Category Archives: National Parks

Kruger unplanned – just Chilling

The final chapter on our unplanned week in Kruger in early September this year…..

Like others, we visit Kruger in the hope of having some interesting sightings of the multitude of animals that live in this superb park and being birders we love the variety of bird life that we encounter.

But there is another, simpler side to spending time in Kruger and the title of this post says it all – sometimes you just want to relax and not be out on the roads looking for the next big sighting

Time in the Camp

There’s a certain luxury to just sitting on the verandah of the rondavel, preferably with your choice of liquid refreshment, taking in the passing show of small wild life.

Early mornings are often the best time, when it’s cool and small animals and birds are most active, but mid to late afternoon can also be very productive and pleasant.

We spent one such afternoon fascinated by what was going on in the patch around our rondavel in Olifants camp, as many of the “regulars” put in an appearance during the afternoon :

  • a Natal Spurfowl mommy with 4 teeny bopper youngsters spent time scratching in the dry leaf litter and dust bathing
Natal Spurfowl, Olifants
Natal Spurfowl
  • Red-winged Starlings turned up hoping for handouts,
Red-winged Starling, Olifants (in case some sharp individual queries this, the photo was taken on another trip at the time of year when the Aloes are in flower)
  • as did some Red-billed Hornbills
Red-billed Hornbill
  • Tree Squirrels joined the Spurfowls in the leaf litter, finding titbits to eat, then cutely holding it with two tiny paws while nibbling
Tree Squirrel
  • The resident Striped Skink entertained us with its antics on the verandah wall – another skink passing by got the treatment as it dared to intrude on skink no 1’s territory – backs were reared and skink no 2 skirted widely around and made haste to get away. Thoughts of soccer’s “the Special One” crossed my mind for some reason.
Striped Skink, Olifants
  • Banded Mongoose in small groups, foraging in the soil and leaf litter, keeping in contact with each other with their continual high-pitched twitter.
Banded Mongoose

All of this action was played out to the accompaniment of background calls of Pearl-spotted Owlet, Brown-headed Parrot, White-browed Scrub-Robin and others as the afternoon wore on. Just another day in Olifants….

Tree Spotting

Another good way of whiling away the late afternoon as it gets cooler, is to take a slow walk around the camp. Olifants is ideal for tree spotting, aided by the nameplates on many of the trees, essential for tree dummies like us. Many years ago Gerda and I did a course on trees over a few evenings – very pleasant but not much of it stuck as we did not pursue the hobby thereafter, so we decided to refresh our memories from long ago in the hope that some of it would stick.

Some trees don’t need much in the way of serious observation to know what they are – one such is the famous Sausage Tree of which a good example stands outside the Olifants camp reception. We also saw large Sausage Trees in several spots during our drives and they stand out for several reasons, besides the obvious large pods shaped like enormous sausages which hang from its branches – the bright green foliage and purple flowers are further standout features of this unique tree, in case there is any doubt about the ID.

Trees 101 : Sausage Tree, Olifants

The bright green foliage is visible from a distance

The pods are potential killers if you happen to be hit by one when they drop – up to half a metre long and weighing up to 7 kg they can deliver a lethal blow or do some serious damage to you or your vehicle

The flowers of the Sausage tree have a pungent fragrance which attracts bats, insects and sunbirds, all of which help to pollinate it. They bloom at night on long rope-like stalks

Several other trees caught our attention while on our Trees 101 walk around the camp –

Trees 101 : Round-leaved Bloodwood, Olifants

This medium-sized deciduous tree occurs in bushveld in the northern parts of SA. This example is to be found in the picnic area

As the name suggests the leaves are unusually round

Natal Mahogany trees are one of the more handsome trees in Kruger – large evergreen trees with a dense spreading crown of deep green leaves. They are mostly found in riverine forest but also occur in bushveld

 

The Wild Fig tree is another prominent tree that is fairly easy to spot  as it attracts many fruit-eating birds, bats and even antelope.

 

An unusual and quite distinctive tree – small to medium-sized succulent tree occurring on rocky hill slopes. The leaves fall very early so the long thin branchlets are left bare creating a spider’s web effect

Interstingly the latex is toxic, used to repel or kill insects, nevertheless it is browsed by Black Rhinoceros

Trees 101 : Hedge Euphorbia, Olifants

And there ends Trees 101 as well as our unplanned Kruger visit – until next time

Kruger unplanned – a Brief Encounter

The look says it all – I am one of the most beautiful creatures in the world and also one of the most dangerous, so don’t even think about messing with me.

We were on the road between Skukuza, where we had spent two nights, and Phabeni gate which exits near the town of Hazyview. After a week’s stay in Kruger, which had met all our expectations of interesting sightings and perfect relaxation, we were in “wind-down” mode and already thinking about the coming week’s commitments as we drove at regulation speed towards the gate and back to normal life.

Approaching a slow bend in the road we spotted a sizeable animal in the road and my first thought was “what’s that large dog doing in the road?” Clearly my mind was already back in suburban mode – then I remembered where we were and my heart leapt at what it might be and I may have even let an expletive slip out…..

Leopard, Phabeni road, Kruger Park

We slowed and stopped a reasonable distance from the Leopard, just as it started to walk across the road and slowly head off into the veld and further until he was behind the rows of bushes and no longer visible. He was grunting grumpily as he walked off and gave us the briefest of glances as we revelled in this special sighting, shared with just one other vehicle that had been close behind us for a few kms.

Leopard, Phabeni road, Kruger Park
Leopard, Phabeni road, Kruger Park

What a nice way to end a memorable stay in Kruger!

 

Kruger unplanned – the Birds

Continuing the story of our unplanned week in Kruger in early September this year ……..

Kruger National Park is seen by many birders, including this one, as one of the most desirable places to visit and indulge their passion in an incomparable natural environment –

Our week was full of interesting sightings and memorable moments covering the full spectrum of wild life, birds aplenty, glorious landscapes – here is a selection of some of the standout birding moments –

First night in Olifants

With the evening braai done, we were relaxing on the stoep, sipping our coffee and enjoying a handsome moon rise, when Gerda was first to hear a distant grumpy sound and suggested it was an Owl. We identified the call as that of a Verraux’s Eagle-Owl and I went to investigate when it seemed to be getting closer, finding it in a nearby tall tree, illuminated by neighbouring visitors who had a powerful torch handy.  Besides its trademark pink eyelids, this is one impressive Owl, with a length of 62cm (think 6 months old  child) and capable of taking prey the size of a half-grown Vervet Monkey or a Warthog piglet but also content to hunt tiny Warblers and insects.

The envy of many a woman with those eyelids

Balule Low Water Bridge

Our second day in Kruger and also my birthday – the main reason for us being there as my wish was to wake up on my birthday to a Kruger sunrise. The day started in perfect weather – sunny yet cool to warm. Gerda wasn’t up to an early start so I made coffee and set off to atlas the Olifants pentad over the next two hours returning in time for morning tea.

The drive was a slow one to Balule where I spent some time on the low water bridge, a great birding spot in its own right, then returned to Olifants camp along the S92 road, thereby completing a full circuit.

A v-shaped formation of Cormorants flying high above the river set the tone as I started the drive and at the bridge a Malachite Kingfisher flashed its bright colours as he darted between the reeds.

Parked on the bridge, I chalked up Black Crake, African Jacana, Common Greenshank, Wood Sandpiper and Green-backed Heron amongst others, in quick succession.

Black Crake, Balule, Kruger Park

What makes this such a good spot is the low water level at this time of year, creating small ponds, streams and sandbanks across the full width of this large river, ideal for a mix of water birds, waders and birds just coming to drink at the water’s edge.

Olifants River Bridge

Gerda joined me for an afternoon drive which took us to the main bridge over the Olifants river, a few kms south of the camp turn-off. She ended up “chatting” to a curiously tame Cape Glossy Starling who perched on the railing then, when I got out of the car (permitted on some of the longer bridges), hopped onto the door mirror and seemed to reach out to Gerda with its happy chirping. Perhaps he thought he was on Twitter and was just tweeting the latest news.

Bird’s eye view of Olifants River, Kruger Park
Glossy Starling does Twitter with Gerda

While on the lookout for birds I spotted a raptor in a dry  tree near the end of the bridge and was immediately puzzled by its odd appearance – mostly dark brown but with a white crown – nothing like any bird I had seen before. I took a number of photos to help with an ID whereupon the raptor flew off, only to be replaced moments later in exactly the same spot by an adult Wahlberg’s Eagle – reminiscent of a quick-change magic act!

Wahlberg’s Eagle (Juvenile intermediate morph)
Wahlberg’s Eagle (adult brown morph)  – compare the pose with the juvenile above!

That led me to think the first one was a juvenile Wahlberg’s Eagle but my Roberts App – usually a comprehensive source of bird information –  made no mention of the white cap feature and further searching on the internet came up with one other photo that resembled this one – it was referred to as an “intermediate morph” presumably meaning that it was overall a dark morph but with the white crown of the light morph. Just a tad bizarre!

Spring Day Atlasing

While atlasing along the river towards Letaba, I stopped at one of the turn-offs leading to a viewpoint, when I noticed a Little Bee-eater hawking from a branch then, as they often do, returning to the same spot to look for the next opportunity. As it returned for a third time I focused on it and at the same time noticed it had caught something, so I rattled off a series of shots as it prepared to swallow its prey, hoping for a special photo, although I knew I was not close enough and would have to crop the photos quite substantially to get frame-fillers.

Well I was initially thrilled at the sequence I had caught digitally, but disappointed that my camera had seemingly let me down by not focusing sharply – a rare occurrence with my Nikon. The photos below are the best of the bunch and reasonably focused, but could have been winners, if only I had been closer …..

Little Bee-eater – insect hawked and securely held
Softening it up
Getting it into position
Down she goes
Ooh, that was rather good what?  ( clearly a cultured bird)

Nevertheless an exciting moment.

Some other birds

Here is a selection of some of the other photos from the week’s birding –

Emerald-spotted Wood-Dove, Olifants, Kruger Park
Yellow-billed Oxpecker, Balule, Kruger Park
Mocking Cliff-Chat, Olifants, Kruger Park
Yellow-breasted Apalis, Sjukuza, Kruger Park

 

Kruger unplanned – Skukuza to Lower Sabie

Continuing the story of our unplanned week in Kruger in early September this year ……..

Skukuza

Our preference would have been to spend the entire week in Olifants camp in the northern part of Kruger, but last-minute booking meant we were limited to a maximum of 5 nights in Olifants and had to find accommodation in one of the other camps for the remaining 2 nights. We chose  Skukuza, the largest camp in Kruger and also a bit of a trip down memory lane as some of our first trips to Kruger had included stays in this  camp, which is geared to cater for large numbers of tourists and even boasts a conference centre nowadays.

On the way to Skukuza from Olifants we had a few interesting encounters, including a stately Verraux’s Eagle Owl, perched amongst branches in a roadside tree and peering from under those famous pink eyelids at the few cars that had stopped with a rather disdainful expression.

Verraux's Eagle-Owl, Kruger Park
Verraux’s Eagle-Owl, initially not terribly interested in our presence
Verraux's Eagle-Owl, Kruger Park
Verraux’s Eagle-Owl, deigning to look vaguely in our direction
Verraux's Eagle-Owl, Kruger Park
The famous pink eyelids

As we drove further, I spotted a soaring raptor high above and braked to get a view of it and rattle off some photos to help with the ID – it turned out to be a handsome Black-chested Snake-Eagle, probably out on the hunt for its next slippery meal.

Black-chested Snake=Eagle, Kruger Park
Black-chested Snake-Eagle

Then a bird of a different kind landed loudly in the road ahead of us just as we were approaching Tshokwane picnic spot – a “whirly bird” helicopter with a team of the anti-poaching unit on board, who had also stopped for a cold drink to boost them on their mission. May they be successful in curbing the atrocity of Rhino poaching!

Whirly bird, Kruger Park
Whirly bird at Tshokwane

Further on, a large herd of Cape Buffalo was grazing on both sides of the road, with some crossing the road to join the main group – I noticed some Cattle Egrets around and one hopped on the back of a Buffalo to hitch a ride as he crossed over in front of us, comically balancing like a surfer riding a wave, then flying off as the buffalo became too wobbly for its liking.

Buffalo herd, Kruger Park
Buffalo herd, Kruger Park
Cattle Egret on Buffalo, Kruger Park
Cattle Egret hitching a ride on Buffalo
Cattle Egret on Buffalo, Kruger Park
Cattle Egret decides its safer to fly

One feature we enjoyed after self-catering for the first 6 nights, was a candlelight dinner on the newly constructed deck overlooking the Sabie River and with a view of the iconic steel railway bridge in the background (as shown in the heading photo above). Admittedly not quite in keeping with the quintessential Kruger experience, but for us it made a nice change and the meal turned out to be excellent. The visit to the river below us of a small herd of elephants when we were halfway through our meal added some excitement to the unique location of the restaurant.

Skukuza deck, Kruger Park
Skukuza deck, Kruger Park
Skukuza deck, Kruger Park
Skukuza deck at night

Skukuza to Lower Sabie

When it came to deciding on a game drive for the one full morning we would be there, we settled on doing the drive that we knew would be busy but hopefully filled with good sightings, and we were not disappointed. The road between Skukuza and Lower Sabie camps is renowned for its big cat sightings, making it a drawcard for tourists who often spend just a couple of days in Kruger.

We set off from Skukuza well after gate opening time, hoping to avoid the early morning scramble and found the road to be reasonably quiet and devoid of other vehicles for the first stretch, allowing us to stop frequently for game and birds, without much disturbance.

Kudu, Kruger Park
Kudu with Red-billed Oxpeckers hanging on

Mkhulu picnic spot is located about halfway along the road to Lower Sabie and is the ideal spot for a brunch, positioned as it is on the banks of the Sabie river and shaded by grand old trees which seem to have been there forever. While preparing our meal on the skottel, a female Cardinal Woodpecker entertained us and our fellow picnickers as it hammered away at a cavity in a nearby overhanging tree, not letting up despite a growing audience just metres away beneath the tree, all pointing cameras at her.

Cardinal Woodpecker (female), Mkhulu,  Kruger Park
Cardinal Woodpecker (female), Mkhulu

Further avian entertainment was provided by Paradise Flycatchers and Purple-crested Turacos in an enormous Wild fig tree and as we packed up to venture further a Crowned Hornbill, unusual for this part of Kruger, flew in and promptly lay flat on the dusty ground for a minute or so, dust-bathing. Many birds do this to maintain their plumage – the dust absorbs excess oil and keeps the feathers from becoming too greasy. I was just too late to capture this behaviour on camera so had to be content with a few conventional “bird on a stick” poses.

Crowned Hornbill, Mkhulu, Kruger Park
Crowned Hornbill, Mkhulu
Crowned Hornbill, Mkhulu, Kruger Park
Crowned Hornbill, Mkhulu

Leaving Mkhulu, the road seemed busier and the way a couple of full safari vehicles passed us at speed (relative to our slow pace of course) suggested that they were on a mission – probably involving a “big cat” or two, at a guess. So we speeded up a tad while making sure we stayed within the 50 km/hour limit and followed the other vehicles. It wasn’t long before we came upon the first “scrum” of vehicles which told us there was something of interest.

The object of their interest turned out to be a Leopard, just visible on the far side of the river, resting in the shade of the riverside vegetation.

Leopard, Sabie River, Kruger Park
Leopard, Sabie River

A couple of kms further along the road, Lions were using the rocky outcrop next to the river as a vantage point and we endured another scramble of vehicles, manoeuvring to try to get a decent view.

Lion, Kruger Park
Lion, Kruger Park

Last stop before Lower Sabie was a brief one at the Sunset dam to view the resident hippos and the many birds lining the shore and wading in the shallows.

After enjoying coffee on the deck at Lower Sabie, we headed back to Skukuza without further stops to give us time for some relaxation on the stoep of our rondawel, more than satisfied with our morning’s outing.

 

Kruger unplanned – Olifants to Timbavati

Kruger has more Leopards than Warthogs – or that’s what the statistics are telling me, and statistics don’t lie ……….  do they?

So where on earth did that statistic come from?

Well, we spent a week in Kruger without seeing a single Warthog, yet we had two Leopard sightings during that same week, so on the face of it there is a better chance of seeing Leopard – and Lion which we saw several times – than Warthog.

Actually, as the week wore on, I became progressively more amazed that Warthogs were somehow eluding us – surely one of the animals that rate just below Impala on the “likely to see” list. It was quite bizarre that we did not find a single one and I still don’t know if there is a reason behind it – some sort of late -winter, early spring strike on their part perhaps?

Continuing the story of our unplanned week in Kruger in early September this year – there are several parts that make up the quintessential Kruger trip and without doubt the most important for all visitors is the wildlife encounters.

In between just enjoying the ambience of the camp and  a couple of bird atlasing trips, we did two specific and very contrasting game drives which were both filled with interesting sightings. The first of these was –

Olifants to Timbavati

We were into a pleasant routine of getting to bed early and waking early – something we don’t seem to be able to manage in our “normal” life. After coffee and rusks on our little stoep  with a view, we headed out and along the tar road, initially to the viewpoint high above the Olifants river, then further on to the bridge over the same river, where perhaps 100 or more Little Swifts were swooping back and forth under the bridge. It makes a pleasant change to be able to watch these aerial magicians from above rather than craning your neck to follow them in the air. It made me wonder why they fly under the bridge in this fashion – perhaps the goggas (bugs) gather in greater numbers there or are easier to catch, whatever it is the swifts carry on in this way all day.

Some way further on we turned right onto the S39 gravel road, which roughly follows the Timbavati river for about 28 kms. Suddenly the game proliferated with hundreds of Impala in places, a few Steenbok, typical plains game such as Zebra, Giraffe, Wildebeest and Buffalo, all of  which were quite relaxed and going about their daily routine.

Steenbok
Giraffe
Wildebeest

Small bird parties at regular intervals were reason to stop and identify the species – curiously the bird parties seemed to form each time we saw Sabota Lark with the likes of Blue Waxbill, Red-billed Queleas, Brown-crowned Tchagra, Long-billed Crombec, Black-backed Puffback and others close by.

Sabota Lark, Timbavati
Rattling Cisticola, Timbavati

Best of all, we came across an elegant Kori Bustard right next to the road, strutting about rather imperiously with head held like an aristocrat viewing the rabble. Two cars passed by without stopping and with no idea that they had missed viewing one of the most impressive birds in South Africa – also the heaviest flying bird in the world – so limiting when all that matters is the “big cat” sightings

Kori Bustard, about 1,35m tall, weighing around 12 kg
Kori Bustard

Not long after, a chatty guy in a Land Cruiser with family on board stopped us to ask where we had hidden all the lions. We chuckled and carried on, only to be stopped again by the same chap, now parked at the side of the road and gesticulating towards a nearby tree, where we soon saw the object of their excitement – a male lion resting not far from the road.

Lion, Timbavati

He was lazing with his back mostly towards us, so we could not get a good view of his features but we took this in for a while, then continued past the Piet Grobler dam and the hide overlooking the river ( no water so we did not bother to stop) and turned off at a viewing spot when we spotted a herd of elephants approaching from further up the dry river bed.

We watched as they came closer, ambling along the river bed in their slow, measured fashion one by one. Just then Gerda exclaimed “lions” and there they were, a male and two females further up on the opposite bank of the river, looking magnificent against the backdrop of the rocky bank and watching carefully as the elephants passed by below them.

Lions and Elephants, Timbavati
Lions and Elephants, Timbavati

One of the younger elephants decided to show the lions who’s the boss and momentarily turned towards them and made as if he was going to chase them up the river bank – the lions retreated and the satisfied elephant carried on following the herd, which had by now veered off and over the opposite bank. Another of those magic moments of interaction between the dominant species, which we were fortunate to enjoy with just one other couple in a sedan.

Lions, Timbavati
Lions, Timbavati

More than pleased with this sighting we proceeded to nearby Timbavati picnic spot for a slap-up brunch of paw paw with yoghurt and a “full english” breakfast done on the skottel. On the way back along the S127 Ntomeni road, White-crowned Shrikes suddenly featured, usually a sign that the habitat has subtly changed, while a pair of Gabar Goshawks flew across the road directly in front of us, one of them a  dark morph, entirely black except for white barred flight feathers, the other a pale morph, with mostly dove grey  colouring.

Back on the tar road H1 – 4, the only further interest was at the bridge where we had stopped earlier – a large group of vultures had gathered on the sand some way up the river, so I set up the scope and was able to identify White-backed, Lappet-faced and Hooded Vultures plus a Marabou Stork looking like a mournful gate-crasher.

That was enough action for the day so we took it easy back at the camp with tea, a snooze and an evening wors braai (sausage barbeque) to see out the day.

Kruger for a Day – Five minutes of Bird Photography heaven

“Skulking and inconspicuous”

“Shy and inconspicuous, keeping to dense cover”

“Fairly secretive”

Despite what some people close to me may suggest, none of these descriptions refer to me –

they are in fact extracts from Roberts Birds of Southern Africa, describing the habits of three bird species which are more often heard rather than seen. So, to be presented with an opportunity to photograph all three of them in quick succession, with another more conspicuous species thrown in for good luck, is a chance in a thousand and I took it with open arms……… and an open lens.

As is often the case, the opportunity arose unexpectedly – we were on a day trip through Kruger in April this year, wending our way slowly on a circular route from Phabeni gate via Skukuza to Numbi gate, and decided to stop at the Skukuza Day Visitors area for a picnic lunch. (See my previous post on “Painted Wolves and a Weary Lion” for more on the trip). The morning had gone well with a variety of birds seen and a rare sighting of a pack of Wild Dogs as the highlight, but by now we were looking forward to a break.

We chose a shady table in a bushy section and greeted the only other group using the area as we passed their equally secluded spot.

Skukuza day visitors area

While the provisions were being laid out, I pottered about to see what bird life was around at this time of day, usually a quieter time for birding. At the swimming pool several Barn Swallows, Rock Martins and Greater Striped Swallows were swooping about enthusiastically and I heard an African Fish Eagle call from the river – not seeing much else I was content to join the others for lunch. The refried boerewors from last night’s braai accompanied by traditional braaibroodjies went down a treat along with coffee.

Skukuza day visitors picnic spot

When it came time to pack up, I wandered off to investigate some rustling and faint bird sounds that seemed to be coming from  nearby bushes and did a quick recce of the surrounding area. By this time our picnic neighbours – the only other people in the area – had left and as I passed their spot I saw some movement in the bushes close to their table.

Using the concrete table as a rather inadequate concealment, I crept closer and sat crouched on the bench, with my camera on the table and checked that it was set up for the shady conditions – aperture priority, high ISO setting for adequate shutter speed, white balance on shade.

Almost immediately a Sombre Greenbul (Gewone Willie / Andropadus importunes) hopped onto an exposed branch and looked straight at me, while I whipped my camera into position and rattled off 3 or 4 shots before it moved on and out of sight – the time as recorded in the photo metadata was 12:24:47.

Sombre Greenbul
Sombre Greenbul

A minute later a White-browed Robin-Chat (Heuglinse janfrederik / Cossypha heuglini) popped out into view and I followed its progress through the foliage for the next two minutes, snapping it in different poses.

White-browed Robin-Chat
White-browed Robin-Chat

By now my adrenaline level was rocketing and I could not believe my luck when yet another skulker appeared in the form of a Terrestial Bulbul (Boskrapper / Phyllastrephus terrestris), a species that usually spends a lot of time scratching around in the leaf litter, but had now decided to pose in full view on a small branch – time 12:29:08.

Terrestial Brownbul
Terrestial Brownbul

By this time I was battling to hold the camera steady as my hands were shaking from the excitement but the photography gods were really out to test my mettle when less than a minute later a Green-backed Cameroptera (Groenrugkwekwevoel / Camaroptera brachyuran) suddenly appeared from nowhere and did the same branch-walking act for my pleasure – time 12:29:50.

Green-backed Camaroptera
Green-backed Camaroptera

So in the space of 5 minutes and 3 seconds I had bagged pleasing photos of 3 skulkers and one other desirable bird and left me with a life-long memory of a very special birding moment.

 

Perilous Plastic Pollution

I’m not in the habit of using my blog for any sort of crusade, but this article in the latest “WILD” online newsletter published by SA National Parks struck a chord with me and it’s worth sharing some of the thoughts on plastic pollution – surely one of the bigger threats to our wonderful natural world :

With thanks to Wild Magazine for permission to copy their blog : http://wildcard.co.za

The war against plastic pollution is far from over and its devastating destruction reaches beyond our oceans. As avid travellers to southern Africa’s many national parks and reserves, be inspired by Earth Day on 22 April and ditch plastic for good. By Arnold Ras

Earth Day, celebrated on 22 April, encourages all humans to change their attitude towards plastic consumption. Made to last forever, plastic piles up in the environment, because only a small percentage is recycled and the rest cannot biodegrade.

You can make a difference. Exploring the wilderness as a conscious, responsible and say-no-to-plastic visitor is not as challenging as you might think. By swapping single-use plastics with some nifty products, you too can fight the plastic pandemic.

What the straw?

What’s nicer than enjoying the mind-blowing view from the Olifants Rest Camp deck while sipping on something cold? Whether you’re in the popular Kruger National Park or enjoying some downtime at a wildlife reserve in Swaziland, have a straw-free drink. Admittedly, there’s a childlike appeal to drinking from a straw – it might take you back to long ago picnics next to the water or a game drive with loved ones at sunset. If you can’t imagine drinking without sipping, make sure your straw is biodegradable. You can find straws made from eco-friendly materials such as bamboo, paper or glass at select retailers or online. Carry your own straw(s) with you so you’re always prepared.

Scary fact: Every day, yes, every day, half a million straws are used around the world.

Fill it up!

Many of South Africa’s national parks and reserves are famous for their awe-inspiring hiking trails. But imagine tackling one without a drop of drinking water. The African sun is no one’s playmate and staying hydrated is key. Why consume water from disposable bottles when you can simply refill a re-usable, durable and stylish water bottle that safeguards the planet? By drinking from recyclable stainless steel or aluminium, renewable bamboo or glass, you’re not only making a difference, but leading by example. When purchasing a wiser water bottle, read the packaging to ensure the product is BPA-free, non-toxic and non-leaching (doesn’t give off chemicals).

Scary fact: Ever thought how much humanity weighs? Well, every year, the global amount of plastic produced is roughly the same weight as humanity in its entirety.

Picnic without plastic

When it comes to picture-perfect picnic spots at Wild destinations, the list is simply endless. Sit next to the Augrabies Falls, marvel at the confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo rivers in Mapungubwe, or step back in time in the Cederberg. All you have to do is pack a scrumptious picnic basket. A picnic basket is the ideal alternative to carrying lunch items in plastic bags. Prepare dishes at home and pack in re-usable containers. And for those interested in investing in green cutlery and crockery: do some online exploring to find everything from plates and bowls to knives and spoons crafted from wood or bamboo. Either way, remember to take back home what you brought into a protected nature or wildlife environment. Even better, join a recycling initiative in your residential area and put your waste to good use.

Scary fact: Every minute, almost two million single-use plastic bags are distributed around the world.

‘It’s not mine…’

That chocolate wrapper you’re standing on, the juice bottle under a thorn tree or the empty crisp packet pushed around by the wind… It might not be yours, but picking it up won’t kill you. Doing your bit to reduce plastic use is simply not enough. It’s just as important to stop plastic from polluting our favourite places. If picking up others’ trash is not your thing, consider this statistic from the United Nations: “There is more microplastic in the ocean than there are stars in the Milky Way.” Remember, others’ devil-may-care attitude towards plastic is not only threatening the future of our natural heritage, but your very existence too.

Scary fact: Yearly, eight million metric tons of plastic end up in the ocean – and it’s only getting worse.

Do yourself a favour and Google “plastic pollution in South Africa”. You will think twice before using a plastic bag or asking for a straw the next time you visit one of our country’s wild treasures.

Touring with Canadians – Part 2 : Kruger is Awesome!

The Plan

When “Overseas Family” come to visit us in South Africa, it is always a big occasion which is eagerly anticipated, so we were thrilled when niece Sarah announced more than a year ago that she was bringing their family from Canada over to Southern Africa for a “Trip of a Lifetime” in March 2017. Even better was the news that my sister Sheila (Sam to them) would be joining them for the trip.

Our task was to organise the northern leg of the trip, which had to include Kruger National Park with Victoria Falls and Botswana being high on their wish list. We soon had a Kruger booking pinned down, together with a short stay on the Panorama route in Mpumulanga, which took care of most of week 1 of the two-week northern leg.

The Trip

A day after their arrival in SA we set off around 8 am, the vehicle and trailer loaded to capacity, heading east through Highveld grassland and the coalfields of Mpumulanga, power stations just visible in the distance through the light haze.

First stop was at Milly’s near Macahdadorp for a really good brunch – Millys scramble for me – and strong coffee to set us up for the next stint. Past Nelspruit and on to White River and Hazyview, then a slow section passing through almost continuous rural villages and slow traffic until we at last reached Kruger gate at 3.15 pm.

At the gate we heard that the Skukuza / Tshokwane road was closed due to a bridge damaged by floodwaters and the gate personnel suggested we turn around and head further north to Orpen gate. This idea did not appeal to me one bit, as my quick calculation told me we would not make it in time, so I insisted that the detour route in Kruger via Lower Sabie would be far better.

They let us through, but I knew that we would now have to cover some 150 km, which at the 50 km/h Kruger speed limit would also mean a very late arrival at Satara and we would have no spare time for game viewing.

Fortunately the traffic was light, but this did not apply to the bird life on the road, which was plentiful and lethargic, so much so that I had to be fully alert to try to avoid them when they flew up, sometimes towards the car instead of away from it. This resulted in some sharp braking and much hysterical laughter, but unfortunately a few unavoidable casualties as well, leading to comments from some of the passengers about the driver being a so-called keen birder and naturalist, but having an alter-ego bird-killer personality. What can I say? I’ve been found out.

None of this was conducive to the relaxed drive I had hoped for when introducing visitors to Kruger, nevertheless we made good time and reached Satara at 6.05 pm as the gate was being closed, somewhat exhausted.

We saw a fair amount of game along the way but often just fleeting glimpses due to not having any time to stop or even slow down. However, one short stop at a dam with a pod of Hippos caused great excitement.

After settling in at Satara, we braai-ed some wors and it was not too long before we collapsed into bed.

The “gardens” at Satara
Red-billed Hornbill “shadow boxing” , Satara

Nwanetsi Drive

We were up reasonably early, in a far more relaxed frame of mind and ready for a more conventional game drive at a relaxed pace. Our one full day in Kruger needed to be a classic and the obvious choice of a route from Satara was the road to Nwanetsi for brunch – a route that is almost guaranteed to have a selection of plains game and other interesting sights. Once again it did not disappoint……..

Elephant
Waterbuck
Red-billed Queleas

As we meandered slowly along the S100 gravel road through the  open tree savannah south-east of Satara, we had regular game sightings, every one causing much excitement and amazement amongst our visitors, even the animals we have come to regard as mundane, so that there was a constant buzz in our vehicle.

Vervet Monkey

It was a reminder of how privileged we are in this country with our wonderful National Park system and the joy of the Kruger experience, while seeing it all through fresh eyes added a special dimension.

Along the way we had good views of Zebra, Giraffe, Waterbuck, Wildebeest, Kudu and others, while on the birding side I stopped for some of the more striking species – European Rollers were plentiful, Woodland Kingfishers not far behind, African Hawk-Eagle showed nicely and Vultures were easy sightings. Hornbills are always a favourite with visitors, being easily visible and we saw several Yellow- and Red-billed Hornbills.

European Roller
Woodland Kingfisher
Wahlberg’s Eagle

The sighting of the day was reptilian – two crocodiles at a low water bridge with a shallow stream of water flowing over it, swollen by the recent heavy rains. They were waiting patiently at the downstream edge with jaws open, ready to snap shut if a fish was swept their way – about as up close and personal as I have ever been to these large reptiles! As we slowly edged across the bridge, the car’s wheels disturbed the flow, causing the crocs to back up warily before returning to their positions once we were past.

Crocodile at weir hoping for a fish to swim into its jaws
Grey Heron, hoping the croc misses a fish or two

Brunch at Nwanetsi was a real bush breakfast spread – eggs, bacon, mushrooms, beans, tomatoes and bananas – Alex provided essential help to the chief cook (me).

Nwanetsi viewpoint

A short, steep walk took us to the viewpoint above the picnic spot with its sweeping views over the surrounding veld, then we headed slowly back to Satara, diverting briefly to the Sweni hide, where there was not much activity. Back in camp it was time for a lengthy nap to rekindle the energy, followed by some relaxation and the evening braai.

Satara to Phabeni Gate

In order to make the most of our short stay in Kruger, we returned the same way we had come – via Lower Sabie and onwards to Phabeni gate. The trip turned out to be a lot longer than expected – for good reasons as we had some very exciting sightings along the way – 3 Rhinos, 2 Lionesses and to end with a bang, 2 male Lions right next to the road.

Impala rutting

The buzz in the car went up a level or three and on top of these special sightings we saw upwards of 200 elephants in small and large herds at various points along the way. What a wonderful way to conclude our short trip to Kruger and to be able to share these great sightings with our visitors!

Waterbuck
Lower Sabie view
Southern Ground Hornbill

To make it easier on the passengers (and driver) we stopped regularly – firstly at Tshokwane picnic spot for coffee and muffins, then at Lower Sabie for a lunch of toasted sandwiches and finally at Lake Panic hide near Skukuza for a brief look at the birds. Strangely the hippos that usually frequent Lake Panic were not visible.

Bush buck, Lake Panic
Pied Kingfisher, Lake Panic
Green-backed Heron (Juvenile), Lake Panic
African Jacana, Lake Panic

The trip through Kruger took all of 8 hours compared to the 2.5 hours it took on the way in!

Lower Sabie – our only Leopard sighting

But it was the special sightings that had all of us enthralled.

The 3 Rhinos were grazing peacefully in long grass some distance from the road, offering brief views of their unique horns now and again.

White Rhino, Satara-Lower Sabie

We came across the 2 Lionesses walking on one side of the road, then crossing the road and continuing leisurely on their way into the long grass on the other side.

Lioness, Satara-Lower Sabie

The male Lions gave us a great show as we first saw one right next to the road, with a car parked next to it virtually within touching distance, but also mostly obscuring it from view. The car’s occupants seemed to have the attitude that the lions belonged to them and no one else, as they showed no inclination to move and allow anyone else a decent view – very frustrating!

However, luck was on our side as Alex (our new chief spotter) saw a Lion approaching out of the bush and I quickly got our vehicle into position when it flopped down in the road just a few metres further, with unhindered views for a few minutes before we decided to move on. The temptation to thumb our noses at the selfish people in the other car was great, but good manners got the better of us.

Lions, Phabeni area
Lions, Phabeni area

All that remained of our Kruger expedition was to exit at Phabeni Gate, with the time now 5.30 pm, and find our way to Graskop, then on to Thaba Tsweni lodge for the next leg of the trip – more on that in a future post.

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Week in Olifants – The Road to Mopani

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 to Mopani

Mopani lies north of Olifants with Letaba camp and Mooiplaas picnic spot en route – it’s a great option for a longer outing from Olifants camp and we chose to do it on the Monday of our week-long stay.

Olifants to Letaba
Olifants to Letaba

Setting off at around 8.30 am, we initially set our sights on Letaba camp – the first 9 km to the main H1 road was quiet and set the tone for large parts of the day.  The veld has taken a severe knock during the past few years of drought or poor rainfall and is non-existent in places, while the trees are mostly bare at this early stage of Summer and the earth is parched to a grey/brown colour.

In these conditions, the rivers which still have small pools of water and the waterholes stand out as oases of life, with concentrations of game and bird life gathering at these spots. The Olifants river is one such oasis and once you reach the H1 road to Letaba, the great river runs alongside it for a few kms, albeit at some distance.

Nevertheless the road was still close enough to make out Yellow-billed Stork (Nimmersat), Goliath Heron (Reusereier), Pied Wagtail (Bontkwikkie) in the river itself and an African Hoopoe (Hoephoep) closer to the road amongst dry leaves which matched its brown colouring.

African Hoopoe, Olifants river
African Hoopoe, Olifants river

The next 20 kms to Letaba runs through very arid habitat and my atlasing effort in the pentad that it encompasses resulted in just two species in half an hour’s slow driving – a Brubru (Bontlaksman) and a Yellow-billed Kite (Geelbekwou).

By this time Letaba’s Mugg and Bean was beckoning us for a mid-morning coffee which we enhanced with a shared Date and Nut Muffin (M&G’s muffins are formidable so even sharing one means you each get a decent portion).  Brown-headed Parrots (Bruinkoppappegaai) made their presence known in the overhanging trees as we relaxed on the Letaba stoep with its wonderful view of the Letaba river.

Letaba to Mooiplaas and Mopani
Letaba to Mooiplaas and Mopani

After our coffee break, the next stop was the bridge over the Letaba, where you can alight from your car in the demarcated area and look for game and birds in the river bed. We were rewarded with several birds including Saddle-billed Stork (Saalbekooievaar), Ground Hornbill (Bromvoël), Great White Egret (Grootwitreier) and African Openbill (Oopbekooievaar).

Southern Ground Hornbill
Southern Ground Hornbill

A lone European Bee-eater (Europese Byvreter), clearly a bit earlier to arrive in Southern Africa than the majority of his kind, brightened up our birding and was also the only one we saw during the week.

The next stretch to Mooiplaas picnic spot was a longish one, initially running next to the Letaba river with short approach roads leading to and from the river at regular intervals, well worth investigating each one as the game and bird life often gathers in the river bed, enjoying the relatively lush habitat.

Giraffes in river, Letaba
Giraffes in river, Letaba
Letaba - Mopani road
Letaba – Mopani road

Spoonbill (Lepelaar), Great Egret (Grootwitreier), Marabou Stork (Maraboe) were all present and hawking White-fronted Bee-eaters (Rooikeelbyvreter) added their flash of colour to the scene)

Leaving the river behind, we travelled through bush Mopane habitat all the way to Mooiplaas, with a couple of strategically placed waterholes providing some relief from the rather monotonous, arid landscape. Malopenyana waterhole had attracted flocks of Namaqua Doves (Namakwaduif) and Chestnut-backed Sparrowlarks (Rooiruglewerik), quenching their thirst along the water’s edge.

Chestnut-backed Sparrowlark
Chestnut-backed Sparrowlark

Mooiplaas picnic spot is another veritable oasis, surrounded by trees and with a thatched, pinnacle-shaped roof over the central picnic area. Immediately we were entertained by the comings and goings of a variety of bushveld birds, with accompanying song, and our spirits lifted as we enjoyed a simple brunch of tea and buns.

Mooiplaas picnic spot, KNP
Mooiplaas picnic spot

The trees were busy with Orange-breasted Bush Shrike (Oranjeborslaksman), Black-backed Puffback (Sneeubal), Red-headed Weaver (Rooikopvink) and all three common Hornbills – Southern Red-billed, Southern Yellow-billed and Grey (Rooibek- Geelbek- en Grys-neushoringvoëls)

Red-headed Weaver, Mooiplaas picnic spot
Red-headed Weaver, Mooiplaas picnic spot
Grey-headed Bushshrike, Mooiplaas picnic spot
Grey-headed Bushshrike, Mooiplaas picnic spot

A short drive further took us to Mopani camp for a brief visit and some light Bird atlasing from the deck overlooking the dam which is a feature of this camp. On the opposite shore I could make out Grey-headed Gull (Gryskopmeeu) – a new species for my KNP list, African Jacana (Grootlangtoon), White-faced Duck (Nonnetjieseend), Collared Pratincole (Rooivlerksprinkaanvoël) and Goliath Heron.

On the game side, there was enough to satisfy us outside the extremely arid stretches and the Mopane-dominated parts, with all of the regular animals sighted and as a bonus we had a good sighting of several Tsessebe, one of the rarer antelopes in Kruger, near Mopani camp.

Blue Wildebeest, Mopani
Blue Wildebeest, Mopani
Tsessebe near Mopani
Tsessebe near Mopani
Giraffe, Letaba-Mopani road
Giraffe, Letaba-Mopani road

Giraffe, Letaba-Mopani road KNP

Our next short trip was from Olifants to Timbavati picnic spot – more about that in the next post