey ahead of us....plus we were ready for a nice breakfast now.
Leaving Ngotso Dam and the 'mega-herd' behind us, we headed toward Oilfants Camp for something to eat and to stretch our legs. Stopping to admire the general game animals this young zebra really caught my eye with his punk rock hairdo...
We arrived at Olifants for a meal on the deck overlooking the river. Not a bad view while you eat I'm sure you'll agree! The fig trees providing the shade also provided the many birds with their lunch as well. This grey laurie was enjoying the fruit on offer.
While at the shop I picked up some travel sweets for the car. I hadn't had any mint imperials since I was a kid so thought these would be nice to snack on and wouldn't melt or go sticky in the heat. Unfortunately I got a bit addicted over the next week and these became an essential purchase in every camp!
The next river to cross was the Letaba and we spent a few moments watching the many waterbuck in the dry riverbed while a fish eagle watched us from his perch.
As we headed into mopani veld and away from the bigger rivers we noticed that the animals were congregating more by the waterholes. There was plenty going on at Middelvlei...yet more herds of ellies with one small chap taking a great interest in the feel of the man-made structures.
It was pretty hot so we left Middelvlei and although a little early were able to check into our accommodation at Mopani camp. After an afternoon nap it was time for a refreshing dip in the lovely pool there. Probably the nicest of all the camps we stayed in I think. A very nice evening meal followed at Tindlovu restaurant. Under the stars and overlooking the moonlit Pioneer Dam it was very romantic indeed and a lovely way to end another great day!
Day 9 - Mopani Morning Drive
After our relaxing afternoon the day before we were keen to get out and explore the new locale. I was up and getting the coffee ready early and we left camp shortly after gate opening. We thought that we might have overslept though as there seemed to be no-one else around (unlike at Satara where the cars were queuing at the gate). Maybe this is because there are no animals 'up North'?
We were heading north to visit the Tropic of Capricorn marker point but before we got there I could see a cat up ahead near the Grysbok waterhole- another leopard! SO had slowed down and promptly stalled the car in her excitement. After a couple more attempts with the same result I suggested she try first gear instead of third and we were finally off!! Of course by the time we got to the relevant spot Mr Leopard was only a bum and a tail moving through the grass. I had hoped he might have been going for a drink but not to be this time.
After leaving Grysbok we only travelled a few hundred metres along the road before reaching the Tropic of Capricorn line. You are allowed to get out here but as we were only a short distance from where we just saw the leopard I elected to take this pic from the car.
There seemed to be plenty of general game around, giraffe, zebra and wildebeest, many of which had young ones in tow. We were also pleased with another good sighting and a KNP first for me, a Tsessebe.
We headed toward the marshy area of Nshawu via Mooiplaas WH and had to detour around a very stubborn bull ellie that wouldn't move from the narrow road. Deciding to play it safe we made a long detour around the S49. We finally arrived at Nshawu and again our patience was rewarded by another KNP first, a herd of eland making their way down for a drink.
They were very skittish but as the eland got a bit closer we were able to see just how big these antelope actually are! Very impressive beasts indeed.
As our morning was drawing to a close we had one more unusual sighting...at a distance I initially thought this small antelope was an impala but the shape didn't seem quite right and after looking through the binos I came to the conclusion it was a female/young reedbuck.
So after a great morning full of surprises and with several new species logged we headed back to camp for our breakfast!
After a nice breakfast we ventured out once more to visit the two local bird hides not far from camp. First up was Shipandandi but unfortunately the bridge was temporarily out!
Once the elephant herd had their drink and moved off we continued to the hide where the giraffes browsing near the entrance were not at all bothered by our presence.
A nice cool breeze from the river kept us cool in the hide as we enjoyed the peace and quiet of nature. We could still hear the elephants crashing through the Mopani on the opposite bank while we watched the crocs silently move through the water. Not many birds were around except for a gymnogene in a tree opposite.
The giraffes were still there when we left and were quite content to carry on feeding while we took a few pictures.
Back at camp for a spot of lunch and we were thoroughly entertained by the large herd of elephants that had come to the lake to drink and bathe…another wonderful view while we ate.
As the sun went down we had a nice drive around the S48 Tzendze river loop where we saw elephant, giraffe, tsessebe, wildebeest, zebra and some massive herds of buffalo. Shame there are no animals up North…
Kudu bobotie and a glass of red brought day 9 to a close- good night all!
Day 10 - Mopani
Another beautiful morning started with us heading across the river and along the southern section of the S142 'Shongololo Loop'. We hadn't got far before we needed to stop to allow an elephant herd to cross the road in front of us. The road was fairly quiet, with the odd waterbuck and kudu making their way through the bush. We headed back in the same direction and as we reached the Shipandani crossing point this large croc was making his way into the water..
Although I really enjoyed this part of the park, one of the things that is an issue is Mopani's location in relation to other camps and picnic stops. It made drive planning pretty difficult due to the opportunity for 'comfort breaks'. Therefore we often found ourselves having to return to camp and then going out once again rather than stopping at another camp mid-drive.
We decided to head down to Mooiplaas and Nshawu once again to see what we could find. The waterhole at Mooiplas was busy with zebra and wildebeest trying to quench their thirst. The birdlife at Nshawu was also quite prolific with many vultures in the dead trees and a few fish eagles around. There were some grey clouds in the distance and the light has a pinkish/purple look about it. As the sun broke through again I thought this Nshawu scene looked very pretty..
A small herd of tsessebe (maybe 8-10) were moving through the grasses but a bit too far away for a nice pic. Heading back to camp there was somewhat of a 'stampede' as zebras, wildebeest and eland streamed across the road in front of us! We waited for a while to see if any predators were in pursuit but nothing with sharp teeth appeared that we could see.
Near Bowerkop WH another car told us that they had seen a leopard in the distance on the koppies. After a while of searching through the binocs I managed to pick up the shape and while I was watching it got up and moved among the rocks. Can you spot it in this shot..?
Day 10 (pt.2) - Mopani Afternoon
After breakfast we had a walk along the little camp trail down to the edge of the lake where we were able to see some of the resident birdlife close up. The path down to the lake was dotted with interesting information plaques describing the various flora and fauna. The clearly marked path petered out as we reached the lake but the paper map I had from reception showed that it continued back up to the other end of camp, finally emerging somewhere near the swimming pool.
Another very varied day drew to a close and before turning in we started to pack for our next camp move in the morning...next stop Punda Maria, the most northerly of the Kruger camps.
Day 11 - Transit to Punda Maria
I promised SO that she could lie in longer this morning as we were moving camps so we left about an hour later than normal (ie. gate opening). It was a bit of a grey and overcast morning and a bit cooler than previous days but in hindsight this was probably a good thing!
We turned left out of Mopani camp road and started to head North stopping at Bowerkop just a short hop from camp. We were keeping our eyes peeled for the local leopard that we saw the day before but as we approached the waterhole we saw a few unusual shapes scurrying away toward the mopani bush. These turned out to be a few black-backed jackals but unfortunately we didn't get to see them long before they disappeared. However as we reached the waterhole itself we were treated to a very nice view of a male reedbuck coming for a drink- a Kruger first for us.
Within a few KMs we saw another unusual shape in the road and although I though it was a jackal, the colouration seemed wrong to me. As we slowed and got closed I realised that it was a side-striped jackal, another Kruger first for me! This one wasn't spooked so easily and I managed to get a few decent pics before he continued about his business.
This was certainly turning into a great morning drive however it was not long before I called SO to stop as I thought I had spotted a lion in the grass in the distance. (After so many false alarms over various shaped rocks/branches/bushes it is sometimes easy to be discouraged from trying to spot game from a fast moving vehicle). HOWEVER this was one of those occasions when I was vindicated!) After a brief search through the binocs I picked up the profile of a head again and yes, it was definitely a lion. I was very pleased with myself, especially as it was a fair distance away! Assuming she would be another flat lion we were pleased when after a few moments she got up so we could have a better look. Something seemed to have caught her eye as she went straight from being a 'lazy lion' to 'huntress' mode.
What had she seen? We saw movement in the bush to the right and walking in her direction was a lone tsessebe. As the lion crept through the undergrowth and the distance between them reduced I started to think we might see our first kill. In this photo the lion is probably only 5 metres away from the antelope (hidden in the darker coloured bushes) and my heart was beating so loudly as I looked down the lens waiting for the action to unfold!
Something must have given the game away as the tsessebe suddenly snorted and turned and ran off. After this the lion got up, yawned and proceeded to go back to her original spot to rest under a tree as if to say 'I wasn't bothered anyway!' After all this excitement and great sightings we had still not travelled that far from Mopani so looking forward to our breakfast stop we continued on our journey North once again....
Day 11 (Cont.) Mopani to Punda Maria
After the excitement of the lion sighting we thought we had better get a move on and head onward toward Shingwedzi for our breakfast break.
We were still buzzing with excitement when we saw another carnivore shaped animal in the distance...was it another jackal? Not this time, instead our first hyena seen in the area wanted to say hello. We spent some moments with this inquisitive animal however he sloped off into the bush with the arrival of another vehicle. We took this as our cue to continue.
By the time we reached Shingwedzi camp for breakfast the sun was shining again and we got to watch the animals around the banks of the river and enjoyed the view from the restaurant.
After our break and heading North once again we noticed the increasing amount of large trees, especially the impressive baobabs. After a comfort break at Babalala picnic stop we reached Punda Maria. The camp is so different to any of the other main camps we had stayed at, very old fashioned charm and much smaller than we had expected (although the camp ground is quite big).
After a spot of lunch we explored the Mahonie Loop which is almost a little oasis of it's own. Kudu, giraffe, zebra, impala and elephant all seen in numbers along with several groups of nyala grazing among the giant baobabs.
Back at camp we had a wander along the Flycatcher Trail and said hello to the resident bushbuck and vervets. To finish a great day we spent some time at the waterhole hide in camp where a maribou stork stood as sentry.
As it was getting dark an old buffalo came down for an evening wallow and the sun set on another wonderful day in the park. Our next trip would be up to Crook's Corner and the Limpopo border.
Day 12 - Punda Maria to Pafuri
Leaving camp early we headed back along the H13-1 and stuck to the tar for the H1-8 North with the intention of doing the gravel loop on the way back.
Apart from the odd elephant the drive was fairly quiet although it did look to possibly be a good area for cheetah as it was quite open grassland. As we neared the Pafuri area the scenery changed once again and we began to see very large trees making up the landscape. Before heading onto the S63 towards the picnic stop we went to look at the view of the Luvuvhu river from the bridge...
Not long after leaving the tar road we saw a commotion and lots of dust and movement up ahead. Unfortunately a young elephant had lost it's fight for survival and was now providing a large amount of vultures with a good meal. As you would expect there was a lot of feathers flying as they jostled for position...
Shortly after leaving the vultures to continue their somewhat grim but very important clean up, we came across a large herd of elephants making their way to the river and wondered if this was the herd the dead calf had belonged to.
Upon reaching the picnic spot we were in great need of a comfort break however these two buffalo bulls were quite close to the car park. They were not moving so in the end I got out and waved to Frank the caretaker to come over. I asked if we would be OK with them there, "should be" he said. Not quite the assurance I was looking but off Frank went to shoo them away.
They were only trying to get to the river and the most direct route was through the picnic site and they didn't seem to want to detour. In the end Frank had to result to using his weapon....not a rifle but a catapult. After some indignant bellowing they eventually went the long way around and we could relax a bit and enjoy a snack and the lovely view as across the river as nyala and impala came to drink while the two buffalo finally enjoyed their wallow.
After our short break and chatting to Frank about the dead elephant (it had been struggling the day before but he did not know it had died) we left for a circuit of the S63 via Crooks Corner. The trees around that area look almost prehistoric and I almost expected to see dinosaurs wandering around!
Somewhat appropriately, a group of baboons were waiting for us as we reached Crook's Corner however these ones were not as bold as the ones in camps and picnic sites and scattered when we got out of the car!
So we had finally made it, from Berg En Dal in the far South to Crook's Corner and the border of South Africa with Zimbabwe! And what a wonderful journery it was. We still had a couple of days left of the trip but as we started up the car we knew that every KM would now be taking us toward the dreaded exit gate...
After leaving Crook's Corner we made our way back to the Pafuri picnic site once again via the rest of the S63 loop and Nyala Drive. The vultures were still busy at work on the elephant carcass as we passed by once again. This time the breeze had increased and the smell was overpowering so we didn't stay too long as a result. After a quick pit stop at the picnic site and saying goodbye to Frank we headed back South towards Punda Maria, very pleased with our 'day out'.
On the way back we took the S61 and stopped at Klopperfontein waterhole where a batchelor group of elephants were bathing and playing in the mud. The elephants wanted to head our way so we took that as our cue to continue on. By the time we arrived back at camp it was time for a late lunch and an afternoon nap.
To finish the day we spent some time at the waterhole hide in camp and enjoyed watching the various birds and monkeys as well as a small duiker who nervously approached for a drink on several occasions but always seemed to get startled by a noise and run away before he could quench his thirst.
Day 13 - Last Full Day in Kruger *sigh*
We rose from bed with heavy hearts as this would be our last full day of our holiday, but determined to make the most of it we got packed up fairly early and was ready to say goodbye to Punda Maria camp. We enjoyed the old rustic style of the camp and the smaller, more intimate feel compared to some of the other main rest camps. However the traditional low thatch roofs are not ideal for those of us who are a bit taller...!
We hit the tar road and headed South. Although we had seen lots of European rollers during the trip we hadn't seen that many of the lilac-breasted variety. This one was looking splendid in the early morning sun.
A little past Shingwedzi camp and we were rewarded with one of our favourite sightings of the trip- a magnificent looking tusker with the biggest and best tusks I have ever seen since I started looking at elephants! What a handsome fellow!
He is named as 'Mandzemba' on the Tuskers of Africa site. I had said at the beginning of the trip that I hoped to see a big tusker so my wish was fulfilled!
By the time we reached the bridge at Letaba it was starting to rain but this saddle-billed stork was striding around looking for lunch..
Upon reaching Letaba camp we were a bit early to check-in and so had a wander around the elephant museum and the camp shop while the weather tried to decide what it wanted to do. Luckily it started to brighten up as we had decided to join the sunset drive as it was out last night in the park. The only other people joining the sunset drive were two young Dutch couples who had been in the park for a few days but had not managed to see any cats. We sheepishly mentioned some of our good sightings and hoped they would have some luck. Unfortunately I was not holding out much hope as we've never been that lucky with sunset/night drive cat sightings.
The drive started with plenty of general game, zebra, giraffe, waterbuck, impala and the odd buff and elephant. As the sun started to set a hadedah ibis was in the river while the pied kingfishers darted to and from the bridge.
There was movement in the road up ahead and a snake had caught something which was trying to escape (possibly a frog or lizard). I managed to snap it as it made it's way off into the long grass to finish it's meal but not sure of the species- boomslang perhaps?
The sun was setting and we were treated to another beautiful sunset sky, unfortunately the last one of the trip.
As darkness fell we lit the torches and started to search for eyes in the darkness. Heading back towards Letaba and one of the group spotted a big male lion winding his way through the mopani shrub towards the waterhole we had recently left. He was on a mission and wasn't lingering so it was only a quick viewing but he seemed a pretty big boy. I was really pleased for our Dutch friends that they got to see a big cat.
The rest of the drive was pretty uneventful and after a few false alarms I wondered if there was much point in waving the torch around. However not that far from Letaba I picked up some eyes in my light and laying there was a lovely young leopard! We spent some time with him/her and we got a few looks but he/she was pretty sleepy. It gave us a better chance for a picture though- not easy in torchlight but this one wasn't too bad...
We actually had a couple more good sightings in the final few km's to camp- a side-striped jackal and a small spotted genet so we were quite spoilt really! With a late dinner at Mugg and Bean we re-counted our day's sightings before heading to bed, not looking forward to getting up and the trip home...
Day 14 - Farewell to Kruger Park
After packing and having breakfast at Mugg & Bean we were ready to leave Letaba camp for the drive to Phalaborwa gate. I wanted to reach the gate by 11 to give us plenty of time for the drive back to JoBurg and our evening flight home but it still meant we had a couple of hours for potential last minute sightings.
Heading west along the H-9 we managed to get in another Kruger first for the trip as we enjoyed watching these wonderful little klipspringers tip-toeing around on the rocks...
A few buffalo and kudu also helped delay our exit but the most exciting part of our drive was when a car heading towards us gave us a tip on a pair of lions a couple of KMs along the road. The directions turned out to be very accurate and the pair were still resting in the same spot in a dry riverbed.
Although we had been lucky with our cat sightings during our time in KNP, this was the first time we had seen a male and female together. What a great way to end the trip!
Exiting the park and heading back to Jo'burg through the countryside we started to think about the next trip and hopefully we'll get to return sometime soon.
After 14 days and a round trip of 3265 KMs we returned our hire car and that folks is the end. Both to our wonderful holiday in South Africa and this particular trip report!
I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I have enjoyed sharing it. Until next time....