Category Archives: National Parks

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

 

 

 

 

 

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.