Kruger National Park, March 2015
Part 2: Mopani to Punda Maria

Itinerary: Berg-en-Dal, Lower Sabie (3 nights), Satara (3 nights), Mopani (3 nights), Punda Maria (2 nights), Letaba

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 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.

A pair of secretary birds also joined us, the first time I have seen more than one together.

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 did see a kori bustard along the way (not the first for the trip but the first I had managed to capture).  

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 quite far away and as I waited for them to slowly get nearer I enjoyed watching some of the smaller species nearby.  A blacksmith lapwing was digging for insects in the sand and this European roller (we haven't had one for a few chapters!) had manged to catch a large insect for breakfast...

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.

Driving a bit further along Klein Nshawu we saw a small group of Tsessebe among the tall grass, these seemed to have young ones but a bit too far for pics.  

As our morning was drawing to a close we had one more unusual 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!

Day 9 - Mopani (cont.) 

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.

A nice view from the pioneer hide looking back toward Mopani camp…

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!

Typical view from the Mopani restaurant deck

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.

After all were safely across we continued and as the sun began to rise we encountered these young giraffes who seemed to be enjoyed the view as well.

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.  

After things had calmed down we spent some nice moments with a grazing herd of elephants and at Mooiplaas a warthog family were a lot happier and closer to pose for us.

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..? 

Traffic was bad once again on the way back to camp (!), another large herd of buffs making their way across the road.  Arriving back at Mopani, I couldn't help but think of Jurassic Park when I saw the familiar gate entrance.

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.  Maybe the map was out of date but we were soon struggling through thick undergrowth and got the impression that the

We did need to watch out for some of the many-legged creatures though!

Popping out later in the day we enjoyed the last of the sun's rays while watching the birds prepare for their roost.

Another very varied day drew to a close and before turning in we started to pack for our next camp move in the 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. 

We continued on and as we reached Grysbok WH a family of ellies were enjoying their morning drink...

Leaving the ellies in favour of a planned breakfast stop at Shingwedzi we continued North.

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 the photo below the lion is probably only 5m 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. The first main sighting of interest was this young martial eagle in a nest...

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 a group of 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!  Instead there were plenty more nyala and they show just how big the baobabs are in this second picture (there are three nyala grazing at the base).

As well as several raptors we could see in the sky around us, these white-fronted bee-eaters were also in abundance.  Hopefully they eat flies too as this young buck looked like he was experiencing real 'bug problems'!

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.  Not much further along we found a male ostrich with a couple of ladies in tow.  We had not seen many of these unusual creatures in the last two weeks so it was great to get a good view.

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.

Among the general game animals we saw some more tsessebe heading towards the waterhole near Babalala picnic stop. They were quite shy but we managed to get fairly close before they spooked and ran off.

Further on a brown snake-eagle was ruffling his feathers at the top of a tree and as we neared Shingwedzi the road began to follow the course of the riverbed and we were lucky to see another beautiful fish eagle close by.

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!

Further on we went from the gigantic to the tiny...a car had stopped at an angle in the road and after followed their eyeline we saw a much smaller fellow crossing the tar.  Hopefully he didn't end up as a snack for this hooded vulture who was perching close by!  We had mainly seen the white-backed variety so this made for a nice change.

Not the best camoflauge..

After a great first part of the day and having seen lots of great sightings we arrived at Mopani for a break and a spot of breakfast. 

Day 13 - Last full day in Kruger (pt.2)

After a breakfast stop at Mopani (once again entertained by elephants in the water) we continued our journey toward Letaba which would be our final camp before leaving KNP. The sky was darkening with my mood (I get grumpy at the end of holidays lol) and as we reached Middelvlei it was rather overcast and looking like rain. There were plenty of animals around though including a few more tsessebe and a rather bedraggled looking secretary bird (think he might have just had a dust bath).

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. After moving into our last bungalow we had a wander around the camp, admiring the view of the river and saying hello to the other residents.

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!

Further on we waved goodbye to another favourite as a few elephant grazed by the roadside. I did a quick loop of the S51 and had a look at Sable Dam where I took my last picture of the trip, a splendid LBR in the sunshine.

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....