From Letaba we continue our journey to the northern section of the Kruger National Park.
We’re staying in Tsendze ‘Rustic’ Campsite but we have to drive past it to Mopani Rest Camp to register and be allocated our campsite. We stopped for coffee at Mooiplaas (Beautiful Place), a picnic area along the way, and it is late morning and very hot by the time we reach Mopani. As the camp sites are allocated we see no need to rush back to Tsendze and, learning from our experience of setting up in the heat at Satara, we head for the bar / restaurant at Mopani for a cool drink and to relax in the shade. An adjoining deck has great views over a very large dam and as we get a great table with plenty of shade and a light breeze we decide to stay for lunch and watch the wildlife around the dam. Its a very relaxing way to avoid the heat of the day, great views, delicious food, a cool drink and a chance to use the Internet to catch up with people in Australia. We’ve been driving every day, packing and unpacking every second day, and concentrating on our activities so that even though we are thoroughly enjoying ourselves it is still good to have a bit of time out. Plenty of crocs silently glide through the water making their way past submerged hippos and wading egrets and storks. A few raptors soar above the water and an elephant wanders through the bush in the distance but generally it is a quiet time of the day around the dam.
The camping area at Tsendze is very nice and closer to the type of camping we are used to. Well spaced camp sites are surrounded by Mopani trees. The dry conditions at this time of year mean they have shed most of their leaves and a carpet of red and orange separates the camp sites. A tiny Skops owl sits in a tree and gazes at the campers but otherwise we don’t see much wildlife nearby although we hear hippos in the nearby river at night. There are no rondavels or chalets here, just the camp sites, a communal kitchen area and the shower and toilet block. Solar lights provide minimal lighting at night so there is very little light pollution to interrupt the night sky. As well as the usual internal showers there are two on each end of the block which are open to the sky and the stone tiles of the floor and walls provide a rustic feel. There are lights in these showers but I leave them off and have a cool shower under the starlight before heading to bed, lovely.
We see an amazing amount of wildlife while we are camped at Tsendze. We find a gravel road east of camp which runs north-south next to the Nshawu River for about 20 km and we drive up and down this road each day. There is no flowing water in the river at present, or at least none above ground. It is instead a wide river of long grass with an occasional water hole supplemented by windmills which fill tanks and troughs to provide clean drinking water. This type of low lying area with long grass and often boggy or marshy is called a ‘vlei’. Despite the dry conditions there are large areas where the grass is long enough so that all we can see of many of the animals, including the elephants, is their backs as they wade through a sea of grass on their way to water. Once it does rain the grass must get so long that it totally conceals all but the largest elephants. The first animal we see along this road is a mature male lion resting in the shade. We’ve seen quite a few lion by now but they never fail to impress, especially when they have a luxurious mane as this one does.
Continuing on we see more elephants, zebras, and buffalo than we can count as well as numerous buck including a new type, the Tsessebe. One herd of buffalo numbers more than 100. We drive to a spot in the middle of the vlei where we can get a good view of them approaching but move when it becomes apparent we are in their path and would be surrounded by them otherwise. It’s not wise to take chances with Cape Buffalo, especially a large herd like this one. The elephants often use their height to drink the clean water from the tanks but then make the other animals wait while they muddy the water in the troughs as they use it to spray themselves and cool off. There is a definite hierarchy and often it seems zebras are the ones who need the most patience. It doesn’t seem to harm them though, they eat almost anything and always have plump behinds. They often race around in the dirt kicking up clouds of dust which changes their colours from black and white to a pale tan and black.
Leaving Tsendze we avoid the bitumen road as there is a gravel road we can use to get to our next camp site at Shingwedzi. We start by retracing our route alongside the Nshawu River so we have yet another chance to admire the views and the game. When we leave the river we drive along the face of the Lebombo Range close to the park and country border. On the other side of the range is Mozambique and the Limpopo National Park. Later the road runs along the edge of the Shingwedzi River which completes our delightful drive.
We’ve picked this camp for another 3 night stay as it is a very picturesque area. The river is far below the levels Paul has seen before so that instead of watching game from the deck overlooking the river within the camp we need to drive a little further afield where there are some bigger pools of water and shady trees. The large trees along the steep banks of the Shingwedzi River are a distinctive part of the landscape here.
Meantime in camp we get another great camp site. The camping area is very large and in this northern end of the park it only gets busy during peak season and school holidays so we have lots of choice. There are quite a few trees around but most are almost bare so they don’t provide good shade but down the end near the swimming pool we find a couple of trees with good cover near the boundary fence, great for camping and the continuing high temperatures makes the proximity of the pool very welcome as well.
When we are checking in we are told that lion and leopard have been sighted near the river not far from the camp but we have no luck finding them, they must have moved on. That is more than compensated for by the report next day of other guests seeing more than 30 lions in a pride near a buffalo kill about 30 km north of Shingwedzi. Its late morning when we hear this, not an ideal time to set out to view game but we can’t miss an opportunity like this. We reach the area and can’t miss them. A buffalo carcass, mostly eaten and very smelly, is on the side of the narrow dirt road. Opposite under a very sparse and straggly bush several lionesses and numerous small cubs are panting in the heat of the day. The trees around are festooned with vultures and it appears this group of lions have been given the task of guarding the kill from the vultures. One young lion wanders in from the bush near the river to join them. We speculate that the rest of the pride must be sleeping in the deeper shade in that direction so we look for a way to get closer to the river. A short distance further along the road tyre tracks show where others have left the road so we follow them to another vantage point and see another much larger group of lions on the edge of the dry river bed resting in the dense shade of a much bigger tree. All up we see more than 20 lions of various ages but no mature males so we obviously have not seen the entire pride.
It is still extremely hot, and these lion won’t be doing much beside lying around for several hours, so we decide to return tomorrow as early as possible in the hope of seeing more of the pride at the kill. Instead of returning to the main road we follow the dirt road south toward the camp. We find a waterhole not far along where there are two Saddle-Billed Storks. The female spreads her wings to dry and performs a stately dance followed by a bow in our direction. They are striking birds with a bright yellow saddle shape on a red and black bill.
We continue to follow the river and the road winds between wonderful large shady trees. Elephants, giraffe, zebra and buck appear behind the foliage or at waterholes in the river and it is truly an enchanting scene. One waterhole is lined by Yellow-Billed Stork and another waterhole has numerous hippos submerged with just their ears and eyes and tops of their backs exposed. No doubt there are many more below the water which we can’t see.
We come across a very large herd of elephants including some tiny babies and we follow behind to see where they are heading. They cross the road in front of us and descend a steep bank to reach a waterhole below. We wait until we are sure they have all crossed then move up to watch them drinking and splashing in the mud and water. We are absorbed in the spectacle but luckily I turn to look around and see another very large herd approaching who are intent on using the same track to reach the river and we are right in their way! I quickly reverse and we give them right of way, they are far to big and dangerous to argue with, especially with so many young ones. We’ve spent so much time watching the elephants it is far past our lunchtime so we take the next side road back to the tar road and return to camp. We’ll travel down the rest of this valley tomorrow.
I skip the afternoon drive as Paul is keen to get some landscape photos of the riverbank in the late afternoon light and next morning we are ready to leave when the gates are opened at 5.30 am. As we approach the site where the lions made their kill we see a lioness and a couple of juvenile lions picking what they can off the now depleted carcass. As we are watching they leave the bones to the circling vultures and head off through the low scrub. The lioness is limping, perhaps she was injured during the hunt, and she is easy to follow. Not far off the road the rest of the pride is sheltering beneath a large tree. We can’t see them all as the ground slopes down toward the river and once again we don’t see any mature males.
There is a picnic spot not too far away where we can leave the car so we backtrack to it and, after a late breakfast, we return to the river valley and the water holes we visited yesterday. We don’t see the large numbers of game we saw yesterday but there is still plenty to see and we spend a delightful couple of hours on our slow return to camp. It has been good having the extra day here, and we agree that it would be good to have at least three days in each camp on a future visit.
We’re now heading to our last camp in the park at Punda Maria. Its an easy drive up the bitumen road although we do take a short side road across the north side of a large hill and we are rewarded with some great views across the edge of the lowveld to the escarpment leading up to the middleveld. We also see numerous male and female nyala, a very beautiful buck which sticks closely to the shade. Punda Maria, one of the older restcamps, is quite close to the park boundary and is set on the side of a hill. The old cottages in this camp were constructed of mud and wood with narrow verandahs along the front facing the road. Set as they are, in tight rows along the side of the hill, they make for a rather quaint scene. It is a very dry area and much of the vegetation has been decimated by elephants. When we get into the camping area we see what the elephants are hanging around for. A large muddy pool is fed by a water pipe coming out of the camp and it draws all the animals in the area as there is very little other water around at present. A wonderful large hide is built overlooking the water and we set up just a little along the fence line so we have front row seats on the ever-changing array of wildlife which frequents this spot. Just up behind us is the swimming pool which we use when the game is scarce and we need to cool off. The weather is even hotter now so that’s several times each day. We do go for a drive around the area while we are here and enjoy the scenery and see a little game, including a few elephant, but the place to watch wildlife is definitely at our camp site or in the hide. Paul spends time in the hide taking photographs. It is a wonderful opportunity to watch the parade of animals at all times of the day and night. A soft floodlight makes it possible to see the larger animals at night. Some of the smaller animals are very wary and prefer to stick to the shadows around the edges. Elephant and buffalo take turns wallowing in the thick mud and the soft light at dawn and dusk makes for some great colours. The other animals including kudu, impala, zebra, hyena, bush buck, nyala and baboons take their turns when they can.
We’ve reached the end of our 20 days in Kruger, all that remains now is to drive to the border with Mozambique at Pafuri. Its a distance of almost 70 km which is all we would normally want to travel but we need to allow time for the border crossing then a drive on for at least another 70 km on a rough road to the first place we will be able to camp. We’re taking the shortest road possible, well almost. Neighbouring campers have told us of a dam where they saw some lion and lots of other game yesterday and it won’t take us far out of our way so we add that into the trip. It’s worth it, the scenery is lovely and as well as two lazy lionesses we see plenty of buck including roan antelope, a new type we have only been seeing in the last few days, elephants, giraffe, buffalo, warthogs and even one of the few ostrich we have seen in Kruger. A lovely picnic spot on the banks of the Pafuri river is a great place for a cuppa before we reach the border before lunch time. It sure has been a fantastic visit to this magnificent park.
If you want to see more of our South African photos follow the link to the South Africa photo gallery.