Tag Archives: Kruger National Park

Kruger in Winter – Lazy Birding

One of the great pleasures of birding in Kruger National Park is that you don’t necessarily have to go on a game drive to find a variety of birds. Birding the camp on foot is often a very productive way of building up a list of bird sightings and, if you are fortunate, you may be allocated a rondavel or chalet with surrounds that bring the birds to you.

Most of Kruger’s camps attract many birds with their well developed trees and gardens, as well as the bush that surrounds the camps, and there is no better way to enjoy the diverse bird life than sitting on your small stoep, sustained by regular injections of appropriate beverages, watching the passing show of birds and occasional animals.

As I mentioned in my last post, we were lucky to get a booking in Olifants camp for 5 nights during the last week of the winter school holidays – prime time in Kruger – and were doubly lucky to get a rondavel with “River view”, which are very sought after.

When we arrived at Olifants and drove to our rondavel after checking in, we were thrilled to see just how good our “river view” was – a view that started with the fence a couple of metres away, then dense bush and trees all the way down the steep slope to the river far below, where we could already make out an elephant or two and some hippos in the pools that form amongst the rocky course of this iconic river.

The River View from our stoep

Over the next 5 days, between the customary game drives, we spent as much time as possible on our small stoep, from early morning coffee to sundowner time, just chilling, reading and seemingly not concerned with our immediate surroundings, but ready at any moment to check out a nearby bird in the bush or more distant ones flying across the river below.

Seen from the Stoep…..

Here are some of the birds that came by to visit us, all taken from our stoep:

Orange-breasted Bushshrike (Chlorophoneus sulfureopectus / Oranjeborslaksman), Olifants camp
Jameson’s Firefinch (Female) (Lagonosticta rhodopareia / Jamesonse vuurvinkie), Olifants camp
Dark-capped Bulbul (Pycnonotus tricolor layardi subspecies / Swartoogtiptol), Olifants camp
Spectacled Weaver (Ploceus ocularis / Brilwewer), Olifants camp
Acacia Pied Barbet (Tricholaema leucomelas/ Bonthoutkapper), Olifants camp
White-throated Robin-Chat (Cossypha humeralis / Witkeeljanfrederik), Olifants camp
Brown-crowned Tchagra (Tchagra australis / Rooivlerktjagra), Olifants camp
Green-winged Pytilia (Juvenile) (Pytilia melba / Gewone melba), Olifants camp
Tawny-flanked Prinia (Prinia subflava / Bruinsylangstertjie), Olifants camp
Long-billed Crombec (Sylvietta rufescens / Bosveldstompstert), Olifants camp

And others….

The bush in fron of our rondavel was alive with bird life for most of the day and we saw many more than those photographed above, including the likes of …..

Black-headed Oriole

Brown-headed Parrot

Golden-tailed Woodpecker (who decided to “shadow-box” a supposed rival in our car’s external mirror on the day we packed to move on)

Grey-headed Bush-shrike

And to round off, a couple of non-bird visitors………

Tree Squirrel
Wasp? Not really sure but an attractive insect

Kruger in Winter – Looking at Wildlife

It’s a strange thing, this love of Kruger National Park – come the winter months with the highveld air getting drier and colder as we move into June and July, my thoughts involuntarily turn toward the bushveld wilderness where we have spent so many relaxing times.

Gerda knows by now to expect me to express my longing, sometimes subtly, other times more direct – “ooh, I wish we were in Kruger” or “did you hear so and so are in Kruger, lucky devils” or words to that effect. Then when she says “don’t you want to book a week for us?”, I naturally react with surprise and reply “what a good idea”.

And that’s how we found ourselves on the road to Olifants camp in early July this year. Surprisingly, we had found space in a standard Olifants camp rondavel in the last week of the school holidays, after finding the rest of July all but fully booked up in our preferred camps. We were lucky to get 5 nights in Olifants and another 3 nights in Lower Sabie and Pretoriuskop.

We go to Kruger to relax ……. and to look at wildlife, This time around I had this odd feeling they were looking at us – animals and birds alike – what do you think?

The Horned Animals

Buffalo, Olifants area, Kruger Park
Blue Wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus), Olifants area, Kruger Park
Waterbuck, Olifants area, Kruger Park

Unhorned and harmless

Bushbuck, Pretoriuskop, Kruger Park
Steenbok (Raphicerus campestris), Olifants area, Kruger Park

The Cute Youngsters

Baboon, Olifants area, Kruger Park
Spotted Hyena pup, Tshokwane area, Kruger Park

The Smaller Animals

Tree Squirrel, Olifants area, Kruger Park
Dwarf Mongoose, Pretoriuskop, Kruger Park

A Predator

Cheetah, Lower Sabie area, Kruger Park

The only Disinterested Animal

White Rhino, Lower Sabie area, Kruger Park

Even a Reptile

Water Monitor, Olifants area, Kruger Park

And Birds, of Course

Trumpeter Hornbill (Male) (Bycanistes bucinator / Gewone boskraai), Lower Sabie camp, Kruger Park
Yellow-billed Stork (Mycteria ibis / Geelbekooievaar), Lower Sabie area, Kruger Park
Burchell’s Coucal (Centropus burchellii / Gewone vleiloerie), Lower Sabie area, Kruger Park
Swainson’s Spurfowl (Pternistis swainsonii / Bosveldfisant), Lower Sabie area, Kruger Park
Greater Blue-eared Starling (Lamprotornis chalybaeus / Groot-blouoorglansspreeu), Tshokwane, Kruger Park
Tawny-flanked Prinia (Prinia subflava / Bruinsylangstertjie), Olifants area, Kruger Park
Chinspot Batis (Male) (Batis molitor), Olifants area, Kruger Park
Swainson’s Spurfowl (Juvenile) (Pternistis swainsonii), Olifants area, Kruger Park

And a tree knot looking like an Owl, looking at us

Owl-faced tree, Olifants area, Kruger Park

So if you find yourself in Kruger, or any other Park, looking at wildlife, I’m sure you will find them looking at you as well

My Photo Picks for 2018

With the new year in its first week, it’s time to select a few photos which best represent our 2018. In some cases, selection is based on the memory created, in others I just like how the photo turned out, technically and creatively  

If you have any favourites, do let me know by adding your comment!

The Places

This was an unusual year for us, in that for the first time in several years we did not journey outside Southern Africa once during the year.  But we made up for that with plenty of local trips, such as –

Champagne Valley resort in the Drakensberg

Champagne Valley Drakensberg

Annasrust Farm Hoopstad (Free State)

Sunset, Annasrust farm Hoopstad

Pine Lake Resort near White River (Mpumulanga Province)

Pine Lake Resort

Mossel Bay – our second “Home” town

Mossel Bay coastline

Oaklands Country Manor near Van Reenen (Kwa-Zulu Natal)

Oaklands Country Manor, near Van Reenen

La Lucia near Durban (Kwa-Zulu Natal)

La Lucia beach

Shongweni Dam (Kwa-Zulu Natal)

Shongweni Dam

Onverwacht Farm near Vryheid (Kwa-Zulu Natal)

Controlled burn on Onverwacht Farm

Kruger Park Olifants camp

Bungalow roof, Kruger Park

Herbertsdale area (Western Cape) – atlasing

Herbertsdale area

Karoo National Park near Beaufort West (Western Cape)

Karoo National Park

Kuilfontein Guest Farm near Colesberg (Northern Cape)

Kuilfontein, Colesberg – the drought has hit this area badly

Verlorenkloof (Mpumulanga)

Verlorenkloof – view from upper path

Lentelus Farm near Barrydale (Western Cape)

Lentelus Farm near Barrydale

The Wildlife

With visits to Kruger National Park, Karoo National Park and Chobe Game Reserve in Botswana, there was no shortage of game viewing opportunities and it turned out to be a great year for Leopards

Kruger National Park

African Wild Dog, Kruger National Park

Zebra, Kruger Park

Leopard, Phabeni road, Kruger Park

Karoo National Park

Waterhole scene, Karoo National Park

Klipspringer, Karoo National Park

Chobe Game Reserve

The eyes have it

Chacma Baboon, Chobe River Trip

Hippo, Chobe River Trip

Wild but beautiful

Leopard, Chobe Riverfront game drive

Leopard, Chobe Riverfront game drive

Who needs a horse when you have a mom to ride on

Chacma Baboon, Chobe Riverfront game drive

Oh, and the news is hippos can do the heart shape with their jaws – they don’t have fingers you see

Hippo, Chobe River Trip

The Birds

Bird photography remains the greatest challenge – I am thrilled when it all comes together and I have captured some of the essence of the bird

Great Egret flying to its roost

Great Egret, Annasrust farm Hoopstad

White-fronted Bee-eaters doing what they do best – looking handsome

White-fronted Bee-eater, Kruger Day Visit

White-browed Robin-Chat

White-browed Robin-Chat, Kruger Day Visit

The usually secretive Green-backed Camaroptera popping out momentarily for a unique photo

Green-backed Camaroptera, Kruger Day Visit

African Fish-Eagle – aerial king of the waters

African Fish Eagle, Kruger Park

Kori Bustard – heaviest flying bird

Kori Bustard, Kruger Park

Little Bee-eater

Little Bee-eater, Olifants, Kruger Park

Black-chested Snake-Eagle

Black-chested Snake=Eagle, Kruger Park

Crowned Hornbill – he’ll stare you down any day

Crowned Hornbill, Mkhulu, Kruger Park

Kittlitz’s Plover

Kittlitz’s Plover, Gouritzmond

Large-billed Lark in full song

Large-billed Lark, Herbertsdale area

Village Weaver – busy as a bee

Village Weaver, Verlorenkloof

Thick-billed Weaver – less frenetic, more particular about its nest-weaving

Thick-billed Weaver, Verlorenkloof

African Jacana with juveniles

African Jacana, Chobe River Trip

Juvenile African Jacana – a cute ball of fluff with legs longer than its body

African Jacana, Chobe River Trip

Reed Cormorant with catch

Reed Cormorant, Chobe River Trip

Blue-cheeked Bee-eater

Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, Chobe River Trip

White-crowned Lapwing

White-crowned Lapwing, Chobe River Trip

 

Wishing all who may read this a 2019 that meets all of your expectations!

Kruger unplanned – just Chilling

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

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

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

Time in the Camp

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

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

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

  • a Natal Spurfowl mommy with 4 teeny bopper youngsters spent time scratching in the dry leaf litter and dust bathing

Natal Spurfowl, Olifants

Natal Spurfowl

  • Red-winged Starlings turned up hoping for handouts,

Red-winged Starling, Olifants (in case some sharp individual queries this, the photo was taken on another trip at the time of year when the Aloes are in flower)

  • as did some Red-billed Hornbills

Red-billed Hornbill

  • Tree Squirrels joined the Spurfowls in the leaf litter, finding titbits to eat, then cutely holding it with two tiny paws while nibbling

Tree Squirrel

  • The resident Striped Skink entertained us with its antics on the verandah wall – another skink passing by got the treatment as it dared to intrude on skink no 1’s territory – backs were reared and skink no 2 skirted widely around and made haste to get away. Thoughts of soccer’s “the Special One” crossed my mind for some reason.

Striped Skink, Olifants

  • Banded Mongoose in small groups, foraging in the soil and leaf litter, keeping in contact with each other with their continual high-pitched twitter.

Banded Mongoose

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

Tree Spotting

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

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

Trees 101 : Sausage Tree, Olifants

The bright green foliage is visible from a distance

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

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

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

Trees 101 : Round-leaved Bloodwood, Olifants

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

As the name suggests the leaves are unusually round

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

 

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

 

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

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

Trees 101 : Hedge Euphorbia, Olifants

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

Kruger unplanned – a Brief Encounter

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

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

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

Leopard, Phabeni road, Kruger Park

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

Leopard, Phabeni road, Kruger Park

Leopard, Phabeni road, Kruger Park

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

 

Kruger unplanned – the Birds

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

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

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

First night in Olifants

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

The envy of many a woman with those eyelids

Balule Low Water Bridge

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

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

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

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

Black Crake, Balule, Kruger Park

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

Olifants River Bridge

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

Bird’s eye view of Olifants River, Kruger Park

Glossy Starling does Twitter with Gerda

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

Wahlberg’s Eagle (Juvenile intermediate morph)

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

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

Spring Day Atlasing

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

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

Little Bee-eater – insect hawked and securely held

Softening it up

Getting it into position

Down she goes

Ooh, that was rather good what?  ( clearly a cultured bird)

Nevertheless an exciting moment.

Some other birds

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

Emerald-spotted Wood-Dove, Olifants, Kruger Park

Yellow-billed Oxpecker, Balule, Kruger Park

Mocking Cliff-Chat, Olifants, Kruger Park

Yellow-breasted Apalis, Sjukuza, Kruger Park

 

Kruger unplanned – Skukuza to Lower Sabie

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

Skukuza

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

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

Verraux's Eagle-Owl, Kruger Park
Verraux’s Eagle-Owl, initially not terribly interested in our presence

Verraux's Eagle-Owl, Kruger Park
Verraux’s Eagle-Owl, deigning to look vaguely in our direction

Verraux's Eagle-Owl, Kruger Park
The famous pink eyelids

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

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

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

Whirly bird, Kruger Park
Whirly bird at Tshokwane

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

Buffalo herd, Kruger Park
Buffalo herd, Kruger Park

Cattle Egret on Buffalo, Kruger Park
Cattle Egret hitching a ride on Buffalo

Cattle Egret on Buffalo, Kruger Park
Cattle Egret decides its safer to fly

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

Skukuza deck, Kruger Park
Skukuza deck, Kruger Park

Skukuza deck, Kruger Park
Skukuza deck at night

Skukuza to Lower Sabie

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crowned Hornbill, Mkhulu, Kruger Park
Crowned Hornbill, Mkhulu

Crowned Hornbill, Mkhulu, Kruger Park
Crowned Hornbill, Mkhulu

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

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

Leopard, Sabie River, Kruger Park
Leopard, Sabie River

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

Lion, Kruger Park
Lion, Kruger Park

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

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

 

Kruger unplanned – Olifants to Timbavati

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

So where on earth did that statistic come from?

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

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

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

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

Olifants to Timbavati

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

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

Steenbok

Giraffe

Wildebeest

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

Sabota Lark, Timbavati

Rattling Cisticola, Timbavati

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

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

Kori Bustard

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

Lion, Timbavati

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

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

Lions and Elephants, Timbavati

Lions and Elephants, Timbavati

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

Lions, Timbavati

Lions, Timbavati

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

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

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

Kruger unplanned – The Journey

It was a different Kruger trip in several ways …….  

(Yep, here come the bullets – I can’t help it, I’m a QS, we like things to be ordered) –

  • The booking was a last-minute one instead of the usual micro-planned, 6 to 12 months ahead booking we have always stuck to – I suddenly had this desire to wake up in Kruger on my birthday and scanned the availability of the camps, ending up with 5 nights in Olifants and a further 2 in Skukuza, starting in the last week of August this year
  • It was just Gerda and myself – the first time we have been on our own in Kruger, going back to our first visit with Gerda’s parents as newly weds in 1972. Since then we have made umpteen visits with our kids, with friends, with birding groups, even with clients and latterly with our grandkids adding to the delight.
  • We had no fixed plans other than to enjoy ourselves and take it at a relaxed pace
  • Ummmm that’s it with the bullet points……..

So what is it about a visit to Kruger National Park that makes it so special to ordinary South Africans like us, who keep going back for more, year after year, literally for decades?

With time to think about it during our week in Kruger, I can put it down to the several parts that make up the quintessential Kruger trip, starting with –

Getting There

For us, any holiday starts with the road trip which, if you tackle it in the way that we prefer, becomes an integral part of the holiday. We could have travelled to our Kruger destination, Olifants camp, in one day, but including an overnight stop at Phalaborwa, close to the entrance gate, meant we had a full day to get organised and travel at a relaxed pace.

It also means there is time to stop for coffee and lunch and to slowly ease into holiday mode. At our first stop at Kranskop on the road north, Gerda’s enthusiasm in identifying the weavers we spotted there helped to shift the focus from the “must do’s” that dominate life to the ” do what you feel like’s”. They were Village Weavers and for the next half hour on the road Gerda grilled me on the main differences between the most common genus Ploceus  Weavers, covering Southern Masked, Village, Lesser Masked and Cape Weavers.

There is also enough time to take in the character of the surroundings and the road being travelled on, which changed as we progressed –

N1 highway all the way to Polokwane – predictably smooth and comfortable, not requiring much effort beyond maintaining concentration

Polokwane east to Moria and beyond – busy double road through end to end built up area, the road requiring utmost concentration even at low speeds with a stream of pedestrians crossing, taxis stopping unexpectedly (although we have long learnt to expect it), wandering dogs and goats. Beyond Moria, which accommodates an estimated 1 million people during the Easter pilgrimage, the road enters rolling countryside for some relief

Through Magoebaskloof and down to the lowveld, the road twists and turns and drops all at the same time for perhaps half an hour until it flattens out as you approach Tzaneen

Suddenly it is fruit and veg growing area with roadside stalls offering produce at prices way below the city supermarkets – avos galore (bag for R50 / $3.50 ), sack of potatoes (R30 / $2 ), tray of tangerines (R30 / $2 )

The last stretch to Phalaborwa gradually changes to game farms and bushveld, the road down to a single lane with no shoulders.

The overnight stop in Phalaborwa was at La Lechere guest house in the suburbs – a good choice with neat, comfortable rooms and a full English breakfast to set us on our way the next morning.

La Lechere guest house Phalaborwa

The cosy room

Entering Kruger

We entered Kruger before 11 am and made our way slowly to Letaba camp, where we planned to lunch.

Phalaborwa gate

The route from Phalaborwa to Olifants camp

Kruger route

I tried to think what entering Kruger means to me and the only comparison I could come up with was that of entering one of the great cathedrals of Europe – the sudden calmness that spreads over you, the splendid surroundings that seem to envelope you, the happy thought that it’s been like this for a long time and is not likely to change.

We explored the side roads around Masorini on the way, stopping for a while at Sable Dam, which has a bird hide that can be booked for overnight stays.

Sable Dam, Kruger Park

On the way back we could not resist a “short cut” road signposted Track for high clearance vehicles only, low maintenance , which was true to its word – a unique experience, not having driven on a proper 4 x 4 track in Kruger before, except with rangers in their vehicles.

4×4 Track near Sable Dam

The track ran for 5 km and took us through an area dotted with exceptionally large termite mounds, some as tall as a double-storey house, with a pointy top giving them the appearance of rondawel roofs from a distance. I suspected the large size of these mounds – certainly larger than I have ever encountered – had something to do with the type of soil – white/grey in colour and very sandy.

Termite mound along 4×4 track, Kruger Park

Another termite mound, this time with a Kudu to provide some scale

Our route did not produce much in the way of special animal sightings, but as usual the bird life made up for it with several interesting encounters –

  • African Hawk-Eagle spotted by Gerda in a far-off tree
  • Yellow-fronted Canaries in a group, flitting from tree to tree
  • Various Swallows in one spot – Lesser-striped, Red-breasted and White-throated Swallows
  • Crested Francolin scurrying off when we stopped nearby
  • Groundscraper Thrush rather unexpectedly in the middle of the bush (you get used to seeing them on lawns in Suburbia so it comes as a surprise when they choose a more barren natural habitat)
  • A soaring African Fish-Eagle patrolling a dam

African Fish Eagle

Elephants made an appearance as we crossed a bridge near Letaba, heading to small pools of water for a refreshing drink. They have a way of looking like they are enjoying every sip of water.

Elephants near Letaba, Kruger Park

Elephant drinking

Lunch at Letaba was fish and chips (there goes our credibility) and ahead lay the last stretch before Olifants, which went quite quickly.

The state of the Letaba River was a bit of a shock as we could not recall having seen it so dry, even after the normal dry winter months – another sign of the severe drought that most of Kruger has experienced for the last few years.

Letaba River – end of winter, Kruger Park

The Accommodation

By 5 pm we were settled in our pleasant rondawel – we were prepared for the lack of kitchen facilities in the rondawel, knowing there would be a communal kitchen nearby, however we had not thought of bringing a kettle, so resorted to buying a cheap stove-top model that worked well, albeit slowly, on the communal hot plate.

We enjoyed tea while taking in the incomparable view from our small stoep – I patted myself on the back for choosing a perimeter rondawel which looks over the Olifants river far below.

Tea with a view, Olifants, Kruger Park

The rondawel is typical of the accommodation in many Kruger camps – hardly luxurious, in fact the kindest description would be basic, but I had already decided that this was part of the charm of Kruger, almost like camping but with solid walls around you, comfortable beds and a small bathroom at hand.

With no kitchen (I probably would have booked a rondawel with a kitchen if one had been available) cooking happens on the braai, washing up is done in the communal kitchen and the simple task of making tea and coffee becomes a drawn-out ritual of sorts, all at a much slower pace than home and in the pleasant surroundings of a well looked after camp.

Even the view as you lie down to sleep is quite soothing (before the lights are off of course) …

Bungalow roof

Still to come in “Kruger Unplanned” – more about the drives, the wildlife encounters, the birding highlights and just chilling

 

 

 

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.