Kruger National Park – Central Section

Olifants River

Olifants River

The distance from Skukuza to Satara is 93km. This doesn’t sound very far but with a maximum speed of 50 km/h in the park and a desirable speed of much less, particularly when there is game around, it will take us several hours at least. Its going to be a scorcher of a day, over 40 degrees Celsius, with a hot north wind so we make an early start. We see a few animals along the way including two lions, a male and a female, and a few large elephants very close to the road. One male elephant crosses the dirt road just in front of us, I think it is heading our way and get a bit nervous as the trailer behind makes backing up much more difficult but Paul is confident he is just on his way down to a nearby river. He does pause for several moments to take a look at us, and seems to be wondering why we haven’t given him more space, but then he turns back onto the game track which leads down to a nearby river bed. Maybe he figured it was just too hot to chase us off!

Elephant paying a bit too much attention to us.

Elephant paying a bit too much attention to us.

There’s hardly any shade in the camp ground at Satara so we take a spot by the boundary in the full sun. The ground is extremely rocky so it is very hard to put the tent pegs in and while the tent only requires 4 the awning needs another 10. Even though Paul is doing most of the hard work I’m feeling the heat as well so as soon as we have finished we have cold showers then hide from the heat in the restaurant and the air-conditioned camp shop until later in the afternoon. From our seats in the shade we look out through the shimmering heat to the pale thorn bushes where a few zebra are trudging past on their way to find some water. While there we make a couple of resolutions; not to pick sites on top of ridges as they are more likely to be rocky and hard, and when it’s this hot to leave the setting up until later in the afternoon.

It’s still very hot when we head out for an afternoon drive so for a change we have the windows up and air con blasting, except when we see something interesting and here we have been given a couple of leads. Some lions and a leopard have both been recently seen nearby including some lions just a couple of kilometres east of camp so we head directly there. The line of cars makes it easy to find the spot and we inch into the group straining for a view. Two lazy lions are sleeping under some bushes so our view is very limited. Further up the road another two are in a clearer spot, but again we don’t see any action other than one sitting up for a look around before sleeping again. Bones nearby suggest a kill a couple of days ago and they are probably still sleeping off the effects of a full belly. In this heat, and having recently fed, these lion aren’t going to be up and about until the day gets much cooler and they need some water. After a short while we move on.

Magnificent Lion

Magnificent Lion

We have a little time left before we need to be back in camp before the gates close at 6.00pm so we head west toward the leopard sighting. We’re just about ready to turn around when we again see a line of cars and we join the end. Our timing is impeccable, we see some twitching in the grass, possibly a small head, and a flash of white tail and then a leopardess stands and starts walking parallel to the road in our direction. We reverse keeping just in front of her so we have fabulous views while all those who had been patiently waiting struggle to keep sight of her as they follow behind. She reaches a fallen log some hundred meters along and stretches herself on it before settling down. Behind her the sun is setting and lighting the lower part of the sky in reds and oranges, what a magic moment! As we drive back to camp to meet the curfew we wonder whether we actually glimpsed some leopard cubs and their mother deliberately led us all away from them by displaying herself clearly to the small crowd of onlookers.

After dark hyenas prowl the fence line back at camp. The smells from the many braai fires have almost certainly drawn them in and a few silly campers may have tossed them scraps in the past. Without the fence to protect us we would certainly be a lot more nervous having them so close to our camp. There are a few flashes of lightning before we head to bed but it’s still very hot. A few hours later the change arrives and the strong hot north west wind changes to an even stronger but quite cool south east wind. The awning we had laboured to put up during the heat of the day starts flapping wildly and we race around taking it down. Its a very noisy night so not good for light sleepers and all the wind and lightning doesn’t even deliver enough rain to dampen the dust.

The next day is much cooler, thank goodness, and it is very windy and overcast. We take an early drive to the spot where we saw the leopard the evening before in hope of seeing her with her cubs but have no luck. Driving east we see two sleeping male lions and wonder if they stirred much through the night or are still sleeping off their feast. Further up the road a family of elephants including a tiny baby are digging for water in several spots in the dry, sandy river bed. There is a very muddy pool of water nearby which they throw with their trunks over their heads onto their backs and under their stomachs. The water they filter through the sand must be much cleaner to drink and they spend ages carefully shoving the sand aside with their feet and slowly sucking up the water through their trunks as it seeps into the holes they have dug. Looking through the binoculars it is possible to see the suction action at the top of their trunks as they draw the water up. Just as they are leaving an enormous grey male comes along for his drink. While he is there another family group arrives. Young ones are pushing in to get a drink and being pushed back, there is a lot of trumpeting and calling and sorting out manners. One particular baby elephant is very persistent and even though his older brothers and sisters keep pushing him away with their heads he just keeps coming back, sometimes getting down on his knees to sneak his trunk into the water besides the others. One of the older brothers tries to body-block him and when the baby goes to move around him he sticks a leg out but the baby is too persistent. The big grey male is very tolerant of the baby’s attempts but either he drinks too fast or his massive size is intimidating and the baby goes back to annoying his siblings. Its very amusing to watch and we remain in the one spot for well over half an hour.

We finally continue our drive and reach N’wanetsi Lookout. We’re very close to the Mozambique border here and the hills leading up to the Lebombo Range are around us. The view is great but the air is hazy and the sky overcast. The river below is dry and the land has its familiar parched appearance, with grey thorn bush, strips of red dirt, sand-coloured rocks and black tree trunks. It would be great to be here when the river is flowing, the air clear and the land green. As we drive back west to our camp a lioness, who looks a bit tattered around the edges, walks directly in front of us across the road and disappears into the scrub on the other side, a most unexpected sight. Later we see a couple of hyenas with suckling babies right on edge of the road.

Our next stop is at Balule and we leave Satara with high expectations as this will be our first bush camp on this visit. One of the highlights of the drive is seeing a honey badger or ratel, a rare sighting as they are normally only seen very early morning or in the evening. We also see lots of giraffe, two males sparring keep us transfixed for quite a while. They keep stopping to watch us as if to say ‘move along … this is private’, but when we remain they resume their jostling for position. Hips are nudged, necks intertwined and a couple of times one manages to get its head underneath and lift a leg of the other. If they manage to tip their opponent over they may break a leg or some ribs, a most dangerous event but not one we see thank goodness.

Balule is a small camp facing the wide Olifants River with just 6 huts plus a small camp site with about a dozen sites. There is no mains electricity here, kerosene lamps light the camp kitchen and toilet block of a night, and gas is used for the hot water. Presumably power for the electric fence comes from batteries charged by some solar panels on one of the buildings. We camp right by the fence overlooking the Olifants River and enjoy the quiet and the slower pace away from the bustle of the larger rest camps. The river isn’t running but there are a few pools of water some distance away from us and we see a few buck by the water. Closer to camp are plenty of monkeys and lots of different types of birds. African fish eagles make their distinctive call as they fly overhead. A buffalo wanders by quite close to the fence and a few buck are also close at times, including impala, kudu and bush buck. We have another visit from a hyena but he doesn’t stick around.

We’re close to the Olifants rest camp which sits atop a big bluff overlooking a wide bend in the Olifants river east of Balule and we take a drive there enjoying the elevated views of the river from the camp itself and along the road leading up to it as well as a lookout a little further west. Lots of hippos are either mostly submerged in the river or sleeping or feeding on the grassy banks and plenty of crocodiles share the water and bask on the banks. We take another drive the next day, once again calling into the Olifants rest camp but then follow a loop road north east across to the Letaba River then back south to another fabulous lookout over the Olifants River near the junction of those two great rivers. It is a spot where we are allowed to leave the car so Paul can use his tripod and take a number of photos to create a panorama of this expansive view. While he is preparing his gear a cheeky ground squirrel jumps into the car and is quite unperturbed when Paul tries to shoo it out. Luckily when he can’t find any food he loses interest and jumps down from the car and Paul goes to work with his camera taking advantage of the high vantage point. To the east the river gradually curves south under some big cliffs towards its junction with the Letaba River. Far below are pools of water with more hippo, crocodiles, water birds, waterbuck, kudu and impala. To the west the river valley broadens and the remaining water separates into a myriad of channels between sand banks and green bushes and reeds.

Our final camp in the central section of the park is at Letaba. It is one of the bigger and more popular camps and has the best mobile phone signal we have had for a long time! We manage to find some shade for our trailer in a quiet spot about thirty metres from the boundary fence. Our neighbours are friendly and interested in our adventures and they show us a hole in a tree in which a fairly large lizard (leguan) is living. We all help chase the vervet monkeys away when they raid the camp sites. Visits from semi-tame bush buck are more welcome but they wander away fairly quickly when no food is forthcoming. Cheeky ground squirrel also scamper around the camp in search of food and when I take a photo with my iPhone they take a close look at it in case it is edible.

On the first evening we walk a short distance from our camp site to a path running along the outer side of a bend of the Letaba river and there are wonderful vantage spots for viewing the game right from the camp. Unfortunately the river is no longer flowing, and Paul is surprised by how little water there is compared to his previous visits. There are still some sizeable pools of water though set under some of the huge shady trees which line the top of the river banks. The game fence is set down the bank so our views are unimpeded. Turning left we slowly stroll along the river past the newer cottages and then the older style rondavels which Paul has stayed in a few times on his visits many years ago. The rondavels are laid out in a rough semi-circle around a grassy area with big shady indigenous trees, some with massive root systems. Bush buck and guinea fowl wander around in the cool shade between the rondavels. The river path splits into a lower and upper level and we take the lower path which leads us much closer to the bush down in the river bed. We see a couple of beautiful male kudu with very large and muddy horns. They have been digging in the wet river banks. We walk past some chairs and tables overlooking the river and at the end of the path we find the restaurant. The next evening we return with some wine and nibbles and sit a while at one of the tables. Another great spot!

While we are at the camp and in the area we see a lot more hippos, crocodiles and elephants along with various buck, giraffe and zebra and, as we leave and drive further north we see more lions and hyenas. On our last morning we make a point of calling in to the elephant museum which has a fascinating record of past and present ‘large tuskers’ and paintings of the ‘Magnificent Seven’. The Magnificent Seven are all dead now but they were all very big animals with massive tusks. They were all given names most of which reflect some particular characteristic of the game rangers of their time. The largest, called Mafunyani, had tusks which weighed over 140kg each. Many of the skulls and tusks of these seven elephants are on display as well as a full size elephant skeleton. They certainly show what huge animals elephants are! Maybe we will see some of the new crop of large tuskers as we continue our journey into the northern section of the park.

You can see more of our South Africa photos in the Photo Gallery South Africa

Kruger National Park – Southern Section


Young Male Lion

Our five night stay in Kruger, which was only a few weeks ago but seems much longer, has whetted our appetite for a rather more extended visit and we have planned a twenty night trip to take us from the southern section of the park right up to the far northern tip and the border with Mozambique at Pafuri. We’re not usually big on detailed planning and pre-booking our campsites but it is a very popular national park, particularly in the southern parts, and even though we booked in advance we were still unable to get into a couple of the rest camps that we first picked. We’ll be staying at nine different camps for two or three nights in each and minimising our travel distances between them but even so there will be a few big (for us) drives, especially with a speed limit of 40km/hr on dirt and 50km/hr on the tar roads. Of course time must also be allowed for stops to look at any wildlife we come across. Most of the camping will be in rest camps which have a variety of accommodation types, shops, service stations, restaurants and even swimming pools. A couple of the places are smaller satellite or bush camps which are more basic but still above the level of services we are used to in Australian National Parks. All camp sites have well maintained toilets and showers, basic camp kitchens and plenty of good drinking water. In the restcamps the sites even have power on each site and instant boiling water in the camp kitchens. All the large rest camps have swimming pools which will be very welcome in the hotter weather we expect to experience, especially as we travel northwards. We know that the park is in the depths of a fierce drought, the worst for over 100 years, and the last decent rains were over two years ago.

Our first rest camp is Pretoriuskop, the oldest one in the the park, which is situated 10 km from Numbi Gate in the southern section of the park. We arrive by lunchtime which allows us our pick of the camp sites and we set up right by the boundary fence. When we aren’t out driving and looking for game we can keep an eye out right at our camp site. Several type of antelope, including impala and bush buck, wander by grazing on the few remaining bits of grass and one evening an elephant family noisily munch on their meal a few metres from us as we munch on our own dinner.

We quickly settle into the rhythm we will follow for our time in the park. On days we are moving between camps we aim to arrive by or soon after lunch so we have more choice of camp sites. After we set up we rest for a while then take a late afternoon drive, making sure we get back to camp before the gates are locked at 6.00 pm. Mornings are either a very early drive to catch the morning light and look for the animals before the heat of the day then return for breakfast, or a later start and a longer time out before returning. We are only allowed out of the car at a handful of specified spots and so we have the esky in the back seat with plenty of cold water and a thermos and coffee makings fits into a box on the floor behind the passenger seat. Cameras (one for me and two for Paul including one with the big 400mm lens) are on the back seat and easy to reach and our binoculars are also ready for quick use. Here and there are picnic spots where we can leave the car for our coffee or picnic lunch and these often overlook water courses and have good shade. Some time in the afternoon we take a second drive, often timing it for as late as possible hoping for better light for photography around water holes as evening approaches.

We’re very happy with the variety of game we see while at Pretoriuskop, virtually as soon as we come through the gate we started spotting wildlife. While we are in this area we see two immature male lions, plenty of elephants, buffalo and giraffe, various antelope including impala, springbok, duikers, waterbuck, kudu, wildebeest, bushbuck and klipspringer, as well as zebras, hippopotamus, crocodiles, tortoises, rhinos, dwarf mongoose, ground squirrels, warthogs, vervet monkeys, baboons, and lots of birds. All of the park is dry but some areas in particular have been devastated by the drought; broken trees and shrubs sit in bare earth and some of the buck, impala in particular, show their ribs. Only the areas along the watercourses are green and naturally the greatest concentration of animals are in these areas although we also see some in the driest, most inhospitable looking terrain.

From Pretoriuskop we drive to our next camp at Berg-en-Dal which is close to the southern border of the park. It is set amongst a marvellous jumble of rugged rocky hills and the scenery is reminiscent of much we saw and loved in the Pilbara and western Northern Territory. Just before we reach the rest camp we take a scenic drive along a slightly rougher dusty track which winds its way between the hills in a big loop around to the far side of the camp.

It’s a lot more crowded here so we don’t get a boundary site but we have plenty of shade and some lovely neighbours, Colin and Jeannie, and we enjoy chatting with them and joining them for drinks one evening. We see a few elephants near the camp but the rocky hills don’t provide much grazing so we need to venture back to the main road to see more. A large dam at the edge of the camp is completely dry, normally we would be able to watch game there with the bonus of being able to see them before the gate opens at 5.30 am and after it closes at 6.00 pm.

Rhinos are typically found in the southern section of the park and, while we saw a couple while we were in the Pretoriuskop area, we see quite a few more around Berg-en-Dal. On our drive between camps we take a short detour to a water pan in the hope of seeing some wildlife there. The pan is dry and there is no activity nearby but returning to the main road we approach a mother and baby rhino grazing on the edge of the road. We sit for ages with our very ‘up close’ view. Another car heading in the opposite direction also stops but the young rhino evidently decides that they have stopped where he wants to graze so he gently head butts their car and they take the hint and move out of his way. Poaching of Rhinos is a problem everywhere, particularly near borders, but there are big efforts to control it in the park and they seem to be working as populations around here seem quite healthy. (Later in our trip we hear that two rhino were killed by poachers near Orpen Gate while we are in the park.)

The ‘Big 5’ in the game world are the lion, elephant, cape buffalo, rhinoceros and leopard. We’ve seen four out of five in the park, it is just the leopard which has eluded us thus far. On one of our drives we see a string of cars a short distance off the main road so we turn down to see if we can spot what has everybody’s attention. After scanning the area with our binoculars we finally see it, a leopard resting in a fork of a large shady tree on the edge of the creek bed about 100 metres from the road. Along with everyone else we shuffle our vehicle around in an effort to get a less obstructed view and hope that the leopard stirs so we can get a good look at it. Often they will hunt at night then find a shady spot to rest for the day. After a relatively short time we are treated to a brief period when the leopard stands and stretches then, apparently tired of all the attention from the gaggle of sightseers, it slinks down the tree and disappears into the bush by the creek. Very satisfied with the start to our drive, and with a big smile on our faces we continue our drive and manage to spot the other members of the ‘Big 5’ in the same 5 hour drive … plus lots of other game. It becomes clear to us that there is more food for the animals around Berg-en-Dal and this undoubtably has caused the wildlife to concentrate in the area.

We’ve had a little rain over night, very welcome but hardly enough to wet the dust, and there is a light misting rain as we are having our breakfast before packing to leave for our next camp. We had taken the awning down while we were at Graskop as we didn’t think we’d need it so we are eating breakfast in the trailer tent and Paul notices several wheel nuts and studs missing on the right wheel of the trailer. Only two remain! We’d probably (hopefully) have noticed their absence before we set out but we definitely want them fixed before we set off. We have a go at jacking up the trailer but with only the high-lift jack and the trailer sitting on a slope we get worried about the trailer moving down the slope and coming off the jack. The camp maintenance crew come in response to our request for help but they can’t assist us and suggest we drive the few kilometres to the mechanic in the nearby town of Malelane. We decide to give it a go and finish our pack-up, hitch the trailer to the car and very slowly start to drive out of the camp … then the wheel literally falls off.

Oh ... bother

Oh … bother

Luckily we hear the two remaining studs snap and stop in time to prevent the trailer falling all the way to the ground. We walk to reception and they help us phone the mechanic in Malelane who arrives just before midday. He and his apprentice expertly jack the trailer up and replace all six wheel studs and nuts in just over an hour, very good work. We had all the spares required or it would have been a much longer job which would have included waiting a day for studs, wheel nuts and axle caps to be sent from Nelspruit.

The drive to our next camp, Skukuza, is uneventful mechanically, thank goodness, but our late start means we’re late arriving at what is the busiest and biggest camp in the park and it’s Saturday afternoon as well. There is no chance of a boundary edge site or any shade but we get a good sized spot and are soon set up. Its hot already and even hotter weather is predicted so we put the awning up, it’s not as difficult as we thought so we will feel more comfortable putting it up or taking it down in the future. Our time at Skakuza follows the same pattern, morning and afternoon drives with a rest between but we add in swimming as well. Luckily the pool is close by as the camp is almost the size of a small town. Another addition is late afternoon drinks and light snacks on the expansive wooden deck at the restaurant overlooking a long stretch of the Sabie River. As the sun sets and then the moon rises over the old railway bridge we watch the colours in the sky change and the game drinking at the river below. As the shadows deepen, and we can no longer see the river below us, we are left in an island of light with the sounds of the hippos grunting and blowing in the deeper pools floating up to us. It is a magical scene and an enchanting evening.

Moonrise over the Railway Bridge at Skukuza

Moonrise over the Railway Bridge at Skukuza

When we leave Skakuza we are heading north into the central section of the park. Our next stop will be Satara and our story continues in the next blog post.

You can see more of our South Africa photos in the Photo Gallery South Africa

On the Road in Our New Abode

Ready for Anything

Ready for Anything

We already have our ‘loft apartment’ (aka our Landcruiser with a roof top tent, small fridge and simple kitchen), now we are set to take delivery of our luxurious split level home. The Landcruiser alone is fine for short trips but for extended trips, particularly for those where we will be away from shops and urban areas for longer periods, we need a larger fridge with a freezer, room for more fresh and dry food, lots more water, and lots more power to run the fridges, computers, hard drives, and recharge batteries etc. We managed to fit all we needed into the slide-on camper in Australia so while we ended up with a heavy load we didn’t need to tow. Unfortunately we can’t find anything comparable in South Africa. After considering the options we have decided an off road camper trailer should meet our needs and will provide the added bonus of allowing us to set up a base camp and take short trips with just the Landcruiser and roof top tent whenever we want or if the tracks are unsuitable for towing.

We looked at lots of different trailer models and we’ve decided the Conqueror brand has the best reputation for off-road capability. A local dealer has a second hand model with plenty of space for working, sleeping and storage and it also has quite a few of the extras such as the awnings and mats we will need. They are also able to complete the electrical work we need on the car and the trailer to including supply and installation of solar panels, additional battery storage, inverters and the controllers and a pair of spotlights so we arrange for the work to be completed as soon as possible.

The following Tuesday is the date everything is due to be completed and the afternoon is taken up with a handover including a demonstration of how everything works. The following morning we assemble all of the gear and food we have been busy buying and pack it all in. We’ve planned food for six to seven weeks and we have clothing for all weather types, we have masses of camera and computer gear and there’s still space available when it is all fitted in, what a delight. Things will need reorganising to make them easy to find and use while we are travelling, and of course to make sure they will travel safely but we can do that once we get on the road and find out what works best for us when we are out camping.

We’re keen to try it all out so we’re spending the first night at Sue’s before heading out of town in the morning. We have more chores in the afternoon including a return visit to Conqueror for a couple of final jobs including picking up registration papers and spare parts. By the time we make it to bed we are more than ready for a good rest so we are very pleased to find it as comfortable as we hoped. The set up was easy and I’m sure we’ll get quicker and more efficient at both the set up and pack up.

Our Luxury Home

Our Luxury Home

We make an early start in the morning in an effort to beat the rush hour and get a pretty easy exit from town. We’ve decided to avoid toll roads and freeways so we can see more of the country on our way and the first part of the trip takes us right through the edge of Pretoria, my first visit to this city. It is the administrative capital of South Africa and, although it is so close to Johannesburg that they are virtually joined by the suburban sprawl, it has a totally different feel. There is definitely less poverty and unemployment and as we are passing through we see numerous workers on their way to their offices and other employment. Trees line many of the roads and public buildings are set on large properties.

Once out of the city we are quickly in sparsely populated country areas and although the avoidance of the freeways adds time to our trip we thoroughly enjoy the slower pace and scenery along the way. Most of the trip is through the highveld, or the high central plateau, where the drought shows its full impact in the parched country around us . Eventually we reach the pass down to the middleveld and while rainfall has been low here there has been more than on the highveld and green trees cover the steep hills. Part way down between the highveld and middleveld we reach the historic gold mining village of Pilgrims Rest. Today we have time for afternoon tea and a short browse around but the old buildings and intriguing shops would provide plenty of interest for a longer stay if we can find time for a return visit.

A little further down we arrive at the village of Graskop which is on the edge of the escarpment and a steep drop down to the lowveld. The caravan park we are staying at is perched right on the edge of the escarpment and the views are fantastic. We are spending three nights here, partly to wait for the end of the school holidays but also to give us time to recharge ourselves, do a few odd jobs and work out just how we want things organised.

Graskop Sunrise

Graskop Sunrise

We manage to complete most of our chores the next day including a drive into the village to the hardware and small supermarket and a wander around the town and into a fascinating gallery and curio shop. The rest of the chores can wait for another time and we are very close to the Blyde River Canyon area so a day sight seeing is is a far better way to spend our final day here. Our first stop is at a lookout called God’s Window. A number of vantage points provide great views over the precipitous drop and the land below and a walk up the hill leads us to a beautiful rain forest with fascinating plants and more great views.

God's Window

God’s Window

We continue along the road with stops at waterfalls and view points and stop for a picnic lunch at Bourke’s Luck Potholes. This is where the Treur (Sorrow) River joins the Blyde (Hope) River. Through millions of years the swirling whirlpools at the junction of the rivers have caused water born sand and rocks to grind deep cylindrical potholes in the bedrock of the rivers. In Australia we call them ‘warri holes’. Along with hundreds of other tourists we take the walk down to the river and across bridges to complete a circuit of the area. Paul has been here before, the geology and natural aspects of the area haven’t changed but the gate with an admission fee, the increased infrastructure and the hordes of visitors are certainly different.

The light is too strong and shadows too much of a contrast for Paul to focus much on photography at Bourke’s Potholes but with filters on the camera the views further up the road at the Three Rondavels offer more possibilities and warrant a longer stop.

The Three Rondavels

The Three Rondavels

This is our final stop for the day and it is late afternoon by the time we are back at camp after a lovely day. This has been a good chance to try out our new home, we are pleased with how we easy the set up and pack up are, the amount of space is great, and it is all very comfortable. We still need to get used to towing and particularly backing, we are both very out of practice in backing trailers, and we will have to see how it handles rough off road tracks and tricky situations. I’m sure they will come in due time but for now we are off to the Kruger National Park for three weeks.

Surprise Safari

Kruger National Park

Two weeks after we arrive in South Africa we are delighted to participate in a surprise celebration for the 90th birthday of Paul’s Mum, Eileen. Her actual birthday was a couple of months ago but her granddaughters Kate and Gemma who are organising the event delayed the date until Paul could be here. Nobody has let slip anything about the party to Eileen and there are a more surprises in store for her. Paul’s son Sean, daughter Caitlin and her husband Kevin have flown over from Australia and she has no idea they are coming. Kate has come up from Cape Town and Eileen’s daughter Sarah and grandsons Dylan and Keegan have travelled from Durban, again all without Eileen’s knowledge. Other family and friends from around Johannesburg are also assembling for the event. As a final surprise, two days after the party we are taking her on a six day trip to Kruger National Park and Sean, Caitlin and Kevin are coming along as well.

Late Saturday morning all the guests are assembled at the venue, a pool-side “lapa” (thatched shelter without walls) belonging to the daughter of Eileen’s best friend Jean. Eileen thinks she is coming to collect Jean to go out for lunch. Kate and Gemma have done a fabulous job preparing the area and decorating the lapa with roses and balloons. Tables have been laid with white tablecloths, there are plenty of chairs and shade to relax in, and all the food has been organised so we all enjoy the glorious day as we wait for the guest of honour. When she arrives Eileen is quite overcome by surprise and delighted by the gathering. All in all it is a wonderful afternoon with lots of conversations and laughter, good food and drink, short speeches and the obligatory photos.

6.00 am Monday morning we arrive to collect Eileen for the long drive to Kruger. By the time we have loaded the meat out of the freezer, fitted all the last minute bits and pieces in and double checked the driving directions it is after 6.30 and the peak hour traffic is well underway. We hit a couple of slow patches of heavy traffic and even though we are travelling on freeways and against the majority of the traffic for most of the time it is still a couple of hours before we have managed to escape from the greater Johannesburg area.

We would prefer to avoid freeways and stick to quieter country roads (and avoid the tolls) but with [such] a long way to go we need to use them for a good part of the trip. Caitlin, Kevin and Sean trail our much slower Landcruiser in their rental car. They could cut quite a bit of time off the trip if they didn’t have to slow down as we trudge up hills and we never approach the speed limit of 120 kph. By late morning we have a good part of the distance covered and it is finally time to leave the freeway. Paul has planned a route to take advantage of the views available as we descend from the highveld, the central plateau covering much of South Africa, to the middleveld and then down to the lowveld. The passes are all named and he has chosen the picturesque Long Tom pass for our descent to the middleveld. We stop at the top to admire the views, try to decipher the history on the plaques (it is written in Afrikaans), buy souvenirs and have picnic lunch. The British used a Long Tom cannon, possibly more than one, to control the pass during the last Boer War and this was the last site it was used. Continuing our journey to the lowveld we pass through towns and villages, all much bigger than the last time Paul visited this area and finally we arrive at Orpen Gate at around 4pm, our point of entry into Kruger.

Kruger National Park is in the north east corner of South Africa with the Lebombo Ranges in Mozambique running north south along the eastern border and reaching Zimbabwe and the Gonarezhou National Park in the far north. It covers 20,000 sq km and stretches 444 km from Malalene Gate in the south through to Parfuri Gate in the north. There are seven other entry points within South Africa and two from Mozambique. The southern section has the most visitors and we are avoiding it this trip with our accomodation booked in the central area of the park.

Our first night is at Tamboti Tented Camp, only a few kilometres from Orpen. Here we stay in safari tents with shared bathroom and kitchen facilities. The tents all have two beds, power, a fridge, a secure food storage locker, a braai (barbecue), and a verandah. By the time we have unloaded everything from the eskys and got ourselves organised on Eileen’s verandah we are just in time to watch the sunset over the dry river bed in front of us while we enjoy a gin and tonic (or beer or wine as preferred). Baboons call from a large tree opposite and we wonder what other wildlife is nearby. The camp is surrounded by an electric fence which runs in front of us alongside the river bed but as we are elevated it protects us without interrupting our view. After a delicious braai and a relaxed evening chatting under the starry sky we head for bed, weary after the long drive and looking forward to the days ahead.

During the night people in our group hear lions roar, hyenas cackle and baboons chatter nearby and other campers report hearing a leopard growl but I managed to sleep through it all. The baboons provide plenty of interest as we share breakfast on the verandah. The tree opposite is home to a large troop and after seeing just a few on outer branches initially we see more and more appear and descend to the river bed. Eventually there are about 30 to 40 on the ground. Youngsters play and others enjoy the sunshine before they all slowly make their way along the sand and out of our sight to spend their day before they will no doubt return to this tree for the night.

Finally we are also ready to start our day’s journey and leave Tamboti to head toward Shimuwini where we will be staying for the next four nights. The speed limit in the park is 50 on bitumen roads and 40 on dirt roads but we often travel slower as we search for game and when we spot any we stop to watch them. We’ve seen zebras, giraffes, elephants and warthogs and quite a few different antelope and birds when a passing motorist tells us of seeing a pride of lions further along the road. Hoping they are settled for the day we continue our slow pace enjoying our sightings as we go.

Sure enough the lions are still there, in fact they hardly move during the half hour or so that we are in the area. Two young males lie under a tree and a little further on a large male with a magnificent mane shelters in a bushy thicket. Unfortunately the branches and leaves mean photographs are very difficult but he is certainly a great beast. Several females, a cub and another young male form another group not far away but once again movement is minimal and photography obscured. They have obviously fed quite recently as herds of antelope, mainly Impala and Kudu, graze without fear nearby. Something spooks them and they scatter then move up a hill and out of site. On the other side of the road the land is lower and the creek bed here has pools of water. Elephants and Impala are scattered along the water. Its no wonder that at times there are up to ten vehicles with people keen to appreciate the life around them.

Its almost midday when we reach Satara Rest Camp, a whole 50 km east of Tamboti. We’d like to head further before lunch but when we leave here we have a similar distance until we reach the next place we will be allowed to get out of the vehicles so we eat before we continue. We travel north now and the fascinating viewing continues. The country is very dry and many of the rivers and creeks are dry so when we see a waterhole we invariably see wildlife around it. Elephants and buck are the most numerous but giraffes and zebras are also around. A larger waterhole has a sizeable herd of elephants enjoying the mud. A turtle perches on top of a hippo watching the activities. Nearby two young males play fight, until a big male enters the area.

We have entered a part of the park where the dominant vegetation is the Mopane bush. These are covered in yellow and orange leaves and provide quite beautiful displays. The Olifants River is still flowing with more water than we have seen elsewhere but the width of the river bed shows that we are seeing only a small fraction of the flow which would occur after heavy rain on the Lebombo Mountains.

Olifants River

Olifants River

Olifants Rest Camp is not far up stream and we would like to take a look there but time is moving on and we reluctantly decide we do not have time today. Paul and I will definitely revisit this area. We make a brief stop at Letaba Rest Camp before leaving the bitumen and heading west along some dirt roads to save a longer trip on bitumen. The cruiser handles the dirt well but the passengers in the rear vehicle feel every corrugation and are happy to return to the bitumen 30 km later. We cross the Letaba River and we’re very pleased to see a reasonable amount of water in it as we’ll be staying in a camp beside it further downstream from here.

Soon we reach the turn into Shimuwini Bush Camp. The dirt road in is about 9km long although there is a slightly longer route along the river as an alternative. Shimuwini is much smaller than the large rest camps which have shops, restaurants, day picnic areas, and often swimming pools as well as a variety of accommodation levels ranging from camping to basic cottages and up to more luxurious options. At Shimuwini Bush camp there are a about a dozen self contained cottages with slightly different lay outs and the only supplies available are ice and firewood. Gates to the compound are locked between 6.00 pm and 6.00 am. We have two booked but first we have to reach there.

Just after we leave the main road we reach a dry river with a raised concrete bridge. A herd of elephants have dug a waterhole in the sand just next to the bridge and aren’t to keen on us being too close to them. Luckily they aren’t any good at jumping or climbing as a belligerent female has a staring contest with me and spreads her ears in a manner which leaves me in no doubt as to what she thinks of me being in her space.

Not happy!

Not happy!

We take the river loop and although the afternoon is steadily advancing we detour to several viewing points to observe the abundant wildlife and beautiful scenery. This is going to be a splendid place to stay!

We’ve given up on the detours and we’re approaching the gate when a large male elephant steps on to the road not far ahead of us. We see another male off to one side and we quickly stop and get ready to reverse if they become aggressive. Luckily they decide we aren’t a threat and they wander slightly off the road to graze on the trees. We wait for a while hoping they will move further away but they seem settled so we slowly move past as far away from them as possible and soon we are safely inside the gate.

Right of way

Right of way

We have travelled about 170 km in the day but it has taken us the whole day and now we have to hurry to get everything inside so we can relax while we enjoy the light of the setting sun. We are all relieved to know that we don’t have to do any more packing and unpacking for the next four days and we are delighted with the accommodation. A large glassed in area allows us to enjoy the views without dealing with the wind or insects but the doors can be opened wide during the day to allow plenty of fresh air. The bathroom facilities are clean and spacious, the beds comfortable and the kitchen is right next to the sitting area so the cooks aren’t excluded from the conversations.

A grassed area in front of us has plenty of mature trees which are well populated with birds. Small ground squirrels run around the grass and race up tree trunks and we also spot the occasional dwarf mongoose. That’s all on our side of the fence which runs along the bottom of the grassed area and separates us from the Letaba River just below it and the open country beyond. A bird hide is positioned in a corner with the side fence and there you definitely feel you are in the domain of the animals, especially when two large elephants, probably the ones we saw on the road, push through the bush adjacent to the side fence on their way to the river. Caitlin and Kevin head over to the hide to see them better and they get to smell them as well.

The next few days pass easily and quickly. It is always interesting to stroll along the river bank, inside the fence, watching the life in and along the river; hippos, elephants, crocodiles, turtles, kudu, impala, waterbuck, buffalo, herons, egrets and storks. A Goliath Heron (it is huge, about 1.4 metre tall) and an African Openbill Stork pose near each other as they dry their wings and a female waterbuck turns her back on them unimpressed by their display. A pair of African Fish Eagles who nest in a baobab tree just up river from the camp call in their distinctive voice and are seen diving for fish nearby. Inside the fence yellow-billed hornbills search for food on the ground and a bearded woodpecker pecks in the tree above me. Numerous small birds delight us with their song and their colours, I have still so much to learn about the birds here. The squirrels always raise a smile and it is easy to spend lots of time just watching them scamper around.

If we’re a little more energetic we can find lots more to see just driving a few kilometres along the river loop and picking a spot to watch the wildlife and the changing colours. In addition to drives during the daytime Paul is out almost every morning shortly after the gate is opened and again in the late afternoon to capture photos in the light he likes so much. He is usually accompanied by one or more of us but the passengers change. A couple of times a longer drive is taken, once up to Mopani the next rest camp north of us and once a short distance south along the main road trying to spot a leopard which had been sighted earlier in the morning. We had no luck with the leopard spotting but our drives provide other sighting including Wildebeest, Nyala, Steenbok, Bushbuck, Reedbuck and Duiker to add to our collection. Driving into Mopani Rest Camp I was delighted to see a zebra crossing, well several of them actually.

Finally it is time to pack up camp and make the long journey back to Joburg. We are on the road shortly after 6.00 but the first 40 km to the Phalaborwa Gate is slow and not just because of the park speed limit. First we crawl along the area the leopard had been seen as they often use one spot for several days but again we have no success. Next we spot a hyena just next to the road. It’s the first hyena I have seen and it is quite different to what I expected. The snout is broader and it doesn’t look as fierce as I would have thought but I’m sure it would be a different story if I wasn’t safely in the car taking my photos. Along the road I am delighted with a group of giraffe under some tall trees with the colourful Mopane bushes surrounding them. A final sighting before we leave the park is a solitary old buffalo bull, one of Africa’s most dangerous species. Luckily he shows no inclination to charge the car and we make it to the gate in time for breakfast.

Caitlin, Kevin and Eileen take the lead in their faster vehicle and make it back home by mid afternoon and Paul, Sean and myself arrive an hour later, weary but very pleased with our safari. Paul and I will definitely be returning to Kruger with more time available so we can see the other parts of the park at a pace which suits us.