Category Archives: Memorable sightings

The Birthday Boy, The Angry Lions, and the Sweni Wilderness Trail

For almost as long as he’s been able to talk, Joubert expressed a wish to go walking in the Kruger National Park. The challenge with that however was that children younger than twelve years old are not allowed to take part in the guided walks on offer, due to the danger and distances covered (and, I suppose in some cases, short attention spans).

However, at short notice we were made aware of availability on the Sweni Wilderness Trail – the most popular of the trails in Kruger – running from the 18th of August 2021 and, with that being Joubert’s 12 birthday it seemed a blessing straight out of heaven, too good to pass up even if it meant he’d have to miss a week of school…

Unfortunately work commitments meant Marilize wouldn’t be able to join us, so it was just the two de Wet boys that departed Pretoria on the 15th of August for our wilderness adventure. Over the past few weeks we showed you most of what we saw and experienced in the three days leading up to the trail as we traversed the southern reaches of the Kruger Park and then made our slow way up to Satara on the 18th of August.

It is at Satara Rest Camp that the ranger-guides meet their guests at the start of the Sweni Wilderness Trail, every Wednesday and Sunday. Having been introduced to our fellow trailists as well as rangers Orbet and Rhulani who’d be guiding the trail, and with all our luggage stowed in the trailer, it was finally time to get onto the open safari vehicle and head into the wilderness. With some wonderful sightings along the way it took us quite some time to cover the distance between Satara and the Sweni Trails camp, and so it is already almost dark when we arrive. Finally Joubert’s wish was coming true, and on his birthday no less.

Guests spend three nights in a rustic, remote base camp on the southern bank of the Sweni stream, from where they are taken out into the wilderness on four guided walking excursions before being brought back to Satara at the end of the trail. Joubert and I were allocated the sleeping hut in the furthest corner of the camp. After settling in we all could sit down to the delicious cooking of James, the camp caretaker and chef, rounding off our meal with a slice of birthday cake before Orbet and Rhulani made us aware of the rules of walking in the wilderness in the days to come. Lions roaring nearby lulled us to sleep that night. What would tomorrow hold?

At sunrise, and after enjoying hot coffee and rusks, we were ready to set out exploring. A beautiful clear morning forewarned that it was going to be a hot day, so we made sure we had plenty to drink in our backpacks, in addition to the fare we’d be enjoying whilst having a picnic somewhere in the bush later.

A short drive westwards out of camp, and in the direction from where the lions were roaring the previous evening, brought us to the area where our ranger-guides determined we’d be walking this first morning. Our walk followed the course of the Sweni stream where the tracks of numerous animals around the remaining pools of water was a sure sign that we’d be encountering lots of wildlife on our morning amble.

When we came across the lion pride feeding on their wildebeest kill, I was surprised at how close we were to them. Surprised and excited, and entirely unafraid. A good chance at having close encounters with lions while on foot is after all the reason why Sweni is the most sought-after wilderness trail offered in Kruger, and the rangers are experts at keeping their guests safe under such circumstances. One of the lioness were keeping a calm eye on the approaching humans, while the others – three more females, one male and seven cubs – were feeding entirely oblivious to our presence. That was until the male looked up. When he saw the humans just a stone’s throw from where he and his pride were feasting the great beast gave a mighty growl – and fled for his life! This sent the cubs fleeing in every direction while the females were immediately ready to go to war to protect their cubs and their prey. While one female slinked away to go round up the cubs, and the male turned around after a hundred meter dash to stare at us from  a distance, the three remaining females left us with no confusion that we were not welcome at their breakfast table. The intensity of their growls was like thunder rumbling from inside the earth; you could feel it resonating in your chest. With lightning in their eyes, their snarls exposing their deadly weaponry, ears pulled back and tails flicking from side to side there was only one way for us to go. Backwards. Slowly. Don’t turn your back on them, or they will charge. And when they do charge, stand still and face them. When she stops, you move backwards again. Slowly, without any sudden movements. And without turning your back! An amazing experience I will never forget. And I don’t believe Joubert will forget it either. No fear, just an amazing sense of respect and gratefulness for being there in the moment.

After the exciting encounter with the lions we continue along the Sweni, criss-crossing it and its tributaries at several points, enjoying a well deserved picnic at a beautiful turn in the stream and just soaking in the wildness around us.

Just before we arrive back at the vehicle, and with the sun sitting very high and very hot already, we sneak up on a herd of elephants sleeping in the shade of a tree.

The hot midday hours we spent in camp (after enjoying the delicious lunch James welcomed us back with). The waterhole in front of camp is a magnet for thirsty animals, there’s a lot of habituated birds attracted to the birdbath and there was even a brief appearance by a good-sized African Rock Python in one of the large trees next to the river, meaning there was more than enough entertainment to keep us occupied until the afternoon outing.

On the way to the area where we’d be walking in the afternoon, our guides took a detour to the feasting lions we encountered in the morning. They were still in the same spot, and still gnawing on the remains of their wildebeest prize. We didn’t venture off the vehicle this time, enjoying this meeting from even closer and much safer quarters.

The afternoon walks cover a shorter distance, and take in a pleasing spot from which the African sunset can be enjoyed with something cold in hand. While we didn’t cover as much ground in the afternoon we were again treated to an encounter with lions – this time a mating pair some distance away – as well as lots of other animals and inspiring scenery. From atop the rocky outcrop where we sat enjoying the sunset we also realised that the mating pair of lions were in fact a threesome – two males attending to one female in oestrus.

We arrive back at camp around 7pm that evening, but not before we enjoy some thrilling night time sightings along the way – and of course we paid “our” lions another visit!

The next morning is a lot chiller than the previous, and it soon clouds over. Our route takes along the Nungwini stream and past a natural fountain. Despite the inclement weather we again have wonderful encounters with a wide range of animals, including a lone male lion, elephant bulls, giraffes and honey badgers, and by the time the vehicle comes into sight again I’m sure all of us still had a good few kilometers in the tank.

Back at camp for lunch and (if you were so inclined) a siesta, a wildebeest bull harassing cows around the waterhole had Joubert happily clicking away, and later the little birds at the birdbath received his full attention.

On the way to our sundowner spot, Orbet and Rhulani took us to a beautiful stretch of water along the Nungwini stream, just a short walk away. We weren’t there very long, when we had to vacate our prime spot at the water’s edge to allow an approaching herd of elephants to have right of way.

Ted’s Place, a cliff in the foothills of the Lebombo Mountains looking out over the plains of the central Kruger Park with the course of the Sweni River snaking through the scene, was a fitting location to reflect on a memorable trail before heading back to base camp, where a pair of honey badgers were waiting for us to return.

It wasn’t easy to say goodbye to the Sweni Trail’s base camp that final morning, and the drizzly weather certainly reflected our mood. Aside from a wet family of spotted hyenas, there wasn’t a lot of animals to be seen along the road back to Satara.

After saying goodbye to Orbet, Rhulani, James and the other guests that shared our experiences in the wilderness in those three short days, it was time for Joubert and me to head for home… Leaving through Orpen Gate really was our only option if we wanted to beat the government COVID-curfew, though we delayed our departure just a smidgeon by detouring past Muzandzeni Picnic Site and Talamati Bushveld Camp.

We were already quite some distance out the gate at Orpen, and passing one of the many game farms along the road, when we saw a leopard next to the fence of one of these farms. While we were still despondent about no longer being in Kruger this unexpected find made us realise all over again that we were still in Africa, which means we’re more blessed than 6.5-billion other people on earth…

 

On our way to the wilderness – day 4

The 18th of August arrived. Joubert’s twelfth birthday. With great excitement the two of us packed the Duster at Skukuza and got ready to depart for Satara, where we’d join the Sweni Wilderness Trail that afternoon. It was still pitch dark when the gates opened at 6am, and we were already on the Marula Loop by the time the sun peaked over the horizon.

With the morning sun lending a beautiful golden glow to the morning, Joubert noticed a few tawny bodies moving through the dry grass as we passed the Orpen Rocks. The pride of lions quickly disappeared behind the rocks, only to emerge on top of the boulders to provide us with an awesome photo opportunity – and even better as we were the only vehicle there for quite some time!

By the time we leave the lions a few other vehicles had already joined the sighting, so we leave the cats to their other adoring fans. Soon after, at Leeupan, we find a herd of elephants enjoying their early morning drink, with the youngsters terrorizing their thirsty neighbours.

A quick detour to Orpen Dam has us amazed at the number and size of the crocodiles lazing on the bank.

The day has really become very hot by the time we set off on the second half of our drive to Satara, having stretched our legs at Tshokwane Picnic Site. Very few animals show themselves in heat like this, and the number of Olive Grass Snakes we see crossing the hot road is very surprising.

We reach Satara in time for a quick picnic lunch before getting our gear ready, a last visit to the shop for drinks and snacks, and checking in for the Sweni Wilderness Trail…

Not for sensitive viewers: a vicious Baboon assault

It was the afternoon of the 16th of August 2021 and Joubert and I were parked on the shores of Sunset Dam, just outside Lower Sabie in the Kruger National Park, enjoying the serene scenes playing out all around us as a myriad of birds and animals, including a troop of Chacma Baboons, mingled at the water’s edge.

Baboons peacefully foraging on the shore of Sunset Dam

Suddenly there was a frightful commotion as the baboons started screaming in alarm. Almost immediately we noticed a young baboon, shrieking to high heaven, being chased by two slightly older “teenage” baboons. This in itself was not abnormal, as there is often disagreements in a baboon troop, and peace usually returns quickly after the necessary discipline has been dispatched. The young baboon rushed into the muddy water at the dam’s edge, eliciting even more worried squeals from its mother as Sunset Dam is home to some monster crocodiles.

However, as soon as one of the “teenage” baboons got hold of the youngster, it was clear that this attack was much more sinister. We have no idea about their motive, but judging by the viciousness of their bites to the skull, neck and throat and the very rough way they tried to pull the younger baboon apart limb from limb, there was no doubting that the two teenagers were intent on killing their unfortunate target. At one stage early into the encounter an adult, perhaps the mother of the younger one, tried to intervene but this proved only a temporary reprieve – instead of running away the badly injured youngster tried to hide in the mud again where he was soon cornered once more.

By now the attack had gone on for about four minutes. Probably as was to be expected, the fracas attracted the attentions of a large crocodile that was hitherto lying dead still on the bank. With the tables likely to be turned on them within a second, the attacking baboons let go of their quarry and ran for safety.

The youngster that was so viciously mauled also scampered away, heading over the road towards the Sabie River, and out of our sight. His attackers apparently also lost track of him, as they searched every bush in the general vicinity looking for the young baboon without success.

One of the murderous baboon “teenagers” passing by us as he looks for their victim. (photo by Joubert)

Whether the little one could’ve survived its injuries we’ll never know, nor whether the murderers managed to track him down and finish the job… This definitely was one of the most harrowing experiences we’ve ever had in the bush.

 

Fish Eagle caught in the act

The call of the African Fish Eagle is so evocative of Africa’s wild places, and seeing one is always a special treat, high on the wish-list of many safari-goers. Especially when you get the chance to see it in action; gracefully descending with claws outstretched to snatch a fish from just below the water’s surface and then majestically soaring away with its prize grasped in its talons. The stuff nature documentaries are made of.

During our mid-August trip to the Kruger National Park, Joubert and I were lucky to see a Fish Eagle catch a sharp-tooth catfish from the waters of the Sabie River just downstream from Lower Sabie Rest Camp. While this particular individual won’t score a perfect ten for the execution – that splash-down would have had the Olympic audience snickering, and thank goodness for that sandbank! – it nevertheless was an amazing sighting. Most of these photographs were taken by Joubert.

A memorable encounter with Sable Antelope

As mentioned in our previous post, the chief reason why Joubert and I decided to spend the first morning of our August trip to the Kruger National Park around Mlondozi Picnic Site was the recent sightings of a beautiful herd of sable antelope in that vicinity. Being one of our favourite antelope we couldn’t let the opportunity go by without going to see whether we can find the herd as well. Only on our second circuit around Muntshe Mountain and along the Mnondozi stream were we rewarded with the encounter we were hoping so dearly for. Without a doubt the best sighting I have had of Sable Antelope in over 30 years. As they crossed the road one-by-one we counted 25 individuals ranging from the magnificent bull to the long-eared calves.

Sir Elephant

This young elephant, wielding his “mighty” branch like a medieval knight would his sword, gave us some great entertainment when Joubert and I visited the Kruger National Park last week. He intimidated us with his fierce strokes, and we yielded, but then an elderly couple in another vehicle did not pay him the necessary respect and he went into an even more brutal display for their benefit. Lucky for them he stepped on his own sword, and snapped it, so he stepped back into the long grass at the side of the road…

… where he picked up another branch just as the next vehicle – a campervan – drew closer.

Sir Elephant picking a new sword (photo by Joubert)

Most of these photographs were taken by Joubert

Surprise Weekend at Marakele; Baby Elephant Rescue!

We were still watching the herd of elephants calmly going about their business on the shores of the dam at Tlopi Tented Camp in Marakele National Park on Marilize’s birthday, when suddenly there was a tremendous uproar in the herd.

Cows were trumpeting in panic and rushing to a specific spot, while one particular youngster was screaming blue murder and running away from the same place as quickly as the grown-ups were approaching.

It quickly became apparent that a tiny baby had fallen down a small embankment and into the mud at the edge of the pool, struggling to get up. Within seconds the adult cows were lending either a helping foot or trunk and the baby was lifted to safety.

While we didn’t see how the baby ended up in the mud to begin with, from their reaction to the youngster that fled the scene earlier, and who was still screeching to high heaven but now circled back to the group of cows where they were soothing the upset baby, it was rather clear who the adult elephants thought carried the blame for the incident!

Summertide Diary: iSimangaliso Rhinos

The iSimangaliso Wetland Park is home to healthy populations of both White and Black Rhinoceros, jealously guarded by the reserve’s rangers and routinely dehorned to deter poachers. Rhino populations all over our country are under severe threat and seeing these animals in the wild, even without their trademark horns, is an experience we’re very grateful for.

Being diurnal in habit and much less skittish, the White Rhino is the easier of the two African species to find while driving around iSimangaliso.

Black Rhinos are solitary, shy, more nocturnal and consequently seen less often than White Rhinos.

This muddy signpost in the park was used by a muddy rhino as a rubbing post. Rolling in mud, leaving it to dry and then rubbing the caked mud off against a sturdy rock, tree or …signpost, is a way for the rhino to rid itself of external parasites like ticks.

Signpost re-modelled by a muddy rhinoceros

Summertide Diary: Rock Pool Wonderland

For landlubbers like us gawking with open mouths at the colourful life in a rock pool at the sea shore is one of the highlights of a beach holiday. Many of the life forms are so unique and different from what we’re used to as to seem utterly alien. We were fortunate in that, during our time in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, we had a chance to visit Mission Rocks at low tide in the cool of the afternoon, allowing us to clamber over the rocks from one pool to the next to our heart’s content.

 

Crowned Eagles

We were about half-way through our visit to Cape Vidal in January 2021 when we found that a pair of Crowned Eagles were rearing a chick in a tall Casuarina tree right inside the camp and very near our cabin. The eagles were very careful not to attract attention to their nest and being known for attacking humans that venture too close to their nests we didn’t hang around there too often. We therefore got very few glimpses of the chick in its treetop fortress.

Considered Africa’s most powerful eagle, capable of preying even on mammals the size of bushbuck, the Crowned Eagle is a very large bird of prey – females, the larger of the sexes, weighs up to 5kg and has a wingspan of around 1.6m.  Crowned Eagles are forest birds, but have adapted to life in exotic plantations where there’s suitable prey available. Mammals – hyraxes, monkeys and antelope – make up the majority of their dietary intake and small pets regularly feature on the menu of Crowned Eagles living in or near urban areas that fall within their distribution range.

Crowned Eagles are monogamous and form lasting pair bonds, each pair defending a large tract of forest as their exclusive territory. Their large stick-platform nests are built by both partners on cliffs or at the top of tall forest trees. These nests are usually reused for consecutive years and are continuously added to, eventually becoming massive structures up to 3m tall. Clutches of two eggs are laid in the spring months and incubated over a seven week period, mostly be the female. Unless the first laid egg doesn’t hatch the older sibling will kill the younger soon after it hatches. While the male regularly brings food to the nest it never feeds the chick, this task is always performed by the female until the chick is about a month-and-a-half old, at which point it starts feeding itself on meals brought to it by the parent birds. The chick takes its first flight around four months after hatching and is finally chased from its parental territory when it is at least ten months old.

Though occurring widely over Africa’s forested areas, the IUCN lists the Crowned Eagle as being near-threatened, siting a decreasing population of no more than 50,000 mature individuals caused by habitat destruction and persecution by humans. In South Africa they’re found from the Garden Route, through the Eastern Cape and Kwazulu-Natal, to the escarpment of Mpumalanga and Limpopo, the Soutpansberg  range and the Pafuri region of the Kruger National Park.