Just after sunrise last Sunday, while driving in the Mopani area of the Kruger National Park, we encountered this enormous Elephant bull in musth staking his claim to the narrow road. He was on his way to Mooiplaas waterhole and did not have any intention of letting four humans in a tiny (by his standards) metal cocoon derail his plans. In the end he made us reverse for over a kilometer before veering off towards the water.
With the Kruger National Park in the drought’s firm grip, we weren’t surprised that the majority of our sightings of Plains Zebra during our recent winter visit to the Satara and Mopani areas were near or at some of the artificial water holes maintained by the Park’s staff. The most spectacular congregations were at the Mooiplaas waterhole, where hundreds of zebras (if not more) milled around the water during the midday hours, kicking up dust (often further exacerbated by strong winds) and getting on each other’s nerves.
Last week, we were so excited to tell you about our time at Kruger National Park’s newest accommodation offering, the Pafuri Border Camp, that we skipped over the part of our visit leading up to our time in the extreme Far North of the Park.
We’ll take this opportunity to rectify that now.
We arrived at Phalaborwa Gate on the Friday, early enough to allow a slow drive along the H14-road up to Mopani Rest Camp, where we were booked for a one-night stopover on the way to Pafuri Border Camp.
A quick afternoon sojourn past Mooiplaas, the Nshawu Vlei and Tinhongonyeni delivered no less than 6 tsessebe sightings, lots of energetic zebras, good numbers of other animals and birds, and a very dramatic storm brewing over the plains…
That evening we enjoyed a lovely meal at Mopani’s restaurant, the howling wind putting an end to any ideas we might have had of braaiing (the traditional South African barbeque) at our bungalow. Afterwards we searched for nocturnal animals among Mopani’s natural vegetation, and were not disappointed.
Leaving Mopani as soon as the gate opened Saturday morning, under heavy skies accompanied by a constant soft drizzle, we anticipated at least one good predator sighting. Sure enough, near Olifantsbadpan, we had a terrific encounter with two big female spotted hyenas and three of the cutest, most playful cubs you could imagine. Only afterwards did I realise that they were so close to our vehicle that I didn’t manage even one full body photo of them!
We expected to have good sightings of elephants around Shingwedzi, and our favourite rest camp delivered the goods just as we had hoped. It was still raining softly as we set of from Shingwedzi after breakfast, heading northward past Babalala Picnic Spot. The north of the Kruger Park is also well known for its exceptional birdlife and all these special sightings made the long road seem much shorter.
There’s several waterholes in the Kruger National Park that have delivered us consistently good wildlife sightings over the years. One such drinking place is Mooiplaas, an artificial waterhole supplied by a borehole and windpump, adjacent to a natural wetland, about 5km to the south of Mopani Rest Camp. Directly translated from Afrikaans, Mooiplaas means “pretty farm”. The waterhole undeniably lives up to its name both in scenery and for the constant stream of birds and animals moving from the surrounding mopane vegetation to slake their thirst.
We visited Mooiplaas again on Heritage Day (24th September) while on our most recent visit to the Park. We arrived in the heat of the day, and found the place brimming with animals. Elephants, tsessebe, zebras, wildebeest, ostriches and a lone kori bustard were milling around, and from their behaviour we deduced that there must be predators around. Sure enough, in a clump of mopane shrubs, we saw two lions hiding from the heat; the female just out in the open enough to get photographic proof. It was obvious that these lions were not interested in hunting, and the animals could safely venture to the water for the moment. A young elephant bull caused a bit of an uproar among the plains game when he caught the lion’s smell on the wind, and started running around wildly, kicking up dust as he went.
After checking in for our night at Shipandani Hide, we decided to stop by Mooiplaas again in the late afternoon, and found that the lions had still not moved from their shady hideout. A group of elephant bulls were drinking from the reservoir, and a variety of birds were searching for food in the dust, but there was no sign of the large herds of zebra and antelope that frequented the area earlier in the day. Perhaps they understood that the lions would not be resting for much longer…
Throughout the night in the hide we could hear the lions roaring towards Mooiplaas, and of course that’s where we headed as soon as the gates opened. If the lions had made a kill during the night, the carcass wasn’t anywhere we could see it, and we had to be content with a far-off sighting of two large males lying in the grass some distance from the otherwise deserted waterhole.
All too soon we had to leave, as we were heading for Shingwedzi and still had to return the keys for the hide to the reception at Mopani. Leaving Mooiplaas behind, we knew there would be more wildlife spectacles unfolding there that day. And we knew we’d return to Mooiplaas again as soon as we have the chance…
It’s a long drive down from Pafuri to Letaba and, at game viewing speeds with regular stops for photographs and leg stretches at the camps and picnic spots along the way, it took us the entire day to cover the distance of 250km, reaching Letaba just before the gates closed. Covering such a distance in a national park like Kruger, you’re bound to come across some great sightings and some thrilling experiences, but we didn’t count on getting growled at when we stopped at Mooiplaas picnic site for a bit of a break. We were back in the car in a flash, and still have no idea what it was that was so irritated by our presence…
When you’re hoping for great wildlife sightings in any wild place, you have to be out-and-about at the times that the animals are most active, being the early morning and late afternoon, to maximise your chances.
We set out early from Letaba the next morning, heading towards Olifants Rest Camp along the gravel roads that follow the courses of the Letaba and Olifants Rivers. We were soon rewarded with a great sighting of a spotted hyena, followed shortly afterwards by the highlight of our trip: an encounter with wild dogs! The dogs came running along the road in the opposite direction we were travelling in, and passed us in a flash. We had to make a u-turn and followed them a couple of hundred metres, before they decided to take a bit of a break right in the middle of the road. These animals are so rare and sightings so infrequent that we spent quite a bit of time with them before moving on.
Shortly before reaching Olifants we crossed a small stream and noticed lots of terrapins and a lone juvenile crocodile sharing a pool next to the road. It soon became apparent that these animals have become accustomed to being fed by passing tourists as they started moving towards our vehicle the moment we came to a halt. This aberrant behaviour is exactly the reason why the park authorities are so strict about visitors not being allowed to feed the animals, but some choose to ignore it nonetheless. We didn’t stay long, fearing that the terrapins would end up beneath our vehicle preventing us from driving away.
We spent the hot hours of the day walking around the Letaba campgrounds, enjoying the peace and quite and the company of Letaba’s resident bushbuck and birds.
Our afternoon excursion focused on the riverine drives to the north of the camp. Again we were not disappointed, seeing two waterbuck bulls sparring, herds of other game, including elephants, hippos, impalas, nyalas, bushbuck, giraffes, buffalo and baboons, various bird species, even some fish at a river crossing, and of course beautiful scenery.
A fascinating but gruesome sighting of a ground hornbill using its massive bill to kill and devour a tortoise in its carapace was a reminder that this is still wild Africa after all…
With the sunrise the next morning it was time to pack up and head to our next destination, the Forever Swadini Resort in the Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve. It wouldn’t be our last taste of the Kruger National Park however, and as we were heading towards the Orpen Gate we could console ourselves in the knowledge that we were planning one last day visit for later in the week.
We’ve previously dedicated a special post to Letaba – have a look here if you’d like to read more about this peaceful rest camp