We were changing camps during our winter visit to Kruger – this time from Lower Sabie where we had spent just one night, to Pretoriuskop, where we were booked for 2 nights. Being around 100 kms apart, at Kruger speeds with stops at sightings, we were counting on around 3 to 4 hours of easy travelling.
The Lower Sabie – Skukuza “highway” was as busy as always with large knots of vehicles at sightings, including a lion spotted moving through the bush on the river side, providing brief glimpses as it passed openings between the trees.
We decided to take a break at Skukuza, the largest and busiest of Kruger’s camps and a favourite of overseas tourists. We bought take away coffees and muffins, then found a nice sunny spot with a view – of the tourists passing by in their many shapes, sizes and degrees of dress sense. It’s a form of entertainment, guessing the origin of the tourists based on their choice of “safari gear” – some in designer khaki, others in strange combinations of camouflage clothing paired with dark apparel, many looking totally out of place.
Once we tired of that game, I started looking around the gardens and noticed a bright yellow sunbird at one of the flowering aloes, an irresistible subject for a bird photographer, so I leapt up (well that’s what it felt like, others may say I stood up quickly) and rushed over to get myself positioned near the aloe with the light from behind and shoot a few photos until I had some reasonable ones of the Collared Sunbird.
The adjoining aloes had attracted yellow butterflies and I set about capturing a few images of these colourful creatures as they fed on the aloe nectar.
It was only when I reviewed the photos, zooming in to check the sharpness of the detail, that I noticed I had captured a tiny flying insect “passenger”, clinging to its butterfly host then flying off to find another.
Zooming in to see what that dot on the wing edge is, revealed a tiny flying insect, not more than 1 mm long, clinging to the butterfly
The insect takes off :
Modern digital cameras are quite amazing in the detail they can capture!
Excited with this butterfly I looked around for others and amongst the leaf litter I found …………… well you can decide if there is anything to see in this next photo
The photo below compared with the one above, demonstrates how well camouflaged a butterfly can be when its wings are closed and in the right surrounds, despite its bright colouring when fully open
Continuing the story of our unplanned week in Kruger in early September this year ……..
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.
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.
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!
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Kruger National Park ………… just writing those words brings an immediate sense of anticipation ……
especially when you have made as many visits as we have and enjoyed such a diversity of wonderful bush experiences.
It was in April this year, while spending a week at Pine lake Resort near White River, that we decided to visit Kruger for one of the days. And as usual there were unexpected sightings, both on the animal front as well as the birds ……..
We started the day early, hoping to be at Phabeni gate as close to the 6.00 am opening time as possible – as it turned out we were a tad slow in leaving the resort and the drive there took longer than anticipated due to the nature of the road and some slow traffic. When we arrived at Phabeni we were met by a longish queue of vehicles and were told apologetically that “the computers are down and we are processing visitors manually” by the gate staff. This resulted in a long wait before we could at last enter Kruger and make our way along the Doispane road (S1).
We took all of four hours to travel the 40 or so Kms to Skukuza camp and then onwards to the day visitors picnic area just beyond the camp. There were lots of stops along the way to admire the wildlife and ID the birds seen and heard.
An early sighting was Retz’s Helmetshrike, always in a group of several and handsome as ever in their all black plumage and contrasting bright red bill and eye ring.
The usual Lilac-breasted Rollers, Magpie Shrikes and Red-billed Hornbills showed prominently at regular intervals to keep our spirits high. Raptors we saw included Bateleurs in numbers, Brown Snake-Eagles, African Fish-Eagles (5) and a pale form Booted Eagle.
About halfway along the road we stopped to have a look at the Nyaundwa Dam just off the road – this is always a good spot for the classic Kruger scene of animals coming to drink while keeping alert for the predators. Several shorebirds patrolled the dam edges – amongst them Wood Sandpipers, Black-winged Stilts, Common Greenshanks and Three-banded Plovers – while the resident Hippos had a few Red-billed Oxpeckers in attendance. Several Water Thick-knees viewed the proceedings from the sandy banks with what seemed to be disdain.
Shortly after we enjoyed one of the game highlights of the day when we came across a small pack of Wild Dogs, or “Painted Wolves” as they are sometimes known. One gave a display of territorial marking that we have not witnessed before, when he came right up to our vehicle and proceeded to urinate profusely several times while turning a full circle, so close I could have touched him with a broomstick – if I had such a thing handy. It crossed my mind that he may be just another Land Rover fan fed up with the superiority that us Toyota Land Cruiser owners tend to display …….. who knows.
Our next sighting was a little further down the road where a knot of vehicles surrounded something lying at the edge of the road. It was an old Lion, looking as if he was on his last legs, his hips showing under his aged, battered looking skin. When he lifted his head to look at us, it seemed to be an effort and his eyes were dull with none of the fierce glint that he would have shown in his youth. I could have taken a photo but decided against it, simply out of respect for an old timer with not many days to live, at a guess.
We arrived at the Skukuza Day Visitors picnic area which is a few kms beyond Skukuza itself and has a number of pleasant picnic sites set amongst the bushes. It was quiet, being a Monday out of peak season and we had the place to ourselves except for one other small group so we found a nice shady spot and enjoyed leftovers from the previous night’s braai, reheated on the skottel (like an old ploughshare and heated by gas)
In between I scouted around the area and found some very photogenic White-fronted Bee-eaters perched on some low branches – many bird photographer’s favourite because of their bright colouring and their habit of posing openly, without being too skittish.
I was very happy with the results ….
The birding highlight of the day came my way as were packing up to leave the picnic area, when I spotted some movement in the bushes nearby – more about the incredible photographic opportunity in a follow up post (how’s that for keeping you in suspense?)
Our last stop before heading towards the Numbi gate was at the well known (amongst birders) Lake Panic hide overlooking the lake of that name, not far from Skukuza. Initially it looked quiet but we found out from the few people already there that we had missed the earlier drama of a crocodile taking an Impala which had ventured too close to the water as it came to drink. Two large crocs were still wrestling with the unfortunate Impala, presumably already dead, its horns projecting above the water every now and then as the crocs twisted and turned in the water.
The water level was the lowest I have ever seen it at this spot, not even reaching the hide – bird life was limited to a couple of Pied Kingfishers, a Black Crake and a Burchell’s Coucal.
Our exit route was via Numbi gate then through busy rural villages for some 20 kms before reaching White River and the road back to Pine Lake Resort (which is also worth a post – watch this space)