I’ve just returned from a quick three-night solo visit to the Kruger National Park, and have some really memorable sightings to share with you. As the three of us will be heading back to Kruger again later in the month for a longer visit, I’ll be keeping you in suspense till we return – here though a little teaser-gallery just to wet your appetite for things to come!
Elephants are a big drawcard for visitors to our parks and reserves, being charismatic animals and members of the famed “Big 5”. For us too, encountering elephants is always a special treat: witnessing the interactions between different herd members or the playful antics of the calves, and there’s few things in nature as beautiful as the gait of a confident elephant bull, his massive head swaying from side to side, intent on ensuring anything and everything in his way clears out before he gets there.
The 12th of August annually is celebrated as World Elephant Day. Elephants in Africa and Asia are faced with the threats of escalating poaching, habitat loss and various other conflicts with humans. With an estimated 100 African elephants killed daily for the illegal ivory trade in Asian markets, their population is in rapid decline. World Elephant Day was launched in 2012, to bring attention to the plight of these iconic animals, and has been observed annually since. South Africa has a growing population of almost 27,000 elephants (2015 estimate), but we have not been entirely isolated from the poaching happening on a larger scale in several other African countries.
One of our greatest joys when visiting South Africa’s wild places is being treated to an encounter with a real “Tusker”; a majestic elephant bull carrying massive ivory. There are only a handful of these enigmatic animals on the continent, and they are living monuments to those who protect our wild places for generations to come. Owing to their special status, they are given names by the Park authorities, often according to specific areas they roam or characteristic physical features or in remembrance of rangers or other members of staff that dedicated their lives to the Park.
Allow us to celebrate these magnificent creatures on World Elephant Day by sharing some of our encounters with Tuskers from four of our Parks with you.
Addo Elephant Park
With the proclamation of the Addo Elephant National Park in 1931, only 11 African Elephants remained in the Addo district. Addo’s elephants have responded wonderfully to the protection they’ve been afforded since the Park’s proclamation, and today number over 600! The population had an interesting trait however, due to hunting and the small founder population, in that the bulls had only small tusks and the cows had none at all. In order to address this, Park management translocated eight mature bulls from the Kruger National Park to introduce new genes into the pool in 2002 and 2003.
Valli was one of the bulls that moved to Addo from Kruger. He was named after then Minister of Environment and Tourism, Mohammed Valli Moosa. We saw Valli in bad light one afternoon in May 2010 while visiting Addo. Not a great photo, but a memorable experience! Sadly, Valli died in December 2017 following a fight with a younger bull.
We were most pleased to have this encounter with the beautiful Derek – certainly a contender for the vacant throne of Addo’s elephant king – during our December 2017 visit to Addo.
Unfortunately we weren’t around yet when Addo’s most famous elephant, Hapoor, ruled the Park for 24 years from 1944 to 1968. Today, a reconstruction of his head with the characteristic nicked ear that earned him his name has pride of place in the information centre at Addo’s Main Camp.
Pilanesberg National Park
There’s a population of approximately 240 elephants in the Pilanesberg National Park. Most of the fully grown adults in the Park today were babies when they were brought to the Pilanesberg from the Kruger National Park in the 1980’s , as the local population was eradicated by hunters before the Pilanesberg was proclaimed a reserve.
Pilane was one of six dominant bulls translocated to Pilanesberg from Kruger Park in March of 1998, when the absence of older bulls caused behavioural problems in the young bulls then transitioning to adulthood at Pilanesberg. At the time he was estimated to be about 34 years old and was named after Chief Pilane of the Bakgatla. We saw Pilane in March 2012. Unfortunately he has broken both his tusks in recent years.
Mavuso is another of the Kruger Bulls transported to Pilanesberg in 1998. He is named after Mavuso Msimang, who was SANParks’ CEO at the time. We saw Mavuso on a visit to the Pilanesberg in November 2018 at which time he was estimated to be about 55 years old.
Tembe Elephant Park
Tembe Elephant Park is home to over 250 elephants, the descendants of the last free roaming herds in this part of South Africa.
Isilo, meaning “The King”, was the biggest Tusker at Tembe Elephant Park and for a time also the biggest living Tusker in South Africa (after Duke of Kruger broke his tusks). It is believed that the gentle giant succumbed to natural causes, a dignified end befitting his royal stature, in January 2014. Sadly it was also made known that his enormous tusks have been stolen, presumably by rhino poachers who happened upon the carcass before rangers found it. We were fortunate to spend some time in Isilo’s majestic presence during our visit to Tembe in May 2013. You’re welcome to have a look at our special blogpost recounting our audience with Isilo.
When we visited Tembe Elephant Park in 2013 we were lucky to see several other impressive tuskers – Tembe is renowned for them! Even though Ucici, Lebo and Zero is no longer roaming Tembe’s sandy forests and marshland, there’s still a number of up-and-coming Tuskers flying the Park’s flag high as a hotspot for majestic elephants.
Kruger National Park
Our flagship National Park, the Kruger, and the surrounding reserves has a combined population of around 21,000 elephants, but only a handful of these can be considered true “Tuskers”. Kruger’s renown as a home of elephant bulls carrying impressive ivory started with the naming of the Magnificent Seven in 1980 – Shawu, Mafunyane, Ndlulamithi, Kambaku, Dzombo, Shingwedzi and Joao. These seven big bulls immediately captured the imagination of the public, both in South Africa and overseas. Today, the tusks of six of them (Joao’s tusks broke before his death), along with the tusks of a few other big bulls that came after them (notably Nhlangulene, Mandleve and Phelwana) may be marveled at in the Elephant Hall in Letaba Rest Camp.
Over the years we were blessed to see several impressive Tuskers in the Kruger Park. Here’s a few of them.
We’ve had two encounters with the big bull known as “Hahlwa“, which is Tsonga for “twin” because he looks so similar to Masasana, another big Tusker roaming the Kruger Park (see further below). When we saw him the first time in June 2016, Hahlwa didn’t have a name yet, but this was corrected in May 2017 when the Kruger’s Emerging Tuskers Project announced him as one of the new crop of magnificent Tuskers to be seen in the Park. When we therefore saw him again in April 2018 we could put a name to the face.
Hlanganini was named after a small stream that has its confluence with the Letaba River in his relatively small home range around Letaba Rest Camp. We were fortunate to see Hlanganini just a stone’s throw from Letaba one afternoon in September 2007. Hlanganini’s carcass was found in August 2009, with rangers speculating that he died as a result of a fight with another bull about two months earlier. Just a couple of months before his death Hlanganini broke his left tusk. The stump of his left tusk measured 2.04m and weighed 45kg, his right tusk was 2.7m long and weighed 55.8kg.
Machachule means “the lead dancer” and was the nickname of late ranger Joe Manganye who served for 33 years in the Kruger National Park. Machachule originally had a large home range that stretched between the Letaba and Shingwedzi Rivers, but was later regularly seen only around Shingwedzi Rest Camp. With Shingwedzi being one of our favourite places in the Kruger National Park, we were treated to two sightings of Machachule; the first being in October 2008 and the next almost three years later in June 2011. Sadly there doesn’t seem to have been any sightings of Machachule in the last few years and it is possible that he has died somewhere in the wilderness.
To date we’ve had two encounters with Masasana, one of the biggest Tuskers currently roaming the Kruger National Park. Our path crossed with his in June 2011 and then again in May 2018. Masasana shares his name, which means “one who makes a plan”, with retired Kruger staff member Johan Sithole who worked in the Park for 35 years.
Marilize and I saw Masbambela, at the time thought to be the second biggest Tusker in the Kruger Park, on the 15th of January 2006 along the S56 Mphongolo Road between Shingwedzi and Punda Maria Rest Camps. His usual home range was in the wilderness area west of Shingwedzi and he was seldom seen near the tourist roads. Masbambela was named after late ranger Ben Pretorius, who’s nickname means “one who can stand his man”. Some months after we saw Masbambela he broke the tip off his left tusk. Masbambela died of natural causes in November 2006. His tusks were recovered and the right measured 2.31m long with a weight of 49.05kg, while the remainder of his left tusk was 2.07m in length and weighed 42.75kg.
Mashangaan was named after ranger Mike “Ma Xangane” English, who was fluent in the Shangaan language and worked in the Kruger Park for 33 years. This old Tusker, who had a limited home range around Letaba Rest Camp, was estimated to have been around 58 years old when he died in August 2011. His left tusk measured 2.48m in length and weighed 42.9kg, the right weighed 37.3kg and was 2.07m long. We had just one encounter with Mashangaan, in September 2007.
Masthulele, “the quiet one”, was named in honour of renowned scientist and elephant expert Dr. Ian Whyte, who served in the Kruger National Park for 37 years. Masthulele roamed a vast area between Giriyondo Gate (north of Letaba Rest Camp) and the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve west of Kruger, and we were lucky to have had six different encounters with him (September 2007, June 2011, April 2012, June 2013, September 2013 and April 2014), all close to Letaba, making him a familiar favourite for the Wild de Wets. At the time of his death of natural causes late in 2016, Masthulele was considered the biggest Tusker in the Kruger Park and South Africa. His left tusk weighed 51kg and the right 54kg, and they were 2.34m and 2.45m long respectively.
This big Tusker was named after ranger Harry Kirkman who spent 36 years working in both the Kruger National Park and Sabi Sand Wildtuin (game reserve) until his retirement in 1969. Like Mr. Kirkman, Muliliuane’s home range included both these conservation areas. We saw Muliliuane only once, in June 2005, and unfortunately he didn’t want to give us a good view of his enormous ivory. Muliluane died at the end of 2007, in Sabi Sand.
Our first sighting of Ndlovane was way back in September 2005, when he was much less an imposing animal than he is now. We then saw him in July 2016 and again in May 2018. Although very impressive already, Ndlovane is still considered a young bull (Ndlovane means “small elephant”) and with age on his side Ndlovane may grow to be one of Kruger’s biggest Tuskers of all time.
Ngonyama is a much larger Tusker today than when we saw him in February 2009 while enjoying a guided walk through the mopaneveld of northern Kruger. He was named after the late Dr. Uys de Villiers Pienaar, who started working in the Kruger National Park in 1955 and ended his career in 1991 as Chief Director of National Parks. “Ngonyama” is the isiZulu word for lion.
Ngunyupezi, meaning “one who likes to dance”, was named after late ranger James Maluleke (33 years service). In April 2007, the de Wets were among the first people to lay eyes on this irritable bull with his uniquely shaped left tusk. He roamed a vast area from Pafuri to south of the Shingwedzi River, but was later seen mostly near Shingwedzi Rest Camp. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to have been any recent sightings of Ngunyupezi and it is doubtful whether he is still alive.
Nkombo was named by research NGO Elephants Alive, who kept track of this emerging tusker with a satellite collar, which he lost in 2014. We were lucky to see him twice during a visit in September 2014, and as he is still seen regularly we hope for a few more sightings of him to see how his tusks have grown since.
We’ve had three encounters with the often irritable bull known as N’wendlamuhari, who’s name means “the river that is fierce when in flood”. Our first encounter with him was in 2009, and his tusks weren’t all that big then. It was therefore amazing to see him again in August 2011 and September 2012 and see how much his tusks have grown in stature. Today he is a very impressive specimen and we’d love to see N’wendlamuhari again.
This bull’s Tsonga name means “walking around in circles” and is in reference to his very small home range centred around one of the Kruger National Park’s camps, where he is regularly seen. We were lucky to have seen Xindzulundzulu twice already – in September 2012 and December 2015 – and hope to see him at least a few more times still!
We’ve seen many more aspirant and impressive emerging Tuskers in Kruger over the years, many of which have not been named yet. These are a few of them.
Not wanting to attract the unwanted attention of poachers to these beautiful animals I’ve purposefully omitted the exact locations where we saw those Tuskers that are still alive. And if we are fortunate enough to see some of these big guys and others like them in future, we’ll come update this post with those pictures.
The Easter break afforded us the opportunity to visit South Africa’s flagship National Park, and one of our favourite destinations, again, spending first three nights at Skukuza Rest Camp in the south of the Kruger National Park, and then four nights around Mopani Rest Camp in the north. After a summer of apparently good rainfall, the Park’s vegetation is lush and green, with water in ample supply. These conditions make searching for wildlife a bit trickier, but it is wonderful to see the Park transformed from the harrowing effects of the recent drought that is still so fresh in our minds.
The Kruger National Park is renowned for its Big-5 sightings. There isn’t very many other places where one can so easily find completely wild lions, leopards, elephants, buffaloes and rhinos from the comfort of your own vehicle, at your own pace and according to your own schedule. And then there’s always a chance that you may cross paths with a magnificent big tusker!
On the other side of the scale are those less frequently noticed smaller critters (“creepy crawlies” or “goggas” as we call them), that fairly seldom feature on any of the Kruger visitors’ sightings wish-lists. They may be small and unobtrusive, but they are certainly no less fascinating than the glamorous Big-5. We already shared with your the exciting scenes of a Western Stripe-bellied Sand Snake catching and swallowing a skink in Shingwedzi, but there’s plenty more to see if you bend your knees!
The Mopani area is well-known for prized sightings of the rarer antelope species, and we weren’t disappointed on that score either, ticking bushbuck, nyala, eland, tsessebe, reedbuck and roan antelope on our list.
The lush vegetation made it very challenging to see the smaller antelope species. We managed to photograph steenbok, grey duiker and klipspringer, but unfortunately the grysbok just weren’t willing to pose for a picture this time around.
There’s quite a few herbivore species that you are virtually guaranteed to see when visiting the Kruger National Park. Among these are baboons and vervet monkeys, blue wildebeest, plains zebra, impala, kudu, waterbuck, giraffe, warthog and hippo.
Of course, with such a menu there are many predators in attendance. Apart from lions and leopards, on our latest visit we also encountered spotted hyena, side-striped and black-backed jackal, crocodile and large-spotted genet.
The Kruger National Park is regarded as a paradise for bird-watchers, and that is not without reason. During the warmer months especially, when many summer migrants from northern latitudes enjoy our warm weather, the variety and numbers of bird species to be seen is absolutely prolific, but even in winter feathered life abounds in the Lowveld.
The Kruger National Park is an addictive place. You only need to visit once for it to get under your skin, and stay there. The more you experience of Kruger’s wonders, the more you pine for it. We’ll be back again and again, no question about it.
Looking back at the places we stayed at during another year of enjoying South Africa’s beautiful wild places.
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And so on Sunday afternoon the time arrived. Ranger-guides Ronnie and Saul met us, and four fellow trailists, at the designated spot in Pretoriuskop for the start of our time on the Napi Wilderness Trail in the Kruger National Park. Excitedly we packed all our baggage into the trailer, ensuring that our cameras and binoculars stayed close at hand, and clambered into the open game viewing vehicle that would transport us into the Wilderness.
We had barely left camp when we encountered our first special sighting: a magnificent sable antelope bull – a prime specimen of one of the rarest species in Kruger! As good an omen as one could hope for at the start of such an epic adventure.
It took about an hour to reach the Napi Wilderness Trail’s base camp, our home for the next three nights. Located on a bend in the Biyamiti River between Pretoriuskop and Skukuza, the camp consists of four two-sleeper tents (with en-suite bathrooms!) with a central thatched “dining room” and cement slab for the obligatory nightly campfire. There’s no electricity (or cellphone reception) at the camp, with gas-powered geysers in the bathrooms and paraffin and solar lamps used for lighting. We also meet Armondo, the camp’s shy caretaker and talented cook.
After a good night’s sleep we are guided out of camp by Ronnie and Saul just after sunrise (and a welcome rusk or two dipped in an even more welcome cup of coffee!). We cross a few dry stream beds, stand beside mud wallows and rhino dung middens, gape in awe at the enormous size of an elephant skull, watch astonished as Ronnie coax two dozen (maybe even more) tiny spiders from a communal nest, listen to him explain the intricacies of trapping egg-stealing snakes with the shell of a dead Giant African Land Snail and enjoy a picnic in the unexpected downpour of a winter rainstorm, all the while soaking in the Napi wilderness surrounding us. Heading back to camp we find our way blocked by a huge herd of one of Africa’s most dangerous animals; the African Buffalo, but under the safe guidance of the two rangers we’re free to admire these powerful creatures at close quarters until one cantankerous bull, separated from the herd and with the devil’s fire burning in his eyes, decides it is time for us to move on…
Relaxing back at home base we find out that the human guests are not the only ones waiting for Armondo to finish preparing lunch, as a pack of Dwarf Mongooses scurry around his kitchen hoping for a few scraps (that never came). We also find out that the camp is alive with birds and small reptiles, and that there’s also a wide variety of wildlife arriving at the small waterhole in front of camp to quench their first.
Our late afternoon is spent walking a short circuit around some of the enormous granitic outcrops, which is such a familiar sight in this part of the Kruger Park, before enjoying a glowing red African sunset from one of these special vantage points. Driving back to camp we pass the busy den of a clan of Spotted Hyenas, where the cute cubs have everyone on the vehicle smiling from ear to ear, and again find our road back in the darkness blocked by a herd of buffalo.
At night there’s just as much life inside as outside the Napi Wilderness Trail’s base camp. At least three species of owl frequent the camp, their distinct calls punctuating our fireside conversations, and walking around with a spotlight is sure to show up some interesting nocturnal bugs!
We heard lions roaring during the night, but I didn’t expect that we’d come across their fresh tracks as close to camp as we did the next morning. Our ranger-guides tried their best to follow the big cats, but they must have been aware that we were tracking them and only led us in circles. This strategy did however bring us close to another enormous herd of buffaloes – likely the lions were stalking the same herd when they became aware of us. Ronnie and Saul brought us to a small termite mound where we could stand and watch as the herd approached closer and closer. Being confronted by a throng of bellowing buffaloes, hundreds strong in number and probably less than 30 meters from us by the time we moved out of their way, surely must be my favourite memory of the Napi Wilderness Trail.
Lunchtime in camp is just another excuse to appreciate the plethora of wildlife species both inside and outside the camp’s low perimeter fence from a more relaxed position, and although there isn’t much sitting going on once you start following birds between the tents trying for decent photographs of them, it is still an utterly relaxing exercise!
Our final outing from the camp is a drive with expert guide Saul at the wheel to Transport Dam. We enjoy our sundowners in the presence of hippos, crocodiles and a menagerie of thirsty animals and birds before returning to camp, and a traditional braai (barbeque) prepared by Armondo, passing the hyena den again on the way.
After dinner we go in search of the camp’s owls again, and while the Pearl-Spotted Owlets only serenaded us with their calls without posing for photos, the African Scops Owls and African Barred Owlets were much more accommodating.
Come Wednesday morning and Armondo’s beating on his breakfast drum signaled that our time on the Napi Wilderness Trail has come to an end. After a hearty breakfast, with scrumptious freshly baked bread, we’re off back to Pretoriuskop and civilisation. Another sighting of a sable antelope and then a pride of lions feeding on a young buffalo helps to bring some consolation…
The 60km drive from Pretoriuskop down to Malelane Gate went far too quickly for our liking. Lucky for my sister she could join up with her husband at Malelane Gate for four more nights’ stay in the Park, but for me, my mom and brother it was time to head back to hectic Gauteng.
This was my third Wilderness Trail experience in the Kruger National Park; having previously participated in the Olifants and Sweni WIlderness Trails (follow the links to read about those trips). South African National Parks offers a total of seven Wilderness Trails and three Backpack Trails in the Kruger National Park, each three nights in duration and accommodating no more than 8 participants twice a week (commencing Wednesdays and Sundays), and guided by two knowledgeable rangers.
Earlier this month I was joined by my mother, sister and brother in the Kruger National Park, chiefly to participate in the Napi Wilderness Trail, one of several guided multi-day walking trails available in the Park.
However, with the trail only starting on Sunday afternoon, we weren’t going to let the weekend go to waste and got underway from Gauteng to Kruger in the wee hours of Saturday morning. Arriving at Kruger’s Malelane Gate around 07:30 allowed us time to enjoy a quick picnic breakfast and coffee before following a meandering route along the quieter gravel roads as we made our slow way to Lower Sabie, making frequent stops to appreciate the wildlife and scenery for which the Kruger Park is world renowned.
Our accommodation for the night was a basic but comfortable 4-bed hut located close to a communal kitchen and bathroom at Lower Sabie‘s eastern fenceline. These huts are surrounded by enormous trees and indigenous shrubbery frequented by a myriad of birds and small reptiles that are quite used to having humans poking lenses in their faces…
Our game drive for the afternoon took us first to Sunset Dam just outside the camp’s gates, then a quick detour across the causeway over the Sabie River, and then along the S28, S137 and H4-2 roads to the south of Lower Sabie, returning to camp just before the gates closed.
Walking around camp in the dark after dinner, looking for nocturnal wildlife with a flashlight, is a firmly entrenched tradition for the de Wets. Both inside and outside Lower Sabie, there’s always plenty to see, and we’re almost unwilling to go to bed for fear of missing out on something interesting!
Being one of the first vehicles to leave Lower Sabie when the gates opened at 06:00 on Sunday morning, we opted to take the main road to Skukuza before this hugely popular route gets too busy with traffic. A quick detour along the short Nwatimhiri causeway-loop rewarded us handsomly with a sighting of three young lions trying to hide, with limited success, in the thick riverine vegetation. Along the way we also popped into Nkuhlu Picnic Spot, Skukuza’s airport, the Skukuza Golf Club and Lake Panic birdhide, before heading for historic Pretoriuskop, all the time enjoying some more of the Kruger Park’s sights, sounds and smells.