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!
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.
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