Join us for a look back at the wonderfully wild South African destinations we visited during 2022. May 2023 be a blessed year for you and your family, memorable for all the best reasons.
The plains around Satara in the Kruger National Park is renowned as one of the best places in South Africa to see the most regal of cats, the Lion. It therefore wasn’t surprising that our visit in December 2021 yielded no less than twenty encounters with the Kings (and Queens) of the Jungle.
Majestic they may be, but Lions are notoriously lazy too. Out in the midday heat they’re usually far more likely to be lying flat on their sides and deep in dreamland than moving around or hunting. Luckily we only had a few sightings like that, otherwise this post would not have been very exciting.
Being one of the first cars out of Satara when the gates open in the morning is often rewarded with wonderful lion sightings right on the road. Like this one, just 100 meters – I kid you not! – from Satara’s gate. As we left camp in the pouring rain two magnificent males came walking along the road from the left, straight towards us. Pretty soon the two had a large convoy following them as more cars departed from camp, so we opted to return to our campsite.
Shortly afterwards, a roaring close-by alerted us to the presence of another lion next to the fence, and Joubert got this shot of a third male as it walked past the open gate to the camp. Perhaps I should be more worried about the boy’s fearlessness when it comes to our wild places and the creatures that live there. Turns out these three enormous lions are the brothers of Satara’s famous white lion and we’d see them a few more times before our time at Satara was at an end.
On Christmas morning we saw a few giraffe and zebra acting very nervous on the H6. While they were out of view at that time, we could deduce from the herbivores’ behaviour more or less where the predators lay hidden, and sure enough our wait paid off soon enough when the lions gave away their presence, ending any chance they had at a successful hunt. These young lions were part of a bigger pride of which we encountered various members on several occasions along the H6 near its junction with the H1-3 during our stay at Satara in December of 2021.
On the 27th of December we were the first car that morning to turn onto the H6 main road towards Nwanetsi, and less than a kilometer further along came across these three “teenage” lions right on the road.
On New Year’s Day we had another encounter with some of the members of this pride, when we again came across them lounging on the H6 road to Nwanetsi.
As we left Satara on the 2nd of January 2022 to head home, this Lioness walked along with us a bit of the way. We were most grateful for the royal sendoff.
Later on the same day, just before Tshokwane, a young lion stepped into the road ahead, though he was off into the long grass again after just a brief moment.
In the early morning of the 17th of December, as we were heading along the main road northwards, we encountered these two lovely males with their stylishly maintained (“mane”-tained?) manes heading towards the Mtomeni Spruit. Just look at how beautifully their manes have been blow-dried – not a hair out of place!
It was at around 6am on the morning of the 18th of December, with the sun just nicely risen over the horizon, that we came across this small group of lions at the junction of the H7 and S106 on the way to Orpen. Two magnificent males attending to a single female, in all likelihood a trio in the throes of mating judging by the fresh scars both males were carrying on their faces and bodies. The female was the first to rise and lead the males, and all of us humans in our metal cocoons, on a walk along the H7 for about three kilometers before she was distracted by a herd of impalas and stalked off into the thickets. In the end we spent about three quarters of an hour in their company.
Just before 4pm on the 21st of December, with the weather still stiflingly hot as we left Nwanetsi Picnic Site and turned onto the S41 gravel road, we came across two lionesses lying next to the road. They didn’t appreciate our attentions though and immediately got up and walked off. Someone should tell them that this is not the way to treat their adoring fans!
On the 22nd of December we explored the roads around the Tshokwane Picnic Site. We found a pride of lions at a small waterhole on the S37 gravel drive very near to its junction with the main H1-3 road. They stayed in the general vicinity all day and we could return to them twice more before heading back to Satara.
On the 19th of December, while we were having breakfast at Nwanetsi, I realised that I left my insulin pens at Satara. This meant an adjustment to our planned route for the day in that we’d have to return to camp first. The unexpected detour turned out to be a real blessing in disguise though when we happened upon a pride of 8 lionesses about 5km from the H6’s junction with the H1-3.
The unfortunate forgetting of my insulin turned out to be even more of a boon when we arrived at a traffic jam where the main H1-3 road crosses the Nwanetsi River. The reason for the traffic jam was Satara’s White Lion and his brothers! While all we saw of the star of the show first time around was him fast asleep, he did co-operate a bit better when we returned to the scene later in the day.
When we left Satara at gate opening time (04:30) on the first morning of 2022, the air was filled with the nearby roaring of lions. We didn’t have to travel far before we saw two mighty Lions strolling towards us along the road, followed by a couple of cars. Yet again they were near the Nwanetsi Bridge and we immediately recognised that they were two of the four-brother coalition that includes the White Lion, affectionately known as “Casper” by many regular Kruger visitors. Of course we were wondering where “Casper” is, so we decided to join the cavalcade following his two brothers and see whether they’d lead us to him. Soon though both males took a game trail into the bush and disappeared from view in the long grass. Now we are driving up and down the one kilometre stretch between the Nwanetsi Bridge and the S100 turnoff when suddenly, out of the bush in the pitch dark, appears a third male – the third “normal” coloured Lion. Again we drive the short stretch beside him until he also heads of along the same trail the other males took earlier. The question now is whether the White male is ahead of or behind his brothers…
Again we slowly patrol up and down the same stretch of the road, hoping that the White Lion will also pop out of the bush like the ghost he’s named after. After 15 minutes he’s still not appeared and we start believing that he must have been in front of his brothers, and might actually already be on the road to Orpen in which direction we last saw his brothers headed. So we go around the corner, drive 2 or 3 km along the H7 road, but come out empty-handed again, and turn around to go scour the area around the Nwanetsi Bridge again. You would not believe the excitement in our car when we come around the turn to see the White Lion heading straight toward us, entourage in tow, exactly half-an-hour after we last had eyes on his brothers. Since we saw Satara’s White Lion two years ago, he has grown into a very impressive specimen. The oldest and largest of only three known wild White Lions in the world – all of them living in the Kruger National Park – and here he is walking just inches away from our vehicle. We reverse to stay alongside him as he strides down the road, and then let him pass when vehicles start arriving behind us. We couldn’t have asked for a better start to 2022…
With this post then ends the recollections of our epic December 2021 holiday at Satara in the Kruger National Park. We hope you enjoyed it along with us.
The Leopard is a big cat with excellent camouflage and stealthy habits. I am sure in all our years of visiting South Africa’s wild places we’ve passed many more Leopards without seeing them than we actually did notice, but I try not to dwell on that too much… With the Kruger Park being so lush and green when we visited in December 2021 it was a wonder we saw any Leopards at all.
Even when you are lucky enough to glimpse a Leopard, often all you get to see of it is a few spots and a white tail-tip as it slinks out of view, like this one along the road between Orpen and Satara on the 23rd of December.
Most of our Leopard sightings have been in the very early morning, so it pays to get up early and be one of the first vehicles out the camp gates. We saw this big male on the S100-road with the sun still struggling to rise on an overcast morning.
Leopards are great at climbing and that’s a good reason to scan trees big and small while out on a game drive in reserves where they occur. This beautiful lady was draped over a Marula branch hanging almost over the S36-road and so relaxed in our presence that she actually fell asleep while we watched. She probably lies in this tree very often to be so relaxed in the company of people and their vehicles. We only noticed later while going through our photos that she is blind in her right eye.
When you are blessed with a fantastic Leopard sighting it’s a memory that will stay with you forever. In the morning of the 29th of December we were travelling along the S39 road, that follows the course of the Timbavati River, towards Timbavati Picnic Spot and finding sightings rather sparse, though the bushveld scenery was as beautiful as anything you could imagine. Suddenly, within sight of the Leeubron waterhole, this magnificent creature appeared right next to the road. A big and beautiful Leopard male, so relaxed in our presence that you could imagine that it didn’t even acknowledge our existence. He came closer and closer, crossed the road behind our vehicle, and walked off into the distance, leaving us all very excitedly chattering about our luck at being in the right place at the right time!
See if you can spot the female Cheetah in this photograph. We spotted her on the 15th of December a few kilometers south of Satara. With her were two cubs; they were even more difficult to see. This was the first of 5 Cheetah sightings during our December 2021 visit to the Kruger National Park.
Four days later we had a decent enough sighting of a group of four young Cheetahs hunting close to Nwanetsi. They didn’t stick around for photos very long though before their fleeing prey forced them to follow deeper into the bush.
Our next Cheetah sighting, on Christmas Eve, was another very challenging one. While this individual lay perfectly out in the open about 150m from the road that spotted pelt is excellent camouflage.
On Boxing Day, late afternoon while heading back to camp along the H6 road, we found two Cheetah brothers sitting in the rain intently staring into the distance. Just what they were looking at we never figured out as we eventually had to depart in order not to be locked out of camp.
Our next and final Cheetah sighting was also in pouring rain on the 31st of December, this time along the S37 road leading to Tshokwane from Nwanetsi; a group made up of a female with 4 fairly large cubs who would take turns to sit up in the rain and keep a watchful eye while the others kept their eyes shut against the pelting drops.
The Cheetah is endangered, not only in South Africa but across the whole continent, where its range has been drastically diminished. South Africa is home to at least 1,100 of these beautiful animals, with about 370 living in Kruger National Park and adjacent reserves. For us to have seen five different groups during our 3 week visit to the Park was extremely lucky! The Endangered Wildlife Trust is again calling on citizen scientists to submit photos of Cheetahs (and Wild Dogs) taken during visits to the Kruger Park to their 5th Cheetah Census, and while Joubert and I didn’t really get useful images on this trip we hope we can encourage other visitors with more luck to participate in this important project.
One of Satara Rest Camp’s features are a habituated African Wild Cat (perhaps more than one) that patrols the camp after dark, reminiscent of the pre-historic days when these cats first associated with humans and gave rise to the domestic tabbies that share human households the world over today. Even though we kept our distance, her regular visits to our campsite and bungalow was a welcome facet of our evenings in camp during our December 2021 visit to Satara in the Kruger National Park.
It is estimated that there are over 30,000 African Elephants in the Kruger National Park (SANParks annual report, 2020-2021, p48) and as a result visitors to the Park can bargain on regular encounters with these charismatic animals. That certainly was the case when we visited in December 2021, and as they are among our favourite animals you will hear no complaints from us.
Could there be anything cuter than a baby Elephant!? Judging by the number of tiny calves in each of the herds we encountered the Kruger Park’s Elephant population is very healthy and still growing!
There are few things in wild Africa as imposing as an Elephant bull
When encountering a bull Elephant in musth on the road, it is wise to give them a wide berth. In this state Elephant bulls are very irritable and down right aggressive, making for some exciting and memorable encounters. With their elevated testosterone levels these bulls simply ooze self-confidence and I simply love that assertive swagger that goes with it. On the 19th of December this bull made us reverse for quite a few kilometers along the H6-road between Satara and Nwanetsi.
It took only one mock charge from this musth bull we encountered along the very narrow and winding S147 Ngotso Loop to convince us to vacate his vicinity.
When bulls in musth meet they are bound to get involved in serious fights for dominance and mating rights. These bulls clashed just outside the Tshokwane Picnic Site – it is the roofs of the Ranger Post that you can see in the background of some of these images.
On Christmas morning, just a few minutes away from Nwanetsi, these two younger bulls provided great entertainment. They seemed to be in the throws of fighting, but one of the combatants kept trying to keep a tree between him and his adversary. It was funny seeing how the one would push down the tree only for the other to try and re-plant it between them before the argument would move to a different tree or bush where the whole sequence would be repeated. Eventually one’s nerves gave in and he tried high-tailing out of the area as quickly as he could, but the other would not have any of that and followed at speed.
Older bulls often carry very impressive ivory; long and thick. We are always delighted to see these icons of Kruger.
We encountered this particularly impressive one-tusked fellow on three separate occasions during our December 2021 visit to the Kruger National Park.
Some bull Elephants with notable tusks are given names by the Park staff. This is Kukura, a tusker first recorded in 2015 and monitored since then by the rangers and researchers in the Kruger National Park.
The Hippopotamus is a perennial favourite with visitors to South Africa’s wild places. Generally regarded as “jolly”, probably because of their portly bodies, hippos are actually extremely aggressive and dangerous and noted for killing more people in Africa than any other wild mammal.
Especially when they are out of the water, and feel their escape to their aquatic abode blocked, hippos become very aggressive. One morning near Balule we encountered an enormous Hippo bull sauntering back to the water of the Olifants River, and we were happy that he chose to follow a game trail back instead of walking along the road!
When they feel threatened, hippos will often rush back to the water and beware anything caught in their way. We saw this cow and calf returning in a hurry to the pool at the Sweni Hide near Nwanetsi – the speed with which they smashed into the water was amazing!
It’s often difficult to determine whether hippos are playing or fighting – both look equally serious to us human onlookers. Joubert got this pair going at it in the Gudzani Dam near Satara.
The grasslands of the central Kruger Park supports several very large herds of African Buffalo, as well as numerous old bulls relegated to solitary lives. Encounters with Buffaloes are always exciting, for even when they’re in the best of moods they still look at you as if you are overdue on money owed to them. Though this is mostly for show and probably as much to satisfy their curiosity as it is a threatening posture (we’ve rarely been charged by buffalo while in a vehicle), these powerful animals deserve their dangerous reputation and should be treated with respect.
Spotted Hyenas are probably the most numerous large predator in the Kruger National Park, with a population estimated at around 7,000. While many people still hold on to incorrect beliefs that the Spotted Hyena is a cowardly scavenger, amongst other insults, we know better and are always excited when we get a chance to spend time with these fascinating carnivores.
For the entire duration of our December 2021 visit to the Satara area of the Kruger National Park a large pack of Hyenas maintained a den site about 3km to the north of the camp, along the H1-4 road. We regularly encountered these Hyenas, of all sexes and ages, while setting out or returning to camp and seldom left them without more photographs to add to the album.
This little family was a different story however. Along the Ngotso stream one very hot day early into our visit we came across a Spotted Hyena female with the two most lovable cubs imaginable. Though we looked for them in the same vicinity on several occasions later on we weren’t lucky to see them again.
Just south of Tshokwane, where the main road to Lower Sabie turns off, as we were heading home on the 2nd of January, we noticed a big female Hyena standing next to a culvert. In Kruger Spotted Hyenas make good use of these man-made tunnels as dens. Sure enough, as we brought our vehicle to a halt first one, then a second and then a third little head popped out from underneath the road to inspect the strange creature humming on top of their home.
So often when we encounter Spotted Hyenas they are on the move with a single-minded sense of purpose. This very big individual came running from the front at great speed along the road to Tshokwane one morning, only to disappear into the bush before we could even turn the car around.