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Shipandani & Letaba day 1: A welcoming surprise!

We arrived at Phalaborwa gate around noon, after an uneventful drive. Check in went smooth, as usual, followed by a celebratory ice-cream. Since we were already inside the Park fence, we considered it fair to start counting bird species, and promptly ticked off the first few, while eating our ice-cream!

Then, after unpacking one camera each and mounting the Go-pros on the car, we were ready to enter that park. That special moment when you switch off the radio, lower the windows, and suddenly see nothing but bush around and ahead of you will never loose its magic!

Bird species at the gate:

  1. Fork-tailed Drongo,
  2. Lilac-breasted Roller,
  3. Crested Barbet
  4. Laughing Dove

First stop  – Sable dam (a.k.a. The elephant swimming pool!). What a sight! Dozens of Elephant, drinking, swimming, playing, play-fighting, fighting and generally enjoying themselves… It is a great pity that the light was absolutely horrible by then, but that didn’t make the sighting any less enjoyable.

Bird species between the gate and Sable Dam:

  1. Bateleur
  2. European Bee-eater

And at Sable Dam:

  1. Egyptian Goose
  2. Blacksmith Lapwing
  3. Water Thick-knee
  4. African Spoonbill

All too soon, we had to hit the road again. We took the H14 towards Mopani camp, and had a relaxing hour or so, cruising through the thick Mopani forest with no other cars in sight, just taking in the smells of the bush, enjoying the beauty of nature and feeling the stress of the past 2 and a half years flowing out of our bodies.

About 18 or so kilometers down the H14, we found a little turnoff, leading to a viewpoint overlooking a stream, and spent much too long there, ticking off 8 more species.

Bird species at the river lookout:

  1. White-fronted Bee-eater
  2. Saddle-billed Stork
  3. African Hoopoe
  4. Natal Spurfowl
  5. Pied Kingfisher
  6. African Fish Eagle
  7. Blue Waxbill
  8. Cape Glossy Starling.

We carried on, satisfied with our quickly-rising species count, but slightly frustrated that none of these sightings provided real photo opportunities.

Leopard_1D_2292Suddenly, my eye caught a movement in the road ahead of us… I looked, and my jaw dropped. Still struggling for the right words, I looked at Johan and pointed. He was also pointing. Then he braked, and we stopped right next to the beautiful leopard, who had by now crossed the road, and sat down at the edge of the tree line, looking at us and posing like supermodel! We spent a few minutes photographing him, before he apparently got bored, yawned, and walked off into the thick bush. Within seconds he was nowhere in sight, and we only had our photos to prove that there ever was a leopard there!

Leopard_1D_2301Being seriously behind schedule now, we still managed to tick off a Lesser-striped Swallow, European Roller and African Grey Hornbill (19, 20 and 21), before arriving at Mopani about an hour before gate closure. We only had time for check-in and a quick visit to the shop to stock up on wood and charcoal before we had to drive to the hide.

Shipandani_sign_1D_2344Activity at the hide was fairly slow, but besides the hippos and some lazy crocs, we did manage to tick off a few new bird species

Bird species at Shipandane

  1. Burchell’s Coucal
  2. Wooly-necked Stork
  3. Hamerkop
  4. Reed Cormorant
  5. Hadeda Ibis and the best of all –
  6. African Finfoot!

Then the sun went down and… Magic!

Thousands of fireflies everywhere! The sky above the river was filled with tiny specs of light. It was like a scene from a fairytale! We tried to take photo, but alas – no photo can capture that. So we sat and watched in amazement, until the moon came up and the fireflies started dispersing.

The rest of the night was quiet, but the atmosphere was still absolutely magical. Since the moon only rose after 9pm, we had ample time to admire the intensity of the stars – something that is always a huge treat to us city dwellers. We kept dinner simple – boerie rolls and coffee. Inside the hide once more, we resisted sleep, too caught up in the atmosphere and too afraid that we might miss something. Instead, we sat on the benches with two of the viewing slots left open, scanning the river bed with a spotlight every now and then. For some strange reason we whispered softly whenever we did talk, which wasn’t often. Mostly, the only sounds were the hippos snorting, some (sadly unidentified) birds and insects, and once – a lion roaring far in the distance. When we finally did sleep, it was for short bursts and one at a time, with the other one keeping a lookout.

About Shinadane hide

Shipandane is one of two hides in Kruger that can be booked for an overnight stay. It is located near Mopani Rest Camp, overlooking the Tsendze river, not far below the Pioneer dam wall.

When you check in at Mopani Camp, you are provided with a set of keys. These keys unlock the toilet (long-drop!), the gate that gives access to the braai area, the fold-down beds, and the cupboard containing mattresses for the beds. One of the staff members will also deliver a utensil box, bedding and some paraffin lamps to the hide, if you require it, at no extra cost. There is no running water, but we were told that we were allowed to shower/freshen up at Tsendze the following morning, although we didn’t do so.

The one downside for us, compare to Sable Dam, was that you cannot pull your car into the enclosure. This means that you cannot access your car after sunset and have to carry everything you will need into the hide, and carry it back out to the car at sunrise. It can become a bit of an issue if, like we did, you forget the butter in the fridge in the car!

My advice for staying in a hide –

  • Keep dinner simple. You don’t want to be outside, minding the braai, if something worth seeing happens in front of the hide.
  • The utensil box included a kettle suitable for use on the fire, but we took our own anyway, just to be sure. Coffee is essential!
  • Take warm clothes / sleeping bags. The draft through the hide gets freezing cold in the early morning hours.
  • Take a decent spotlight, but remember not to shine it into animals’ eyes!
  • Tale a cushion of some sort to site on. Those narrow benches get hard after a few hours!
  • Take extra snacks – if, like us, you feel that your time alone, at night, in the bush is too special to spend it sleeping, the night gets long.
  • Don’t make too much light in the hide. You can see better outside if you let your eyes become accustomed to the dark.

Shipandani hide & Letaba, March 2017

After spending two and a half years completely focused on fixing up and selling one house and building another, we were finally settled and ready to go back to the bush. So when March gifted us with a long weekend, the only choice we had to make was where we would go.

Having checked availability, which was limited due to the short notice and weighing a few options, we decided on Letaba, mostly because we had never stayed there before. But of course – the first night had to be in a hide, and since we’d already “done” Sable dam, we decided to keep the theme of exploring new things, and book Shipandani.

Final itinerary:

  • 17 March: 1 night in Shipandani hide
  • 18-22 March: 4 nights in Bungalow number 63 in Letaba

Packing was an interesting challenge. I used to pride myself on having packing for Kruger down to an art, but… two and a half years is a long time! Fortunately I had saved my lists, and by following them closely, everything got packed and nothing forgotten. Yay for saving packing lists!

So, at 6:00 in the morning (impressively, only an hour behind schedule!) on Friday, 17 March, the loaded Fortuner pulled out of the garage and hit the road North, to Polokwane, Tzaneen and finally – Phalaborwa gate.

Having only ever passed through Letaba before, we had no idea what to expect. We knew the camp was surrounded by Mopani veld, so game would not be as abundant as in the South. We also knew that after the excellent rainfall in December and January, the bush would be lush and green and the grass long, which would make spotting game even harder. So we went with low expectations, with a target of 75 bird species as our only goal. Little did we know how far this trip would exceed our expectations…

Sable Dam & Satara – Taking the scenic route home

We had decided not to do the obvious and leave via Orpen gate, but to rather drive all the way down and exit at Crocodile Bridge gate. The map told us that Satara Camp to Crocodile Bridge is 127 km, so we calculated that we would be at Crocodile Bridge between 11 am and 1 pm. We should have known better!

We started the day by driving through Satara Camp with our GoPro camera, recording the look and layout of the camp.

After dropping off the keys, we turned the car South, towards Crocodile bridge.

Giraffe skeleton

The sightings for the day were not spectacular – the usual general game, baboons, and elephant roadblock. We rounded a corner, and saw something in the road that looked like the usual elephant dinner leftovers, but on closer inspection, turned out to be much more interesting. It was a giraffe skeleton, still with some skin left on the head, lying halfway into the road. Not elephant dinner leftovers – lion dinner leftovers!

Happy to have kept up our record of always seeing something unique on our way out of the park, we continued on towards Tshokwane, stopping at the Southern-most Baobab, pausing at water holes, trying to identify birds, and generally not focusing on getting to the gate. We pulled into Tshokwane around noon, and had a delicious lunch of Kudu wors and pap.

After lunch, we drove the spectacular section of the H10 between Tshokwane and Lower Sabie, over the so-call “Roof of Kruger”, past the Mkumbe lookout. Wow, what a sight! Unbelievable, on our 12th trip to Kruger, it was the first time we saw this stunning part of the park.

Beginning to realize that time was ticking and the road back to Gauteng was still far, we started pushing on a bit more, and finally crossed the Sabie river – with more water in the river than we had ever seen! Regardless of the time, we also couldn’t resist stopping at Sunset dam for a few minutes. Even though there wasn’t much going on at Sunset dam, it is always a magical place to sit an relax for a few minutes.

We reached Crocodile bridge just before 3pm, and quickly ran into the shop to stock up on Ginger beer and Marula cool drinks, leaving the park over the low-level bridge. Like the Sabie river, the Crocodile river also had more water than we had ever seen. After slowly crossing the bridge, we hit the long road to Pretoria with heavy hearts, and plans for a quick return to Kruger.

Sable Dam & Satara – Birds and Buffalo

Monday morning was probably our slowest morning of the trip. Our first good sighting was only just before 8 am, of a Secretary bird hunting in the grass.

Kori BustardShortly after the Secretary bird, we saw a group of 6 Kori Bustards, walking through grass, hunting and interacting. Unfortunately, the light was already getting harsh by then and getting good shots was hard. However, seeing these endangered birds is always a treat, and seeing how one tried to steel another’s scorpion breakfast was very interesting.

We stopped at the Ratelpan hide again, where we saw a lone heron among the crocodiles, before stopping at the Timbavati picnic site for a breakfast of muffins and coffee – there was far too much wind to attempt making bacon and eggs on a gas skottel.

After breakfast we took the S39 Timbavati river road, where our first sighting was of s Spotted Skaapsteker lurking in a bush.

Buffalo StampedeWe idled slowly along the S39, doing a bit of birding (and identifying at least one new specie – the Rufous Winged Cisticola). Turning another of the many corners on this road, we saw a huge herd of buffalo grazing on the right side of the road. As we sat watching them, an anti-poaching chopper hovering a small distance away suddenly spooked them, and the entire herd stampeded across the road, both in front of and behind the car. Being in the middle of a stampeding herd of several hundred Buffalo is not an experience that will soon be forgotten!

S100Sunset_D__9707Still full of adrenaline from the Buffalo stampede, we drove towards the H7 and turned left, back towards the camp. One the way back we identified another new bird specie – the Senegal Lapwing. Beyond that and the usual hippos at the Nsemani dam, we didn’t see much.

That afternoon, we did the S100 again, and but saw very little, apart from spectacular amounts of dust, resulting in an even more spectacular sunset.

Our little house guest

Frog_MG_6864On our first night in Satara, we found a tiny little Southern Foam Nest Frog on top of the bathroom door. Afraid that we might squash it, we gently caught it and placed it on the tree in front of the bungalow. Soon after, we started worrying that something might catch it out there, so we were very happy to find out the next day that it had returned and moved in under the microwave oven on top of the fridge outside the bungalow. It lived there for the duration of our stay, moving out from the microwave when the sun set, and moving back in, deeper under the microwave when the sun came up in the morning. On the last day of our trip, I decided that I simply had to immortalize our little house guest, so I fetched my macro lens and flash, and photographed it.

We really hope the little guy is still ok!

Sable Dam & Satara – Backlit Lions

Sunday started fairly slowly. We left camp minutes after the gate opened, and cruised slowly up the S100, enjoying the beautiful sunrise. Our first sighting was of a Swainson’s Spurfowl, perched on a fallen tree, trying to warm itself in the early sunlight.

Hippos_MG_6459After that, we saw only the usual Impala and Zebra, intent on grazing and disinterested in posing for photos. We tried to shoot a few Burchell’s Coucals, but they all disappeared deep into the bushes as soon as we pointed a camera at them. The viewpoints over the N’wanetsi were as picturesque as ever, but delivered very little in terms of photo opportunities. The Gudzani dam hosted only a few Pied Kingfishers and some crocodiles lying sleepily on the dam wall, looking bored. At the crossing over the N’wanetsi river, we took a few photos of the hippos lying lazily in the water, before proceeding to the N’wanetsi picnic site for breakfast.

SweniRiver_IMG_6890After breakfast, we turned right towards the Sweni hide. Both the hide and the crossing over the Sweni river offered up some water birds, but no new species and no photo opportunities, so we took the H6 back to Satara.

Some distance down the tar road, we found a chameleon, bravely crossing the road. Having seen chameleon fall victim to cars before, we stopped and turned the car, blocking any potential traffic, until it had safely made it to the other side. Feeling good about helping a chameleon safely cross the road, we carried on.

Back at the camp, we bought take-away iced coffees from Mugg & Bean, before driving north along the H1-4. A few kilometres outside the camp, another car flagged us down and told us that further down the road, in the direction we were going, there was a leopard in a tree on the right side of the road, and about 100m further, a pride of lions. Very excitedly, we continued on.

But first, we had to stop and take one of the best photo opportunities we’ve ever had on ground hornbills.

We found the leopard easily, thanks to the cars parked under the tree. The leopard itself was unfortunately asleep, mostly obscured by leaves, so we decided to move on to the lions.

What an opportunity! Even though the lions had the sun behind them, the sun was so low by then, as well as being filtered by the smoke from the ever-present veld fires, that we were able to take some beautiful backlit photos.

When the lions had moved beyond the reach of even our longest lenses, we turned back. Having a some time left before the gates were due to close, we drove a short distance up the S90, where we found some Swainson’s spurfowl taking dust baths in the ash. Another good photo opportunity, even though the light was so low that I had to mush the 1D mk IV to ISO 2000 to get the shot!