Kruger National Park, March 2015
Part 1: Malelane to Satara
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.