Category Archives: National Parks

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

 

 

 

 

 

A Week in Olifants – The camp and short drives

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.

There are two basic options when you plan a week’s stay in Kruger – spend two nights each in say three of the rest camps or book the whole week in one camp. Both options have pros and cons, but I must say our preference nowadays is the latter which means less travelling and more relaxing. It becomes less urgent to take a game drive every day, particularly when the camp itself offers “add-ons” such as swimming pools, decent coffee shop/restaurant, activities such as bush walks and of course the potential birding on offer in the camp itself.

Olifants camp has all of the above and the added advantages of its location on top of a ridge, with its famous viewpoint overlooking the Olifants river far below and stretching to the horizon in an unbroken vista of pristine bushveld, one of the finest spots in Kruger and one that has remained unchanged for the four decades that we have been visiting it.

Olifants rest camp, KNP
Olifants rest camp
Olifants rest camp, KNP
The viewing deck
Olifants rest camp, KNP
Olifants river far below

Recovery Time

Two full days of driving for Gerda and myself, three for Andre and Geraldine and the girls, meant our first day in Olifants was a recovery day and the unseasonably chilly, very windy conditions were in any case not conducive to pleasant game watching and bird-spotting. So we spent the whole day in camp, alternating between walks, eating and enjoying tea and coffee breaks.

Olifants rest camp, KNP
Our Rondavel

A trip to the restaurant for milkshakes was the treat of the day for the kids (young and old ones) followed by an “Ellie-roll” prepared at our rondavels – bacon and egg on a bun with fried onions and avo, plus beans on the side – it has to be prepared in Olifants camp to earn its name, otherwise it’s just a breakfast bun.

OLifants rest camp, KNP
OLifants rest camp
Olifants rest camp, KNP
Olifants rest camp

A morning birding walk around the camp added a few new birds to our trip list, among them Yellow-bellied Greenbul, Chinspot Batis, Amethyst Sunbird, White-bellied Sunbird and Crested Barbet, all of which are fairly easy to spot in the camp.

Olifants rest camp, KNP
Olifants rest camp
Chinspot Batis, Olifants KNP
Chinspot Batis
Klaas's Cuckoo, Olifants KNP
Klaas’s Cuckoo
Laughing Dove, Olifants KNP
Laughing Dove

Hornbills for Africa

On another morning I had some fun photographing the almost ever-present Hornbills in the trees and on the ground around the rondavels, both Yellow-billed and Red-billed species. They are ridiculously easy to photograph, the only challenge is getting a different view of them and not just settling for the “posing on a branch” shot.  I tried getting down to ground level for some of the photos, which worked quite well

Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill, Olifants KNP
Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill picking up scraps of food
Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill, Olifants KNP
Old “Banana Bill”
Southern Red-billed Hornbill, Olifants KNP
Southern Red-billed Hornbill – OK so this is the standard shot
Southern Red-billed Hornbill, Olifants KNP
Southern Red-billed Hornbill with a bug delicately held in that cumbersome looking bill and a “How dare you” look in his eyes

Late one afternoon I came across this individual who had clearly been taking a dust bath…..

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

Short Drives around Olifants

One option for a shorter drive from Olifants is the circular route that follows the S44 outbound and returns on the S93 and this was our chosen route early one morning.

Kruger maps
The circular route follows the S44 and S93

The frequent river views had enough game and other interesting sights to keep us alert and the birding proved to be excellent with the likes of Common Scimitarbill, Paradise Flycatcher, Red-headed Weaver, Grey Tit-Flycatcher and Little Bee-eater making their presence known.

A longer stop at the viewpoint, where you can get out of the car (whilst still keeping an eye out for wild animals of course), meant we could enjoy a tea and snacks – the genuine Kruger Park kind being two Provita biscuits with cheese wedges carefully squashed in between – the staple food of hiking trips.

Olifants river from viewpoint, KNP
Olifants river from viewpoint on the S44
Dragonfly ?, Olifants river KNP
Dragonfly, Olifants river
Plant (Wild Iris?) growing in dead tree, Olifants river KNP
Plant (Wild Iris?) growing in dead tree, Olifants river

As we were standing around with our mugs of tea, a different looking bird caught my eye – it turned out to be a White-throated Robin-Chat, which sat obligingly still so that I could photograph it from close quarters.

White-throated Robin-Chat, Olifants river KNP
White-throated Robin-Chat, Olifants river

At the same time a very tame squirrel (suspiciously so – had he been drinking?) decided to entertain us, worrying Geraldine and even jumping onto my leg at one stage – no idea what he was thinking, it’s not as if I had some nuts hidden in my shorts.

Tree Squirrel (from hell!), Olifants river KNP
Tree Squirrel (from hell!)

Later on the same day we headed out on a short drive to Balule camp and back, along the S92, spending time at the several river viewpoints and on the low water bridge at Balule, taking in the classic river scenes in the soft late afternoon light – “golden hour” for photographers.

Kruger maps
The road to Balule follows the S92
Bridge views at Balule, KNP
View from the low water bridge at Balule

The short route had plenty of interest, from Waterbuck to White-fronted Bee-Eaters. A displaying Red-crested Korhaan entertained us briefly with its vertical flight and tumbling fall back to earth, while a Green-backed Heron put in an appearance at the bridge, moments after Andre predicted seeing one there – with some training this boy will go far!

Waterbuck, Olifants KNP
Waterbuck
White-fronted Bee-eater, Balule KNP
White-fronted Bee-eater

River Walk from Olifants

Nowadays there is a selection of activities available from most of Kruger’s camps and we decided to do the mid-morning River walk along a stretch of the Letaba river not far from the camp. On checking in for the walk we discovered we were to be bit-part actors in a promotional video and had to “pose” here and there.

Letaba River walk, KNP
And ACTION

The guides drove to the starting point at a low water bridge accessed via a “no-entry” road. Along the way a pair of African Hawk-Eagles soared overhead and at the bridge we could spot African Jacana, Black Crake, Wire-tailed Swallows and a swooping African Harrier-Hawk.

The walk started at the bridge and we headed in single file down the river (or was it up?) our guides in front, stopping frequently for lessons in the various aspects of the surroundings including animal droppings – a science in itself it seems, river vegetation, trees, freshwater mussels and skeletal remains of animals such as Hippo and Buffalo.

Letaba River walk, KNP
Letaba River walk
Letaba River walk, KNP
Letaba River walk

Birds along the river included Goliath and Grey Herons, African Openbill, Egyptian Goose (of course) and Spoonbills. Calls emanating from the riverine bush belonged to Grey-headed Bushshrike, Black-headed Oriole and some noisy Tawny-flanked Prinias amongst the longer grasses.

Letaba River walk, KNP
Letaba River walk

We purposely skirted around two lone Buffaloes – called “dagha-boys” for reasons which guide Patrick explained nicely – one of which watched us curiously as we ambled past. Hippos were seen at a distance and Waterbuck and Impalas scattered at our approach. The walk was not particularly strenuous and it wasn’t long before we turned around and headed back to the vehicle, well pleased that we had booked for this outing.

Letaba River walk, KNP
Buffalo – “dagha-boy”
Letaba River walk, KNP
Letaba River

And the Baboons…….

Well they, along with the monkeys, are a real nuisance around the rest camp. On checking in at Reception they do warn you to keep your edibles inside and windows closed when not around, but these crafty animals find ways of getting what they want – grabbing goodies from vehicles while you unpack, opening cupboards on the stoep and even rummaging in the dustbins which are kept in a small enclosure behind a metal gate, which they simply jump over as it is not enclosed on the top.

Baboon nuisance, Olifants camp KNP
Baboon nuisance, Olifants camp

They also rate as some of the most aggressive animals I have come across, growling at me when I confronted them as they were busy trashing our neighbouring rondavel’s provisions. The only deterrent is a good old cattie (catapult) – they scatter at the sight of it!

 

 

 

A Week in Olifants – getting there

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 in and out respectively.

Once again our visit was inspired by Andre and Geraldine who came all the way from Mossel Bay with their two daughters (our grandkids) to visit what is probably their favourite place on earth for the umpteenth time.

Writer Samuel Johnson once said “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life” which can equally be said of Kruger National Park, especially if you are a lover of nature and the unique beauty of unspoilt Africa, but it may be as well to change “a man” to “a person” so that no one feels left out.

Friday : The trip to Berg en Dal

We were packed and ready to go by mid-morning and caught up with the Leonards, who had left earlier, at Milly’s near Machadadorp, where we had the customary Trout pie with salad, as delicious as ever. After Milly’s the road narrows and traffic got heavier so it was slow going all the way through Schoemanskloof and past Nelspruit to Malelane gate into Kruger.

As we crossed the Crocodile river just before the gate, Kruger performed its magic trick yet again, changing our mood in an instant from rather stressed concentration to one of relaxation and eager anticipation. Never mind that the first stretch showed signs of the severe drought and veld fires, just being in Kruger creates a state of mind like no other, as the stresses that modern life brings seem to physically drain away.

The 10 kms to Berg en Dal rest camp were uneventful with game and birds quite scarce – just a few Giraffe, Kudu and Impala in the greener parts and the bird life mostly confined to the hardier species such as Magpie Shrikes (Langstertlaksman), Fork-tailed Drongoes (Mikstertbyvanger) and Cape Glossy Starlings (Kleinglansspreeu).

Berg en Dal camp, KNP
Berg en Dal rest camp

Just before 4 pm we arrived at Berg en Dal, which we last visited several years ago and we were soon settled in No 73, enjoying tea with the sounds of Purple-crested Turaco (Bloukuifloerie), Grey-headed Bushshrike (Spookvoël) and Black-headed Oriole (Swartkopwieliewaal), each with its own very distinctive call, in the background.

Berg en Dal camp, KNP
Berg en Dal rest camp

A group of Retz’s Helmet-Shrikes (Swarthelmlaksman) put in a surprise appearance, not staying for long as they moved through the tree canopy in ragged unison. Later a few other calls demanded my attention – Greater Honeyguide (Grootheuningwyser) with its “Victorrrrr”, Arrow-marked Babblers (Pylvlekkatlagter) as raucous as ever, good old Hadeda Ibises (Hadeda) outdoing the others in sheer volume and the shrill call of a Water Thick-knee (Waterdikkop) near the Reception. After dark it was the turn of the African Scops Owl (Skopsuil) to take over night duty with its soft “prrrtt” call carrying far through the camp gardens.

Saturday : The Long Drive to Olifants

I was up early for a walk through Berg en Dal camp in welcome soft rain, adding several species on call alone, including Grey Tit-Flycatcher (Waaierstertvlieëvanger), whose soft trilling call has become a familiar one to me, Orange-breasted Bushshrike  (Oranjeborslaksman) whose call is known to many birders as “coffee, tea or me?”, Sombre Greenbul (Gewone willie), Green-backed Camaroptera (Groenrugkwêkwêvoël) and Black-backed Puffback (Sneeubal).

After my walk I joined the rest of the family in loading the cars – a surprise awaited when I picked up our suitcase to take to the car – hiding beneath it was a scorpion with tail raised threateningly. Turned out it was a relatively harmless type, so I was glad I ignored the calls to destroy it and carefully transported it outside.

Scorpion, KNP
Scorpion, Bergendal rest camp – the large claws point to a more harmless species but still capable of a painful sting

On the drive back to the main road to Skukuza, we added Golden-breasted Bunting (Rooirugstreepkoppie), Lesser Striped Swallows (Kleinstreepswael) – colourful in the soft cloud-filtered light – and White-backed Vultures (Witrugaasvoël) to close out the Berg en Dal pentad at 37 species.

Lesser Striped Swallow, Berg en Dal KNP
Lesser Striped Swallow, near Berg en Dal

The long trek to Olifants lay ahead – 210 kms does not normally present a challenge but at Kruger Park speeds of 50 km/h maximum and stops along the way it meant a minimum 7 hour drive was on the cards.

No shortage of game and birds…..

Regular sightings of game and birds and comfort / snack breaks at Afsaal and Tshokwane picnic spots meant the journey was never boring. Afsaal was also the place where we had a brief rendezvous with Andre’s brother Eddie and while enjoying a coffee an elephant close to the picnic spot caused some excitement and had us seeking the relative safety of the undercover area.

Afsaal picnic spot - Elephant nearby, KNP
Afsaal picnic spot – picnickers scatter as an Elephant approaches
Afsaal picnic spot - Elephant nearby, KNP
The Elephant got uncomfortably close before ambling off

Game sightings kicked off with a roadside sighting of an adult White Rhino with a youngster, followed by more distant but regular sightings of Kudu, Elephant, Giraffe and more Steenbok that I can recall seeing on any previous trip.

White Rhino, Berg en Dal KNP
White Rhino
Steenbok, KNP
Steenbok – one of many seen mostly alone and vulnerable-looking

A lone antelope near a waterhole looked different and turned out to be a Grey / Common Duiker, despite its name not an everyday sighting in Kruger.

Common Duiker
Common Duiker

A large herd of Buffalo crossing the road at their usual slow pace caused a minor traffic jam, and a Hippo out of the water presented an unusual sight as it grazed in a grassy spot near the river.

Buffalo
Buffalo
Hippo, Ngotso
Hippo, Ngotso

“Big cat” sightings were limited to a pair of lazy Lions lolling under a shady tree, while near Skukuza a crowd of vehicles had gathered near a tree with a dead Impala in the fork – clearly a Leopard kill stored in the “pantry” to mature, but there was no sign of the butcher and we did not have the time to hang around and see if it returned.

Lazy Lion
Lazy Lion
Leopard prey
Leopard prey

The birding was equally up to expectations with regular new species added to the trip list. Bird sighting of the day was an African Harrier-Hawk / Gymnogene (Kaalwangvalk)  moving through the bush, being mobbed by Fork-tailed Drongoes (Mikstertbyvanger) at every turn. One Drongo displayed partial leucism with some white on the top of its head.

African Harrier-Hawk, Afsaal area KNP
African Harrier-Hawk, near Afsaal
Fork-tailed Drongo (the white blotch on its head is a slight aberration)
Fork-tailed Drongo (the white blotch on its head is probably partial leucism in this normally all-black bird)
Brown Snake-Eagle, Satara - Tshokwane road KNP
Brown Snake-Eagle, Satara – Tshokwane road

Just after passing Skukuza, a flock of 100+ Marabou Storks (Maraboe) circled in a massive column – just as a plane took off from Skukuza’s airport and seemingly flew right through the middle of the column, fortunately without striking any.

Mazithi dam just after Tshokwane had a bevy of waders exploring the very shallow waters, including Common Greenshank (Groenpootruiter), Little Stint (kleinstrandloper), Common Sandpiper (Gewone ruiter) and Ruff (Kemphaan), and a lone Cattle Egret (Veereier).

Common Greenshank, Mazithi dam (Satara Tshokwane road) KNP
Common Greenshank, Mazithi dam (Satara – Tshokwane road)

Closer to Olifants we came across 3 Ground Hornbills Bromvoël), one of which was a juvenile which had been ringed and which I photographed for submission to the research team doing a study of Ground Hornbills in Kruger.

Southern Ground Hornbill, KNP
Adult Southern Ground Hornbill
Southern Ground Hornbill, KNP
Juvenile Southern Ground Hornbill, ringed for ID by a research group
Saddle-billed Stork, Ngotso (Olifants - Satara road), KNP
Saddle-billed Stork

A lone Saddle-billed Stork (Saalbekooievaar) at Nyamarhi waterhole was one of our last sightings before arriving at Olifants rest camp around 4.30 pm, quite tired after the long day on the road, and settling into Rondavel No 37 for the week’s stay, in good condition after restoration work (the rondavel that is)

More about Olifants rest camp and the routes taken on our game and birding drives in forthcoming posts……..

 

 

Karoo National Park – Just for a Night

“The most important reason for going from one place to another is to see what’s in between…………”
Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth   

OK I’ve never heard of him either, but this line from his book nicely sums up our approach to travel – we like to take it slow and easy on our longer road trips, and we love visiting new places, be they towns not visited before or just a guest house on the way that we have not used before.

Last November, when we travelled to Mossel Bay for our annual long stay, we decided to make an overnight stop at the Karoo National Park near Beaufort West, in the heart of the Karoo, before tackling the last stretch to Mossel Bay.

We have stayed in many of our National Parks at one time or another but never in this particular one – one night is not much on which to judge a place but we made the most of our short time there and came away more than impressed.

The Park

Map of Karoo NP

Proclaimed in 1979, the rest camp was opened in 1989 and the park now covers around 90,000 hectares which can be explored along the park’s 130 kms of scenic drives. The Park holds a variety of wildlife including Lion and several antelope species such as Eland, Springbok, Red Hartebeest and Klipspringer.

Animals such as Aardwolf, Bat-eared Fox, Caracal and Brown Hyena occur here, all sought after species for those who like finding the more unusual species, although being nocturnal species they are not easily seen.

The varying altitudes and Karoo habitat make for an environment which provides a home to animal and plant species not generally found elsewhere.

Exploring the park

Once settled in our chalet, around 5 pm,  I took a short drive in the immediate vicinity of the chalets and found a bird hide overlooking a small pond with dense reeds, where I was able to spend quality time viewing the bird life. The reeds were alive with Weavers and Bishops, which afforded close-up views as they went about their business, chattering away like excited teenagers on a school outing. In the water were Little Grebe, Grey Heron and Moorhen.

Southern Masked-Weaver
Southern Masked-Weaver
Southern Red Bishop
Southern Red Bishop
Southern Red Bishop (Female)
Southern Red Bishop (Female)

A short drive down the main entrance road, bordered on both sides by typical Karoo scrub, produced a few of the species that favour this habitat, such as Karoo Scrub-Robin (love its Afrikaans name of “Slangverklikker” which translates to “Snake detector”), Rufous-eared Warbler, Lark-Like Bunting, Grey-backed Cisticola and a lone Karoo Long-billed Lark on top of a small bush, calling with its distinctive loud descending whistle.

Karoo Longbilled Lark
Karoo Longbilled Lark

As the sun set I headed back to the comfortable chalet with its million dollar view of the surrounding mountains.

Karoo Natl Park-6 Karoo Natl Park-5

We had not made any provision for self-catering and made our way to the Park’s restaurant for a most enjoyable meal, served by the super-friendly staff (no, I don’t get paid for this, they really are great). While eating we heard the churring sound of a nightjar – either European or Rufous-cheeked which are similar sounding.

White-necked Raven
White-necked Raven

Next morning, before breakfast I ventured a bit further, taking the Klipspringer Pass that winds its way up into the surrounding mountains, affording wonderful views of the surrounding Karoo landscape.

Karoo Natl Park-10 Karoo Natl Park-8

Scanning the ridges at one point I was thrilled to find a Short-toed Rock-Thrush – a species I had only seen for the first time a few months earlier – this is something that happens time and again – takes years to find a particular species but once the ice is broken you see it easily. Close by a Klipspringer was standing elegantly on a rocky ledge, unperturbed by the sheer drop below.

Short-toed Rock-Thrush (taken long-distance - excuse the quality)
Short-toed Rock-Thrush (taken long-distance – excuse the quality)
Klipspringer
Klipspringer

Up on the plateau the views were outstanding and enjoying them with me were African Pipit, Mountain Wheatear and Karoo Long-billed Lark (again). On the way back down the twisty road a pair of Verraux’s Eagles cruised far below and settled on the rocks.

Karoo Natl Park-14

Klipspringer, Karoo National Park

African Pipit
African Pipit

After breakfast it was time to leave – our stay had been too short, albeit long enough to rate this as a well-run, friendly and desirable place to spend a few days – even the outside brass taps were shiny, a sure sign of excellent management!

The last birds to greet us on the way out were Pririt Batis – such a distinctive call – and Ostrich, which I was happy to tick, being in a National Park.

A Week in Kruger – Satara to Muzandzeni

The Route

This lesser known route is not renowned for its big five sightings but there is every chance of seeing a variety of game, with the added pleasure of getting off the beaten track for a while and enjoying a picnic spot that you will often have all to yourselves.

The route starts by heading south from Satara camp for about 10 kms where you turn right (west) on to the S 126 which marks the start of the gravel road to Muzandzeni picnic spot, a drive of about 22 kms which should take an hour or more, including stops to view game and birds as you come across them.

This stretch winds along the Sweni river for much of the way, but don’t expect there to be water during the winter months and early summer before the rains set in. The roadside scenery is dominated by many large trees, interspersed with open areas which look ideal for the big cats to use as hunting grounds.

After a break at Muzandzeni, whether for coffee/tea, or a full-blown brunch, the best way back to Satara is to complete the circle by heading north along the S 36 gravel road which joins up with the H7 Orpen-Satara tar road after about 10 kms and from there it’s an easy 20 km run along the H7 back to Satara, with a recommended stop at the Nsemani dam which usually has something of interest.

Habitat

This description from the krugerpark.co.za website sums up nicely what to expect along the Sweni river road (S 126):

“The Sweni River Road is a surprisingly tropical landscape given that it is so far south of the Tropic of Capricorn. Many old Kruger hands insist that it is the Sweni that marks the start of the north rather than the Olifants River. Southern Lala-palms and combretums dominate the grassy floodplains between the river and the road, giving the bush a distinctly Zimbabwean feel”

An extract from the Kruger Park map book shows the route :

Muzandzeni-14

The Drive

We made our way slowly along the S 126 to Muzandzeni, stopping for a number of raptors, including a pair of preening Bateleurs close to the road, which we sat and observed for some time, and a pale form of Wahlberg’s Eagle perched in a tall tree.

Bateleurs preening
Bateleurs preening
Bateleur
Bateleur
Wahlberg's Eagle (Pale form)
Wahlberg’s Eagle (Pale form)

Vultures and particularly nesting Vultures were a feature of this drive as we encountered at least 4 different nests with Vultures in attendance. Vultures that we identified included the common White-backed Vultures, of which there were many, as well as the scarcer Lappet-faced, Hooded and White-headed Vultures.

The average visitor to Kruger probably won’t spend much time looking at vultures, other than to see if they are near a kill, but the chances of seeing four Vulture species on one drive are slim, so I for one was very appreciative of these sightings.

White-backed Vulture
White-backed Vulture
White-backed Vulture
White-backed Vulture
Hooded Vulture
Hooded Vulture

Rounding off the raptor feast was a large Tawny Eagle, always impressive to look at and ruggedly good-looking.

Tawny Eagle
Tawny Eagle

Game was a bit sparse compared to some of the other drives we had done around Satara but we nevertheless enjoyed some good sightings of small groups of the more common species, including Kudus backlit by the early morning light, a lone Steenbok resting in the grass and a few Dwarf Mongeese (oh-oh should have seen that coming, now I’ve got to figure out the plural of Mongoose – it’s actually Mongooses!)

Kudu beautifully backlit by early morning son
Kudu beautifully backlit by early morning son
Dwarf Mongoose
Dwarf Mongoose

Mosque Swallows were a nice surprise – in my experience they are usually only seen a lot further north in Baobab country.

Mosque Swallow
Mosque Swallow

Muzandzeni Picnic spot

The picnic spot has a remote feeling to it – like being in the “middle of nowhere” – don’t be surprised if an Ellie or two passes by on the way to the nearby waterhole, also favoured by Zebra amongst others.

Muzandzeni
Muzandzeni
Zebra, Muzandzeni
Zebra, Muzandzeni
Zebra juvenile, fluffy stripes and all
Zebra juvenile, fluffy stripes and all

Our brunch was leftover steak from the previous night’s braai, cut into strips and fried on the skottel with onions and tomato, then plied onto a hamburger bun – delicious!

Muzandzeni brunch
Muzandzeni brunch – leftovers never tasted so good!

Back to Satara

Heading back we were on the lookout for the lions at a buffalo kill that we had heard about from Andre’s brother Eddie, visiting from Holland, and sure enough they were at the spot he had described, near an almost bare buffalo carcass.

With the temperature nudging 38 degrees C, we were happy to head back to Satara for a relaxing rest of the day, having extracted the maximum enjoyment from yet another Kruger drive.

Steenbok
Steenbok taking to the shade

A surprise awaited us at the rondavel, in the form of a Fruit Bat , hanging under the thatched overhang – quite a cute looking bat don’t you think? Like a teddy bear with wings.

Fruit Bat, Satara
Fruit Bat, Satara

Sources :

Krugerpark.co.za

Sanparks Guide to Kruger National Park

A Week in Kruger – Satara to Timbavati

Timbavati  x 3

With part of our family group otherwise engaged (Andre and Megan had returned to Joburg for a schools competition) and the remainder taking the opportunity to spend some quality time in Satara, I used the opportunity on two mornings to do some birdmapping (that’s the new terminology for “atlasing”) at my own pace ie driving at an ultra-slow pace and stopping frequently, which is the best way to birdmap / atlas effectively but can be frustrating for those not involved in the process.

Both birdmapping  drives took me to Timbavati picnic spot for a coffee and rusks break and when Andre and Megan returned it was the destination of choice once again, making it three visits in all during the week.

The Routes

There are a few options when heading to Timbavati, which lies north-west of Satara, and the choice of route will depend on how much time you wish to spend driving and whether you prefer tar or gravel roads, the latter being a lot slower but often more productive.

One option is to take the H7 tarred road west towards Orpen, then turn off northwards onto the S40 gravel road at the Nsemani dam about 7 kms from Satara and follow this road to Timbavati.

Travelling further along the H7 will take you to turn-off to the S39 gravel road, which meanders along the Timbavati River for much of the way – a longer route but well worthwhile.

The other option is to head north from Satara towards Olifants along the H1-4, then take a left at the S127 which winds through arid bushveld for about 9 kms to the picnic spot. This route means less driving on gravel but is not as productive game-wise (and birding-wise) as the first options

Whichever route you choose it makes sense to take one of the other routes back to Satara so that you cover the greatest area and increase your chances of interesting sightings along the way.

Habitat

The S39 and S40 roads take you through mixed woodland with the S39 staying close to the Timbavati river, although during the dry season the river will be dry for most of the way other than a few pools left after the long dry winter

River Scene, Timbavati Road
River Pool, Timbavati Road

The open plains are generally better for game while the mixed woodland provides good birding opportunities as well as the chance for some close encounters with game.

An extract from the Kruger Park map book shows the routes :

Satara to Timbavati routes
Satara to Timbavati routes

The Game

Game is not as abundant along the S39 and S40 as it is on the open plains east of Satara, however small groups of game are often encountered grazing or pursuing some other activity quite close to the road, affording good close-up views

On my first trip I came across two Lions at the Giravana water hole, just chilling as they are wont to do.

Lion, Girivana, Timbavati Road S40
Lion, Girivana, Timbavati Road S40
Lion, Girivana, Timbavati Road S40
Lion, Girivana, Timbavati Road S40

Regular sightings of some of my favourites kept things interesting – Giraffe, Kudu and Blue Wildebeest amongst others

Giraffe
Giraffe
Kudu
Kudu
Kudu
Kudu
Blue Wildebees
Blue wildebeest

No drive would be complete without coming across a monkey or two……

Vervet Monkey
Vervet Monkey, always so alert

Surprise of the one trip was a brief Leopard sighting, seen crossing the river and disappearing into the thick bush before I could get a camera focused on him.

The Birding / Birdmapping

Taking it slow and easy to make the most of the available birds, I built up some healthy lists as I passed through the various pentads (roughly 8 x 8 kms square) on the way to Timbavati, spending a bit more time in some of the pentads which I had identified earlier as lacking some birdmap attention in 2015.

Highlights were many :

  • Gabar Goshawk swooping across the road and “attacking” a spider’s nest and apparently feeding on the contents
Gabar Goshawk
Gabar Goshawk
  • Black- and Brown-crowned Tchagras in quick succession in the roadside bushes
  • Kori Bustard pair in the long grass
Kori Bustard, Timbavati Road
Kori Bustard, Timbavati Road
  • Flock of White-winged Widowbirds still in their winter plumage
  •  Red-billed Oxpeckers on a Zebra
Red-billed Oxpecker
Red-billed Oxpecker
  • Sabota Larks perched on top of trees and singing cheerfully
  •  Black Crake patrolling a small pool
Black Crake
Black Crake
  • A handsome Tawny Eagle perched high up in a tall tree
  • Red-crested Korhaan calling in its distinctive fashion right next to the road, boldly showing its black front then turning to show just how well camouflaged it can be in the dry grass
Red-crested Korhaan - front view while calling - can hardly miss him
Red-crested Korhaan – front view while calling – can hardly miss him
Red-crested Korhaan - viewed from the back - now he is well camouflaged
Red-crested Korhaan – viewed from the back – now he is well camouflaged
  • Purple Roller
Purple Roller
Purple Roller

Closer to Timbavati a Grey-Tit Flycatcher was moving through the canopy, emitting its typical high-pitched trilling call which I had only just got to grips with on this trip, having heard it several times in Satara as well.

Grey-Tit Flycatcher
Grey-Tit Flycatcher

More proof that many birds are extremely habitat specific was the numbers of European Bee-Eaters in one spot but nowhere else to be seen.

Timbavati Picnic Spot

The two mornings that I spent birdmapping, I arrived at Timbavati when it was quite busy – full of happy groups of visitors enjoying a brunch in this special setting overlooking the river, albeit dry at this time of year.

On the morning that we visited as a family we arrived a little earlier and had the place to ourselves for a while. Andre and Geraldine  soon had the gas going and the skottel frying merrily and it wasn’t too long before we were tucking into another delicious brunch.

Timbavati picnic spot
Timbavati picnic spot, before the visitors descend on it for brunch
Timbavati brunch in preparation
Timbavati brunch in preparation
Timbavati still has the same chairs I remember from our first visits more than 40 years ago!
Timbavati still has the same chairs I remember from our first visits more than 40 years ago!

On the way to Timbavati we had taken the Olifants road then turned left onto the S127 – not much game was encountered but one lone, large elephant had us reversing a short way until he started feeding on the road verge and we grabbed the chance to get past safely. Interesting was the way he pulled out green bushes using his trunk and front leg in a sideways kicking motion to dislodge them from the hard dry ground.

Birding was slow that morning until we reached the picnic spot where several birds were vying for “loudest call” honours. Orange-breasted Bush-Shrike was a clear winner with its piercing but tuneful call from a nearby tree, but others were almost as active especially Crested Francolin and Natal Spurfowl trying to outdo each other with their equally raucous calls as they wandered around amongst the tables.

Back to Satara

On the return trip to Satara along the S127, a flock of Chestnut-backed Sparrowlarks made for an unusual sighting, as did a pair of tiny, colourful Quailfinches quenching their thirst at a small pool below a bridge on the tar road.

We had briefly diverted to Piet Grobler dam not far from the picnic spot, where a lone Yellow-billed Stork and Black-winged Stilt were new additions to the trip list, taking it to 126 species.

Yellow-billed Stork, Timbavati Road
Yellow-billed Stork, Timbavati Road
Timbavati Road
Timbavati Road

Back at Satara it was time for a snooze and some relaxation to get us through the hot afternoon, with the temperature heading to the mid 30’s again.

Sources :

Krugerpark.co.za

Sanparks Guide to Kruger National Park

A Week in Kruger – Satara to Nwanetsi

The Route

The next drive during our stay in Satara was also one of my Kruger favourites – the drive eastwards from Satara to Nwanetsi picnic spot which lies close to the border with Mozambique.

We had planned to do a circuit, first taking the S100 gravel road eastwards, which branches off the H1-4 tarred road just south of Satara camp. This becomes the S41 to Nwanetsi and we would return via the H6 tarred road back to Satara.

At Nwanetsi there is a dam which can be viewed from a roofed viewpoint on the ridge overlooking it. The Sweni hide, overlooking a small dam, and the low water bridge can be accessed on the return trip by taking the branch left at the S37 and travelling for a few kms

Habitat

The S100 meanders through open tree savanna with mostly Marula, Knob-thorn acacia, Leadwood, Sickle-bush and Russet bushwillow trees. The H6 tarred road is more direct but passes through similar habitat

An extract from the Kruger Park map book shows the route :

Best to go out on the yellow S 100 road and return on the H5 red road
Best to go out on the yellow S 100 road and return on the red H6 road

The Drive

An early start saw us driving the S100 – always good for plains game and today was no exception as we came across a selection of game in quick succession.

Waterbuck, Satara - Nwanetsi S100
Waterbuck, Satara – Nwanetsi S100
Impala, Satara - Nwanetsi S100
Impala, Satara – Nwanetsi S100
Black-backed Jackal, Satara - Nwanetsi S100
Black-backed Jackal, Satara – Nwanetsi S100
Blue Wildebeest, Satara - Nwanetsi S100
Blue Wildebeest, Satara – Nwanetsi S100

Signs of battles for dominance amongst the game were present – both Impala and Waterbuck were clashing horns. Nothing serious – more like a playful enactment of an ancient ritual as they butted each other lightly and tried to twist the opponent’s horns so that they would “bow” in submission.

Impala males
Impala males
Waterbuck males
Waterbuck males

As we watched this we noticed a few cars gathered up ahead and immediately knew it was a “cat” sighting as no other event attracts so many cars in a short space of time. It turned out to be two Cheetahs some 150m from the road, lying and then standing, the one clearly pregnant judging by the heavy-looking belly.

Cheetah, Satara - Nwanetsi S100
Cheetah, Satara – Nwanetsi S100

Cheetahs are probably the most sought after sighting so we were really pleased to have been in the right spot for them.

Further along more excitement awaited, this time tinged with some tension as we rounded a bend and came across a fallen tree partly blocking the road, with the remaining opening  ominously guarded by a large tusker. To add to the tension another large bull elephant was eyeing us from the bush to one side.

Elephant road block, Satara - Nwanetsi S100
Elephant road block, Satara – Nwanetsi S100

With no way through we waited …….  and waited, but the two elephant guards showed no inkling to move along as they fed on the fallen tree. Eventually one motorist behind us braved the bush and looked for a way past without disturbing the ellies. They emerged on the other side and waved, so we followed suit and found a well-trodden game path running through the bush which they had used – we were soon speeding along to Nwanetsi for a much-needed toilet break!

All the while I was continuing to atlas the bird species we came across – so easy with the Birdlasser App which uses gps to automatically pinpoint the position of each sighting and allocate it to the correct pentad (5 x 5 minute block of co-ordinates which is about 8 x 8 km in size)

Bateleur
Bateleur
Crested Francolin
Crested Francolin
Goliath Heron
Goliath Heron

Nwanetsi

Time for a brunch and some birding around the picnic spot. I walked up the small hill to the viewpoint over the dam below and the bush stretching into the distance and found a number of species

  • Pied Kingfisher
  • Pied Wagtail amongst the rocks on the river
  • Great Egret flying between the ponds looking for the best fishing spot
  • Spectacled Weavers moving about busily and calling their sharp call
  • Green=backed Cameroptera calling from the bush
Nwanetsi Viewpoint
Nwanetsi Viewpoint
Nwanetsi Viewpoint
Nwanetsi Viewpoint
Lizard, Nwanetsi Viewpoint
Lizard, Nwanetsi Viewpoint

After brunch we left the picnic spot and headed firstly to the low water bridge on the S37 but found it dry and returned to the Sweni bird hide along the same road for a better view  of the dam. There we found some Impala, warily approaching the water where a large crocodile was resident.

Crocodile, Sweni Hide
Crocodile, Sweni Hide
Wary Impala, Sweni Hide
Wary Impala, Sweni Hide

The resident bird population were going about their business while we watched from the comfortable hide

  • White-faced Ducks
White-faced Duck, Sweni Hide
White-faced Duck, Sweni Hide
  • Black Crake
  • Water Thick-Knee
  • Red-capped Robin-Chat (unusual in this habitat)
Red-capped Robin-Chat, Sweni Hide
Red-capped Robin-Chat, Sweni Hide
  • Waders such as Wood Sandpiper and Three-banded Plover
  •  The ubiquitous Egyptian Goose
Egyptian Goose, Sweni Hide
Egyptian Goose, Sweni Hide

The rest of the journey back to Satara was on tar and with less game visible so we did not dawdle too much, nevertheless we enjoyed seeing Zebra close up with a juvenile whose stripes were still fluffy and brown – looking cute enough to want to pat him.

Burchell's Zebra, Satara - Nwanetsi S100

On the birding side we did spot a Brown Snake-Eagle and Red-crested Korhaan not far from the road

The rest of the day was a relaxing mix of our typical Kruger activities – some resting, enjoying the quiet of the camp, a swim late afternoon and closing out the day with a braai with the family.

Sources :

Sanparks Guide to Kruger National Park

A Week in Kruger – Satara to Olifants

The Route

Kicking off our stay in Satara we decided our first drive would follow the H1-4 main tarred road which heads north, branching off onto the Olifants camp road after crossing the river

After the previous day’s long drive from Pretoria, we enjoyed a good night’s rest, only surfacing after 7.30 am for coffee and rusks on the stoep before packing the brunch goodies and setting off for Olifants camp after 9.30 am.

Habitat

The drive initially takes you through open savanna grassland, changing to more rocky landscape closer to Olifants, where the habitat is known as Olifants rugged veld and is the transition between the woodlands of the south and the mopaneveld of the north.

Most common trees are Knob-thorn Acacia, Umbrella Acacia, Marula, Ebony Jackalberry and Red Bushwillow. The open savanna is favoured by the grazers such as antelope, zebra and their predators, with plenty of Vultures gathered at carcasses

An extract from the Kruger Park map book shows the route :

Map of route from Satara to Olifants (the grid is my hand-drawn guideline for atlasing)
Map of route from Satara to Olifants (the grid is my hand-drawn guideline for atlasing)

The Drive

The savanna grassland was particularly dry and barren after the winter, but the few waterholes and dams which still had some water kept things interesting , with plenty of Elephant, Giraffe, Waterbuck, Kudu and Impala plus a few Steenbok here and there, looking so small and defenceless in this environment.

Waterbuck
Waterbuck
Waterbuck
Waterbuck
Kudu
Kudu
Impala early morning
Impala early morning
Steenbok
Steenbok

On the birding side we started with a juvenile Black-chested Snake-Eagle and added regularly to the list, particularly when we stopped at Ngotso Water Hole some 20 kms north of Satara where we found Sabota Lark, Blue Waxbills, Ostrich, Lesser Striped Swallow, amongst others. This is the main water hole in the area, man-made and fed by the vlei area surrounding it.

Black-chested Snake-Eagle (juvenile)
Black-chested Snake-Eagle (juvenile)
Blue Waxbill
Blue Waxbill

At the Olifants Bridge you can get out of the vehicle in the designated zone to enjoy the scenes on both sides and the bird life(Little Swifts by the 100’s, African Spoonbill, Yellow-billed Kite, Green-backed Heron).

Scene from Olifants river bridge
Scene from Olifants river bridge
Scene from Olifants river bridge
Scene from Olifants river bridge
Little Swift
Little Swift
Green-backed Heron
Green-backed Heron

Further along, the road stays close to the river for a few km’s before turning off to Olifants camp. A lone elephant was making his way slowly across the mostly dry river bed to where a few Impalas were drinking at a pool – such a classic scene I just had to stop and let it soak into my memory. It’s these simple scenes that are what Kruger is all about and why we keep coming back after 40 + years of visiting our national treasure.

Olifants Camp

At Olifants camp we went straight to the picnic area where Andre and Geraldine were already parked and Megan and Maia were in the swimming pool. By now it was 35 deg C and the heat felt tangible, but as Geraldine reminded us, this is exactly what you expect in Kruger in summer – best embrace it and don’t try to be too active.

Andre conjured up a “brunch sandwich” on the skottelbraai (like an old ploughshare used for frying on a gas cylinder) with scrambled egg, fried lean bacon, fried onions and avo – delicious! Not that we were ravenous by then or anything. All part of the Kruger traditions/must-do’s!

While he was busy I couldn’t help noticing that the fallen Mopane tree leaves looked uncannily like a butterfly, so I positioned one on the tree trunk ……

Mopane leaf "Butterfly", Olifants camp
Mopane leaf “Butterfly”, Olifants camp

After brunch it was  time for the next must-do – as we walked slowly down to the restaurant area and viewpoint (Gerda and I cheated and drove – the extreme heat you know) below the restaurant to enjoy the timeless landscape below and stretching to the horizon in a 180 degree sweep. In all the years we have been visiting Kruger the view has not altered one bit – other than the effects of the different seasons – a testament to the foresight of the founders of the Park and those charged with looking after it.

In the river far below, some 30 to 40 Elephants of various ages were enjoying the pools of water as they moved slowly across the wide Olifants River, which flowed in several streams interspersed with rocky islands and stretches of sand and reeds.

Olifants camp viewpoint
Olifants camp viewpoint

Olifants camp viewpoint Olifants camp viewpoint Olifants camp viewpoint Olifants camp viewpoint Olifants camp viewpoint

Numbers of birds were visible – lots of Egyptian Geese but also plenty of white egrets (Great, Yellow-billed and Cattle were all represented), Marabou Storks, Hamerkop, Grey Heron, African Openbill and Saddle-billed Stork.

Great Egret
Great Egret

Tearing myself away from what has become one of my favourite spots in all of Kruger, I went off to find the rest of the family, who were busy with that other traditional pursuit – shopping. And who can blame the girls (old and young), with some pocket-money and nowhere else to spend it but in the tempting Kruger Park shops.

The road back to Satara was quiet, with birds rather than animals being the only reason for stopping – Red-billed Oxpeckers using Kudu as a feeding station, Kori Bustard some way from the road and a Yellow-throated Longclaw perched near the road.

Yellow-throated Longclaw
Yellow-throated Longclaw

The rest of the day was dedicated to camp activities – swimming in the large pool, and a late afternoon braai

Sources :

Krugerpark.co.za

Sanparks Guide to Kruger National Park