Photos to be posted soon!

Kruger Park reconnaissance

email056.gif (6523 bytes) The dry run.

Kruger National Park Camping Safari

26th - 29th November 2000

 It is advertised as "a 5-day Kruger Park Mobile Camping Safari, unique because all the designated camping sites are located inside the Kruger National Park and are exclusive to the group of 8 guests, far from the nearest rest camps.  At night, while every other human in the Kruger National Park is locked behind the gates and fences of the rest camps, the group will be sitting around the campfire listening to the sounds of the wild just beyond the fire's circle of light".  

I was fortunate to have been invited to participate in what may loosely be defined as a "dry run", to test the waters, as it were.   In reality, prospective camp sites which would serve as the most suitable candidates from the point of view of their practicality, sheer beauty and location, were being scrutinised on this trip.

"Within hours of arriving in South Africa you will be camping under the starlit vault of the African sky, enveloped by the sounds of the bush, separated from the lion and the elephant by a thin layer of canvas. "  No shit!  I couldn't wait!

Our travels began in Durbanville, Western Cape, as we headed into the dawnlight at the early hour of 4h30. The hired Venture, somewhat deficient in the horsepower department, was neverthelesspacked to the roof, as our destination for the first day's journey took us via Bloemfontein to the Johannesburg suburb of Sandton, where we were hosted in the 4-star Crown Plaza Hotel.  Not even the late night movie could halt my rapid descent into a deep sleep after the long drive.  The following morning, after a hearty breakfast, we continued on the N1 in the direction of Pretoria, before taking the N4 to Machadodorp, ultimately heading into lowveld country via Lydenburg and Ohrigstad to Hoedspruit.  There we were extended a warm welcome by Henny van Deventer, a well-tanned, likeable, energetic entrepeneur and business partner to my hiking buddy Ralph Pina in  Several companies had won a concession to run a Mobile Camping Safari and was one of them.

Day one - Sunday
Without further ado, we headed off to the Kruger National Park entrance at Orpen Gate, before proceeding to Timbavati, where camp had been set up for first two nights, though the final choice of sites was still to be determined. 

My  recent introduction into the world of birds, augmented by a southern African field guide which I had received as a birthday gift, instilled me with enthusiasm. By the end of the first day the route had showcased hordes of birds in great abundance, a pattern which would continue over the next couple of days. We spotted Swainson and Natal Francolin on the roadside; Forktailed Drongo, reminiscent of swooping kamakazi pilots; Crowned, Grey and Southern Yellowbilled Hornbill; African Longtailed Shrike, which I was confusing in flight with both the Pintailed and Eastern Paradise Whydah; both European and Lilacbreasted Rollers.  My 80-200mm Nikkor zoom, though somewhat deficient in terms of focal length, swung into action.  At the beautiful waterhole near the Timbavati turn-off, the slightly elevated roadside view afforded the opportunity of witnessing a solitary Fish Eagle perched on a branch, while a troop of gregarious Whitefaced Duck stood erect in the glistening water below, near a solitary Egyptian Goose. 

Timbavati lies in the riverine bush of the Timbavati River, some 25 km north-west of Satara. There I was introduced to John Locke, Figasa-approved Level 3 Field Guide extraordinaire and instructor, never short on a wit, when appropriate.  My kind of person.  The amicable Johnston, the cook, and his assistant David, completed the host party.  Dusk on the first day saw us in the company of hippo and crocodile, in the safety of open landrover from the river bank vantage point. In the fading light, a Great White Egret, though renowned as the largest white Heron of the region, required the use of binoculars for adequate identification.   The Burchell's Coucal was even harder to spot in the riverine scrub, while the call alone, referred to as a "variable duet", identified the presence of a Southern Boubou.

Though the portable shower was unfortunately dispensed with on the first evening, this was more than made up for by the sumptuous dinner prepared by Johnston.  All indications were that the trailer kitchen,  convenient in preparing meals yet too cumbersome in terms of a mobile safari, would soon suffer an ignominious fate and be replaced, once the Camping Safari proper commences.  For those who had done all the hard work, it had been an exhausting day.  After final trip to the ablution block, we retired to the comfort and relative safety of our tents for the evening.  Somehow the path between the two seemed a long way off in the pitch dark and nobody in their right minds would dare venture outside.   The dome-shaped tents were similar to those used on the WhichWay Overland Tour.   With comfortable beds, clean linen and mosquito nets provided, could one truly ask for more.

Day two - Monday
After a slow start, we headed off on a game drive. A pregnant baby steenbok seemed tame, as if used to the presence of passing vehicles. John pointed out zig-zag Elephant trunk markings on the gravel road.  A Forktailed Drongo was in the process of dive-bombing a Lesser Spotted Eagle Owl perched in a tree, which eas comically trying to avoid the former's swooping advances.  A variety of vultures were seen roosting on dead tree-tops: solitary African Whitebacked and Whiteheaded Vultures, along with a colonies of Lappetfaced Vultures. Giraffe presented us with a stunning photographic opportunity. John pointed out how a Wahlberg's Eagle, with its cross-like flight shape, fans its tail in turning.  He amused us with an anecdote in which a tourist once queried in characteristic drawl whether "these waterhog (Warthog) get very thirsty?"

Our route took us from Timbavati via Satara to N'wanetsi on the S100, where we had brunch under the thatched rondavel with a stunning view overlooking the N'wanetsi River.  A prospective site for the Camping Safari indeed. We then drove on to Mlondozi along the Trichardt and Lindanda Roads, adjacent to the Lebombo Mountains ner the Mozambique border, where we made a brief stop. The countryside was spectacular.


Photos to be posted soon!


The great diversity in geological structure means that the Park is divided into ecozones and lends itself to a wide variety of indigenous vegetation, which in turn determines the habitat for specific species as appropriate. Clearly, the location of water plays a part as well.  The Jacana visitor's map identifies 16 ecozones using a colour-coded ecozone key, showing the corresponding vegetation and expected wildlife.  I once overheard the remark that Kruger Park bush is so dense in places that makes game viewing difficult.   Clearly, the point is being missed entirely. The Kruger National Park lends itself to a diverse range of interests, whether your choice lies in wildlife, birdlife or trees or even archaeology.

A Blackbellied Korhaan, with diagnostic long, thin neck and legs, probably female, owing to its plainer colouring, moved stealthily into the grass just off the roadside.  Once again we spotted large numbers of roosting Vultures, conserving their energy.  After crossing the river, where we encountered Hippo, I spotted a beautiful Burchell's Coucal.  It took flight from the branch of tree.  Was I itching for a 400mm-500mm lens or what?  A dark brown, long-legged bird with a heavy crest and flattened, the hammer-shaped profile of the head renders the Hamerkop unmistakable.  My birding field guide's description of its call: "A jumbled mixture of querulous squawks and frog-like croaks during courtship."  As we sped along the dirt road, the incessant habit of a wide variety of doves to zoom hither and thither at great speed in front of the vehicle, become a source of increasing irritation.  Those with orange primaries I determined to be the Namaqua Dove. 

After the brief stop at Mlondozi, affording us an elevated view of the Dam and river, where I spotted Hippo and a large Grey Heron down below, I captured tame Waterbuck on film at the roadside. We spotted a scattered herd of elephant and realised that, if we had been a half an hour earlier, we would have caught them at a stream further back, just off the roadside.  More camera-shy Giraffe giving us what John termed the "a___ end view" or AEV, for short.  This was topped by the rare sighting of a pair of Sable Antelope.  It surely couldn't get better than this. We tried to get as close as possible to the "skippy" creatures as freewheeling would allow us.  A solitary 40-year old Elephant filled the viewfinder - my camera went into overdrive.  As luck would have it, a pair of female Corrie Bustard, the largest bird of the region, put in a surprise appearance, its size and strange black crest unmistakable.

This evening, the showers had been rigged up, affording us a truly welcome douche in the bush.  Johnston surpassed himself.   The Nederburg red wine, purchased earlier in the day, went down extremely well with Johnston's stupendous evening meal.

Day three - Tuesday
While the previous day had largely been a reconaissance exercise, today find us on a game drive proper.  After early morning tea and rusks, the plan was to head out on the dirt road along the Timbavati River on the S39.  We stopped at the lookout point.  The setting was eerily peaceful.  John identified the call of a Blacksmith Plover, with a loud ringing "tink, tink, tink" like metal striking an anvil. A Pied Kingfisher, the only black and white Kingfisher in the region, which frequently hovers above the water before diving in to seize a fish, was seen.  John explained how Greenbacked Heron, a much smaller bird than the Grey Heron spotted the previous day, uses insects as bait, by using its bill to place the insect on a spot on the surface of the water, watching it float on by and then repeatedly picking up and placing it in the same position.  The fish is nabbed as soon as it goes for the bait! 

Using my zoom lens as binoculars, I described a bird white bird with slender black bill, black legs and yellow toes, which John identified as a Little Egret. After consulting my reference guide later, I realised that the Great White Egret, the largest white Heron of the region, has black toes and a yellow, longer bill.  Vervet monkeys appeared behind the Landrover and entertained us.  What amazed us was how it knew to avoid the poisonous fruit of a wild cucumber hanging delectably nearby.  I observed a Woodland Kingfisher, with blue back and red bill and loud, piercing call.   As soon as John started the engine, in a single motion, it hopped on the tree branch to face the source of the noise.

We stopped briefly at Grobler's dam en route. More roosting vultures, their digestive system, much like that of crocodiles, likened by John to a liquidiser.  So if one had any thoughts of dispensing with one's mother-in-law, this was one way of planning the perfect murder!

We had moved from the the Olifants Rugged Veld ecozone on the Lebombo side of the Timbavati River (on rhylite/basalt) into Mopane Shrubveld  ecozone of the Northern Plains (on basalt).  It was overcast, the air cool, yet refreshinging and eventually it began to rain. On the tarred H1-4, we crossed the Olifants River bridge. The river had been transformed into a muddy, brown colour, as if almost in flood, an impressive sight indeed.  We stopped for a welcome cup of tea at N'wanmanzi view site.  A bird spotted roosting atop a powerline mast resembled a Steppe or Forest Buzzard, but in the poor light, we weren't certain. 

At the beautiful Olifants River Camp Site, a Crested Barbet, diagnostic yellow face speckled with red, shaggy crest, and yellow underpants with a broad black breast band, scurried from one tree trunk to another.   The dense bush obscured our view, depriving us of the opportunity of taking good photographs.  One lay on its back, paws in the air, in a deep sleep.  Retracing our steps across the Oliphants River, a large white bird with red legs, the long slightly decurved , yellow bill and distinctive red band across the eyes, made the adult Yellowbilled Stork relatively easy to identify.

The skies above were now practically devoid of cloud. We passed a solitary jackal just off the roadside.  He headed behind the vehicle into the road and stopped short, looking up into the sky.  It was then that we noticed both a Wahlberg's and Bateleur Eagle, the latter with diagnostic wing shape and flight action. The long wings are held are held slightly angled, rarely flapping, it flies direct and canting from side to side.  This combination of factors indicated activity in the area.  Upon our return to Timbavati Camp along the H1-4 and the S127, we ate a hearty luncheon, courtesy of Johnston.  Hennie had packed up the camp site.   With trailer coupled to the Landrover, we headed off south on the S39 and S36 to Muzandzeni, keeping to back routes. We reached the camp, situated in a swamp area, just after having spotted a lion, well, at least one of us did.  At the camp, after much persistence, I photographed a Crested Barbet. Some tourists pitched up at the site and the she flew to within spitting distance of them.   We went back to trace our lion, but to no avail.  The same applied to a leopard which a passing motorist had spotted. Oh well, you win some and lose some.

In the afternoon John took us on a drive passed Gudzani Dam on the S100.   Near the turn-off we passed several giraffe. Ralph quipped: "Haven't you taken enough photos of them yet?"  We stopped for drinks at the Dam, a truly stunning setting in the late afternoon sun.  Then the highlight of the day, a herd of Elephant just off to the right on the S41 south.  John's intuition was spot-on.  He thrust the Landrover into reverse and backed off.  Almost on cue, the herd changed direction and swung in the direction of the road.  The entire troop trounced triumphantly across the road before us, presenting us with a gem of an opportunity for photographs!  Worth a million bucks in my book!  Sensibly, experience had taught John to keep the engine running.

An   impala herd crossed the road, followed by a mother and infant, which seemed to be struggling.  It was then that we realised that she had lost a hind hoof.  This impediment would radically reduce her chances of survival. While observing Zebra silhouetted against the backdrop of the setting sun, John explained how flies lay eggs around the hooves and mouth. Lavae enter the mouth and stomach walls and remain there till the sweet seasonal grasses are ingested by the host, signifying the external weather conditions, whereupon they allow themselves to be excreted.  The process then repeats itself. 

An extensive fire, contained to the veld on one side of the road only, had resulted in regeneration of the vegetation, which looked entirely different to that on the opposite side.  Finally it was back along the H6, the H1-3 south and the S126 back to Muzandzeni.  We witnessed a male Francolin performing a ritualistic courting dance in an attempt to woo its female counterpart.  Another performed a comical dust bath to rid itself of insects from its feathers. 

It was practically dark when we arrived back.  Hennie had pulled out all the stops in setting up camp. We showered, covered up with repellent and after a superb meal, turned in, as we would have to be on the move early.

We arose at five in the morning and all pitched in to speed up the packing.  It was back to Hoedspruit to pick up our vehicle.  On nine o'clock, we were on our way. Though we lost time on the mountainous lowveld roads, this was regained on the flatter highveld and Free State section.  Stopping only to refuel and for the occasional, short rest, we pressed on relentlessly for more than 19 hours.  It was about 4h30 in the morning when I finally crawled into bed back home in Tokai. Later that morning I had to face an all-day course at the office.

It was another memorable trip to Kruger, though somewhat different to the Wolhuter hike earlier in the year.  The Mobile Camping Safari is a worthwhile and exciting concept.  In my opinion it is ultimately all about achieving a truly wilderness experience.  Though game viewing cannot be guaranteed, the quality of the Game Drive relies on the knowledge and expertise of the ranger.  To put the package together will require an enormous amount of hard work and effort, in order to maintain consistently high standards.  Yet the evidence on this, the "dry run", suggested that this was indeed achievable.

[Home Page]

[South African adventures]


 Links to other websites:

World of Birds