A Week in Olifants – The Road to Timbavati

For the second year in a row we spent a week in Kruger National Park in October, this time spending 6 nights in Olifants rest camp in the northern part of Kruger, with one night stop-overs at Berg en Dal  and Pretoriuskop rest camps on the way there and back respectively.


The Road from Olifants to Timbavati

Timbavati lies south-west of Olifants and is ideal for a morning’s outing from Olifants camp – we chose to do it on the Wednesday of our week-long stay.

Another early start saw us heading along the S92 (in yellow on the map) for 12 kms past Balule, joining the H1-4 tar road towards Satara (red on the map) for 7 kms, then branching off on the S39 Timbavati road (yellow on the map) for a further 27 kms past Roodewal private camp to the popular picnic spot.

Kruger maps

This is classic Kruger Park with regular game sightings along the way to keep the spirits up and eyes sharp. Antelope including Kudu, Waterbuck, Impala and Steenbok were plentiful despite the drought-ravaged landscape.

The birding on this route, up to the junction with the H1-4, was influenced by the dry conditions and was subdued until we reached the Olifants river, where there are a few short side roads which take you closer to the river and are worthwhile exploring for game and birds. White-browed Scrub-Robin, Brown-crowned Tchagra, Emerald-spotted Dove and Golden-breasted Bunting were our only significant sightings up to this point.

Emerald-spotted Wood-Dove (Groenvlekduif)
Emerald-spotted Wood Dove (Groenvlekduifie)
Golden-breasted Bunting (Rooirugstreepkoppie)
Golden-breasted Bunting (Rooirugstreepkoppie)

At the river we spent some time on the low-water bridge at Balule, often an excellent spot for water birds and this morning was no exception. The bridge has just a single lane but the designer had enough foresight to include a few wider “bulges” along its length which allow you to park on the bridge without blocking cars crossing over. Woolly-necked Stork, Common Greenshank, Sacred Ibis, White-breasted Cormorant and Grey Heron were all present and enjoying the clear waters and fringing reeds.

A medium-sized wader not far from the bridge had me perplexed and excited at the same time for a few minutes, until I had to admit it was a (common) Wood Sandpiper. Despite all attempts, I just could not turn it into a rare Green Sandpiper, which was my first thought when I saw it. Blame it on early morning light playing tricks on me, advancing age, hallucinations or whatever. (No, I don’t smoke at all)

Wood Sandpiper (Bosruiter) Balule bridge
Wood Sandpiper (Bosruiter) Balule bridge

On the other side of the bridge we noticed some White-fronted Bee-eaters on the sandy bank and on closer inspection could see their nesting burrows in the sand, which they excavate by digging with their bill and removing the loosened material with a bicycling action of their feet. Both male and female help to excavate a new burrow each year, which can be up to 1m deep.

White-fronted Bee-eaters (Rooikeelbyvreter) at nesting burrows which are typically 1m deep
White-fronted Bee-eaters (Rooikeelbyvreter) at nesting burrows which are typically 1m deep

The S39 follows the Timbavati river for most of the distance and although bone-dry for most of the way at this time of year (October), the river had tiny patches of water which were enough to still attract game, which do not have many options during the dry season.

Elephant looking for edible foliage amongst the dry scrub
Elephant finding edible foliage amongst the dry scrub

The birding along the S39 picked up with a Bateleur doing its balancing act in the sky and both common species of Spurfowl (Swainson’s and Natal) entertaining us on the ground. Sabota Larks attracted our attention with their cheerful singing from the very top of bare trees.

Sabota Lark (Sabotalewerik)
Sabota Lark (Sabotalewerik)

We arrived at the Timbavati picnic spot just in time for a bush breakfast conjured up by our able team. One of the charming aspects of Timbavati is the tables and chairs, some of which are the same ones we have got to know during more than 40 years of visits. They probably would not win any design competitions, but when it comes to durability and nostalgic memories they are still No 1.

The team at Timbavati
The team at Timbavati

Timbavati is also a fine birding spot in its own right with resident populations of Natal Spurfowl, Greater Blue-eared Starling, Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill, ever-present and on the lookout for food scraps. Other birds vying for attention were White-backed Vulture, Red-billed Oxpecker and a lone Gabar Goshawk.

Eventually we reluctantly decided to head back to Olifants, having absorbed about as much relaxation as our poor bodies could handle.

The return trip was along the S127 road to the H1-4 tar road leading back to Olifants camp. This is a shorter route and makes it an interesting circular drive rather than retracing the route taken to get to Timbavati.

This route added Purple Roller and Grey Hornbill amongst others, but just ahead lay the sighting of the day, if not of the trip. Just before reaching the tar road a knot of cars that had stopped meant only one thing – an exciting sighting nearby. It turned out to be a Leopard lying in the shade of a tree with a dead Impala hanging in the fork of another nearby tree. We later found out that Maia and Geraldine had been the first to spot this most sought after species.

Leopard, Timbavati KNP
Leopard near Timbavati
Leopard prey, KNP
Leopard prey

After viewing it for a while we proceeded to the tar road and our next stop was at the bridge over the Olifants river, where you are allowed to get out of the car between marked lines – it’s always a good idea to take advantage of this and other “get out the car” spots throughout Kruger, to stretch the legs and check for any game or birds out of sight of passing cars.

African Pied Wagtail, Olifants river bridge
African Pied Wagtail (Bontkwikkie), Olifants river bridge

Shortly after the bridge another knot of cars announced a sighting of Lions some way off the road. In between the big cat sightings we enjoyed a delightful scene at a water hole where an indignant young elephant chased the Impala who dared to drink from the water hole at the same time as he did.

Elephant at waterhole, KNP
Young Elephant at water hole which he decided belonged to him alone

With a full morning’s game and bird viewing under our belts, we returned happily to Olifants camp, where we relaxed for  the rest of the day with a bit of swimming thrown in and a bottomless coffee on the deck at the Mugg & Bean restaurant.

A late afternoon birding walk rounded off the birding for the day with Bennett’s Woodpecker and Klaas’s Cuckoo being the highlights.

Klaas's Cuckoo, Olifants camp
Klaas’s Cuckoo (Meitjie), Olifants camp

The bird that earned “most confusing” award for the day was a common or garden Yellow-billed Hornbill who, it seemed, had just emerged from a serious dust bath as he was reddish-brown in the places that he would normally be white.

Yellow-billed Hornbill (After dust-bath), Olifants KNP
Yellow-billed Hornbill (Geelbekneushoringvoël) (After dust-bath), Olifants camp














2 thoughts on “A Week in Olifants – The Road to Timbavati”

  1. Extremely interesting, as usual, Donald. Well, the gang is on the way as I type this – I hope you have an absolutely wonderful time with them!

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