Apologies for low quality images again.
For the last two weeks I have been travelling all over Kruger National Park with my gorgeous girlfriend who has come to visit. What a long ten weeks of waiting it was! In this update I am bringing you the best of the action day by day from our final visit to the park before I return back to England after two more weeks of work. We are travelling from the most Northern reaches to the very South as if for us to say “bye” to this wonderful place.
Pafuri to Punda Maria:
As soon as we entered the gate, a calm serenity overtook us. The South of Kruger is often full of the hustle and bustle of cars and busses that only care about the big five. Clusters of cars often bring joy but also frustration and wasted time. At times all you want to do is to get out of there. The North is the perfect answer for this. Time seems to pass slower, the cars take more time and with a seemingly older age group of cliental the searching up here isn’t just for the big stuff. This is where the hardcore animal lovers come. People I have spoken to have often said that in the North they “saw nothing”, but through the boabab dotted horizon we often found groups of zebra, herds of buffalo, elephants and enormous crocodiles. The massive amounts of nyala also made beautiful viewing and two bulls were having a tussle, something very rare indeed. What really caught our eye, however was the scenery, the blood red sand of the river beds and the fever trees that ran along the edge of dirt roads made up some gorgeous scenery. A visit to Crooks Corner and the “Fever Tree Forest” were definitely highlights of the day and we went to sleep with the roaring of lions very close to camp. I thought there were no animals up here?!
Punda Maria to Shingwedzi:
The calmness of yesterday was still apparent. Not passing cars every five minutes was a luxury in this utopia. There appeared to have been some rain near Shingwedzi because there were free standing puddles of water in the bush. In the river beds the hippos were still crammed into the smallest of water points, they jostled for position in the muddy water, but today was certainly a birding day. The numerous yellow billed oxpecker sightings were very exciting for us (bird nerds we are!). The bird life up here is fantastic with goliath herons, saddlebilled storks and a whole host of different feathered creatures really made the drives enjoyable. My excitement peaked, however, at my first ever tessebe sighting. What a gorgeous and unfamiliar antelope it is and all credit goes to Marliek who checked the rear view mirrors and raised my attention to them as they walked across the road. Our day was then topped off just outside camp as two very cheeky and adorable hyena pups came up to the car to sniff our body work and tyres. One even crawled under the car and through to the other side! We were left whispering our “awww’s” as they stared up at us through their big brown eyes before taking their leave and rejoining their mother who was suckling another two, much younger pups.
Shingwedzi to Mopani:
The day started and ended in exactly the same way: with wind and drizzle. The day was dotted with elephants, buffalo and a whole host of general game. Our morning was brightened by a fantastic honey badger who scurried around at the side of the road before making his way across. Their antics are always a joy to watch and this was the first sighting I have had of one that has been so relaxed. The tropic of Capricorn loop was extremely entertaining and as the wind howled and the dust picked up, tessebe, zebra and wildebeest all braved the conditions to quench their thirst. Then out of the rising dust came two sauntering bull elephants. It was a beautiful spectacle. The wind then really did pick up and we headed for home wondering how sucessful the predators would be during the night.
Mopani to Letaba:
One victim of the weather conditions was made apparent as soon as we left camp. A lone buffalo had been killed, the culprits were definitely lion but unfortunately our searches at the carcass and at the nearest water were fruitless. We left the area frustrated but later heard it had been a single male lion who had brought down the buffalo. How amazing would that have been to see! We were then delighted in side striped jackal and ground hornbill sightings which helped to ease our annoyance at not finding the lion. The day was quite uneventful after that until I decided to cheat. Using the “Latest Sightings” app, we located a pack of wild dogs who were lazing around next to the road. It brought us both much joy to watch adults and pups laze around in the mid-afternoon sun whilst occaisionally getting up and whimpering to each other. We made our way back to camp admiring the views of the Oliphants river, a perfect afternoon as our adventure continues.
Letaba to Tamboti:
We left letaba and the mopani thickets gave way to the rolling plains that are so typical of the Southern end of Kruger. Herds of general game were everywhere. Around every corner there were zebra grazing and impala browsing, yet unfortunately it appeared we had cat repellent on and the trusty S100 failed to produce the goods. Although the morning was a frustrating one, as the afternoon heat died down slightly, the elephants came out in force. A baby no more than a week old was definitely our top sighting of the day. Staying at Tamboti always puts a smile on our faces and it is our favourite camp by far. Situated not far from the Orpen gate, the tents all look out over a dry river bed and during our dinner, visits from the resident genet and hyena were all welcomed. When I came back from the shower and found the honey badger digging around in the bin all I could do was laugh. Those animals are so clever. He had climbed up and lifted the lid off! With only his bum sticking out, I made my way past him and left him to it. This camp is exactly what bush life is all about, the only sounds are from the animals and the only light is from the moon and stars. It is a beautiful piece of utopia boardering upon the chaotic South.
Tamboti to Skukuza:
We plunged into the chaos of the South (and that isn’t an exaggeration) but we left the serenity of Tamboti and started making our way into the proper tourist areas. After being kept awake by lions roaring and the honey badger scuttling, we hoped that an early start would be worth it. And boy was it. By lunchtime our cat repellent had vanished and we ended the day on five different lion sightings and a leopard sighting. The definite highlight was four females hunting impala. I was happily taking pictures of a fish eagle with it’s catch of the day when we noticed a wall of cars coming towards us. In front were four lionesses. They decided they wanted a mid-day snack but of course their hunt failed (because I was watching!). Whilst the other cars hustled and jostled for a close position of the lions we waited patiently by the impala. Our adrenaline started pumping, one lioness disappeared to put flank the impala, one lay flat in the grass just infront of us. We waited. The impalas started running as one lioness gave a half hearted chase to funnel them to the other lioness. It almost paid off as one became separated, it looked scared. Could this be the moment? The impala’s life stood on a knife edge, stray one way and it was dead, choose another path and it would live. It walked slowly towards the lioness in cover. It stopped and raised its head. The impala spotted the lioness, snorted and dashed behind our car and into safety. Fail. The lions then nonchalantly passed us and made their way down into the riverbed and out of sight. Other highlights of the day included millions of elephants, a pack of around twelve wild dogs and ten ground hornbills. Days like yesterday really make you appreciate when you have days like today. We have been so lucky! As I write this our smiles are full and our hearts happy.
Skukuza to Lower Sabie:
Today’s headline stealer came from a spotty cat, however it is definitely not the one that popped into your mind. After yesterday’s success we treated ourselves to a lie in and headed out a bit later than normal. Although we had seen on the app that lions had killed a buffalo near Lower Sabie we decided to give it (and the huge amounts of traffic) a miss and headed for the quieter dirt roads. This paid off beautifully as we came across a couple of cars watching three cheetahs. We sat there without any engine noise and very little disturbance from any other cars. It was a beautiful sighting as they occaisionally looked our way, got up and then repositioned themselves under the shade of their tree. It was a lovely calm sighting and we left full of joy. After going to see the lions (thankfully the traffic had dissipated and the lions still eating) we were crawling along the lower sabie road at a snails pace. Our focus was upon the river after hearing some alarm calls, maybe a leopard was in the area. Then a thud. Then a scream. The scream came from Marliek sitting next to me. The thud came from a huge male baboon who jumped up onto the car and sat staring through our open window, blocking all sunlight. We both got the fright of our lives and as quickly as we instinctively could we shouted and physcially pushed him off the car. He reluctantly let go with a quick baring of his teeth. Thankfully Mr Baboon wasn’t too aggressive, I think he was more curious in our jelly beans or the fruit we had in the car and luckily both parties came off unscathed. With the adrenaline pumping at our commotion we parked under a nearby tree and laughed and laughed. Just our luck that the baboon chooses our car. Then the golden hour looming we headed to sunset dam and sat for the last hour of light, enjoying the hippos playing and the crocodiles lurking, hoping for a last minute bit of action. The gate closing time was upon us and we made for home, an action packed day for sure!
Lower Sabie to Crocodile Bridge:
Today’s main event was a morning walk, it is always nice to get off the vehicle and explore nature in its truest form. The area we walked was beautiful and there were tracks of every sort of animal. After finding leopard tracks and hearing monkeys alarm calling, we made our way to the dry river bed. The leopard called, a sound like a hacksaw through wood, however as hard as we tried, we could not find the elusive beast. It was still a thrill just to know he was in the vicinity and it made us really appreciate how vast Kruger is and how lucky we are to actually see anything on the roads. The rest of the day was spent relaxing and driving to the next camp. Two big male lions were flat cats and even though we waited for half an hour they did not move, maybe the thirty five degree heat had something to do with that! Unfortunately we couldn’t wait any longer as gate closing time was upon us so we made our way back to camp for an LED lit dinner in front of our tent.
Crocodile Bridge to Berg en Dal:
Our last full day in the park, and it was probably the best we have had. The morning started off with eleven lions, females and cubs all crossing the road however it wasn’t all palin sailing. We made our way along a river line and stopped. The snorting impalas and the chattering monkeys gave away that there was certainly a predator and most likely a leopard. We waited for the cat to emerge. We waited some more. Nothing. The alarm calling stopped so we checked a bit further along. Nothing. A car passed and as we leap frogged them they claimed to have just seen the leopard exactly qhere we were two minutes before making its way parallel to along the river line. We circled the area time and time again. Scanning every tree, searching under every bush but to no avail. We left the area frustrated and disappointed. We were so close. Two hours later we were discussing a leopard sighting that had occurred at a weir in the park where we were currently crossing. We noticed a couple of cars parked on the lookout point.
We scanned the area across the riverbed and there in the shade of a rock sat a beautiful male leopard. To the right of us a young impala ram browsed, but then decided to make his way into the riverbed. The adrenaline started pumping. The leopard was very interested. He crouched. The impala got closer and passed by unaware. The leopard tensed. The impala turned and passed again. It couldn’t be more than ten metres from him. We were shaking with excitment, surely this was the moment we had been waiting for. The leopard hit the deck, its muscles tensed as it got as low as possible. We waited with bated breath. The impala passed again, even closer. The leopard went to go, took two paces and stopped as the impala turned, confused. The leopard froze completely. Either party undaring to move as the stand off continued for a few minutes. It felt more like hours. Then came the snort. Detected. The impala retreated to a safe distance. Hunt over. I cannot tell you how intense the sighting was or how long this lasted for but it was certainly a long time and it was an amazing experience even if it was (another) failed hunt. We had decided to mark our last evening in the park with a sunset drive, so like your everyday tourist we bundled onto the back of a twenty five seater truck and headed out on a game drive with a guide from the park.
It was wonderful just to sit back and enjoy and it was again those cats with rosettes that stole the show. The sun had just set and the light was fading but in the tree stood a leopard. In its larder was an impala, recently killed, but what got our attention was something far smaller than these two animals. It was a fluff ball of no more than a few months old patiently waiting for a morsel. A leopard cub lay in the tree, just underneath its mother who fed upon the carcass. It was the perfect sighting for our very final evening in Kruger and tomorrow morning we are heading out as soon as the gate opens to hopefully see the scene in full daylight. What an amazing day we have had and how lucky we are to be here.
Berg en Dal to Phabeni Gate:
The morning promised big things with the hope that the leopard and her cub were still in the tree. Unfortunately they weren’t but the journey to that tree was eventful. We had a different leopard cross the road right in front of us no more than ten minutes after setting out from camp (our fourth leopard in two days!) and then once we had arrived at the tree where mum and cub were seen previously, on the other side of the road sat three beautiful male lions. One was absolutely massive with a huge black mane, this was obviously the reason the leopard and her cub had vacated the area and I cannot blame her. Some of the dead impala still hung on a lower branch but there wasn’t much left. With every frustration that Kruger gives in one hand, it provides with the other almost immediately.
We left the park, the amount of game as we said bye was incredible, it seemed every animal under the sun had come to wave us off and as the song “London” played we left our second home hopeful of returning in the near future. Kruger: you were epic.
After weeks of planning it was our final day together and with Marliek’s birthday being next month I wanted to surprise her early. Since the first moment I had met her she had talked about a bucket list item of hers was to go in a helicopter so that is exactly what we did. The goal: to find her beloved elephants. Whilst looking around the Letaba elephant museum she kept saying how the one thing she wanted to do was to see elephants from a helicopter, I stifled my smile and looked away knowing what I had planned.
The day came and the weather was perfect, the sun shone and the wind stayes away as we made our way to the airfield. Our flight would take us over some game reserves and then into the Blyde River Canyon and over the mountains. I knew that seeing elephants wasn’t a guarentee but I hoped and hoped. We made our way over the first reserves and were greeted by giraffes, zebra and hippos wallowing. The scenery changed drastically as we made our way up and into the mountains. Wild horses with deadlocked tails ran free in the lush grass at the top. We circled them and flew almost at ground level. It was just amazing. We went over the edge of the cliff and into the wide open air with the remains of a recent bush fire below us. Time started ticking for these ellies as we started circling back over some reserves on our way to base. No sign. A lone buffalo lay but no elephant. We then went over an area and our pilot told us it had just dropped its fences to Kruger. Bingo, that must surely mean some ellies! We circled. Then relief swept over my body, two bulls by a dry river bed feeding. Wonderful! Smiles all around. In the distance we could see more splashing in a nearby dam. This was perfect. This was exactly what she had dreamed of and thankfully our luck was with us. We made our way back to the airfield with very happy hearts and beaming smiles. What a wonderful trip, we couldn’t stop speaking about it for the rest of the day.
Now I say bye to Marliek as she flies back to Holland, but with only seventeen days left in the country for me, I will be making the most of this wonderful place before taking my leave.