Category Archives: Mpumalanga Province

Our experiences in the reserves of Mpumalanga, South Africa

Easter in Kruger

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 bushbucknyalaeland, 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.

 

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Our 2017 in pictures

Looking back at the places we stayed at during another year of enjoying South Africa’s beautiful wild places.

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Napi Wilderness Trail

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.

 

The night before we ventured into the Wilderness…

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.

After arriving at Pretoriuskop there’s more than enough time to pop into reception to complete all the necessary formalities for the Napi Trail and then take a gentle stroll through the camp appreciating the astounding variety of birdlife that occurs there.

Right on time (at 15:00) we were met at the designated spot by our two guides and group of four fellow trailists for the main event; the Napi Wilderness Trail (more about that wonderful experience in our next post, so stay tuned!).

 

 

Back from the bush… Again!

I’ve just arrived back home again after another fantastic trip to the Kruger National Park, this time to participate in the Napi Wilderness Trail along with my mom, sister and brother.

Sunset on the Napi Trail

It will be a few days before I’ll be ready to tell you all about our experiences on the trail, and in the meantime will get to all the comments you’ve left while I was away and line up some more scheduled posts on interesting South African wildlife.

Camping fest at Satara

At the end of April, we had the privilege of visiting the Kruger National Park with a wonderful group of friends; altogether 21 adults and children from 5 families and by far the biggest group we’ve ever accompanied to the Park! Our base for the four nights was the camping area at Satara Rest Camp, allowing us to introduce our friends to many of our favourite places in the central section of the Park.

A wonderful group of friends enjoying the scenery at Nwanedzi

Our previous visit to the Satara area was in the winter holidays of 2016, at the height of one of the worst droughts on record in South Africa. What a pleasure seeing the region transformed into a sea of lush green vegetation now at the end of the summer rainfall season, and experiencing a few of the final showers rolling over the Lowveld before winter sets in!

Of course the dense vegetation made game-viewing very tricky, and in stark contrast with our visit last year when there seemed to be predators resident at every one of the few remaining pools of water, we really had to work hard to find the meat-eaters for which Satara is so famous on this visit. We don’t consider ourselves “Big-5” chasers, but when you’re introducing a couple of newbies to Kruger’s wonders you do want her to put her best foot forward, and luckily Satara remained true to her reputation as one of the best game-viewing areas in the Park. Even if the predators kept us in suspense at their appearance, there were still a myriad of other species of game to be found in good numbers and keeping us enthralled on our drives, and even in camp! Of course, we expected to find high concentrations of plains zebra, blue wildebeest and giraffe roaming the central plains, but we were very surprised to find so many elephants around Satara!

For anyone looking for birds, Kruger could never disappoint, however on this visit the Park seemed to be bursting at the seems with feathered inhabitants even more than usually. We’ve shown you the enormous flocks (rather swarms!) of queleas in an earlier post, but notably we’ve also seen bigger flocks of marabou stork and wattled starling on this trip than ever before – no doubt in response to an eruption of food in the form of grass-seeds and the insects that feed on it.

At the end of our stay we had to contend with every camper’s worst nightmare – having to break up camp in pouring rain! They say that any friendship that survives going on holiday together will remain standing come what may, and happily it seems despite the hardships of dripping wet, muddy bodies and thoroughly soaked camping equipment, our friendship with the Bernards, Krugers, Nels and Therons have come through the tribulations with flying colours.

Camping at Satara, Kruger National Park, April 2017 – click the image for an enlarged view

(If you’d like to find out more about Satara and surrounds, have a look at the dedicated blog post we published about this popular part of the Kruger National Park)

Red-billed Quelea

Quelea quelea

Some of the most impressive sights of our recent visit to the Satara area of the Kruger National Park was the enormous flocks of Red-billed Quelea occupying the grasslands of the central plains. Following the good rains that bought respite from an awful drought, the savannas are heavy with a rich harvest of seeding grasses, and literally millions of the little birds are making the most of the abundant foodsource. When their population reaches a peak, as it currently has, there could be as many as 33-million Red-billed Queleas swirling in cloudy swarms over the Park!

The Red-billed Quelea is a small (20g) seed-eating sparrow-like nomad inhabiting grasslands and grainfields (causing enormous losses to farming communities). Swarms that could number in the millions descend on watering holes at least twice daily. While feeding they “roll” over the grasslands in a wave-like motion, most impressive to witness! While seeds make up the vast majority of their diet they do catch small insects as well, especially when raising chicks.

Nesting occurs communally in the rainy months and hundreds, even thousands, of nests are woven per tree (prefers thorn trees) by the males. Breeding colonies could consist of more than 2 million monogamous pairs, and is a magnet for every imaginable predatory bird, reptile and mammal that is large enough to take adults and chicks. Clutches normally number three eggs and the female incubates them for only 12 days, whereafter the chicks fledge within another two weeks!

The Red-billed Quelea may well be the most abundant bird on the planet, with an estimated population as large as ten billion, and as such is considered as being of least concern by the IUCN. It occurs widely in the savannas of Sub-Saharan Africa and can be found in every one of South Africa’s provinces, where it must number in the hundreds of millions.

(The photos in the following gallery were taken on visits to the Kruger Park and elsewhere)