Saturday, 22 September 2012

Weekend in the Kruger

Capetonians have a raw deal when it comes to genuine Big 5 wildlife experiences, so when we recently had an opportunity to go to the Kruger for a long weekend, we packed in as much as we could...

We left OR Tambo at 13h00 on Friday afternoon in our nifty little Nissan Livinia.  As it is about 400km to the Kruger, there was no time to waste (a word of warning, when they tell you to take the Witbank turn-off, be sure to look for eMalahleni).  The road is in very good condition, and so it should be, because you go through three toll gates, shelling out R150 each way.

There are 150 000 Impala in the Kruger Park
We were booked into Skukuza camp, but in Nelspruit we made the decision to enter via Malelane gate in the south instead of the more apt Kruger gate.  We wanted to squeeze in a quick game drive before the Skukuza gate closes.  However, the 60km between Nelspruit and Malelane is mostly single lane and used by a lot of heavy trucks, which meant we arrived at 17h00 with only an hour before camp closing time in which to cover the 65km to Skukuza.  Easy, right?  Not so, because the speed limit is 50km/h!  Fortunately the park staff empathised with us and let us on our way.  Since first going to the Kruger many years ago, we play a game to guess what the first (and last) spot will be - true to form the impala was first.  We also saw elephant and rhino, but couldn't linger to enjoy these amazing creatures - gate closing time was drawing near.

Waterbuck approach water cautiously
Once checked into our basic but comfortable hut we made our way to the impressive "shopping complex" and had a quick buffalo pie for dinner, washed down with a cold beer.  We walked along the fence listening to memorable night sounds of the bush before retiring for an early night.  One doesn't really need to set an alarm in the Kruger - the birds make sure you don't sleep past sun-up.  And that's a good thing, because during September the camp gates open at 6h00 and there is a strategic advantage to being first out the gate - you get prime position on any spot you come across.  On our first morning drive we went east on the H4-1 along the picturesque Sabie River.  Bushbuck  are prolific here and we were also fortunate to see Nyala and "tick" our third member of the Big 5, the buffalo.  We stopped for breakfast at the Nkuhlu picnic spot, but this experience was marred by the resident baboons, some of which are disturbingly aggressive and daring - you literally need to hold onto any movables.

Upon returning to Skukuza it was time for a quick walk around the camp.  Only then does one realise just how big the main camp of the Kruger actually is.  Thanks to my fancy new Samsung Galaxy S3 and an exercise "app", I now know that the circumference of Skukuza camp is 2.1km!  It's a beautiful walk with stunning scenery and plenty of bird life.  After lunch, another buffalo pie under a giant wild olive tree, we again headed east, this time on the H1-2, for our afternoon game drive.  One of my favourite roads in the south of the Kruger is the Maroela loop, where we saw impressive Kudu bulls.  This time we decided to go along the northern bank of the Sabie river on the S30, preferring this less frequented secondary roads. 

We were soon rewarded with a rhino and her suspicious calf.  A short while later we encountered another 3 rhino's, only this time it was a dangerous liaison between a bull and two not-so-interested cows.  At times like this it's best to switch off the car, turn down the windows and listen to the interesting sounds, like the chewing of leaves, or in this case, the romantic overtures of a love-struck rhino bull.  Later we saw yet more rhino's and it reminded me of how 25 years ago, when first visiting the Kruger, a rhino sighting was considered the rarest of the Big 5.  This is surely a great testimony to the many people dedicated to the survival of this quirky, interesting beast.  And perhaps in another 25 years I will see a black rhino...
Shortly before Lower Sabie camp we came across our first lions.  Seven females on the hunt - the encounter is over too quickly as they disappear into the tall grass in pursuit of dinner.  We stop atop the dam wall just below the camp to watch the hippos while away the daylight hours in the cool of the Sabie river.  Swallows, king fishers and fish eagles are plenty.  Another of our favourite past times is to park at the nearby Sunset dam, because there is always a hive of activity here.  Warthogs are on their knees grazing on the short green grass and baboons are clowning around, all within meters.  A massive crocodile slides effortlessly into the water, suspended dead still, in wait for some unsuspecting prey.  Too soon the day draws to a close, but another surprise lies in store for us on the road back to camp; scurrying close to the road is a rare honey badger.  We reflect on having seen the Big 4, all in one day; I no longer believe in the Big 5 - it's been too long since my last leopard, so I have come to a conclusion that it no longer exists - at least not in my reality!

We enjoy a fancy dinner at the Selati restaurant, which is located in the original railway terminal.  The steak was excellent and we end the day watching WP getting thumped, but even that can't take away the positive mood of this day.  Deep into the night we are entertained by a concerto of "lions vs hyenas".  Even in the safety of your bungalow the roar of a lion nearby is a bit unsettling!

Sunday 6h00 and we are on the road again.  Last night we made a spur-of-the-moment decision to do a mega drive to Satara.  It's raining, so we are alone as we enjoy a hearty breakfast at Tshokwane along the H1-2, the main road connecting the south with the northern parts of the Kruger.  Again preferring the dust roads, we take the S37 east.  The road is muddy and we slip and slide from one end to the other.  The white Nissan transforms into a reddish brown in no time at all.  We come across 4 ground hornbills, feeding on grubs, not perturbed by our presence.  Then out of the corner of my eye I see something.  Not being sure, I reverse for a better look and there we see three cheetahs taking refuge from the rain under a tree.  It's an awesome picture and we stay there, alone, for nearly an hour. 

At the Sweni river causeway we watch 30 yellow-billed storks on a feeding frenzy; Tilapia are swallowed whole, head first.  Heading north on the S41 we make a quick stop at the Gudzani dam.  The water level is low and over one hundred hippos are jostling for position - it's the most hippos we have seen in one place.  Finally the moment we have been anticipating; the S100, surely the best road in the Kruger, both scenically and there is always some action.  We are not disappointed as a brute male lion and his girl are lazing in the middle of the road.  As more and more cars pile in to witness the spectacle, the lions eventually dash off into the bush.

Lunch at Satara was a let-down.  Not only because they had run out of buffalo pie, but our order got lost and eventually arrived an hour late.  Tables were not cleared and bins were overflowing with rubbish.  A pity, because Satara was always one of my favourite camps - I hope they can get decent management like in the other camps we visited.  Not deterred by our experience at Satara, we continued west on the Satara road.  At Nsemani dam we watched a hippo in labour and it was both emotional, listening to her groans, as well as funny, watching her "midwife" swim circles around her, occasionally dashing off only to re-appear soon after - maybe it was the nervous father-to-be?  the road south on the S36 was fairly eventless, yet extremely scenic.  As the afternoon wore on, the clouds gave way to a bright sun, one we hadn't seen for the best part of 2 days.  The combination of rain and sun, with dark clouds as backdrop, framing a bright rainbow, is a sight to behold. 

The day was coming to a close fast, but we were blessed with another memorable experience.  From the bridge over the Sabie river we watched as three bull elephants emerged from the water.  Two of them decided to square off and a lengthy display of affection ensued, tusks and trunks entwined.  What a drive, 260km and 12 hours later, we are left with lasting memories.

Dinner was enjoyed at the main restaurant and on our way home we came across two bushbabies dining on morsels from the rubbish bins.  On our last morning we quickly pack up and head east to Lower Sabie.  The drive there was uneventful but the breakfast at Lower Sabie was great.  There is a commotion at one end of the deck; a Mozambique Spitting Cobra is basking in the morning sun, fortunately far below as we watch from a safe distance.  After a brief check-in at Sunset dam, we continue south on the S28 towards Crocodile Bridge.  Open plains dominate and one expects to see cheetah here, but instead we are rewarded with more lions, this time on a kill.  Within a kilometre we see the Big 4 (again).

The plan was to drive to Malelane via Crocodile River Road, but the bridge over the Biyamiti River is damaged, so we take a detour on the S26 on our way to a quick lunch at Berg-en-Dal camp.  The scenery is mountainous, and one marvels at the diversity the Kruger Park has to offer.  Berg-en-Dal is a very well managed and beautiful camp.  Reluctantly we leave on our trip back to OR Tambo and our evening flight back to Cape Town.  The bush always rejuvenates you and leaves you a better person.  We made a pact to not let more than 12 months pass between now and the next bush excursion.  We are privileged to live in Africa, warts and all.  Oh, and the last animal was a giraffe!


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