With the new year in its first week, it’s time to select a few photos which best represent our 2018. In some cases, selection is based on the memory created, in others I just like how the photo turned out, technically and creatively
If you have any favourites, do let me know by adding your comment!
This was an unusual year for us, in that for the first time in several years we did not journey outside Southern Africa once during the year. But we made up for that with plenty of local trips, such as –
Champagne Valley resort in the Drakensberg
Annasrust Farm Hoopstad (Free State)
Pine Lake Resort near White River (Mpumulanga Province)
Mossel Bay – our second “Home” town
Oaklands Country Manor near Van Reenen (Kwa-Zulu Natal)
La Lucia near Durban (Kwa-Zulu Natal)
Shongweni Dam (Kwa-Zulu Natal)
Onverwacht Farm near Vryheid (Kwa-Zulu Natal)
Kruger Park Olifants camp
Herbertsdale area (Western Cape) – atlasing
Karoo National Park near Beaufort West (Western Cape)
Kuilfontein Guest Farm near Colesberg (Northern Cape)
Lentelus Farm near Barrydale (Western Cape)
With visits to Kruger National Park, Karoo National Park and Chobe Game Reserve in Botswana, there was no shortage of game viewing opportunities and it turned out to be a great year for Leopards
Kruger National Park
Karoo National Park
Chobe Game Reserve
The eyes have it
Wild but beautiful
Who needs a horse when you have a mom to ride on
Oh, and the news is hippos can do the heart shape with their jaws – they don’t have fingers you see
Bird photography remains the greatest challenge – I am thrilled when it all comes together and I have captured some of the essence of the bird
Great Egret flying to its roost
White-fronted Bee-eaters doing what they do best – looking handsome
The usually secretive Green-backed Camaroptera popping out momentarily for a unique photo
African Fish-Eagle – aerial king of the waters
Kori Bustard – heaviest flying bird
Crowned Hornbill – he’ll stare you down any day
Large-billed Lark in full song
Village Weaver – busy as a bee
Thick-billed Weaver – less frenetic, more particular about its nest-weaving
African Jacana with juveniles
Juvenile African Jacana – a cute ball of fluff with legs longer than its body
Reed Cormorant with catch
Wishing all who may read this a 2019 that meets all of your expectations!
It was a different Kruger trip in several ways …….
(Yep, here come the bullets – I can’t help it, I’m a QS, we like things to be ordered) –
The booking was a last-minute one instead of the usual micro-planned, 6 to 12 months ahead booking we have always stuck to – I suddenly had this desire to wake up in Kruger on my birthday and scanned the availability of the camps, ending up with 5 nights in Olifants and a further 2 in Skukuza, starting in the last week of August this year
It was just Gerda and myself – the first time we have been on our own in Kruger, going back to our first visit with Gerda’s parents as newly weds in 1972. Since then we have made umpteen visits with our kids, with friends, with birding groups, even with clients and latterly with our grandkids adding to the delight.
We had no fixed plans other than to enjoy ourselves and take it at a relaxed pace
Ummmm that’s it with the bullet points……..
So what is it about a visit to Kruger National Park that makes it so special to ordinary South Africans like us, who keep going back for more, year after year, literally for decades?
With time to think about it during our week in Kruger, I can put it down to the several parts that make up the quintessential Kruger trip, starting with –
For us, any holiday starts with the road trip which, if you tackle it in the way that we prefer, becomes an integral part of the holiday. We could have travelled to our Kruger destination, Olifants camp, in one day, but including an overnight stop at Phalaborwa, close to the entrance gate, meant we had a full day to get organised and travel at a relaxed pace.
It also means there is time to stop for coffee and lunch and to slowly ease into holiday mode. At our first stop at Kranskop on the road north, Gerda’s enthusiasm in identifying the weavers we spotted there helped to shift the focus from the “must do’s” that dominate life to the ” do what you feel like’s”. They were Village Weavers and for the next half hour on the road Gerda grilled me on the main differences between the most common genus Ploceus Weavers, covering Southern Masked, Village, Lesser Masked and Cape Weavers.
There is also enough time to take in the character of the surroundings and the road being travelled on, which changed as we progressed –
N1 highway all the way to Polokwane – predictably smooth and comfortable, not requiring much effort beyond maintaining concentration
Polokwane east to Moria and beyond – busy double road through end to end built up area, the road requiring utmost concentration even at low speeds with a stream of pedestrians crossing, taxis stopping unexpectedly (although we have long learnt to expect it), wandering dogs and goats. Beyond Moria, which accommodates an estimated 1 million people during the Easter pilgrimage, the road enters rolling countryside for some relief
Through Magoebaskloof and down to the lowveld, the road twists and turns and drops all at the same time for perhaps half an hour until it flattens out as you approach Tzaneen
Suddenly it is fruit and veg growing area with roadside stalls offering produce at prices way below the city supermarkets – avos galore (bag for R50 / $3.50 ), sack of potatoes (R30 / $2 ), tray of tangerines (R30 / $2 )
The last stretch to Phalaborwa gradually changes to game farms and bushveld, the road down to a single lane with no shoulders.
The overnight stop in Phalaborwa was at La Lechere guest house in the suburbs – a good choice with neat, comfortable rooms and a full English breakfast to set us on our way the next morning.
We entered Kruger before 11 am and made our way slowly to Letaba camp, where we planned to lunch.
The route from Phalaborwa to Olifants camp
I tried to think what entering Kruger means to me and the only comparison I could come up with was that of entering one of the great cathedrals of Europe – the sudden calmness that spreads over you, the splendid surroundings that seem to envelope you, the happy thought that it’s been like this for a long time and is not likely to change.
We explored the side roads around Masorini on the way, stopping for a while at Sable Dam, which has a bird hide that can be booked for overnight stays.
On the way back we could not resist a “short cut” road signposted Track for high clearance vehicles only, low maintenance , which was true to its word – a unique experience, not having driven on a proper 4 x 4 track in Kruger before, except with rangers in their vehicles.
The track ran for 5 km and took us through an area dotted with exceptionally large termite mounds, some as tall as a double-storey house, with a pointy top giving them the appearance of rondawel roofs from a distance. I suspected the large size of these mounds – certainly larger than I have ever encountered – had something to do with the type of soil – white/grey in colour and very sandy.
Our route did not produce much in the way of special animal sightings, but as usual the bird life made up for it with several interesting encounters –
African Hawk-Eagle spotted by Gerda in a far-off tree
Yellow-fronted Canaries in a group, flitting from tree to tree
Various Swallows in one spot – Lesser-striped, Red-breasted and White-throated Swallows
Crested Francolin scurrying off when we stopped nearby
Groundscraper Thrush rather unexpectedly in the middle of the bush (you get used to seeing them on lawns in Suburbia so it comes as a surprise when they choose a more barren natural habitat)
A soaring African Fish-Eagle patrolling a dam
Elephants made an appearance as we crossed a bridge near Letaba, heading to small pools of water for a refreshing drink. They have a way of looking like they are enjoying every sip of water.
Lunch at Letaba was fish and chips (there goes our credibility) and ahead lay the last stretch before Olifants, which went quite quickly.
The state of the Letaba River was a bit of a shock as we could not recall having seen it so dry, even after the normal dry winter months – another sign of the severe drought that most of Kruger has experienced for the last few years.
By 5 pm we were settled in our pleasant rondawel – we were prepared for the lack of kitchen facilities in the rondawel, knowing there would be a communal kitchen nearby, however we had not thought of bringing a kettle, so resorted to buying a cheap stove-top model that worked well, albeit slowly, on the communal hot plate.
We enjoyed tea while taking in the incomparable view from our small stoep – I patted myself on the back for choosing a perimeter rondawel which looks over the Olifants river far below.
The rondawel is typical of the accommodation in many Kruger camps – hardly luxurious, in fact the kindest description would be basic, but I had already decided that this was part of the charm of Kruger, almost like camping but with solid walls around you, comfortable beds and a small bathroom at hand.
With no kitchen (I probably would have booked a rondawel with a kitchen if one had been available) cooking happens on the braai, washing up is done in the communal kitchen and the simple task of making tea and coffee becomes a drawn-out ritual of sorts, all at a much slower pace than home and in the pleasant surroundings of a well looked after camp.
Even the view as you lie down to sleep is quite soothing (before the lights are off of course) …
Still to come in “Kruger Unplanned” – more about the drives, the wildlife encounters, the birding highlights and just chilling
Kruger National Park ………… just writing those words brings an immediate sense of anticipation ……
especially when you have made as many visits as we have and enjoyed such a diversity of wonderful bush experiences.
It was in April this year, while spending a week at Pine lake Resort near White River, that we decided to visit Kruger for one of the days. And as usual there were unexpected sightings, both on the animal front as well as the birds ……..
We started the day early, hoping to be at Phabeni gate as close to the 6.00 am opening time as possible – as it turned out we were a tad slow in leaving the resort and the drive there took longer than anticipated due to the nature of the road and some slow traffic. When we arrived at Phabeni we were met by a longish queue of vehicles and were told apologetically that “the computers are down and we are processing visitors manually” by the gate staff. This resulted in a long wait before we could at last enter Kruger and make our way along the Doispane road (S1).
We took all of four hours to travel the 40 or so Kms to Skukuza camp and then onwards to the day visitors picnic area just beyond the camp. There were lots of stops along the way to admire the wildlife and ID the birds seen and heard.
An early sighting was Retz’s Helmetshrike, always in a group of several and handsome as ever in their all black plumage and contrasting bright red bill and eye ring.
The usual Lilac-breasted Rollers, Magpie Shrikes and Red-billed Hornbills showed prominently at regular intervals to keep our spirits high. Raptors we saw included Bateleurs in numbers, Brown Snake-Eagles, African Fish-Eagles (5) and a pale form Booted Eagle.
About halfway along the road we stopped to have a look at the Nyaundwa Dam just off the road – this is always a good spot for the classic Kruger scene of animals coming to drink while keeping alert for the predators. Several shorebirds patrolled the dam edges – amongst them Wood Sandpipers, Black-winged Stilts, Common Greenshanks and Three-banded Plovers – while the resident Hippos had a few Red-billed Oxpeckers in attendance. Several Water Thick-knees viewed the proceedings from the sandy banks with what seemed to be disdain.
Shortly after we enjoyed one of the game highlights of the day when we came across a small pack of Wild Dogs, or “Painted Wolves” as they are sometimes known. One gave a display of territorial marking that we have not witnessed before, when he came right up to our vehicle and proceeded to urinate profusely several times while turning a full circle, so close I could have touched him with a broomstick – if I had such a thing handy. It crossed my mind that he may be just another Land Rover fan fed up with the superiority that us Toyota Land Cruiser owners tend to display …….. who knows.
Our next sighting was a little further down the road where a knot of vehicles surrounded something lying at the edge of the road. It was an old Lion, looking as if he was on his last legs, his hips showing under his aged, battered looking skin. When he lifted his head to look at us, it seemed to be an effort and his eyes were dull with none of the fierce glint that he would have shown in his youth. I could have taken a photo but decided against it, simply out of respect for an old timer with not many days to live, at a guess.
We arrived at the Skukuza Day Visitors picnic area which is a few kms beyond Skukuza itself and has a number of pleasant picnic sites set amongst the bushes. It was quiet, being a Monday out of peak season and we had the place to ourselves except for one other small group so we found a nice shady spot and enjoyed leftovers from the previous night’s braai, reheated on the skottel (like an old ploughshare and heated by gas)
In between I scouted around the area and found some very photogenic White-fronted Bee-eaters perched on some low branches – many bird photographer’s favourite because of their bright colouring and their habit of posing openly, without being too skittish.
I was very happy with the results ….
The birding highlight of the day came my way as were packing up to leave the picnic area, when I spotted some movement in the bushes nearby – more about the incredible photographic opportunity in a follow up post (how’s that for keeping you in suspense?)
Our last stop before heading towards the Numbi gate was at the well known (amongst birders) Lake Panic hide overlooking the lake of that name, not far from Skukuza. Initially it looked quiet but we found out from the few people already there that we had missed the earlier drama of a crocodile taking an Impala which had ventured too close to the water as it came to drink. Two large crocs were still wrestling with the unfortunate Impala, presumably already dead, its horns projecting above the water every now and then as the crocs twisted and turned in the water.
The water level was the lowest I have ever seen it at this spot, not even reaching the hide – bird life was limited to a couple of Pied Kingfishers, a Black Crake and a Burchell’s Coucal.
Our exit route was via Numbi gate then through busy rural villages for some 20 kms before reaching White River and the road back to Pine Lake Resort (which is also worth a post – watch this space)
I would not have known it if National Geographic hadn’t sent an email notice, but it’s worth mentioning that today is World Lion Day!
In their words…….
“Today is World Lion Day, a day of celebrating the fearsome roars, handsome manes, and adorable cubs of one of the most iconic animals in the world. Lions are incredible creatures: athletic powerhouses and apex predators.
They’re also facing dizzying declines in their population that they are powerless to stop.
Even one lion killed can destabilize an entire region’s prides. And these days, poaching, retaliatory killings, and habitat loss are killing off lion after lion.”
So in our brittle world even the king of beasts is under threat.
Lions by the dozen? Now that’s not your every day sighting!
Being in Kasane, northern Botswana in early July this year, with no specific commitments for the afternoon and with Chobe Game Reserve a stone’s throw away, it seemed like a good idea, to say the least, when my colleague Stuart suggested an afternoon game drive along the Riverfront section of Chobe.
Later in the day it’s preferable to first head west along the tar road towards Ngoma gate and then make your way back from there, which puts the setting sun behind you and makes it a lot easier for spotting, which we duly did.
By about 3 pm we were in Chobe, travelling along the river road in an easterly direction back towards Sedudu gate, the sun comfortably behind us and happy about the prospect of a couple of hours of prime game viewing ahead.
We were immediately rewarded with a group of elephants drinking in the river shallows, then making their way up the bank towards the bush.
Travelling along the sandy track, we encountered constant bird life in numbers that I cannot recall having seen before – the bumpy track was abuzz with Doves, Spurfowl, Guineafowl and others, to the point of almost running over them, while the pools formed by the receding river were crowded with waterfowl. But this drive was not about birding, for a change, so I had to suppress my desire to shout “STOP!” each time I spotted an interesting bird, hoping that my restraint would be rewarded with exciting game sightings.
The “usual suspects” were all present – Kudu, Giraffe, Zebra, Impala, some groups of Banded Mongoose, plenty of Elephants and around 400-500 Cape Buffalo on the opposite side of the river, where they know they are safe from marauding lions.
But the sighting of the day, or even the year, belonged to a pride of Lions that we first saw in the distance, almost a kilometre away, when we stopped to check why a lone vehicle was stationery and what those beige blobs nearby may be.
Binoculars were raised to eyes in a flash and high fives ensued when we saw that they were indeed lions, prompting us to make our way along the riverside track with subdued haste, excitement building all the while.
We approached carefully so as not to disturb the scene and for the next 20 minutes enjoyed the sight of 4 adult lions and 8 juveniles interacting.
The adults were quite relaxed and lying around while the juveniles walked about trying their best to look like fierce lions but only succeeding in drawing a few ‘aaahs’ from us.
Lion cubs have white spots on the lower parts, while their initial greyish woolly coat changes to the adult tawny colour at about three months and the white spots gradually fade as the youngster ages. My guess is these cubs were between 6 and 12 months old.
A Giraffe poking his long neck above nearby bush added a frisson of tension to the scene and moments later the lions sensed its presence as first one adult female then the others moved in its direction.
When the young male stood up as well, we noticed it had a pronounced limp from some previous injury to its leg – he gave a low growl and immediately the youngsters, eager to follow the adults, were “called back” and stayed near the limping male, who seemed to have been left in charge while the other adults went to suss out the chances of a giraffe dinner.
After a while, the adults returned, possibly having assessed the opportunity and decided against pursuing it further. By this time the day was starting to run out as the sun headed towards the horizon and we moved away to leave the scene to the several safari vehicles that were approaching, sated with one of the best lion sightings we have ever had.
We came across Elephant, Buffalo, Jackal, Sable Antelope and a pack of Wild Dogs …….. and that was before we entered Chobe National Park!
Kasane is a small town on the far northern border of Botswana, its claim to fame being that it is the gateway to Chobe, one of the great African game reserves. It is also an unpredictably wild town – elephants and other wild animals occasionally wander through the residential area, often at night and the locals are in the habit of setting off thunderflashes to scare them off.
Another visit this month to Kasane to visit the project in which I am involved, meant another opportunity to squeeze in a visit to Chobe – this time we set out to do an early morning drive through the Riverfront section, before the day’s business began.
We set off as the sky was starting to lighten and on the short drive to the entrance gate we came across a pack of Wild Dogs, who were seemingly on a mission as they trotted along the road. Being pack hunters they would be looking for prey that they could pursue in their relentless fashion, wearing it down until the prey becomes exhausted and vulnerable to the attacks of the pack. We had seen the same pack the previous afternoon, not far from the airport and were able to get really close to them as they lazed the afternoon away in the shade of a large roadside tree, which provided some relief from the hot sun but not from the many flies that were buzzing around their heads.
Entering Chobe, we proceeded along the sandy, bumpy track with regular sightings of the animals we have become accustomed to finding –
Elephants aplenty, including quite a few youngsters, not wandering far from Mom
Buffalo – circa 500+ on the Lechwe Flats
Hyenas – a pair were making their way back from the river into the bush as we passed by
The best sighting of the morning was reserved till last. We encountered two Lionesses, strong and healthy looking individuals, as they made their way to a pool to drink (although we could not see the pool which was concealed by a deep donga) and moments after discussing the possibility of a male being nearby, a handsome male with a full mane of hair appeared and also headed towards the donga.
What followed was without doubt one of the more interesting Lion encounters I have had the privilege of experiencing, as the two Lionesses and the Lion played out a brief but fascinating series of moves. Initially the two Lionesses did a circular dance-like move in unison, as if sizing each other up, then one of them walked off slowly to the water and disappeared into the donga, The remaining Lioness and the Lion seemed to greet and gently caress each other before she too moved off towards the water, leaving the male to rest on the sandy ground and regally take in his surroundings.
Both Lionesses eventually returned and settled in different spots a distance from the male, who studiously ignored both of them as if in a huff.
The morning light lent a pleasant glow to the scene and created perfect conditions for photography as the Lions performed, oblivious to their excited audience, which by now had grown to 5 or 6 safari vehicles which arrived a short while after we spotted the first one. The photos are in the sequence taken –
The birding was limited to the “large and obvious” species for the most part –
Plenty of Guineafowl
Francolins and Spurfowl – Crested, Swainson’s and Red-billed were present in numbers
Hornbills – Red-billed, Yellow-billed, Bradfield’s and Ground all well represented
Carmine Bee-eaters are back in numbers and prominent in the sky or perching in bare trees at a few spots
White-browed Robin Chat, extra bright in the golden early morning light
A family of Orange River Francolins was a pleasant surprise and I was able to get my first photos of the mostly secretive species before they scuttled off into the bush
A truly wonderful morning’s game and bird viewing in this magical part of Southern Africa!
The Riverfront section of Chobe National Park – one of the finest Game Reserve experiences in Southern Africa, if not the whole of Africa.
I count myself fortunate to still have a part-time consultancy job as a QS, and doubly fortunate to be involved in a sizeable building project at Kasane in the far north of Botswana, on the doorstep of Chobe National Park. The project requires monthly site visits and during the few days we – that’s the professional team – spend there, we have managed to squeeze in a quick trip through the Riverfront section of the Park – all part of team building, you understand.
Prior to these recent visits, I was last in Chobe (pronounced Cho-bee) in 2000 and had good memories of this unique Park, although the intervening years had rendered my memories a bit fuzzy. So I was more than eager to renew my acquaintance with this part of Botswana and the first trip through the Riverfront section in May 2015 brought those memories from 15 years ago flooding back.
Chobe Background (courtesy of Wikipedia)
Chobe National Park, in northern Botswana, has one of the largest concentrations of game in Africa. By size, it is the third largest park in the country, after the Central Kalahari Game Reserve and the Gemsbok National Park, and is the most biologically diverse. It is also Botswana’s first national park.
One of four main areas in Chobe,The Serondela area (or Chobe riverfront), situated in the extreme Northeast of the park, has as its main geographical features lush floodplains and dense woodland of mahogany, teak and other hardwoods now largely reduced by heavy elephant pressure. The Chobe River, which flows along the Northeast border of the park, is a major watering spot, especially in the dry season (May through October) for large breeding herds of elephants, as well as families of giraffe, sable and cape buffalo. The flood plains are the only place in Botswana where the puku antelope can be seen. Birding is also excellent here.
The flight from Jo’burg is about an hour and a half and takes you over the Mkgadikgadi pans, an amazing sight from the air.
Approaching Kasane, there is usually a good view of the Chobe River and it’s quite possible to spot Elephant even before you have landed.
So How much Game is there?
Chobe tends to exceed all your expectations – yes there are patches with not much going on, not visible anyway, but there are parts that take your breath away, like the lush floodplains filled with game almost as far as the eye can see – dominated by Elephant and Buffalo. Elephants occur here in such numbers that there are real concerns about the survival of the woodland, but Botswana has a strict anti-culling policy and so Elephant herds grow and spread unabated. Perhaps nature will intervene as it often does.
Apart from the frequent Elephant sightings, there are some other very special animals to be seen – (some of the snippets of information are from the excellent maps/brochures on Botswana by Veronica Roodt which I originally obtained for my 2000 visit)
Sable Antelope, one of the most beautiful antelope in Africa with their perfectly curved horns, which are used to defend themselves. Glossy black colouring means it is a bull, while cows and juveniles are brown
Leopard – we have been very fortunate in finding a young Leopard on two of our three visits so far, quite possibly the same individual which, on our last visit, had dragged its Impala meal into a tree. This is to prevent Hyena and other predators reaching it.
Kudu – males have those impressive twisted horns, females are hornless so the ears are more prominent
Puku – Chobe is the only place in Southern Africa where this uncommon species occurs, in small herds. Mostly found near water
Giraffe – tallest animal in the world at 5,5m. Valves in the jugular vein help to control blood pressure when they bend down to drink water. The oxpeckers love them, gathering in numbers on their long elegant necks
Zebra – no African Game Reserve would be complete without them – our kids loved to call them pyjama-donkeys when they were small, now the grandkids do it
Black-backed Jackal – Pairs form long-term bonds, as these two seem to have done
Wild Dog – if you are very lucky you may encounter one as we did, crossing the tar road in front of us, then dashing off as we slowed down. They usually move around and hunt in packs.
And the Birding?
For anyone starting birding, this must rate as one of the best places to visit – there are many larger species that are easy to see and even photograph if that is your thing. Identifying them is also fairly straightforward if you have one of the birding Apps or one of the many birding books available.
The short trips through Chobe that I have done so far have been exciting but too short and rushed to do any in-depth birding and I look forward to getting to grips with some of the more difficult to see species during future visits. Nevertheless there have been some very good sightings and photo opportunities of some of the “obvious” species – here’s a selection :
Ground Hornbill – no other reserve I have visited can boast as many of this iconic species
Red-billed Hornbill – there is a good chance you will encounter five Hornbill species during a visit – the one above plus the four smaller species being Red-billed as this one below, Yellow-billed, African Grey and Bradfield’s.
Yellow-billed Stork – occur regularly among the myriad birds that frequent the pools of the Chobe floodplain
Yellow-throated Petronia – an uncommon and not at all obvious species, this one happened to be perched near the Leopard with its half-eaten Impala
Kori Bustard – another species with a more than good chance of being spotted in the open areas with grass
Bateleur – often seen soaring high in the air, this juvenile was perched in a dry tree near the track. One unique feature is their short tail which allows it to walk backwards – useful when trying to catch a snake!
African Jacana – this one had a few youngsters in tow, cute little fluffy chicks with outsize legs
African Fish-Eagle – no great river in Africa is worthy of the name unless it is frequented by these magnificent birds of prey and Chobe has its fair share of them
Oxpeckers – the giraffes seem to attract the most oxpeckers but they are just as likely to be found on buffalo, kudu, impala
Green Woodhoopoe – often heard before they are seen, this species is less common
The Close of Day – Sunsets for Africa
I don’t think I have seen sunsets anywhere in the world that can compete with those over the Chobe river – tell me if you agree!
Can’t wait for next time!
Exploring Southern Africa's Natural Wonders and beyond