Tag Archives: Olifants rest camp

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 – 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 – 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

 

 

 

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……..