At the end of our Satara Summer, on the way to the Kruger National Park’s Orpen Gate from where we were to head back home to Pretoria, we were lucky to see a lone Cheetah resting in the shade of a small thorn tree. Having stopped for a last photo or two, it was Marilize who noticed a Spotted Hyena heading straight towards the Cheetah. Knowing just how hateful the relationship between Africa’s large predators are, we were sure we were probably going to witness a tremendous fight when the two meat-eaters meet, especially when the Cheetah noticed the Hyena, snarled at it viciously, and got up to defend its turf. But turns out this Hyena was not a fighter; he walked straight past the Cheetah as if it wasn’t even there, and not paying the cheetah’s tantrum any attention whatsoever. It was rather amusing seeing the Cheetah standing by himself, looking decidedly confused, as the Hyena disappeared from view…
Orpen, on the western boundary of the Kruger National Park, is a popular gate into the central regions of the reserve, and just a few hundred meters away from the entrance is the quaint little rest camp with the same name.
Orpen Rest Camp welcomed its first guests in 1954, when the entrance into the Park was moved 10 kilometres westwards from the then entrance and camp at Rabelais that had been in operation since 1926. This expansion was possible due to the selfless actions of Mr James H. Orpen and his wife Eileen, who at their own expense bought seven farms, covering a massive 24,500 hectares, in this area between 1935 and 1944 and then donated it to be included in the Kruger Park. Mr Orpen, a surveyor by profession and also a member of the National Parks Board, further donated generously to the drilling of boreholes in the Kruger to provide permanent water sources for game inside the then unfenced Park, so that they did not need to migrate outside the protected area where they were at the mercy of hunters. The little museum hut on the site where Rabelais once stood is dedicated mostly to this generous couple, and the beautiful camp at Orpen carries their name in tribute.
Only a handful of guests can be accommodated in Orpen’s recently revamped, and fully equipped, lodgings – there’s twelve 2-bed bungalows and three 6-bed cottages – surrounded by rocky gardens and shady trees. The camp has a small but surprisingly well-stocked shop, with a fuel station available at the entrance gate (where there are also adequate facilities available for day visitors to stretch their legs and enjoy a picnic). In the camp, a swimming pool next to the perimeter fence is for the exclusive use of Orpen’s overnight guests.
One of Orpen’s most endearing features is the floodlit waterhole just on the other side of the perimeter fence, attracting a steady stream of game and birds of all shapes and descriptions throughout the day and night. During our visit to Orpen in April 2014, we were thrilled to watch in the hour before the gates open three of Africa’s large predators visiting the waterhole one after the other in the dark of early morning – first a spotted hyena, followed by a pair of leopards and then a pair of lions – while enjoying a breakfast of coffee and rusks on the veranda of our cottage! It will therefore come as no surprise to you to learn that the Orpen webcam, accessible through SANParks’ website, has a massive following from dedicated cam-watchers in all corners of the globe.
Less than four kilometres from Orpen, and administered from there, lies the twin facilities of Tamboti Tented Camp and Maroela Camping Area, both on the banks of the Timbavati River and both named after prominent trees occurring in the area. At Tamboti, 40 safari-style tents (ten of which have their own bathrooms and kitchenettes) are arranged along the fence, offering fantastic views over the river course and the wildlife frequenting it, while Maroela has space for a maximum of twenty groups camping with caravans and tents. Both camps have electricity, communal ablutions and camp kitchens. Keep an eye open for the resident family of black-backed jackals at the turnoff to Maroela and Tamboti, especially in the early morning and late afternoon!
The plains in the immediate vicinity of Orpen literally teems with an extraordinary number and variety of wildlife, which is a good thing as the road network from the camp is rather limited. The main tarred road heading into the Park from Orpen, the H7, leads to Satara Rest Camp and is one of the best roads in the Park for predator sightings, and thus extremely popular. Along the way, the gravel S106-loop that skirts Rabelais Pan offers an alternative to the tar road, which can get rather busy with holiday traffic on the way to Satara, for a few kilometres before joining it again, while the view point at Bobbejaankrans (“Baboon Cliff”) offers a beautiful vista over the Timbavati River below and the plains beyond (take time to scan the area with binoculars and you may be rewarded with glimpses of lions lazing on the sandy riverbed).
It takes a drive of 25-or-so kilometres from Orpen before you’ll have to decide whether you’re continuing towards Satara, or to turn off the tar onto either of two very rewarding, but long, gravel routes. Turn north and you’ll be following the S39-road to the popular Timbavati picnic spot (and onwards to the Olifants River if you wish), or turn south and follow the S36-road towards the rustic, and much quieter, Muzandzeni and Nhlanguleni picnic spots. Over the years, we’ve had excellent sightings on both roads though the road towards Timbavati probably offers slightly more frequent encounters with Kruger’s big game.
Orpen’s one of the Kruger’s smallest camps and as darkness settles on it, there’s little more than the soft mumbles of your fellow guests around their campfires to remind you that you’re not quite alone in this peaceful place. Staying awake as the rest of the camp’s guests retire to their accommodation, you’ll soon become aware of the symphony of African bush sounds laying claim to the night – a lion’s roar, a hyena’s whoop, an owl’s hoot, the call of a nightjar. And that scuffling sound coming from around the corner is well worth checking out with your flashlight; it may just be one of Orpen’s resident badgers, genets, civets or bushbabies coming to wish you a good night…
… as if there’s such a thing!
While touring the Lowveld in February, we concluded our trip with a stay at Swadini in the Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve – more on the time we spent there in an upcoming edition of de Wets Wild. Having first explored the Pafuri area in the far north of the Kruger National Park and then spending time at Letaba in the Park’s central region, we wanted to make one more day visit to the Park, and Swadini being only 70km from the Orpen Gate made that an easy undertaking.
Our route took us from Orpen Gate down to Muzandzeni Picnic Site for breakfast, past Nhlanguleni Picnic Site to Tshokwane Picnic Site where we had lunch, and back to Orpen via Satara Rest Camp. Despite it being an overcast day with regular downpours, we still managed great sightings, as evidenced by this little gallery of images we took on the day (you can click on any of the pictures for a better view).
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
This little museum hut is all that remains of Kruger National Park’s erstwhile Rabelais Rest Camp, long since abandoned when the Parks’ central-western boundary was moved to its present position at the Orpen Rest Camp & Entrance Gate.
“Abandoned” is the theme for WordPress’ weekly photo challenge.
We spent another day on the Kruger National Park today, entering for a day visit through the Orpen Gate.
Only a few kilometers into the Park, we met with the King and Queen of the Beasts on their honeymoon…
“Threes” is the theme for this week’s WordPress Photo Challenge