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 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.
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.
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.